Trail Tested

The yell rang out just as the morning light rose on top of Lookout Mountain.

A woman, dressed in a grey sweatshirt, black running shorts and grey running shoes, stepped at the edge of an ankle-high creek. She stared at the stream, a body of water that two days before had probably been a trickle, but now ran like a faucet turned on high.

“Not again,” she said, almost sighing. Her yell had almost turned to a whimper.

I plowed through, not stopping, my trail shoes and socks soaking by the time I stomped through the icy-cold water.

It is what it is, I thought.

ust hours earlier while getting out of my SUV, I asked myself if it was really worth it. The December cold mixed with a cutting wind on top of Lookout Mountain sliced through my FILA jacket and North Face gloves.

I got to this point by my own fault and my own insanity. Nine months before, I weighed 225 pounds, ate Double Quarter Pounders with cheese at McDonald’s and camped out on the couch watching football and drinking beer on Saturday nights. But it occurred to me that wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. I have a love of nature and a love for being outdoors. I got into the gym, shed 45 pounds and found love in mountain biking, trail running and backpacking.

In mid-December, Rock/Creek put on a show guaranteed to take off holiday weight — the Lookout Mountain 50-miler and 10k trail run. More than 230 people signed up for the 10k event and another 150 or so of the truly insane took on the 50-miler.

I decided on the 10k. I was insane, but not that insane. It was going to be my first trail race and it was also the longest race I had ever run.

Four months earlier, I ran with coworkers in the Chattanooga Mud Run. A few weeks later, I ran the Warrior Dash. Both were 5k races — half the distance I would go that morning.

I had never run this course at Covenant College and there is one thing completely different in trail running than an obstacle course. Mother Nature will screw with you.

That is what she did this day. For two days straight it had rained. Race director Randy Whorton told me in some parts of the course he laid down markers the day before. In some of those places there were trails. The day I ran they became streams.

At 8 a.m., we jogged our way down the pavement parking lot until we hit a double-wide trail that looked almost like a cross-country course. The pace was slow and we ran grouped up like a herd of sheep. I’m slow, not the fastest runner by any means, but it was still slow even to me.

Then, after a mile, the group broke open. Some people fell behind, some others sped up, and I found myself somewhere in the middle. That was fine with me. My goal? Not to finish last.

A little after a mile, I found myself doing something I hadn’t thought possible nine months ago. I began passing people. One after another I passed other runners and then I found another runner striding at my same speed. I fell behind and paced with him like a NASCAR driver drafting at the Daytona 500.

Soon we were running next to a creek bed on a single track. It was my first moment of beauty in those woods and the reason I started trail running in the first place. Ferns draped over the creek and the trail. Golden flower buds pointed toward the sky.

Then we hit the water. The creek stood in the way and people yelled with surprise as they got to it. I made a decision to run through it without even thinking. I ran through the creek and wondered if my wet socks would blister. Then the trail turned. And I ran through the creek again.

Water roared down the trail the whole way. It was nothing but a 100-foot streambed. One woman tiptoed across the side of the trail, avoiding the water. I ran through all 100 feet of it. Got to the top of the hill, turned and saw more water.

The trail went through the creek again and again. I lost count of the creek crossings. Maybe it was four, five or six.

We came to a hill so steep no one could run it. I started walking. When I got to the top I took off running again. We were on the back end of the 10k race. I could feel it coming. I knew it was the end. At the top of the hill, I saw the finish line ahead. I took off running once more and sprinted across the hard pavement toward the finish.

I crossed over. I stood at the finish line for a few minutes looking at it. I ran six miles, I wasn’t dead and the adrenaline pumped through me. I was on a runner’s high.

And I wished I could keep going.

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