The Lookout Mountain 50 in Chattanooga, Tenn., was a race I’d been following for the past few years, but each December just seemed to be the wrong time for me to sign up for a 50-miler. This year, though, as I started to call my season a wrap at the end of September, I heard from some other ultra-running friends who also wanted to do the race. So, since misery loves company, I signed up.
As December approached, I dreaded having to prep for the race. Let’s face it: No one really needs more obligations during the “holidaze” season. What’s a girl to do? Simple really: Train and run free. That became my mantra. I wanted to run Lookout Mountain absolutely free. Free of expectations, free of onuses, free of tangibles and free to explore.
Race: Lookout Mountain 50
Organizers: Wild Trails
Race Director: Randy Whorton
Location/Course: The Lookout Mountain 50 begins at the spectacular Covenant College campus and is known for its scenic and historic climb to its namesake peak. There’s challenging terrain, creek crossings, highly runnable sections, 120-foot Lula Falls and the infamous rope handrail that runners use to traverse Eagle Cliff. The course covers a little over 7,100 feet of elevation gain over the 50 miles on predominantly single track trails. The course is a 22.5-mile loop to start/finish, then out to Long Branch for 34 miles, where you do a lollipop for 4 miles before heading back to the start/finish. My Garmin Fenix 3 clocked 45.3 miles with 7,165 feet of total elevation gain.
Time Limit: 13 hours (50 mile)
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Goals & Training
Goals: I had none. Finishing the course is always the top priority, of course, no matter the distance and difficulty. But this was probably the most nonchalant attitude I’ve had entering into a race. Maybe I can chalk that up to my strong performance and running base for the year, or perhaps to my experience with this distance — or, for that matter, the simple fact that this was my last race for 2016 and I was already looking ahead to 2017.
Whatever it was, on the surface I was at ease, but in my head I was a little freaked out at my lack of engagement. To be completely honest, I just couldn’t nail it, so I decided not to worry and just go run.
As for training, I was logging 50 to 55 miles per week with an average elevation gain of 6,500 feet, which turned out to be enough.
As mentioned above, my attitude was blasé and to top it off the weather forecast on race day called for rain with a minimum temperature of 39 degrees and maximum temperature of 59 degrees. Humidity was 96 percent, which put a damper on things…literally. I tried my best not to have a poor attitude as we lined up at the start, freezing in the downpour that had commenced.
Covenant College to Craven’s House (8 miles)
I started the race feeling pretty shitty. I kept trying to tell myself I really, really did like running in the rain, and it was “only” 50 miles. About 3 miles in, I was sweating/overheating like I was trapped in an oven, so I pulled over, stripped two layers, packed my jacket and decided to run in my T-shirt. As I ran some single track trail with a thick leaf cover on the ground, it was hard to find footing. The trail was technical and required all my concentration; then about 5 miles into the race, I started to see the Chattanooga Valley from the corner of my eye. It was a beautiful sight! As rain trickled down, a thick fog covered the valley below. I stopped to take in the view and breathe — really, deeply breathe — and for the first time in 24 hours my faith was restored. In that instant, I knew why I loved trail running!
Cavern’s House to Nature Center (14.8 miles)
As I made my way past the aid station, to my right was a large Civil War memorial fixed to the rock. I continued to take it all in and move forward. The next few miles of the course were uneventful, as we made our way to the Nature Center and then onto the Lookout Creek aid station. This was the first aid station I stopped at, and as I turned to one of the volunteers and asked for a whole banana, I was told they were all out of bananas. WTF!?! We were only 14 miles into the race, and they had run out of one of the most basic and crucial aid station foods? I don’t have time for this, I told myself and continued on. But my brain wouldn’t let go: How does an aid station run out of bananas at only 14 miles into a race? Shake it off, girl!
The thing to know about me is that I typically only fuel on bananas and Coke at aid stations during ultras, at least for the first 50 miles. So, this made me just a little mad. Then started a series of arguments in my brain about how unreasonable I was being when I asked for a whole banana and then acting like a princess when I didn’t get it…blah, blah, blah. Finally, my brain concluded that a banana would not make or break my race and that, when running ultras, we all know we must be self-sufficient.
Nature Center to Covenant College Start/f\Finish (22.5 miles)
I call this “the grind” section. This is the section of the course when you start to ascend. You hit a 500-foot climb over 3/4 mile, then some rolling hills before you start a 2-mile climb with about 1,200 feet of gain that snakes and winds. It seems almost never ending, as you can’t see where it crests. My advice to anyone running Lookout Mountain 50: This section is best tackled when you put your head down and keep plugging at it one step at a time. Before long, I found myself at the start/finish aid station. I refilled my water, put on my windbreaker, had some warm soup, and was in and out to the latter half of the race.
Covenant College to Lula Lake (29.9 miles)
This section of the course, on ATV trails, was fast but extremely muddy. A dense fog blurred the views, and the persistent drizzle returned. The only saving grace was that the water level in the creek crossings was low. As I approached a split in the trail, I made a left turn to go off course for a pee break, and as I turned to duck into the woods, three other runners followed me.
“Timeout dudes! I’m going to go pee. Go back and stay to your right.”
It was getting hard to see the trail markers, which by the way, are limited and in-ground. As I made my way back on course, another runner came up behind me and said he had gotten lost missing a turn on the trail. As we approached Lula Lake aid station, I was so caught up in making sure I was following the course that I completely missed Lula Falls. How do you miss a 120-foot waterfall? Well, I wasn’t going back to find it.
I was in and out of Lula Lake aid station and made my way to the infamous rope climb up Eagle Cliff, arriving on the opposite side of Lookout Mountain above Chattanooga Valley. I could barely see 50 feet ahead of me; dense fog made the woods eerily spooky. The entire time I had a vision of the legend of Sleepy Hollow and the headless horseman in my mind’s eye. Must run fast and get out of the woods to the finish before daylight fades!
Long Branch Loop (Long Branch Aid Station to Long Branch Aid Station – 38.2 miles)
I got to the aid station and asked for Coke. They were all out of Coke. WTF!?! Before my brain could repeat the sequence of earlier in the day, I decided to make a run for the trail.
This is what I call the “douchey” section of the course. It’s a 4.2-mile lollipop that runs on private property, so you pass a lake, some homes, a barn and rolling hills. I was feeling sluggish and with much irritation made my way back to the aid station, still a bit whiny about not getting any Coke. This is when I should’ve grabbed my headlamp, as the race details clearly indicated that runners will need a headlamp for the trip back to Covenant College. But I was being stubborn, and as I looked at the time, doing the math in my head, I felt confident I’d be at the finish before full dark. In hindsight, this was a bad move, as I underestimated the rainclouds and the thick fog cover.
Long Branch to Lula Lake (42.5 miles)
I made my way back to Lula Lake with the goal of getting my arse to the finish before all daylight faded, but as they say, the best laid plans fail. I was running steady until I started the decent from Eagle Cliff. Now, I’ve run some pretty treacherous trails, and never once has my spirt waivered — except here I was standing atop a nasty clifftop, heartbeat racing, unsure how I would make it down alive. I could barely see where I was stepping. It was muddy as hell, and the slick rocks made the footing impossible. I considered sliding down the rope. If only I was Tarzan!
Instead, I sat on my butt, clutching to the rope for dear life and slid down the cliff. Whew! As I approached Lula Lake aid station once more I had a pleasant surprise when I happened to look to my right and saw the gorgeous Lula Falls! A thick fog danced around the cascade and the loud sound of crashing water filled the air. How the hell did I miss this on my way out?
I refilled my water at the aid station and turned to ask one of the volunteers: How far to the finish?
Volunteer: About 7 miles. If you hustle you can make it before it goes dark, but get moving quick.
All I remember was saying thanks and making a b-line for the trail, with a fading voice in the background saying, “Get it girl!”
Lula Lake to Finish Covenant College (50 miles)
I’d barely made a 1/4 mile from Lula Lake aid station when I came upon a fork in the trail that I didn’t remember seeing earlier in the day. I stopped while my eyes tried to peer through the fog for a course marker. Just then, another runner came up behind me and we both stood looking at each other.
Runner: Now what?
Me: I don’t know. I don’t see a marker.
Runner (throwing this handheld to the ground): I hate this shit! We’re 43 miles in and no markers. Why do they do this? Every year, they mark it less and less.
Me: Well, let’s walk a bit and figure it out.
As we hiked a few paces, I noticed some homes along the ridge that I remembered seeing earlier in the day.
Me: I think we’re on the right trail.
Runner: I see something! There’s a runner up ahead, and look a maker buried in the mud!
All was not lost! With that, he was gone and I slugged onwards, making my way across a road and heading back to the gate I’d come through on my way out that morning. I was on the ATV trails again. UGH! It was impossible to run. Not only was I tracking pounds of mud in my shoes, but it was like running on ice. So, I decided to hike, picking each step carefully to prevent wiping out.
I made my way to the single track and noticed I could barely see anything. It was foggy, and the rain had picked up some. All daylight was fading. It was like the moment when your headlamp flickers as a warning before it dies all together. I mentally kicked myself in the rear for not having picked up my headlamp at Long Branch. Gah!
Four more miles to go, or was it 3? Shut up and run! I hustled in the dark as best I could without a headlamp and no end in sight. I stopped to look behind me in hopes of seeing another runner with a light, so I could follow him or her to the finish. Nothing. As I rounded the next corner, I heard someone cheering, “Only a quarter mile to the finish!” I relaxed into a steady jog, and the lights heading up the slope towards the finish came into focus. Hey, I can see so much better with some light!
10:15:19 was my official finish time, making this a 50-mile distance PR for me by 15 minutes and a RRCA Female Master Championship win!
I came to realize that being self-reliant is always the best policy! Things won’t always go as planned, but that’s when we can all use an attitude adjustment. “Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure.”
A few quick pointers for anyone running Lookout Mountain 50 for the first time:
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.