A week and a half ago, I was sitting at this lookout point in the mountains of Tennessee, overlooking Chattanooga. This particular view marked the turn around of an out and back hike along a portion of the Cumberland Trail up on Signal Mountain. Prior to that moment, I had heard the mountains calling me for quite some time. And so I figured, what better way to answer them than with a proper “runcation.”
Runcation (as defined by VOTR): A vacation that revolves around running, and in most cases, an organized race event. Has been known to include additional adventurous elements. Sometimes also referred to as a dream vacation.
My training partner Martha and I signed up to run the Scenic City Half Marathon taking place along the Tennessee riverfront in Chattanooga, Saturday Feb. 22. The timing worked out perfectly with it not being too close, or too far away from our upcoming first ever full marathon in Nashville at the end of April, and both of us were itching to complete our fifth half marathon (fourth half together). As an added appeal, part of the registration fees went to help fund several local charities. We both selected Room at the Inn, a non-profit dedicated to offering temporary shelter to women and children battling homelessness.
OUR CRASH PAD
For the duration of our “Chatty” stay, we bunked in at The Crash Pad. Although coined an affordable boutique hostel, I quickly decided that a “badass outdoor-centric dream abode” is far more fitting and true to character. Over the course of our two-night stay at The Pad, I grew immediately attached to the atmosphere, the people, the kitchen, the outdoor fire pit, and my bunkbed. Bonus Points: When staying at The Pad you receive discounts at a number of nearby local grub stations. And as if it wasn’t a winner enough already, The Crash Pad is truly a superstar when it comes to environmental-friendliness, innovation and sustainability. In fact, it’s the world’s first LEED platinum hostel.
RUNNING RECAP: 5 RACE DAY LESSONS
1. Be Early: There’s no energy like the energy that overtakes your entire body the morning of a race, from the moment your alarm goes off at an ungodly hour, all the way to the finish line. Saturday morning, after French Pressing coffee in The Crash Pad kitchen and chatting with fellow bunkers who were awake to embark on their respective outdoor adventures, we took a brisk walk/jog a mile to the starting line located within a nearby stadium, on the 50 yard line. One lesson I continue to learn is that if you are on time, you are behind schedule. If you want to be on time for anything, you should always arrive early. And if you find you ever get somewhere way too early, then just hold tight for a minute. This goes for life, as well as races. Just when we were sure we nailed punctuality, after making a necessary restroom stop, I heard a “final call” bellow through a megaphone. There we were with our courtesy bags in hand, filled with all of our gear. After darting around desperately searching for the gear check location and finally spotting it, we dropped our bags just in time to run down the stadium stairs, take our place at the starting line, do a fake-out stretch during the national anthem, and double check our laces were in fact knotted securely. Then we were off.
2. Don’t Start Out Too Fast: Sunny skies and temperatures in the low 40s happens to be my ideal running weather scenario, which tricked me into starting out too fast, even though I most certainly knew better. It took me roughly two miles to realize that not only did I know better, I would not be able to keep up my speed for 13.1 miles. I was already running in oxygen debt (meaning my breathing was becoming shallow and I was taking quite a lot of these breaths quickly). I clocked my first mile at 8:20, and the ones that followed in the first half of the race ranged between 8:30 – 9:00 minute miles. Although I continued to hang tough and reached the 10K point in less than an hour, mile by mile my legs gradually slowed.
3. Don’t Underestimate Hills: The hills were a humbling reminder that you should never underestimate any race course, especially one you are not familiar with. Likewise, you should never overestimate your readiness to conquer terrain you haven’t been training on. At the expo Friday night, I silently laughed when a race-goer told me that I may want to consider walking up the hills. After the expo we drove the course in the dark, but since half of it took place on a pedestrian Riverwalk, there were quite a few hills in hiding. Once I hit the course Saturday, the silent laughter from the night before was replaced with choked back tears as I charged hill after hill. Trust me when I say, hills are especially brutal when you are already in oxygen debt as a result of starting off too fast. And that much more brutal when they just keep going, and going, and going up.
4. Don’t Choke: Speaking of choking, don’t try something new on race day that you haven’t been regularly incorporating into your training. More specifically, don’t try and eat any sort of energy bite during a race when you haven’t had one since your last half marathon almost exactly a year ago. Around mile eight, I remembered I had a bite in my pocket, so I quickly pulled it out, and brought it toward my chomps. The next thing I knew, I was still running, but I wasn’t breathing. Yes, I momentarily choked on the bite and had to hit myself in the chest. I watched the bite fly out of my mouth, and then get stuck to my shirt. Needless to say my level of oxygen debt increased at that point. Thankfully, despite not having the extra burst of energy, I survived the choke, and managed to survive more hills before running down a set of 10-12 concrete steps, and then across this iconic pedestrian bridge, only to turn and go up yet another hill, and across another bridge. Sensing a pattern here?
5. Just Keep Going: In the final third of the race, I spotted an older gentleman who had passed me earlier, lying down on the ground stretching his leg, with his leg brace removed and situated just to the side of him. He eventually got back up, came to pass me again and was carrying the brace with one hand, while limping along the final leg of the journey. If this wasn’t enough to inspire me to keep running, I don’t know what would have been. At that point, I couldn’t feel my own legs and still had a couple more miles to go. Soon after, my phone died, meaning the music in my ears immediately halted. In that moment of heightened struggle, I grew overwhelmed with emotion and grattitude that I was able to experience this race. I could still see the gentleman just ahead of me carrying his leg brace, trucking along strong to the finish. As I came up to the 12 mile marker and glanced over at Lookout Mountain beaming in the sun, I was reminded, “This is why I run.” Yes, breaking two hours again was my goal, and would have been wonderful. I am pleased to report that my running partner did just that, coming in right under 1:55. As for me, I made it across the finish line at 2:06, ten minutes slower than my own personal 1:56 goal time. Despite not setting a personal record, I’m not sure I’ve ever been so glad to see a finish line, or so thankful to have completed yet another beautiful, challenging feat.
After taking necessary showers and allowing ourselves a brief recovery period, we headed over to Lookout Mountain to embark on a late afternoon leisurely hike in search of a waterfall by the name of Glen Falls. Despite battling brutal achilles pain immediately following the finish, overall, never have my legs felt better after a race, which I can attribute to staying mobile. Our waterfall adventure proved to be quite the success, and to stretch the legs even more while hiking to and from, we stopped to do a bit of rock top yoga posing.
Since we couldn’t go to Lookout Mountain without visiting Point Park to check out the frequently photographed lookout point, we ventured on up.
Oh Sluggo’s Vegetarian Restaurant, you vegan paradise, you. The only thing better than one of my all-time favorite, entirely vegan restaurants, located in my hometown of Pensacola, Fla., is the fact that its sister restaurant is conveniently located in Chattanooga. Naturally, I had been wanting to make it to Sluggo’s North for quite some time, and after the post-race hike, it happened. Sluggo’s North is just as warm and welcoming as my home stomping grounds, with a slightly different ambiance and more of a café feel. Here I had my fill of one of the day’s specials, a Fish-Wich stacked high with tofu seasoned to sea-inspired perfection, topped with capers and a mouthwatering spread. This overflowing sandwich that more than filled my post-race savage level of hunger was accompanied by their signature garlic mashed potatoes and gravy, and a hefty salad with Tahini Goddess dressing. In the spirit of race day, this plate was washed down with a craft brew.
SUNDAY FUN DAY
The final day of our runcation was dedicated to yet another hike. This time, we decided to head up the nearby Signal Mountain to embark on a leg of the Cumberland Trail. I wasn’t entirely sure how many hours it would take us, but we decided upon a seven-ish mile out and back portion of the trail, taking us past views of waterfalls, across a swinging bridge, up, down, and all around, through the rocky, tree covered terrain.
I am not sure there are words that can articulate the sentiments felt while sitting on this lookout point gazing at the sun setting in one direction, and a distant waterfall to the other, but in that moment, I jotted down a few thoughts in the journal I toted along in my backpack, including the following:
“Staring out into a gorge and overlooking this waterfall I’m reminded that this is it. This is life. Moments like this matter. And my life needs to include far more of these moments. Six months ago I wasn’t sure I had it in me to keep going. As I sit atop a mountain with one of my best friends, I couldn’t be more happy to be alive. My hope is that I not only take this moment with me when I head home, but that I return here. Today reawakened a part of my heart that has been buried. This weekend reawakened Sarah.”
Although this may have been my first time in Chattanooga, my intuition and heart tell me that this certainly will not be the last.