Cilantro at the Chattanooga Stage Race, Day 2

I didn’t know how I was going to feel when I woke up the morning of stage two. Because stage one was pretty flat, I hadn’t expected to be too sore, but then I fell. Then I fell again. And then there was that big fall. So I had no way of knowing how the mileage would affect me. Some races, like 100 milers, are so long that I feel like I actually get less sore because the late mileage acts to work out some of the soreness.

Whatever the reason, I woke up having slept well and feeling fine.

Day two was the longest of the three stages, and was described as 22 “moderate” miles, which I interpreted to mean more technical flat sections with a few steep ascents. I wasn’t dreading the ascents, but I was dreading more flats with trip hazards. I worry about falling and permanently hurting myself, and one of the first people I saw when I arrived on Day 2 was a person in a full boot, who had broken her foot on the course the day prior. I resolved the approach the day with my ego in check, start in the back and do what I needed to do to stay safe and avoid catastrophe.

I stuck to my plan to start in the back, and held myself there through the relatively flat first mile. Then we turned and started a steep, rocky climb. This is my element, and I found myself quickly passing runners. Soon though we came to a steeper climb that had ropes for safety and the race was still at a complete standstill as we waited for everyone to make a safe ascent. I didn’t think the ropes were needed, but impatiently I waited, using the time to plan to make whatever moves necessary to not get stuck in a queue again.

When my turn came I pushed hard up the ascent to the peak, tiring out my quads which resulted in my first fall, my only major one. I just hadn’t been picking up my feet enough, which is always a problem with fatigue. Whenever I stumbled, I had to keep reminding myself to pick ‘em up the rest of the race.

Runners climb up a steep hill in the forest using a rope to aid themThe next six miles were descents or flat sections, mostly technical, but I settled into a groove and worked with the course. We ran up and down the same hill-mountain several times, retracing our steps (mostly) on the second part of the course. The same pattern started to repeat itself until the last three miles: I’d pass everyone on the steep ascents, build a bit of a lead, and then get passed on the downhills. Having plenty of water in my hydration pack for five hours, I also didn’t stop at any aid stations, so I was able to catch back up to most of the people who had passed me on the descents. It didn’t matter so much—I wasn’t out there to win—but each time someone passed me it still nagged at me until I passed them again.

Because the final portion of the course went back over the first loop, including the roped ascent (now descent), I sought to stay with the group every time I was passed, figuring I could make my final move in the steep and technical final portion of the course.
I had been in relatively high spirits all morning, but found myself in a bit of a lull around the sixteenth mile, when I felt like I was tripping on invisible rocks and started feeling like the course was endless. However, I recognized that this was the voice of hunger, and a Picky Bar helped me feel better almost immediately.

The increase of energy was huge and perfectly timed. We left the last aid station and almost immediately the course climbed. I was feeling great and had already caught up to the group that had passed me on the descent. There was about five miles left, and one can do anything for five miles, so I knew this was my moment. I pushed hard and passed a few people, and when the course leveled out for a mile or two, I tried to keep those ahead of me in my view. Then, the course started that steep, technical descent we’d climbed up—really, it was a scramble. It was amazing: I started passing people as we went down to the bottom of the gulley, where I suddenly found myself running toward a huge waterfall. Either I was in the zone at the beginning of the course, or this final loop added some sadistic technical descents that allowed us to see the stunning waterfall up close.

Energized by the lovely view and my final push, I flew toward the finish, passing everyone except one person I’d been leap frogging with the entire race. As we got closer to the finish, I passed more and more people; all told, I think I counted fifteen in the last few miles. Finally, we reached the stream. It was too tricky to try to navigate without getting wet, and honestly I didn’t want to wait to find a dry route. I waded through and sprinted the last quarter mile to the finish.

I didn’t win or even come close, but I was amazed that the last portion of the race when I felt strong and was having pure Type One fun was way better than winning. It also validated where my strengths are as a runner and was a case of good race troubleshooting, especially eating when I felt myself feeling negative about the course.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling pretty anxious about day three afterward, and it isn’t helping that I’m writing this recap as I sit in Pep Boys waiting on a brake check. But whatever happens with my car, I feel like this race was a breakthrough! It was a good lesson for future running, and a good confidence boost for the Collegiate Trail FKT attempt, which will have a lot of trail that looks like the final portion of this course.

Stay Tuned for Day 3!

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

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