Buckle in guys, because I have a lot to say about this race.
THE MIST: IT AINT NO JOKE Y’ALL
This race started with a dream. Back in 2012, just after I had finished my first 5k, I volunteered to work an aid station at a race called the Mountain Mist 50k. I was brand new to the running community and didn’t know that many people. As I handed out cups of water, I thought to myself, “These people are crazy…” I was amazed by them and in awe but also slightly horrified. That first year a very small idea was planted in my head– maybe *I* will do this race some day?
Every year after that, I returned to volunteer. Working there, I have seen so many things. I’ve seen elite runners zoom by without even looking at us, I’ve seen people covered in dirt, sweat, and blood, people with gashed knees, busted foreheads, BROKEN BONES, people who look like they’ve gone through hell and still refuse to give up. I’ve seen people with a running high, and I’ve seen people at their lowest low. As the years went by, I became more invested in the running community, started trail running, met some of my best friends, and kept volunteering at Mountain Mist. And every year my infatuation with this race grew stronger. It was the biggest achievement, the crown jewel, the thing that every local trail runner aspires to. But it was also insanely hard, and scary. You see, this isn’t any trail ultramarathon. This is among the baddest of the bad. This is the Mountain Mist: 3800+ feet of elevation gain, miles and miles of technical, single track trails, creek crossings, and rocky footing, you must qualify to enter, and there are very strict cut off times.
So imagine my terrified face as I hit the “CONFIRM YOUR REGISTRATION” button in October. I was taking part in a local event called the Grand Slam, three 50ks and one marathon in the span of three months: Dizzy 50k in November, Rocket City Marathon and Recover from the Holidays 50k in December, and finally Mountain Mist 50k in January. Throughout all the training and races leading up to Mist, I didn’t allow myself to think about it. I focused on the task at hand, staying healthy, getting through the first three races, and refused to allow myself to freak out. But then Recovery 50k was over and I had nothing left to distract myself. I started freaking out.
PRE RACE: SNOWMAGGEDON
It was finally here. Race weekend for Mountain Mist. I was an anxious wreck. And then, of course, the weather decided to do something stupid. In the days leading up to the race the weathermen warned us about incoming hazardous winter weather– it was going to rain, it was going to snow, and then it was going to get so cold that everything was going to freeze over. We all hoped it would turn out to be nothing, but come Friday it wasn’t looking good. It had been raining all day, and by 1:00 pm snow started to fall. I was in a group message with a few of my trail friends, and to us, the worst case scenario would be that the was race not cancelled, but we wouldn’t be able to make it up the mountain to the state park. So we hastily threw together a plan to go crash at Colleen’s house. Colleen lives on top of the mountain where the race was taking place, and we hoped that by staying there we would ensure being able to make it to race start should the roads get iced up. As the night went on, the weather got worse, roads started closing and race cancellation was looming over our heads. We were all frantically checking our phones, fretting over the weather, and watching the race Facebook page for updates. We had all made a decision: if the race got cancelled, we were going to run the course anyway, unsupported and unofficial.
Thankfully we didn’t have to do that. Around 5pm Kim gasped while looking at her phone. She began to read, “Mountain Mist 50k, 24 hour delay, rescheduled for Sunday” … What? Rescheduled? … that is unheard of. For anyone who isn’t familiar with running, let me emphasize just how difficult it is to reschedule a race. The race directors would have had to make hundreds of phone calls, bargain with city officials, somehow get police, HEMSI, the timers, hundreds of volunteers, park permits, EVERYTHING pushed back one day. We. Freaked. Out. YES! THANK YOU!
Ok – now that I have sent out hundreds of emails and called city officials, police, state park, hemsi, timers, team leaders we have everything in place to have the race on Sunday! We will probably not have all of the volunteers but I will do my best in the next 24 hours to make things happen.Posted by Mountain Mist 50km on Friday, January 22, 2016
That night, we were giddy. Mountain Mist was ON.
RACE DAY: TIME IS MONEY
On Sunday morning we arrived to the Monte Sano State Park lodge about 40 minutes before race start, it was about 18 degrees outside. The parking lot and state park streets were solid sheets of ice. I was SO grateful that my step dad, Alvin, was willing to wake up at the crack of dawn and drive me and my friends Kim and Lindsey into the park. We walked/skated into the lodge to keep warm and I was suddenly hit with a wave of emotion– I AM ABOUT TO RUN THE MOUNTAIN MIST. I looked over at my mom and tried to soak in her beaming face. She was proud of me before I ever even started. I talked with a few friends and several of them asked me if I was nervous, and after thinking about it, I realized that I wasn’t anymore. There wasn’t anything left to do but race and try my hardest, what will be, will be.
Soon it was time to head out to the starting line. The course starts on about a mile of road running through the state park before you hit the trails, which is usually a good way for all the runners to spread out and prevent a traffic jam. But the roads were iced over, and when we were signaled to start, it was like everyone was moving in slow motion. We slipped and slided our way around the corner, people were going down like dominos. Going in, my strategy was to run as fast as possible on the road in order to bank time for the trails– this race would be all about banking time when I could. But it was impossible to do that when the ground was so slippery. I watched people falling all around me and I started to feel like it was going to be a very looooong day.
FINALLY it was time to hit the trails. NO MORE ICE, I gleefully thought to myself. Now I could really get going! But I was wrong. The trails were just as bad as the road was– the snow on them from Friday had begun to melt on Saturday, and then overnight they refroze again, causing them to be covered in ice patches on Sunday morning. There were parts that seemed okay to run on, but then you would step there and immediately slip. Every time I lost my footing colorful language would burst out of my mouth, and people around me began to laugh and joke about how many curse words we could come up with. People were constantly falling, and I was clenching what felt like EVERY MUSCLE IN MY BODY to keep from doing it myself. The first few miles of the race were spent in a hyper aware, tense state of trying not to fall over. On the bright side, being so focused did make the first few miles go by really, really quickly.
On our first big descent, the rocky path was covered in thick ice and everyone was butt-scooting down it. Although I am not above butt-scooting, I noticed that the left side of the path was ice free. It was covered in wet mud, but I *KNOW* how to run on mud. I happily jumped down that side of the path and kept on my way. We ran along Mountain Mist trail, and then gently upwards back to the plateau. About 7 miles in, time for the first aid station! All of my friends who gave me advice for this race all mentioned the same thing: DO NOT LINGER AT AID
STATIONS, no matter how tempting it is. I had LOTS of running to do, and I didn’t have time to waste. Up until this point about once per mile I had been drinking a small amount of Skratch water and taking a lick of my BASE Electrolyte salt. I grabbed one cup of Poweraid, a handful of M&Ms, and hurried my way down Warpath Ridge. It was rocky, but thankfully not icy so I could descend quickly. It seemed here that the ice cleared up and made way for mud, my beloved mud, and I was finally able to RUN! I zoomed my way down the trail and my attitude perked up. I came upon a few non-local trail runners and enjoyed talking to them for a minute or two, but I was constantly aware of my time, so I often asked to pass people that seemed to be taking their time and chatting. I’m definitely a Chatty Cathy, but I wanted to stay focused– this was not the time for making friends, this was the time to push push PUSH for time!
We hit Powerlines, a section I had been warned about for being a sloppy mud pit, but it was still frozen over. There were a few thick ice patches, but mostly just hard, crunchy mud. HOORAY! I knew I could make up time here. I finally had a chance to look up and take in the beauty around me. In this section the woods open up and you can see for miles down the straight path of the powerlines. The sun was shining, the sky was perfectly blue, the snow was so pretty… BAM! I hit the ground. I had stepped off a boulder and onto a patch of ice. My feet immediately came out from under me and I fell hard, my back connecting with the large boulder I had just been standing on. I hit so hard the air was knocked out of me, and I felt panic starting to set in. I sat for a moment, trying to collect myself and gather my thoughts. Was I okay? Nothing broken? Can I move? Breath Chelsea, breath… You’re okay. Now get up and get moving. I lost probably 5 minutes sitting on the ground there, fretting.
With my sore back, it was time for the first big Monster climb– K2. And they don’t call it K2 for nothing. I hunkered down into power hiking position and made my way up, my heart pounding so hard I felt like I could feel it in my eyeballs. I kept my eyes trained on a man ahead of me in a bright yellow kilt and a turtle tattoo on his right calf, using him as my motivation to keep moving. I wasn’t allowed to let him out of my sight. We crested the top and I suddenly felt disoriented. Where was I? With all the snow making everything look like an alien land, I was lost. I mean, not technically lost, because I saw the course markings, but I could not place myself. My mental state started to suffer, and I started to notice all my little aches and pains, especially my sore back. I also realized that I needed to take a pee break, but I didn’t want to waste valuable time traipsing through the woods to find a private potty spot. So I did what any other slightly insane ultra runner would do… I stepped no more than 5 feet off the trail and peed right in plain sight. Someone probably saw me. *shrug*
Around mile 12 I came upon the second aid station– I smiled, I finally knew where I was again! I barreled into the crowd of volunteers, probably looking like a half crazed mountain goat, and blurted out, “COKE, CHIPS.” The volunteers quickly handed me my sustenance and sent me on my way. I like to think I thanked them, but I honestly can’t remember. I was happier now, I knew where I was… but my back ache was getting worse and worse. I knew I needed some pain relief. I ran on and around mile 13 I used Siri to text my family, “Tell mom: Excedrin, coke, potatoes, mile 13” It wasn’t very coherent but I knew mom would know what I meant. I looked down at my watch– I had one hour to make it 4 miles to the first cut of point at mile 16.9. Time to push. Up and around Keith trail and Logan Point, through Stone Cuts (aka the butt crack of the mountain), and back to Mountain Mist. I was hyper aware of the
minutes passing by and I tried my best to run strong. I crossed over Cold Springs, and knew I was almost there. I passed lots of other walking racers, and in the back of my mind I worried that I had miscalculated and wondered if I was already too late. I continued on. I heard someone calling my name in the trees above, “GO CHELSEA!” I saw the next aid station and first cut off point in the distance. I ran hard and when I arrived I looked at the timing team– “DID I MAKE IT?” My friend Donna said, “You made it honey, you’re good.”
I was SO HAPPY to see my family, my crew, my longsuffering team — mom, Alvin, Roo, Scott, and Sarah. But I didn’t have any time to spare, I was ahead of the cut off by only a minute. I quickly grabbed a hand full of potatoes, someone popped an Excedrin in my mouth, I guzzled some Coke, and I hit the trail. This time, with company. My dear, blessed angel friend Amanda had come to run with me. I was so happy to see her. She was bubbly, happy, and everything I needed at that point. She took the lead and told me that we needed to hurry, and advised me to pretend that there was an invisible rope tying us together, and to run as fast as I could to keep up with her. We were about to start the back half of the course, the hardest part.
We had 50 minutes to get to the next cut off point, at mile 20.9, and the footing in this section was nearly all ROCKS. Big rocks, small rocks, ankle turner rocks, slippery rocks, wet rocks, muddy rocks, ALL THE ROCKS. My feet struggled to keep up on the stumbly footing– but I was keeping steady and enjoying listening to Amanda tell me about her morning. We picked our way down the path and finally hit Bluffline where we were able to run a little bit more. We were keeping pace with Black Shirt Guy and Orange Shirt Guy. Amanda seemed to be pulling all of us along in her perky little train. We were cutting it close on time, and Amanda kept gently reminding me to run just a little faster, but ugh, it was so hard. Black shirt guy commented on how he liked that I just ran straight through the mud puddles, and I replied that I wasn’t agile enough at this point to even think about avoiding them. Again I heard my crew’s voices yelling my name through the woods! I stumbled again into the aid station and they had everything ready for me, a Honey Stinger Waffle, some chips, and another Coke. Marty, my friend who was running this station, assured me that I was good but that I needed to HURRY UP. I would need to make up time in this section to make the last cut off. I turned back on to the trail with Amanda, walking with my Waffle in hand. In the distance I heard Marty yell “MOVE YOUR ASS!!” Ha! I smiled a little and took his words to heart. I was about to push myself the hardest I ever had in my life.
Railroad bed was more tough footing, but Amanda assured me that once we made it to Alms House we would be able to run faster. She pushed me on, continuing to tell me stories to distract me from my fatigue and aches, and before I knew it we were approaching Waterline, the second Monster. She coached me, “Okay Chelsea, we are going to power hike up Waterline as fast as we can, and when we get to the top we have to run for our lives.” I nodded. Waterline is a basically vertical ascent up and over a water fall that requires some hand over foot climbing. Pulling myself up the rocks, I suddenly felt very thankful for the fire and rescue team that was perched strategically all around the rock wall. I climbed and climbed until I felt like my head was going to explode from the effort. I pulled myself up the rock wall, getting covered in thick mud, and when I got to the top held on to a tree to catch my breath, I felt like I was dying. Wow. That was hard. Amanda came up right behind me and motioned me on– we had EIGHT MINUTES to get to the cut off station. Crap. We ran, hard. Harder than I have ever run in my life. “We aren’t going to make it” I choked out, and Amanda kept encouraging me. Then a friend appeared on the side, David. “MOVE LADIES, MOVE. YOU BETTER MOVE YOUR ASS. I AM GOING TO COACH THE HELL OUT OF YOU UNTIL YOU GET THERE.” I pushed with every single particle of energy I had. My whole body felt like it was on fire, my lungs felt like they were going to combust, my heart was POUNDING. My vision was going fuzzy on the edges. I burst out of woods and into the station, everything was commotion. Everyone around me was yelling, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I slammed into the aid table and held onto a water cooler. “DID I MAKE IT?” a volunteer smiled at me, “you made it.”
A dry sob heaved out of me. I MADE IT. I was still huddled over the water cooler gasping for air and felt like I couldn’t breath, I can’t breath, I CAN NOT BREATH. I was hyperventilating and panicking, I felt like the walls were closing in– Alvin came over and pulled my arms up around his neck and held me against him, opening my chest and helping me to catch my breath. After several minutes I was breathing normally and able to understand exactly what had happened. This was the final cut off station, mile 25, if I made it here, I could literally walk to the finish and still be okay… and I made it with literal seconds to spare. Someone who came into the station just 30 seconds after me was not allowed to go on. I couldn’t believe it. My family was surrounding me, all of their faces beaming with pride, and my mom’s with tears, all of them celebrating like I had already finished the race. Their faces are what got me through the tough stuff, and now it was time to bring it home. 6 miles left, time to get it done.
Amanda and I set out on to Arrowhead trail and she was giddy for me, I think I was still slightly in shock. We hit Natural Well and the ground was a mess. Thick, sloppy mud covered the trails and it was just as slippery as the ice in the first half had been. I didn’t care though. I MADE IT. When we passed THE Natural Well (a literal giant hole in the ground just off the trail), I leaned over the side and yelled into it, “I’M GOING TO FINISH THE MOUNTAIN MIST!!!!!!” Amanda laughed as my voiced echoed down into the depths and I felt like jumping for joy. Down the hill on Natural Well (aka the trail that’s literally sliding off the face of the earth), up Cry Baby Hill, and then up Death Trail… Wait. No. Not Death Trail! As I hoisted myself up a rock I looked back at Amanda and said, “This doesn’t feel right.” She agreed. I wearily plopped down on a boulder and said, “Can you look at the trail map?” We had gotten off course and started going up Death Trail– a big climb up to the plateau, and the WRONG WAY! Thankfully we weren’t too far from where we should have been and righted ourselves quickly. Slush mile was ridiculous– the way the trail is set up, it doesn’t have very good natural drainage and can tend to stay a mud pit. We splashed through the puddles, already covered in so much dirt adding a little more didn’t make a difference, and FINALLY! We reached the bottom of Rest Shelter. Time for the last 1000 feet of elevation gain.
I walked up the incline slowly, and started to feel a bit fuzzy. I paused halfway up and sat down, Amanda reminded me that I hadn’t eaten in a while and might need some sugar. Luckily she had a Gu in her pocket and she let me have it. Time to conquer this once and for all. As we walked Amanda said “This hill isn’t so bad!” and I griped, “BE QUIET, THIS IS AWFUL!” One foot in front of the other, we made it up. And soon we were there. THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN! We were welcomed by the final aid station volunteers, who offered us beer and chili. Yum! But I wanted to get going. Only 1 more mile to go. THE LONGEST MILE OF MY WHOLE LIFE. Even though it was easy running, I was so tired. The Excedrin had worn off and my back was hurting again. I kept trying to slow down, but wonderful, perfect, beautiful Amanda kept telling me to keep on running and telling me funny stories about Civil War clothes. I heard the creek to my left and knew that meant we were close. There it was, the blue blaze of the North loop. TIME TO BRING IT IN Y’ALL. Somehow my family knew I was coming before I could even see them. I heard what felt like hundreds of voices calling my name and cheering, I was so happy and doing this weird combination of running, smiling, and crying all at the same time. I flailed across the finish line and straight into Scott’s arms.
I did it. I DID IT! I FINISHED MOUNTAIN MIST!!!!!!!!!!! Final time: 9:07:54.
And with that, I completed the Grand Slam. 3 months, 4 races, 119.2 miles. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to be a part of it, to have a support crew so dedicated, and also to be a part of such an incredible community.