The Stillhouse 100k is an out and back of the Upchuck 50k course that runs along the eastern rim of the Cumberland Plateau. I kept telling myself, “Oh, it’s just Upchuck twice. It won’t be that bad.” False. A more reasonable approach would have been, “Damn, I have to run Upchuck and then turnaround and run it again. This is gonna suck.” I prefer a more optimistic “it won’t be that bad” mentality for any race or long run. It keeps my mood light and enjoyable, rather than dwelling on the negative and not enjoying being out in the woods. This naive, hippy approach works perfectly for a 50k because the pain and fatigue from pushing the pace usually sets in late with the finish line only a few miles away. I know I can power through for another 15-30 minutes and then eat all of the almond butter I want.
Stillhouse would be my fifth race over the 50k distance. There has been a distinct pattern at my four previous 50 milers, which goes like so. I forget about the magnitude of the distance with my “it won’t be that bad” approach, am surprised when the pain sets in, realize I still have a long ways to go before the finish and turn into a sulky mess. I shuffle along until I cross the finish line, realize it didn’t hurt that bad, and regret not pushing through it.
My goal for Stillhouse was to eat the whole time, have fun, and finish feeling strong. During my sulky mess stage, I always stop eating and of course slow down even more. Have fun is always a goal. I spend too much money on gear, races, and travel to participate in this hobby and not have fun. Finish feeling strong didn’t necessarily mean busting out 7 minute miles at the end. I wanted to be moving at a pace that wouldn’t be classified as shuffling. I accomplished goal number one and was pumped to stay on top of my nutrition all day. Goal number two of having fun was successful until around mile 40. Finish feeling strong definitely did not happen. I could barely manage a shuffle. Plodding or trudging would be more accurate. An average of one for three gets you in the Hall of Fame. But this ain’t baseball.
One of the reasons I wanted to do Stillhouse was the midnight start. I like night running and a midnight start just sounds cool. Jeff, Kyle, and I arrived at the start/finish around 10:30 to mingle and make sure everything was squared away. We had been crashing at my aunt’s in Chattanooga since midafternoon and planned on getting some rest. However, we were all too jazzed and managed only a 30 minute nap.
As midnight neared, it was cold and hovering around 40 degrees. Chilly to be standing around but just fine for running if dressed properly. The one and only Cary Long was mildly concerned with his layering system and kept asking everybody for advice on what to wear. Runners continued to mill around as the start approached. Co-RD Chris Luberecki gave us a brief speech that warned us of heavy leaf litter (they actually used a leaf blower on some parts of the trail to make it discernible) and soon we were off.
It’s a steady two mile climb up a road before hitting the Cumberland Trail and all its rocky glory. I quickly settled in with John Brower, and we would run the next 20 miles together. We chatted for a bit in the beginning but soon settled into a quiet groove in which we worked together perfectly to keep moving steadily along. When a brief section of solid ground gave way to the many rocks and leaves, I would steal a quick glance at the sky and marvel at all the stars with Orion always dominating my attention.
The south has been in a drought for the past two months, and I was surprised to hear the steady flow of water as we carefully descended into Soddy Creek. There was barely a trace of water a month ago during the running of Upchuck, but the few showers from the past week had quickly replenished Soddy Creek. Forest fires were actually burning on this part of the trail a month ago, which forced a reroute of Upchuck. The smell of the burnt forest faintly lingered. I was curious as to what the damage would look like in the day time.
The always soothing sound of flowing water grew stronger as John and I carefully made our way down the mini boulder field to the Soddy Creek bridge crossing. I paused for a second to look back up the ridge from which we just descended and was amazed at how high up the stream of headlamps glowed from other runners. With our headlamps only illuminating a couple feet in front of us, it was impossible to have perspective on the big climbs and descents that lie ahead of us in the dark. I later realized during the daytime how much of a mental advantage not knowing what awaited provided.
After a quick and steep climb out of Soddy Creek, the trail becomes more runnable over the next several miles. Sections of pine forest litter the trail with soft beds of pine needles, which make this a fun section to run. John and I settled into a good rhythm and hit the brief road section quicker than expected that leads to the first aid station at mile 12. The bright flashing lights of the gas station advertising deals of packaged soft drinks and 100% gasoline off of Highway 111 clearly came into view upon hitting the road. I took a right turn on the pavement towards the aid station, which was tucked just outside of the woods a half mile down from the gas station. The gas station still seemed far away and I quickly realized John and I were running down the on ramp to Highway 111. We laughed, corrected our mistake, and arrived at the aid station in a few minutes.
John and I left the aid station together and continued running with each other until I pulled off for a bathroom break around mile 20. I soon arrived at the Retro Hughes Road aid station just as he was leaving. I took my time to refill my bottles and take some solid food for the next section to the turnaround. The next eight miles would be mostly downhill to the turnaround and I was looking forward to flowing down. I lost focus for a second on the flat trail leaving the aid station and rolled my left ankle pretty good. I had to walk for a few minutes before it was okay to run. Thankfully, my ankle was fine for the rest of the day, but I was scared of rolling my ankle again and the downhill section was more timid than rhythmic.
The top three passed me on their way back as I neared the turnaround. They were about 20 minutes up and I was feeling good at the moment and wondering if I’d be able to close the gap over the next 31 miles. I arrived at the turnaround at 6:31 to many familiar faces. It looked like John had arrived a few minutes before me and was just about to head back out. The ultrarunning community is the best. I had no crew, but I was quickly catered to by seasoned ultra-wives Katy, wife of Nathan Holland and volunteer coordinator for the Rock/Creek Race Series, and Sherrie, Jobie Williams’s wife. They grabbed my drop bag and were asking what I needed, while David Pharr was delivering me chips and guacamole. I downed the chips and guacamole, reloaded my pack with food, took a ziplock bag of potatoes for the trail, and was off.
I left the aid station full of energy and was determined to catch John who left a couple minutes before me. It would be light in an hour and I was looking forward to ditching the head and waist lamps. Jeff and Kyle passed by with no sign of Jobie, they all planned to run together and said he had dropped off the back a while ago. I passed Jobie five minutes later, and he said he was already worked. It would be so easy to drop out at the turnaround knowing exactly how tough and technical repeating those 31 miles would be on tired legs. I hoped he would persevere and leave the turnaround determined to finish.
I worked my way back up the eight mile climb as the sun was coming up. It was cloudy over the distant ridge to the left and the sun was turning the clouds into a beautiful hue of purple and orange. It was more hiking than running up the climb, and I worried John was starting to pull away. He was only a few minutes ahead as I arrived back at mile 39 and the Retro Hughes aid station. Veteran Chattanooga ultrarunner, Ryan Meulemans, was working the aid station and asked how I was feeling. I hesitated in giving my answer and he said, “Just say you feel great.” I laughed, thanked the volunteers, and left determined to close the gap but the wheels slowly started to fall off.
The aforementioned mental cycle kicked in. It started to hurt and I folded. My brain was telling me, “Hey, you’ve been on your feet for a while. Why not just walk?” I didn’t even argue back. There were brief moments of snapping out of it and running but those didn’t last long. I would take off running and be completely aware that I wasn’t hurting that bad. There was general fatigue and soreness but nothing excruciating. All my motivation was completely gone. I had stuck to my goal of eating all day, and my stomach was perfect. I had no excuses, and the only thing holding me back was my mind. I was not prepared to deal with the pain and shutdown. It then became a cycle of being pissed off at myself for not having the want to or mental fortitude to push through, and then being angry with myself for being angry at myself.
I kept the walk and plodding pattern going and thought for sure someone was going to eventually catch me. I kept looking back but no one approached. After a while, two people were ahead of me on the trail and I thought they were hikers. I caught up and realized it was one of the guys who had been in the top 3 with his son pacing him. The runner was moving even slower than I was and looked absolutely spent. He said he was wasted and would eventually drop at mile 49. I was thankful to not be that physically depleted and had a new spark of energy.
Back at the Highway 111 aid station and 12ish miles from the finish, I found out John, now in third place, had opened up a considerable gap on me. There was no shot at catching him, and my tiny spark of energy quickly faded. It would be 12 more miles of wallowing in mental despair. I thought ahead to my next big race. “There’s no way I can run 100 miles. I’ll never be ready to run 100 miles. 100 miles is stupid. I wonder if I can get my money back for Bighorn.”
I descended down into Soddy Creek and the last climb awaited. The climb took forever, and I kept thinking I had reached the top. But the trail kept wrapping around the ridge and climbing even further up. I was officially over it.
This is the section where the forest fire hit and the damage didn’t look that bad. The ridge was scarred black, but the innumerable amount of rocks probably kept the fire from leaving worse visual and physical damage. And the firefighters also worked their tails off to stop the fire on the steep terrain.
I eventually made it to the road for the last two miles of pavement to the finish. Miraculously, no one had caught up to me and I was still hanging on to fourth place. I kept looking back for Kyle and Jeff to catch up over the last 10 miles but they never did. I was running 13 minute mile pace down the road, feeling sorry for myself, and not taking the time to celebrate running 62 freaking miles. I took one last look back a quarter mile from the finish, and I finally saw Jeff and Kyle closing in. They caught up and we ran to the finish together.
I had been stripped down to my core and was none too happy with the way I responded. I turn into a worthless state late in a long effort and it’s all mental. I’m looking forward to some time off and getting back at it next year to address the mental side of things.
The coolest story of the day was the guy who finished last. Gregory Griffin was on his way to just sneaking in under the cutoff and then had to hustle to beat the train less than a mile from the finish. He crossed the tracks 15 seconds ahead of the train and then made it to the finish after being out on the trail for 19 hours and 56 minutes.
I recently joined the Spring Sports Nutrition Team. They make their nutrition out of real food and put it in the size of a regular gel packet. I had 25 of the Spring gels throughout the whole race. I’ve never been able to take 25, or anywhere close to that, of anything during a race or training. I never felt nauseous or got tired of the flavors. They use only real food for ingredients, have no sugar, and taste great. The company was started by runners and is based out of Nashville. Spring Energy
Huge shout out to Brian Costilow and Chris Luberecki for putting on a great race. It was the first and sadly last year for the Stillhouse 100k. The aid stations were awesome, and the course was perfectly marked. Many people were worried about getting lost with the midnight start and the heavy amount of leaves on the trail. I heard no stories of anyone going off course and had no trouble at all staying on course myself. It would be cool to see this race back on the calendar.