by Nathan Holland
I first ran Lookout Mountain 50 Mile race in 2012. It was the culmination of my first full year of trail and ultra races. I loved #LM50…Well, I hated and loved it because I hurt, like couldn’t hardly walk kind of hurt, for about three weeks after the race. That race taught me a LOT about the importance of patience for that kind of distance and also my most useful ultra-mantra…“If I’m hiking, I’m eating or drinking.” I used to get overly frustrated when I had to slow to hike/walk because I felt like I was losing so much time, but using those sections to consume more calories has changed my racing.
This year I was hoping to improve my 2013 time of 8:10:58 with sub 8-hour finish. Coming off of Upchuck 50k in November I was feeling great mentally. Physically my body hurt and my legs felt like someone had run over them a few times with their car. So I sat down with the elevation profile, my previous time for each section and broke down each section from aid station-to-aid station to build a Strategy Spreadsheet. I tried to think about each section in terms of ideal conditions and nutrition through the first 30 miles and then what I would be capable of without completely blowing up. I trudged through the entire course with no expectations other than to see what the final estimated completion time was. It came out to 6:51, about 30 seconds under the existing CR. I didn’t really think it was possible, but I figured it was worth trying.
I woke up race day to find the weather predictions spot on; the ground was slightly damp from a small rain storm that must have rolled through that evening and temperatures were in the upper-30’s. The 50 mile race begins at 7:30 AM treating runners to a beautiful sunrise as they traverse Lookout’s historic Bluff Trail.
The start carries runners around a short section of paved trail and road before turning onto a small single trail. This little path can be treacherous due to the poor morning light, heavy leaf coverage and loose footing so it’s best to give yourself a little distance if you’re running in a pack. Once onto the main trail there is less leaf coverage and the single track opens up to a wider trail allowing for plenty of room to pass and some nice rocky sections. When you get to the technical Bluff Trail, a 4-foot wide route on the edge of 60-foot high or more bluffs and under equally high cliffs, you get the most beautiful view of the Tennessee River. The rocks strewn across the trails are easily runnable but require all of your attention and can lead to some pretty serious injuries if you’re not paying attention.
The course is ALL downhill after the first aid station and it’s possible to make some very fast time. It’s not so steep that your quads feel trashed after bombing down the last few miles.
The bottom of Lookout Mountain is around 700-feet elevation with the start/finish area sitting at approximately 2,100-feet of elevation. Shortly after the second aid station runners begin a 500-foot climb over 3/4 mile, and after roughly 2 more miles of rolling but runnable trail runners begin the biggest climb of the day. The 1,200-foot climb over 2-miles is broken up into almost two perfectly even 1-mile sections. I knew that I would have to put in a good effort to stay on pace to reach the 22.5 mile aid station for the course record and was still felling relatively good. I pushed hard because I was worried someone was behind me but every time I turned to look all I saw was squirrels, chipmunks or some other kind of wildlife. There are some amazing rock lines and some pretty grand views in this section. As I approached the third aid station, which is the start/finish area, I could hear Race Director Randy Whorton on the speaker saying, “Here comes the first place runner…and…and there he goes…to the restrooms”and the laughter that followed. When I headed out again, Randy shared a few hundred yards with me checking to see how I was feeling and checking to make sure I was eating and drinking properly. “Eat more than you think you need!” he reminded me.
The next section is single and double track with some rollers and a few decent creek crossings. I decided to focus on running within my ability and as I made my way to and through the land trust, I took a moment to look back at its best feature, the beautiful water fall that is just past the aid station. Then I used the rope handrail to climb to the bluff, traversed it and turned onto the F4 trail, an area that was heavily damaged during the 2011 tornado.
At the next aid station, I started the Long Branch loop which is always more difficult than I choose to remember. The climbs are relatively small compared to the rest of the course but the tight-twisty trails are strewn with rocks and roots. I lost 13 minutes off the time I was hoping to finish and was feeling a little low. At the next aid station, I wasn’t in the mood to eat or drink although I was behind on my calories too.
As I set out from this aid station I battled the urge to stop eating, but I knew I needed the calories if I wanted to hold off a really bad bonk and have any kind of energy to finish. I don’t think I ever realized how much stronger the mind is than body until I witnessed my wife’s determination to have both of our children completely natural. Her mental and physical battle made me realize that with the right mental attitude and resolution the mind can force body to follow suit. Remembering this has really helped me when I get low in a race, so at that point I made the decision to eat and to make the most of my last 12-miles despite how I felt. The return trails are the stick of the lollipop portion of the race and since I hadn’t run “with” anyone for the past 36-miles, I was looking forward to seeing some friendly faces on the return trip.
I saw many runners along this section which helped me push on and I finally realized that I had a very strong likelihood of winning the race. With as much resolution as I could muster I found a good rhythm and kept moving all the way back up the college. When I was within earshot of the finish line festivities, I got a little chill knowing that I was about to finish on top of the podium and almost an hour faster than my 50-mile personal record.