Tuesday, April 3, 2018

2018 Georgia Death Race - Separating Night And Day

The trees and the rocks and the trail had to wonder what the big deal was. They'd seen this a thousand times over the centuries of watching guard on Duncan Ridge. But for us runners on that ridge who noticed, something otherwordly and unbelievable was taking place. No, not that silly little Georgia Death Race we were participating in. But something far more epic. Something none expected. Something that would likely stick with us for the rest of our lives.


Climbing along Duncan Ridge
The 2018 Georgia Death Race was all set to begin just south of the Georgia / North Carolina border at Vogel State Park at 5AM. Runners had arrived at the finish line the night before for a pre-race meeting full of little tips and tidbits about the race. When my crew (the indefatigable Nick Stump and Eddy Souza) and I arrived at the pre-race meeting, I was stunned. Stunned by the hills that gave way to quite high peaks as we drove closer and closer. Stunned by the view out of Amicalola Lodge windows. Stunned by the size of the race event relative to other ultramarathons I'd participated in. This was no small affair with a bunch of local runners, but loaded with hundreds of seriously fit looking runners all clothed in race t-shirts and hats from some of the most famous and gnarly races I'd heard of. I was utterly intimidated and we weren't even toeing the starting line yet. I hadn't climbed a single foot of the 16,000 feet of climbing that lay ahead, but was already fairly convinced that I was out of my league.

As race morning arrived, I'd slept very little. I never sleep well before a race I give a damn about, and was not surprised. Problem was, I hadn't slept well the night before since we had to be on the road so early driving from South Florida to northern Georgia. And I hadn't slept well the night before that either after my son arrived into our bedroom feeling ill. Even so, my energy was high. This was going to be an adventure, maybe the adventure, that I had been looking for since I began pursuing endurance events 3 years prior.


We arrived at Vogel State Park about 30 minutes before the race was set to begin. The air was cold, really cold for a South Floridian. Despite being dressed like I was prepared to run the Iditarod, I still shivered violently in the 30 degree temperature. I checked in with the race team and picked up the railroad spike I would have to carry with me for the next 74ish miles.

The full blue moon was crystal clear in the cool, crisp air. It was bright enough to light the way without need of a headlamp. Runners gathered and quickly tried to clear their bladders and bowels one last time, then made way to the start line for final words from the race director, Sean Blanton. Nervous pacing and chatter among runners, final words of encouragement from crew standing nearby, a moonlight rendition of "Happy Birthday" sung by 260 runners to the race director and then we were off.

And immediately into a climb. We ran up a nice gentle incline along a paved road, which eventually turned into a not-so-well maintained paved road and, finally, single track trail shortly thereafter. As we headed onto the single track, Sean yelled a reminder to us that we should be walking as everyone had blazed out at far too fast a pace. The trail rose into the night between the trees crossing small creeks, generally narrow enough to jump over. We continued to climb in a solid row of runners unable (or unwilling) to pass or be passed. There was some small chatter among runners, but it was eerily quiet for an ultramarathon as everyone focused on getting a sense of the trail and persistent effort required to rise into the mountains. The moon accompanied us along our journey, coming into view and then leaving it again as we followed the contours of this first bump in our path.

Twenty minutes later, the first small climb was done and we began our single-file descent down the trail. The pace quickly picked up, and I had my second realization that I was out of my element. The climbing had been comfortable, easy even. I had trained well for it. But descending downhill on a steep trail covered in roots and rocks, that was an entirely different story. It was tough and scary. One poor foot placement and I imagined myself falling face first into one of the sharp rocks littering the trail. Fortunately, this first descent was short and over quickly, well before real doubt had crept into my mind.


The big climb had arrived. Only three miles into the race and barely warmed up, and it was time for us to fight our way up nearly 2,500 feet and the highest peak we'd reach all day. This was the climb I had lost sleep over in the weeks leading up to the race. It was the big ugly one on the elevation profile provided by the race. It was long, sustained and sometimes steep.

And after about an hour and a half of head down climbing and consistent effort in the dark, we were at the top. I had climbed strong, really strong, for someone coming from the flat lands and the effort felt very sustainable. We were no longer a single file line of 260 runners. The field had been ripped apart by the climb. I was on my own with no runners or headlights in sight behind me and a small group of runners just a turn ahead of me. Sunlight was filtering through the trees, but sunrise was still a long way off.

The terrain along the ridge we had reached slowly rolled downward, but was not overly steep and not overly technical. It was comfortable running. I quickly reeled in the group in front of me and settled in behind them. I was not comfortable running alone in this desolate place. Eventually, we descended into the first aid station. I moved quickly through this station only 8.1 miles into the race. And that's when it happened.


As a couple other runners and myself reached the top of the next climb out of the aid station, we could see the beginning of sunrise to the east. The sun was rising above a peak well below the ridge we traversed. The valley below was now being lit up and had been filled with thick, pillowy fog. A beautiful sight.

But the real magic was to our west. The full moon had now fallen below our own ridge, but was still hanging above the next ridge over. The entire valley to the west was cloaked in the darkness of night, not a ray of sunlight reaching beyond our ridge, only lit by the strong light of the full moon.

We ran along for several minutes both simultaneously in sunrise and daylight and darkness and moonlight. We were spellbound, running along in a moment that wouldn't be believed even if someone had taken a photo. It was the line between two worlds, between night and day, between moon and sun. And we were there with it, basking in it, not quite believing it. We were at the top of the ridge, a part of the structure which separated night and day. And then the sun reached higher into the sky, light spilled into the western valley, and the spell was broken.

Who would ever forget, or believe, this experience?


The next 12 miles turned into a miasma of misery. The elevation profile had deceivingly made these miles appear to be mostly downhill with only a small bump upward here and there. The reality was far different, a series of a dozen and a half peaks climbed and descended as we continued along the ridge. None of the peaks on the ridge was overwhelming on its own, the largest having perhaps a few hundred feet of climbing. But progress was an extreme mental challenge. Just as one peak was reached and crossed, the next peak on the trail could be seen across the valley before the descent began. An endless pattern of up and down emerged.

And another pattern emerged. I continued to climb strongly and efficiently. I passed many runners on the climbs, while few passed me. The effort was high, but manageable. I wasn't huffing and puffing like others. I didn't need breaks on the way up, as many runners needed.

But on the way down, the roles were reversed. The runners I had just passed easily on the way up went flying by me on the way down. The trail had become technical and steep, with rocks and roots taunting me with their sharp edges at every step. While other runners allowed gravity to pull them down the slopes, lightly stepping from safe positions to safe position, I moved slowly and deliberately trying to remain in control. The effort to do so was massive. My legs were getting shredded. Doubts really began to creep in. How could I run another 55 miles when my legs were on fire trying to make it down just a few of these descents? How long could these endless peaks continue? Wasn't there some reasonably flat section on that elevation profile I had studied?


Eventually, I reached a couple race volunteers who pointed me down a turn off the trail to Skeenah Gap, the first aid station where my crew would be waiting. Their comment to me was another mighty surprise, "Just about 1.5 miles down to the aid station." Down?!? I hadn't noticed this in the maps. Worse yet, not only was it 1.5 miles down, but this was also an out-and-back section bringing us off the trail to a road that our crews could access. Each step down carried the weight of the knowledge that this would be a step I'd be taking back up in the very near future. The mental challenge of this knowledge was massive. The bright spot, knowing Eddy and Nick and hopefully a chair were waiting at the bottom, was the only salvation.

Headed into Skeenah Gap
Once at the aid station, it was time to take a break and assess my situation. Nick and Eddy were great getting me set up with more drink and food, asking the right question and reminding me "not to be a bitch." I had intended to change my shoes at this point from a pair of Nike Wildhorse to some Altra Escalantes. But the course was more technical than anticipated and my feet were feeling great and I didn't want to mess with a good thing.

After about five minutes, it was back onto the course and the long 1.5 mile climb out of Skeenah Gap and back onto the trail. And then, right back into the soul-crushing crossing of endless peaks. Up and down we went. Doubt grew and grew with each painful descent.


As time passed, I found myself increasingly alone. The first 22 miles I had generally spent in the company of others. It was much easier to follow someone else's feet as they picked smart lines through the terrain. But now I was fending for myself. I had to pick my own lines through the trail. I had to watch my feet and the course markings. I still felt solid during each climb, but downhills became increasingly painful and difficult.

I was finding my way to the lowest point mentally I'd experience all race. Low points are to be expected, and I was fully prepared to continue muddling through. And muddle I did. I still ran the flats and easy downhills, but the pace was slowing.

And the timing was unfortunate. The terrain was changing. The hard and steep climbs and descents were becoming more moderate with occasional switchbacks to ease the grade. Other hikers and tourists were showing up. I crossed Toccoa Hanging Bridge, something that would generally fascinate me, and barely noticed. I was grumpy and in pain and not moving well and failed to notice things were actually easier.

And then trail offered a bounty and I had no choice but to accept.


Before the race, I had told my crew I wanted to use a stick as a hiking aid during the race. The race rules did not allow trekking poles, but made no comment of something provided by nature. I had mostly forgotten my desire to use a hiking stick when suddenly the perfect stick lay right in the middle of the trail. The stick was smooth and devoid of bark. It was the perfect length for my height. It was dry and light, but very strong. It was perfect. And it was the beginning of a change in my mood.

I reached an aid station where I jammed calories in and found a random Red Bull sitting near the aid station. I was assured it was fine and drank it greedily. The avocado slices with salt were also magic. My energy and mood almost immediately improved as I left the aid station. A couple miles later, after a brief in-the-woods potty break, and my spirits were high. Downhills were still tremendously painful, but everything was different as I proceeded on.

Another aid station, more quick calories, and I was back on my way feeling better than I had in hours. And the trail provided a second bounty, another runner. We stuck together for the next several miles into the Winding Stairs aid station pacing one another, chit-chatting, commiserating in our suffering. The other runner had completed an Appalachian Trail through-hike in his youth and knew the area we were running well. The conversation was fascinating to me, probably boring to him. And the beauty of the trail came back into focus as we passed a mountain creek lined with rhododendrons. These were some of the easiest and quickest miles of the day and got me back to Nick and Eddy in high spirits.


Winding Stairs aid station would be the last time I got to see my crew before the finish. Eddy and Nick were again on-point getting everything ready for me, working through my pack to make sure I wasn't carrying extra weight and making certain I was all set for the longest uncrewed section of the race. They packed me up with warmer clothes and my headlamp accessible as nighttime was prepared to set in over the next few hours.

Out of Winding Stairs, the course immediately headed into the longest and easiest descent of the race. A gentle dirt road led runners down for nearly three miles until we were back on single track. This section was fast and easy, excepting a short stop I had to take when I feared I had missed a turn. This was running I was ready for!

Back on the trail, the course was beautiful and relatively easy. Still up and down, but not nearly with the intensity of earlier in the race. The climbs were moderate, the descents gentle and untechnical. I was still in tremendous pain even on these easy downhills, but my stick and I made steady progress and reached the next aid station at Jake Bull with relative ease.


We had been warned. Leaving Jack Bull put us onto perhaps the toughest section of the course. Not due to the difficulty of the trail, there was little trail to run. Not because of the steepness. But because we were about to embark on a gentle climb of over 3 miles across paved and dirt road, and the next aid station was 11 miles away and night was falling. We were warned that the climb felt endless.

And yet, I climbed well. I passed several runners on the three mile climb on the approach to Nimblewell aid station while hiking hard. About a mile and a half out of Nimblewell the climb ended, and Sean Blanton had a bit of a nasty surprise for us. For a mile or so, I could hear music and figured it was the aid station. It was too early for the aid station, but I assumed my GPS was incorrect. Unfortunately, it was a "false" aid station, a trick to mess with us runners. Just a couple people with a large speaker playing music. But they did have water, a blessing as I was running dry. Now it was time to head down again on single track into Nimblewell.

And any downhill running was over for me at that point. The long hike had left me unable to run at all. I tried and both legs nearly cramped almost immediately in the quads and groin muscles. 12 miles to go, and I'd be hiking in the rest of the way. It was dark, the trail was tricky and often water covered and I was moving slowly. It was going to be a long trudge, although not an all-out death march. I could still hike strong, just not run.


Nimblewell aid station was a true beacon in the dark replete with Christmas lights and projectors. Some wonderful vegetable soup, more salted avocado, a bunch of ginger ale (which I momentarily feared was actually Grey Goose Vodka) and I was back on the trail for the final nine miles of the race.

At Nimblewell I had been warned that I'd work my way to Amicalola Falls Park for the next six miles, then run right past the finish line (another Sean Blanton special) before heading to the 685 stairs up to the top of the waterfall, simply to turn around and run back down a trail to the finish line.

The pull of the finish line was strong. I hiked as hard as I could, alone on the dark downhill trail. Twice I was certain I had missed a turn, checked the Livetrail app to learn that I didn't, and continued on. Then, after what seemed like endless hours of quiet and loneliness with nothing but the clicking of my stick on stone, I could hear cheering. Not loud, but clear as crystal. Cheering in the middle of the night in the backwoods of the northern Georgia mountains had to mean the finish line. Then a road lay ahead and a volunteer pointed me left...onto the most technical descent of the entire race.

Rocks and boulders lined the trail. The going was exceptionally slow despite very little ground to cover. Every step was treacherous. Eventually, I reached the bottom and could see the finish line. Around a corner, and there stood Eddy alone in the dark.


As I passed Eddy, I could hear the waterfall. I asked him how far to the waterfall and Eddy responded that that it was about 200 yards on the left. I also asked what time it was. Eddy said about midnight, which meant I had an hour to go up and down and finish in under 20 hours. In about 200 yards, I crossed a road onto a paved trail. But where were the stairs? Up the trail I climbed, the waterfall crashing to my left, but still no stairs. "WHAT THE HELL, EDDY!!!!," was my only thought as the paved trail seemed to continue forever. Of course, Eddy hadn't been wrong. This paved trail was the beginning of the waterfall climb. I simply expected stairs in 200 yards.

Eventually the stairs came into view, Sean Blanton's almost final middle-finger to runners. Over 600 stairs straight up along the waterfall. It was back to hard uphill climbing and, like the rest of the race, I still felt strong climbing. I did take a moment to stop when the 700 foot tall waterfall came into full view lit up perfectly by the nearly full moon. Then it was back to climbing stairs.

The top reached, it was time to head back down to the finish line. I would finish this race facing my nemesis, going downhill. And what a downhill it was. After a short portion on the road, back onto the trail we went. Steep and difficult. I bounced from tree to tree to make sure I didn't simply roll down to my death. The noise of the finish line become louder, the lights came into view and then I could hear the creek. Sean's final gag.

As I tumbled down the trail, I could see the finish line...on the other side of a creek. The trail continued to a bridge, conveniently covered in race tape making it clear the bridge was off limits. The only way to the finish line was through the creek. Not deep, but 15 feet across with a rocky riverbed, it wasn't an exciting prospect. Then I stepped into the creek and the cold waters immediately soothed my sore feet. Through the water, up a small incline and Sean was meeting me at the finish.

Done in 19 hours, 53 minutes and 2 seconds.


Warming up after the finish
The 2018 Georgia Death Race was the most physically demanding thing I've ever done in my life. Finally, I feel I've completed a truly noteworthy event. Florida ultramarathons, while challenging and painful, never gave me that feeling. At the risk of sounding trite, this was a truly epic adventure. It was far more difficult than I had anticipated.

And there is zero chance I could have finished without my crew who gave up a weekend with families to be with me. Who drove 12 hours each way to get me there and get me home. Who stayed up all night tirelessly helping me along.

The question I've been asked is "what's next." Going into the race, I was committed to no more ultramarathons for a while. When I spoke to Eddy and Nick during the race, I said never again. On the drive home, I was certain I would never run another mountain ultra.

But it's in my blood now. The climbs. The moon and sun together. The suffering and pain. Playing guardian between night and day. The adventure. Someday, I'll do another.

After I learn how to run technical downhills.

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