This is way late, sorry!
Two years ago, I ran the Cumberland Trail 50K as my first trail ultra, at the time it was the most difficult and rewarding race I had ever run. Guess what? Nothing has changed in two years!
I drove up to Cove Lake State Park north of Knoxville the day before to pick up my packet and say hi to RD Susan and the rest of the gang. Then I checked into the Hampton Inn which was less than five miles from the start and grabbed some dinner.
Race morning arrived with perfect conditions. Cool temperatures, clear skies, and lots of masochists ready for some trail fun. It was still dark when we started, so after a quick briefing, we were sent on our way down the bike/running path. I quickly established my normal place at the back of the pack and after a couple of minutes, Leonard Martin joined me, having gotten a bit of a late start. We talked about not missing the initial turn onto the single track and easily saw the well marked turn. I'm very cautious when it comes to running trails in the dark, so Leonard soon pulled ahead and I was on my own.
About five minutes later I hear footsteps coming up behind me. These aren't fellow back-of-the-packer footsteps, these are fast runner footsteps. I step aside to let him pass, thinking it was another runner who had gotten a late start. Then I heard more footsteps and soon dozens of runners were passing me. What was going on? Apparently, the lead runner ran right by the initial turnoff, and since it was dark everyone just followed the headlamp ahead of them. Leonard and I were far enough off the back of the pack that we weren't following anyone and were actually in first and second place for about a mile. This was the first and probably last time I held the lead in an ultra.
Sunrise and the first aid station arrived quickly, but this meant that the climb up Cross Mountain was next. There is no false advertising about this course. From the website, part of the description reads: "The race takes you on a challenging, out-and-back route on the rugged New River section of the Cumberland Trail. This section crosses the high point of the trail, Cross Mountain, at over 3000’. Be prepared - this course could take up to twice your PR for a 50k. The climb up Cross Mountain is steep and will be slow." According to my Garmin data, my pace on this climb was 26 minutes/mile and my heartrate the highest of the entire day. The best way I can describe the climb to non-trail runners is to get on the stair-master, climb two steps at a time, and continue that pace for an hour. Oh yeah, and throw in slippery wet leaf-covered rocks and stream crossings while you're at it. I had to laugh at one point, I had passed a gal on this climb and looked back after a particularly brutal section. She was just standing there, looking at the section with an incredulous look.
At the end of the climb we were rewarded with another great aid station and a short, more runnable section. Then came the longest section between aid stations. It is over 6 miles and has a nasty climb on a very rugged, rutted, slippery "jeep trail". I use quotation marks, because I sure wouldn't want to drive a vehicle up that road. By this time the gal I had passed on Cross Mountain and passed me again and I was back in my familiar spot. After a final steep climb in which a rope would have been helpful, there was once again a welcome well-stocked aid station.
Next was the easy peasy section. Susan gave us a two mile gravel road and meadow trail section to recover a bit from the brutal climbs. Two years ago a big mama elk had camped out in the meadow and quietly observed all the crazy runners traipsing across her home. Unfortunately this year she didn't show. I soon reached the turn around spot, picked up my card to prove I had gotten there, and started back. I was about 15 minutes ahead of my pace from two years ago. On the way back, I saw Rob the sweeper and said hi and that I hoped I wouldn't see him too close behind me.
The downhills on the way back were almost as slow for me as the climbs were. The footing was treacherous in spots with the wet leaves and rocks and the descent down Cross Mountain was only a minute/mile faster than the climb had been. As I arrived at each aid station on the way back, I announced to the crew that the pre-sweep sweep had arrived and that Rob would be by shortly. I finally crossed the finish line in 9:50:26, DFL once again, but 26 minutes faster than two years ago.
If you are looking for a trail race that is both challenging and rewarding, consider putting this race on your calendar. It is very difficult, but the generous cutoff time makes it doable. In fact, there have been only three DNFs in the three year history of the race.
Thanks Susan for the incredible experience.
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