The Upchuck 50k race took place in Soddy-Daisy just outside of Chattanooga, TN, on Saturday Nov. 10th, and I was lucky enough to have the chance to compete. I had grown to be friends with Wild Trails race director Randy Whorton over the past year of trying to collaborate on a Chattanooga Trails guidebook, and thus kept asking him if I was to fly out for a race, which one should it be? He always answered that the Upchuck was one of the finest ultra courses around, and so I booked my week long work trip around the early November race.
The Upchuck is heralded as an underground and low-key race of sorts, in that it stays small in nature by design, and has minimal aid stations or course markings other than the ubiquitous white blazes on trees that mark the Cumberland Trail, which it follows for its entirety. It is a point to point course which traverses three major river gorges – Rock Creek, Possum Creek, and Soddy Creek – each providing incredible terrain which had a unique feel compared to the other gorges. Adding to the inherent beauty was the fact that the under-canopy was still lit up in bright fall yellows, oranges, and reds, while the upper canopy had already mostly shed its leaves, providing openings to greater vistas.
The idea for the race came about after two local runners – Matt Sims and Chad Womack – set out about five years ago to run this roughly 30 mile segment of the Cumberland Trail. The story is summed up nicely in the video below made by my friend Andrew Kornylak, but the short version is that at mile 18 the trail crosses a highway where there is a convenience store. Feeling iffy and low on energy, Chad bought an excessive amount of munchies in the convenience store and proceeded to scarf his entire supply in a few short minutes, despite whatever running wisdom might have suggested that he do otherwise. A few short miles down the trail and the belly purging began, not to be completed until their run was over, roughly 12 miles later. They later decided that the run was such a classic tour that it deserved its own race, and the name “Upchuck” of course seemed appropriate.
My trip to Chattanooga began with a rainy and drizzly day which nixed the bouldering I had wanted to do and instead left my friend Luke Laeser and I scoping out the beginning of the course with a nice hike. We meandered a couple miles up Rock Creek gorge, mostly glassing birds, which Luke is fairly obsessed with. I quickly realized that this trail is very hard to follow, due to the fact that the leaves had mostly fallen off the trees and blanketed the entire ground, including trail, in about six inches of crunchy, rock-hiding, secrecy. And there were also tons of rocks, making the footing very uncertain. And both leaves and rocks were shiny wet from the rain, making everything slick as snot. The trail is also not frequently traveled, meaning that looking down at your feet it is really easy to get lost, as the ground looks the same everywhere. Only when you are looking up to mark where the blazes take you can you discern the path. So, despite feeling very confident coming in due to perceived advantages like super low altitude, a relatively mild amount of gain compared to what I typically travel in the Sangres, and an elevation profile which showed climbs maxing out at around 1,500 ft., I was beginning to worry that this race might be harder than I thought.
The next day I set out to run the final 12 mile section with Randy as he marked the course so I would have an idea of what kind of running would be possible over this stretch. But Randy was marking the entire course, and had fallen behind schedule for where I was supposed to meet up with him, so I instead ran an out and back of about 10 miles back towards him through the Possum Creek segment, the second segment of the race. It was a much nicer day and I was blown away by how awesome this trail was! There were rocks, boulders, and cliffs everywhere, complete with waterfalls, creeks, bridges, and never ending ups and downs. It was spectacular! The trail was dryer now, and not as slick, but the leaves still blanketed everything, and on one downhill section where I was ripping along, trying to test what race pace may feel like, I stepped on a hidden rock which rolled under my foot, sending me off balance. I tried to correct but the leaves slid under my other foot and I knew I was in for a spill. The trail switch-backed at that moment and I took a dive off the trail into a pile of leaves onto my hip. Luckily I wasn’t hurt bad, but got a big bruise and raspberry on my right butt cheek. Nice – basically what I would call a “twice-a-year-fall” within minutes of starting. Of course, after the race I might need to change my terms; it turns out this was actually only a “ten-times-in-one-weekend,” type fall.
Race morning came two days later and it was chilly out, around 40 degrees, but the weather for the day was perfect – sunny and a high of around 70. All the runners piled onto a school bus at the finish for a shuttle up to the starting trailhead and were treated to the silliness of Matt dressed up as a hillbilly cracking jokes and Chad telling us about the course on a spotty microphone which I’m pretty sure led to nobody hearing most of what was said. When we got to the trailhead everyone piled out and lined up for a group photo, and then someone yelled out: “3, 2, 1, go!”
The single track trail started less than 100 feet from where we were standing, so I intended to go out fast and not be caught behind slower folk, but when we hit the trail I was actually in 1st, which is not where I wanted to be. I would have preferred to settle in behind someone else and judge the early pace, but instead I was setting it, and couldn’t get a good look behind me at the chasers. I decided to hammer away for the first mile, mostly cause I was really cold in shorts and a t-shirt and needed to warm up, but also just to keep the chasers honest and find out who would stick with me and be in the mix for the day. Turns out only three other guys kept up. Eventually I slowed into the pace I wanted, figuring that was the only wise thing to do, and the others could pass if they wanted.
I led for about three miles as we climbed Rock Creek gorge, until it was time for some Clif bloks and I let Cody Goodwin, who was right on my heels the whole time, go ahead. He quickly disappeared ahead, which was fine, cause it was still early. I kept my pace where I wanted in 2nd as we crossed the creek and climbed up and down some awesome cliffs on steep goat trails and fixed wooden ladders. At the top of the long climb we neared the aid station and I caught up to Cody, as I was running uphill faster than he was. He mentioned needing to back off the pace, which I took in my head to mean it was time to hammer and open a gap. If I was destined to be the frontrunner, then I wanted a gap.
We pulled into the first aid station, which according to my watch was at seven miles instead of the advertised eight, and I filled a bottle and bolted out of there faster than Cody or Michael Plummer, who was in 3rd. I figured I got about 30 seconds on those guys there just by being faster through the aid. Now that I had a gap I was focused on growing it on the flat few miles of trail which followed, and ran pretty fast through this dark and spooky forest, often running under 7-minute miles. I never intended to run this pace, but it felt really good at the time, and I was feeling very confident that I could run away for a win, so I ran fast. At one uphill section I saw them behind me hiking the switchbacks as I ran them near the top and figured I was up to a couple minute lead, which only inspired me to keep hammering.
The big downhill into Possum Creek was steep and leafy with uncertain footing, but I had previewed this section two days before, so I still flew. Crossing the creek I attacked the huge hill up to the point on the other side. At one point I had to pee, so I stopped at an overlook at the top of a hill to pee, watching down the hill for them the whole time. They never showed and I figured now I had at least three minutes if not more. But, I was running way too hard for this early in the race and settled into a more “recovery” like pace for the next few miles to the second aid station.
The aid station came at 16.5 miles according to my garmin, rather than the 18 it was supposed to be at, so I started to assume that the course was either short, or at least short according to my watch. This gave me huge confidence, as I was way up on my projected pace. Energy wise I felt totally fine, but my hamstrings had begun to tighten a bit. I wasn’t too worried, since in almost all my races they have tightened up but I have been able to continue running without them cramping, it just becomes an endure the pain type of finish. I was ready for that again, and thought I only had about 10 miles to the finish.
About a mile of paved road followed the aid station where there is a highway that needs to be crossed at an overpass. I ran up to the overpass and could look down the half mile or so of road since the aid and saw that Michael had moved in front of Cody and that they were just beginning the road. I had about half a mile, or about four minutes on them. This let me down a little, cause I wished it was more, but I hurried to duck off the road onto the trail again before they got a glimpse of me and knew the gap.
This next section of trail, the Soddy Creek/Deep Creek segment, in theory started with a long gradual downhill according to the elevation profile, but really the trail was a constant up and down. I had intended to hammer downhill as hard as I could, cause that’s usually my strength, but instead I just ended up hammering up and down, which was taxing. For some reason I didn’t adjust and slow down, probably cause I was running scared in the lead. This part of the trail was by far the hardest to follow, it seemed as if there was not really any trail at all, just blazes on trees through a forest. Around mile 20 I tripped for the first time and went down hard on a bed of pine needles. It didn’t hurt, but my hamstrings cramped up, balling in pain. I was forced to sit on the ground and stretch them before I could get up and carry on, albeit at a slower pace. The tightness and impending cramping in my hamstrings caused me to alter my gait a bit, not picking up my feet as much, dragging them more. So of course it’s not a surprise that I went down again soon, and then again. I still felt fine energy wise, but couldn’t seem to stay on my feet. I had to stop a few times and stretch my legs for 10-20 seconds on logs next to the trail to keep them from cramping. I was popping salt pills until I ran out, about six in half an hour’s time, but it made no difference. And the whole time I kept thinking I was closer to the finish than I was because of the early watch readings, so I chose not to let up and instead gambled that I could suffer it out and pull it off.
Around mile 24 I reached the top of the Soddy Creek gorge and realized that the course would not be short, and that I was still a long ways from finishing. At this time I also tripped again and did a full superman into the dirt, yard sale-ing my water bottles and hat, and picking up a good bruise on my ribs. I got up, gathered my things, started running slower again and promptly ate it again. Hidden rocks under what felt like a foot of leaves. I laid there for a few seconds, knowing I was losing massive time now, falling apart, and realized that the writing was on the wall. I was gonna be “that guy” – the late race carnage that the people with smart race plans pass just before the finish as they are still able to cruise on by. Last race I was the benefactor of some serious late race carnage, but this time I was the one who blew the strategy and was going to get caught. But, I dug deep, told myself not to give up no matter what, and kept plugging along across the leafy slope, although I slowed to a pace where I felt I wouldn’t hurt myself.
Moments later I was at the bridge crossing Soddy Creek, which was freshly built, but there were signs saying “DO NOT CROSS,” yellow flagging tape barring the way, and we had been told in the pre-race briefing on the bus to skip the last two bridges and cross the creeks instead. The bridge looked to be in perfect shape and was very tempting, but I decided if I won the race by 30 seconds and used the bridge, then I would feel bad, so I went down to the creek. It had some deep pools, but I thought I could rock-hop across. I stepped on the first rock and it was mossy and slick and I slipped right into the pool up to my neck or so in water. What a shock! I tried standing up but the bottom was huge round, slick rocks so I couldn’t stand and rather sort of crawled my was across in the water, then crawled out the other side, swearing. Someone was there and offered me a towel, but really it felt good to be wet and cool, so I declined, and started plodding up the steep trail on the other side. One switchback later I looked back and saw Michael and Cody right at the bridge, and they ran across. At the time it really pissed me off, but it turns out I think I may have been the only person all day who ignored the bridges and went for the swim. Oh well.
Seeing the chasers re-invigorated me not to give up and I ran around the bend and down into Deep Creek, where there were lots of climbers and hikers hanging out and cheering. Everyone kept saying, “Yay, you’re first place,” and I just wanted to laugh cause I knew it wouldn’t last. At Deep Creek I again skipped the bridge, but was able to rock-hop without getting wet this time. However, just as I was crawling out of the streambed, Michael ran across the bridge and passed me. I told Michael that he shouldn’t have used the bridge, sort of snapped at him a little bit, but in the end it didn’t matter at all. I latched onto him heading up the hill a bit and we chatted and he was a totally cool dude, so there was no point in snapping at him. I couldn’t compete with him for the win at that point anyway, and after some reflection I realized that going through the creeks had added a great level of experience to my run that I was thankful for, and so didn’t regret at all.
Michael slowly pulled away even as we hiked up the hill and there was nothing I could do. I was totally spent and was walking it in. A few minutes later Cody passed me and I knew that I could now relax, and mentally I was able to enjoy the last mile or so of trail more, knowing I was not in some death chase. Even walking the last mile of trail it felt like I was drunk, my stabilizer muscles were so cashed out I couldn’t stay balanced. I fell once while walking and laughed. Eventually I hit the Hot Water road, which was a huge relief as I was now off the trail, but I tripped on the edge of the asphalt as I was stepping up onto the road and fell again into the road. I wasn’t laughing anymore.
I thought that running downhill on a road would feel good at this point, but unfortunately it sure did not. I had stubbed my toes so many times that running down the steep road just put all the pressure on my toes and toenails, and that hurt bad. I was glad I was not still racing, as that could have been miserable. I jogged downhill into town until I was a few blocks away from the finish and realized that I had a chance to get in under five hours if I hurried, so I picked up the pace and ran hard to the end. I finished in 4:58:59 for 3rd place in my first 50k race. Nothing to be ashamed of really!
I can easily say that this was the best and most enjoyable race that I had participated in all year. Hanging out in the sun for hours afterwards drinking home-brewed beer from the keg and meeting countless great people that I had never met before was an unforgettable experience. Having the opportunity to be there until the very last person finished, cheering and congratulating every one of them, really made me feel good. Winning hundreds of dollars of free gear was an awesome bonus as well!