Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cummins Falls Marathon - Astonishing!

Marathon and half marathoners gather at the starting line while Cummins Falls murmurs nearby. Photo of runners by Tom Glynn.

            Despite my urging Josh Hite didn’t decide to run the inaugural Cummins Falls Marathon until late the day before the race. Then he sent me a text:

“Chances are that I will run a marathon tomorrow.”
             And so he did.
            Good thing, too—he won, finishing in a time of 3:13:56. That’s not likely a time that will impress anyone who was not there. The course is challenging, bringing an insane climb at mile 17, and Josh had been undecided because of a recent bout with the flu followed by an injury from a fall on an icy patch. The injury healed just in time.
            A gray sky, 40 degrees, and calm winds greeted the 197 runners assembled at Cummins Falls on Saturday, February 23. Runners spread across four races held that morning—a marathon, half marathon, 10K, and 5K. Twenty eight had registered for the marathon. They knew what they faced. The course map and profile had been posted on the race’s Facebook page, here:
http://www.runningahead.com/maps/a0e701fd73ed4927 a57517a8f432ffa0?unit=mi

“One big downer, one big upper, and eight miles of routine hell to pay...”

           Half marathoners and marathoners started and ran together for the first five miles, until the former split left on Perry Smith Road. Just 1.5 miles into the run we plunged into the gorge carved by the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River, the stream that makes Cummins Falls. We ran alongside that river until it joined Roaring River—also a State Scenic River—followed it for two miles and then turned up Morrison’s Creek, which drains another narrow valley. At the head of that valley, the course demanded payback. A crushing climb called Chaffin Hill at mile 17 delivered marathoners back to the plateau on which they’d started, and to which they were bound to return.
            For eight miles after that, the route followed a roller coaster along a ridge known as Seven Knobs. Suffering runners will tell you that Seven Knobs has at least a dozen knobs. Other roads followed, bringing more dips and climbs. The last eight miles, on legs already wasted by Chaffin Hill, were bitterly hard. The course profile looks like a mountain turned upside down.
            Put in geologic terms, runners started on the Highland Rim, descended into the Nashville Basin and climbed back out again, a traverse encompassing millions of years in geologic time. But runners measure time in seconds.

“…I trailed by 30 sec until 17. Then Hite crushed me.”  - @thunderruns

            Andrew Holbrook, a friend of Josh and mine, also ran the marathon. Andrew grew up in Cookeville but now operates a running store in Roanoke, Virginia. His Twitter handle is @thunderruns. Since they are the same age, 35, and both accomplished runners, I expected Josh and Andrew to have a competitive race. That was true for 11 miles. At that time Josh pulled ahead by 30 seconds. Then, for Andrew, the crux came in the hard climb in mile 17, as he tweeted me above. Andrew ended by finishing in third place, with a time of 3:28:24.
            Third place for Andrew, because Franklin Baker, 33, of Cincinnati, Ohio ran a spirited race. Franklin, the son of well-known mid-state runner Bill Baker, was able to finish in a time of 3:15:39, taking second place.

Virginia marathoner Andrew Holbrook runs to a third-place finish. Photo by Bombdog Hamilton.

            On the women’s side, Donna Dworak, 48, took first place honors in a time of 4:38:11. Karen Austin, 60, of Nashville finished second, with 4:51:19. Altogether, 23 runners managed to complete the marathon.

“Hold me and make it stop!

            For myself, the oldest runner there at age 72, I managed to trudge across the finish line after precisely four hours, one minute and 52 seconds, to finish in eighth place overall, first place for runners over 60.
            While half marathoners and marathoners were out on their courses, 10K and 5K races were held.  Men and women winners of the half, 10K and 5K were:
            Half Marathon (45 finishers). Brian Shelton, 34, 1:20:59; Ginny Bond, 31, 1:46:02
            10K (48 finishers). J. D. Pollard, 27, 49:29; Erin Rainer, 27, 49:39
            5K (64 finishers). Tracy Yoder, 49, 20:06; Anne Sharpe, 33, 22:35

Cookeville runners Jennifer Hackbarth Parks and Gabriel Gitan help Jennifer Scarlett, center, up a hill. Photo by Bombdog Hamilton.

“Where the scenery is hardcore and the course is hardrun.”

            Despite the vast differences in our ages, overall-winner Josh Hite and I are running partners. I’m sure he runs a little slower when he runs with me, while I run a little faster. Nonetheless, somehow it works. One of our favorite things is to make what we call adventure runs in Jackson County, following loops across the hills, ridges and hollows. Hills like Chaffin Hill are hardly new to us. Indeed, we’d run most of the course for this marathon before Cummins Falls Park existed, before the idea for this marathon was born. 
Pastoral scenes greeted runners all along the course, this one on Blackburn Fork. Photo by Cyrus Rhode.

            One impromptu run took us down Blackburn Fork just nine days after the historic flood of August, 2010. That flood evinced power we’d never seen. A TTU geology professor later researched the flood. Among his findings: its magnitude fell in the range of a 500-1,000-year flood. It is thus likely such a flood has never occurred on the stream since Europeans settled in North America.
            Our run that day was in a landscape Saturday’s marathoners would scarcely have recognized. We climbed through house-sized piles of uprooted trees, waded the river, and ran where a road only used to be. The experience so enthralled it became the ultimate chapter in my 2011 book, Going Down Slow.

Marathoners ran beside the river and bluffs. Photo by cummins Falls State Park.

            The road has now been repaired beyond its original condition. Two bridges on side roads have not been rebuilt, but the main bridge at Zion Road has been replaced by a higher, longer bridge. 
            The Blackburn Fork landscape remains rustic, still one of my favorite places. Many of Saturday’s runners commented on the course’s outstanding scenic beauty.
            A note on Jackson County. Cummins Falls lies only a routine run from where I sit in my home in Cookeville, county seat of Putnam County. Although near Cookeville, Cummins Falls State Park and the marathon course lie entirely in Jackson County, one of the state’s more pastorally rural and sparsely populated counties. It was that county marathoners saw.
            And they saw it as few outsiders ever have. But not just outsiders, it’s likely that even most people who live in Jackson County have never seen Morrison’s Creek. The marathoners saw it intimately. They saw Chaffin Hill, and they’ll never forget it. Seven Knobs, they’ll never forget. They will tell amazed stories to running friends back home. Those runners will come to run next year, and the next.
           Alex Forest, Maine, on Facebook: “I’ll never forget that hill nor will I ever complain about hills again! Thank you for a wonderful day, awesome hospitality, and a memorable experience.”
            @Karenruns, Twitter: “4:51 bitch of a course, 2nd female overall.”
            Danny Staggs, Facebook: “Beautiful course!”
            Bill Baker, Facebook: “Wow,The toughest half course I remember running—ever…”

“Thank you all for a great job. It was SO hard but beautiful,” Karen Austin, Facebook

            Runners were unanimous in their thanks and praise of rangers and volunteers. It takes a large body of helpers. Race Director Ray Cutcher brought together an outstanding team.
            Often a lone marathoner ran into an aid station where from five to a dozen volunteers waited to offer water, sports drinks, food, anything needed. I felt guilty for having so much help. And I never saw so many rangers in one area, sitting with blue lights flashing for traffic control, or pointing runners in the right direction at remote intersections. Other state parks must have been short-handed of rangers that day.
            Friends of Cummins Falls State Park sponsored the race in an effort to improve the park and eventually buy enough land to protect the view shed. An immediate concern is to protect the park’s hemlock trees from the woolly adelgid. That insect has already killed many hemlocks in the Smokies. Spraying works. “The spray lasts for three years,” Friends member Jim Whitaker told me. In that time natural protection may be found in the form of an insect that preys on the woolly adelgid.

Unique age-group and finishers’ medallions were made of laser-cut wood.

            The Friends outdid themselves. The success of this year’s race establishes a base from which future editions will grow. Finisher Cyrus Rhode, on Facebook:  “I would dare say that this could be the signature marathon for the great State of Tennessee.”     
            From the whole spectrum of big-time races, little-time races and those in between, I’ve never seen post-race food like Ruby Tuesdays brought to Cummins Falls. They spread a full cafeteria—even including that Southern favorite, sweet iced tea. Ruby Tuesdays deserves recognition for their outstanding contribution.
            And if I were in the market for a kayak, I’d give Jackson Kayak of Sparta, Tennessee my business. I’ve never seen such a generous door prize as the one they donated, a 14-foot kayak with MSRP of $1299.
“Double proud.”

            For myself, I’m proud my running partner Josh Hite took first overall. Since I won about all I could expect to win, one has to say we did okay. Mutt and Jeff, in terms of speed, but we do, after all, go out and run those hills. It pays off, and the boys did alright. I’m putting it down as a good day. I hope to be there again next year.