Race Report – 2018 Mt. Cheaha 50K

The 2018 Mt. Cheaha 50K was HOT!  In fact, this year's race was the hottest on record.  Despite the heat this year, I absolutely LOVE this race.  First, if you have never been to Mt. Cheaha, and you live anywhere in the southeast, you should put it on your list of weekend destinations.  If you run trails, and you want a challenging and extremely well run race, sign up for the Mt. Cheaha 50K.  Read on for my race report for 2018...the hottest year ever :).

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Training and Preparation

I was introduced to trail running in 2014, and I immediately fell in love.  I'm not a road runner, but as soon as I stepped in the woods, I loved running again.  I called my running buddies and told them they had to come check it out, and it turns out they were pretty big fans too.  We met Pat Judd, and he began to guide us in the wonderful world of trail running.

That year, I ran my first 50K at Oak Mountain.  Since then, I've run Tranquility 50K (also at Oak Mountain), and I ran Mt. Cheaha 50K in 2017.  2018 was my second year at Cheaha, and it was just as amazing as my first.

The first question everyone asks when you tell them you are running a 50K (well, after they figure out it's around 31 miles) is, "How do you train for that?"  Well, I'm sure everyone trains very differently.  My running partners and I all do Fixed on Fitness workouts four days a week.  These workouts translate perfectly to trail running, so we actually don't run much during the week.  We run the trails at UWF on Saturdays.  For Mt. Cheaha, we started actual "training" in December (about 12 weeks out).  

Our training runs typically start out around 10 miles.  One thing I learned quickly is that all trail miles are "ish"....so, whether or not it's exactly 10 miles, I don't know, and I really don't care.  Training progresses on with some 12 mile runs and then a few 15s.  We ended up doing one 20 mile run this year, and that was about four weeks out from the race.

The weekend after our 20 mile run was the Pensacola Double Bridge 15K, so we ran that at a fairly brisk pace and counted it as a training run.  Following the Double Bridge 15K was a beautiful taper.  We lifted light at camp, and started easing back on the long runs, finishing the last two weeks with a 10 mile run and an 8 mile run.

Quite a few of us from FOF trained this year - myself, Emily Speed (my ride or die trail running partner and our Perdido trainer), Erica Dickens, Kevin Madderra, Jackie Madderra, Kayla Hamel, Dan Schebler, and Jon MacKinnon  

Race Day

Race day came, and it was so HOT.  Despite looking at the weather app hundreds of times leading up to race day, the weather didn't change.  We were going to be running in 80 degree weather with pure sunshine.  Yikes!

Race morning went off beautifully.  We were all on time and ready to go.  Nerves were definitely high, but we were all excited.  My plan this year was to stick with John again at the beginning.  He challenges me downhill, and his pace worked very well for me last year.  We took off, and true to any description you will read about this race, ran for about 100 yards, and then we began the conga line of single track.  The pace of the first part of this race is dictated by where you are in the starting pack.  It's narrow and very tough to get around, so you are hanging close with everyone for the first few miles.  As the downhills began, I followed John with Emily close behind me.  I'm not a great downhill runner, so following helped push me to trust my feet and just go for it.

The course opens up nicely, and just before the second aid station, you get a lovely downhill on a gravel road.  Josh was there to meet us, and I was feeling great.  The section of this race from the second to the fourth aid station is by far the hardest for me.  The climbs are brutal, and they feel like they will never end.  Then, you enter the rock garden...ugh, so many dang rocks.  As soon as we found a rhythm, we had to stop again so that we could stay on two feet (I'm not the most graceful runner).  The third aid station is a little cruel...it's an out and back with the out being another climb.  We stayed at the aid station for a bit, I filled up my 2L, and we headed back out.  The rocks continue a bit after the aid station, but then you level out and get some good running ridges.

Almost to Aid Station #3

By the time we got to the fourth aid station, we had found John again.  We were so thankful to see buckets of ice water with sponges.  That cold water felt amazing!  After eating {again}, we took off.  The next few sections of this course are stunning.  You get amazing views of the waterfalls and the creeks.  The creeks were high enough to get in this year.  This was a huge relief from the heat.  I really could have laid down if I knew I would have been able to get back up and start running again.  The ridges are so pretty (but definitely slanted).  Emily and I were both feeling pretty good.  The good news about having an amazing running partner is that usually only one of you is struggling at a time.  Emily had been kicking rocks constantly, so she was battling some nice blisters while I was just trying not to run into any trees or slide off the ridge.  

We saw Josh again at the fifth aid station.  Even better than seeing him was seeing popsicles.  I haven't had a popsicle in years, and this one might have been the best one I've ever tasted.  Following the popsicles came the long gravel road that you think you should be able to run, but 27 miles into the race, it just didn't happen.  Em and I were in good spirits, and we took the entire section easy with a run / walk pattern and plenty of good conversation.  We came up on Lake Cheaha pretty quickly (much faster than I felt like I did last year), and we found our final aid station.

Another thing you already know if you have run this race or have researched it is that "Blue Hell" comes right here.  Mile 29.  The biggest elevation gain of the day, and we were ready for it.  Last year, I cramped so bad climbing this bad boy.  It's only a mile, but it feels like forever, and it is straight UP.  This year was so much better for me than 2017.  We had taken the kids to Cheaha for Labor Day, and we all climbed this trail.  I had to keep reminding myself that Paisley (my 7 year old) did this climb in 45 minutes...I can do this.  Emily loved this part of the race.  She was on my heels, and she was enjoying every minute.  I was not so happy, but I was making it.

One of the Best Parts of the Course

Emily Loving Blue Hell

Once you get to the top of "Blue Hell" the deception begins.  We are in the park.  We have to be close.  Not so much.  You hit the road for a mile or so before hopping back on the trail.  This trail is the Sasquatch Trail, and it is  not flat.  It takes you to the top of the mountain, but then you still aren't done.  Thankfully, the trail evens out as you head back to the lodge and the finish line.  You can hear the music about a mile out, so you know you are close.  In the end, we finished with a smile, feeling like we had conquered the world.  I was a bit slower than last year, but with the weather being 30 degrees hotter, I was thrilled with that.

We Made It!!!!!

Overall, I feel like we had a great race. John finished a few minutes in front of us and had a great day as well.   As always, the volunteers and the aid stations were so amazing!  Trail runners in general are just awesome people, so we had some great conversations throughout the 31 miles.  I'm always amazed at the people that are running this race as a training run for a 100 miler....what?!  

The finish line was perfect!  The food was delicious - burgers, hot dogs, pretty much anything you wanted.  After hanging out and looking over our blisters, we walked back to our cabin to relax for the evening.  We hung out by the fire, had a few drinks, ate some more food, and headed to bed early.

Mt. Cheaha 50K = DONE

Ultra Marathon...Why Not?

As one of my favorite trail shirts says, "The Trails are Calling."  Trail running has so many benefits.  Just simply being in the woods is a stress reliever.  I never thought I would run another marathon until I found trail running.  The ultras that I have done have been some of the best experiences of my life.  They challenge you in a way that nothing else can.  It's physical, it's mental, and it's emotional.

As far as Mt. Cheaha 50K goes, it's an incredible race.  It's not the easiest race, especially for your first ultra, but it's great.  The hills are real, but with the right training, you can do it!  Why not?

Kenzie Presnell

Loving life, enjoying the ride, and trying to live life as healthy as I can.

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