Leaving on a jet plane with MaryThe trip started on Wednesday as Miss Mary Leonard and I boarded a plane to Atlanta where we had a 2.5 hour layover. Chattanooga is a 2 hour drive from Atlanta, but we made the most of the time walking up and down the long hallway where the train runs between terminals and catching up on long overdue conversations that we didn't get to have training since I spent most of the training time inside in the gym due to my stress fracture. Once to Chattanooga, my parents dropped a car off with us, and we met up with two of my dearest long-time friends, Katie and Kadi.
Dinner at Community Pie with some lovely ladies
We had a cheese-filled dinner and some great conversation and then made our way home to my parents' house. We were supposed to be meeting another Austinite, Katie V., at this time, but she sadly was unable to come at the last minute due to an injury. We brought her with us in spirit, though, we would much rather have had her there in person.
Tennessee flower garden at the park where we did our shake-out run
Picking up our race packets at Rock/Creek!!
Finally, it was time to head to packet pick-up and to meet up with Chris, a Kansas City native that we had met once in person through Katie V. when he visited Austin. At packet pick-up, my nerves were high. Everyone in line looked to me like an amazing runner. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the mileage - not of any one day - but the total, and the fact that they were back-to-back-to-back, which I had never done due to limited run training from my foot injury. I was worried I wouldn't make the cut-off times and would get cut from the race. While we were there, though, Kris with a 'K', one of the race directors, came over and introduced herself and talked to us for a while about the courses, what to look out for, the good parts, the bad parts, the slippery parts, the rocky parts. Her happy, welcoming spirit put me at ease a little as she assured me that there were plenty of people there 'just trying to finish' too, and that not everyone was a rockstar runner like I was imagining. We saw Kris all three days of the race (she ran it too), and from just that one encounter at packet pick-up, she remembered all our names and always came up and chatted with us. Really great lady. The conversation with Kris put me at ease, and then the three of us left to go to the Tennessee Aquarium once the sudden torrential downpour ended (it had been sunny without a cloud in the sky at lunch).
Mary, Chris and I at the TN Aquarium (and some Aurelia jellyfish). Chris earns the name 'Ripsaw' here for admiring a fish by the same name. It stuck and was how he was addressed the rest of the weekend.
Look closely and you can see 'Lynyrd Skynyrd' written on the tour bus.
A view of the Riverbend Festival from behind.
'Sup dog? Getting a high 5 from this pup in downtown Chatt
Walking back from the aquarium. That's Lookout Mountain in the background. Otherwise known as 'Day 2'
Day 1 - Raccoon Mountain - 18 miles
View from the drive to the Day 1 race start. Clouds sitting on the river below.
A shout out to Katie V. who trained so hard but was unable to come last minute due to injury. She's already said she's going next year, though. I just may be back too. Katie - you were greatly missed, but thought of often!
Mary and I went to get our shirts that hadn't been ready the day before. They were a pretty green color with the '3 days 3 mountains 60 miles' logo on the front. We could also see the finishers jackets, Marmot wind/rain resistant jackets with the same logo and 'Finisher' on the sleeve. These jackets would be the talk of the race all three days. They looked pretty sweet and served as some level of motivation for a lot of folks.
Lined up on the startine, day 1
There is a John Hartford song in which he sings, 'Today it may be natural, sitting here discussing it; Tomorrow just as natural to be gone", and just like that, one second we were standing at the start line discussing the 3 days to come, and the next the clock had started, and we were off through the chute and into the woods. It wasn't long (100m?) before we made a left turn off the paved road and onto a trail, and the whole group of 260 people came to a screeching halt as we filed one at a time onto the trail forming what had to be a mile long conga line. There was no passing. Where you were when you got on the trail was pretty much where you were through the first aid station at about 5 miles. There were a couple of moments where you could get in front of a person or two, but they were few and far between, so whatever the pace of the group was your pace. Of course my shoe came untied - first time ever in a race - so, when I hopped to the side to tie it, the conga line continued on past me and Mary, Chris and Luigi disappeared into the distance. I didn't mind going slowly with the group. In fact, I decided it was a good thing, because the first day was all about conserving energy. There were two days after today, so my biggest challenge, I figured, was keeping myself from going out too strong and leaving myself with nothing on Sunday. I did wish I was up with my posse, though, so I could chat with them, but I chatted instead with the people I was now surrounded by. This was the beginning of three days of happy conversations with happy people from all around the area in the middle of beautiful woodsy areas. Yes, the trails were beautiful, but it was the people that really made the race what it was. I made all kinds of trail buddies. Some people I ran with at some point all three days, others just one or two days. Some for several miles, others for a short section, but all of the people I talked to provided good conversation and a genuine feeling of support and well-wishing. Sometimes the person I talked to dropped me and went ahead, but never without thanking me for the talk and wishing me good luck. Sometimes I was the one bounding away yelling back the same things to them. This feeling of camaraderie lasted all three days, and is one of the reasons this race was so special.
Left: Me on the far right, coming out into a field where an aid station is set up, about to go into the small intestines. Right: Mary looking like a gazelle, bounding through the woods
One part of this trail is called the 'Small Intestines'. It is a long section of switchback upon switchback upon switchback, first down, then back up, never very steep or if so, not for very long, but mostly gradual inclines and declines through the woods. There were a couple points where you could look up and down and see a moving line of runners stretched out over these switchbacks. It was fun to yell to Mary every few minutes as we passed by each other again and again in this section.
The 'Small Intestines' - a long section of switchback after switchback and a mile or two of runners stretched out along it
I ran for a while with a girl who I found out had been Arkansas's ultrarunner of the year last year. I got a little nervous when she told me this thinking I should not be here with her but rather further back on the trail. Am I going too fast? Surely she knows better how to run these races. My worries dissipated a little while later, though, when she came bounding out of nowhere (I had gotten in front of her) with about 4 miles to go and blew by me on a downhill. I hung with her for a bit, then forced myself to let her go. The trail overall was very runnable, and had it been a single-day race, we could have logged pretty fast times on it, I think. But everyone was sitting back and making sure to leave some in the tank as each day was supposed to get progressively more difficult. I walked on several hills that I didn't need to, but decided to in order to conserve the legs. Looking back, I probably could have gone harder that first day, but I'm glad I didn't because I assured myself energy and legs for days 2 and 3.
Luigi finished first out of the four of us in 2:41, then me at 3:08 (30th place of the females), Mary at 3:13 and Chris at 3:17. The cut-off time was 4 hours, and we had easily made it. Afterward, we were sitting in the coldest water I have ever been in when a girl came sprinting out of the woods, and everyone started cheering loudly. She crossed the finish line at 3:59:13 just barely in time. We later met a guy who finished at 4:06 who wasn't allowed to continue the next day (who, to his credit, still came out days 2 and 3 and volunteered at the aid stations - and with a smile on his face too) and another who crossed at 4:01:12 and was cut. They were serious about the cut-off times! This instilled an appropriate amount of nerves for the next day, because even though we had plenty of time today and they give us a little extra time the next two days, tomorrow was 4 miles longer and a harder course.....and we would have 18 miles on our legs already from today.
My parents' puppy, Molly, helps Mary with the foam roller by deciding to chew her bone on Mary's leg.
This race is all about recovery. I had my routine down with a recovery drink immediately after finishing, then shortly after that a protein drink. We would then go for lunch, and afterward, I would just continue eating and drinking water water water, then a little foam rolling, some ibuprofren and sleep.
Mary's foot sausage. The seed for many a joke over the course of the weekend.
Mary's recovery also included some ice in the form of a frozen sausage log on her foot (sorry, Mom - her foot was clean, though!). This also resulted in many a joke the rest of the weekend. Sleep came much later than planned as we had headed back out from my parents house (20 minutes out of downtown) back to the Crash Pad where the race organizers had a keg and were showing pictures from the day (all the beds at the Crash Pad were filled with runners in the race). We went to eat and didn't order until nine o'clock. 9:00!! We had wanted to be home by 9:00!! Oh well. Nothing to do about it now. The fatigue was starting to set in, though, so we chowed down our dinners and got home and got into bed by 11-something.
Day 2 - Lookout Mountain - 22 miles
Start/Finish of Day 2
5:00 came earlier than it had the day before. My alarm went off, and I immediately did a quick inventory - no apparent injuries or severe soreness. Okay, that's a good sign. We repeated the routine from the day before with my mom making my coffee and Mary's water for her tea (thanks, Mom!). Mary packed up the car (again), and we headed out. Today's race was actually on the Georgia side of Lookout. I spent many a night on Lookout Mountain as a high schooler. Many of my closest friends lived up there both on the Tennessee and Georgia sides, and I used to drive up and down that thing weekly. I never ran up there, though, so today's race would be a first for that. We got to the Lula Lake Land Trust property, and I immediately fell in love with it. It was all forest all around. No buildings. No roads except the gravel one we came in on. There was a river right next to the start/finish and a wooden bridge going over it. Very picturesque.
Everyone's all smiles at the start.
I waited a few minutes to hit up the Port-a-Potty. BIG MISTAKE. I got in line at 7:36 (race starts at 8:00) thinking 24 minutes is surely enough time for this line to work it's way through the three Port-a-Potties that had been brought there. Um, wrong! I didn't get to the front of the line until 3 minutes to the start. Luckily, Mary had read my mind and brought me my hydration pack and taken my towel I was using as a jacket (it was chilly in the mornings!) so I wouldn't have to run back to the car before the start. I managed to get out and to the start line with about 1:30 to spare. We started off this day in the back. We were taking the perspective of start back and pass people instead of the reverse.
Lula Lake Falls
Today's course started off running by Lula Lake Falls, a beautiful waterfall dropping into beautifully teal green water. Shortly after this was the section we'd heard about where you had to hold on to ropes to get up it was so steep. Much like day 1, this was a bottlenecking point where we stood in line waiting our turn to go up. Someone in the back called out, 'On your left!!' and everyone laughed. The trail here, we noticed, was lined with poison ivy, and somewhere along the way I got in it. For anyone who witnessed the Armageddon of poison ivy that ensued on my legs in 8th grade, you can understand that I was a little nervous, but knock on wood, just a couple little spots but nothing serious has appeared, so I think I'm in the clear.
Some runners coming down the so-steep-you-need-a-rope section of the trail.
At the top of the rope climb, we ran along the edge of the mountain with beautiful views off to our left for a mile or so, then down into the woods to finish out the first 5 mile loop, passing an aid station at the start/finish. I LOVE my new hydration backpack I ran with. I had lots of pockets and so was able to carry dates with me to use for fuel instead of having to rely solely on gels, which get painfully sweet by the end of a long race. I just ate the gels and dates I had with me and only stopped at aid stations long enough to refill my water.
The next section was a lollipop out to and around Covenant College. Somewhere along the stick of the lollipop, just before entering the loop of it (the pop?), a guy appeared sprinting toward me and running the wrong way. I was so confused. What was going on? Then I realized that was the first place guy already on his way back. Holy wow. This dude is fast! I checked my watch - 1:27 - and looked for landmarks around me to be able to note when I was passing back by this way. Second place wasn't far behind. I clapped and cheered for him since I understood what was going on now (first place guy just got a very confused stare from me - sorry!). Then third came along shortly after that, then I was up on the loop and didn't see anymore fast guys. When I finally came back by the place where I had seen first place, my watch said 2:20. Wow. Just wow. Those guys are fast. I ran back toward the start/finish through forest lined with ferns and covered in tall, tall, tall trees. The trees were my favorite. I love tall trees. I miss them. I didn't realized how much I missed them until I spent three wonderful days under them.
Back to the start/finish. One more loop to go - the same as the first one, but in the opposite direction and with a little something extra at the end. As I passed by the aid station there, I could hear the announcer calling out finishers. These people were a good 6 miles ahead of me, and they weren't even the first ones! There were a lot of really good runners in this race. The last loop was fun. I felt good and ran most of the long uphill back up to the ridgeline then picked it up on the slight descent back to the steep downhill with the ropes. The 'bonus' section added on on the way back was a little hard to run because of the rocks and being slippery, but it was really beautiful with bright green moss on the rocks and the little creek to your side. We finished by crossing a river just before the finish line.
As I came in, they announced my name and said, 'Number 233, Laura Dugan, with a BIG smile on her face!'. Two days in a row I finished smiling. Those of you who have seen me run other races know that I am usually not smiling at the end, but you just couldn't help but smile here. I finished in 3:44 (15th place female), very surprised and happy to have run it sub-4. Luigi came across at 3:33, Mary at 4:08 and Chris at 4:19.
Today's ice bath was just as bone-chillingly cold as yesterday's, though, it came with an added bonus - as they were pouring the leftover cooler ice in, a beer fell in with it - just as Mary was saying she desired one
We went to eat again and met up with another dear old friend of mine, Christy, at a burrito place. We sat and chatted for a while, then headed home to shower and get ready for the next day. We couldn't pull ourselves back out to the Crash Pad that night as the fatigue was catching up, so we went to eat with my parents and got home early to get ready for the last day. Mary kindly reminded me a few times to pack my nutrition, and we got to bed nice and early.
Day 3 - Signal Mountain - 20 miles
'3' for day 3!! We made it to day 3! Only 20 miles to go.....
"Day 3 is ridiculous." These were the words of a Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race veteran in the ice bath on day 1. Day 3 was indeed ridiculous from a rocky point of view. The race started out running down Signal Mountain to Suck Creek. Let me repeat for those who know the area. We ran down Signal to Suck Creek and then back up the way we came. Well, 'run' is a strong word here. We gingerly worked our way down to Suck Creek in a single file (this was today's bottlenecking section) to the aid station, turned right around and hiked back up. This was another place where we got to witness the front runners' incredible ability as they passed us coming back up. Mary was fairly convinced the front guy used a cheetah when out of sight of the other runners. This may be true, but even just on his feet, he was ridiculously fast. We all would step off the single track and let them pass as they blasted by us in the opposite direction in this section.
Today's course consisted of many suspension bridges over beautiful creeks that got wobblier as you got out to the center and trails along a ridgeline with magnificent views of the Tennessee River gorge.
And then there were the rocks upon rocks upon rocks, but different kinds of rocks from the ones we run on all the time in Texas. They were bigger, and awkwardly shaped, and wet and covered in moss and thus, quite slippery and difficult to find any sort of rhythm through them. For a long section that one of my trail buddies referred to as the 'Rock Garden' it was run two steps, walk 10 as we worked our way over the rocks. And the trail was narrow here, and the drop-off to the side long and steep if you were to slip. After the Rock Garden came a set of stairs,
then finally the most beautiful aid station ever.
I was again blowing through aid stations, arriving with my pack off and bladder already open ready to be filled. I used my own food and didn't partake of any of the awesome array of goodies provided by the race, so I tended to pass a chunk of people at each one that decided to stop and hang out there for a few minutes. I had been conserving my legs and my energy for 2 days and 9 miles. I was feeling good, so I gave myself the green light to go for it. From this point on, I went into race mode, picking up the pace and running every runnable thing.
There was about a quarter mile on the road as we went from one trail to another, and in this time, we passed an assisted living home where the residents were on the porch clapping and cheering us as we came by. I was in glee club in high school and remember doing a performance there one time. Like Lookout, I spent many a night on Signal Mountain too. In elementary school, I begged my parents to move there as all my best friends lived there (they just chuckled). It felt like home running on this mountain, under these trees.
Back in the woods again and down a descent. I passed a fair number of people on descents, bounding down. All the Texas trail running prepared me well for that. It was in this section that I had my 10 minutes of....well, what's the opposite of coordination? In this time, I did a slip-and-sit sort of fall, took two people off-trail, ran into a tree, then fell outright on my left shin. It was after the second fall that I slapped myself in the face and got myself together. I think fatigue + excitement + increased pace were the culprits. After this, I began to realize that I had about 6 miles left. I had run 54 miles over the last three days, and I only had 6 miles left. I immediately became very emotional as I realized that this wonderful, beautiful, amazing race was coming to its end. I forced myself to ease up on the race mentality and make sure to take in as much as I could, because it was going to be over before I knew it, and who knew when I'd get to come back and run here again, and never would it be with all these exact same people that had made this weekend so special for me.
After - FINISHERS!!!
Luigi had already finished (3:39 - wow!), and so I waited for Mary and Chris to come through. Chris came through all smiles at 4:37 and Mary at 4:45. I gave each a big hug as they finished, and I was trying to talk Mary into getting her finisher's jacket when she crossed as I know she favored the blue one, and those were dwindling. I would say, 'Go get your jacket!' to which she would reply, 'We have to go get Becca!!' Becca is another Texan we met at packet pick-up and with whom Mary had run most of day 3 with. Mary had gotten in front in those last few miles and done the same thing I had, which was open up and run. We repeated this exchange two or three times before Mary looked at me sternly and yelled, 'WE HAVE TO GO GET BECCA!!!!!' It was, in her words, a Forrest Gump moment and Becca was her Lieutenant Dan. I had a pretzel in my hand, and I had told my legs we were done running for a few days, but suddenly, spawned by Mary's urgency, I was running again, pretzel in hand, back out on the course with Mary right behind (she had gone to get her jacket) to look for Becca and run her in.
Looking back, I understand the sense of urgency as there was a 5 hour cut-off, and when we left it was probably at about 4:48 or 4:49. Mary had run with Becca all day, and she wanted to make sure Becca made it under the 5 hour cut-off time. About a quarter mile or so down the trail, we found her. We turned around and ran with her the last stretch of the trail, Mary encouraging her the whole way. She crossed the finish at 4:52, eight minutes to spare. The last official runner came across at 4:59:25. I was on the massage table, but I heard the remaining crowd go crazy as she was apparently sprinting through the grass to the finish. Mary talked to her after, and she said, 'I have never been so happy to come in last place.' All the runners who finished after the 5 hour mark still got their finisher's jacket, but their times aren't listed on the official results. Of the 260 registrants, 167 finished all three days within the time limits.
My overall results for the three days came out as such:
Total time: 10:59:31
13th place female
4th place in my age group
I got a chance to test out my finisher's jacket Tuesday morning in Austin during the brief morning rain
While on the massage table (my left knee and right ankle and arch had been talking smack for most of the day), the guy on the table next to me said, 'Hey! Are you the crazy girl who said she was SAD she was almost done?' We laughed about that a little, but I was sad, and simultaneously immensely happy. I did it. We did it. We ran 60 miles in three days on three different mountains over some extremely technical trail and very steep inclines and declines. And we had a blast while doing it.
After the massage, we got in the ice bath again. Today wasn't nearly as cold as days 1 and 2 had been, but while in there, they dumped out the cooler ice into it and then some dry ice that made for some pretty cool pictures.
Then, that was it. Luigi and Chris took off for Atlanta as they had flights to catch, and Mary and I headed home (but not before I drove her through my old high school that was on the way). My sister and her family had come up for Father's Day, and we celebrated with cupcakes and presents and went to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. I told Mary she is now an honorary Dugan, though, I'm not sure that's an honor - I'll leave it to her to decide that (we are an odd bunch, though, she seemed to fit in just fine). Seriously, though, I am so grateful and appreciative to my family and my Chattanooga friends too for letting me come and be completely selfish and self-centered this weekend and for working around my schedule, and to Mary for agreeing back in January to go on this adventure with me and to Chris and Luigi for sharing it with me and to all my new trail buddies whom I will hopefully see at more races in the future (I will be back to that area to race again - it is too beautiful not to return). It was a wonderful weekend of running and friendship and family and home. It is something I will treasure forever.
One of those quotes that I ran with is by T.S. Eliot and says, 'Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go." I was afraid this race might be too far, and that I would not be able to go the distance. I had not trained like I wanted, and I had never attempted three consecutive days of long runs. I proved myself wrong, however, and it only motivates me to see how much further I can go - in running as well as in life. This adventure is in the books, but I know there are so many adventures still to come, so many mountains yet to climb, and I cannot wait.