Heading into the fall I finally started to feel healthy for the first time in several months and was itching to run a longer race. I saw a Facebook post advertising that there were a handful of spots left in the Cloudland Canyon 50k and so I registered for the race at the start of November.
I managed to stay healthy and get in some decent running volume during the month of November, and arrived at the start line on December 3, 2023 a bit undertrained, but healthy and excited to take on a long day in the woods.
About Cloudland Canyon 50k
This race is put on by Run Bum Races – the same organization that has put on several other races I’ve run in the past: Sky to Summit, Brasstown Bald Buster, the Georgia Death Race. I try to stick to races that don’t require me to spend a night away from home and Cloudland Canyon is a bit further away than the other Run Bum races I’ve completed, but I’ve always been intrigued by the race which is billed as a scenic and moderately challenging course in a particularly beautiful part of the state.
In my research, I realized that the course has changed a few times over the last several years. Looking back at the course for 2023, I break the course up into seven distinct sections.
One disclaimer before I get into the numbers. All distances in trail races are “ish”. This race is 50k-ish. My watch recorded nearly 29 miles exactly, but I’ve seen others whose watches or phones recorded anywhere from 28 to 32 miles. All distances below are based on the distances recorded by my Garmin Forerunner 935.
- State park roads, miles 1-5: The course starts with about 5 miles of asphalt roads within the Cloudland Canyon State Park.
- Technical trails along west edge of the canyon, mile 5-7.5: The asphalt section ends near the northwest end of the canyon and from there it traverses the most technical trails of the entire course heading back to the staircase that leads down into the canyon. This was my favorite part of the entire race. It was beautiful and challenging.
- The canyon, mile 7.5-12: The trip down into the canyon begins on a long wood and metal staircase. Once on the canyon floor, the staircase ends and the course continues along a fairly smooth and wide trail that descends gradually until it reaches the end of the canyon. At this point, you reach the first aid station of the course and turn around to retrace your steps back into and out of the canyon with a short detour to a beautiful waterfall.
- Recovery and aid, mile 12-13: Once you reach the top of the canyon you have a mostly easy mile with just one short climb and you’re back at the start/finish area with access to aid. This easy section is mostly trail and a good time to just recover from the climb up out of the canyon.
- Rolling hills in the Georgia forest, miles 13-30: In terms of terrain, the rest of the race is basically the same. It all consists of very typical Georgia trails in very typical Georgia forest. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful! I love the Georgia woods and mountains, but there’s not a lot to distinguish any one section from the next. The trails are manageable: not too technical, not too steep. Nearly all of this entire section is runnable if you still have the legs for it. Mentally, I broke up this section into three parts:
- Homebase to Hwy 189, miles 13-17.5: From the start/finish area, there’s a 4.5 mile stretch until you cross Hwy 189 and reach the next aid station.
- 7-mile lollipop, miles 17.5-24.5: Leaving the Hwy 189 aid station you then complete a 7 mile lollipop which brings you right back to the Hwy 189 aid station.
- Hwy 189 to the Finish, miles 24.5-29: Finally in the home stretch, this 4.5 mile section starts when you cross Hwy 189 and ends 4.5 miles later at the finish line.
The Cloudland Canyon 50k is an interesting race. The asphalt miles at the front tempt you to go out hard. Then the canyon section can really take it out of your legs if you go too hard. Then the rest of the race is really a lovely run in the woods, as long as you’ve managed your effort – but the course seems designed to make it hard to manage your effort by placing the fastest section followed by the hardest section in the front half of the race. It’s a course designed to reward those who go out easy and manage their effort well, and punish those who go out too hard trying to make the most of the fast miles in the first third of the course (insert ominous foreshadowing feeling).
My Experience Running the Cloudland Canyon 50k
I spent the night at the Days Inn in Trenton the night before the race. I got a good night of sleep and arrived at the start of the race feeling healthy and rested. All systems go.
I decided I would go out fast. In some prior races I’ve been too conservative from the start and it’s hurt my overall time. I decided to take the opposite approach, throw caution to the wind, and go out hard. The thing is that the 50k distance doesn’t scare me at this point. I’ve done it enough times that I know I can cover the distance even if I blow up. So I used this race as a test. I wanted to know what would happen if I truly went out hard. As they say, f*** around and you might find out. Indeed, I did find out.
I went out hard from the start.
For reference, I ran a 5k two weeks before Cloudland Canyon and my time was 22 minutes. I ran the first 5k of Cloudland Canyon in about 25 minutes. I didn’t let up. I continued to push hard all the way down into the canyon and then turned around and powered my way back out. I was solidly into the “threshold” heart rate zone, zone 4, all the way until I made it back to the start/finish area at the 13 mile point.
My body had started to flash warning signs during the climb out of the canyon. Up until that point I felt pretty good. Yes, I was working a lot harder than I normally would be during an effort his long, but I felt smooth and strong. However, when I turned around and started climbing I felt spent, tired, and slow. Not a good feeling a mere 10 miles into a 50k. At the top of the climb, when the trail leveled back off my adductors and calves in both legs started to cramp sporadically and I had to walk for a few minutes to calm them back down.
In any event, I made it back to the start/finish area feeling a lot more tired than I would have liked, but overall feeling ok, and running in 7th overall (out of 160).
I moved through the start/finish aid station (and every station all day) quickly and was back on the trail in about a minute. At that point, with about 13 miles under my belt and somewhere near 17 to go, I was a little worried about how my legs felt but doubled-down on my nutrition (90 grams of carbs each hour plus electrolyte tablets) and kept hammering. While I was definitely going slower than I wanted, I was still moving ok at this point and continued to move ok until the aid station at the 17.5 mile point at Hwy 189.
Wheels Slowly Coming Off
From that point forward, the wheels started to come off and my legs slowly quit on me. At around the 20 mile point the trail started to rise ever so slightly and I simply had nothing left in the tank. I would try to run and find I was slogging along at a 14 minute pace in utter agony. I had burned too many matches too early and the tank was dry. My pace slowed from 11-12 minute miles, which were already 1-2 minutes slower than I wanted, all the way to 13-15 minute miles. The lollipop section was a slow and endless slog that seemed like it would never end, and runners who had managed their effort better than me streamed by on a regular basis.
Just Keep Moving, Just Keep Moving
Just when it seemed like the lollipop might never end, it finally did. I blew through the aid station in a matter of seconds and started the 4.5 mile section back to the finish. With the finish within reach I managed to keep on pushing and even logged a couple of 11-12 minute miles to hold off runners who where hot on my heels and gaining time. Finally, the end came and I crossed the finish line having dropped from 7th to 16th overall with a time of 5:50:24, my second fastest 50k race time (second to Snakebite 50k about a year ago).
Takeaways, Observations, Lessons Learned
With each race I feel like I learn more about how to take on these long distance events. I have a few takeaways from this race worth noting.
Nutrition on Point
The key takeaway from GDR back in March was that I needed a better nutrition strategy. For this race, I employed a new nutrition strategy and it went perfectly. I managed to take in 90-100 grams of carbs (360-400 calories) every single hour I was out there. While my legs were fried by going out too hard, my energy levels were stable all day. I never really hit the wall and felt decent all day, aside from my legs being completely zapped.
It’s True What They Say: Don’t Go Out Too Hard
There’s a balance to be found in managing your effort at the start of a race. I’ve gone out too slow and been frustrated with myself in the past. That was one of the key lessons from Sky to Summit.
Before this race, I had never gone out super hard in a long race and I’m glad I did. What I clearly learned is that I can’t maintain threshold effort for a 50k and if I try I’ll be burning too many matches. Noted.
Looking at the heart rate data from my race, over the second half of the race I managed to maintain a tempo effort (zone 3) for nearly the entire time. That’s good to know! I suspect that a tempo level effort is the sort of effort I can maintain for a 50k. I’ll file that nugget away for next time.
Life is Amazing
I am so grateful to be able to run these stupid races. Objectively, these races are pointless, but at the same time they are so fulfilling and I absolutely love them. I am so grateful I was able to line up, throw down, blow up, hold on, and ultimately persevere to the end. There’s nothing I’ve experienced that quite hits like reaching the finish line of one of these events having completely spent yourself out on the trails.
Up next is the Conquer the Rock 50k the first weekend of March 2024. I’ve run this race before. It’s hard with at least twice the vert of Cloudland Canyon, and I’ll need to really work on my climbing between now and then.