After three days of competition and nearly eight hours on trails across three mountains surrounding Chattanooga, 22-year-old Alex Poulsen quickened his pace under a set of waving black flags just a few paces from the finish line.
Poulsen, who traveled from Kalamazoo, Mich. for for this weekend’s Chattanooga Mountain Stage Race, finished third in the 20-mile trek around Signal Mountain Sunday, but his time of 7 hours, 24 minutes and 48 seconds for the entire 60 miles was good enough to win the event.
After the final day’s run, Poulsen sat under the pavilion at the small soccer complex behind Signal Mountain Middle-High School. The scratches along his upper arms and scabs on his knees will be among the keepsakes he takes back north after his first stage race through the mountains.
“Today, it was just kind of what you’ve got left, just grinding it out,” Poulsen said.
Poulsen was one of about 10 that turned the trip to Chattanooga from Kalamazoo into a sort of vacation. Chattanooga’s mountains provided the views and warm weather of a typical getaway, but the climbs—nearly 2,700 feet upward on the 20-mile third day—were grueling compared to what Poulsen said are “two minutes and you’re up” hills that he trains on in Michigan.
“I’m feeling pretty dead right now,” Poulsen said. “I worked really hard for it.”
The stage race, which began as a small gathering benefitting Wild Trails in 2007 put on by Randy and Kris Whorton, has grown as a part of the Rock/Creek Trail Series, which features the 50K Stump Jump and eight other races throughout the year. This weekend’s race drew 256 competitors from 22 states.
The long days, though, have a way of wearing down and driving out some runners. Only 184 completed all three days.
The leader after two days, Johnny Clemens, had to be taken to the hospital Saturday night. He’s OK, but he didn’t compete on Sunday. That left the opening for Poulsen, who edged Jonathan Marsh, also from Kalamazoo, and Scott Williams, from Asheville, N.C.
“I’ve never been in mountains before, so I didn’t know what to expect with these long, sustained climbs,” Poulsen said. “I’d definitely love to come back. I know what to expect now and how to point my training.”
The women’s overall winner was Mandy Meyer, who completed the event in 8:38:25, 14 minutes ahead of second place.
The Rock/Creek event is one of only three stage races in the country, and the overnight stay creates a unique element of community among the competitors. With out-of-towners encouraged to stay at The Crash Pad near downtown, the Whortons hosted nightly gatherings with free beer, slideshows with photo recaps of the day and an open forum for questions and storytelling.
“We had to stop and get a keg, and it was gone in 30 minutes,” Kris Whorton said. “It was a pony keg, but we thought, oh, we’ll be fine. But no, they went through it. … In the little front room of the Crash Pad we probably had 80 people in there watching (the slide show).”
For Poulsen, like many of the other top finishers from this weekend, the stage race is one of multiple endurance tests throughout the year. Ultramarathons—100 miles—and 50-mile races are often the next step.
“This is a pretty laid back race,” Kris Whorton said. “The racers are appreciative because they know a lot goes into one day, but when you’re doing it back-to-back-to-back it’s a big deal.
“When we conceived of the plan, we wanted to keep it small enough that there could be an intimacy between the runners. … It’s a neat community.”
The next race in the Rock/Creek series is the Still Hollow Trail Race, a 10k and half marathon, on Aug. 4.