The Poplar Spring section of the Cumberland Trail connects Suck Creek Road to the popular Mullins Cove Loop in the Prentice Cooper State Forest. Whether done as part of a longer run or as a simple out-and-back, there is plenty of scenery to take in: views of the Tennessee River, rainy weather cascades, and bluffs with secret hiding places to explore.
What Makes It Great
Not everyone is an ultrarunner capable of great distances, and luckily you don’t have to be one of the elite to enjoy the Poplar Springs section of the Cumberland Trail. This is not an easy trail to run, but it’s highly rewarding. In the spring, you’ll find blooms and wildflowers. Through the bare branches of winter you get an even better view of the rock formations and the gorge. In fall the brilliant leaves will be everywhere, including underfoot. And in the summer carry lots of water, because this trail will make you thirsty.
You can start at Suck Creek Road, but parking is limited and a bit precarious. The best option is to drive into Prentice Cooper State Forest and begin at the main trailhead on Tower Road. From the gravel lot, cross the road and enter the woods. The first half-mile is an easy descent to Indian Rock House, a large overhanging bluff that you’ll reach by descending steps down a long, narrow crevice. For the most part the trail follows the contour of the mountain, so there are no huge climbs.
Take a few minutes to enjoy the view from Lawson Rock, looking out over the Suck Creek Gorge and the Tennessee River. After you take it all in, continue on and you’ll come to a set of steps that will lead back down to the base of the bluff. Eventually, you’ll meet up with a streambed where a spur trail leads down to Suck Creek Road. Cross the stream to continue on the main trail. Thankfully, this is an easy section of running on soft pine needles.
After a steep descent to Suck Creek Road you can retrace your steps or walk down the highway a hundred yards to continue on the Cumberland Trail towards the trailheads at Signal Mountain High School, Rainbow Falls, or Signal Point.
Who is Going to Love It
This trail, like most, is what you make it. Although the elevation gains are modest, you’ll find a challenge in the rocks, stream crossings, and cursed obstacles. Relax and let the trail flow, going whatever speed you feel comfortable, and you’ll enjoy it all the more. For those new to trail running, perhaps half of the trail will be more of a hike than a run—and that’s okay, too!
Arrive in Breckenridge, ideally via shuttle such as Colorado Mountain Express so a professional can navigate the mountain roads and wintery driving conditions—and also because once in town, free public transportation is frequent, reliable, and easy.
Lodging: Choose from a myriad of lodging options in Breck, regardless of whether your priority is to A) to take a few steps and be in town, B) glide right onto the chairlift or C), cuddle up with loved ones away from it all. No location is mutually exclusive. Ski-in/ski-out lodging does not get any more central that at One Ski Hill Place, located squarely at the base of the resort’s epicenter—Peak 8—within a few feet of three chairlifts and at the top of the in-town gondola. Properties there feature a slew of amenities including indoor heated swimming pools, tasty restaurants, a mini movie theater, and private bowling alley. In town options range from the affordable but clean and super character-endowed Bivvi Hostel to a swanky private town home at One Breckenridge Place. For a quiet, away-from-it-all experience, consider The Lodge and Spa or staying at a private homes located on Peak 7, Boreas Pass or in Blue River.
Once you’re settled in and have picked up your gear (Breck Sports has several locations and a wide variety of skis and snowboards), take a stroll down Main Street to get a lay of the land and be sure to check out the quirky sculptures at the Breckenridge Arts District.
To get an immediate feel for the magic in store for your vacation, check out the area via horse-drawn sleigh. For creative cocktails and a fresh take on pastas, sandwiches and soup, grab happy hour and/or dinner at local’s favorite Twist.
Breakfast: It’s your first day and you’re going to want to get after it, so grab a quick coffee and freshly baked bagel or muffin at Clint’s on Main Street and head for the slopes.
Slope choice: It’s probably best to ease into it (you’re starting at 9,600 feet of elevation, don’t forget) so start out on Peak 9, home to long, wide, delightfully uncrowded green and blue-rated cruising runs such as Cashier and Colombia. If your legs are feeling strong and you want to step it up a notch with something steeper, veer onto American or Peerless.
Lunch: Another allure of Peak 9 is that you’ve got several lunch options, including on-mountain casual dining at Ten Mile Station or The Overlook as well as Breckenridge Village hot spots like Quandary Grille.
Dinner: You’re likely to be a little beat after your first day of high-elevation gliding. The Warming Hut is a cozy, less-crowded spot offering comfort food (brisket, mac ’n’ cheese, meatloaf) with a culinary twist.
__Breakfast:__ Head directly to Peak 8 for an omelette or pancakes at The Living Room inside the base lodge. __Slope choice:__ With the mighty Horse Shoe Bowl looming overhead, expand your cruiser prowess on Peak 7, where blue runs like Pioneer and Wirepatch feature rollercoaster-like waves and where you can easily pop over to Peak 6 to escape the crowds on the wide-open snowfields of Bliss or Reverie. Want to bump it up? Try a short (but demanding) moguls run on Peak 8—High Anxiety or Rounders will give those joints a good jolt. __Lunch:__ Sevens at the base of Peak 7 has one of the most delicious bloody Marys around, thanks to its generous portion of added bacon. Plus you’ll find scrumptious pizzas and sandwiches. __Après ski:__ Get your party on at the T-Bar at the base of Peak 8. Frequent live music, laughs, and drink specials last til dusk and beyond. __Dinner:__ Keep the crowds close and the vibes jubilant over a mountain of nachos or fish ’n’ chips at the original Breckenridge Brewery. __Après après:__ Within stumbling distance of the brewery, Cecilia’s is Breck’s most lively late night spot, with ear-vibrating dance music thumping into the wee hours. ## Day 4
Maybe it’s time for a day off of the slopes. Luckily, the adrenal glands can stay charged while the legs take a break.
Breakfast: Call in your order for the best (and biggest) breakfast burrito in town at Cuppa Joe and sip a cappuccino surrounded by locals.
Snowmobiling: See? We said you’d still get your rush. Let the machine take the impact as you chop through powder and soar around ridgelines taking in sweeping panoramas of the ski area and Ten Mile Range. Good Times Adventures offers guided snowmobile tours through old mining ruins and forgotten forests. If you’d like to keep your transportation engine-free, dog sled tours romp through sunny and shaded trails.
Ice skating: The nightly battleground of numerous local hockey head-to-heads, the Stephen C. Ice Arena offers skating lessons, rentals and both an indoor and outdoor rink.
Dinner: Treat yourselves to Breck’s fine-dining institution, The Hearthstone. The seasonally fresh offerings range from locally sourced favorites like Colorado Lamb and Blackberry Elk to daily delivered ingredients fueling dishes like the succulent Wild Caught Red Snapper.
Movie night:The Speakeasy is one of Breck’s best-kept secrets—a comfy, friendly, one-theater house showing a steady string of new releases.
Never has “time flies when you’re having fun” rang any truer. Let’s make the last day live up to the grand finale it should be, shall we?
Breakfast: Load up on a quick but thick bagel sandwich or cinnamon bun at Cool River Coffee.
Slope choice: Pack a couple of PB&Js and plenty of water because we’re hitting all of the points on the map today. Start at the base of Peak 9 for a cruiser warm-up down Briar Rose to head up to Peak 10 on the Falcon Super Chair. Don’t be intimidated by Peak 10’s expert-only status. Crystal and Centennial are wide and groomed.
Head over to Peak 8 and make your way to Imperial Express—the highest chairlift in North America that tops out at 12,840 feet. The least terrifying way to get down is on Alpine Alley down the ridgeline. From here, you can relax, hitting runs on Peaks 7 and 6 at your leisure, ending your day with a cruise down Four-O’Clock Road all the way to town. You’ll have bragging rights for hitting all five peaks plus Breck’s lowest and highest points all in one day.
Après ski: Off the beaten path, Broken Compass Brewery whips up a rotating and always exquisite selection of brews and is also conveniently located next to the Breckenridge Distillery, which offers tongue-tingling, high-octane fluids to hammer home those ski memories.
Dinner: You’d best hit another of Breck’s oldest and most time-tested mainstays, the family-friendly Downstairs at Eric’s or spicy fare and great margaritas at Mi Casa.
A-list entertainment: Depending on when you’re in town, there is likely an exclusive art exhibit at Old Masonic Hall, a live production at The Breckenridge Theater or internationally acclaimed musician performing at The Riverwalk. Check the calendar here.
For two years, I worked toward a lofty life dream: to outfit a van and drive from California to Patagonia. By last winter, plans were finally coming to fruition. I quit my job, my boyfriend and I set a date to move out of our house, and our van was, well, a work in progress. But one month before we planned to leave, he called it quits on the trip—and ended our three-year relationship.
With no job, no place to live, and a travel dream that seemed impossible to pursue solo, I felt pretty lost to say the least. But I still had a van, a serious case of wanderlust, and a dog. So I rolled with the changes and started the adventure anyway, with my 30-pound heeler mix as co-pilot.
Rodi “Rodrigo” Herzog came into my life about a year prior to it turning upside down. He’s the kind of dog that wins over hearts with his rugged good looks and shameless penchant for cuddling, then turns a few heads by charging down trails and practically levitating over boulders. If Rodi could survive a puppyhood wandering the plains of rural Nevada on his own, he could survive living in a van with me.
But I was a bit less sure about my van. Less than a quarter of the way outfitted at the time I decided to take the trip solo, my Sprinter came with more than a few faults: shattered windshield, balding tires, two out of four functioning doors, and more dents than a recycled beer can. For three weeks I worked at an unrelenting pace to get that sucker running and built out with the poorly-leveled plywood that I now call home.
Van mostly functional, dog always primed for adventure, Rodi and I set off for a road trip of undetermined length, unspecified time, and half-baked purpose. Instead of heading south to Latin America, I decided to start east and figure out the journey one step at a time. Ten months, 24 states, and two countries later, we’re still on the move and still happily unsure of when and where we’ll land next. Nonetheless, life on the road with Rodi has taught me a thing or two about, well, life. Here are some of the quirks and perks of embarking on this type of travel with a dog.
Embrace the fact that your dog will likely be more popular than you.
Unless you walk around the campground passing out free IPAs and down jackets, most people will find your dog to be far more interesting than you—and they will want to quiz you about him, pet him, and hang out with him. Countless times now I’ve waltzed through the routine: guess what breed my mutt is, ask me how old he is, tell me that he looks like a coyote.
After enough of these casual encounters turning into friendships and climbing partnerships, I readily accept that Rodi is my better half, and that if people want to strike up conversation with me just to sneak a few cuddles with a cute pup, then so be it.
One August evening, I rolled into Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park campground after six hours of driving. I was tired, hungry, and a little unsure if this pit stop on my way to Yosemite would be worth it. In my weary and cranky state, I wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed and scarf down a Clif bar for dinner.
Van door open, I was left with nothing but the sound of Rodi’s tags as he trotted away, likely lured by the smell of roasting sausages. Wandering out by headlamp to retrieve my begging dog, I was greeted by Rodi’s new friends, a group of climbers quick to offer me a seat at the picnic table, complete with a beer and brat.
The next afternoon, I found myself with no plans and no climbing partners, so I embarked on my usual routine of walking around the crag with Rodi. At the very least, I get to see the climbs and Rodi gets an always-appreciated walk. Tail wagging, Rodi charged ahead to the open arms of a guy sitting on a bench watching his two friends climb.
A few minutes later I was tying my figure-eight and chalking up to climb with them. Without Rodi, I probably would have walked right by without a word, feeling too shy to ask if I could join their party of three. A couple months later, I’ve now shared summits in three different states with one of the climbers I met that day—all thanks to my dog.
Don’t swear off all national parks.
National parks in the U.S. are generally not the best places to go gallivanting around with a dog. In my experience, it all comes down to taking the time to research where a dog can and can’t go within a park’s boundaries and weighing that against what I hope to do while I’m there.
Take Yosemite, for example. Since I spend most of my time traveling to rock climb, it’s no surprise that this park runs high on my list. My first time going to Yosemite Valley with Rodi, I had little faith that he could endure the place for long. Thankfully, I found that the paved walkways in the valley offer plenty of opportunity for scenic dog walks, albeit usually in the dark after I finish climbing for the day. And driving outside of the park to camp every night gives Rodi enough space to let out excess energy, which is well worth the few extra dollars in gas.
Meanwhile, the much less-crowded Badlands National Park in South Dakota boasted one of the best camping deals for budget-conscious and dog-owning travelers: a wide open field with free camping where Rodi was welcome to enjoy the views too.
If all else fails, the surrounding towns near national parks usually offer at least one option for doggy daycare or overnight lodging. Places like these have saved me a few headaches, allowing me to explore national parks for a day or two without worrying about Rodi.
Know what your dog is capable of—and what’s too much.
This is undoubtedly the biggest lesson I’ve learned overall as a dog owner, and one that Rodi and I regularly consolidate through experiences on the road. I’ve been able to travel with very few dog-related challenges not because Rodi is the perfect dog, but because I know his needs, fears, and tendencies.
Knowing what Rodi can handle has made our travels run smoothly, and testing what Rodi can handle has made for good stories (and plenty of lessons learned). The time when a cop came knocking on the van door to tell us to move from our not-so-stealth and not-so-legal camping spot in small-town Montana, it was clear that Rodi’s Mom!-Alert!-Danger! howl was imminent. One stern stare and a whispered command to stay quiet was (surprisingly) all he needed to curl back up in his bed and let me do the talking.
Afternoons spent romping around climbing crags in Utah? No problem. Tagging along for a few drinks at a bar in Tennessee? He’d never complain about that. Packrafting down Class II rapids in Colorado? Achievable and hilarious, but not his favorite. Attempting a Tyrolean traverse over a 200-foot-wide river with Rodi in a backpack? Well, that was a one-time thing.
Accept that sometimes it takes a village.
Taking care of a dog while constantly managing every other aspect of my nomadic life can get a little taxing without a travel partner. But, like most single dog moms and dads out there, I make it happen.
The important thing I’ve realized is that most other travelers have a Vitamin D(og) deficiency, and since Rodi is friendly and generally low-maintenance, I’m doing them a favor by letting him fill that void. In Squamish, British Columbia, for example, my sights were set on multi-pitch climbs that required being off the ground for up to 10 hours at a time—too long to leave Rodi alone in the van.
In these times of need, I turned to my community of fellow van-, truck-, and tent-dwelling climbers for a little help. It usually wouldn’t take more than five minutes of walking around the campground or the climbing area parking lots to find a group of new friends willing to hang out with Rodi for the day. They got to enjoy cuddles with my pup in between pitches at the crag; I had peace of mind knowing that Rodi wasn’t roasting away in our metal box of a home under the afternoon sun.
Don’t leave home without ‘em.
In the last 48 hours before leaving home, I wasn’t fantasizing about dream destinations, fretting over my lack of a steady job, or cursing how much cash I just dropped on new tires. Rather, my mind spun in circles wondering if it were smart, safe, or even possible to bring Rodi on the trip. I struggled to imagine how he would fit into my new, very uncertain lifestyle.
Now, almost a year and more than 18,000 miles later, Rodi has been there with me through it all, never once back-seat driving, complaining about a camping spot, or getting grumpy after a few too many days without a shower. To me, he’s the ideal travel partner.
On a deeper level, I credit Rodi with giving me the extra edge of confidence and much-needed companionship that has made it possible for me to travel “solo” for months on end. So here’s to Rodi, the pup whose playful spirit and unwavering affection helped push me out the door and into a life of adventure at a time when I had nothing to lose.
Why did I do it? Why did I run one of the steepest, toughest trails in Chattanooga every single day for a month? Well, I’m not sure, really. I knew I wanted to test my body and my mind, and in some ways I even wanted to test the limits of fate itself—could I actually run this thing 30 days in a row without spraining an ankle or straining a hamstring or wiping out and breaking a bone during one of my many chaotic, caution-to-the-wind, 12-mph descents of the Cravens Trail? Or what if I needed to travel for work (or for sanity’s sake) or some such thing?
But really, probably more than anything, I think I just wanted to create a memory—or, rather a collection of memories—that I could look back on in a few years’ time with a rose-tinted disposition and a casual acknowledgement that I went out and did something kind of cool. No, it wasn’t some epic mountaineering feat. But it was something a little different than the everyday gym routine or 5 o’clock happy hour. Something that at the very least might stand out as a small, notable footnote in a life that’s all-too-often consumed with forgettable day-to-day details. But who knows? Maybe in a few years’ time, I’ll actually just look back on it and ask myself: “Why the f*&k did I do that?!”
Some people made fun of my endeavor. One friend referred to me as “the most predictable man in Chattanooga.” Others questioned why I chose to do the same trail over and over when there are so many other great trails in the city. Then there was the friend who scoffed at the distance: “Isn’t it only like a 3-mile run?,” she said. (Umm.. it’s actually 3.3-miles, thank you very much!)
But anyway, long story short, I did the damn thing. And I did it pretty well. And this is what happened.
The Short and Winding Trail
For many, the Gum Springs is the bane of the trail runner in Chattanooga. It’s not a long trail—only half a mile, in fact. But what it lacks in distance, it makes up for in brutish elevation gain. A sinister thing, it lures runners in with the promise of danger and an initial stretch of climbing that doesn’t seem so bad at first. But then halfway up—after a momentary 100-yard flat section that makes you think for a minute that you’ll be alright—it shoots straight up for the final quarter of a mile and delivers a life-sucking blow that squeezes the air out of the lungs and the strength out of the legs and makes you think for the next 3-6 minutes that the whole world is caving in and that you’re a fool for doing this and that amidst the deafening discourse between the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, begging you to quit, yet urging you to grind it out, that death is surely a better alternative than this. And then just when you think you can’t bear it any longer, you crest the last little bit of rocky stairs and you’re met with the wonderful sight of the Bluff Trail, where you keel over next to the boulder at the top and pant like an overweight bulldog until you finally catch your breath.
The overall route I chose was a simple 3.3-mile loop that links together the Gum Springs with three other Lookout Mountain trails. From the historic Cravens House, the route starts with a quick 100-yard dash up the Cravens Trail before coming to a split where it veers right onto the Rifle Pits. Winding down this rocky singletrack for about 0.5 miles, it eventually spits you out onto the wide, double-track Upper Truck Trail. From here, it’s a gradual downhill coast for another 0.5-miles until you reach a junction with the Gum Springs itself. This is where you’ll make your hellish half-mile climb towards the Bluff Trail, which is easily one of the most spectacular trails in Chattanooga, traversing the western edge of Lookout, with towering sandstone buttresses on one side and vistas of Lookout Valley to the other. After about a mile, you reach a junction where you’ll veer left down the 0.8-mile Cravens Trail, which is one of the fastest, most fun, free-for-all descents in the entire city.
As the days and daily runs wore on, I gradually began to intimately know my trail. I knew how to weave through the fallen tree on the Rifle Pits, how to leap through the hole formed by a hanging vine a little farther down the path so as not to lose momentum. I knew the daily status of the forest fire that blew along the western flank of Lookout in mid-July and about the trail maintenance group that had come out with their chainsaws to get rid of a fallen tree on the Upper Truck. I knew when various logs crossing the path would shift or rot over the course of a few days and no longer prove to be obstacles or prove to be even bigger obstacles. I knew about the deer that would be standing in the middle of the trail halfway up the Gum Springs during dusk runs and about the one giant spooky stump that I would always mistake for a person when seeing it in my peripheral vision. I knew exactly where and how to plant my feet to maximize speed and efficiency when bombing down the Cravens Trail. And I knew that I’d never see a soul on the Gum Springs itself; only once over the course of 30 days did I encounter anyone on this section, and she was coming down it.
The Golden (Gum Springs) Rule
I only had one rule throughout: No walking on the Gum Springs climb itself. Stopping at the top to catch my breath was allowed, as was very, very, very slowly jogging, but no walking. I came dreadfully close to breaking this rule on a number of occasions. Day 9, when I felt about as slow as the ranch I’d had on my three slices of pizza earlier that day for lunch, particularly stands out. As does Day 28, when I was nursing a horrendous hang-over. But I never actually ended up stopping to walk.
Just the Basic Facts (Can You Show Me Where it Hurts?)
In the end, I wound up spending 13 total hours on the Gum Springs Loop. Most of the time, I averaged between 25 and 30 minutes for each run, with the exception of one 23 minute day (which I’ll get to later) and one 34 minute day (which I’ll also get to later). I also spent a total of 15 hours merely driving to and from the trailhead, so all in all, I devoted 28 hours to the Gum Springs in a span of 30 days. More than a full day of my life devoted to driving a car and running a trail. A little sobering to think about, sure, but ultimately way more bearable than thinking about how much time I spent sitting behind a computer screen during that month….
Another thing that happened is that I wound up sweating. A lot. The average person sweats between 0.4 to 0.7 liters per half-hour of exercise…. I probably sweat about twice this much. So, just for fun, let’s say I wound up sweating 1 liter each time I ran the Gum Springs (which is probably on the low end of the spectrum). A liter of water weight is 2.2 pounds. So, over the course of 30 days, I lost 66 pounds worth of sweat, effectively pouring out 8 gallons of salty water from my body all over the 149th New York Infantry Monument and Cravens House parking lot.
Not every day on the Gum Springs was created equal. I didn’t get progressively faster each time like I rather naively first suspected. And it never got easier. Some days felt better than others, but other days were absolute hell on earth, and there was never really any rhyme or reason to it. I used the Strava app for every run, and by the end of it, I’d become the “King of the Mountain” on almost every segment on the route, including ‘Down the Pits’, the ‘Maple Avenue Climb’, and ‘Down Cravens Terrace.’ Funny enough, the only segment where I wasn’t crowned King was the ‘Upper Gum Springs Climb’ itself, which one Nathan Holland ended up hanging on to by a very insurmountable 16 seconds.
Body Over Mind
Going into it, I was in pretty decent shape. I’ve historically had a solid base fitness. I've run off-the-couch 50K's and even one off-the-couch 50-miler, but I’ve never really been one to train on a consistently rigid basis, so I wanted to see what that was all about.
By Day 7, I began to notice a tiny vein popping out of each one of my historically small and spindly calves. By Day 10, the teardrop muscles above my knees were growing more defined. After Day 14, my body looked better than it ever had before. I still had some residual muscle mass from pull-up and push-up routines from before all the running, and it was now also starting to be paired with the fat-shredding runs. By Day 23, however, I’d rapidly lost a lot of my upper body muscle definition and began to look more like a Peter Crouch than a Cristiano Ronaldo.
The best physical benefit of all though was the ever-consistent supply of endorphins that were pumping through my body for the entire 30 days—a wonderful concoction of mood-boosting neuropeptides that made me an absolute joy to be around, if I do say so myself….
Mind Over Body
It wasn’t until the final week when I started to really dread the trail. Up until then, it had been just something I did, like brushing my teeth, or going to work, or eating. I knew each and every day I’d be running the Gum Springs, so I accepted it and didn’t have a problem accepting it.
But during the final week, something changed. For starters, it was intensely hot, averaging 92 degrees for that first week in August—the type of heat that drains you of the will to do anything except maybe lay down in front of an industrial-sized fan. Also, I was desperately itching to do something else, anything else. A road run across the bridges downtown never sounded so appealing, and joining my office mates for post-work paddleboarding sessions on the river sounded like leisurely exercise heaven.
When Adversity Strikes
Day 18 was almost the end of it, as the Gum Springs delivered me a literal sucker-punch to the gonads. It wasn’t a rolled ankle or a pulled muscle that almost did me in…it was a slow and steady, nauseating achiness that spread throughout my testicles and lower abdomens in pulsating waves of terror.
So, Day 18 was devoted to the doctor’s office, and what a horrendous change of pace it was. One morning I’m flying down the Cravens Trail with a wide open gait and a spring in my step, slimy with the sweat that’s flicking from my body and full of athleticism and life. The next morning, I’m freezing my ass off in a sterile hospital, surrounded by sickly old folks and the infirm, having warm jelly applied to my manly bits by an elderly woman named Tricia.
That night, through donkey-like stubbornness, I ran the Gum Springs anyway. It was my slowest run of the whole 30 days, as I finished it in 34 minutes and literally ran the entire thing cupping my testicles in my hand for added support. But I got it done.
Thankfully, the problem didn't end up being anything serious. The doctor called it “an inflammatory insult of unclear origins.” Well, let me tell you: You’re never so acutely aware of gravity’s presence until you try to run downhill with “an inflammatory insult of unclear origins” in your testes. Every single step facilitated an aching sway of the scrotum; not so much a stabbing sensation or a prick of fiery needles, more like one big blob of discomfort radiating throughout my gonads, lower abs, groin, and quads. I began taking antibiotics, which made me feel pretty dizzy and weird. But by Day 22 or so, I was back to feeling mostly normal.
The Final Farewell
The last day on the Gum Springs saw about twenty of my closest friends and family members come out to join me for one final send-off run. Many of them had heard me complain throughout the 30 days; many had had to wait on me to attend social gatherings because I’d been running the trail; some of them had even joined me on various earlier runs, so it was quite fitting and special to have them all there to give one final farewell to the Gum Springs.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather. There were on-and-off rains earlier in the day, which left the air feeling cool and the land looking clean. The clouds still had a hang-over from the earlier downpours, and their underbellies were a purplish charcoal gray, while their tops were pearly white and puffy. The sky surrounding them was a deep, almost autumn-like blue. No notorious Chattanooga summer haze or smog to be found anywhere.
Everyone was waiting in the parking lot by the time my brother and I arrived ten minutes late. Immediately and somewhat unexpectedly, the nerves set in. A wave of nostalgic butterflies in the belly and wobbliness in the legs that I hadn't experienced since middle-school cross-country days.
My goal was to set a PR. The fastest time I had going into it was 24:44 (or 7:24 minutes per mile), which was set on Day 22 and which I was far from confident of beating.
After some photos were taken and a very awkward speech by me was given, our group of nine runners toed the line and set off. My brother and I came out of the gates first, and almost immediately, it was just he and I, as we’d dropped the others within a few hundred yards. Weaving through the dense summer greenery choking the trail, we made our way down the Rifle Pits in record time. We bagged the first mile at a 5:51 minute pace, and I wondered for more than one moment whether we’d gone out too fast.
But I was also feeling strong, and my brother’s heavy panting over my shoulder only made me feel stronger. The little brother leading the charge. A complicated dance of emotions—wanting to impress, punish, support, and yet know my place all at the same time.
Halfway up the Gum Springs is when he fell off, and then it was just me. Just me and the Gum Springs—as it had been nearly everyday for the last month. I felt surprisingly strong, and I also remember feeling profoundly happy. At the prime of my physical prowess, having just dropped my weaker older brother, knowing that this was the last time I’d have to run this route for the foreseeable future and also knowing that some of my favorite people in the world were waiting in the parking lot down below to celebrate at Mojo Burrito with beers and burritos afterwards—it was one of those moments where everything just felt good. In every simple and satisfying connotation of the word.
I bagged the second mile (the one that includes the Gum Springs climb) in a meaty 10:14, and then the third mile (the one with a rolling traverse of the Bluff and a speedy descent of the Cravens) in 6:12. I came racing down the final stretch of trail to the congratulatory whoops of my parents and some friends, and I did wind up breaking my PR, logging the 3.3 miles in 23:49 (or 7:14 minutes per mile).
An interesting thought occurred to me on Day 26: I would wager that I’m the only person in the history of humankind to have run this loop everyday for 30 days straight. Again, it’s not some epic feat that no other person would be unable to accomplish. It’s just that I was probably the first idiot to choose to do it. And to me, that’s kind of a novel idea, and it’s one that I’d imagine I will, in fact, look back on one day and think fondly of.
The only thing I can hope for now is that the far superior runners in the city don’t read this article and get inspired to go out and crush all of my Gum Springs course records…that would kind of suck.