Old Friends Meet at Mountain Mist
By Gary Griffin
The Mountain Mist Trail Run – 2006
Monte Sano State Park
Under general information on the Mountain Mist web site it says:
“Expect anything…including cancellation due to inclement weather (the mountain can ice over)! Temperatures can range from 10 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This course consists of extremely rocky mountain trails, mud, and creek crossings. Not to mention the 3526 feet of climbing!! There is a vertical climb on the course that requires the use of your upper body.”
And a little later it states:
“Runners over 60 – CAUTION! Very few runners over 60 have made the cutoff and gone on to finish.”
Despite, or maybe because of the dire warnings, GWTC was well represented at the Mountain Mist Trail 50K Run. Members Gary Griffin (5:32:10; 50th), Dana Stetson (5:58:27; 95th), Jeff Bryan (6:12:01; 115th), Jo Lena Pace (7:40:55; 240th) and Al Barker (7:40:13; 241st) all completed the tough as nails race. 56 year old Gary Griffin gave us the following account of the race, presumably he only has three more years to go.
The e-mail arrived early in the week from the Race Director:
“You are the one responsible for entering this race, so you better be prepared for the course itself. The rocks will have no mercy. I have seen this course rip apart many a “good trail runner.” Mountain Mist is trail running in its finest form. No one is ever let down, just shut down, beaten up, broken and left bleeding. You first timers beware: this course may cause you bodily harm. Even though you have entered the race and paid the fee…YOU CAN STILL BACK OUT! No one will laugh at you. Just tell them your family still needs you and you want to continue running in the future. They’ll understand! Otherwise, know your limits and then completely ignore them.”
As a three-timer at Mist before this year, I thought I pretty much knew what I had gotten myself into. With a forecast for decent race day weather, I was approaching the affair with confidence. Weather conditions are critical in setting the “treachery level” at Mist in my opinion, and the 24 months that had lapsed since I last toed the starting line had dulled my already feeble memory of the difficulties of the Monte Sano trails. So Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful and about 300 of us gathered for the start. I hooked up early with Tom Thornton from Louisville, who I had met at Ky Arches back in November and fellow-Darksider Prince Whatley, now of Birmingham. Prince had endured Mountain Mist in the mud and ice year of 2005 and was coming in off a 3:07 marathon at Rocket City in early December and shooting for a sub-6 hour finish. My goal was similar. The three of us worked the trail together for the first 15 miles or so – a section that I never remembered being as user-friendly as it was yesterday.
I was loving the whole experience, feeling strong, but was ever mindful of what lay ahead, as surely Mountain Mist can and will eat you up and spit you out in the last 10 miles. I came upon Jeff Bryan and shortly thereafter, Dana Stetson in the miles from 15 to 17 and then ran a spell with Andy Hackett, who had just won the Ky Arches 34-Miler in November. Andy has developed into a terrific downhill runner – a skill that I think is an absolute necessity if one is to run fast on this course. The rocks and the steep uphills are unforgiving, but if you can run with confidence on the downhills and let gravity do its thing without causing lasting trauma to your body in the process, you can put some distance between you and your fellow runners. And so it was that at mile 20, I watched Andy literally throw himself down a steep half-mile descent and I hung onto him for dear life. It was exhilarating and spooky at the same time, as we bounced through and over the boulders.
Upon arriving at the bottom I took inventory and found no blood and all appendages still attached. Maybe it was that burst of adrenalin but by the time I arrived at the dreaded mile-long Waterline Trail at mile 23 I was feeling stronger than ever at this point in the race. Waterline is a nasty, unrelenting rugged uphill climb to a waterfall that has a way of leaving you wondering how you will ever survive another 7 miles to the finish. This year I was able to run portions of it for the first time and after literally crawling and pulling myself over the last edge with my hands, arrived at top with still a bit of hope in a decent finish. That hope continued as I ran alone for the next 3-4 miles and then arrived at what I have always felt was the toughest part of Mountain Mist – another mile long climb to the final aid station at mile 29. This thing has always reduced me to a groveling, whining heap of humanity and this year was not a whole lot different. I arrived at the top depleted and very thirsty, having figured that there was no need to carry a bottle in this thing. I hurriedly gulped two cups of Coke, and glanced at my watch and realized I needed to run 2 sub-8 minute miles to break 5:30.
Fortunately, the last 2 miles are level and mostly without hazard, at least for anyone with any legs left under them. I managed to get to mile 30, but just past the milepost somehow took a tumble on a root that probably protruded all of ½ inch. I must have been thoroughly wasted because the next thing I felt was my face and forehead making contact with the hard ground, followed by my left knee slamming into a rock on the side of the trail. I lay there groaning and stunned, not knowing if I could even get up and finish. I’m thinking, “You ran 30 miles of the nastiest, rocky, rooty trail in the southeast US and never came close to falling and now on something that looks like I-10 you go down and knock yourself out of the race. Good work, klutz!” I got up and walked a bit still not knowing if I was going to be able to run. My head hurt and my knee was throbbing but I began an easy jog and as it loosened up, I ran a bit harder. I went perhaps another half mile and as I was crossing over a small wooden bridge I fell again! I couldn’t believe it. That one made me mad more than anything and another runner nearby said that he could see the lodge at the finish. He said that he wanted to break 5:30 but realized now that he wasn’t going to make it. The thought that this thing was about over led me to try and run hard to the line, but 100 yards out I fell a third time, this one near enough that it was viewed by the finish line crew. I somehow managed to get myself across the line before humiliating myself any more or splattering any more blood along the route. The clock read 5:31:10, within 15 seconds of what I ran there in 2003, good enough for 4th in the 50+ age group, and faster than anyone over 54. My friend Tom from Kentucky followed only three minutes behind, looking none the worse for wear. David Horton, who ran the race in one of his first efforts since setting the record for the 2600+ mile Pacific Coast Trail this past summer was at 5:39, while Andy Hackett (5:40) was close on his heels. Prince beat his sub-6 goal with a 5:51 and Dana came in at 5:58. Jeff fought off a bad patch at mid-race and ran a 6:12. JoLena and Al Barker ran together all day and came in around 7:41.
I came away realizing, again, that Mtn Mist is one tough, tough run. You forget – at least I do – just how rugged the terrain is, particularly in the Land Conservancy leg and on those two punishing uphills in the last 10 miles. I probably had as good a day as I have had since Croom in 2002, and feel very fortunate to be able to say that. Until the fiasco of the last mile, I felt strong and confident all day – one of those rare occasions when everything just seems to go right. The best part, though, was being able to run with old friends again in the challenging environment that is Mountain Mist.
Mountain Mist results at