Cilantro at the Chattanooga Stage Race, Day 3

Dawn came hot and humid; the brief respite from summer for stages one and two was gone. I found that sleep had worked out most of the kinks from the first two days, which was a relief because I’d barely been able to walk when I woke up in the middle of the night for a drink.

I was feeling more than a little anxiety about the race that day because of the heat and because it was billed as the toughest day of the race. In spite of being shorter than day 2, it also had the longest cutoff: 5.5 miles, compared to 4 for day one and 5 for day two. Also weighing on my mind were additional upcoming expenses to fix my car (when I left you yesterday, I was sitting in Pep Boys, waiting to find out if the car was driveable … it was, but not for long). I also was very aware that if I finished the race and within the cutoff, I still had a three and a half hour drive back home. Everything was adding up to a tough day.

But I wasn’t willing to DNF, so I tried to rally as I drove to the start.

Knowing the day would be hot and long I filled my hydration pack to the brim, hoping to make it through without stopping at an aid station. As we gathered for the start the race director explained this would be the slowest and most technical miles we’d ever run in an ultra (which made me remember HURL Elkhorn), and I started to get excited. I love a good rocky climb.

A wooden bridge leading over a river and into a forested trailWe started right on time and I settled into the middle of the pack, hoping I wouldn’t get stuck in a bottleneck like day two. The first mile was pretty tame before we started ascending and descending, working our way to the bottom of the valley. The descent was steep and I was determined not to fall, so I stayed within my ability until I reached the bottom and began the climb back up. I rocked the ascent—it was my favorite part of the day! Once the trail became runnable again, however, I found myself in a bit of a mental lull.

I was walking, at first to keep from falling, but then I kept walking just because I could. Everyone I’d passed on the way up passed me back, and I sunk into the type of mental math that is, quite frankly, not productive (e.g., if I’m moving at 5 MPH, then I’ll be on this course for another four hours…). I felt like I was fueled and hydrated, but I just found myself unable to pick up my legs and move. My mind was in a dark place. This continued from mile five to about mile eight, when a runner passing me said, “Careful, snake!” I magically found myself able to run … and fast!

I never saw the snake but laughed because it was pretty clear that I was physically capable of running, and that my brain that had been holding me back. From that point on I kept running the runnable terrain and power hiking the steep ascents.

The course became much more friendly after mile 10, when we climbed out of the valley using giant steps. I was in my element, having fun and excited to see bits that were inherently runnable (even a portion on a road). Having fun again, I embraced the trails that were more like what I used to run in Montana, Idaho, and Utah: steep and rocky, with few roots. Remembering the race director’s speech at the start, I knew this runnable stretch could not last long, and I was right. On the next descent I found myself in the valley again, climbing for at least a mile over rocks and boulders where the trail was indiscernible from its surroundings. Most flags were placed just within eye range, but a few times I had to stop just to figure out which way to go. I found myself wishing I could come back here when I didn’t have a race, because I wanted to explore, but it was mentally exhausting to have to search out where I needed to go next, so I was relieved when I finally left the boulders behind.

The rest of the course was runnable and fun: some single track, a few ascents, and a lot of rocky double track. I was feeling great, having fueled with Picky Bars all day (and all weekend), and I found myself able to pick up the pace again and pass back almost everyone that had passed me earlier in the race. I finished in just under five hours, meeting my goal for the day and feeling like I could have run a few miles more.

While I didn’t place, I am exceptionally happy with my overall performance over the three days of the race. This the first time in my memory when I hydrated and fueled appropriately for a race that demanded it (over two hours), eating enough and not having any stomach problems. Listening to my body, I only drank water and ate Picky Bars, and they were perfect and delicious. I’m really happy with how strong I finished each day, and while I had some problems, I troubleshot them well and overcame. I also have some clear areas that could use development, namely more time on flat, root-filled trails.

I gained a lot of confidence this weekend, and I can’t wait to get back out there and continue to develop. So no, I didn’t win, but this feels even better.

 

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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