We’ve known this for a while already, but Owen Bradley is a beast. He took first overall at the Mt Cheaha 50k a few weeks back, and here’s his report from the race. Owen runs in Brooks Cascadia 5 trail running shoes.
Last year’s winner and course record holder, Dane Mitchell of the Rock/Creek Race Team, told me that his legs were cramping by the time he got to the extremely rocky 2,000 foot climb at mile 28. I assumed this was only because he was running extremely fast and I would not have to worry about that since I would be running at a slower pace…
WRONG! My leg muscles were one cramp after another. This was despite my vigilant consumption of Hammer Nutrition Endrolyte capsules every hour. This big hill is called BLUE HELL for a reason. I had tried the hill out, along with the last 15 miles of the course several weeks before the race to know what I was up against. This reconnaissance did not matter on race day because the hill definitely took the life out of me.
I started the Blue Hell Trail at 3:59 into the race. It took me 36 minutes to cover the last 3.1 miles, of which 15 where spent scampering up the monstrous hill. Now, let me move back to the beginning.
There is no parking at the start, so most runners had to drive to the finish and get on a bus at 6:05 am. I had a great crew person, Hannah Pate, who dropped me at the start so I could avoid the 30+ minute bus ride. She drove to all aid stations to save me time and provide water bottle changes, bananas and fresh GU energy gel and GU Chomps. I knew the day before that Jason Bryant of Team La Sportiva was not going to make it down from NC for the race, so I was focused on the strong local runners: Dewayne Satterfield, Dink Taylor, and 50k first timer DeWayne Miner. I was not going to wait around the first few miles to see who was feeling good. I went out in true Josh Wheeler fashion like it was a 5k and figured I would see who would follow.
I quickly created some separation from the field and had a panic attack at 12 minutes into the race because I went a few a minutes without seeing one of the pink marking flags. I had a mental dilemma around whether I should keep going or turn back and see if I was off course. I trusted my gut and ran ahead and then found another flag. I was through 3.3 miles in 23 minutes and change. I settled in a little bit and hit the 8.5 mile mark at approximately 64 minutes with another first time 50k runner, Luke, close behind.
On a rocky down hill section, Satterfield caught up to both of us and passed with the exclamation of, “I love rocky downhill running.” This is not the case for me due to a weak left ankle that was protected by an ASO lace-up brace. I stayed with Satterfield and we hit the Adam’s Gap aid station around 2:07 which was 14.9 miles into the race.
I was not feeling great, so I was happy to just try and keep Satterfield within sight, but he was too strong. I had decided to just eat some GU Chomps and get settled into a steady pace, hoping I would see him again later, since he had run the Black Warrior 50k the weekend before and placed second overall. The next time I saw him was at the Lake Chinnabee aid station (Mile 22), which is a short out-and-back leg. He had a minute or so lead on me.
I refueled and tried to keep moving while going up some tough hills. The next 6 miles would end up being very important to the final outcome. I began to feel better and truly believed that I could win the race when I finally caught sight of Satterfield. I took a GU and kept him in my sights. Once we crested a respectable size hill I caught him, chatted for a second, and he encouraged me to push ahead. I passed as the downhill section started and gave it all I had.
This was about 1.5 miles before the course had its only paved road section, which is about two miles in length. This road led into the last aid station at Lake Cheaha. I used the road to my advantage and increased my lead as much as my body would allow. I forgot to mention that the temperature was in the 60’s by 10 am and at this point around 11:15 am, it was hot. I found myself running in the shadows from the trees on the road.
I took one last GU as I walked/hiked up the boulders, known as the blue trail. By this point I was just trying to hang on, hoping I did not see anybody in the rear view. I slowly made it to the top of Alabama on Mt. Cheaha. I was so tired that it took several minutes before I could force myself to jog once I got back on the curvy single track. I just wanted to be done and the trail seemed to go forever. It was slow-go, but I knew I must be getting close to the end with my watch reading slightly over four hours and thirty minutes. I finally emerged from the woods to see my mom cheering me on and pointing up the road to Bald Rock Lodge and the finish line. I crossed at 4:35:09 and I was spent.
It should be noted that Satterfield is the nicest and happiest ultra runner you will ever meet; he always has a smile on his face. Even more impressive was the fact that with his 3rd place finish at Mt. Cheaha, Dewayne Satterfield has run 198 ultras. Rock on! Now on the other hand, according to my crew chief, Hannah, I am moody and tend to always ask for stuff she does not have readily available. The race was an emotional ride for me, which tends to happen when I lose a lead. But all is well that ends well.
Overall, Cheaha was a favorable experience. The course is well laid out and is runnable except the Blue Hell Hill. I was very pleased with my performance, but I hit some rough patches from mile 15 to 23, then took the lead back and ran hard to mile 28. I ended up winning in the third fastest time run on the course in its six year history. Dane’s course record of four hours is even more impressive after having run the race. I imagine that it will stand for many years to come.
Thanks for the report, Owen! Here at Rock/Creek, we’re always excited about trail running, and our Rock/Creek River Gorge trail race is just around the corner. If you’re ready to get out on the trails, check out our wide selection of trail running shoes for any running style or terrain!