By Camille Platt
Photos Courtesy of Wild Trails
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.