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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