Another Mountain Mist Experience


Gary Griffin, 


Here we go again. Why is it that I always end up at this keyboard the week after the Mountain Mist 50K, feeling as if I need to put some thoughts down on paper? Maybe it is therapy. Maybe I am trying to understand why I put myself through this year after year. No – this year, as tough as it was, there is another story line. There’s the story of David Yon and the whuppin’ that he put on the mountain.

First , some history.

Dana Stetson and I first stumbled across the Mountain Mist 50K in 1999, back when he and I were just getting into trail running. Lost in my memory is just how it was that we decided to drive to Huntsville, AL one Friday to run in a race that we knew nothing about. We had not entered, we had no hotel room, and we didn’t even know where the race took place except that it was at Monte Sano State Park – wherever that was! I remember looking around for an hour for a hotel room, and then spending the remainder of the afternoon listening to the blaring of tornado warning sirens outside and being amused at the wide-eyed TV meteorologist (who happened to be in a studio on Monte Sano where we were to be the next day). He went on-and-on about how he had never seen so many tornados on his Doppler radar in the Huntsville area. Being a meteorology major myself and having never seen a tornado of any size, I was getting into this part of the adventure far more than I was anticipating the run the next day. The afternoon got even more bizarre when Dana and I attempted to order a Dominos pizza, only be told that we were crazy to expect anyone to get out on the roads in such a situation and that if we wanted a pizza we were going to have to come and get it ourselves. That night it rained 4 inches or so, and I remember looking out the hotel room the next morning over a flooded parking lot, thinking that there was no way there would be a race that day. Silly me. The Race Directors at Mountain Mist live by the same creed as that which is often hung on the mail carriers: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night …” No, they don’t cancel Mountain Mist because of a little rain or snow or ice, or anything for that matter. In fact, I believe the RDs at MM pride themselves on running this annual affair in the worst conditions possible. So, on the off chance there would be a run that day, and since we had driven 7 hours to get there, Dana and I found out how to get to Monte Sano Sate Park. Sure enough, people were gathering as if nothing had happened the night before. Little did we know that the tornado experience was just a harbinger of things to come. We were about to enter a whirlwind of a different kind – one that would eat us up and spit us out and leave us wondering how we were ever going to get back to Tallahassee that night. The course was unlike anything we had ever run before. We struggled up and down the rocky trails for 23 miles or so and were thinking that we just might survive this experience. It was at that point that we had our first encounter with a climb up a waterfall that is known around Monte Sano as The Waterline Trail, or simply “Waterline.” If you ever meet a trail ultrarunner from the southeast and want to see him turn white as a sheet and be struck with terror, simply approach him and ask what he thinks of “Waterline” at Mountain Mist. By our reckoning that day (this predated the GPS era — and there are no mile markers at MM), we figured it had taken us at least 20 minutes to make it up the mile long Waterline Trail. And, as I have told many a friend over the years, if it were not for Dana reaching his hand over the top of the waterfall and pulling my lifeless body over the edge, I would still be out there. I think it was at this point in the race that we first raised the question of how we were going to get home that night! As if Waterline wasn’t enough, the experience took a turn for the worse about 3 miles later when we encountered Rest Shelter Trail. I would rather not talk about this climb because of the memories that it resurrects, but after dealing with 28 miles of Monte Sano it was the last thing I wanted to experience that day. How bad is it? There is an aid station at the top that is situated at just over mile 29. Officially, so they say, there remains only 1.8M to the finish and it is flat and easy like the Overstreet Trails. Oh yeah? That year I think we each fell twice in those last two miles simply from pure fatigue and the inability to pick up the feet enough to avoid a half inch protruding rock. Upon arriving at the finish, Dana commented to the Race Director, “This race is so hard that I won’t even have to go home and lie about it” – a line that has lived on in Mountain Mist lore.

Ultrarunners have short memories, it seems. The ole’ finish line “Never again!” becomes a “We need to do that again!” before the next year rolls around. Such has been the case at Mountain Mist, and 2009 found me at the starting line for the 6th time – again with Dana alongside. Since 1999, others have joined the annual fray. Jeff Bryan is now a regular attendee, as are Ed Baggett and JoLena Pace. Over the years we have been able to talk a few others into making the January pilgrimage to Huntsville, and interestingly enough, most have been members of the fast, road running crowd. Jack McDermott ran up and down the mountain on a glorious day several years ago and Hobson Fulmer caught a bad break when he happened to be there with Jeff in an all-out mud bath several years ago. Poor guy. Glad that I was injured that year. Both Jack and Hobson can go out and run a thee hour marathon or thereabouts most any weekend, but that and four bucks will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Mountain Mist is paved for the first half mile and after that it is you and the rocks and the ice and the mud. Jack and Hobson lived to tell people about the experience but they both get that wide-eyed, sort of hollow stare when the words “mountain” and “mist” are used in the same sentence.

And so, it was with great glee amongst the Mist crowd that we saw the name David Yon on the 2009 entry list. Personally, I was beset by a bit of fear, for the wrath of Mary Jean was going to come down on me if something happened to him out there on the mountain. She had warned me against things such as enticing her level-headed husband into such encounters with ultramarathoning. In any case, this would be interesting, for David is not only very fast on the roads but has demonstrated his ability to handle technical trails – though not perhaps to the level that the Monte Sano trails hand out. David was coming off an all out marathon effort in early December at Memphis, where he came within 76 seconds of breaking three hours and brought home the top grandmaster’s award, and a 2:05:44 at the 30K the week before Mist. He was road ready – for sure – but what was he going to do with Mountain Mist?

Race day dawned with a cold rain falling, and as we drove up the mountain to the start we watched the wind pick up and the temperature drop below 32 degrees. The race director warned of ice on a steep downhill section of the trail in the first mile – a place where I had fallen on black ice and nearly knocked myself out several years ago. All-in-all, it was looking to be a typical Mountain Mist Saturday. David went out cautiously and we ran together for the first few miles, up and down the rocky single tracks. I noticed that he was handling the footing well, which I found especially interesting in light of the fact that he was running in a pair of Nike Skylons. You don’t even go up on Monte Sano without hiking boots or trail running shoes! At about mile 5 we hit a section of double track, and David and his Skylons were long gone. I honestly thought that I would come upon him later in the day with his tongue hanging out and blood running down his face, and I would then have to quickly make up some sort of excuse to MJ for what had transpired out there. Going up Waterline I heard about a runner who had broken his fibula in two places and had to be rescued by the EMTs, but when the story was hashed out it turned out that was last year. Doesn’t matter. Coulda been this year just as well. In any case as it turned out, David steadily made his way through much of the elite field for the rest of the day. When all was said and done, he had run 5:14:36 had finished 26th overall (out of nearly 300) and had captured the grandmaster’s award. His performance was even more amazing when one considers the quality of the field that Mountain Mist lures every year and the fact that most are technical trail running veterans who are all too familiar with lies around the next bend.

As happy as I was for David – and for Dana and Jeff and Ed and JoLena for their finishes that day – I was happiest for myself, for David didn’t have a scratch on him and I was not going to have to face MJ and explain to her that David entered this thing on his own volition – words that would have not reached her ears, I’m sure. Oh, he sprained an ankle and fell once or twice, but I believe he will be walking and running again in a few days.

One question remains. Who’s next? Jane? Felton? Tony? Mike? David will be a tough act to follow!