Driving through Chattanooga a couple years ago, I had glanced up at the long ridge looming above the serpentine coils of the Tennessee River, recalling a decisive Civil War battle had been fought there and wondering what it would be like to stand upon the summit.
When a last-minute conflict scuttled plans for a mid-November race, I stumbled upon the Lookout Mountain 50-miler, which fit neatly into the last open weekend of the year. This time there would be no conflict.
In fact, travel went so smoothly, I showed up at the Chattanooga Brewing Company ahead of schedule, before race packets were ready. There was nothing to do but order a hamburger, sweet potato waffle fries, and a glass of dark beer.
The forecast for race day called for sunshine and a high of 50 F, but the next morning when I pulled into the start/finish, it was still dark, and high on top of the mountain, the temperature was in the 20s. The race kicked off promptly at 7:30 AM, with orange light flaring through the leafless trees.
I fell in behind a line of runners moving north along Bluff Trail, a narrow path carved into sandstone cliffs on the mountain’s western edge. To the left, steep slopes dropped a thousand feet into Lookout Creek Valley. Sunlight was streaming across the far side of the valley, illuminating pockets of fog and distant hills. But directly below us, the fields lay in the mountain’s shadow and were grey with frost.
After a few miles, we reached the mountain’s northern point, and suddenly the Tennessee River and town of Chattanooga spread out below. Sunlight warmed our faces.
Now the path dropped down the side of the mountain, and presently we arrived at the first aid station, roughly 7 miles in, located at Cravens House. It was here that Confederate general Braxton Bragg determined to lay seige to Union forces trapped in Chattanooga and starve them, if need be, into surrender.
With the sun now beaming down, and anticipating a 1,000 foot climb back up, I stripped off my shirt and tied it around my waist. If I felt chilly, at least I wouldn’t sweat and thus wouldn’t need to carry water. We had been told the aid stations wouldn’t provide cups (to avoid waste), and so I had brought one with me, which I pulled from a pocket. A friendly volunteer filled it with water, I drank up, put it back in my pocket, and moved out.
But instead of ascending, the path dipped further into the valley, bringing us back in the mountain’s cold shadow. To stay warm, I ran faster. Soon we reached the second aid station, nestled in a bend of Lookout Creek, and surrounded by grassy fields covered in thick frost. I drank a cup of chilly water. Union soldiers broke the siege of Chattanooga by moving supplies through this valley.
Finally it was time to head back up and into the sunshine, and upon returning to the start/finish, 22 miles were done. From here the course headed south along the ridge. A narrow footpath took us along a meandering creek, and the footing became tricky. I paused to tighten shoelaces as best cold fingers would manage, while several runners passed by. The trail emerged from the stream, ran along a sandy road beneath power lines, and then descended into an oak forest.
The fourth aid station was perched on a gravel road overlooking Lula Falls. Startled by the thundering torrents, I paused to admire the scene.
The race continued. I lost track of time. Suddenly the path was following the edge of a knife-shaped ridge that rose a thousand feet above wide open plains. I was surprised to see an imposing mountain range silhouetted against the eastern sky some fifty miles away. These were the Appalachians of northern Georgia, I surmised, and somewhere to the south lay the city of Atlanta. The strategic importance of Lookout Mountain was suddenly clear: it was the last obstacle blocking the Union Armies from these plains, which led straight to Atlanta and the heart of the south.
The trail dropped down from the ridge and followed another creek bed. In due course I arrived at the fourth aid station, where a 4.5 mile loop awaited, after which we’d retrace our steps back to the start/finish.
I was beginning to sag. The plan had been to run the whole 50 miles without food, a strategy to improve my fat-burning capability. And here I was, somewhere around mile 36, not having consumed a single calorie since breakfast. Slogging all the way back on an empty stomach wasn’t appealing. Plus there was the chance, if I could maintain a decent pace, of an age group victory. It was time to reconsider. I felt in my back pocket for an emergency ration of dark chocolate — but took a deep breath and soldiered on.
I finally finished the loop, but my momentum was gone. The decision was made: it was time for chicken broth and a wonderfully sweet slice of banana. Feeling somewhat recharged, off I went and now it was time to get to work, with every step a concentrated effort to whittle down the remaining distance. Arriving at the waterfall aid station, I grabbed more soup and banana, and now there were only 7.5 miles to go.
Back in the oak woods again, I was floundering uphill on the leaf-strewn path, wincing as every rock seemed to poke through the thin soles of my minimalist shoes, when I saw someone ahead, his pace clearly slowing. As I struggled past, I heard him say, “I dread eating a gel this close to the finish.” But it must have helped, because a few minutes later, he charged past. Now it was my turn to flag. I slowed to a walk, retrieved two squares of chocolate, and began to chew listlessly, when a second runner shot past and disappeared in the distance. I couldn’t catch up.
However, when we regained the sandy road on top of the mountain, I could finally lengthen my stride. I passed the first runner and drew near the second. Then the path dropped back into the streambed, where I had paused earlier to fix my laces, and I stumbled on a root and fell behind. But in between the curves and mounds, there were straight sections where I could stride out, if only for a few yards. I was hanging in, if not gaining, when suddenly I spotted buildings on a hill, which I recognized were near the finish.
There wasn’t time to catch up — but yes there was, there was a full quarter mile to go! — and then the path turned onto a dirt road, and I tore up the ground, coming up from behind so hard that the runner stepped to the side to let me by. And then it was over.
I hung out at the finish for a little while, then drove back to Chattanooga Brewing Company for dinner. That night, lying in bed, I was just trying to keep the twinges in my legs from turning into cramps.
The next morning, I headed back out to Cravens House for some easy hiking. Once again, the sun was behind the mountain, and the air was cold. I made it up to the northern high point of the mountain and took in the sun and the views. Below me were the slopes where the Union forces had turned the Confederate’s flank.
In summary, I finished in 9:24, 40th of 174 finishers, a good performance for me, considering all the single track, which is not my forte. While I didn’t achieve my goal of running all 50 miles without calories, my total consumption was two cups of soup, one-half a banana, and two squares of dark chocolate, as well as about 20 oz of water.
As a visitor from New York, I learned something about this special place in the southeastern mountains and gained an appreciation for my southern peers. The history books attribute the Confederate defeat at Lookout Mountain to weak leadership; it was not a reflection on the troops. As it turned out, within my age group, I finished fourth, behind three gentlemen who hail from Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina, with the leader beating me by more than an hour. Nice work, fellows, I salute you.
Congrats to all finishers, and thank you to the race staff and volunteers.