Cilantro at the Chattanooga Stage Race, Day 1

When I first moved to Alabama, I had a conversation with a like-minded friend about racing when I knew I couldn’t win. He was of the opinion that one shouldn’t race if she didn’t plan to race to win. At the time I agreed with him, but with the caveat that I thought “winning” should be defined as any goal: a PR, a finish, age group placement, having fun or anything at all.

As I mentioned in my insta-stories the day before the race, I wasn’t in the right kind of mental shape to be competitive. It was an emotionally hard week, with my father in the hospital for surgery and my car refusing to start Wednesday morning. I also didn’t feel like I was in the right kind of physical shape either. I went back and forth about whether I should defer, DNS, fake an injury (kidding), but ultimately I decided to do it. It’s good for me to run on the trails to get more technical confidence, and I needed the consecutive supported run as a part of training for my FKT (Fastest Known Time) attempt of the Collegiate Trail Loop in August.

Thursday afternoon I found myself driving to Chattanooga, embarrassingly unfamiliar enough with the geography of Georgia that I didn’t realize how close to Georgia it is. On arrival, I did a grocery run before attempting to head downtown to pick up my packet, but I turned back in the face of downtown traffic and construction. Back at my hotel, I ate dinner and tucked in for the night, only to be woken up frequently by hotel guests arriving to their rooms. At midnight, there seemed to be a hall party of sorts outside my room, so I turned on Survivorman for some background noise and tried to get back to sleep. Sleeping fitfully, I woke up for good around 3 AM and forced myself to lie there because I knew the resting was good, even if it wasn’t sleep.A sign that reads 'Thank you for supporting Wild Trails. Your race fees and donations go toward building trails, maintaining trails, helping people experience the outdoors. Want to learn more about wild trails and what we do? Visit http://wildtrails.org'

I finally got up around 5 and after two cups of coffee I felt human enough to recognize that hosting my own hall party in retribution was perhaps not a good idea. Instead I read and applied for adventure grants until I realized that, while it was only thirty minutes to the race start at 5 AM, given weekday traffic (day 1 of the stage race was on Friday), it might be much longer. I hustled to get ready, dashing out of the hotel carrying everything I thought I might need in my hands (No time for bags! Who has time to put things in bags?!?!). Traffic was fine, however, and I arrived at the race start with time to spare, only a little concerned when my GPS navigation placed the race start in the middle of a dam. Like in the water. This location seemed unlikely, but ultras are known for deliberately making everything harder.

Thanks to the pre-race email with written directions, cooler heads prevailed and I managed to find my way. While I never read course descriptions (I like surprises), I had read that the first day was supposed to be the easy day. Still being new to Southern trails, I naively hoped this meant double track. It didn’t. Not knowing that however, I started toward the front of the pack, halfway thinking that I could make a strong start for day one despite everything I’d said about taking it easy and holding back.

The race started on time, and it became quickly apparent that while flat, this was super technical single track, with hazards like roots and rocks, hidden by poison ivy. Okay, the poison ivy didn’t cover the trail, but I did learn that it surrounded the trails, which is basically the same thing. I was passed by strong technical runners in the first mile, tripping and falling at one point when I stepped to the side to let someone pass and lost my footing.

I spent much of miles one and two thinking mean thoughts about the technical trail and how much I hated running on it until I rediscovered my confidence and fell into a groove. Not a groove where I strove to win, mind you, but back into Type 1 fun. This continued as I survived the first six miles of the course.

With 18 miles to go, and the first hour always being the toughest for me in any race, I just needed to keep the fuel and hydration stable and maintain a solid pace. The trail was beautiful, or so I heard; I kept my eyes solidly on the ground before me. After the stumble the first mile, I didn’t trip for the next nine, and kept on working hard, drinking, and eating.

The distance was only 18 miles so I had targeted three hours as a finish time, taking the technical trails into account to make a more realistic goal. Running with my hydration pack halfway full I passed every aid station. Between 6 and 10, I’d picked up the pace a bit and started passing people, but I still held back, not wanting to flame out (and still a little afraid of falling). It wasn’t, however, until mile 10 that I really started feeling strong. Then at the final aid station around mile 11, I saw an opportunity to really push the pace and left the folks I’d been leapfrogging with. I didn’t see them again until the finish.

I ran hard, passing a few more (not enough to get back in the standings, but that was never my goal). I could feel the fatigue in my legs, and started to trip again. I caught myself the first few times, but then, with less than a mile left, I tripped and fell hard, rolling down the cliff on the side of the trail.

Okay, it was a hill. But I fell off the trail and would have continued down an embankment if a friendly poison ivy bush hadn’t stopped my fall.

Okay, it wasn’t poison ivy. But I was bleeding from both knees.

Shakily, I stood up and resolved to finish strong even with my now realized fear of falling.

Looking at my watch, saw I had a chance of finishing close to my goal, and gave what I could, finishing a little over 3 hours. In retrospect, I’m really happy with this outcome even though I didn’t win. I stayed strong throughout, and kept pushing even when it was hard and I knew I wouldn’t place. I like that I felt stronger during the second half of the race, and that was, I think, because I held back in the first hour. I gained confidence in technical single track, and while I fell, nothing was broken, sprained, strained, or dislocated.

Wearing my badges of courage on my knees, I stumbled to my car, only to discover that my iPhone, believing that it was under attack from Russian hackers (really, it had been jostled too much without being unlocked), had completely locked up. In an unfamiliar city, without GPS, I now had to navigate myself back to the hotel.

It was 2010 again.

But after trying and failing to navigate via “landmarks,” I pulled to the side of the road and navigated back to my hotel with a road atlas from 2012.

And I did it. That, perhaps, was the best part of the day. I never doubted I could finish 18 miles, but I had no idea I could read a map.

Ultrarunner, adventurer, academic, and feminist. Running Across the USA in 2021 to raise money for Girls on the Run. Next challenge: Pinhoti FKT. I write about ultrarunning, adventuring, and the intersection of endurance athletics and life.

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