Sunday, December 10, 2017

Fiery Gizzard Trail Marathon

Foster Falls from the far side

One of the many little streams going over the edge of the gorge

Little waterfall

Almost to AS1

The jumbled rocks below AS1

The descent on the Dog Hole trail

Little falls just before AS2

Photo at Raven's Rock

The waterfall right before AS3 (after AS1)

View from the rim after Laurel Gorge

Foster Falls at the end of the day
Saturday (11/25) was the Fiery Gizzard trail marathon near Tracy City, Tennessee, southeast of Nashville.  The race course was an out-and-back trail along the Fiery Gizzard Gorge, in the South Cumberland State Park, starting near Foster Falls, and heading north to the Grundy day use area.  I drove down on Friday and camped at the campground right by the race start.  The weather was close to perfect for the race, starting out at about 40 and getting up to about 60.  I was cautiously optimistic that it would be a good race, since I had a good training routine during the fall, and had done well at the Stone Steps 27k trail race. 
Only 24 of us started the race.  I made my way to the very back of the pack to avoid starting too fast.  The first stretch of the course followed the rim of the gorge and was very runnable.  I chatted with the other runners and relaxed.  The first major obstacle was Laurel Gorge.  The pre-race meeting had stressed that we were responsible for knowing the course, and had warned us about several potential problem areas where we could get lost.  The trail was supposed to be tricky coming out of Laurel Gorge.  We knew we were at the gorge when the trail just dropped over the rim, making two and three feet drops a step down loose rocks.  Everyone slowed way down.  The trail was harder to see on the other side because it was just a jumble of boulders, but the blazes nicely indicated the trail.  The climb out was steep and rocky.  The trail after the Laurel Gorge crossed through rolling upland.  There wasn’t too much memorable about this stretch.  I hung out with small groups of runners, trying to conserve energy, and eat miles.  As we got closer to Aid Station 1 (AS1), once again the trail dropped into a gorge and curved around the head of the cove.  Here, the trail went behind a waterfall that continued down off another drop off.  I really enjoyed that section, which was new to the trail from last year.  We climbed back up to the top for a short stretch .  AS1 was right below the top of the gorge, on the descent into McAlloyd gorge.  This was the steepest and most rugged descent.  Loose rock was positioned in the fashion of steps.  Just below the aid station, the upper branches of a fallen tree covered the steps, requiring careful foot placement.  This was where we started to see the half-marathoners coming through.  They had started on the north end about a half hour after we did.  At the bottom of the gorge, McAlloyd Branch went over a waterfall, and we started back to the top.  The climb up was just as steep, but it had handrails and wooden steps in places. 
Shortly after topping out on the ridge was the spur trail to Raven’s Rock.  This was a dramatic overlook over the gorge.  The trail out to the point was probably the smoothest, flattest, and best trail for running in the park.  I took some pictures from the overlook and then headed on.  This marked what felt like the halfway point between the start and the turn around on the north end.  Through this point I had been running well, staying with other runners, and relaxing.  Coming out of Raven’s Rock, we got on the Dog Hole trail.  This trail ran along the ridge for most of its length before descending into the gorge.  I ran the ridge top stretch well.  The descent was a jumble of jagged rocks.  There wasn’t much running here, or at the bottom of the gorge.  The trail followed the Fiery Gizzard Creek up until there was a fork in the creek and trail.  This was the Grundy Day Use Area.  More day hikers were along these trails, but it was not too crowded.  We followed the creek up past some waterfalls, until the trail curved away and came to the trailhead.  This was the turn around and aid station #2.  I ate a bit, filled up the camelbak, took some snacks, and headed out.  It was fun to see where everyone was as we passed coming into or out of the turn around.  I ran what I could on the downhill sections, but overall, it was too rocky to do much running in the gorge. 
Climbing back out on the ridge on the Dog Hole Trail, I ran a bit of the small downhills, but I could feel my energy draining.  I was alone for this stretch, and it felt like a long time.  I kept watching for Raven’s Rock, but it took a while to come.  The sun was out, and it was bright heading south.  It was warm, but not too unpleasant.  I got to the turn for Raven’s Rock, and decided to take one of the gels I had stashed.  It was called ‘wholesome peanut butter’ and tasted like anything but.  I gagged a little, but followed it with a lot of water and a pretzel to get rid of the taste.  I knew I should be feeling better and should be running the stretch out to Raven’s Rock, but I didn’t have much in me.  I chatted with the hikers enjoying the view, had someone take my picture, and then trudged back up the point.  The anticipation of climbing down and up McAlloyd gorge took out any motivation to run now.  I got to the descent, and actually took that really well, moving fast on the stairs and rock with the use of my poles.  The poles were a big help on the climb, but the loose rocks made it challenging to find a good spot to plant them.  I climbed up to Aid Station 3 on the rocky steps and through the downed branches.  I took almost three minutes at the aid station to fill my camelbak and eat.  I drank too much Gatorade too quickly, but it tasted so good and necessary.  I probably had three or so large cups. 
A runner that I had talked to earlier caught up to me at the aid station, and we headed out together.  It was very nice to run with someone, and to have someone in sight.  We passed behind the waterfall, climbed out onto the ridgetop, and set our sights on the Laurel Branch gorge.  There were a couple other minor landmarks (a fence crossing, a small waterfall) in my mind before there, but that was the giant looming in my mind.  The other runner walked faster than me.  I would gain on her slightly when I would run the downs, but overall, she pulled away and I ran less and less.  I was getting to the point where it was work, and it took mental focus to keep my attitude up.  It got to where even keeping up a fast walk was getting to be taxing.  The sun was mostly in my face, making long shadows, as it crept down towards the horizon.  The race took place on Central Time, which meant that sunset was at 4:30.  The race cutoff was supposed to be at 4:00 pm, which was eight hours.  (They let three people finish after 4:00 pm.)  I didn’t want to be out on the rugged trails around or after sunset.  Finally, I came to the descent into Laurel Gorge.  I always do downhills well, but I was getting a little clumsy by this point and had to focus on foot placement.  The climb out was the steepest part yet.  I kept climbing, but at a slow pace.  This took up much of the reserves left. 
The trail on the ridge top was pretty flat and runnable, but I barely made an attempt to run.  The overlooks, however, were amazing, and the trail kept crossing little creeks that had to have made amazing waterfalls over the precipice.  Up until this point, the way back had been the same as the way out.  The race director had one little deviation planned for us, though.  Instead of staying on the ridge, we were to descend again, taking climbers access #1 down into the gorge, along the base of the cliffs to Foster Falls, and then climb back out.  This path was very rugged, littered with large rocks from the cliffs above.  There were many rock climbers here, as well.  Two other runners caught up to me at this point and followed me until Foster Falls.  It was nice to talk to someone.  When I got to the falls, I turned aside to check them out, letting them pass me.  The climb out was steep and rugged, but knowing that it was the end made it better.  It was a short run from the top to the finish line, and I managed to run that whole way.  Several of the runners I had been running with were still there.  I put on my sweatshirt that I left at the shelter, sat down, refueled, and discussed the day’s work.  They had chips and salsa, and quesadillas.  Instead of a finishers medal, they had pint glasses with the race name on them.
Looking back at the run, of course I am proud that I finished.  It was my slowest marathon finish, which I am not happy with.  I also came to a point where the trail had beaten me down, where I wasn’t running when I should have been.  That sticks in the mind.  I felt like my endurance, strength, or energy level wasn’t where I wanted it to be.  Maybe it was a combination of all three.  I think I would have benefited from some protein between AS3 and the Finish, but I didn’t take time to get it, and just kept pushing through instead.  I did stay up on the electrolyte tablets, and I think that helped.  Even with the crazy climbs, I never Charlie-horsed.  I did have some minor cramp twinges, but those are nothing, relatively.  Looking at the results, though, helped me to feel somewhat better.  I finished 19th out of 24 racers.  The winner finished right at four hours and 30 minutes, which is an indication of the challenges of this race.  My time was 161% longer than the winner, which is very average for me in my other marathons. 

This run was another example in how different races can be, even if they have the same elevation gain/loss.  This race had most of the elevation gain/loss in big, steep climbs, and then just rolling trail the rest of the time.  South Mountains had long, long climbs and long, long descents.  Other races have constant down and ups, but nothing too long.  Each race presents its own challenges.  Each race is unique.

You can watch my video of the day here.

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