Free-roaming cattle grazed alongside Randy and Kris Whorton as they trekked through the Jura Mountains in rural Switzerland. For seven days, the Whortons ran across the spine of the range, dipping into ski villages and small towns to rest and recover.
The backdrop of the mountains never left, as they moved from their starting point on the outskirts of Geneva to the finish in Basel.
Between each day’s 50-kilometer run, the Whortons were tempted by the sites and the streets of the villages where they slept. Five-mile walks through town, mixed with wine, massages and meals were all added to the daily marathons.
The trail covered a total of 219 miles. But every day when the Whortons woke up, their legs felt better than the day before.
It’s now been more than five years since the couple were the only two Americans among an estimated 100 or so runners in the Swiss Jura stage race. The Whortons, who have lived in Chattanooga for seven years, were accomplished adventurers before the Switzerland trip—taking on 100-mile ultramarathons on the trails and toppling other endurance tests across the country.
The Jura mountains, though, blew them away.
In the lead-up to the race, questions of time and placement were set aside. More relevant thoughts moved to the forefront.
How far can the body be pushed?
“It really changed our eyes on what’s possible,” Randy said. “With the daily pounding you would get weaker and weaker and weaker, you’d think, but that is totally opposite of what happens.
“Both of the big stage races we’ve done, and we do a lot of back-to-back runs, we feel better each day. I think we are built, human beings are built, for long-distance, slow moving every single day. If you don’t go out there and race and really break your body down every day, but you maintain a pace, I think you can hold it. One guy ran a marathon a day for 365 days.”
The experience inspired the couple. In Chattanooga, they were already heading efforts to rebuild and maintain trails in the area. They had participated in a few local trail races, but the options were limited.
In 2007, with the European race in mind, they started the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race.
Beginning Friday morning and stretching through Sunday, the race, now associated with another eight events in the Rock/Creek Trail Series, will get underway for the sixth consecutive year.
“There were two things that jumped out to us,” Randy said of moving to Chattanooga. “What we saw was a really vibrant running community, but it was all on roads. The Chattanooga Track Club really had very little interest in trails. I talked to several of the guys there and they said, ‘It’s just not safe.’ We were just staggered when we heard that.
“We started the Wilderness Trail Running Association. Our intent was just to get more people on the trails, mostly as a running club, a social thing. ... It grew real quick.”
Randy has altered the route multiple times over the years, but the premise is the same. This year’s event covers 60 miles in three days—18 miles on Raccoon Mountain on Friday, 22 miles on Lookout Mountain Saturday and 20 miles on Signal Mountain Sunday.
In 2010, the event drew 133 participants. This year, 256 entrants from 22 different states signed up, marking the first sellout.
“It’s really cool to see this group,” Randy said. “You get everything from the jocks to the nerds.”
At the end of each day in Switzerland, coordinators of the event would provide food and massages to help the runners maintain their energy level and avoid fatigue, but another post-race fixture was alcohol. The wine and beer flowed through the night, and could occasionally be found at the in-race aid stations.
“A few people kind of struggled at the beginning of the day because they were hung over,” Randy said with a laugh.
But the social aspect was a main priority when the Whortons were designing Chattanooga’s stage race. In pictures and videos from the early years, Randy can be seen relaxing in a camp chair with a beer in his hand while runners stride by. This year, the Crash Pad will house a majority of the out-of-town runners and also serve as an evening hangout spot, with free beer and slide shows.
At the end of Saturday’s stage, on the Lula Lake Land Trust, the festivities will begin as soon as the runners cross the finish line.
“The social aspect is the best thing about stage races,” Randy said. “I’ve been involved in a ton of other sports, but I’ve never met a group quite like this.
“It’s kind of like climbing. You’re actually having adventurous experiences every time you go out and train in the woods. The people that you do that with, you have a bond. ... It’s not about racing. No one is really racing each other. There’s a lot of discussion back and forth about how you feel.”
By Sunday afternoon, some of the runners may disagree with Randy’s assessment that the human body is made for daily pounding, but his hope is that it’s an experience worth undertaking.
This weekend’s race is one of only three stage races in the United States—there’s one in the Rocky Mountains and another in Arkansas.
The Whortons would take their location, nestled in southeast Tennessee, over almost any other.
After living in Boulder, Colo. for years, the they headed to the south looking for a new setting. After a brief stint in Huntsville, Ala., they landed in Chattanooga.
By Randy’s count, there are 56 trails within 20 to 30 minutes of downtown. He's scoured the country in search of a city that even comes close to that number. Ashland, Ore., “may have 20,” Randy said.
“Once we discovered Chattanooga you couldn’t pay us enough to move,” Randy said. “We’re here forever.”
And as long as the Whortons are here, the stage race, and the trail running scene, figures to only grow. The expansion can already be seen among this year's entrants. Randy's father remains the oldest to finish the race after completing it at age 70 two years ago, but this year's field is diverse, with ages ranging from 16 to more than 65.
Pushing limits and testing the possibilities of the human body, as Randy and Kris did in Switzerland, is growing ever more attractive.
Chattanooga will provide a stage for that to happen this weekend.