Fast forward to race weekend. I took off work on Friday so I could rest and head down to packet pick up early. My dad and I drove to Amicalola State Park to check in and get my packet Friday afternoon. Before getting your bib, runners had to show their pack with all mandatory gear. Because GDR is run on remote trails with 40,000ish feet of elevation change, runners were required to carry several safety items including a headlamp, emergency blanket, thermal shirt, waterproof layer, and whistle. This made for a pretty heavy pack considering you also had to have at least 22oz of water. I am typically a minimalist when it comes to running and usually carry next to nothing, so it felt like I was carrying a ton of weight. And to top it off, Sean made every runner carry a railroad spike for the duration of the race. Upon finishing, you exchanged the old spike for a new one with the race name engraved on it. Crazy I know, but if you know Sean, you know that nothing is too crazy!
After checking in and listening to the race briefing, my dad and I went to dinner with Dreama and Trey before heading back to our hotel in Blairsville. Because I had a crew, I was able to stay at the start near Vogel State Park rather than at the finish near Amicalola. If staying at the finish, runners had to ride a shuttle that left at 5:15a.m. for the 8a.m. start. Ewww. Thankfully, I was able to go directly to the start and didn't even leave our hotel until about 7a.m. If I got any sleep Friday night, it was minimal, so when the alarm went of Saturday morning, I was probably already awake. Despite feeling a bit groggy, I was excited for the day ahead. Dad drove me to the start where I had to check in again to verify that I hadn't changed my mind about running since last night. Runners also got their railroad spike at this time. I wrapped it up in my thermal had and stuffed it down in my pack. When I put my pack on to run around and make sure the spike wouldn't bounce or hurt my back, it felt like I was running with a full backpack. "Ugh, this is so heavy," I thought. A liter of water, spike, shirt, headlamp, hat, emergency blanket, whistle, and several gels all stuffed into my Camelbak. I would have given anything to take it off and just run with a handheld bottle, but alas, that would not be happening. I might as well just get over it and realize that everyone else had to carry the same gear. It was around this time that I spotted Tim, a friend of mine who was kind enough to drive down from Chattanooga Saturday morning to crew for me. Tim is awesome at race day details and organization, and I was very thankful to have he and dad helping me out.
Start to White Oak Stomp Aid Station- Mile 8
Before long, Sean was calling everyone over to the start line for the final pre-race briefing. Sean said a few words from the top of his rental Suburban which looked like it had already been put through hell from driving all over the north Georgia mountains on rudimentary forest service roads. A few seconds before the start, I ditched my jacket and handed it to dad before making my way toward the start line. We would have a short road section before hitting singletrack, so there would be some time to spread out, but I still wanted to be somewhat close to the front of the pack in order to avoid a conga line at the trailhead. Sean counted us down and said "Go!" as we followed his car down the road. Seeing as how we had a long day (and possibly night) ahead, the pace was pretty tame to start. It was a gradual uphill for about 1/4 mile to a gravel road before reaching the trail within 1/2 half mile. From here, the trail climbs for about a mile before crossing a road and descending 2 miles. This first climb isn't terrible, so I just settled into a comfortable running pace and plugged my way to the top. I had started the race in a short sleeve shirt, arm warmers, and a Patagonia Houdini jacket, but quickly shed the jacket and arm warmers. The temperature was actually quite pleasant, low 50s and overcast. There was a good chance for rain, however, so I wanted to make sure I was prepared just in case.
photo credit: Tim Anderson
After crossing the road at the top of this first climb, it was a welcome relief to get some nice downhill. The first 28ish miles of the race are all on the Duncan Ridge Trail, and I had done a 50k on this section before, so it looked somewhat familiar. Runners were fairly spread out at this point, so I was able to open up a bit and cruise to the bottom before starting the biggest climb of the day. It seemed like no time at all before the downhill was over and it was time to start going up. My plan for the big climb was to maintain a steady effort. I didn't want to overreach so early in the race and not have anything left in the tank for the second half (hint: my plan didn't work out very well). Parts of this section are actually quite runnable while others are pretty steep. I alternated running and power hiking to keep things very relaxed. Somewhere around this time I got into a group of 3 or 4 guys and we chatted to make the time go by. One guy named Josh was from the northeast, Massachusetts or Connecticut, and had come down here for the race. I think it is interesting to talk with people from different parts of the country and get their perspective on trails in this area as well as hear about trailrunning in their hometown. Josh was loving the course and said that he was used to a lot more rocks and technical running because he runs in the White Mountains which are very technical. The conversation definitely made the time pass, but it still felt like we just kept going up and up and up. Finally, we hit the top and got a little downhill to the first aid station. I just grabbed a few chips and headed out.
Elevation Chart for the first 28 miles
Photo Credit: Rob Tucker
As you can see from the topo map above, this next section is full of ups and downs. One thing about the Duncan Ridge Trail is that its builders clearly did not believe in switchbacks. The ups relinquish you to a power hike most of the time while the downs are often so steep that it is difficult to run fast without doing somersaults to the bottom. That also means that your quads are constantly contracting to "break" you. I believe this section is appropriately named the dragon spine. I could already tell that my quads were taking a beating which worried me seeing as how I was less than 1/4 of the way through the race. As far as overall pace was concerned, I felt very comfortable, but the extreme grades were clearly taking their toll on me. When I got to Fish Gap, I quickly refilled my Camelbak with Gatorade, grabbed some food, and headed out. I had started the race with Tailwind as my fluid which seems to sit well with my notoriously finicky stomach, but I would have to wait until mile 28 where there was crew access to refill with that.
The first climb shortly after the start
Photo Credit: Gregg Gelmis
Fish Gap to Skeenah Gap- Miles 15.5-21.5
This next section starts off much like the previous with lots of sharp ups and downs until mile 20 when runners hit the only out and back part of the entire race. The 1.5 mile out is all downhill, meaning that the 1.5 mile is, you guessed it, all uphill. Shortly after heading out, I saw Nathan making his way back up, closely followed by Franklin. Both looked strong and in good spirits. It was uplifting to see familiar faces for the first time since the start, and I was happy that both seemed to be having a good race thus far. I knew that Nathan and Franklin were super fit and very capable of finishing near the front. A little further down, I saw a couple guys shooting video of runners along the course. This was maybe the second time I had seen them and definitely wouldn't be the last. I can only imagine how much they ran around filming people. Every time I saw them, they offered positive words of encouragement that were always welcome and much needed on several occasions, especially later in the race. One of the guys also told me that this next aid station had Girl Scout cookies and Fireball shots. The cookies sounded ok, but the Fireball shots not so much. I did get a laugh thinking to myself if anyone would actually take one while running the race. Shortly after passing the guys videoing, I reached Skeenah Gap and basically just checked in before heading right back up the way I came.
Somewhere around Skeenah Gap
Photo Credit: David Horton
Skeenah Gap to Point Bravo- Miles 21.5-28
Knowing that I would see my dad and Tim at the next aid station gave me a little boost on this next segment. Because the race is run on remote trails, there were only 2 places with crew access. In a 72 mile race, you will cherish these times. I was also eager to see how close the next few women were to me on this out and back part. It wasn't long at all before I saw several ladies looking strong as they were making their way to the Skeenah Gap aid station. I was also happy to see Jeremiah, Nick, and David all running together looking happy. One thing about trailrunning is that the overwhelming majority of folks are super friendly and offer encouragement to one another during races. Sure, we are still competing against each other, but that doesn't seem to stop people from smiling and saying "Good job" to their competition. Do I want to beat you? Yes, absolutely. But do I also realize that we are all taking part in a journey and spending a day enjoying God's creation? Yes, so why not be nice?
Honestly, the 1.5 mile uphill didn't seem as bad as I feared, and before I knew it, I was back where I started ready to continue down the Duncan Ridge Trail to Point Bravo. Thankfully, the trail became a little more forgiving in that the "dragon's tail" section was over. It was definitely not flat by any means, but the ascents and descents were not quite as steep, and it was a lot more downhill heading into mile 28. Since this was the first of two crew access points, it was crowded, and I could hear the aid station long before I could see it. For several minutes before reaching the crew point, I could hear cheering and clapping. Then, as I ran in to the aid station, there were people on either side of the trail yelling for runners as they came through. It was awesome. Right on cue, dad and Tim were there to meet me and take care of anything I might need. I remember dad asking me how I was doing to which I answered, "tired." I had gone through a low spot a bit earlier, but had come out of it, and seeing all these people raised my spirits significantly. Dad and Tim refilled my pack with Tailwind and sent me on my way. It would be mile 48 before I got to see them again.
Coming in to Point Bravo- Mile 28
Photo Credit: Katy Holland
I honestly don't remember much about this section other than it started with a climb. At this point, my legs were trashed. With roughly 44 miles to go, this was concerning, but it is what it is. All I could do was try to ignore the pain in my quads when I ran downhill. Even though I could at least ignore the pain, my quads were also a lot weaker than they typically would be, so I felt like jello trying to brace myself on the descents. Nevertheless, I made it to Sapling Gap and pretty much ran straight through this aid station since it hadn't been that far from Point Bravo.
Sapling Gap to Long Creek- Miles 33-41
One thing I will say about this race is how awesome the volunteers were. At every aid station, someone met me to ask what I needed and did their best to get me taken care of as quickly as possible. When I asked how far it was to the next aid station from Sapling Gap and found out it was 8 miles, I was a little disheartened. In case you haven't realized, I was pretty tired at this point and was focusing on making it from one aid station to the next. Eight miles seemed like forever away. I glanced at my watch and set a time goal to make it to Long Creek in less that 90 minutes. That may seem like plenty of time, but this section was back to the steep ups and downs like before which makes it difficult to get into a rhythm. I went through another rough patch on this stretch but forced down a GU and managed to come out of it just before the aid station. For some reason, I was thinking that this is where I would meet dad and Tim. When I got to the aid station, I was frantically looking around for them but couldn't find them anywhere. I was close to tears when I realized that there was nobody at this aid station except for the volunteers. Obviously this was not a crew access point, and one of the volunteers told me that they would be at the next stop. As bummed as I was, it was nice to think that more than half of the race was behind me and that I would definitely get to see some familiar faces before too long.
A bushwhacking section that Sean sent runners up
Photo Credit: Nathan Holland
Long Creek to Winding Stair- Miles 41-48
If I am not mistaken, the race course followed the Benton McKaye Trail around this time. It was not quite as steep and really a pretty trail. Until now, the weather had stayed dry, and the sun had even come out at times, making it fairly warm. However, as I was climbing near the top of the ridge, the wind picked up and a brief shower got me a little wet. I put my Houdini jacket back on to prevent getting cold because I know that I don't do well when wet and cold. Thankfully, the rain stopped after only about 10 minutes, and I quickly warmed back up. As we got closer to the aid station, I remember turning onto a forest service road that climbed up to Winding Stair. Hearing the noise from the aid station was a relief. I was really hurting both physically and mentally at this point, so seeing other people was a welcome sight. Also, I had run most of the race by myself which can make for some lonely miles. Since this would be the last time to see dad and Tim before the finish, I knew I had to get everything I might need from here on out, including gear for when it got dark. As soon as I saw them both, I was instantly uplifted, and they started telling me what I needed. The funny thing about ultras is that you start not thinking clearly during latter stages. I can't tell you how many times I have run through an aid station and forgotten to fill up my completely empty Camelbak or get anything to eat. This makes having a crew all the more important because they can do the thinking for you. I got my pack refilled with fluid and restocked on gels. I ditched my Houdini jacket and arm warmers because they had gotten wet when it rained. Since I knew it would cool down quite a bit when it got dark, I picked up my Gore-tex jacket. That way, I would have a waterproof layer that is also warm. Dad suggested that I change into a long sleeve shirt, so I put on a Smartwool. It felt nice to be dry again. After grabbing some food at the aid station, dad and Tim had my pack all ready to go, and I was on my way. Mentally it was a booster to think that I had less than a marathon to go. Jenny, Franklin's wife was there and said that this next section had a lot of downhill on dirt roads, so it would be very runnable. While that should be true, my quads were screaming on any downhill, so I wasn't able to make up near as much time as I should have. Nevertheless, I shuffled off trying to stay as positive as possible.
Leading ladies at Point Bravo- I don't look so good
Jenny was right about the downhill. We had about 3 miles of nice downhill followed by several more miles of gradual ups and downs. The first 3 miles were on forest service roads, but we eventually got back on singletrack. I was actually happy about this because it was more cushioned than the road on my hammered legs. Despite hurting a lot and not being able to run as fast as I would have liked, I did feel like my pace was at least faster than it had been at the beginning of the race when the terrain simply does not permit super fast running. Not too long after hitting the singltrack, I happened to look back and see a lady coming up behind me. We chatted briefly, and I learned that she was Bethany Patterson, a super strong runner from Virginia. I kind of sensed that it was inevitable that I would be caught because I just was not moving as quick as I needed to in order to maintain a lead. We ran along together pretty much until Jake Bull when Bethany pulled ahead. She ended up crushing the rest of the course and finishing in first place, earning a golden ticked to Western States. Congrats to you, Bethany. Well deserved. Although it stung to get passed, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it at this point. I was giving it everything I had, but my legs were fried. I didn't really do anything at Jake Bull except check in and maybe grab some food.
Jake Bull to Nimblewill- Miles 54-63
Remember when 8 miles seemed like a long way to go before an aid station? Well now I had to go 9. Perfect. As much as my thoughts were trending toward the negative side during this part of the race, I tried to recognize that and think positive. "Ok, just look at it like this: Get to Nimblewill, that will be the last aid station, and you will have single digit mile to go before the finish." This happy thought would last about 30 seconds before the negative crept back in and I would have to remind myself of the good thoughts. The fact that my stomach had rebelled wasn't helping things, but that tends to always happen late in races, so it was nothing unexpected. The first few miles were actually very nice on the trail before we popped out onto a dirt road. It was around here that I spotted Nathan up ahead. Dad and Jenny had told me at Point Bravo that Nathan was having stomach issues, and I hoped he got them resolved and that he was feeling good enough to keep me from ever seeing him. We stayed within sight of each other until hitting a paved road. Nathan pulled over to the side for a second when I caught up to him. I asked how he was doing, and he said that he had been throwing up for a long time. I would later learn that Nathan was not able to eat anything for the last 40 miles but somehow still managed to finish. His toughness amazes me. The paved road went on for what seemed like an eternity. If dirt road hurt my legs, imagine paved road. There I go thinking negative again. It was getting close to dark about now, and the sunset was very pretty. Good, positive thought. The paved road became a gravel road and we started climbing. At this point, I had to put on my headlamp because it was officially dark. I switched it on and ran a few steps before it turned off. Uh oh. I pushed the power button again and it flashed back on before turning off a few seconds later. We played this game 5 or six times before I decided to stop and address it. Granted I had no extra batteries or spare headlamp, so there wasn't a whole lot I could have done about it if my headlamp was dying or broken. "If you can't make it work, you'll just have to wait for the next runner, hope you can stay with them to see from their light, and pray that the aid station has an extra headlamp," I thought to myself. I took my headlamp off and switched it on. The little indicator light was green, indicating that my batteries were still good which made sense because I had just put new ones in it. The only other thing I could figure was that the connection was bad, so I took the cover off the battery case and wiggled the batteries around. This sounds easy except that I had to do it in total darkness because the light goes off when you take the top of the case. I managed to get the cover back on and turned my light on again so I could see. I said a little prayer that it would work for good, and God answered that prayer. Whew, crisis averted.
As the road starting climbing in earnest, I tried to just settle in to a strong power hike alternated with periods of jogging if it wasn't too steep. This section seemed to just keep going up and up and up. Finally I saw what looked like 2 headlamps up in the distance and heard some people yelling. At first I thought it was the aid station volunteers, but as I got closer, it became clear that something wasn't right. When I got within sight of them, the lady came up to me asking what I needed. I could tell by her speech and the way she was walking that she was very intoxicated. Like could barely stand up straight intoxicated. And the man was no better off. In fact, he was stumbling around near the edge of the road, close to just walking off the side of the mountain. I just kept moving up the road as they kept wandering down. Shortly after this, the actual aid station came in to view. Because we were at the top and pretty exposed, this spot was very windy and freezing cold. I put my jacket on, drank some hot broth, and asked how far it was to the finish. When the volunteer said 9 miles, I swear I almost cried. My Camelbak was low on fluid, but the idea of stopping to fill it up was out of the question. I just wanted to finish this thing. I drank the rest of my broth as quick as I could and headed out.
Nimblewill to Finish- Miles 63-72
This next section started out on more gravel road and climbed a short while before starting to go down hill. Thankfully, as I descended, the trees offered some protection from the wind, and I was no longer freezing my butt off. I was able to run on the downhills, albeit slow, but this at least allowed me to move at a decent pace. The gravel road came to a clearing where there was a volunteer directing me down this old wash toward Amicalola Lodge. He said that I had about 3.5 miles to the finish. For the first time, I let myself think about the finish being within sight. This "trail," if it could even be called that, was full of big loose rocks which made it near impossible to run. Fortunately, it didn't last too long before I got to a more runnable trail. Then I got a big surprise when I heard my dad calling my name. I had not expected to see him until the finish, and I knew this wasn't the finish. However, because Sean sent runners to the bottom of the falls within a couple hundred yards of the actual finish before making you climb back up to the top, dad was able to see me here. He walked with me through the parking lot and pointed me toward the path that takes you up to the top of the falls via 600 steps. Yes, we had to go up 600 steps at approximately mile 70. The route starts out as pavement before you hit the first series of 175 stairs. I know how many because it is marked with a sign. And you better believe I counted every single step. Surprisingly, they weren't that bad. At this point, uphills felt 1,000 times better than downhill on my legs. After the first 175, there was a short flat section followed by the final 425 steps. Again, I counted. At the end of the stairs, you still had some climbing before popping out at the main road up the mountain. As I turned to run down, it was so painful that I remember thinking I would gladly climb 600 more stairs if it meant not having to run downhill. Runners followed the road for maybe 1/2 mile before turning on to the final trail to the finish. It wound around for what seemed like a long time, but that is because I could actually hear the people at the finish line. As I popped out of the woods at a creek, Sean made did not allow racers to use the nice bridge but made everyone cross through the creek. At this point, I really didn't care. Crossing that creek to high five Sean at the finish was the best feeling. He told me to throw my railroad spike that I had carried all day into a coffin he had set up in exchange for a new spike with "Georgia Death Race" engraved on it. I was happy to oblige. Dad and Tim were there waiting on me at the finish, and after chatting for a few minutes with Sean about my race, we headed toward the car. More like dad and Tim walked while I hobbled. Since it was less than a 2 hour drive home, dad and I headed out. My stomach was wrecked and my body hurt so bad I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep, but was looking forward to at least sitting down in my own house :).
The Georgia Death Race lived up to the hype. It was tough, rugged, relentless, and beautiful all at the same time. Sean did a spectacular job in every facet of the race from course marking to aid stations to being at the finish to personally greet you. If you have the opportunity to run any of Sean's races, I highly recommend it. You won't be disappointed. Also, it would be wrong of me not to thank all of the volunteers who helped make this race so great, everyone from the aid station workers to the HAM radio operators. Thanks to dad, Tim, and everyone who offered encouragement during the race. Most importantly, I thank God for the opportunity to spend time running through the woods. Congrats to Bethany and Maggie on snagging a golden ticket. I wish you both the best at Western States. I'll be cheering for you.