Investing in the Long Run

By Camille Platt
Photos Courtesy of Wild Trails

trail runner standing on a mountain admiring the view in chattanooga

KEY TERMS: An ultra is any footrace longer than a traditional marathon’s 26.2 miles. Typical ultra distances are 50K, 50 miles, 100K, and 100 miles.


There are half a dozen ways to begin the story of how long-distance trail running took root in Chattanooga, making the city a destination for long-distance running competitions.

For some, it was the support and sponsorship of events by early owners of outdoor retailer Rock/Creek. For others, it was the Cumberland Trails Conference, a nonprofit that has worked with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to create 300 miles of new trails throughout East Tennessee. But no matter which way you start the conversation, all the stories seem to have one name in common – Matt Sims.

A sales rep for Patagonia, Sims is tall and thin, with a side-eyed joke ready for a fellow runner he considers a “gearhead.” Sims runs light. No watch, no backpack, barely any food. So when friend Chad Wamack met him for a long run on some little-traveled land on the Cumberland Trail in 2005, Wamack was almost destined to have problems with the protein shake he brought along. Coupled with a pit stop at a gas station on Hwy 111 at mile 18, Wamack overindulged and spent the rest of the run tackling elevation gains and the descent into Soddy Gorge while vomiting. It’s a moment the pair still jokes about today, and ultimately it served as the inspiration for Upchuck 50K, one of the first and best-known ultra trail races in Chattanooga that the two still direct to this day.

At the time, Sims was already a rising force in the Chattanooga trail running scene. A 1990 graduate of Chattanooga Christian School, Sims took to triathlons in 1996, eventually running four IRONMANs. By 2000, he was running in the woods. At the time, the Mountain Mist 50K was the only ultra trail race in the Southeast. Known as Alabama’s toughest trail run since its inception, the Mountain Mist is what inspired Sims to found the River Gorge Trail Race (a 10-mile and six-mile event) and the StumpJump 50K in Chattanooga in 2001. As an employee at Rock/Creek, Sims was sponsored and supported by co-owner Dawson Wheeler, who helped facilitate and build on Sims’ vision for what became the modern race series the city enjoys today. “We had a lot of trails, but nobody was really running them. It wasn’t a really organized sport back then,” Sims remembers. “River Gorge Race was the catalyst for getting local participation into the world of trail running. The distances we offered were obtainable for most runners. Then when StumpJump 50K came later that year, 90 plus percent of participants were from out of town. Hardly anyone in Chattanooga could run that distance. Most locals did the 11-mile race, and then as years progressed, the same  people completed the 50K.”

By the time Sims had the permits to host the first Upchuck race in 2008, he had become an ambassador of sorts on the Chattanooga trail running scene. And other area trail enthusiasts have built upon his efforts with new trails, races, and conservation programs that keep the city in the spotlight as a destination for trail running rivaled by few.

“If you’re doing a 50K, which is 31 miles, you don’t need a lot of stuff. Here’s the general rule: If you are doing over an hour and a half of running, you need to consume your body weight x two in calories per hour to stay fueled,” Matt Sims explains. “So if I weigh 150 lbs., I need to eat 300 calories per hour. That’s really only if I’m going to be out over an hour and a half to two hours. So I take 24-oz of water and then some energy gel. That’s it. That’s running lean. A lot of people will overdo it.”


Location, Location, Location

Chattanooga is frequently compared to other trail running cities like Boulder, Colorado; Flagstaff, Arizona; Asheville, North Carolina; and Portland, Oregon. But the city sets itself apart with its unmatched location. With an exceptional number of trailheads just minutes from downtown and loops rich in historical context and beauty, local and out-of-towner trail runners alike recognize its unrivaled appeal.

Best known for his work managing Wild Trails, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting trail running and land conservation, Randy Whorton moved to Chattanooga from Huntsville in 2005. He says if he hadn’t come to town to run the second annual StumpJump, he and wife Kris probably would have moved back to Boulder, Colorado.  But his experience running Chattanooga trails convinced him to move here. “There are hills and trails completely surrounding the city,” he says. “Everywhere you go, you can find a great place to get out and about. My research has shown we have 54 trailheads within 25 minutes of downtown Chattanooga. In Ashland, Oregon, they’ve got something like 20. Boulder might have 15. We have the most unique city in America as far as trail access.”

One of the most popular trails in town is Cravens House Loop, a moderate 4.6-mile trail. It begins at the home of Robert Cravens, located halfway up Lookout Mountain. During the Battle of Chattanooga, Cravens’ home was used by both Union and Confederate soldiers as an observation post and headquarters. Another favorite is Rifle Pits Trail, where in November 1863, Union troops came up the mountain to find Confederate riflemen hiding in trenches. Both trails are part of the 10-mile, seven-trail “Big Daddy Loop.”

Other sought-after trails include Perimeter Loop at Raccoon Mountain, a difficult 13-mile loop known for its views overlooking the city, Mullens Cove Loop, a strenuous 10.2-mile loop located in the Prentice Cooper Wilderness Management Area, and the 10 miles of looping trails at Stringer’s Ridge, the 92-acre forested park in the center of downtown.

“We have to thank our forefathers,” says Randy Whorton, “the people that have created the land trusts that allow us to have public land everywhere you look around Chattanooga.”

Community Support: Conserving Land and Cutting New Trail

Of course, without community support to protect and conserve the area’s green spaces and build new trails, Chattanooga’s status as one of trail running’s best destinations might not be so.

In 2007, when plans were announced for the construction of 500 condominiums along Stringer’s Ridge, outcry from the public was immediate. Hearing the concerns, the Trust for Public Land paired with the Tennessee River Gorge Trust to launch a campaign to preserve and protect the park. A success, the park opened for the public’s enjoyment in 2013 and remains a favorite for trail runners of all experience levels.

With Wild Trails, Whorton has established relationships with land owners and park managers for permission to help maintain existing trails and build new ones. In 2015, Wild Trails worked with Bobby Fulcher, the head of the Cumberland Trail State Park, to obtain a Volunteer Work Agreement that allowed for 12.5 miles of trail to be cut from Barker Camp Road to Hall Road, near Taft Highway. The long-term goal is to link enough trails so the Cumberland Trail will stretch 300 continuous miles from its northern terminus to Signal Point on Signal Mountain.

The work of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA) also cannot be overlooked, says Chattanooga ultra runner Dreama Campbell, who has participated in 120 ultra races since 2004 and manages a local running club called the Cumberland Trail Runners. SORBA has constructed and maintained 30 miles of trail on Raccoon Mountain, 7.5 miles of trail at Booker T. Washington State Park, 9 miles of trail at Enterprise South Nature Park, and 22 miles of trail on the 5-Points trail system. “Those guys really don’t get the credit that they deserve,” she explains. “These are multi-use trails. These runners are running on their trails. If a tree falls on a Tuesday, they are out there on a Wednesday or a Thursday and that sucker is sawed up. Those guys are amazing.”

Ultimately, organized efforts supported by trail runners themselves have made Chattanooga trails ever expanding, clean, and accessible.

The Race Series

Beyond the lush landscapes and community support, Chattanooga’s race lineup attracts ultra runners from other cities, states, and even countries looking to compete at the highest level. The StumpJump 50K is still known as the race that put Chattanooga on the map. No longer managed by Sims, it is a part of the Rock/Creek Trail Series and still a regional favorite. Originally hosting about 70 runners, now registration often tops 500. Starting at Signal Mountain High School, this is the race where you’ll find seasoned ultra runners alongside men, women, and youth trying out their first long-distance challenge in the woods. “It’s a challenging race for even an advanced runner, but a beginner could do it too, and do it well,” says Campbell. Rock/Creek also promotes the Chattanooga 100 Mile / 50 Mile at Cloudland Canyon State Park. The longer route covers 14,000 feet of elevation gain and losses, and racers are expected to finish within 33 hours.

Sims holds firm that the no-frills Upchuck 50K remains a representation of ultra trail running at its simplest form. With participants from about 30 different states each year, he could easily increase the pool to 200 participants, but he intentionally caps registration at 75. Sims is just as minimalist in his race planning as he is on a private run. “We have two aid stations in 30 miles, very little fanfare at the finish line, one little timing clock. We line you up in the parking lot and say ‘go.’ It’s kind of old-school ultra scene, which I love,” Sims explains.

Through Wild Trails, the Whortons started Wild Trails Race Series that includes the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race, a three-day, 60-mile mountain-trail race. The couple developed the idea after participating in the seven-day Swiss Jura Marathon in 2006, in which they ran through the Jura Mountains from Geneva, Switzerland, to Basel and were surprised they could handle the physical demands of a six-day race. “It was kind of a life-changing thing for us because we didn’t expect what happened,” Randy says. “For some reason something happened day 4-5-6-7; we got stronger.” Today the Mountains Stage Race is split over three days – 18 miles on Raccoon Mountain, 22 miles on Lookout Mountain, and 20 miles on Signal Mountain. In 2018, the Wild Trails Race Series will add the new Chattanooga Trail Relay at Enterprise South Nature Park. A total of 97 miles, to qualify for an award, a team must run each of the three trail loops six times, in equal parts. For a relay team with three members, for example, each team member would run each trail loop twice.

In It for the Long Run

Wamack says what’s impressive about Chattanooga ultra trail running is how local men and women at the top of their game are continuing to push the boundaries of what can be done. “Chattanooga is bulging, and we’ve got a good history and a good trail running community that just keeps getting bigger every year,” Wamack continues. “We’ve got the door open – tons of people moving here from all over the country, and it’s really cool to think about what’s next. The trails are growing and expanding every year. You can go from downtown Chattanooga now to Cloudland Canyon State Park. Where else in the country can you do that? When people get creative and start doing things, it’s awesome. The future is really bright for the Chattanooga outdoor scene.”

Chattanooga Marathons and Ultras

Scenic City Trail Marathon

Raccoon Mountain
May 12, 2018

Chattanooga Trail Relay

Enterprise South Nature Park
May 25-26, 2018

Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race

Raccoon Mountain, Lookout  Mountain, Signal Mountain
June 15-17, 2018

StumpJump 50K

Signal Mountain, Walden Ridge
October 6-7, 2018

Upchuck 50K

Cumberland Trail
November 10, 2018

Chattanooga 100 Mile/50 Mile

Cloudland Canyon State Park
November 30-December 1, 2018

Lookout Mountain 50 Miler, 20 Miler and 10K Trail Race

Lookout Mountain
December 15, 2018

Chattanooga 100 Mile Trail Relay

Cloudland Canyon State Park
January 5, 2019

For short trail race options, from 5K to 15K to half marathon, visit or

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