When I first started running trails and heard there was such a thing as an “Ultramarathon”, I thought, “not for me.” I had only run one half-marathon and even the idea of a road marathon intimidated me (it still does!). But as I got more into trail running and started doing a few longer trail races over the course of a few years, the notion didn’t seem so far fetched anymore.
At some point, I mentally put a 50k on my “bucket list” with the hopes of doing one by the time I turned 40. When this year rolled around, and my husband asked me what I wanted to do for my 40th, I knew the answer.
I wanted to try out that 50k distance, but I wanted to do it in a new place, with new scenery and new challenges. So I started researching and found what looked to be the perfect race in a state I always wanted to visit.
The Stump Jump 50k & 10 miler in Southeast Tennessee.
Put on by Bad Beard Events (race directors Ginny Kelly, Robin Crump, and Michael Emerling), Stump Jump is touted as the premier 50k trail race in the Southeast.
With gorgeous, jaw-dropping views of the Tennessee River Gorge, and lush coves of cascading streams, hemlock, and rhododendron, these sandstone-strewn trails offer some of the most spectacular scenery in the Cumberland Plateau region. This race is in its 20th running and has stood the test of time with locals and runners from across the world.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of Stump Jump, which takes place on 90% single track atop Signal Mountain and Walden Ridge, just outside of Chattanooga. The course has changed a few times since the race’s inception, but the race directors took it back to its roots (no pun intended) for this commemorative year.
For me, that meant an official 4,442 feet of climbing instead of 6,500 feet. Praise the Lord.
Now, my Garmin says I climbed 5,290 feet, which I’d love to believe is accurate, but I’m guessing the race directors have a better handle on the elevation profile. 🤓
This year’s course had an out and back combined with a loop of just under 10 miles. So, kind of like a big lollipop. 🍭 One with a squished-up, lopsided candy, and a curly stick. 😂
Runners who were racing the 10 miler did a portion of the curly stick before turning around and heading back to the start.
The day before the race, we got all of our gear and nutrition ready and then made the drive over to Rock/Creek, in Chattanooga’s North Shore neighborhood, for packet pick-up.
Looking back, I realize I packed entirely too much stuff – both in my drop bag and my vest. I never even opened my drop bag during the race, and all I used from my vest were a few bags of Tailwind, some salted potatoes, and, to my surprise, 3 sleeves of Clif Bloks. Oh, and salt tabs. Plenty of salt tabs.
I guess I go by the notion that it’s better to have things you don’t end up needing, than to need things and not have them. 🤷🏻♀️
All in all though, prepping for this race was a good first experience, and I can confidently say I learned a lot about what to do (and not to do) for the next one (which, as I write this, is in 2 days 😳).
After packet pick-up, we drove back into downtown Chattanooga to enjoy some handmade pasta by the river.
Then it was back to our Airbnb to try to get some sleep before the big day.
The next morning came quickly. We got ourselves ready and headed out (or up) to Signal Mountain High School, where the race was starting. It was dark when we arrived, which gave me time to fret about, take a few trips to the bathroom, warm up a little, and pray together as a group.
At the starting line, I was more excited than nervous. I tend to get the jitters before road races, especially if they’re shorter, but the laid back feel of trail races lessens those nerves considerably for me. I knew the first mile would be on the road around the high school, so I tried to keep my pace in check and run nice and easy.
As we headed into the woods, we started out in a pack, which soon became a conga line. I lost Katie somewhere around this point and I wouldn’t get to see her again until I finished.
The first few miles on the trail weren’t too bad. It was a mix of mostly single track with some wider areas where runners could spread out some. The bottlenecking that happens during the early miles of most trail races usually frustrates me, but I was thankful for it this day. I knew it was forcing me to take it easy and not go out too fast. Aside from looking at the elevation profile, I really had no idea what the rest of the course had in store, and I didn’t know how much I’d have left in the tank by the last 10 miles.
The first aid station, Mushroom Rock, was about 4.2 miles into the race, and it was stocked with all the usual trail runner goodies.
The descent towards Mushroom Rock was fast and steeper than anything I’m used to, at least for a length of time. There were rocks, big and small, many loose, so I had to be cautious with my footing. I could tell who had experience in running on this kind of terrain by the way they gracefully “danced” over the landscape.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Mushroom Rock was named for its rock formation that looks sort of like…you guessed it…a giant mushroom. 🍄
Shortly after leaving Mushroom Rock, while climbing down a steep section of rock, I saw it before I felt it.
A yellow jacket. On my sock.
It took me a second to realize what it was, and I didn’t know if I should try to swat it off or stay really still. In the time it took me to think about what to do, it stung me. Ouch.
Thanks, little bugger, for giving me swelling, burning, and itching in my ankle for the rest of the race.
Things were a little dicey for the next mile or so. At least they seemed so for this Florida gal. There was a good amount of climbing – climbing over loose rocks and boulders as well as some less technical portions. Much of it was the kind of climbing where you have to put your hands on your thighs to push yourself up with each step.
Around Mile 5, we crossed a long swinging bridge over Suck Creek. Yes, swinging. It bounced, actually.
I was a little nervous to cross on the way out (heights are not my favorite) so I walked instead of running it. On the way back, it no longer looked so ominous. I ran across and then, in my haste, missed the pink flagging and went the wrong way for the second time during the race. 🤦🏻♀️
Next we came to the Suck Creek Road aid station, where the 10 milers had to turn around and head back. I was comforted by the fact that my husband would get to experience at least a part of the more challenging terrain on the 50k course.
After departing from Suck Creek, we had about 4.5 miles of equal parts gorgeous and technical trail to get through before the next aid station.
I ran alone for much of this part of the race, but yo-yoed back and forth with a few people on the course.
At 10.6 miles in, we made it to the Indian Rock House aid station. I can see how Indian Rock House got its name. What a unique rock formation. I bet it would make for a pretty cool camping spot!
Just as at the other aid stations, the volunteers were super friendly and helpful, even filling up soft flasks and hydration bladders for runners.
Before leaving this iconic spot on the race course, I refilled my water and Tailwind, grabbed a bag of pretzels, and went on my merry way.
Because the race directors opted to go back to the original course for this year, there was no aid station at Snooper’s Rock. When I passed by though, there were a couple of people camped out there, who indicated there was more to see through the trees. Sure enough, they were right!
I only wished I had been on a hike with my family so we could’ve stopped here for a picnic! What a perfect little photo-worthy stop.
At some point after Snooper’s (although, for the life of me, I can’t remember where), I started running behind a girl with a bright yellow Nathan vest. We were silent and running on our own until, at one point, we started talking about something. I don’t remember what.
As our conversation went on, I realized she’d been running Ultras and challenging trail races for quite some time. I enjoyed learning about her experiences and she was super helpful in navigating the Stump Jump course.
Chatting with this new friend made the time fly by. And you won’t believe what her name was.
How cool is that?!
I’m grateful that the Lord put her on the course to help me through a few of the more difficult sections.
Throughout the race, whenever we came to a rocky section, I was wondering (and sometimes asking those in front of me) if it was the infamous Rock Garden I had read so much about.
But when we finally made it there, I knew.
I was thankful to have Erin ahead of me at this point (as well as a few others with us) so I could take note of how she was making her way through this technical section. Her experience was obvious in the way she moved fairly quickly over the rocks.
Some were small, many were large, but plenty of them moved when we stepped on them. This made it tough for a newbie, like myself, to gain any kind of momentum. I was told the Rock Garden was about a half-mile long, but it seemed to go on forever.
It was a relief when we got through it and were able to run again.
But not for long. 😂
Somewhere after this rickety little bridge, around Mile 20, we came to the Mullens Cove Aid Station, where our drop bags were waiting for us. There’s mine in the front. The green one that’s stuffed to the brim.
Did I need all that stuff, you ask? Um, no. 🙈
Did it make me feel better to know it was there, just in case? You bet it did!
Will I pack that much for my next 50k? Absolutely not!
Runners had to make it to Mullens Cove by 1:45pm. I don’t recall what time we were there (my watch kept switching from Eastern to Central time), but I know we were close.
Erin stopped here to change her shoes. I couldn’t stand around for too long (multiple reasons 🚽) so, as sad as I was to leave her, I had some pickle juice, filled up my flasks, and made my way back onto the course.
The Mullens Cove loop (the lollipop part of the course) was finishing up and I was heading back down towards Indian Rock House to make the journey back to the finish line.
More stairs, yippee!
The last climb back up to Mushroom Rock was hard. It was somewhere around 400 feet of climbing in a seemingly-short amount of distance. I was tired, but my body was still feeling decent and my legs were working.
Somewhere just before reaching this final aid station, I hit the Marathon mark on my watch for the very first time. That excitement gave me a little boost that carried me only until I went off course, yet again. Thankfully, Erin had caught up to me and called out to alert me that I had missed the pink flag and gone the wrong way.
I’d like to blame my absent-mindedness on the fact that I was tired and probably lacking oxygen to the brain. However, if you know me in real life, then you know getting lost isn’t usually something I have trouble doing. 😂
At some point after this tiny misadventure, my stomach decided it was no longer going to be cooperative.
Nausea had kicked in.
I tried to force myself to take in electrolytes, but I couldn’t stomach anything solid at that point. I wanted so badly to pick up the pace and bust on in to the finish line, so I turned my headphones on tried to let some tunes push me those final few miles.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work. I was no longer only slowing to walk the hills, but I had to walk some of the flat sections over the last 2 miles as well.
I could hear the noise and cheers of the finish line, although it wasn’t enough to help me ignore the increasing nausea.
But I had to keep moving.
With a little less than a third of a mile to go, I once again thought I took a wrong turn because it got eerily quiet and there were no longer any runners around me. I started calling out for Erin, hoping she wasn’t too far ahead, to see if I was heading in the right direction.
I got nervous, because I knew getting in before the cutoff was going to be tight, so I called my husband and told him I thought I’d gone the wrong way again. He was able to track my location on the map and could tell I was on the right path. Hallelujah!
Soon after, I heard my name being yelled loudly. “Let’s go, ER-IN!” Over and over. I thought it must have been people cheering for the other Erin, the one who had just passed me.
Then I saw my hubby, with our friends Katie and Jake. They were chanting me on to the finish line, with a quarter mile to go. What a relief to know the end was so close!
At that point, I knew I was going to make it.
After popping out of the woods and running a few hundred yards on the road, the finish line was finally in sight.
Bring on all the feels!
I finally made it through the finish line and the urge to cry was something I’d never experienced before (certainly not at the end of a race). Gratefulness, mixed with joy, relief, and pain took the wind out of me a little bit. I don’t know how else to explain it. It was like I couldn’t get a breath until I had an ugly cry.
I think I’m actually glad that my unflattering race photos captured those raw emotions.
I paced around until I could find a “private” spot with my husband and, at last, I was able to let it out.
I could feel all the months of hard work – rearranging schedules, making sacrifices, training in the heat of the summer – pay off in that moment.
After finding my friend Katie and hugging and crying some more, a nearby volunteer overheard us and said, “You chose this race for your first 50k?!” Apparently, we could have found an easier option. 🤣
But if it hadn’t been such a challenge, would it have been as much fun? I’m not so sure…🤔
Following my little cry-fest, we looked around for food. They had what I’m sure would have been delicious tacos (even a vegan version), but my stomach was not in the mood. So we moseyed on over to the finish area to watch the rest of the runners come in.
Now, let me just tell you – my finishing time was nothing to write home about. With my “extra” mileage (from going off course 3 times 🤦🏻♀️) I finished in 8:45:15. Certainly far from exceptional. The first place female did it in 6:20:31, just to give you an idea.
I underestimated my total time by about an hour. As prepared as I thought I was for the race, I just wasn’t. I believe it was the course that did me in, more than the distance.
But my only goal was to finish within the 9 hour cutoff time.
Ok, I also didn’t want to fall off the mountain. Or die. Those were #goals too.
Since several others I was running with throughout the race mentioned that 9 hours was a tight cutoff for a course as technical as Stump Jump, I was pleased with the final outcome. And, unfortunately, the finisher results don’t reflect all the people who were unable to finish the race or who came in too late to be counted.
Out of 300 registered 50k runners, 202 finished (at least before the finish line was disassembled), and 188 of those made it in before the 9-hour cutoff.
As the start/finish line was being taken down, we packed up and made the drive back to our downtown loft where, later that night (or should I say from 11pm-3am), we were rewarded with a very loud singing/screaming karaoke party that our next-door neighbors were throwing. It’s probably a good thing the race tired me out, or I may not have slept a wink.
Maybe I should have been relaxing the day after the race, but we only had one more full day with our friends before they had to go back to Florida, so we took full advantage of it. It rained the entire day, but we didn’t let it stop us from having a great time. And hey, what’s a little rain when you’re already swimming in your raft?
I truly enjoyed every bit of this 40th celebration trip, but Stump Jump was the highlight for me. It was the culmination of so many things I love and enjoy. The only things missing were my two boys (and maybe some additional family). I really can’t think of a better way to celebrate a milestone birthday.
Maybe for my 50th we can go back to Tennessee and I can get my boys and hubby to run the race with me…
Now wouldn’t that be fun?!
Disclaimer: You should understand that when participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in exercise or training I recommend, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself, and agree to release and discharge Running With Roots from any and all claims or causes of action, known or unknown, arising out of Running With Roots. Please speak with a medical professional before making any changes to your diet or exercise. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. The views expressed are based on my own experiences, and should not be taken as medical, nutrition or training advice.