Running Chattanooga 100
By Tehra Wieck (with subtle commentary from Pam)
Chattanooga 100 was memorable right from the start. Before Pam and I even got to packet pickup or the lodge at the state park, I was pulling off some backwood Alabama road to make an emergency pit stop behind some gas tank. Ah, this was going well. We claimed our bunks in the group lodge and headed for packet pickup. I chuckled when I saw the old school fanny pack they were handing out as part of the SWAG, and chuckled even harder when I looked inside. A small bottle of Fireball Whiskey and a nicely packaged condom. Well this race director certainly has a sense of humor!
The rain let up right before the race start and around 140 runners lined up on the road for the start. Sean, the race director, said, “repeat after me”. “We are here to have fun”. We all repeated and then laughed nervously. I looked around and wondered how many of us would actually finish. The race began and we all ran down the park road until we hit the single track.
The first 12 miles was the most scenic and the most technical part of the race. Rain started up again soon after the start, which made the rocks very slick. We had 1200’ of metal stairs to descend and then come back up. My focus was to move very carefully and not risk falling and hurting myself in the first section of the race. I couldn’t resist taking a few photos along the way.
Finally I popped out by the park road and I met Pam for the first time. The section had taken me longer than I predicted. I made my first sock change and quickly headed out for the next section. I had 9 miles until I would meet up with crew and I knew this section was very runnable. I busted out my headphones and made up some time coming into the aid station 30 minutes ahead of the trackings predicted time. I was delighted to see my husband there as well. They had my bottles ready and while I changed socks and shirts, Pam got me an avocado wrap from the aid station. Things were going good, my spirits were high and the rain was intermittent. My tights were soaked through, but I didn’t want to take the time to change them, so I did the next best thing, applied a heavy dose of desitin (Pam: there are no photos of Tehra applying desitin… I am just thankful we were undercover in a car with Kansas plates).
Off I went again. I had 15 miles until aid or crew, so this was going to be a long section. The first 10 miles was extremely long. Still a lot of runnable, but ten miles is a long way to go to get to a water stop. Hogsback was on this section, which is a mile or more of ups and downs. It was fun, but I kept wondering where the water stop was hiding. My bottles were empty by the time I rolled up to the unmanned, water only stopped. I quickly refilled as about five more runners ran up to the table. I was making pretty good time.
By the time I rolled up to the Nickajack aid station at mile 36, I was starting to hit my first low. It was getting close to dark and by now all my clothes were wet. I was relieved to see Pam and Joe. I did a full clothes change, got some warm broth and hit the reset button. It was 5:30, just getting dark and the sun would not rise until 7:30. I knew I had 14 hours of darkness ahead of me. They put a headlamp on my head and kicked me out there. This next section was tough! It started off by running alongside a highway road for a quarter of a mile. Cars were driving by too close in the rain for my comfort. I crossed over and hit single track again. Now it was really dark and I started messing with the headlamp. For some reason I was barely getting any light shining. I started thinking maybe it’s because it’s not dark enough, but then another runner came up behind me with a light that lit up the trail. Nope, it’s just my headlamp. I could only get the light to work at probably half capacity. With the minimal light, the fog, the rain and my dirty glasses, I was basically running blind. Thank goodness I grabbed my hiking poles at the last aid station. I tripped and caught myself several times in those four hours. I kept pushing, knowing Pam could start pacing me at mile 50. When I finally made it up the climb to my crew, I was cold, wet and feeling bad that I had lost some time.
Pam and Joe were great. Joe blasted the heat in the Jeep and helped me get my tired butt into the back. I probably spent the most time at this aid station, completely changing my clothes, shoes (to the Hoka Evo Mafate) and eating (and so much desitin). Pam made a comment about a “Happy Meal” and then the idea was set. I asked if Joe would bring us a happy meal to the next crew stop in 15 miles. The idea of seeing him again and eating a little McD’s was good motivation.
(We ended up getting 5 happy meals the last 50 miles; so we have almost all the full set!!)
Pam and I headed out. It was so comforting to know that she was there on the trail only for me. We made it to the first aid station where my drop bag was located. I quickly picked up on the fact that my manners had been left on the trail when she kept adding “please” after any requests I made to volunteers.
Volunteer: “Can I get you anything?”
Me: I’ll have some ginger ale”
It took a few repetitions, but I got the hang of it. Thank you Pam!
(Please Note: Volunteers are not Alexa. And I was just giving Tehra a hard time.)
Around mile 60 we hit a technical section with a lot of ledgy rocks going downward. I took this very slow, one because I didn’t want to hurt myself, and two, at 60 miles my legs weren’t exactly fresh. Right next to the trail we could hear a waterfall pouring down. It was a ton of water roaring through there, but unfortunately it was too dark to really make it out. Then we had to climb back out of the slick rocks with rope assist. This was a bit sketchy, but we made it out after some grunting. That section added some time to our progress, so by the time we made it to Joe is was 3:00 in the morning. Pam and I were both in good spirits and delighted to see two happy meal boxes with cokes waiting for us.
We decided our clothes were good, just a sock and shoe change would do. I ended up swapping out the Hoka’s for the Topo Ultraventure shoes that I had been wearing for the first 50 miles. A burger and a coke later, Pam and I set out on what would be the most difficult leg of the race. We had 15 miles until aid with only a waterstop in between.
(Yess!!! 2 and 3 of 5)
About an hour or two into our run, the rain started coming down again. I didn’t think to put the hood on my rain jacket on my head, until it was noticeably wet and chilly. By now it was pouring and the wind was howling. The sound of the wind was so loud, it was kind of creepy. Pam asked if I was warm enough and I said, “I’m good, maybe a little chilly”. She was the same. As the conditions worsened I realized I needed to get a hat on my head and some gloves on. We stopped and she dug the hat and gloves out of my pack. We were 70+ miles in and still had 6.5 miles to get to aid, and a couple more hours until sunrise. By the sound of Pam, I could tell she was a bit concerned too. At one point she stopped to get something out of her pack and we agreed I would continue to run on since I was moving slower. I did and quickly regretted it. The trail wound around a corner and I couldn’t see any markings. I ran for a few a minutes and started thinking what if I missed a turn and we are separated. I looked in front and behind me and only saw darkness. That was a stupid mistake we made. Finally I saw a headlamp behind me and was so glad to see Pam again. She took the lead and said to me, “You’re going to hate me, but we need to (f-ing run) to stay warm”. I knew she was right.
As we ran, I started making plans in my head of what we could do if things got really bad. If one of us showed signs of hyperthermia I started thinking we could share our location with Joe and he could direct us to a road that would hopefully be nearby. But then what? My race would be over, I would be without a pacer, I would be disqualified. After the race Pam said she was also making emergency exit strategies in her head about the same time. My mantra became, “I just need to make it to Joe”. I took the lead for a while and Pam was following about two seconds behind me. All the sudden we heard a huge crash and realized a tree limb had fallen on the trail in between us. Pam screamed thinking it was a wild animal charging out of the woods (I was also half asleep!). I was just thinking about what would have happened to one of us had we been hit. After a couple hours of running in the storm, the weather let up a bit and I was overwhelmed. I was hoping I hadn’t just burned all my matches getting through that. I looked at Pam and she said with a concerned face, “Have you eaten anything lately?”….Blank stare, “I think I need a gel”. I think she thought I was going to say I couldn’t go on, because immediately she claps her hands and says, “Your boys wrote you a letter. I wanted to read it to you out here, but I can’t pull it out in the rain”. Of course I used this information as strength, took the lead and started crying.
Daylight came and we stumbled into the aid station at mile 81 a little scarred, freezing and devastated. I couldn’t explain to Joe how hard that had been. He was ready and waiting for us to start his pacing leg. Once again we blasted the heat, got some warm broth and took shelter in the jeep while I changed. That storm broke a lot of runners, and is probably responsible for the high drop rate. Getting a change of clothes, wolfing down some pizza and picking up Joe as a pacer was a total reset. We set off knowing we were over an hour and a half ahead of cutoff and heading into an easy 9 mile section. We chatted a bit and shuffled in silence a bit. My left calf had been bothering me for most of the night, the key was to push hard enough to be ahead of cutoff, but not too hard that I destroy my calf and can’t continue. I tried to shuffle, but eventually had to tell Joe it was all hiking from here, my calf just couldn’t take it.
(Yes!! More Happy Meals! 4 and 5)
We saw Pam one more time before we set off for the final 8.5 miles. I wanted to have a good buffer, so I was hoping to have four hours (Tehra had close to 5) to complete this section since I knew it would probably take me three. I felt like the bottoms of my feet were going to peel off, so I knew a sock change was in order. I ate the second happy meal of the race, shoved a half eaten burger in my pocket and we headed out. This was the most scenic part of the race, so I was glad to share it with Joe.
I asked him to read me the letter my boys had written me. It was the best gift ever and had me howling with tears. We finally made it through the trail section and the last three miles were on the park road. About five other runners passed me on this section, because I just couldn’t get my calf to cooperate. It was rewarding to see some of the faces I recognized pass by, knowing they conquered the course as well. About a quarter mile from the finish, as if on cue, it started raining again. Funny thing was, I was so used to it raining I didn’t even notice it until Joe mentioned it.
The finish line was basically two orange cones by the lodge with the race director and a few stragglers cheering people on. A girl literally came running past me with only a few feet to the finish, I mean really?! I crossed the finish in 31:43 and gave Sean a big hug and would not let go.
Five years of running ultras, six months of focused training and a ton of love and support from family and friends. The journey was finally over.