Harsh weather conditions prevailed throughout the Third Annual Cummins Falls Marathon, Saturday, February 21. Runners splashed through ankle-deep slush and pooled water. The cold rain never stopped. Temperatures hovered in the 30s.
Four races were held: marathon, half marathon, 10k, and 5k. Races started and ended at Cummins Falls State Park. The courses follow remote backroads of Jackson County.
Altogether, some 92 runners finished, amazing onlookers, amazing me.
Runner’s feet were continually bathed in ice water, their hands constantly washed by the cold rain. In some 300 races that include Ironman and 100-mile ultramarathons I’ve never seen such severe weather conditions.
Runners did what they could for protection, including using hand warmers, the kind deer hunters use. Hand warmers failed quickly in the wet conditions, gloves became soaked. Some runners had threaded metal screws into the soles of their sneakers, creating what one racer called “poor-man’s cleats.
Lisa Gonzales, Alta Loma, CA and Charlie Taylor, Gallatin, TN, pose for a selfie at Cummins Falls State Park before the race (photo: Lisa Gonzales)
Local residents here can recall that the inclement weather started earlier in the week, on Monday, when ice and snow fell. Frozen precipitation continued off-and-on through the week. Temperatures fell into single digits at night and dwelled below freezing during daytime. That provided a thick based of ice and compacted snow for what followed.
With perfect timing, the peak of the storm came overnight before the race. Four more inches of snow and freezing rain brought down trees and power lines across the region. The entire town of nearby Monterey was without power. I-40 between Cookeville and Monterey was closed. It was the worst ice storm the region has ever seen, an emergence management official claimed.
Those were the conditions that greeted runners at dawn on Saturday. Three times as many runners were registered to run. Some runners stayed home, not from fear of running necessarily but rather because they couldn’t get their cars out of the driveway or sub-division. Roads were blocked by trees and power lines brought down by the ice and snow.
I myself had such problems. The power at my house went off at 4:40 a.m. that morning. I dressed by flashlight and left out, leaving my wife staring into the fireplace, where she remained all day without even coffee. Power would not come back on until after midnight, some 20 hours later.
I choose my 4WD. But I didn’t get further than 200 yards until a tree slanted across the road brought me to a halt. I would learn that a dozen more littered the road ahead, the only way out of my wooded sub-division.
Forced to retreat, I headed to the cul-de-sac near my house and went off-road over my neighbor’s property. I hope they forgive me; my tracks will disappear as soon as the snow melts. I bulldozed through icy treetops, hurled over a brush pile, and emerged on a county road, foliage plastered to the windshield, having broken a light and dented a fender. Damage to the truck would come to $884.67. But I wasn’t worried about that then. I had to get there.
Once at the race location, I quickly ditched my own plans to run the marathon, even though I was wearing the honorific bib Number 1 (thanks Cummins crew). Safety of the runners and the future of the race seemed more important. I wanted to do whatever I could to help. Many volunteers had not shown up. Some of the signs used to mark the course had not been placed at turns on the course.
Volunteer Anthony Ladd and RD Ray Cutcher build a pontoon bridge across Blackburn Fork for the half marathon course on Friday, the day before the race (photo: Cummins Falls State Park)
Meanwhile runners were collecting in the big wall tent Ranger and Race Director Ray Cutcher had wisely rented earlier in the week. Four propane heaters blew out warm air. Ray had not yet made it to the race himself. A tree had blocked him too.
We milled in confusion and indecision. My son Joel Smith and his wife Tammy were in the tent as volunteers. Finally Joel said, “We could go put up signs.”
That was all I needed. In that moment I decided to abandon my race in order to help the race. We loaded his Dodge Ram 4WD with signs and headed out on the course to erect them.
I was most worried about the marathoners. Their exposure to the harsh weather would last much longer than in the three shorter races, increasing the likelihood of hypothermia. Conditions would wear on them and make falls more likely, too.
The course drops down Sliger Hill into the Blackburn Fork gorge. It follows Blackburn Fork to Roaring River and eventually turns up Morrison Creek. Morrison Creek is remote. It is maybe likely that 90 percent of people living in Jackson County have never seen Morrison Creek. There the snow was deeper, the ice underneath slicker, sending us in skids toward the creek, testing the limits of driver and truck. We decided to not try going up Chaffin Hill, the hill marathoners had to run up to exit that lonely valley.
We discovered that the crews had not shown up to man aid stations on Roaring River and Morrison Creek. Marathoners would have to go a long way without food or drink, or any other help. [Note: A Morrison Creek volunteer later showed up to dispense fluids and food.] Retreating to the park, we met a ranger who told us the race had indeed started. Ray Cutcher had delayed the start from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. to let more runners arrive and conditions to improve. Cell phone reception is generally not possible in the valleys, so we’d not known what decisions were being made back at the race start location until then.
Cold runners gather at the starting line for last minute instructions from Race Director Ray Cutcher (photo: Janet Thompson)
We rushed back to the park, loaded my truck with food and chocolate milk, and headed to the top of Chaffin Hill to give whatever aid we could. Twenty-four marathoners finished the race that day. We met most of them there, near Mile 18. They trudged the hill one at a time, occasionally by twos and threes. The hill and the weary miles had worn on them. Despite their frozen feet and hands, despite all that, each one broke into a wide smile when I asked if he needed anything.
I talked with Jeff Mires, a veteran marathoner and ultra-marathoner before we reached the hill.
“I feel fine.” He said earnestly. He meant he had energy “My hands are gone, just numb, my feet, too.” He held his hands up. They’d become useless claws. They’d been that way a while. He was some three hours into the race, with maybe another hour to go. We later heard that he dropped at Mile 20. I wished that when we talked I’d suggested he sit in my truck and warm up. He’d seemed so calm I failed to realize the depth of his suffering. Afterwards, he said I'd offered my truck, but I wish I'd been more insistent.
Donna Dworak came up the hill. Smiling big. But she was annoyed to be so far back in the pack. She’d entered on spur of the moment without proper training. In the first Cummins Marathon, she’d been the first woman. This time she would finish dead last. Or “DFL”, as she later quipped on Facebook.
Runners head down Blackburn Fork Road near Mile 1 (photo: Janet Thompson)
The man and woman winner, respectively, of each distance was:
Marathon: Luke Mason, 3:48:48; Erica Tribbets, Philadelphia, PA
Half Marathon: Thomas Dolan, Hendersonville, TN; Susan Ford, Cookeville, TN
10K: Eric James, Cookeville, TN; Jennifer Anderson, Brentwood, TN
5K: Kevin Anderson, Cookeville, TN; Laura Hayes, Cleveland, TN
In view of weather conditions, should we have canceled this race? No one on the management team ever urged that action. “It’s out of the question,” team member Grady Deal had said in email, pointing out that many runners come from out of state. They’d booked flights and hotels. Grady’s sons were in that group, one from New York, one from Connecticut. At my urging, friend Lisa Gonzales had flown in from Los Angeles.
A van load of runners had driven in from Iowa. They were 50-staters, trying to notch a marathon in each state. They wanted to check off Tennessee. At the pasta supper I hosted the night before at Mamma Rosa’s, one asked me what could have been a testy question: “Are you going to cancel the race?” Fortunately, we didn't cancel.
Safety enters as the major issue. This race, however, has a feature most races don’t: State Park Rangers from across Tennessee patrol the course during the event. Altogether, 21 rangers were on hand, dispersed along the course. One was driving sweep. A resourceful bunch - trained in rescue, first aid, and law enforcement – not much is going to happen that they can’t tackle. Ranger Jeremy Vaden was carrying in his truck a sleeping bag, blankets and even IV fluids to bring warmth to any runner with hypothermia - not content to leave such supplies with the ambulance back at the park.
The safety concern, of course came from the weather itself, the ice, snow, rain and low temperature. It was clearly evident for everyone to see, to make their own decision about running. People routinely run in snow. People routinely run in rain. I do, both. For both to be present meant conditions would be miserable. But miserable does not mean dangerous, especially with the level of ranger support present. Racers were there, ready to run.
Picture of exuberance, Rance Fry whoops after finishing the 10K first in the 40-49 age division
Stakes were high. Had we failed in holding the race, Cummins’ credibility would have been damaged – and hard to restore in future events. As it stands, we proceeded, we coped. Runners did too. Especially the runners did! They earned bragging rights. As a result, there are these war stories from proud finishers making the rounds on Facebook.
“I will never forget that day or that race!!” – Leslie Harwell, Trenton, TN
“…epic race!! …most beautiful marathon…ever ran.” – Cathy Downes, Evansville, IN
“Had a great experience even if the weather sucked!!!” – Daniel Tribble, Lebanon, TN
“The adventure was worth ever shiver!” – Rance Frye, Cookeville, TN
“Amazing race today! …can’t wait till next year!” – Greg Haley, Dunlap, TN
“This race was miserably beautiful!! Thank you for not canceling it!” – Glen Black, Mount Juliet, TN
“I felt so much love at this race!” - Selena Ellis Foutch, Cookeville, TN
The ones there wanted to run. That we soldiered on may enhance the race’s reputation. Perhaps it will boost the race to legendary status. We look ahead and hope.