To kick off this year's month long RiverRocks festival in Chattanooga, the Rock/Creek StumpJump 50k & 11-miler, now in its thirteenth year, will see about 500 amateur and professional athletes take to the trails to test their mettle. Just over ten years ago, in 2002, this event only saw 64 finishers. Its growth over the years is a direct result of the fact that the course is scenic, challenging, diverse and as race founder, Matt Sims, says, “a rite of passage into the ultra world.” While any 50k can provide that, Sims says the general sense of accomplishment combined with the grandeur of this race’s course, crowd support, and aid stations makes runners feel important: “It offers a goal and a potentially great achievement to those who participate.”
Sims started the race as a support venue for the Cumberland Trail Conference and to promote local participation in trail running. Sims, then a manager for Rock/Creek hoped the StumpJump would offer a goal and the potential for a great achievement to those who participated. “I think StumpJump is certainly one of the more difficult races in the area and certainly the marketing behind the race makes it one of the premier races in the country. Participants feel like they are part of something big and important, and if this causes them greater fitness and changes the way they live, then I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
Originally Sims’ plan was to start the race at Signal Point Trailhead but after looking at the distance it added and how technical the start of that trail is, he looked at different options: “I wanted it to start on Signal so that it would add some difficulty in terms of descending and ascending Signal Mountain, but honestly it was really about showing people how to connect the Signal Trails into Prentice Cooper which I think at the time, people just didn’t know you could do.”
After he worked with trail distances a bit more, he decided to start and finish at Nolen Elementary School on Signal Mountain. The venue was perfect, but the change to the new Middle High School, which was completed in 2008, allowed the race to grow even more. Always a popular race, StumpJump boasts participants from 32 states and 15 countries. Additionally, this year, it is the national 50k championship race. Participants are in for a treat — StumpJump can reward you with a perfect or perfectly dismal day in the woods.
It begins with a short section on road to thin the field. It then enters a crushed gravel path that winds around the school for two miles before dropping onto dirt roads to Mushroom Rock, a fantastic geologic feature. At this point, the course joins the Cumberland Trail. For the next 27 miles, runners enjoy single-track trail. From Mushroom Rock, they descend to the first gorge and cross a long swinging bridge over Middle Creek. Then they climb and cross to a small ridge before dropping into Suck Creek gorge. The course continues across Suck Creek Road and climbs the plateau to run along its edge for another 5 miles as runners make their way past rockhouses, cliffs, and great vistas of the Tennessee River Gorge to Snoopers Rock overlook. The course is a lollipop with the stick comprising 10.3 miles, followed by a 10.2 mile loop and a return to the stick at mile 20.5. Runners see the first 10 or so miles twice, which also means they run twice on the portions of the trail that sees the most elevation change in the whole race.
The single-track portions of the race are packed dirt with plenty of rocks, especially in the infamous “Rock Garden” at approximately the 19 mile marker. Although the section is only about 3/4 of a mile long, it is challenging not only because of the multitude of rocks, but also because the Cumberland Trail markings are on the trees, meaning it's hard for runners to watch their feet. Spectacular scenery adds to the challenge nearly every mile of the race. The trail winds through rhododendron and hemlock groves, it crosses small creeks, ascends and descends some steep hills, and constantly wows with fall asters and magnificent fall foliage in the hardwood forest.
Sims’ hope when he created StumpJump was that it would be the premier 50k in the south; his ultimate goal was to showcase Chattanooga trails and the proximity of the natural areas to downtown. With Rock/Creek and Salomon’s support, and Wild Trails’ experience at organizing trail events, the race has met and exceeded its goals, but not without an impact. “I have struggled over the years with how much wear and tear the race puts on the trail system now. The trail condition is significantly more damaged today than 10 years ago. At the same time though, there are exponentially more people that actually care and maintain the trails as a result of the race and being exposed to the trails that have always existed,” Sims says.
Race director and Wild Trails executive director Randy Whorton has worked hard to grow the event to one that caters to elites, everyday trail runners, and new-comers to the sport: “The StumpJump course, the entire race in fact, is a fantastic experience. I challenge anyone to find a more diverse trail experience just minutes from a metropolitan center. Part of the magic of running StumpJump is feeling like you’re way out there, relying on your guts, but you’re really never far from civilization.”
Sims agrees: “We want people to see the beauty this part of the country has to offer, enjoy the amazing trails we have available and challenge themselves to achieve a difficult but attainable goal. StumpJump can change lives.”