We have an embarrassing wealth of trails in this part of east Tennessee but few if any ultras. Through a haphazard series of events, I kind of fell into the idea of putting on a new 50k and the next thing I knew, Rob Apple and I were out scouting locations.
Designing a race from scratch
The fun part was searching out a location, dreaming up the course and finding a way to put all the pieces together – course, aid stations, start, finish, etc.. The tough part was the practical details and giving up so much running time to do it. Fortunately, we’d found a location so perfect the idea was far too good to pass up. Now was the chance to put all the race experience I’d accumulated over the years to good use and create race I’d be proud of.
Early on, when motivation was tough, the thought of showing off the mountains I grew up with and doing something good for them kept me going. Once entries from real runners, most of them good friends, started appearing in the mailbox, it got much easier. I was now hosting a party to introduce my tribe to my mountains and I couldn’t wait!
One by one, the details clicked into place. Though they couldn’t quite believe anyone could run that far, much less on this course, Cove Lake State Park, Cumberland Trail State Park, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), and Lafollette Search and Rescue were all on board and fully supportive. Sponsors ZombieRunner, Ultrarunning Magazine, Montrail, and GU came through, a huge stamp of approval and help for the cause. Good friends and people I’d never met, some all the way from Nashville, volunteered their day to staff the aid stations and make the race possible. And not to be overlooked, the Cumberland Trail Conference, which would benefit from the proceeds of the race, cleared the trail of overgrown plants and downed trees in preparation.
Overall, the race took over two years to happen.
Race morning was a blur. By 5:00 a.m., the parking lot at the start was alive with volunteers, support people, and runners going here and there in the darkness, leaving no time to think. All on its own, everything was starting into motion without me. Would it all work? There was no more cramming for this exam – it was test day.
October is usually warm and the driest month of the year but it had been cool and raining for weeks, and this morning was no exception. The clouds and fog might hide mountain views but the good news was the trees were turning color early and it looked like the rain would let up.
As I registered the last runners, answered last-minute questions, and touched base with the Cove Lake State Park Ranger, the aid station captains organized their groups and and moved out, on time, as planned. They say that good managers hire good people, but thank goodness there were so many good people.
At 5:45 a.m., the briefing started as the runners stood shivering in the cold, drizzly darkness. Bobby Fulcher of the Cumberland Trail State Park and Tony Hook of the Cumberland Trail Conference each gave the runners a perfect send-off and then I, at the culmination of all that work and dreaming, forgot everything I wanted to say about the trail and the area they’d be running through and how happy I was to introduce them to the trail. I sped through a few practicalities and at 6:00 a.m., I started them off into the dark behind Hiram Rogers, leading on a bike, their headlamps quickly bobbing out of sight. It was hard to stay behind.
Alone in the dark parking lot, the moment was just sinking in when a runner who had checked in but missed the start caught me. I described the immediate course on paved greenway through Cove Lake to the trailhead and he took off to catch the pack. I called Rob, who was sweeping, to let him know that a runner was behind him and to wait. All the “what if” planning had been worth it.
Looking around at the now truly empty parking lot, I was at loose ends for a moment. I was loading the last gear to take over to the finish area when the phone rang again. Rob, out of breath, said we’d lost six runners. Six?!? It had only been a few minutes. We had a lead bike. We couldn’t have possibly lost six runners.
Rob and Hiram started at their end of the section, and I started at the other. They couldn’t have gone far. Sure enough, I quickly spotted a clump of headlamps bobbing around in a grassy field not far from the start and got them pointed in the right direction. Rob and Hiram picked them up shortly afterwards and herded them onto the trail. The delay took about 30 minutes so I decided to slip the cutoff time 30 minutes as well, something I’d thankfully been prepared to do.
I retrieved volunteer Jack Millspaugh from the first road crossing and got him installed at the picnic shelter where the race would finish. My plan was to go check on the aid stations and see as many runners as possible. Then the phone rang again. Sarah Woerner was dropping at the first aid station due to previous injury. She was planning to hike up to the second aid station and wait to see her dad, Carl, on his return.
I drove in the growing dawn up to the junction near the second aid station, Cross Mountain (5.5mi/25.7mi), the highest point and biggest climb on the course at 3000’. I parked and walked down to where Wesley and Sharon Fenton had constructed a nice setup on the muddy gravel road with tarps, and the search and rescue guys looked comfortably settled in. While I was there, Mike Montgomery, Bill Keane, Jerry Frost and Janette Maas arrived up the climb in the foggy morning light. Everyone was smiling. Jerry in particular looked up at me, climbed the last few stairs to the aid station, then paused, smiled wide, and said “this is beautiful.” I relaxed. All the stress vanished. It was going to be a good day.
Slogging back up the muddy road to the car I got the first call from course monitor Kerry Trammell that leader Byron Backer was through the third aid station already and going fast. Wow.
Plans changed for Sarah, so I drove back downhill and around to the first aid station, Royal Blue Road (3mi/28.2mi), to pick her up. This aid station, led by Tracy Lee, had to win the creativity award with their assemblage of lights, tarps, and tiki lamps. I’m so lucky to have such good friends.
After a short trip back to Cove Lake to get a few missing supplies for the Royal Blue crew, Sarah and I drove out to the third aid station, Montgomery Fork (7.1mi/24.1mi). On the way, I got another call that Byron was already through the 4th aid station and headed out on the mine road toward the Turnaround Aid Station.
He’s running too fast!
The leisurely drive I’d planned among the aid stations would be impossible. In fact, Byron was running so fast I wasn’t sure I’d make it out to the furthest aid station and get back to the finish in time to greet him. He’d just finished Grindstone 100 the weekend before and yet today was steadily extending his lead over the next two runners. So much for no one being able to run this course!
Sarah and I pulled up at Montgomery Fork and talked with aid station captain Shane Hege, the volunteers, and search and rescue personnel. They’d also done a bang-up job setting up the station and Tony Hook had done an outstanding job shoring up the descent into the aid station to make it safer. While we were there, Mike Montgomery and Bill Keane arrived at the aid station, still smiling and as always with those two, having a fun day.
Time to head on. We drove the road out past the active coal mine and some stunning hillsides of tree color peeking out below cloud line.
Next stop on the dirt road was actually the fifth aid station, the Turnaround (15.6mi). The out-and-back course is shaped something like a fish hook, so by car, the turnaround is not the furthest aid station from the finish. In addition, the Turnaround aid station is located at a bar gate and runners have to run about half a mile out in a grassy field to retrieve a card from the staked halfway point.
There was lots of excitement at this aid station. For one thing, everyone was wowed by Byron’s performance. For another thing, the elk that had been hanging around in the field the previous weekend and the day before when we marked the course, had actually been accompanying runners through the grassy field from the Turnaround Aid Station to the staked turnaround point. That would be hard to top next year!
Sarah’s father Carl, came into the aid station while we were there so she ran a bit with him while I talked to the volunteers and the crew of TWRA guys hanging around at the station. The TWRA crew was rightly impressed with the runners. I was so proud of my runners!
With Byron running so fast, I figured we had just enough time to make the furthest aid station before we needed to head to the finish. We started out of the Turnaround Aid Station just as Zane Smith, grinning from ear to ear, and a smiling Dreama Campbell approached.
The course uses this next section of road, between the Turnaround and Greens Branch Aid Stations, so we got to see several of the runners along the way. Thankfully, the mine trucks had firmly packed the road, so it was a bit splashy in the puddles but solid. Everyone we saw – Dan Holbrook, Carl Woerner, and Bruce Fox, were running strong and smiling, happy to be there.
Liza Graves and her Greens Branch (13.6mi/17.6mi) crew were clearly having a good time. I chatted for a few minutes with them and Durand Carmany, the chief of Lafollette Search and Rescue, who had stationed himself and two of his men here. He, like the TWRA guys, was extremely impressed with the runners.
Sarah and I drove back by the other aid stations to Cove Lake and the finish picnic shelter, arriving only 20 minutes before Byron crossed the line in negative splits to win in 5:26. One weekend after Grindstone 100. Awesome.
Mike Ford and Paul Carrasco pushed each other in to finish a tight second and third. Mike, a cross-country coach stuck around to enjoy the company while Paul left to catch his son’s soccer game. Home-town runner Tony Branam cruised across in fourth, welcomed by a nephew who, oddly enough, had run a 5k race that morning at Cove Lake State Park. Carl Woerner arrived, greeted by daughter Sarah. Dreama Campbell, paced most closely by the elk at the turnaround, powered strong all the way across the line for the female win. Zane Smith, who grew up looking at these mountains like I did, came in beaming to have finally run a race in his own neighborhood. Anna Morgan, looking like she hadn’t run a step, said she was getting back into trail running, then shook her head and laughed, saying she’d picked a true challenge. Ken Howcroft, another runner from the area, smiled and said he loved the course and would like to do it again. Bruce Fox echoed Ken, saying it was a tough but good course. The dynamic duo of Mike Montgomery and Bill Keane crossed the line together, all smiles and jokes, followed immediately by Bill launching into a hilarious fish story. Tom Mueller, newly transplanted to the mountains from Florida had lately been on the fringe of the sport and finished feeling like he was back in again. Paul Arnette and Rick Caffy, the Murfreesboro posse, glided across the line, still split on whether gaiters enhance a race ensemble or not. Area runner Leonard Martin, a weekend after finishing Arkansas Traveller 100, finished shortly behind, and Janette Maas came in smiling with plenty of time on cutoff, giving her something to brag about to her ultrarunner brother.
Finishers got customized Sigg bottles as awards and there was plenty of pizza to go around as the volunteers began arriving back at the finish. It was nice to stand back and let the runners have their day, listening to them tell their stories, and laugh and joke with each other. Watching all the runners and volunteers smiling and laughing more than made up for not running. The party was a success.
Three things made all that hard work a success
- “Hiring” the best people – the volunteers
- Getting the trail cleared, thanks to Tony Hook. This probably saved an hour on everyone’s time and certainly made the course runnable.
- The runners themselves. I couldn’t have composed a better group if I’d tried. To a person, everyone was competent, positive, and happy to be there.
I was so proud of and thankful for Byron and Dreama for showing that yes, it’s possible to run this course and run it well. They and the rest of the runners impressed volunteers and support people alike with their ability and their attitude. You can’t ask for a better way to start an annual event.
I’m still most proud of Janette Maas, from the flat-lands of Georgia who had never run a “real” trail race before. She signed up for this tough, hilly, first-year race as her first trail race. There were no previous race reports to read and not much time for her to train. Despite all the unknown, she stuck with it, stayed positive the whole way through, and finished smiling, a real trail ultrarunner.
And beneath it all, I’m touched beyond words that so many old and new friends showed up at the party. Jerry Frost, all the way from St. Louis, Missouri. Bryon, Dreama, Zane, Sarah, and Leonard who had just raced the previous weekend. Everyone who, no matter what shape they were in, put their faith in a first year race and a first-time race director. Even the volunteers, all of them runners, ultrarunners, or trail aficiandos, who passed up other races and commitments for the day and in some cases drove from far away – ultrarunners Wesley and Sharon Fenton from Ohio, and trail fans Diane Manas, Garnett Rush, and John Redmon from Nashville.
You never know how a first year race will turn out but the one thing that I and all the volunteers consistently remember about the day are all those smiles. That alone is enough reason to start planning now for next year.
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