Dark Sky 50 Miler Race Report

This race really deserves its own report, for sure. Truly one of the most beautiful races I have run but that’s getting a little ahead of things, so let me back up some.
My friend Stephanie Johnson, from Knoxville, TN asked me several months ago to come join her on this 50 mile run. We run at about the same pace, have run several other races together, and enjoy each other’s company. She had lodging figured out, so I was all in! With Stephanie planning the details, I barely even looked at the weather or race information prior to heading up to Tennessee for this inaugural race.
The weather looked great, other than some rain the day and night before, and the course looked to be mostly runnable with around 5,000 ft of climbing. No problem. I met Stephanie and her parents at the camp site (A.K.A. lodging) the afternoon before the race. Later, her friend and running buddy from Knoxville, Bobby Trotter, joined us at the campsite. Bobby was going to crew and pace us. I had met him at other races and was happy to see our friend. Later that night as Stephanie and I were falling asleep in our tent, listening to the rain come down, we discussed our “goal” of a sub 12 hr finish for the 50 miler. We both agreed that we were very capable and felt this would not be a problem.
We were up and ready for the 6:00 a.m. start time. It had gotten light out long before that and the sun wouldn’t set that night until just before the 14 hour cutoff time. (You can do that simple math!)


Our group of friends just before the start

We started on a simple 2.7 mile loop just a hundred yards from the starting line. Right away, the scenery was a beautiful section of single track trail, and we ran under huge limestone overhangs. The trails were technical, single track with gently rolling hills, which suited both of our running styles well. We came out of the loop feeling comfortable that we had started off at a good pace, not too fast, and about the front of the middle pack. We headed back to the start area and then had 2 miles of road before dropping onto the Hidden Passage Trail for the next 4.5 miles. Every section of trail we ran on was prettier than the one before. We encountered endless limestone overhangs that often had water dripping off the side of them. We would run under and through these overhangs as we worked our way along the single track trail. The vegetation was green and luscious from the recent rain and was well hidden from the sunlight in the dense forest. We enjoyed seeing the moss and ferns along the way, while keeping a close eye on the technical trails. We had completed nearly 9 miles when we came to our first AS, which was water-drop only.


A “proof of life” selfie early in the race!

There were several other runners at this AS, but we didn’t need any supplies and kept moving. The few runners we saw there would be a few of the only other runners we would see throughout the race. We were never passed by other runners during the entire race, so we continued to believe we were strongly in the middle of the pack. We experienced our first rough patch in the next 4.7 miles to the first full AS. We followed a creek that was very shaded and the trail was very wet from recent rains. It probably never dries out much. The trail was more technical, covered with rocks, and we had to cross lots of wooden plank bridges. The wood on the bridges was so slippery that it required great caution to carefully get across them. Just as we got back into our running groove we would have to stop to cross another wooden bridge. This would be the only section where I took a fall when my feet came out from under me on a wet rock and I fell on my left arm with no time to try and catch myself. Luckily the landing was soft and I was up and off again with no injuries.
We were very happy to get through that section and see our crew, Bobby and Stephanie’s parents, at the 13.6 mile AS at Divide Road. I took off my long sleeve shirt while Stephanie got rid of her jacket, got our packs refilled and were quickly on our way. The next 6 miles were some of our favorite running of the day. The scenery was beautiful and we were able to run almost the entire section before we went to the top of the John Muir Overlook. From here, we had amazing views of Big South Fork, then we descended into our next AS at Long Branch. We now had 6 miles to another water drop and then 4 more miles before reaching Charit Creek AS.


A short section of our muddy rocky fire roads

These 10 miles turned into our least favorite section of the course. It was beautiful, and most of it was beside a large flowing creek, which in many ways made the section enjoyable. But the “trail” was basically flooded fire roads that were rocky and covered in not just water but shoe-sucking mud. At times, we were diverted onto trails that took us around muddy sections, and other times we tried hard to find our own paths around the mud. The scenery was no less beautiful, however, and we even enjoyed one stop at a large creek to soak our feet and wash the mud off of our legs.
We finally got through the next AS and arrived at the Charit Creek AS where we were met again by Bobby and Stephanie’s parents. Stephanie changed her socks and shoes while I changed my socks before we headed out for the first of 2 loops around the 4-mile Twin Arches Loop Trail. The scenery was unbelievable and we decided that a second time around this loop would not be bad at all. Bobby joined us on our second loop and took a few pictures of some of our favorite sections.


Running through the arch

After one final time through the Charit Creek AS, we were off on the home stretch of roughly 11 miles. We knew the climb out of Charit Creek would be a big one, probably the longest climb of the day. The 2.8 mile climb to Gobblers Knob seemed longer, and at times endless, but we continued to run as much as we possibly could. We had another 3 mile stretch of mostly fire roads as we continued to the final AS. We had passed one runner on the way to that AS, and then another guy we had passed early in the race surprised us by showing up right behind us as we were headed out. After a one mile drop down to Rock Creek and a water-drop AS, we were back on the John Muir trail and then the Hidden Passage Trail again. The trail finished as they put us on 2.3 miles of jeep roads before we were back on the Picketts Park Hwy and a 2 mile stretch into the finish line.

We knew we had run strong all day, kept a steady pace, passed only a few runners along the way but was never passed by others. When we finished in 13:35, just 25 minutes before the cutoff time, we weren’t a bit disappointed! We ran well all day and finished strong at the end. We had even dropped our pacer somewhere in the last 4 miles. We knew we were solid, middle of the pack runners, but only a few other runners came in behind us. Lots of runners ended up with DNF’s and left us near the back of the pack finishers. Almost all of the runners finished well behind their estimated finish times.
In the end, the race course could have had a few more “confidence” markers (although we never once got off course) and the aid stations could have had more “real” food such as PB&Js and cold Cokes. A little less mud would have been nicer, as well! But the course itself could not have been more beautiful or the running company any better!


We started together and finished together!

H9 50 Miler Race Report, August 13, 2016

First of all you have to question anyone’s sanity to run this race.  Basically you receive a list of waypoints to put into your map, a 50 mile course that in the past has been very loosely marked and best of luck to you!  Over 20,000 feet of climbing starting from Vogel State Park, up the Coosa Backcountry loop and covering a lot of the DRT or Dragon Spine as the runners here call it here in Georgia.  “Fun Times on the Dragon Spine” is the motto of this race.

With Aid Stationed named “Lipstick and Lugnuts” and the “Fire Pit” that promises to be a slave labor camp if you drop there, you are pretty much screwed from the start.  But just getting to the start is a trick in itself.

H9 race has been legendary and quit a well kept secret for years to the local trail runners of North Georgia.  Only by invitation did runners even know about this exclusive club event.  I was invited last year and did the Marathon having no real details of any kind.  Carrie invited me, I signed up, then showed up with her having gotten the map and details from secret locations.  Clearly I was not in the inner circle of information.

This year you could find the club on Ultra Signup and then only after joining the club were you able to then signup for the race itself.  But don’t kid yourself, that did not get you any information.  The lucky ones were on the Facebook closed H9 group page (this maybe a secret in itself).  This is where some limited information is found.  Several weeks of pre-race chatter on this page only served to scare us poor victims who were running the race, not provide useful insight or tips.  We did however get some limited race info emailed to us.  Highlights included, “wear lots of body glide, humidity level will be near 100%,” “course will be marked with orange flags,” and “if the arrow points the same direction as you are moving and says VOGEL – go that way! That is likely your shortest route to the finish.”  Great! We are all set!

Carrie and I drove up to Vogel State Park the afternoon before the race.  We were staying in a cabin close to the finish line.  That night before the race there was a packet pickup, ok well pick up your shirt is about it.  There was a Pre-race “sensing session (a little bit of handholding – but no real information)”.  And just for the record, I did make Perry hold my hand!  Saturday morning before the race start you checked in and they wrote your race number on your arm in Sharpie.  Mingling with the other runners before the start of the race was more like a family reunion with around 50 of your running buddies! Right at 6:30am the RD Perry Sebastian said “go”, that was it.  We were off!  May the odds be ever in our favor!

H9 is said to be named that after the 9 levels of hell.  After running this race, I’m pretty sure there were far more than 9 levels to this hell.  Here’s a few of the H’s we came up with:

Humidity (100%)
Helpers (they call them enablers)
Happy (not so much)
Hallucinogens (well Mushrooms we saw a lot of but I needed an H)
Headlamps (20 hr cutoff)
HAE (Hard Ass Events, the RD’s races)
Hardware (great finishers awards)
Hell yeah! (Do this race again?  Hell NO!)
I’m sure my fellow H9ers could add more to this list!

The race starts off with the climb up the Coosa Backcountry loop.  We enjoyed a fun time climbing and chatting with everyone during this section!  It didn’t take long for the sweat to start rolling off our faces and never stopped.  Before reaching the top of Coosa we turned onto a small fire road towards Bull Gap and some good climbs leading to the Fire Pit.  The toughest climb to the top of Coosa Bald is really from the backside coming off the DRT, so why would we not want to do this 1 mile straight up climb at least a couple of times during this race?  This is after all “Hard Times on the Dragon Spine!” After leaving the Fire Pit and our first AS it was up to the top of Coosa Bald and then a nice drop into Wolfpen Gap which was some of the best running section of the course.


Brad and I at the top of Coosa Bald the first time up

We got Coke at Wolfpen AS and were quickly off to the next section, it would be around 10 miles to the next AS at Lipstick and Lugnuts with a water drop only in the middle.  These 10 miles were largely fire road sections, much of it was nice running with later roads that had heavy gravel that started to wear on my feet.  After we got through Lipstick and Lugnuts, loaded up with more Coke and snacks, we were onto some of my favorite parts of the course, Yellow Mountain.  This is such a beautiful section with everything covered in green moss and a creek running through it.  Almost makes the climb out of there worth it.  Several more miles of barely used trails and old roads and we are back to the DRT at Mulky Gap and a water stop.


Crossing the Fairy Bridge in Yellow Mountain

Three miles of climbing on the DRT and out to Fish Gap AS.  The climbs on the DRT in the heat and humidity prove to be no easier than some of Perry’s “trails”.  We were definitely happy to be at Fish Gap and friendly faces there but not looking too thrilled.  We now had a 12 mile looped section to do that is called the “green loop”.  If you weren’t broke down and beaten by this section, there would be little question that after this loop you were toast.  The one thing about running on the DRT and surrounding trails is the beauty.  I try to make a point of noticing the little things and stop to take in the views when I get a chance.  Today the course seemed to be filled with mushroom in all colors and shapes.  So many seemed to be there just to add beauty to our day and this gorgeous course.


This was just a sampling of the mushrooms

When we got to the AS out on the Green Loop, Mary Dean and her pacer for the loop, Lara had caught up to us.  We all stayed together and enjoyed the rest of the loop, using that word enjoyed very loosely.  We were feeling so happy to be done with the 3.5 mile loop and headed back toward Fish Gap AS, only to hit the terrible climb up the side of the mountain with no real trail, just flags to follow.  Really Perry, this is the best you could do?  I think his name had been used as a curse word several times during this climb and it was still echoing through the forest.  Once back onto the DRT we felt like it would be smooth hiking/running to get back to Fish Gap but soon figured we were much closer to Skeenah Gap and had some monster hills left to climb just to get back to Fish Gap.  It was a brutal finish to the 12 mile green loop.


Mary Dean, Carrie and I ready to tackle the last 13 miles

Now at Fish Gap with roughly 13 miles to the finish we were feeling good that we would finish ahead of cutoffs.  We also knew ahead were lots of hills to climb and probably dark before we reached the Fire Pit AS.  Mary Dean, Carrie and I set out together.  Carrie was dealing with a little stomach issues and more back pain.  The climbs were getting increasingly tougher and slower for her.  We knew there were at least 4 others behind us all trying to beat the clock.  We all made it to Mulky Gap and more water.  Thompson was there with ice cold water  and were all so happy to see his smiling face.  From there it was another 2 miles of uphill to the Fire Pit.  Two very long miles.  It got dark shortly after we left Mulky Gap and now the hills had Carrie really struggling.  Mary Dean and I eventually moved ahead to get to the Fire Pit and wait on Carrie to get in there.  After getting some food and waiting about 15 minutes the AS “enablers” encouraged us to go on and not wait for Carrie.  It was dark and I hated to leave her but told the workers to have her wait on the Milner’s who were somewhere behind us.  We knew she could finish with them and knew that David was also struggling on the hills.  So we made the decision to go and Mary Dean and I headed to climb Coosa Bald one last time.  After 45 miles and close to 20,000 feet of climb on your legs already, this one is not easier the second time around.  It was a struggle for both of us but with it dark this time at least we couldn’t look up and see the top!  Of course you can never look up and see the top of this long climb, even in daylight!

Now it was all downhill to the finish, but that didn’t prove to be easy. My feet were so sore and hurting from the climbs and then rocky fire roads that tore them up.  Going down was wet, steep and slippery.  Mary Dean and I both struggled and slipped several times making going down slower than we would have liked.  We knew the fire road ahead to lead us into Vogel was only 1.5 miles away and we thought that would bring an easy finish.  The fire road brought more heavy large gravel that was an extremely painful way to finish off 50 plus miles.  We dropped into Vogel finishing out our H9 race!  Mary Dean was not only given her awesome finishers award but some lipstick!  I think there’s a story there but it’s not mine to tell.

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Mary Dean and I put on some lipstick for this picture taken with our finishers hardware!

We waited for the others behind us to finish and Carrie came proudly in DFL just before the cutoff!  She had always wanted to be DFL.  Two of the final finishers, David and Alicia Milner received their sweet 5 year jackets for finishing the race five times.  Now these people really need to have their heads examined.  I know we are all crazy but this is insanity; a straight-jacket might be appropriate! LOL!!  If you see me sporting an H9 jacket 5 years from now, just don’t say a word!


Antelope Canyon 50 Miler Race Report, February 21, 2016

My friends, Carrie, Lisa and I had picked this race months before and decided this would be a great adventure!  Actually Carrie and I chatted about some of the races that Ultra Adventures does during my 100 mile Blind Pig race.  After she spent nearly 50 miles there pacing me, I told her to take a look at some of their races, Antelope Canyon, Brice Canyon, Zion, Monument Valley, etc.  She could pick whichever one interested her and we’d go do it.  So Antelope Canyon was her pick, and Lisa and I had to admit it looked like an awesome event.

We made our plans to fly into Las Vegas on the Thursday before our Saturday race.  You could fly into either Salt Lake City, Phoenix or Las Vegas, all were within a reasonable driving distance of the race in Paige, AZ.  In the end Las Vegas was the least expensive at the time we bought our tickets.  So early Thursday we flew out to Las Vegas and spent the day traveling from there to Paige.  Driving through Nevada, Lisa wondered why on earth we fought the Indians for that land! But we headed north and into St. Georgia, Utah and then into Zion Canyon.  We got to spend several hours exploring Zion before heading out to Paige.


We also visited Red Rock Canyon just outside of Las Vegas

We relaxed on Friday and did a little sightseeing, not actually too much to see there.  But we did hike out to see the famous Horse Shoe Bend and take in the view and sights.  We knew we’d run by there the next day in the race but thought that it might be nice to get a good look when we weren’t trying to run.  We didn’t want to spend the entire race taking pictures even though we were determined to enjoy it fully.

We did our packet pick up on that Friday afternoon.  They offered the racers a unique experience to volunteer and help put mud some Navajo huts.  Afterwards they served us some awesome Navajo tacos.  You have to take in the whole experience here.


Another high light for us we getting to meet Vanessa Rodriguez, aka Vanessa Runs

The race started early on Saturday morning.  We had dropped off our drop bags the night before, but wanted to get there early because there was an early morning Navajo Indian Prayer time before the race start.  Soon the race was off.  It was an early dark start.  We started closer to the front which is not where I usually like to start most races.  I don’t think we realized we were that far up.  But it got us off and running and it started with a fairly large rock climb which was nice not to be behind hundreds of runners.  Once over that rock and down the other side it was a sandy desert run for many miles.  While it was still dark, you couldn’t see but we followed a long power line section as we worked our way out towards the first Aid Station.  It was getting light out and we dropped into the first slot canyon of the course.  It was a nice downhill canyon that was beautiful.  Before we knew it we arrived at the first aid station.


One thing that was very different about this race from the beginning was that the RD and the entire race was very Green.  All trash was recycled and composted, and each aid station had a composing “out house”.  Well it was more of a tent but it was nice to have.

So at our first stop we grabbed some fruit and kept going.  Now we were on a long 3 mile or more sandy wash road.  Basically a very wide sandy road that was only driven on by large 4-wheel drive trucks.  The sand was deep and relentless, tiring you out very quickly.  Lisa seemed to do better in this section and left Carrie and I fairly quickly.  This section led us to Upper Antelope Canyon which was the most beautiful canyon of the race, although as we hit it, the sun had not fully come up and it was a little dark inside when we ran through.  Once through the canyon it was back down the 3 mile sandy road wash back to the aid station as we traced our way back up the way we came down the power lines. From the Antelope Canyon Aid station it was 6 miles to Slick Rock AS and a turn towards the Horseshoe AS.

IMG_0376Carrie had a camera clipped on her pack that takes photos every 30 seconds.  You can see in this picture the deep sand

This whole section was long deep sandy stretches through the desert.  Once we got past Horseshoe AS we headed out to run a long section above Horseshoe bend and some of the most beautiful sections with unbelievable views.  Carrie and I held a steady pace and just kept moving in the deep sand as best we could. It got hot during the day light hours with no shade on the course but in short sleeves and with the dry heat it wasn’t that bad.  We got to Water Holes AS and immediately dropped into Waterholes Slot Canyon. It was really more like a steep climb down into it.  Carrie and I enjoyed this section and ran here with our new friend Janeth, taking a few photos through the canyon.  Soon out of the canyon it was back to sandy road sections and 5 miles back to Horseshoe AS, retracing again our way back to Slick Rock AS.  Now it was a short distance back and then climb up the to Paige Rim AS which was only a few hundred feet from the finish line. But first it was a 10 mile loop run around the city of Paige with beautiful view of Lake Powell.  At least the deep sand was behind us, but for Carrie the sand had done it’s damage on legs and wearing her out.  After completing this 10 mile section, it’s a drop back down to the finish line and a just Navajo Indian made finishers award.


Carrie and I in Waterholes Slot Canyon

Lisa had finished an hour or so before us and sat around a bon fire with many others waiting for us to come in.  It was such a perfect day in so many ways, but I think we were just all ready to get a shower and some sleep.


We each picked out a slightly different Navajo made finishers award

 Now after a little time to reflect on our Antelope Canyon 50 Miler let me share some of what I learned:

  1. Ultra Adventures does the Grand Circle Series of races, I would highly recommend adding one of their events to your racing bucket list! They have lots to choose from and put on a great race. I personally hope to do one again soon.
  2. Antelope Canyon 50 miler was probably 30 miles of deep sand. It’s a beautiful race and you want to enjoy it but I’m not sure I’d recommend it as a first 50 miler. I’m not saying you can’t do it but I do think the 50K option at this race covers the most beautiful parts of the 50 mile race.  The cut off is 15 hours, which seems very generous but don’t be caught off guard by the sand.
  3. Visit all the sites you can while you are there.  We went to Zion on the way out and again on the way back.  Also got a permit into the South Butte section of the wave.  It was all a great adventure and worth seeing as much as you can.  I might also add that I would recommend going on the tour out to Antelope Canyon.  I know you do get to run through Upper Antelope Canyon but I think having time to see them and take pictures might be worth the trip. One regret about our trip.
  4. I wore a pair of Altra Lone Peak Neo Shells and Carrie wore a pair of Salomon’s that are also waterproof.  We both wore a pair of gaiters over the top and neither one of us stopped even once to empty sand from our shoes.  I know it might be a trade off,
  5. sand for warmer feet, but my feet were never hot.  When the race was over I was surprised when I removed my shoes and there was not a single grain of sand and I mean seriously nothing.  You will be emptying your shoes countless times on this course otherwise.
  6. It was an awesome girls trip for Team Unicorn!  We were able to share expenses of hotels and the rental car, and because it was off season in February, it was a very affordable trip.
  7. Follow your dreams and Embrace the Journey!

Lookout Mountain 50 Miler Race Report, December 19, 2015

We couldn’t end 2015 with two DNF’s on our record.  Carrie and I had a new determination and immediately talked about signing up for Lookout Mountain 50 Miler on our way home with our Pine Mountain DNF.  We had been within 12 miles of finishing that race and we knew we could do this.

We signed up knowing that our friend Tom was also running it and trying to complete his first 50 miler.  Tom is a strong runner and we were happy to run with him and see him to the finish of his first 50 mile race and earn our much anticipated redemption.  We drove up together early that morning.  The weather was perfect and we had heard that this was a beautiful course.  Lisa had run it just the year before as her first 50 miler and talked about how much she loved the race. 

Adding up the miles, we had just attempted a 100 miler the previous month and just 2 weeks prior had run 34 tough miles, our legs probably could have used more rest.  Runners don’t always make the best decisions and sometimes emotions play into the equation.  The race started and we were off.  A beautiful course indeed as we enjoyed the early morning hours on the side of Lookout Mountain overlooking Chattanooga, TN.  Those were some of my favorite miles of the course and my favorite type of trails to run; single track technical.  It was stunning.  Eventually down the mountain and to our first AS.  We all grabbed what we wanted quickly and were off.  The next section was flat and should have been a great place for us to run good.  I think Carrie and I had tired legs and we walk/ran this section but still moved at a very good pace.  After the next AS it’s a big, and I mean BIG climb back to the top of the mountain and back to the race start area.  We all kept moving and did well getting back up the mountain well before any cutoff at mile 21. 


From there we were off to a long out and back section of the course.  The next part being mostly downhill, we got some good running in and eventually dropped into another one of the prettiest parts of the course.  It was a climb out of there that you need a rope to get up, but once on top, the view was unbelievable 


We had another few miles to the next AS.  Here we had drop bags and then a 5-6 mile loop that would return us to the AS and our drop bags one more time.  This looped proved not to be quit as easy as others told us it would.  Some climbs in here although a very pretty section.  Soon our friend Tom as beginning to really slow down and struggled with his legs hurting.  We gave him some Magnesium and Aleve to try and turn things around for him but he kept falling back.  Soon Tom told us to go ahead and Carrie and I knew we had to press on.  This was our redemption as much as we wanted to help him finish his race.  Back off the loop we grabbed our headlamps from our drop bags to keep going.  It was another 12 miles to the finish and we needed to keep moving.  Our focus now was to get down the rope section before dark.  We continued on our pace, Carrie and I determined more than ever.  We didn’t feel the cutoff pressure because we were running ahead of that, but it was the DNF monkey on us that seemed to keep choking us.  Just as it was getting dark we make it down the rope section and to the final AS.  It was a long stretch back from there to the finish, but we knew we had time and kept up a good pace even when it got dark.  We seemed to be not far from other runners during this whole section and even passed a few as we kept on the move.  Just a mile or so away from the finish my light started to go out.  I knew we were close and I needed to push on.  It was very dark out and I didn’t want to  have to finish with no light.  I pushed hard and finally made it across that finish line smelling the victory.  Carrie cross just a few minutes after me and we celebrated together waiting for our friend Tom to claim his first 50 mile finish.  This race does not give you a single second over the finish time so we nervously waited for Tom to finally cross the finish.  And we got a sweet hoodie that’s one of our favorites and one we wear with the most pride.

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