For those who don't really know me, I'm just a guy who's been a trail runner about 35 years. I am not among the elite runners, and never will be. Yet I am reasonably strong, like to have a good time and am usually up for a challenge. This is my "perspective from the middle" of the Georgia Death Race 2013.
The long weekend runs were going relatively well. I had a PR at the Mountain Mist 50K (just under 7 hours). Felt pretty good about that. What to do next?
Over the winter, I had heard about a new event being put on by Sean "Run Bum"Blanton. Sean is a young guy who is known in trail running circles as sort of free spirit, traveling the world on a shoestring budget, sleeping wherever he can coax a couch from a local friend, then doing epic runs across some off the most beautiful terrain imaginable. He exudes a friendly confidence and is most always thinking positively. Though never having conducted a race, he had a brainstorm with his friend and ultra-runner Brad Goodridge, to run over some of the lesser used, beautiful north Georgia trails beginning at Vogel State Park and traveling west and south all the way to Amicalola State Park. They were calling it "The Georgia Death Race".
Immediately it was hailed as a serious challenge. There is a certain hardcore mentality among many ultra trail runners who seek to keep upping the ante on course difficulty, with this sort of giddy masochism. And this was looking to be an attempt to move the meter yet again here in Georgia. Responses on the social sites said stuff like "You're gonna die!". Half in jest, of course.
The course would ascend and descend over 30,000 feet and some 60 miles while traversing sections of the very strenuous Duncan Ridge and Benton Mackaye Trails, followed by a long section of nasty gravel forest service roads. The race would begin in the dark at 4 am on March 16 and end for most again in the dark much later that day. http://www.bikeroutetoaster.com/Course.aspx?course=503436
I can't explain, but there was this increasing desire to give it a go. So, on a relative whim, with about 30 days to go, I contacted Sean who said a number of runners had dropped and that a place was still available. So I pulled the trigger.
It was set. Get a couple more long runs in before the event and give it a go. I changed my Thrill in the Hills half marathon to the full marathon for long run #1, and joined in on the GUTS training run from Amicalola to Springer Mtn for 18 miles on what is affectionately called The Meat Grinder for long training run #2. I mixed it in with my weekly 20 mile bike rides on the Alpharetta Greenway and 6 mile Crossfit/ Interval bench workouts, on the Forsyth Greenway. During that time, I was also reading recaps from friends who were doing much more serious training runs up and around the GDR course itself. I tried not think about that too much. My goal was simple - get out there and give it a go....and finish.
On the afternoon before the race, my daughter Sarah was kind enough to shuttle me from Amicalola to Vogel, so I could drop my car and drive home when the race was done. We agreed to shuttle Erin Hennessey up there as well. I met Erin on Facebook. She was coming down from Greenville, SC, and had a cabin reserved at Vogel State Park with an extra bed available. So I jumped on that opportunity.
Sarah dropped us off after having been delayed by a horrible accident on Hwy 129. We were a few minutes late for the mandatory meeting and pre-race gear check. But race officials had gotten the word, so all was cool.
Back at the cabin was Mike Daly, a runner down from Virgina, and then a bit later Johnathon Roberts who came up from Birmingham, AL to check out north GA and crew for Erin during her final miles. I could tell Mike had some determination and capability - he was looking for a 16 hour finish. Johnathon was happy to be getting out of the lowland of Alabama and was looking forward to getting into the hills, even if just to crew. Both seemed to be pretty good guys. Erin had purchased a big map and had drawn out the course on it. We all studied it a bit, had some small conversation, then readied and double checked our packs and drop bags. Erin cooked a pizza. I drank a beer and a couple shots of Herradura tequila with her, ate a ham and cheese sandwich, then at around 10pm, we all went to bed.
Which didn't mean I slept.
After a relatively fitful five hours, Mike's alarm went off. In short order we were all up and moving. Each of us had our own prerace ritual - mine is relatively simple. I eat a pack of Lantz ToastChee with Peanut Butter crackers and have a RockStar Zero Carb energy drink.
Everyone got busy dressing and gathering up their gear.
Mike headed first out through the door down into the dark and down to the staging area. We followed shortly thereafter.
The area outside around the pavilion was hopping with runners who were delivering their drop bags to the proper spots, and waiting for the start. It was breezy outside, but the night temperature was much warmer than it had been in weeks, near 50 degrees. Most runners already had their headlamps on. Lots of excitement, nervous smiles and steely determination.
Then it was four three, two, one, Go!
The Elite and quick led the way through the campground, and I settled in somewhere toward the back running close with Erin and Lisa as the group quickly stretched into a long line. Eyes down, headlamp lighting the way, the initial pace was quick and steady as we ran a few gentle inclines, then about a two mile gradual downhill that that belied what was yet to come.
We crossed a gravel road and then up on singletrack. The trail to the top of Coosa Bald had begun. A short up, then down again and carefully across across a small creek. So far so good. Then it was up, up, up. Breathing deep, I occasionally looked up, only to see dots of light far ahead amidst the blackness and well above me as the elite pushed on much faster, widening the gap and disappearing, not to be seen by this runner again on this day.
Our pace was strong in it's own right, however. I was helped by my sticks, a new set of Exped Alpine 125 poles, which weigh only 6.52 oz per pole. Sweet. We climbed steadily up a relentless grade for over an hour, breathing hard, yet feeling good because the air was cooling as we climbed. We saw orange lights off to the left and we wondered what those could be, finally guessing that they were from the campground way, way below. Finally the grade lessened and we hit a flat piece of ground. We knew we had reached the top of Coosa Bald, the 11th highest peak in Georgia! But there was nothing to see here. It was still pitch dark, so we soldiered on, now down.
Shortly thereafter, sweaty and pumped we came upon aid station number one, covered in Christmas lights, eight miles in.
It was night oasis after such a long climb.
We quickly drank and ate, and shed our outermost layer of clothing. Lisa dropped one of her gloves and fortunately, I had seen one on the ground under an aid table. It was hers. Relieved, we thanked the aid station volunteers and went on into the night.
We now were well into the climbing and descending. We would drop down steep grades as quickly as we could, then ascend sharp inclines time and time and time again. After some time we noticed that the sky was beginning to lighten.
Morning was breaking. Lisa took the lead now, and I settled in behind, with Erin behind me. We switched from time to time, but were working well in unison through this very difficult topography. The trail gave little relief, and even when it did, the trail was never flat, often a sort of slick dark muck sloping off to the downhill side making the trek awkward. A slip wouldn't kill, but it sure might result in a long tumble. But we handled it all pretty well and kept on moving. Uphills were lung busting power hikes, and downhills were more of a recovery trot for us. As the day broke, we could now see the peaks and valleys around us through the leafless trees. We were at a good altitude for much of it - so we got to have a few moments to enjoy those views. But it was hard, and the moments of enjoyment were relatively few as we now had the opportunity to see each forthcoming climb that awaited us. There were no lovely flat valley sections here. We would come off one hump only to quickly begin the ascent of another. And they were all steep and straight up with no switchbacks. Lisa took the lead now. After cresting the top of one of these, she was feeling strong and looking strong - wanting to go. She looked back and said good-bye, I waved and she went, quickly out of sight. Finally, after a long downhill we came upon Mulky Gap aid station at mile 13.
Drink, reload, thank the volunteers and off we went again.
And right off the bat, we were on another steep uphill climb. So Erin and I worked together pushing and pulling each other up and down through another section with over two and a half hours of some of the steepest terrain we had yet seen. Up one hump, down the other side.
Dastardly Sean had put up some signs through this section.
We stopped for a few pics, and resigned ourselves to trudge on. There was a real saving grace however; though the temperatures had risen to into the high 50's, every time we climbed near to a summit, there was this wonderfully refreshing cool breeze.
Time and again throughout the day, those breezes would be a godsend. Those deep breaths of cool air were soothing and somehow energizing, and they cooled my skin as well as we climbed. After a couple more miles of this unrelenting terrain, my body began to resist. On one stretch of that uneven terrain, I made a step in which my foot sort of slid in my shoe, resulting in a slight burn on the ball of my left foot. I knew what was coming. Tried not to think about it. After the next very steep pitch up Rhodes Mountain, we descended again reached a point where the path was interrupted by a detour - a side bar route of about 1.2 miles down to Skeenah Gap and the aid station at mile 20. This was the only out-and-back section of the race. It was interesting, because on the descent we passed many people who were ahead of us and on their way back up, having already made the turnaround at the bottom. They were now heading up the long incline back out. I took a few pics of friends I saw coming back up, trying not to think about how far behind them I was. First we saw last night's roommate Mike Day. He was looking fresh and strong.
Then up came Phil Sustar.
Then came Katie Fisher and Brandi Garcia, looking like they were out on a midday stroll.
I also passed Lisa Martin again. She was still strong and moving quickly up the hill. But we were still going down, a good ways back. Erin had a good pace and went on ahead down to the aid station. I arrived a short bit later. Once again, refuel, thank and move. We had just come down an incline of well over a mile, and now we had turn around and go right back up.
My slightly burning foot was turning into a small inferno now. That last running section was to be the last real run of my day. We descended, crossed Hwy 60 to the next aid station, Point Bravo. My first drop bag was there. I sat down in a chair. In addition to my blister, my hamstrings told me that if I bent my legs any further, they would be rewarded with seizing cramps. Shit. My Garmin said it was only mile 27! I drank and ate and sat for about 5 minutes. One lady volunteer got me a gauze bandage and some duct tape to make a rudimentary attempt at staving off my ever growing blister. Another volunteer filled my water bladder. Struggling to get that sucker back into my pack, I saw some concerned faces. There was a guy next to me, obviously feeling about the same and ready to drop. But not here, not now. I stood up and said, I'm going. Thanks again were given to the people who helped. Lo and behold, the guy next to me also got up and off we went.
It was not long after that I encouraged Erin to go on ahead. My pace was not fast enough. She was clearly stronger, yet was reluctant to leave me. I don't know but I think loyalty out of respect for the hard miles we had done together played a part. But she needed to go, I encouraged her and off she went. That was the last I saw of her this day.
But It was in this section that I first saw this guy who appeared to be overdressed. He had on blue jacket over a couple of shirts with long compression pants covered up to the knees with gray socks. He carried a green one liter water bottle by the loop in the cap. This was Pete Coleman. I kept an eye on Pete for a few miles. He would speed up and pass me, then slow down and I would pass him. We spoke from time to time too. Nice guy. He was toughing it out, though I don't know how he didn't burn up. Eventually the jacket came off.
This marked the beginning of a mostly solo journey toward the finish. The gauze was working to an extent, and the cramps were at bay, but always just a high step or overpush away. After three more miles and about an hour on a detour that took us on a forest service road, the next aid station, Toccoa Bridge, at around mile 30, came into view. Ok, another one down.
The swinging bridge cannot be far! Refuel and onward and there it was, the beautiful swinging bridge that crosses the rocky Toccoa River.
Day trippers were on the bridge, and it DID swing, making me a bit dizzy as I moved across. People looked at me with incredulous eyes as I went by. Someone must have told them what we were doing. Those crazy runners!
After the bridge crossing, I knew that more climbing was ahead. On the other side it began with a short incline, then some stairs followed by another 5 miles and over two hours of mostly climbing. I was resigned to the power hike as my legs would not let me run.
It was in this section that I came upon GUTS friend Brad Goodridge. Brad was sitting on a log, having a difficult moment.
I snapped a pic - and he managed a smile followed by a bit of profanity. I felt the same pain, but was hanging in there, taking long strides, and sort of doing a pole vault hop-type thing with my sticks to propel me forward. Brad and I would stay mostly in sight of each other for about the next 10 miles.
So we kept on moving, knowing that the nature of the course would soon change.
A field appeared, the markers showed a sharp left and a short downhill to the next aid station, Long Creek at around mile 37.
The major climbs and descents were now over. But we still had over a marathon remaining, all to be on undulating forest service roads. The day was waning. It was late afternoon. Temps were at their highs in the low 60's. A long, lonely stretch lay ahead. I tried to eat as much as I could handle, cookies, PB&J squares, a couple energy gels and two full cups of Gatorade - and a couple Aleve. I tried to put only as much liquid in my water bladder as I would need to get me to the next aid station.
And the march began. After miles of dreaming of getting to the forest service roads, a rude awakening hit hard. These were roads that had been coated with large marble to golf ball sized rocks. Stepping on an individual rock could be disastrous, resulting in a ankle turn or bruise on the bottom of the foot. And they weren't tightly packed, so it wasn't like you could just run wild on them. You had to look and place your feet. To be frank, it sucked. I tried to find a path on the shoulder of the road with some success, but this was always broken up by patches of these rocks. Mile upon mile of them.
By now I had plugged in my mp3 player and was doing my best to see the rocks, ignore the blister and hammies, keep a pace, and do my best to rock out and rock on. For a couple more hours, that's what I did. Came upon the Hickory Flats cemetery, kept on moving. Didn't want to stop there as I might never leave! Eventually up came Winding Stair Gap and the aid station somewhere around mile 44. And there was Wilson and his aid station crew!
I sat, exhausted. Mark was there and Pete Coleman. The sun was now getting low, though there was still light. The temps were beginning to drop again and there was a chilly breeze as I sat there. I put on my long sleeved shirt. Wilson had the cast iron skillet and was making grilled cheese sandwiches, which I gladly accepted. But I had to wait a bit for him to cook it. I was 2nd or 3rd in line at that point. So I took it with a big thank you. About to leave I asked the distance and they said it was about 20 more miles. Wait a minute!!!! This was supposed to be a 60-61 mile race and I had gone 44. Nooooo! So off I went. Brad was gone already and out of sight. Mark was walking too, close.
Ok, next aid station 7 miles. So began an extended downhill of nearly seven miles, but it hurt. I was moving and trying to rock and roll, but it hurt. Then I ate Wilson's grilled cheese sandwich, and forgot about the hurt until it was gone.
And I began to get discouraged. The mileage discrepancy and the thought of extra miles was like someone putting 50 pounds into my pack. I sang a bit out loud, and kept moving. Down, down, down. Step after painful step with an occasional pole vault hop thrown in. I'm gonna finish this. Well, I had to really. My car was waiting in the parking lot at Amicalola.
After nearly two hours, I arrived at Jake Bull with Aaron Dwileski's bacon. Said Hi to Aaron and Anna Green. Was feeling pretty bad, but had to keep moving. Thought Ok must be about 13 miles to go, though my Garmin said around 51.5 miles. I asked Aaron and they said, sorry, there's at least 15 to go!!! I said "No, you're kidding right?" He said "Sorry". I said "Please excuse me guys, but F&*K!!!!!" How could they keep adding on mileage!!!! Why don't you just add another 25 pounds to my psyche?! No choice. Keep moving. No more light in the sky now - it was about 9:15pm.
About 200 yards from the aid station, there was a T in the now asphalt road. Left or right? No signs or markers. Susan and Bill Fleming were there, puzzled about which way to go. At this point, any additional mileage would be disastrous. Fortunately, I had the race directions in my pack. Susan got them out and determined that Right was the way to go. Susan was crewing for Bill, who was fatigued and struggling, but they mustered up a trot and moved away from me. I moved as best I could, but there was no way to catch them. I watched as the glow from their headlamps grew smaller, then disappeared altogether. A bat buzzed right by me. The road now passed private properties, which were fenced off in many places. Barking dogs echoed from a distance. Had to step around a relatively fresh puddle of vomit in the road. Trampled Under Foot from Zeppelin seemed like an appropriate jam at the time. After about a mile, there was a trailer with three young kids out front. A runner evidently had given one of them a green glow stick. They were eager to have some conversation - seeing runners on their road was probably a new phenomenon to them. They told me the road turned to gravel not far ahead. I told them to be careful out there and watch out for cars.
The kids were right. The road changed back to gravel. I looked up at the sky. The stars and moon were as bright and clear as I could ever remember. I made a brief, pitiful attempt to locate the PanSTARRS comet, but doubted that it would be visible at this time of night. Kept making myself march and breath. I wasn't moving fast enough to really warrant deep breaths, but that's what I did, feeling like deep breaths could fuel some remnant of fire left inside my engine. A vehicle approached from behind. Sean Blanton was in it. He was on his way to rescue the unfortunate culprit who had vomited. He asked if it was me. I asked/ pleaded for some good news on the mileage. He assured me that the distance from the last aid station was indeed 13 miles and that up ahead a hill would begin and it would be 3 1/2 miles from there up to the last aid station. I was doubtful and hopeful at the same time. Off they went. On I went. Shortly thereafter three, four-wheelers came flying up the gravel road, with local revelers laughing and beckoning me to follow them. Couldn't hang, but I did get to breath a good bit of the dust they kicked up. About a half hour later they came back the other way, hooting and hollering all the way home. For me, it was back to darkness and solitude, and hoping the soon the flat road would turn into a hill. I never wanted to see a hill so badly. Then Sean came by again and reiterated that the hill was ahead. More marching, but then, finally, the incline began.
And it was a steady hill. For about 20 minutes I continued the death march uphill, then saw a glimmer up ahead in the distance. Picking up the pace, it became evident that ground was being gained on someone ahead. It was Erin Golden. She didn't want to be alone, and I asked her to come on. We marched together, talking about things I do not remember. Then ahead, two more lights. It was the Flemings again. Kathy was ahead of Bill, trying to coax him forward. My pace had quickened. Erin settled into a pace with Bill, while I went ahead to catch up with Susan. At this point it was really nothing but fumes that were driving the legs, but Susan offered some words of encouragement that gave a much needed boost. The road winded around and up. Upon rounding each bend, there was still nothing but darkness. No encouraging lights, just darkness, except for the light shining in front of my painful feet. This last hill was very, very long.
Eventually, mercifully, finally - it topped out. And there was light. And more light. Was that a Christmas Tree? This was Nimblewell Gap, the last lonely aid station. Hearty volunteers manned the radios and took notes. "Number 169, Jeff Gelinas", I said. I drank two quick cups of water and asked which way from here. A volunteer pointed left and told me it was up 100 more feet then down all the way to the finish. I did not linger at all. It took nearly a half a mile to climb that 100 feet, mind aching all the while to see the road turn downward. When it did, I knew the end wasn't too much further.
Yet it was going to be another hour and a half. Still, at this point every step was getting closer to the finish. 5 miles, 4 miles, 3 miles. I had no idea exactly what was left, but had mental images of the distance I must have gone from the top of the last hill. 2 miles. Keep moving. Then there was a light, and a sign showing where the Appalachian Approach Trail crossed the road somewhere above the Top of the Falls. Closer. Flags then pointed off the road, and again feet were trudging on gravel. Up ahead was another racer. I closed the gap, and met Emil Gazda IV. We hit pavement again. Left or right? After brief hesitation, we took a right and began the last painful mile downhill. Both of us tried to run, but it didn't happen. My foot burned with each steep step down the road. That mile seemed like much more. The end had to be close. We pushed. Some light ahead. Was that the Visitor Center? Please yes, please yes. And it was. Left at the visitor center, past the parking area - about 100 more yards. I asked Emil if he wanted to cross at the same time and he agreed.
Twenty one hours, fifty nine minutes and fifty six seconds, and some 65 miles after the start at Vogel State Park, the race was over. And I was utterly spent. The Death Race Spike was earned.