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Rock/Creek’s UpChuck 50K offers tough terrain and navigational challenges

It’s a perfect late-fall day. A chilly morning transforms to a warm, sunny afternoon and crunchy …

Photo by Robert Milks

It’s a perfect late-fall day. A chilly morning transforms to a warm, sunny afternoon and crunchy, fallen leaves blanket the ground in a dozen autumn shades. Overjoyed, 15 miles into the infamous UpChuck 50K, I fling my arms out in celebration while ascending steep switchbacks covered in ankle-deep oak leaves hiding loose rocks and slick roots. I keep my eyes peeled for the white blazes marking the race route along the Cumberland Trail.

UpChuck is the brain child of ultrarunning buddies Matt Sims, also the founder of StumpJump 50K, and Chad Womack, Wild Trails board member and co-race director with Jonathan Mobley for the Rock/Creek Trail Series. “We want UpChuck to be a low-key, ole fashioned trail race,” says Womack. Indeed, Mobley wrote our race numbers on our hands with a black sharpie as we boarded a school bus bound for the race start, and volunteers and race organizers greeted us by our first names and encouraged us like old friend at each checkpoint. The race is limited to 60 participants and run on a breathtaking 31-mile section referred to as the Three Gorges, passing through Rock Creek, Possom and Soddy Creek gorges on the outskirts of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The point-to-point course winds through rock staircases threading through miles of sandstone cliffs and dense hardwoods blocking out so much of the sun’s rays it almost feels like night. With 5000 feet of elevation gain, only two aid stations and rugged terrain, this race is not for sissies—or the navigationally challenged.

Sims and Womack founded UpChuck after a casual run here a few years ago. During a fateful mid-run break at a convenience store (the only time the course intercepts civilization), a ravenous Womack feasted on Mountain Dew, Gatorade, Snickers, cheese crackers and a Fig Newton. “He was just shoving the food in his face,” says Sims. “A few miles down the trail, his stomach bloated like a starving Ethiopian.” Womack upchucked, literally, for the last 20 miles.

This year, the convenience store rolls into sight as I pass the second aid station, at mile 19. I’m tired, but feeling good–this is my day! And then, I take a wrong step off a rock that sends a shooting pain up my right IT band. I try to shake it, but the pain won’t release and I resort to walking.

In the next section, I hurdle foot-diameter pipes flung carelessly across the landscape along with downed trees, like someone uprooted the forest floor in search of a missing key. These are remnants of the invasive rock mining that happened here before the Cumberland Trail Conference (CTC) intervened, in 2007.

“Part of the vision for UpChuck was to foster awareness,” says Womack. “The water pollution due to sediment runoff and complete destruction of the hardwood trees is appalling.” This year the grass-roots event brought in $1000 for the CTC.

Limping along, I glance up to see my boyfriend, Jeremy Duncan, scurrying toward me. I rationalize he must have finished the race already and is running back to cheer me on. “I’m lost,” he growls. “I followed pink ribbon on a turn and ended up on private property.” I look at him, confused, “Perhaps you’re color blind.” His face contorts with fury.

The race website clearly states: “If you are prone to getting lost, do NOT show up for this event.” I repeated this to Jeremy several times before the start. Men don’t listen.

With less than six miles to go, a pack of runners whiz by me. Among them is Deborah Livingston, a top Northeast trail competitor and new mother, who wins the women’s race in 5:39:05. “I need rock and root and ups and downs to be fast. This race played to my strengths,” says Deborah after her finish.

As I near the finish (there is no actual line), I see Chad’s dad flipping burgers and brats and a frustrated Jeremy (who got lost again while running through town). I take my final step and scribble my name and finishing time down on a large sheet of paper tacked to the side of the shelter. I’m delirious, but the smell of burgers is overwhelming and I inhale two.

Though I haven’t heard about anyone UpChucking this year, I’m willing to bet someone is just it keeping a secret.