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A Race Above Them All

Check out this excerpt from a book written by ultrarunner Hunter Potts about his first ultra running experience at Cloudland Canyon last year, which he WON. Thank you, Hunter, for sharing with Team Run Bum!


A Race Above Them All - By Hunter Potts

Within seconds from the start, I had created a small gap between myself and the rest of the field and am rollicking down the hill away from the group lodge towards a sharp lefthand turn that leads to the entrance of the park. I notice two things immediately within the first few minutes of the run. One, my hydration pack sounds like my twins having their nightly bath time wrestling match. Each step adds to the symphony of rhythmic sloshing that is louder than even my own footsteps on the pavement. A similar occurrence had befallen me on one of my trainings runs and was occurring now because I had not emptied enough air out of the pack before putting it on. After trying to strap the pack down tighter and various ways of adjusting the bladder’s position on my back I finally give in and settle in with the fact that I will have to drink some extra water at the start to get the water and air level to even out. The other thing I notice right away, as soon as I make the left hand turn away from the spotlights around the group lodge building, it that it is pitch black dark all around. The sun has not yet decided to grace the racecourse with even a sliver of its shining brilliance. There is very minimal lighting throughout the park and even as I pass by the campground the dim security lights do little to light my path on the park road. As a pickup truck slowly rounds past me, I figure maybe it is the lead car coming to guide me to the first trailhead that is about three miles further down the road. However, it keeps on rambling past and turns out of sight, taking the path of illumination with it. For the first mile and half the only light I have is that from the other runner’s headlights who are trotting behind, their positions holding steady. Taking advantage of their lights I can make out enough of the road ahead to see the middle pavement striping and do my best to run in straight line. A few minutes later, I come upon the second turn of the race, where I had seen the pick-up turn moments before, and make a sharp right turn onto another park service road. This road, from the pre-race video and park map, will take me all that way to the start of the west rim trail around the canyon. From then on, the rest of the race will be almost exclusively on singletrack forest trails. When I make the turn, I lose what little light the following runners were providing and am thrust into darkness. By this time though, my eyes are well adjusted enough to the low light and the sun is just now starting to greet the day. I can see well enough on the open road to follow the route ahead. When I get to a fork in the road, I spot a few race volunteers who are standing by a sign with blinking lights emphasizing the signs direction with the point of the arm and a gentle smile. Their smiles make me happy; it is good to see people up so early taking time out of their day to volunteer for an event like this. I smile back and give them a salute of gratitude. Making the turn, I am on the course proper, and as I enter the forest what little light, I had from the sun is vanquished. I pull out my phone and turn on its dim flashlight. My phone’s light is the only thing between me tripping head over heels on some stray root or me missing my mark and going off-trail. This first section of the trail prior to hitting the wall of the west rim of the canyon is exhilarating. I proceed for the next two miles or so to gallop over fallen limbs, sharp rocks, and shallow crevices. I try my best my best to maintain a solid pace on the uneven terrain. Already, the topography on this section of trail is vastly different from what I usually run-on back home. As I navigate my way through dense forest, out of the corner of my eye I spot some shining lights in the distance. I do several double takes between trying to comprehend what I am seeing and ensuring I don’t “bust it” on the trail. Far below me, I see a sprawling network of lights. Their source, the City of Trenton. The city is ablaze with telephone poles, homes, and street signs that, from this distance and time of night, are dazzling to behold. The whole town appears silent and still, in stark contrast to my current mode of being. As I come to a clearing in the trail, I quickly realize that I am not so much looking at a clearing but rather a quarter mile wide open-faced canyon whose depths lie several hundred feet below me. My mind flashes back to the park map that I had memorized, and I know exactly where I am. The race route follows along the edge of the canyon from here, where I had just glimpsed down into the valley to all the way down to the waterfall trail that I had walked the day before. Now, all I had to do was navigate the path down there. Running along the rim, I continually glance over to my left and enjoy the splendor of the canyon at this hour. The canyon is receiving just enough light that I can make out the other side of the rim and see to the bottom of the gulch below where the steep sandstone cliffs are peeking through a dense carpet of hardwoods and hemlocks along the canyon’s edge. After observing this for a few minutes I decide I want to take a better look at the splendor below and come to a brief stop at a fenced in lookout point. I had not planned on stopping during the race, but my heart wins out in this moment, I may never be here again or have the chance to observe the canyon this way, at night, alone, in the pre-dawn hours. I walk up to the guardrail fence and peer down below; the canyon is still asleep. All is eerily silent until a noise breaks through the stillness. I quickly realize it is the sound of another runner behind me. With a quick scan of the trees, I can see a lone headlight spearing through the darkness. Immediately, I set off running again. For the next several minutes I can feel this person slowly gaining on me. I keep to my running pace and do not put in any speed inflections. I know that at around mile six I will be hitting the staircase section down to the waterfalls. Once there, I will be walking that portion of the run. I have no interest in taking those damp stairs at a running pace for fear of slipping or burning up too much energy early on. As I begin descending along several switchbacks, I realize I am getting close to the waterfalls trail which means, as the director mentioned in the video I watched last night, that I am about halfway complete section one of three of the overall race. As I make my way down the first staircase, I do another body check. Having eaten half a banana a few minutes earlier and drinking water about every fifteen minutes my energy levels still feel great and my body is just getting warmed up. My only point of discomfort currently is that I am sweating profusely, and I am only less than an hour in. When I get to the first waterfall, I take a quick selfie with my phone and hop back on the stairs once again heading to Hemlock Falls. On the way, I pass by the official race photographer who apologetically regrets that he did not get to the falls sooner. It appears that Cherokee Falls is one of the official race photo stops and I hold out hope that there will be another one on the race. At least I got a selfie. I also pass by the second-place runner who appears lean and well outfitted for the task at hand sporting a name brand hat, race vest, water bottles, and calve sleeves. We give each other a verbal good morning greeting and let each other pass on by. Feeling that I need to push the pace, I quickly hit the next two waterfalls and head out onto the Sitton’s Gulch Trail. The first mile of the trail here is full of several steep downhill sections that I proceed to run down at a full sprint. In the weeks leading up the race, I had adopted a new philosophy when it came to running down hills. Instead of easing off the pace and running more on my heels, in effect putting on the brakes, I had been opening my stride, lifting my knees, and letting the force of gravity carry me down. As I zoom down a steep hill, I involuntarily let out a yell of excitement “Whoo!”. Going downhill at breakneck speeds trying to navigate around large trees, a babbling brook on one side, and the treacherous rocky terrain is truly exhilarating. Each incline I go down I let out another scream of joy and I wonder if anyone else can hear me. Once past the downhill section I come to the point just after where I had turned around yesterday and head out onto a mostly flat section of trail for the next three miles. I glance down at my Garmin and my confidence is boosted when I see that I am once again running at goal pace, under eight minutes per mile. On the staircase section earlier, I had been averaging over eleven minutes per mile. When I spot the Sitton’s Gulch aid station, I take the race volunteers by surprise. As I press on towards their pop-up tent, under which is all manner of race snacks and goodies, they all shout for joy and give me kind words of encouragement. I let them know my race number for tracking purposes and tell them that I do not need any extra water or food. As I start to run past them, they kindly chime in that this is the turnaround point and that I need to go back the same way I came. “Of course!” I had forgotten about this section on the map. My brain quickly reverts to running the other direction and it takes a second for my body to respond to the dead-stop turnaround. A few minutes later and I am back at my goal pace and pass by the second-place runner who charging for the aid station. I had started counting the time since I left the turnaround point and calculated that I had put in over three minutes on him in this section following the waterfalls. As I run on, I begin to pass the rest of the field of athletes who are all heading out to the first aid station. I give each and every one of my fellow runners a casual wave or greeting of some sort. Being the first runner though, almost all the runners tell me something to the effect of “good job” or “keep it up” before I have a chance to do the same. In my mind, even though I am leading the pack we are all here for the same mission, to finish the race. Win or lose, fast or slow, all that matters is if we can finish. Passing by the other runners gives me a lot of encouragement, especially when I hit uphill sections that I had flown down a few minutes previously. I submit to powerwalking on these hills and running on their crest and downhills. I quickly find that walking the uphill sections, because of their steepness, is just as fast as running 135 them and I feel no shame in doing so. Walking up a steep section, I recall the pre-race video from yesterday evening, and feel that this is part of the “pick and choose your battles moments” that the race director was referring to. My legs begin to feel quite heavy as I march up the last few hill sections and make it back to the staircases. Thankfully, the lactic acid buildup in my quads is able to drain away as I walk up the stairs towards the canyon rim once again. If this any sign for what I was to be in for the rest of the day, I was beginning to get a little worried. On the staircase ascent I take in some extra water and a half of a granola bar to keep my energy levels up. Once out of the canyon, I hop on the West Rim Loop Trail, pass by the Main Overlook and then run southeast on a connector trail that will take me back to the Group Lodge for the completion of the first loop of the course. As I amble up another punchy climb, my phone vibrates. “Who is calling me at this hour?” I reach into my race vest and pull out my phone. I swipe right on the screen and say as a casually as possible a good morning greeting to my wife Heather. Just another day on the trail. She lets me know that she has “officially” gotten out of bed with the kids and is now making breakfast for them. I inform her that I am well over an hour in and am still in first place. I feel the excitement in her voice as she proceeds to quiz me with her typical “twenty questions”. I do my best to try and relate just what I am experiencing here. As I am talking, I hear several people cheering in the distance. I glance around and see a clearing through trees where there are several race volunteers and spectators all cheering me on. I realize that this is Group Lodge, and I am the first runner to arrive at this checkpoint. I give Heather a quick sit-rep, “People are cheering for me – I gotta go”. I tell her that I love her and will call her back later. I stash my phone away and burst out of the trees running towards the volunteers who are manning the Group Lodge Aid Station. I once again let them know my race number and when they offer food and water let them know that I am still good with my packed provisions. I make the turnaround, another dead stop turn, pass by the finishing shoot, I will see you later pal, and head back out on the trail to complete the Bear Creek Backcountry Trail, which makes up the bulk of section two of the race. As I plod along, I am thankful that the connector trail leading from the Group Lodge to the start of the Bear Creek trail is relatively flat. I make good time for another mile or two before coming to a sharp descent that leads down to a wide flowing stream. I recall on the park map and pre-race video this is the one part of the race that concerned me the most before beginning. The race director early on mentioned that during this crossing that “your feet will get wet, just accept it and move on”. In my race planning I toyed around with several scenarios to avoid having to wear waterlogged shoes for the second half of the race, taking my shoes off completely, wearing waterproof socks, bringing an extra pair of shoes, etc. but nothing had seemed like a practical idea. I settled on just adapting to the situation as it presented itself on race day. Before I can even see the actual crossing point of Bear Creek though, I first have to navigate a down a treacherous damp slope. “They call this a trail?” I give up any notion of running down this section of trail having to literally step-hobble over sharp rocks and slick mud. I am prevented from taking a tumble by grabbing onto various trees on the way down every few feet to slow my fall and regain my footing. When I get to the bottom I am greeted by the gentle sound of rushing water and get my first look at the creek crossing. The creek is about twenty feet wide at the crossing point, marked by several flat smooth river rocks that have been naturally placed in a somewhat straight line from one side of the creek to the other. This appears to be the best route. The alternative is to go a few feet above the narrow land bridge and wade through the small pond, created by the bridge that is at least few feet deep. Needing to come to a decision, I think back to my childhood. Ever since I fell in a creek, trying to perform a similar creek crossing to this one on a family vacation in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park I have successively always managed to slip while crossing a stream over a natural land bridge. I swallow that history and proceed to tip toe across the rocks. The rocks have been worn smooth by the running water and this same smoothness also makes them quite slick. I can feel my shoes struggle to find footing until the full weight of my body is pressed down. I make slow progress as I amble over each rock until, with a final hop, I cover the last few feet and make it the other side of the creek with barely a drop of water on my shoes. Success! I take the momentum of this small victory with me as I hit the opposite side of the narrow ravine. Climbing up the cliff wall, I think to myself what a crazy event this is. It is more than just running; it’s full-on adventure, it’s survival. My adventurous spirit is somewhat stifled when the steepness of the hill catches up with me. My legs are starting to feel a bit stiff, like the type of stiffness one gets the next day from performing a super strenuous workout the day before. That would typically not be a problem, except I was experiencing that same feeling now as I am racing. If sore muscles are just micro tears of muscle fibers, I wonder if it is possible for me to tear so many muscle fibers that I would have to stop running. I shake away these thoughts of doubt and regain my composure, focusing on the task at hand. The Bear Creek loop is a newly created section of trail that is essentially one giant lollipop loop that explores the middle east section of the park. The terrain is mostly flat however the scenery is totally different from the Rim Trail that I just came from. I observe an expansive landscape littered with tall slender mostly bald trees all shrouded in a dense fog that limits my visibility to just a few hundred feet all around. The contrast between the white fog and earth brown leaves on the forest floor is serenely beautiful. This beauty is only slightly diminished as I learn what the fog means for me. The dense mist has saturated the several inch thick layer of fallen leaves on this section of trail and within minutes of running through them my feet are soaked to the bone. So much for keeping my feet dry. I hear no other living thing around me as I continue running along up and down the rolling hills. Even though my pace has dropped off considerably, hovering around twelve-minute miles in the difficult terrain, I am still in first place at fourteen miles in with no signs of any chasers for the past hour. As I arrive back to the beginning of the lollipop loop, I turn right towards the trail that leads back to the creek crossing. Along this route I pass by many of the other athletes once again. Everyone looks a bit more haggard than they did when I first saw them and the obligatory keep up the good work chants come, but with a bit more exasperation than before. It appears everyone is feeling the difficulty of the terrain, but spirits are still high as each runner greets me with a smile as I pass by. Back at the Creek Crossing, I come across a few athletes who are nervously creeping along the slick rocks to avoid taking a plunge on either side. Behind them, a few other runners decide the land bridge is not worth it and take a stab at the open water creek crossing. They hop into the near waist deep water, thereby breaking the concentration of the runners who are teetering along the natural bridge. I offer to help the runners coming across the bridge and reach out a steadying hand to assist two thankful runners across. Safely across, we part ways and I continue my own crossing, tiptoeing over the bridge once again then back up the steep climb. After several minutes of running my GPS beeps, signifying another mile down and I see that I am fifteen miles in, roughly halfway there. My time is over two and half hours. I immediately think back to my race plan - this is going to take a lot longer than I thought. As I try to wrap my brain around a new race plan I am greeted by a familiar voice, “Is this first place, perfect timing!”. The race photographer has just arrived at his second photo stop of the day and is busy setting up his camera when he spots me. I give a big wave, two thumbs up, and smile for a photo before pressing on – there is a lot of ground yet to cover. The last leg of the race is another out back lollipop loop, but this time is along the Cloudland Connector Trail. The Connector Trail joins the over twenty miles of hiking trails at the state park with the Five-Points Recreation Area. In total, this hiking trail section is over fourteen miles long. The Connector Trail was the missing link that completed a tenyear trail building project that features over sixty miles of hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails in the area. As I get to the next checkpoint for the last leg of the race, another pop-up tent aid station, several race volunteers greet me with clapping and words of affirmation. For the first time, I stop and see what types of supplies they have. After checking my hydration bladder, I feel that I still have plenty of water for the remainder of the race and only grab a few food items. I down a shot of pickle juice, which I was hoping was Gatorade, a face scrunching shock, and gallop down the trail. I scarf down a granola bar and half a PB & J which help rid my mouth of the pickle taste and take a Honey gel. I wash all of this down with a few swigs of water and push on. At about 20 miles in, I am sufficiently tired now. During my first marathon in 2016, I had been running along at a sub 6 minute 45 seconds per mile pace when at this same mileage point, I hit a wall and dropped to a 7 minute 45 seconds per mile pace for the last six miles. I am feeling that same wall trying to creep up on me mentally now. I switch up my tactics and decide to run three quarters of a mile then walk a quarter mile. With this strategy I click of the next three miles well under ten-minute mile pace. The terrain here is undulating singletrack that cuts its way through a dense forest. My watch beeps for the twenty fourth time and I take a short walking break. In the middle of taking a long sip of water I hear a hissing noise. My hand shoots around to feel my back and I realize I have misjudged my water needs. As I suck out the last air bubbles to get just a little more hydration, my mind starts to spin with various scenarios. I am out of water, I have six miles to go, I will be out of water for at least another hour. I silently scold myself for being so careless. My pace slows as I try to conserve my energy. I continue plodding along for another mile. I feel tired - not just physically but mentally. I have been alone on the trail for over four hours and the isolation of being in the heavily canopied forest is inducing a sense of claustrophobia. I pull out my phone and make a quick call to Heather. She answers immediately. I give her a brief update letting her know that I am still in the lead but am having trouble staying motivated as I am out of water and my muscles are starting to scream for a break. She reassures me by letting me know this is what I have trained for, that these feelings of doubt are part of the experience, that I need to push through them. She brings me back to center, as she has done so many times in the past, and my resolve picks up. I think back to my training runs and my motivation for doing the race, not only for myself but for my family, loved ones, and my creator. To do something, truly, that I did not know if I could complete. An ultimate test of will power. She stays on the line while I run another mile. As the trail opens up, it lets in a light mist of rain that begins pilfering through the trees. Having not seen a trail marker for a while, I ask Heather if she can see where I am. She excitedly shouts an affirmative and lets me know she has been tracking me on her phone via the Life 360 app. We both look at my GPS location and she assures me that I am on the right track. By her calculations I should be coming around to the turnaround point soon. As the rain starts to pick up, I let her know I need to put my phone back in my vest to prevent it from getting too wet and say a heartfelt goodbye. After running another half mile or so I realize I have not hit any sort of turnaround point. In my mind, I feel that if know when I make the turn back to the trailhead, it will help me to get a better sense of how hard I can push myself without overloading. With the rain having slacked off, I pull out my phone again and try to make out my location relative to the trail map. As I am doing so, my mind flashes back to the Safety Tips of the park brochure, “Don’t count on cell phones to work in the wilderness” – go figure. Even still, I walk along trying to pinpoint my exact location. As I am doing so, I hear a crunch of leaves behind me. The noise is surprisingly loud amidst the quiet forest. I snap a glance behind me and see another runner bounding up the trail towards me. I take off running again as the runner closes in. We greet each other and I let the runner know that I am glad to see someone on the course as I was thinking I may have made a wrong turn. The runner is a young woman, similar in age to me, and she looks very comfortable in her stride. After a short dialogue we both agree that we are on the correct route and push forward together. A half mile or so later, I spot the sign for the turnaround point that leads back to the connector trailhead and subsequent finish line. I feel better about my overall condition and feel that I can make it to the finish without needing any additional water. On a steep hill, I charge ahead while the woman behind unhinges and takes the hike option up the hill. I pull ahead and run alone for another near mile long stretch before coming to almost a screeching halt on another sharp incline. As I look behind me, I can see the bouncing stride of the young woman coming down some switchback turns. I do my best to pick up the pace again. For the first time all day, I feel that I am racing as opposed to solely trying to finish the event. The competition serves to take my mind off the physical exertion and helps me focus on running. The terrain is tough, and each little hill forces me back to walking, my quads are starting to shut down after having gone up and down so many hills today. As I hit mile marker twenty-seven according to my Garmin, I am doing my best to push up a small chasm when the young woman comes up behind me. This time, instead of setting off in front I latch onto her heels and run behind her. As I try to hang on, she appears to be flying along the trail while I feel like my legs are made of lead. This is the hardest moment I have experienced in the whole race. I have run for just shy of five hours, having led the whole way. I feel that I have done too much hard work to just let the win slip by me. Everything in my life becomes just this one moment. Time slows down. My mind flashes back to every moment of difficulty in my life, all the pain I have every felt, all the hardships, frustrations, hindrances, existential crises’, and failures. I feel their weight. Am I good enough? But through those trials, I found kindness, love, passion, fulfillment, and a sense of oneness with my creator. I made it through all those moments, I came out on the other side better, stronger, more of a man. I will not give up, I will not break, I can push my body past its limits here and hang on until the end, I know I can, I have too. After a mile of following behind in her footsteps we get to another sharp incline. This one is quite long and about halfway up she breaks her stride and begins walking up the hill. I continue the course, my mind forcing my body to keep moving “arm, leg, arm, leg…dodge the root.” I slip past her and push on. Within seconds my Garmin beeps, only two miles to go. I can do this. I put in what speed my legs can muster and knock out a sub nine-minute mile. After another sharp turn I run into another tight section of steep switchbacks. I have no choice; I must walk up these climbs. Halfway up the climb, I see the young woman begin the ascent below me. I once again swallow my pain and exert as much energy as I can into my arms and legs. Within minutes, I am alone again and am wondering just how accurate my Garmin will be to the overall 50K distance. In the pre-race talk the race director mentioned that because of the hills there is no way to get an accurate GPS reading, some of the devices said twenty-nine miles while others said thirty-three. At mile twenty-nine and nearing redlining, I am hoping for somewhere closer to the former. I continue pushing on, my head scanning every gap in the trees for a sighting of the clearing that would mark the site of the Group Lodge and subsequent Race Finish. As I begin to make peace with the concept that I have a few miles to go yet, I round a sharp corner and come into a clearing. Out in front of me, I spot the red inflatable race arch and hear cheers of exhilaration as the race organizers catch sight of me. I try to give a solid sprint for the finish line. I can only manage a slow jog. As I run up to the line, so many thoughts are filling my mind. My whole life has led me to this singular moment. Millions of tiny decisions thousands of miles ran, hundreds of hours of music listened to, marrying my soulmate, starting a family, and most importantly the discovery of my one true purpose – to live a life in pursuit of something greater than myself. Another step…I cross the line…I finish…I did it…I have won the battle!

 

To read the rest of Hunter Pott's book, please follow this link:

the-pursuit-of-an-ultra-life.pdf (wordpress.com)

Want to have your own epic experience? Join us at this year's race! Spots are still available in all distances, but will likely sell out : CLOUDLAND CANYON 50M / 50K/ HALF / 5M

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