Cloudland Canyon 50K: 3 Trail Runners Show You How It's Done

What's it like to run the Cloudland Canyon 50K in northwest Georgia?
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Trail runners Brynn Cunningham, Rob Myers and Jason Cox stepped up to the starting line of this epic trail race in Rising Fawn, Georgia, to find out.
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"You will pass massive waterfalls, jaw dropping open views of valleys, and a sunrise as far as you can see into the horizon," says race director and founder of Run Bum Races Sean Blanton.
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But to really find out what it's like to go the distance, you have to step up to the starting line...
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Here's what happened...

  • Date/Time: 6:30 a.m., Sunday, Dec. 3
  • Elevation: 4,500 feet of elevation gain according to the Run Bum Races website (my Garmin fenix Pro Solar 6 clocked 3,731 feet of gain and 3,732 feet of descent)
  • Cutoff: 11 hours
  • Aid stations: 5 aid stations
  • Drop bags: 1 drop bag and crew access location (14 miles, aid station 2 - my watch hit 13.8 when I arrived here and swapped hydration packs with my husband)
  • Course: One loop with three small out and backs plus one lollipop
  • Trail: 95 percent non-technical, smooth single track 
  • Northwest corner of Georgia
  • Western edge of Lookout Mountain
  • Sitton Gulch Creek cuts a deep gorge into the mountain
  • 30 minutes south of Chattanooga, TN
  • Numerous waterfalls 
  • Deep canyon - elevations ranging from 800 feet above sea level to 1,980 feet
Cunningham at the hang gliding overlook at sunrise (Photo/ Scott Abshire @scottapants)

Start...

  • 6:30 a.m.: Began running in the dark with headlamps 
  • First 4.5 miles: Paved state park roads
  • Miles 6 to 7 or 8: Ran along West Rim trail, which was dirt and long, smooth rock with crevices, overlooking Cloudland Canyon

Descent into the canyon

  • Short, steep, technical single track switchbacks
  • 647 steps Iron grated and some wooden sections, steps interspersed with platforms or bridges 

In the canyon

  • Smooth, runnable, friendly trail called Sitton’s Gulch that paralleled Sitton Gulch Creek, showcasing Cherokee Falls and Hemlock Falls
  • First aid station and turn-around:  Back up what we climbed down with an out and back to one of the waterfalls 
647 stairs interspersed with wooden and iron grated bridges and boardwalks take you down the Waterfalls Trail into and out of the canyon (Photo/ Emily Conklin)

Crew access/ aid station two:  

  • Around mile 14, we returned to the start line to meet crew or fuel up at the aid station

The back half: 

  • Smooth, flowing, non-technical trails that wove beautifully through hardwood forests; around mile 20 we ran along a creek lined with mountain laurels

Aid stations three and four: 

  • Around mile 18 we hit the third full aid station, where volunteers announced they’d see us again in seven miles

Around mile 25/26: 

  • Final aid station, and the last 4.5-5 miles left of the course, which we had run on the way in
(Photo/ Bradley & Brandy @bbphotoadventures)

No excuses: How to train for the Cloudland Canyon 50K

I want to share how I, as a full-time working mother of two, returned to ultras after a two-year hiatus due to injurious accidents and serious illness.
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Injuries & recovery

  • The latest non-running related injury was a torn ankle ligament on July 15 that required crutches at first, followed by aggressive physical therapy. 
  • Because of the ankle, in addition to a frayed hip labrum in April from a biking accident, this is the most conservative 50k training block I have ever done. 
  • Usually, I run a few tune-up races and Fastest Known Times, max out at 24-28-mile long runs and cross train hard with mountain biking and swimming. 
  • While the results of my previous 50ks were more successful in regards to rank and times (wins, podium finishes, PRs), I am also very satisfied with the outcome of this less intense training block. 

Despite my UltraSignup ranking going down...

  •  I learned how to respect my body, gained confidence in the “less is more” approach when it comes to sustainability in the sport and look forward to training for more ultras without attachment to results. 

Training start date for Dec. 3 Cloudland Canyon 50K:

  • Wednesday, Sept. 6, after graduating from physical therapy, yet still doing at-home PT every day

First four weeks: 

  • Mostly slow, easy run/ hikes, ranging from a 14 to 17-minute-per-mile pace

Long trail runs: 

  • 11 miles
  • 14.3 miles
  • 17.2 miles
  • 10 miles/ 16 miles back to back
  • 9 / 8 / 8 / 6 miles back to back (not long runs, rather an overload training weekend on technical hometown single track bookended by strength training)
  • 20 miles
  • 20 miles
  • 11 miles (seven days before race day)

Another difference in this training block...

  • I did my two longest runs, 20 miles each, with friends from the Trail Run Tribe at a talking-and-laughing-the-whole-time pace. 
  • In the past, I have preferred to move fast, efficiently and solo, and had to schedule runs based on breastfeeding or caring for my young sons.
  • So planning long runs with a large group of women didn’t fit. Now that my boys are six and 10, it does, and I love it!

Speedwork:

  • Unstructured
  • Lift weights, sprint for a couple minutes, lift, sprint, and so forth, for 20-30 minutes  
  • Does kickball count? Based on how sore I always was the next day, yes!
  • In the last three weeks of training, I began to do two to five strides at the end of each run. 
  • While I love running fast, I did not want to push it so soon post-injury. 

Focus on elevation gain:

  • For every run, I gained an average of 150 to 250 feet of climbing per mile, with equal descent. The elevation gain of the Cloudland Canyon course was less per mile than what my hometown trails have, so piling on hills to match or exceed the race’s elevation gain and loss was easy. 

Weekly mileage:

  • 30-40, peaking at 42

Cross training:

  • Biking, swimming and white water kayaking (involving attaining and surfing to get the heart rate up) in the first four weeks until I noticed that, while running did not aggravate my ankle, biking and kayaking did, so I stopped. 
  • For the last eight weeks of training I did zero cross training, which is very different from how I typically train, and live for that matter!
  • After the race I resumed mountain biking, and my ankle is responding well. 

Strength training: 

  • Two to three times per week with weights either when I woke up or after runs at trail heads
  • Two to three times per week with power yoga, often paired with weight work

Recovery:

  • One complete rest day
  • Daily meditation and breathing exercises (5 to 20 minutes, doubled in the week before the race). I often did this with my sons (ages six and 10) before bed or while sitting in a hot Epsom salt bath.. 
  • Seven to eight hours of sleep
  • Daily foam rolling and myofascial release
  • VooDoo flossing (reviewed here) two to four times per week on the legs and every day on the ankle, sometimes up to four times per day 
  • Yoga and mobility 
  • Fueled well 
  • Two massages 
  • A few acupuncture sessions 
  • Two Novathor (infrared light) sessions 

Q&A with Brynn Cunningham

Brynn Cunningham finished the Cloudland Canyon 50K in 6:22:12 (6th female)

Q: What did you like most about the race?

I loved making a fun birthday weekend out of it with friends and family!
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In the race itself, I most enjoyed:

  • Running down into the canyon with the unique feature of 647 steps
  • Running along the base of the canyon by Sitton’s Gulch Creek with the sound of crashing waterfalls and rushing white water
  • And then turning around and climbing back out. Stunning!

Q: What was the most difficult part for you?

  • The course is friendly, in my opinion, in both elevation and terrain, and I felt physically comfortable for the entire race. 
  • Thus, the most difficult part was my headspace throughout training, the week leading into the race and on race morning. 

Ultra after injury
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Mentioned above, Cloudland Canyon was my first ultra after two years of recovering from freak accidents and illness, including:

  • Shingles, COVID, concussion at the same time
  • A frayed hip labrum, and a...
  • Torn ankle ligament, all non-running related, but all of which negatively impacted my running, and my daily life.

During those two years...

  • I had attempted to train for 50Ks. THREE TIMES, and had to succumb to a DNS (Did Not Start) in six (or was it seven?) different races due to post-concussion syndrome, post-herpetic neuralgia and the two acute injuries. 
  • What next? became an intrusive, pervading, daily thought. 
  • Yet, I refused to resign myself to these setbacks. 

Throughout training, I managed catastrophizing and anxiety, fearful of getting seriously hurt or sick again, with:

  • Meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Journaling  
  • Mental health books and podcasts
  • And talking openly about it all 

Some may have thought me crazy for consistently trying to train for ultras, failing, and getting back up again.
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But it was running itself that forced me to confront the dark side of my thoughts and feelings, while simultaneously getting me to the other side.
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Training helped me finally see the light, eventually making a breakthrough in my thought patterns, and once again feeling like myself again. 

(Photo/ Bradley & Brandy @bbphotoadventures)

Q: What did your food, drink, and fueling look like?

One week prior to the race, I began hyper hydrating with LMNT Raw Unflavored and carb loading with oatmeal, rice cakes, cornbread, rice noodles and rice. 
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During races I prefer to carry my own fuel and skip aid stations. Cloudland Canyon 50K fuel: 

I had no low points and never hit the wall, thanks in part to fueling well. 

(Photo/ Bradley & Brandy @bbphotoadventures)

Q: What shoes and gear did you use?

Q: What would you do differently?

  • I would not carry my Nathan running flashlight in addition to my headlamp. 
  • I didn’t realize we would be on pavement for the first five miles, where only a headlamp was necessary because 150 of us with lights lit up the road quite well.

Q: Why did you choose to run the Cloudland Canyon 50k?

To celebrate my birthday, Dec. 2! The 50K was held Dec. 3.

Q&A with Rob Myers

WeeViews co-founder Rob Myers finished the Cloudland Canyon 50K in Rob Myers 7:56:50. (Photo/ Bradley & Brandy @bbphotoadventures)

Q: What did you like most about the race?

The Canyon is just beautiful! 

  • As much as I didn’t care for the 647 stairs to get in and out of the canyon, they were a unique experience for me. 
  • The back half of the race was very runnable and a nice change from the front.

Q: What was the most difficult part for you?

The climb out of the Canyon was very taxing.

Q: What did your food, drink, and fueling look like?

  • Nerd clusters are amazing for instant carb energy. A buddy of mine recommended them, and he was spot on. 
  • The aid stations offered a variety of tasty treats to get you moving again. 
(Photo/ Bradley & Brandy @bbphotoadventures)

Q: What shoes did you use?

Q: What would you do differently?

Incorporate a stair climber into my training.

Q: Why did you choose to run the Cloudland Canyon 50k?

It's one of the best parks close to my house.

Q&A with Jason Cox

Jason Cox finished the Cloudland Canyon 50K in 8:15:44. (Photo/ Bradley & Brandy @bbphotoadventures)

Q: What did you like most about the race?

I enjoyed seeing my friends, the waterfalls and the beautiful mountain views.

Q: What was the most difficult part for you?

The first 14 miles were the most difficult because they included roads, trails and stairs—those stairs hurt my feelings.

Q: What did your food, drink, and fueling look like?

I mostly ate the aid station food - bacon, PB&J and pickle juice. I also packed some Nerd Clusters for beast mode. 

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Brynn Cunningham
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Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, triathlete, cross country and backcountry skier...

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