Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mystery Mountain Marathon 2011

What did you ask?  Did I win a race this weekend?  Heck yeah!!

The Mystery Mountain Marathon is a great trail race (it doesn't shy away from the tough stuff), in a special place (Fort Mountain State Park), put on by an awesome group (GUTS).  For alot of reasons, I've wanted to do this race for a while but there have always been the typical fall season conflicts that include other races and college football.  In addition to the classic southern ultra races, there are certain races that you can count on for being good just because of who puts them on....organizations like GUTS and Rock Creek.  Also, I've never done a marathon distance trail race.  And this one has been billed as being very difficult with around 7,000 feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of descent.

The race is in Fort Mountain State Park which is in the Chattahoochee National Forest and directly adjacent to the Cohutta Wilderness.  This area in North Georgia is both beautiful and rugged.  It has a nice mix of hardwoods and southern pine, with tumbling creeks, bolders, rocky faces, and the occasional long view from it's ridge tops.  The race is named for the mystery surrounding the ancient rock wall that still exists in the park.  Nobody knows for sure who built the wall or why, but speculation is that it was done by native americans as for religous ceromony or by early explorers shortly after arrival in 1170.  I've been mountain biking and hiking in these parts for years so I knew it would be tough.

Mystery Mountain Marathon Course (from my Garmin)
My state of mind leading up to the race was the typical mix of excitement for the event and running the wilderness and fear of taking my body to the limit without going over.  I was also pretty nervous about being a little spent after Six Gap Century that that I did with some friends two weeks prior.  Six Gap is one of the toughest hundred mile bike rides in the country.  It's also a beautiful ride through the north Georgia mountains.  So with all of the climbing in that ride I wasn't sure if my legs would be fully recovered.  While there are plenty of books and guidance on how to train for road races, there is very little about how to string together a series of long bike rides and ultra trail runs in the mountains.  I think that's one of the great things about this sport....you have to listen to your body.
Two of the Crew at Start
I made it to the start of the race safe and sound, that started with a cannon shot.  A bunch of runners shot off the line like they were shot of a cannon as well!  As usual, I left at my own pace and let them go.  There were a mix of around 10 or so marathoners and 12-milers that were out of site pretty quick.  I stayed calm and reminded myself of the pace I knew I wanted to run.  To my surprise, I caught the pack of lead marathoners after about a few miles.  Normally it takes longer for me to catch them.  I knew they were marathoners because the race organizers marked our calves with an "M" or a "12", which was a nice touch.  And I figured they were the leaders because last year's winner (Jim) was in the group.

There were four of us and I could tell pretty quickly that we all had different strengths; one guy was an awesome descender; one guy was climbing very well; one guy was great on the flat sections (which there were few); I think my strength is just being controlled and consistent.  So that was pretty cool.  After about 7 miles of flip-flopping back and forth, the pack of three guys picked up the pace and left me behind.  I started to get discouraged since my legs were a little heavy from six gap.  At that point, I resigned to running my own race and enjoying the morning.   But once again, I caught the pack after another mile.  Then two of them dropped off and I was catching up with Jim.  It was a crazy turn of events within two miles.

From here I ran with Jim up over the very steep power lines climb and down the horrible descent on the other side....steep, rocky, and painful.  See that here...
Turning Into the Ascent Up the Power Lines


We ran together for a while on the gradual climb out of the big descent and Jim shared a bit of what to look forward to on the rest of the course.  He also asked if I planned run sub-four (hours).  I actually had no idea what I was going to run on a course like that but realized then that it would be cool if I could.

At about mile 13 I pulled away for good and pretty much just ran.  There were definitely some tough section throughout the last half of the race, especially the 2 mile, 1700 ft climb at mile 19 that was mostly a heavy dose of power hiking.  Every time I thought about winning I got nervous.  So I didn't think about it much.  I finally got to an aid station where my crew was waiting.  Tully and Olive screamed and ran up and gave me hugs as a volunteer filled up my water bottle.  I gave Allison a kiss and ran on.  Very motivating!  The best part is that my Garmin said I had six miles to go but when I asked everyone at the aid station they all said four!  Apparently the Garmin doesn't pick up the entire 26+ miles due to the switchbacks but the course has been measured with a wheel.
Crew Hugs at the Aid Station

As I was I about 2 miles out (and struggling a bit) a volunteer shouted congratulations and that I was going to finish under 4 hours!!  And so I finished in 3:56:54 very spent but happy.  I think I was even off the course record (the current course since 2009) by 16 seconds....if only I would have known.

And of course I did it in my favorite socks from Darn Tough!

A big thanks goes out to my crew/family, the volunteers, and the race director for a great event.


  1. Congratulations Hanlin. Did you get a shirt sponsor or did you finally spring for a different running shirt?

    So which was harder, running down the power line or biking up Hogpen?