The Mountain Mist 50K takes place this weekend, and as always, it should be an exciting event. Dubbed Alabama's toughest trail run, it is a true southeastern trail racing classic and a bucket list 50K. This year marks the 21st running of the Mountain Mist, and whether you’re participating for the first time, or running for the 5th, 10th, or the 21st time, there is much to learn about the event. The course is full of surprises, so here’s a little introduction to what runners should expect to encounter.
People approach this race with all kinds of expectations and dreams. Some want to win or set a sub-5:00 hour time or maybe even a course record; some seek the 5 and a half hour range; others want to stay just ahead of the cutoffs; and some just want to simply finish.
Whatever they’re after, everybody starts together at Monte Sano State Park’s restored lodge. Runners used to huddle in a small shelter, but now there’s plenty of room, including a fire place and a couple of nice bathrooms (always a nice pre-race luxury). On cold race mornings (and they're often cold for this late January event), runners huddle inside the lodge as long as possible before filtering out to the starting line to wait for the “Go!”
At that word, everyone is off, sprinting, shuffling, and jogging out of the parking lot and then onto a short road section where the field is supposed to thin out. If you're hoping for a 5 and a half hour time or faster, you may wish to stay towards the front of this pack, as you will soon funnel onto a narrow single track trail, where it can become bottlenecked. The single track, and virtually all of the course, is riddled with roots and rocks, so it's important to pay attention to your footing. Although having to constantly watch your feet is the bane of the trail runner, a failure to do so at Monte Sano can make for a bad day in the woods.
After about a half mile, the trail begins to drop from the top of the mountain through a section that often includes an ice flow. Things sometimes get interesting here as people go to amazing lengths to avoid the ice. Get through here as quickly as you can, as runners tend to get backed up the farther back in the pack.
From here, the trail crosses a road and then widens enough for runners to run three abreast, but people still typically stay single file. There’s lots of chatting for the next few miles, as runners make their way to a gradual climb up the Mountain Mist Trail. Exposed rock lines, boulders, and oftentimes mist welcome runners through this section. Once the trail comes out at the top of the bluff, a wide path skirts the edge of the mountain. Before long, you’ll be on a narrow winding section and then to your first aid station.
No matter how many times you've run the race, this aid station either seems way too early or incredibly welcome. If you haven’t had anything to eat or drink yet, take a moment to do this before you begin the infamous Warpath Ridge descent. The trail begins with an aggressive drop before gently traveling down the mountain's side to the powerline.
If you’ve heard anything about the Mountain Mist 50K, you’ve heard about this section. On the rare years that it is dry, people talk about how they can’t believe it is dry. Usually though, it is so incredibly muddy that each time you lift a foot, you’ll be sure someone strapped cinderblocks to your shoes. As hard as this section can be, however, you won’t be on it for long.
Truthfully, the course has been pretty friendly up to this point, and you’ll probably start thinking you'll easily hit your goal time. And as you leave the powerlines and begin to climb one of Mountain Mist's most notorious hills—"K2," as it's aptly named—you may be feeling good enough to attempt to run it.
Don't. Those who run K2 are either established ultra legends—like DeWayne Satterfield, David Riddel, and Kathy Youngren—or complete fools. If you don't fall firmly in the firmament of Mountain Mist legends, hike the hill. Maybe run the flat parts—but hike the climbs. Trust us. You’ll be happier later on.
K2 will eventually end, and you’ll reach the rolling Goat Trail. Fuel up again at the second aid station and begin your journey around Logan’s Point. What follows is the most scenic and unusual portion of the race: the stone cuts—a section of split boulders, which are quite narrow in places and generally require some walking and tricky navigation.
After the stonecuts, you’ll make your way past some natural sinkholes and across the same road you crossed earlier, before winding up the hill to the next aid station. If you’re hoping for a sub 5:30 finish, you'll want to hit this section in 2:30 hours. Yes, you’ve come nearly 18 miles at this point, and yes, you're more than halfway done, but the race really begins getting tough at this point. As much as you may not want to hear it or remember it, it's true. Don’t let it get you down though. Eat something, drink, and get moving. Walk or shuffle across the road and embrace this short, rock-free section—because it won't last long. Once you hit the Railroad Trail, you can essentially kiss your ankle ligaments goodbye.
The next 6+ miles are incredibly rocky, and when you think back on this section, you'll most certainly remember the rocks and nothing else. Yes, you’ll hit sections where you think the worst of it is over, and the trail seems blissfully rock free for 10 yards or so. But you aren’t done, not after the High Trail, not after the Bluff Line Trail, and not after the Waterline Trail.
All you can do is keep moving, especially once you hit the infamous Waterline. Here, you begin a gradual climb back up the bluff, and before long, you’ll be using your hands, pulling yourself up the side of a waterfall using a desperate combination of a tree’s base, a rope handrail, and other rock holds. It can be a muddy, slippery mess. But it is beautiful, so don’t forget to look around.
At the “top,” you still have to run across an old landslide and a paved road to get to the aid station. Fuel up again. You only have about 6 miles left, but they’re tough miles and they’ll take some time and energy.
Whatever you do, don't hang around the aid station for too long; get moving. Once you’re back on the trail, which is initially single-track and then an old road bed, you’ll encounter more rocks and washed out sections and eventually a huge pit to your left. Stay on the trail to the right and begin Suicide Drop into McKay’s Hollow. This section drops and scrambles down ledges and across washouts, as you continue to rapidly lose elevation. It is relentless on your already tired legs, and the distance from mile 27+ until you begin to climb back up to the top at mile 29+ seems much longer than its roughly two mile length.
The climb on the opposite side is tough—especially if you run it—but an aid station and a relatively flat trail await you at the top. From here, you're close to the end. Keep moving, and pay attention to your feet. Before you can see the finish, you can hear it. Eventually, you’ll cross an old wooden bridge, climb out of the little draw, and there, a 1/4 of a mile away is the Monte Sano Lodge and the finish line.
Smile as you cross the line. Whatever happened out there—whether you achieved your goal time or even if you didn't—you've made it to the finish of Alabama's toughest trail run, and you'll feel so good to be done, you won't know what to do with yourself.
Sit down (you won't need to be told twice) and enjoy the moment, especially if the weather is nice. When you go inside, don’t forget to get your finisher’s award. Have some food, sit near the fire or back outside in the sun, and revel in your accomplishment. Because it's quite an accomplishment.