StumpJump 50k Race Report

Cascade Endurance athlete Laura Larson recently raced the Stumpjump 50k down south in Tennessee. I hope you like her report as much as I did. She barely mentions that she was fourth woman, so I'll highlight that here: awesome job, Laura, and thanks for sharing your experience! 

My husband and I exited the Nashville airport into the uncomfortable embrace of some serious humidity. It was the Wednesday before the StumpJump 50-set for its seventeenth running on September 30 in Chattanooga, Tennessee-and the milder weather forecast for the weekend was apparently taking its sweet time arriving. Kyle and I had training for hills, for technical terrain, for the overall length of the course, but we were not at all prepared for six-plus hours of running in a Southern sauna. What would happen to our Northwest-weenie selves if it didn't cool off? 

I got my answer the next day during a short shakeout run, and it wasn't encouraging. It was still uncomfortably hot and humid when I ventured out from our Airbnb in the Signal Mountain historic district, high above downtown Chattanooga and the Tennessee River. I took the quiet neighborhood streets over to Signal Point, a lofty overlook once used as a signaling station by Native Americans and, later, the Union Army. After admiring the view of the wide river far below, I found the Cumberland Trail and immediately plunged downhill on a series of precarious stone steps and wooden staircases. Now that I was within the jungle-like hardwood forest, the hum of the insects on surround sound, my already profuse sweating went into overdrive. And the trail, as if messing with me, remained incredibly rocky, turning my "run" into an 18-minutes-per-mile negotiation of slick boulders.

Gingerly I hopped on, over, and around rocks, growing increasingly worried that the entire StumpJump would be a 30-plus-mile tiptoeing slog. Then at about two miles, next to a pretty creek, the trail abruptly widened and leveled out, leading gently uphill to another trailhead. Well shit, would the course be cruiser like that final bit, or would it be barely runnable? Would that not even matter because I'd just melt into a puddle of sweat somewhere in the woods? Trying not to freak out over all these what-ifs, I cut back through the neighborhood toward the air-conditioned house.

Two anxious days later, race morning dawned-and praise be it was cool! Breezy! Not humid! Ten minutes before the start at Signal Mountain Middle/High School, the runners gathered to listen to race director Sean "Run Bum" Blanton (who also puts on the Georgia Death Race) describe the course and give his two cents on how best to approach it. Decked out in stars-and-stripes board shorts, his untamed surfer-dude hair flowing from beneath a trucker hat, he epitomized runner bro. But his advice was solid: "Don't go out too fast. The first five miles are the easiest miles of the whole course, so take your time, take it easy. Sip, don't gulp."

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I acted on that bit of wisdom, not letting the twitchy excitement of the frontrunners lure me into an unsustainable pace from the gun. Instead I settled into a comfortable jog for the first five miles along a wide, downhill-trending ATV track. The track then funneled us onto the Cumberland Trail, where we got our first tastes of the many rocks, roots, and short, steep climbs into and out of creek beds to come. Several breaks in the trees provided stunning glimpses of the Tennessee River, glinting hundreds of feet below in the morning sun. The trail edged the cliff for short stretches, mere feet from the long drop.

I was feeling strong when I reached the first aid station at mile 8.5 at Mushroom Rock (what it sounds like: a giant rock shaped like a mushroom). This marked the start of the six-mile connector between the first almost-loop and a second ten-mile loop. I plunged downhill to a jouncing crossing of a suspension bridge over Suck Creek, then immediately switchbacked up the opposite bank to a brief, flatter traverse of the treed plateau. Then it was down steeply again to the Suck Creek Road aid at mile 10.5, where you were directed across the highway to a ladder-like set of wooden stairs. The off-camber nature of the trail from the top of the stairs. The off-camber nature of the rail from the top of the stairs to the next aid station and beyond kept me to a slow, careful trot.

The echoes of the third aid station, at mile 15, arrived before the aid station itself, which was tucked into a cavernous former Native American shelter called Indian Rockhouse. Kyle's dad was waiting there (he'd driven down from Louisville to cheer us on), and it was heartening to see a familiar face a few hours into the race. Reenergized, I set off clockwise on the second ten-mile loop portion. The off-camber trail continued for the first three miles of this loop, which offered up several more beautiful river views. Then at the fourth aid station, at mile 17.5, we merged onto a wider, less technical trail through a sparser oak forest. This whole time I'd maintained a steady conservative pace, walking some of the steeper hills and carefully picking my way through rockier sections. This approach seemed to be paying off, as evidenced by the runners I started to pass who looked like they were over it. We were no longer in the honeymoon phase, those first ten miles during which friendly Chattanoogans kept trying-and failing, despite their charming accents-to strike up conversations with me; I am not a talker during races (or in life, let's be real).

At about 23 miles, the mile-long "Rock Garden"-torturously similar to the trail that had had its way with me on Thursday-toyed with our tired, wobbly legs. A photographer was stationed there, and as I was trying to play mountain goat, eyes glued to my feet, he startled me by crying out, "look up!" I looked up for the shot, but he did not get a smile.

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Not too far beyond aid station six at mile 24, I bounded down through a cool slot feature-a series of natural rock steps nestled between two smooth rock walls-and then it was back past the Rockhouse, where the aid station had been packed up, and onto the off-camber connector, this time with my right foot and ankle doing the tough stabilizing work. I recrossed Suck Creek Road, hiked up what I'd previously descended, and chugged down what I'd previously ascended to that bucking bronco of a suspension bridge. Before I knew it I was back at Mushroom Rock, just one mile from the finish. A mellower (yet still slightly uphill) ATV track spat me and my tired quads out at the school, where I did my best not to trip along the short grassy stretch before the finish chute. I crossed the line at 32 miles just two seconds shy of seven hours. I would later learn, to my surprise, that this had somehow earned me fourth place in women.

Having gotten my enthusiastic hi-five from Mr. Run Bum, I smiled my way over to my father-in-law, who was waiting by the trail exit for Kyle. Kyle showed up about an hour later running alongside a woman he later told me was also named Laura. They'd bonded over being slower than their respective spouses and had spent the final few miles resenting us for having already reached the free beer and BBQ. He'd had a tough time out there, but he persisted and finished strong and smiling-and made a beeline for the IPA. He proved to himself that he could tackle the 50k distance, and on a technical course to boot. I was proud of him.

I was happy with my performance too, especially considering how unfamiliar everything was going in. But I think it was thanks to all the unknowns that I executed a successfully patient race strategy, keeping up a pace that tested, but did not entirely destroy, my climbing legs. Plus I got to experience a new area in the best possible way-on trail. It would have been easy to just eat and drink our way through Chattanooga, but a butter-and-bourbon hangover wouldn't have been as rewarding as the StumpJump. We're already wanting to go back for another round of rocky-rooty Souther discomfort-either a second go at the StumpJump or a different local race-and yeah, some more fried chicken and grits, because yum.

Next up for Laura is The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championship next month-good luck!