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Nathan Holland: 2014 Upchuck 50k race report

Race Details: Man, oh man… what an Upchuck! Upchuck is always a memorable experience, and one of those small and challenging races that truly embraces the ultra running experience at its simplest. Runners won’t find loads of swag here or pre-race bags stuffed full of useless flyers and junk. Runners get a basic cotton t-shirt and a white paper barf bag with one gel and a few choice stickers. Heck, my favorite part of the race is that runners won’t even find a racing bib and definitely no fancy timing chip. You can expect a sharpie marker to any exposed skin for your number and the most sophisticated timing system known to man: each runner must write their name and time on a tri-fold white board after slapping the infamous trashcan at the finish. This race prides itself on no frills, scarce course markings and very minimal support.

There are two official aid stations at miles 8 and 18, and if you’re lucky there is another around 26 miles, but it’s more like an emergency water-only aid station for those who have fallen victim to the relentless beating the course delivers. A video history of the Upchuck 50k can be found here, from race founders Chad Wamack and Matt Sims.

For anyone that knows me, they know that Upchuck has long been my favorite Rock/Creek run and probably my favorite trail race period. This course offers some awesome single track along the Cumberland Trail, has plenty of technical running and some relatively big climbs. The thing that really makes Upchuck so difficult is that the early November weather always brings lots and lots of leaf coverage that makes spotting a good, runnable line tough. There’s something about spotting trail blazes 20-30 yards out, putting your head down and trying to run a tough technical section without wiping out in the rocks. It adds another element of risk that makes the experience all that more memorable. All runners can expect to run off course a handful of times throughout the race… hopefully you just realize it before you’ve gone too far!

I was kind of on the fence about signing up for the 2014 Upchuck, since I had made the decision to run Pinhoti 100-mile race the weekend before. However, when I saw that Upchuck was a raffle for 2014, I really wanted to put my name in the hat to see if I got drawn. Anyone with two or more previous Upchuck finishes were placed into one drawing and anyone with less than this were placed into a second drawing. I knew my chances were pretty good considering I had two Upchuck finishes and so I told myself and my wife that if I got drawn I would just treat it as an easy recovery run following Pinhoti.

Well, following my Pinhoti finish I was feeling pretty stoked. I had been itching to complete a 100-miler since my DNF at Rock/Creek’s Thunder Rock 100-miler early this year and had put all my focus on getting that under my belt. With so much attention on the 100-miler I really hadn’t put much thought into Upchuck and honestly figured my legs and body would be pretty shot. Coming off Pinhoti, my right ankle and lower shin was very inflamed and sore. I tried to run on Wednesday following Pinhoti, but I made it one mile before having to stop because of the inability to bend my right foot…

Well, I figured with a couple more days of rest and an ankle brace I might be good enough to hobble through a finish for Upchuck. In my two previous Upchucks I tried to break 5-hours but fell short both times. I picked up an ankle brace Thursday and tried running around the store to see how it felt… It wasn’t terrible so I figured I was golden for Saturday. Heck I figured I might as well give that sub 5-hour goal another shot. My legs really felt pretty good with the exception of my right ankle but I figured with the new ankle brace and a lot or prayers I could probably run through any leg/ankle pain.

Friday evening was the start of the Upchuck experience with a pre-race meeting at one of the Upchuck founders’ homes, followed by a dinner downtown with some of Huntsville, Nashville and Tennessee’s finest trail runners. Sharing some laughs and stories with these friends is always the best part of any race. After everyone was fed and sore from a couple hours of laughter we all set off to find some rest.

Runners gather Saturday morning at the finish area to start the pre-race shenanigans. This includes barf bag pickup, sharpie bib numbers and getting loaded onto the school bus to be shuttled to the starting area. RayJay, the hillbilly prisoner, is what makes the bus ride so hilarious. RayJay rattles off everyone’s name to makes sure they’re checked in, warns everyone about his redneck kin that live in the Soddy Daisy hills and makes sure to embarrass everyone who’s turned out to run for the day. After a 20-minute bus ride everyone arrives at the Rock Creek Trailhead for the 8 AM start.

Gathering around the parking lot for the start I found myself standing near my Nashville friend Cody Goodwin. Cody and I had chatted a little before the bus ride and I asked him if he was going for the course record today… I knew that he had finished this race two years ago and only missed the course record by a few minutes. He didn’t really say one way or another, but I knew that Cody was a strong runner and was very capable of breaking the record. With everyone ready to run, Chad climbed onto the roof of some random car, snapped 1-2 pictures of the group, looked at the time on his phone, and yelled “Go!”

A couple hundred feet down the asphalt, we took a hard right onto the blue-blazed single track for the next couple of miles. I fell in right behind Cody and figured I would sit there for a bit and see how the pace felt. Well… it didn’t take long to realize that Cody was on a mission and I wasn’t going to be able to hang on. So, about a mile into the race I was already running alone and was trying to find a groove that didn’t irritate my ankle/leg too much.

Somewhere in the first couple of miles I came across a life-sized grim reaper manikin standing beside a tree and as I passed a voice asked if we had started the race on time… I’m not going to lie, it scared the crap out of me! Sheridan Ames was out there cheering/scaring on the runners before starting his “grim sweeper” duties. Sheridan runs sweep for Upchuck every year — the “Grim Sweeper” — and starts one hour after the race start. If he catches you before the 18-mile aid station, you are done for the day. It’s not that he’s out there trying to run people down, but more to make sure that everyone makes it off the trail safely. This is a brutal course and getting stuck out on the course in the dark is not good for anyone…

Back to running. The first 6 miles are a pretty consistent climb, and littered with technical rocky sections to through off your pace. I was feeling really pretty good on the uphill and flat sections, but the downhills were giving me some trouble. I usually let my legs fly and really stride out my downhill runs but today my ankle really wasn’t handling that too well. Somewhere around mile 6 or so I finally heard some leaves rustling behind me and realized I had picked up some company. Michael Barlow, from Aspen, Colorado joined me for the next couple of miles up to Aid #1 (8mi). After the climb tops out at approximately 6-miles, the trail turns to a very soft, pine needle covered trail. It’s a nice break from the rocks and a good time to get some calories in before hitting the first aid station.

Coming into Aid #1 I decided to ditch my light jacket and handheld bottle. My family/crew were meeting me here and I had planned on grabbing my hydration pack so I would be able to carry plenty of food and drink to get me the next 10-miles to Aid #2. With everything already stuffed into my pack I barely even missed a step as I made my way across the road and back onto the trail. The first year I ran Upchuck (2012), I didn’t make it 1/4-mile past Aid #1 before blowing chunks all over the trail — my first real Upchuck experience in any trail race. It definitely wasn’t my last upchuck in a race either.

The next roughly 5-miles of trail are pretty much all downhill with a good mix of pine needle covered double track, some short quick climbs and some rocky, leaf covered descent down into Possum Creek. After dropping down into Possum Creek there is a nice steep 500-600 foot climb out of the gorge. By this point I was again running by myself, Michael had pulled away from me around mile 10 and was off to try and catch Cody. I had fell back into a nice pace and was enjoying the trail and my level of effort. I was working fairly hard but not so much that I ever felt that I was on the verge of blowing up.

My nutrition was actually going very well. Like most endurance athletes, I have had my fair share of stomach issues, and have struggled through many puking rallies mid-race. Recently I made the decision to try a combination of two fairly successful nutrition methods for me. I’ve tried all energy products; i.e. gels, gummy blocks, etc. and have ended up throwing all of that up mid-race or unable to eat anymore because of the strong energy product flavors not sitting well in my gut. I’ve also tried only all natural items; i.e. apples, bananas, oranges, nuts, etc. but usually feel that I’m not getting enough from those items alone and end up bonking pretty hard after 3-3.5 hours.

So, for this race I thought I would try one whole banana at the top of each hours (~100 calories), half a pack of energy blocks at the half-hour mark (~80 calories), approximately 3-4 electrolyte tabs every 45 minutes, one bottle of Perpetuem (1 scoop = ~80 calories) every hours, and sips of plain water throughout. I’ve found that with the Perpetuem if I drink plain water throughout the run as well it will keep me from getting dehydrated.

After climbing out of Possum Creek, runners get a quick downhill before the last 3 miles up toward the Aid #2 (18mi). This 3-mile section is pretty runnable, but is not very fast considering the steady climb up to the aid station. This aid station comes out to a small side road running parallel to Highway 111. This is the last “official” aid station and it’s important to grab plenty of food and drink to make sure you have enough to make it the last 13-miles to the finish. Runners leave this aid station and run about 1/2-mile up the road to the Jones Gap Road Convenience Store mentioned in the Upchuck history, then they will cross over the highway and run down the off ramp heading the opposite way onto Hwy 111.

Just before runners leave the exit ramp, the trail picks back up on the left side of the highway. For those that have never run Upchuck, my best piece of advice is to make sure that you save some energy for this section of the race. If you can make it to Aid #2 and muster up enough energy to push a good pace for the next 5-miles you can really make some good time. Miles 18-23 are very runnable and a lot of downhill with very little technical running to throw off your rhythm.

In years past I’ve never felt that I’ve done well on this section and haven’t been able to take advantage of these easy miles. Well, this year was different. Other than a bothersome ankle I really felt good and was able to pick up my pace and make some really good time on this section. I think it’s important to make good time from 18-23-miles because after this it gets really technical again. This section can be very treacherous considering most people are very tired by this time in the race, the course get very technical on flat sections, descents and climbs. My advice for running through these technical sections is to spot some blazes off in the distance, put your head down and do your best to step on all visible rocks rather than gambling at a faulty step on the leave covered trail. One wrong step could mean a twisted ankle, getting sprawled out across the trail or finding a shin-deep hole that swallows the lower portion of your leg!

All of those put quite the damper on a good run. Lucky for me, I only busted once through this section; I only found one foot swallowing hole and made it out without twisting anything. I really enjoy this last 5 miles of trail. The gorge is so beautiful and the rocks are a blast to run through. Around mile 25-26 you come across Big Soddy Creek and arrive at the last “non-official” aid station for the day. Jarret Kinder had ran/hiked in to offer water for anyone who may have run out and to get a good runners count to make sure everyone made it through okay. Climbing out of this gorge I ran across local Rock/Creek legend Brain Costilow. He and one of his sons were on their way down to join Jarret and help aid and cheer runners as they made their way across Big Soddy Creek.

During my first Upchuck in 2012 I spent a fair amount of time running with Brian and he saved me a time or two from running too far off course as I seemed to miss trail markings every few hundred feet. Once runners leave Big Soddy Creek they have somewhere in the 3-mile range of trails before descending back onto the road that will carry them the last couple of miles back into Soddy Daisy to find the finish area. After making the last big climb of the day out of Big Soddy Creek runners get a few flat runnable sections, a couple of quick downhills and a few tough little climbs. Generally you can expect to see some hikers on their way down to Big Soddy Creek and this really helps when your legs are feeling shot and you really just want to grab a seat and rest. There’s always something that makes you want to look like you’re suffering just a little less when you come across other people.

After a couple of miles I knew I wasn’t too far from hitting the road and I still hadn’t seen anyone since about mile 10. Jarret had told me someone was only a few minutes in front of me about 3-mile back but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make up that time with only a few miles left. As the road finally came into view and I started the last couple of switchbacks down toward the road I really kind of hoped that I wouldn’t see anyone else… I knew that if I saw anyone I would have to run harder to try and catch them and I really didn’t feel like it to be honest.

Well, of course as I made the turn onto the road I saw another runner a few hundred feet down the road… Crap! This roughly 2-mile road section down to the finish is all downhill but can really give the body a pounding. I figured I would do my best to try and reel in the next runner. About a mile or so down this section runners come to a railroad crossing and there have been quite a few runners that have been held up by a passing train. Coming down to the crossing it appeared that the runner in front of me and I were going to be stopped by the train roaring by… just before the guy in front of me had to stop the tail of the train came flying by and the chase continued.

I was about 100 feet back when I looked up and saw that he had missed a hard right turn and I started yelling that he’d missed the turn… He quickly turned around to correct his mistake and I rounded the corner about the same time he made it back to the turn. With 3/4-mile to the finish I gave it everything I had to push hard to the finish. Legs burning and lungs about to bust I was just praying that I could catch a glance of my wife and daughters at the finish area to get that extra boost of energy. Finally I could see them in the distance standing at the corner of the parking lot yelling and cheering. It was exactly what I needed. Hanging a left into the pavilion parking lot I spotted that stupid trashcan that signaled your completion of another Upchuck. You’ll never feel so relieved to smack the fire out of a trashcan.

I made my way over to the official timing log to write my name down beside my finish time and check out Cody’s time to see how well he had done… Man, oh man… Cody destroyed the old course record. He ran a 4:22 something and beat the old course record by approximately 25 minutes! What a machine! As modest as he is fast, Cody never boasted one time about his amazing run. Just a few seconds after my name was logged and I was able to join my family and friends around the finish area the 3rd place runner came in to find the trashcan and log his name down as an Upchuck finisher. It really was an awesome day and we were all so fortunate to spend such a beautiful day in God’s beautiful countryside. The beautiful weather and great running conditions allowed three new time records, with the new course record being set a pretty high level for future Upchuckers.

The finish area is perfect for the small, family oriented trail running experience that Upchuck offers. There is a small pavilion with plenty of seating for food and drink, a nice playground area for kids to play and run, and the perfect spot to sit lounge around in the grass and cheer on runners as they make their way to the finish. This really is the best race in around Chattanooga and probably one of the best 50k races in the country. For anyone looking for a great course, a challenging 50k and one of the most enjoyable trail running experiences Upchuck is a “must-do” for your future race calendar.

This year ended with the normal cuts and bruises and even a broken arm, but I still want to thank Jesus Christ for a relatively safe day on the trails. Dreama, you definitely win the toughest person on the trail award… You are my hero for being tough enough to complete the last few miles of the race with a broken arm! I will continue to pray for a speedy recovery. Thank you to all of the wonderful volunteers. A huge thanks to the locals who got out there and cleared the trails. The course was spectacular and it’s all thanks to your hard work. Of course to my family/crew, thank you for sacrificing your time to come out and support me. You mean the world to me and I’m so thankful that God put you in my life. A big shout out to Hanna Elrod for the awesome podium awards, these are stunning and definitely worth any amount of suffering endured throughout the day. Last but not least, I want to thank Rock/Creek, WildTrails and the Upchuck founders for the support and for hosting such an amazing run!

Trail running gear: Patagonia Air Flow Shirt & Strider Pro Shorts, Smartwool PhD Graduated Compression Socks, Pearl Izumi Thermal Sleeves, Marmot Trail Wind Jacket, Lululemon Gloves, Suunto Ambit 2 (HR) Watch, Ultimate Direction Handheld Bottle, Salomon Sense Pro Shoes & S-Lab Advanced Skin Hydration Pack

4:36:19 (50k PR), 2nd Place

Until the next race,
Nathan D. Holland
2014 Rock/Creek Race Team