I remember making a pact with myself after running the Oil Creek 100 last October to run less races and run shorter distances. My glute was in terrible shape and my legs were toast. I basically took all of November off, running less than 100 miles in that month. December was much of the same, and my glute started feeling better.
Jump to this past Friday night. I’m laying in bed, the night before what I feel is going to be the toughest race I’ve ever done. And I thought back on that pact….and had to laugh. Once my legs started feeling better, I, of course, had to come up with a run schedule for 2017. I came up with: two 100 milers, one 74 miler, one 70 miler, two 50 milers, three 50k’s, one 27 miler, and three marathons.
The Georgia Death Race is labeled as a “68 mile’ish” (it’s now 74 miles) race in the mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forrest in northern Georgia. The director, they call him the Run Bum, has added distance and elevation gain each year since it started 5 years ago. Considered one of the toughest races on the east coast, it has more than 18,000 feet of elevation gain and close to 40,000 total elevation change. Here is my crew for the race, my wife Caryn and friend Pat and I the day before the race….
Even though the forecast for Saturday was sunny and a high of 72 degrees, the mountains can get cold at night. We were required to carry the following with us at all times: 1 weatherproof jacket, 1 thermal long-sleeved shirt, 1 warm hat, 1 space blanket, 1 headlamp, 1 whistle, and….1 rusty old railroad spike(got me?!). They would have random gear checks at aid stations.
5 a.m. came very early Saturday morning. Here I am with the railroad spike, puzzled as to why we were required to carry this thing the whole 74 miles….
The weather was calm and about 45 degrees at the start at Vogel State Park. We immediately started climbing once the race started. It was only a few hundred feet climb before we started heading back down again. The real first climb started after mile 3 and continued for almost 4 miles. As we continued to climb, it got foggier, windier, and wetter. By the time we crested the highest mountain on the course, the temperature was probably 35 degrees. Here is the elevation chart of the whole race, including the major climb at the beginning….
We didn’t last long on top. We pretty directly started heading down again until we got to the first aid station(AS). We got on the Duncan Ridge Trail, which is infamously known as the trail that the “Dragon’s Spine” is on. More on that in a minute. After a few more miles, I approached the next AS at mile 13 where I met Caryn and Pat. Caryn took these pictures of me approaching the station and at the station…
Because the race course is so remote in the mountains, I would only see Caryn and Pat at mile 13 and mile 47. It would be too difficult for crew and spectators to see the runners. On their down time, they would meet up with a friend of a friend, Michelle, who lives in Georgia. They would go to 4 wineries all together and visit the A.T. terminus close by. It’s tough being a crewer. After a quick fill up and a bite to eat, I was off to tackle the toughest part of the race.
The “Dragon’s Spine”, as it is called, is a stretch of roughly 12 or so miles of continuous up and downs. The climbs averaged roughly 200-400 feet each. We would go up one, crest, and head back down into a gap. At that point, we would be looking right in front of us at another climb. This went on for a few hours. There would be 9 of them, from what I counted on the chart. At one point, when I got to the bottom of one, I did not see the next climb. That was because I had gotten through most of them, and I was approaching the Benton MacKaye Trail. If you don’t know, MacKaye was the originator of the Appalachian Trail. The southern terminus of the A.T. on Springer Mountain, was just a few short miles from where I was running. Here are Caryn , Michelle, and Pat at the southern most A.T. terminus…
Skeennah Gap was the next AS at mile 21. The decent for me seemed to take forever. We would get to the AS, and backtrack back up the mountain, so us runners would pass each other and say “nice work”, “good job”, or grunt, depending on how they felt. After visiting the AS and enjoying some bacon, the climb for me out of the gap was fine until I reached close to the top. I had a familiar feeling and before I knew it, I was vomiting. I do that sometimes. After that episode, I was good to go again.
After one more ascent and descent, we eventually descended down into the next AS, Point Bravo at mile 28. This was a drop location, which means I had a bag with clothing and food meeting me if I needed it. I kept the spare shirt in the bag, but took advantage of the gels and banana. From what I was told, the worst(or toughest) part of the course was over. That was good to hear, but I really didn’t care. I still had 46 miles to go.
The miles started to blend together. The sun was approaching the highest point in the sky for the day. It was beautiful outside. I remember being on a ridge between the mile 33 and 41 AS’s, and seeing rolling mountains on both sides of me. No towns or highways in sight. It was the most remote place I had ever ran I remember thinking.
After looking at my watch and it saying mile 35, I began to feel like crap. I knew I had some miles left to get to the next aid station, so I took a gel and had an extra sip of Tailwind energy drink. A couple of minutes later, I was starting to feel better. A minute after that, I saw a sign that said Long Creek AS was right ahead. I suddenly felt great! My watch/GPS was way off in mileage due to the lack of signal in the mountains.
At the AS, I had more bacon. And it was great. The volunteers in this race were so good. At every AS, I had someone asking me what they could do for me. At this AS, I replied “a bed”. Unfortunately, there were other runners that were quitting at that AS due to stomach issues or just because they couldn’t continue. It was in the middle of the afternoon. Though tired, overall I was feeling fine. I think too many runners start off way to fast, and don’t consume enough calories early in these types of races.
Anyhow, the next AS was supposed to be 6 miles away, Winding Stair. It was where my crew was going to be. The next few miles were down hill on a dirt road. Eventually we ended up getting onto a forrest road and started to climb. I did some math on my watch and by the time the 6 miles came along, there was no AS in sight. Finally, after another mile of climbing, I reaching Winding Stair, and my wife, Pat, and Michelle. I was glad to see them…..
I fueled up. Caryn filled my water bottles, I had a banana, pickles/juice, applesauce, coke, and I forget what else. I also snatched up someone’s beer that they were drinking and took a few sips myself. It tasted so good. I toasted with Michelle, and within a few minutes, I was off. I kissed Caryn goodbye and said I would see them at the finish.
In general, the next several miles were either downhill or rolling terrain. It was the “easiest” part of the race. It also was the most beautiful. The sun was getting lower in the sky and the bright skylight started to change to orange, then to pink. The Chattahoochee National Forrest was showing itself off. I had to stop once or twice. Not because I was tired, but to soak in all the views of the mountains. This was a picture Caryn took near the A.T. terminus about the same time I was on mile 50.
Jake Bull AS was at mile 54. I knew I had 9 miles, as advertised, until I got to the next AS….Nimblewill, at mile 63. I took a seat at Jake Bull for about 5 minutes. I made sure I had enough food and drink for the next several miles. Here’s a few pictures at the Jake Bull AS, including the signs on the way out…….
After being greeted and served by the great volunteers, I was on my way out. We continued on a single track trail for roughly a mile or two. We eventually got on a paved road. Little did I know what type of torcher I was in for ahead of me. I must not have researched the logistics of the route hard enough. I didn’t know paved roads were even included in this race. It was now dark and I had turned my headlamp on. For the next 2 ‘ish miles, I followed the limited pink and black poke-a-dotted ribbons that marked the course. Numerous times I had thought I missed a turn-off. I kept searching for a ribbon on either side of the road, but there wouldn’t be one. Eventually one would show up. On a branch or on the ground along side the road. I distinctly remember not seeing a ribbon alongside the road for a long time. I started to panic, but it changed to joy when I saw a big pile of vomit in the middle of the road. Yep, I was still on course!
Eventually the road turned into a service road. That service road never ended. Actually, I still think I am on it. The road was on a slight incline. Weaving its way up a mountain. It continued on and on. Each left turn then straitened out and eventually went to a right turn. On and on. Left and right. The turns then started to look-alike. At this point, there was no running going on. This was an all out hike. I ended up passing a few people. Some acknowledging in a functional way, others not so functional. There were some struggling people out there.
My Garmin watch had died at mile 57(actually at mile 61 due to loss of signal). I had a backup watch that I put on and eventually, after what I thought was 9 miles, I approached two men with headlamps. They told me that there was “only 1.5 miles left to the aid station and that it is gradually uphill and easier than what you just did”. He wasn’t aware of it, but this man just punched me in the face and gut. The others that I had passed earlier, were now there as well. We all couldn’t believe what we were hearing. The sound of going 1.5 more miles seemed like a very cruel joke.
I staggered on after that punch in the gut, until eventually, after what I think was 11 miles total, I got to the next AS(Nimblewill). The AS was the coolest I’ve ever seen. A string of red lights hanging on a limb 20 feet off the ground greeted us as we approached. At the gate, there was a Christmas tree and other lights. Here is a picture from earlier in the evening before it was dark….
Exciting, isn’t it?! Well, to us, it was Christmas morning. All around the AS they had those currently popular dotted Christmas lights…you know, the ones that people have displayed all over their houses. These dotted lights were all over the trees surrounding the AS.
Yo dog, I was trippin.
The final 10 miles were kind of a blur. But in the middle of that haze, I knew this was what it was all about and I felt relaxed. It’s called the Georgia Death Race for a reason. It’s supposed to feel bad. I can honestly say that I was in my element. That feeling that you get when don’t have anything left to give. But surprisingly, your body continues. And you push on. You continue to move forward. Not physically anymore. It’s just you mentally saying “keep going” even though everything else entirely is saying “stop”.
I was not ready for the finish of this race. I was told that we finished by climbing the Amicalola Falls stairs. It included a 175 step climb, followed by a 475 step climb to finish at the top at the Amicalola Falls Lodge. I mentally prepared for that. I did not prepare for the actual finish:
With 4 miles to go we were descending. To my surprise, we passed the Lodge on our descent. We took a very rocky trail down to the very bottom of the mountain, which is where I thought the last AS was. There was only water there. I filled some water up and continued upward. Starting with a steep walkway, that eventually lead to the steps. I emptied out mostly all of my water to remove weight. I counted all of the steps on the way up. At the top, I was expecting the pink ribbons to direct us to the lodge entrance and finish.
I was wrong.
I followed the ribbons to the paved road, where it started to descend down off the mountain again. WHAT??!! I thought I was loosing it. I actually backtracked to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Nope. The Run Bum had us going right back down the same mountain we just climbed. Half way down, the ribbons directed us to a single track trail. The trail actually started to make its way up the mountain again. As I was passing a few runners, we all were cursing. Eventually, the trail made a right turn and continued down to the very bottom, with a very steep decline. There was a small bridge for us to cross at the end, but the Run Bum thought otherwise and had us cross the creek instead. Here I am crossing the creek….
I finally had finished the GDR. Here I am talking to the Run Bum, Sean Blanton…
Here is the bin that we threw our railroad spikes in at the end…
And here is the spike that we got for running the race…
I’ve told a few people that I wish the Georgia Death Race was closer to home. I would do it again. Over and over, this course tried to break me and others. Some people broke. I did not. And I loved the fight. Throughout most of the race, I actually kept saying “this is awesome”. And it was. But it’s time to move on. The Massanutten 100 miler is in 5 weeks. And I can’t wait!