10 February 2018


One of two spectacular waterfalls inside the Cloudland Canyon.
Cloudland Cayon State Park is located in Georgia just southwest of Chattanooga, Tennessee and it is a hidden gem. Well, it had been hidden to me until this weekend, anyway. Friends of mine had run the Cloudland Cayon 50 Miler last year and had described the scenic canyon, so I figured I had to go out there and see for myself. Not being a huge fan of the 50 Mile distance, I was glad to see the 50K option, which fit much better with my training plans for the year. Finally, the driving distance would be less than two hours, so I was committed.
View of the canyon from the rim trail.
I decided to drive up the morning of the race to save hotel costs and spend the money on another race fee, instead. Maybe I should check the timezones ahead of time, because driving from CST to EST meant an hour less sleep and a 3AM wakeup alarm is usually only acceptable for a 100 miler:-) Anyway, I arrived at Cloudland with nearly an hour to spare, which provided sufficient time to stretch my legs after the drive, pick up my bib and get myself ready to run.
The second of the two amazing waterfalls.
As folks were getting ready to run, I bumped into Ryan Ploeckelmann for our first official introduction. I had a quick chat with him at the risk of it ending up on his podcast as a soundbite. I don't know how other feel about it, but I cringe every time I hear my voice recorded somewhere. Anyway, it was great catching up with Ryan and his partner in crime Jeff, who I'd run into at BFC last year as well after getting lost for a bit. Yup, I was one of those fools not reading directions correctly. Anyway, that's a different story.
One of the bridge crossings connecting the stairs leading in and out of the canyon.
Sean got all 50K runners to huddle outside and after a quick call to have fun, we were off at 7:30AM EST. The temps were fairly mild and there was only a slight drizzle here and there in the early going. The race had runners start on a 3 mile road section with quite a bit of downhill, which made for a relaxing and fun stretch of running, allowing runners to jockey for their preferred positions in the field. By the time we hit single track, it was just me and a young fellow from Georgia Tech running along while a lead pack of 6 runners was already out of sight at this point. 
The river was raging due to significant rainfall before and during the race.
I settled in just behind Chris (?) and we ran together until we hit the stairs leading into the canyon. Along the trail at the canyon rim there were quite a few slick spots whenever we hit large rocks. The rain hat left a slight film on top of the rocks and the runner ahead of me had to catch himself a couple of times from going down. I fared much better, never taking a fall or even slipping. I had opted for a minimalist shoe with super aggressive Vibram tread and lugs (Altra KingMT) and they kept me upright and foot issue free all day. I was a bit surprised, since I usually prefer a bit "more" shoe for anything longer than a trail half marathon.
Trail leading in and out of the canyon.
By the time we arrived at the canyon stairs, the runner ahead of me had backed off the pace a bit, so I decided to go past and carefully move down the stairs. Again, footing was not an issue and I was able to move down fairly quickly. Once at the bottom of the stairs, I picked up my pace again as we hit some groomed trail with ups and downs. My legs felt great so I kept moving fairly well. About a quarter mile or so before I reached the turnaround point, the lead pack of 6 passed me in the opposite direction. I was surprised to see all of them together in a small pack and almost felt like I was missing the party:-) Before long, I arrived at the turnaround, I filled up one bottle and continued trucking.
View of the cloud covered canyon from the rim.
I was wearing a vest instead of carrying a hand bottle (my usual 50K fuel carrier), because the official race rules called for mandatory windbreaker. Yeah, I think I was the only one that read that "memo", but just as well, I carried my fuel and two bottles, which allowed me to skip an aid station there and there. I also carried my phone as I was determined to take some pics. After all, this was a training race for me and stopping for photos ensured that I treated it accordingly, i.e. didn't get caught up in racing until I'd blow up:-)
View of the opposite side of the canyon.
The climb back out of the canyon was interesting and beautiful. Interesting, because I quickly decided to use the European method of climbing steep sections, i.e. placing my hands on my quads to push down as I stepped up, allowing me to move fairly quickly as I skipped every other step, yet not raise my heart rate at all. Beautiful, because we had two out and back sections to run on the way out of the canyon, which presented us with spectacular views of two large waterfalls.
The massive canyon wall along the trail.
I got to the top of the canyon and headed towards the second aid station near the start/finish to fill one of my bottles. On the way, the trail took us along the canyon rim again, allowing me to take a few more pictures of the canyon. The pictures capture just why this place is referred to as "a park above the clouds". 
Spectacular canyon view, even if most of it is covered in fog, mist and clouds.
To be honest, I was dreading the next 18 or so miles a bit. They looked like a flatish 9 miles out and 9 miles back on paper, which meant lots of running and no excuses to walk. In addition, I would be running by myself for quite a while and likely not see anyone until I'd reach the turnaround point to head back to the finish. I decided to just go to work. I carried enough fluids to skip the unmanned aid station and finally made it to the "turnaround" point, or so I thought. You could say I was a bit deflated when Sean informed me that I had a 2-3 mile lollipop loop ahead of me before getting back here to head back.
The Cloudland Canyon as seen from one of the main viewing points along the rim trail.

After a couple of F-bombs I continued on. The leaders were about 20 minutes ahead with one or two runners just ahead of me. I managed to pass one runner on the loop before arriving back at the aid station. I was reenergized, knowing that I was now truly headed to the finish. In addition, I started seeing lots of runners headed in the opposite direction. The real benefit of out and back courses is the energy shared between runners. I cannot overemphasize of how great it is to receive and give encouragement to and from other runners. It really kept me going steady all the way to the finish, where Sean waited with a high five, a finisher pint glass and a couple of kegs of beer.

Coming into the Canyon around mile 7 or 8.
Great course, great people, great volunteers, great beer and great conversation, thanks to everyone involved! Put this one on your calendar for a challenging 50K with scenic views that highlight some of the best the Southeast has to offer.

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