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.
Originally written by RootsRated.
Featured image provided by Perry Smyre