2017 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler

Lookout Mountain would be a great addition to anyone’s 50 miler list. The event and the course really typify what I love about trail and ultrarunning. It’s a great, low-key community of people putting on a well-organized race on a course with incredible trails and views. And it’s great knowing that the proceeds from the race are going back towards those trails. Thank you to Wild Trails and all the volunteers for such a great event.

I was thrilled to come away with the win against great competition. It turns out the race was also the RRCA Ultra National Championship, which is a pretty cool bonus (although let’s be real there are plenty of people in the country who can handily beat me in a 50 miler).

I also learned some great lessons, the biggest being to stop worrying about the details and just run! I caught a stomach bug the day before the race and absolutely none of my “all-important” pre-race preparations that I usually worry so much about went right. Sure, some of that stuff matters a little and given the choice I’d rather have it be right, but in the end, the cumulative training and experience built up through time and hard work are vastly more important than the final 24 hours. The issues before the race forced me to run one of the smartest races I’ve ever run and I may have actually ended off better from it.

The Plan

The 2015 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler was my first official, normal ultra. It was an awesome experience and it was awesome to come away with a podium finish (and get what is still possibly the coolest award I’ve ever received). Ever since then, I’ve been looking forward to going back and giving it another shot with a bit more experience under my belt.

2015 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler podium, with Daniel Hamilton (1st) and Cole Crosby (2nd)

I put it on my schedule early this year as the race to kick off my winter ultrarunning season, and I had about a month after my last 2017 triathlon to switch gears and get my legs ready for the pounding of 50 miles with a lot of elevation change.

Reality

Things didn’t go quite according to plan, but one thing I’ve always tried to remember is that you go to the starting line with the fitness and training you have, not with what you wish you had. By this point I feel I’ve at least built enough of a base that if I can somewhat maintain it between races I can do alright, which is not something I could have said two years ago.

But then things went downright wrong. The week of the race a stomach bug ran its course through my family, with our 11 hour drive to TN on Thursday consisting largely of me trying to catch vomit from two of my kids. When we headed to Chattanooga the next day I thought that I had somehow managed to avoid the bug. It hit me shortly before we arrived.

I’m very much a creature of habit in the 24-48 hours before a race. I have specific things I eat, specific things I do, and a fairly fixed schedule. I couldn’t eat any food that night, much less my usual food. Instead of carb loading I was quite literally carb unloading in the bathroom a few hours after I should have been asleep.

Momentarily, I considered whether this might be my first DNS. Then, I thought to myself that I would probably still be in better condition at the start than I am with 50 miles left in a 100 miler. And certainly better than with a Barkley loop left. I had my doubts about how I was going to do, but I was at least going to do it.

The Start

I woke up about an hour before the race and we got to the line 15 minutes before the start. No early pre-race food, no warm-up, just show up and run. I hadn’t thrown up or had any other bathroom-related issues for over 8 hours, though, and I had managed to re-hydrate at least a bit.

At least someone was in good spirits

When I ran this race in 2015 I went out with the front, and like in every other ultra I’ve run it was too fast. I crashed pretty hard for the last 20 miles and was fortunate to hang on to 3rd. No matter how much I normally tell myself that it’s a long race and that I need to take it easy at the start, I end up going out where I feel like I should finish.

This time, though, I didn’t know where I felt like I should finish. I forcibly held myself in check and watched the frontrunners pull away. I settled into 6th or 7th place and got the added bonus of really being able to soak in the incredible views as we ran along the side of Lookout Mountain.

Gradually, I started to feel like I might be able to actually race. My stomach was still pretty knotted up, but my legs were moving. Fortunately I was at least getting down my liquid nutrition (Perpeteum), but solids or even gels weren’t on the menu.

I held a fairly consistent effort down the mountain and back up, and moved into 2nd place just as I hit the 19 mile mark back at the start / finish line. I grabbed a new bottle Jessi had mixed for me and continued on, a couple of minutes back from the leader and the previous year’s winner, Bob Adams.

I caught a brief glimpse of Bob on a power line cut, one of the few open sections of the course where you can see further than 30 seconds ahead, and felt the competitive drive I had been missing up until that point come back. I pushed a bit, hoping I could reel him in right then, but he was running strong and disappeared from sight.

The Race

For the first 20 miles I had kept myself in position to not lose. At this point I started thinking that I could win. For the next 10 miles I kept my pace, but the whole time didn’t know if Bob was right around the corner or had taken a big lead on me. When I finally came to the Lula Lake aid station (situated near a beautiful waterfall) they told me I was about a minute behind. If accurate, I had ever so slightly gained on him. I surged again, climbing back up to the bluff trail.

I was admiring the amazing view down towards the Chattanooga Valley when I finally caught a glimpse of something even better: the leader. I had been looking forward to meeting Bob; I knew we had some mutual friends and he seemed like an awesome guy. I would have enjoyed running together for a while. But at that point it was a race, and the mental component is enormous when racing endurance events.

For the first time, at about mile 28, I put out a sustained effort past my threshold and took the lead at a solid pace. My goal was to build a gap of 2-3 minutes before the next aid station at mile 32 and mentally win the race before my body had a chance to physically fall apart.

I continued through another awesome aid station situated on a horse farm that was tucked back into the woods. The next few miles actually gave a nice opportunity for recovery: the trail had a number of tight twists and turns that forced a slowdown. My quads were hurting by that point, but nothing was wrong that concerned me. I had been having some hip issues in training following a bike wreck, but pulled a double that week with Terrel Hale and fortunately it didn’t give me any problems during the race. When I got back to a really runnable section I was ready to go again. At mile 38 I grabbed my last bottle of Perpeteum from Jessi and was starting to feel pretty confident.

When I ran the race in 2015 the course came up shy of 46 miles. I knew there had been changes to the course this year, but I was still expecting to finish a few miles before I did. It didn’t help that my GPS had stopped working and I guess my watch was just estimating distance based on cadence and elevation changes. I ran out of water and those last few miles were rough.

According to my GPS I ran off the side of the mountain with about 8 miles to go. I’m actually kind of impressed that it was so close on the distance I guess just going off of cadence and elevation after it lost the GPS signal. The RD said he wheel-measured the course to be 50.5 miles.

I had built up a nice lead, though, and when I finally came to the finish it was an incredible experience. I had never actually broken the tape before, and I was able to relax coming through the chute, enjoy the moment, and then share it with Jessi and our oldest son.

Post-race

Lookout Mountain 50 Miler typifies what I love about ultras: a low key event with a great community. I got to spend some time after the race with some awesome people, including race director Randy Whorton (who had literally left no leaf unturned in making this the best event he could… he blew the leaves off the final 30 miles of the course!). It was also great to talk to Bob for a bit, 2nd place Luke Paulson (in his first ultra!), and a few of the other finishers.

Another big reason for coming back to this race was the city of Chattanooga. I love every visit there, and beyond the great trails it has some awesome restaurants and a lot of things to do for families. Despite the fact that 50 milers really seem to be that sweet spot for me where the intensity / duration combo leaves me nearly unable to walk afterwards, it was a lot of fun to spend another day exploring the city.

Sitting on a brick train while watching a fire truck go by? Basically the greatest thing ever.

When I signed up for the race I had no idea that it was the RRCA Ultra National Championship. A road runners club having a national championship on a course that’s almost entirely singletrack is a bit amusing to me, but that was a pretty cool bonus. With the USAT Long Course National Championship, that makes two national titles in the span of a month. They’re both of rather dubious merit, as the best people in the country weren’t at them and there are plenty of people who could beat me at those distances, but, you know, I try not to play the what-if game when some part of a race doesn’t go my way, so I won’t play it here either. 😉

My biggest takeaway from this race was not the hardware, though. It was a few incredibly valuable lessons. First, stop worrying about the details and just run! I’ve fretted so much in the past about everything being just right before a race, to the point that any slight benefit from having everything perfect is probably lost from worrying about having it perfect. Sure, some of that stuff matters a little and given the choice I’d rather have it be right, but in the end, the cumulative training and experience built up through time and hard work is vastly more important than the final 24 hours. And that close to the start, always look for the positive! There’s little good that negative thoughts can do at that point.

I actually ended up running one of the smartest races I’ve ever run, and honestly I probably wouldn’t have done that had I started the race under better circumstances. That led to another lesson: yet another reminder that ultras are really long races (surprise!). You can do quite a bit at the beginning to ensure you’re miserable the rest of the time, but how you do usually depends more on how you do in the 2nd half of the race. Run smart, stick to the plan, and don’t give in to the urge to try to stay with someone else at the beginning.

A lot of my race reports end with some crazy “delicacy” that I throw down afterwards. Unfortunately I still wasn’t feeling all that great for a couple of days after the race and the best I could really manage was a Krystal burger. If you’re familiar with these, you know that one of them consists of about two bites. If you’re not familiar with them, think White Castle, but a TN version that’s a bit more “classy.”

Gear and Nutrition

My nutrition for this race was a bit different. Normally I wouldn’t eat within a few hours of the start, but seeing as how I hadn’t kept any food down for about 18 hours I made an exception and managed to get down a Hammer Bar on the way to the race. That was the last of any sort of solid food I would do, though, and I did the entire race on Perpeteum and a few aid station drinks. In total, I only got down 700-800 calories, but I actually never got hungry or felt like I ran out of fuel (just water near the end).

I had my usual Dirty Girl Gaiters and Hammer shirt, but I also tried out a lot of new gear for this race. This was the first time I had ever gone this far in training or a race in the La Sportiva Helios 2.0, and they did great. They’re pretty lightweight with minimal cushioning and protection, but they had outstanding grip and were just right to get the job done here. I had zero issues with them and they’ll be my go-to for anything that distance or less that doesn’t have a lot of scree or other debris-covered surfaces to deal with.

One thing I had yet to find was a pair of running shorts that I really, really loved. I came in contact with XOSKIN a few months ago, but wanted to really test their stuff out before recommending them in any way. This race was the final test. I wore their 4.0 shorts and 2.0 long-sleeved top as base layers, and also used their 5.0 compression socks. I had zero chafing or blistering, was comfortable from the 30 degree start to the sunny finish in the 50s, and, well, the shorts didn’t require any sort of “adjusting” down there a single time during the race. Which is amazing.

The last new piece of gear was the UD Mono Belt. I’ve always been a big fan of handhelds for < 100K, but I’ve started using the belt lately and love it. I can carry more with it and hardly notice it’s there. I love having my hands free.

Disclosure: I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned above. Please see here for a full list of my sponsors.

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6 thoughts on “2017 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler

  • December 26, 2017 at 8:28 pm
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    If we race there again, I will start out slower than you next time and see what happens. I actually ran my fastest road marathons after many failed attempts by starting slower and negative splitting the course. Very good insight. Nice race report. Hopefully catch you on the trails again in the future.

    Reply
    • December 26, 2017 at 11:18 pm
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      Haha we’ll both see who can go the slowest at that start. Really, though, I think I have yet to actually do a negative split in any race. It’s really something I need to keep working on. Hope to see you there, at another race, or just around the trails in TN! Have a Happy New Year

      Reply
  • December 27, 2017 at 12:34 am
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    Sounds like a great race. I am at home suffering from a stomach bug that has been through the whole family and I just signed up for the UTA100 here in Australia. It is one of our premier Ultra events. I would like to get to Chattanooga to do this one day.

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    • December 28, 2017 at 11:47 am
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      This was really my first time I’ve experienced this: watching in horror as the bug bounced from kid to kid, strengthening each time before it was finally ready to come after me. Best of luck with your recovery and UTA100! I’d love to get down to do that one day, and hope you can make it to Chattanooga.

      Reply
  • December 28, 2017 at 4:21 pm
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    Awesome race report John! And very impressive to (just now) hear that you were running under a stomach bug. Good to run with (behind…) you out there. Maybe see you out there in years to come! Happy Holidays.

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    • December 28, 2017 at 6:26 pm
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      Thanks Luke, and congrats again on your race! Extremely impressive that that was your first ultra, especially that you seem to have run such a smart race. That was my first official, “normal” ultra two years ago and my race was definitely not smart then. See you out there again sometime, and I suspect you may not be behind me next time.

      Reply

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