Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Monday, March 17, 2014

2014 Georgia Death Race

I'm not sure where I first read about the Georgia Death Race but as I read about it, I realized it was much like a mirror version of Pitchell. Similar distance and climb, but in GDR, the bulk of the climb was front-loaded instead of at the end. Mark Lundblad won it pretty handily last year so I asked him about it. I can't gauge much from Mark because he's in a different league, but when he called it one of the toughest races he'd done, I knew it would be a challenge. So, in a rash of impulsivity, I registered.

The numbers vary with the telling, but this year's Georgia Death Race (GDR) allegedly offered 37,000' of elevation change (translating to a little over 18,000' of climb,) 68-miles of mostly trails and some forest service roads (a little pavement toward the end) and a lot of pain and suffering. Sean "Run Bum" Blanton is perfectly "cast" as the race director for an event with "death" in the name as he blends a sense of sadism with dry humor. I think deep, deep, deep down a small part of Sean wants people to enjoy the race, but for the most part, he wants you to be cussing him.

All this for one race???
I have to say that I had more trouble preparing for this race than any other. First, there was the gear we were required to have on us at all times--required by the USFS. This included: water bottle (or hydration system,) headlamp, weatherproof jacket, space blanket, thermal top, gloves/mittens, toboggan, and a whistle. I suppose the whistle was what they stick in your mouth to see if you're still breathing when they find you sprawled out on the trail. All of this meant wearing a pack--my old, trusty Camelbak Catshark would suffice, despite it having lost the clip that connects the chest straps. Besides that, I just wasn't sure what I'd need in drop bags, which shoes would I have the most luck with, etc...In the end, I over-packed, deciding to just figure it out when I got there.

You have two drop bag opportunities--miles 28 and 52, plus you can send a bag to the finish. I put a white shirt in my first bag, figuring I'd be in the sun most of the day, and a darker shirt in the second bag, along with socks and some lightweight trail shoes--kind of like minimalist shoes. Both bags had gels, Stinger Waffles, etc... The finish bag had a near-complete change of clothes and a towel to wipe the grime off with.

Be it ever so humble...
I explored several lodging options, including taking my parents' van and sleeping in the back, but ultimately decided to pull out a never-before used 4-person tent and stay at the start, in Vogel State Park, which is just south of where Georgia and North Carolina meet. This State Park seemed very different than the kind I'm most familiar with in NC. There were 85 campsites, including RV sites. There was a huge lake with paddleboat rentals, a gift shop (though Mt. Mitchell does have that) and a putt-putt course. It resembled a large family campground. I arrived about 4:00 p.m. and quickly set up the tent to get over to check-in. I'm pretty sure I didn't assemble it 100% correctly, as the picture attests to, but it was sufficient, if not elegant.

At check-in, we were required to show proof that we had our required gear and were informed there would be random checks at aid stations--like "show me your mittens." I passed inspection, and was allowed to get my bib and $10 shuttle ticket (to bring me back to Vogel after the race.) We got a white tech shirt for showing up and they were selling some of Sean's "Do Epic Sh*t" merchandise. This is his version of "Life is Good" and I believe his personal mantra. There was a mandatory pre-race meeting that went over some of the basics and offered an opportunity for questions. He mostly repeated what he had emphasized in the e-mails.

I went back to the tent after the meeting, planning to turn in early since I'd need to wake up at 4:00 a.m. While the tent did an admirable job of providing shelter, fabric walls do little to drown out the sounds of kids from a church group who have discovered the fun to be had in a state park bathroom...I probably ultimately fell asleep around 11:30 p.m.

This is the lake by the start (as seen in the daylight.)
The alarm was an unwelcome intruder on a deep sleep, but I avoided the snooze button and started getting things together. I knew I'd need to be there early to go through the second check-in. I met up with Caleb who was going for a personal distance record, but really didn't know anyone else there. Start time was supposed to be 5:00 a.m., but somehow drifted to about 5:15. We lined up on one of the main park roads and followed a lead vehicle to a trailhead. I noticed some guy taking off like a bandit, almost right behind the vehicle and already well ahead of the pack. When we reached the trailhead, I looked over and realized it was Sean, ushering us off to our doom. I didn't know the course, but knew that the trailhead would be a funnel and I did not want to be mid-pack when we hit the single-track. I hate bugging people about passing, so I ran pretty hard to get somewhere near the front. I imagine I was behind about 20 or 30 runners by the time we hit the trail.

The first, short hill is a warm-up for what's to come. Immediately after descending it, you face a climb from mile 3 to 7 that gains around 2,100' (or just over 500' per mile.) By this point, the headlamps visible along the trail had already thinned out considerably, replaced by  the lights of nearby cities. Mile 7 peaks out at about 4,250' and is the highest point on the course. Views were mostly limited to city lights since it was still over an hour until sunrise, but you could see the silhouette of nearby mountains in the pre-dawn light. The first aid station appears after a brief downhill. I really remember very little about this station other than filling my bottle (it was dark, after all.) I assume they had the standard fare. I quickly downed a gel and took off.

Miles 8 through 21 were fairly uneventful as we ran up and down the ridgeline, slowly descending until a drastic drop would take us down to the mile 21 aid station. I messed up in this stretch and forgot to refill my bottle at mile 13.5. It wasn't overly warm yet, but the aid stations were spaced pretty far apart. I think a volunteer even asked me about my bottle but, feeling the weight of the camera in the water bottle pouch, I thought it was full. After some potato chips and a PB&J segment, I started the climb...

Sean issued a challenge to see who could collect the most trash along the course. On this section, I took him up on the challenge started collecting. Over the course of a few miles, I had acquired: a McDonalds Super-Size styrofoam cup, two 16-oz glass Coke bottles, various wrappers, a deflated mylar balloon, and 1/2 of a boot sole. Not having anything to put this trash in, I was definitely overburdened and could barely manage to carry it all, plus my bottle. I surely carried these things for several miles until I finally ran across a volunteer who was shooting video. I asked about leaving the trash with them, knowing I couldn't carry it any longer. They graciously said that was fine and told me it was 1.5 miles down to the aid station. When I learned how far I had to go, I knew I would not have been able to carry it that much longer and was glad to be relieved of the burden.

One of the few chances to get an unobstructed view.
I quickly realized, as I saw runners coming toward me that this was actually an out-and-back. Whether it was here to accommodate an aid station in this area, or Sean just wanted to make the course tougher, I'm not sure, but the drop (and climb back out) approached 1,000'. Going down was nice, though I was a bit unsteady from going so long on little water. Everyone I saw chose to walk back up this hill except perhaps the lead runners. This was my practice the entire day--running only the slightest or shortest of uphill grades--all others I walked "with purpose," meaning as fast as I could.

When I made it back up to the video camera person, they directed me down another way and I thanked them again for letting me leave the trash with them--let them collect the $100 prize! This stretch would take us to our drop bags at mile 28 and was largely downhill. As bad as I felt and as methodically as I made my descents on the technical single-track trail, I wasn't getting passed. I certainly wasn't burning up the course, but typically there are some people who got caught back mid-pack early who are just now making their way through everyone, but it hadn't happened to me yet. I had taken my second S-cap by now and was feeling a bit better after having consumed a lot of water at the mile 21 aid station.

The Toccoa River Bridge
The mile 28 aid station volunteers were extremely helpful with retrieving my drop bag and in taking the initiative to take my bottle to refill it. I don't mind doing this stuff myself, but it did help save me some time. Mile 28 was the last drop-out spot before 52 and I really was not certain I was capable of doing 40 more miles. It was a nice day, though, and hopefully I'd soon get my electrolytes back in balance and get rehydrated. That said, even though this was a fairly flat section, I walked more than I would have liked. The course followed a dirt road for the next few miles before a descent to the Toccoa River Bridge. If there is one near-certainty about running in the woods, its that when you reach a creek/river, you're bound to be going up when you cross it. This maxim held true and it was a very step climb on the other side. I saw a few couples hiking out with those "baby backpacks" and young children in tow. I slipped by them (at a fast hike) and heard a little boy exclaim to his mother "he's not running!" I assume someone from the race had passed them earlier and explained what was going on. But, he was correct, I certainly wasn't running this hill...

Despite the arduous climb to reach the mile 32.7 aid station, you can see that more climbing lay ahead. It loomed over me as I tried to gulp down some Coke and a banana. Like many of the other climbs along this course, there was a notable lack of switchbacks. Many of these brought me to the "hands on knees" method of climbing. Still, after finding myself running and walking alone for the last seven miles, I began to gain on someone. He'd stay ahead for a bit, but eventually I'd catch up and ran together for a while. His name was John and he was close to my height but a lot "thicker." He had legs like tree trunks, but moved at a pretty good clip. We went back and forth a bit, each choosing walk breaks at different times. Even when we weren't talking, it was good to have someone else out there pulling or pushing me along. We met some Boy Scouts around mile 40 who made sure we didn't miss our turn and told us that the next aid station was about a mile ahead. When we reached the aid station, it was primarily manned by two scouts, though the troop leaders were also there. The scouts seemed a tad unsure what to do (Sean had warned us that this was their first time working an aid station) but tried their best to help. Hopefully, they earned their Aid Station merit badge. I walked out a little earlier and heard John giving them a cheeseburger he had been carrying and no longer wanted. One of the scout master's went with us a little bit, encouraging us and noting that he had run some marathons in Mexico City--I guess he just was trying to say he understood how we felt. When we had gotten about a mile away from the aid station, I asked John what time it was as I had hoped to make mile 40 by 3:00 p.m. (ten hours) to make my 17 hour goal. He said that we hit that aid station at about 2:00, so I was--much to my surprise--ahead of my goal. But, self-doubt had me already doing the math on when I'd finish if I had to walk it in from here. My 17 hour goal was based a little on the course's similarity to Pitchell, but mostly because that's when the first shuttle would leave to take me back to Vogel State Park, and my tent. The next shuttle would be three hours later and I wasn't sure I'd want to wait that long.

Representing Pisgah Nation earlier in the race...
It was fairly uneventful until the next aid station, around mile 47. I saw a guy there with his crew, with whom I had spoken off and on earlier in the race, but never at great length. I left the aid station before him but he caught me as I made an unscheduled stop shortly thereafter. We ran downhill together for several miles, though I knew that he'd eventually need to drop me. His told me his name was Drew and he was training for an attempt at the AT supported thru-hike record this summer. What he didn't mention, but I later saw on his site, was that he's going to do while taking Sundays off. That will certainly make it much more difficult, but as I came to realize how close his family is (who will be his crew) I think that having that one day each week to spend entirely with them will help him more than hurt. I told him I'd follow his progress online and if he was intravel distance on a day I was available, I'd join him on the trail, or at least say hello. He said I could mention his blog: Right now, it's about training. He's using the AT attempt as a fundraiser for an orphanage in Uganda. Here is the site where he explains his goal: Our downhill stretch lasted for a couple miles, but as soon as I saw an uphill, I told him to head on, that I wasn't breaking with what I had been doing so far and I'd hopefully see him at the finish.

John's just ahead of me near the mile 52 aid station.
I caught back up with John and we ran together until just before the mile 52 aid station--the location of our second drop bag. He complained that he was struggling, but he seemed to be running pretty well from my vantage. My drop bag at this aid station those lightweight trail shoes. My original thinking had been less weight for my legs to lift, but I didn't know what sort of terrain lay between me and the finish and my feet had already taken a pounding. I decided not to opt for the less-cushioned shoes and stuck with my Brooks Cascadias that had gotten me this far.
Just beyond this aid station, we were running on a mountain bike course that fortunately didn't have the stacked log jumps, etc... Instead, it was very smooth and had banked curves, with little elevation change. Sadly, this didn't last long and I soon came out onto pavement. In many ways, this was the toughest part of the course. It wasn't very hilly, but there was some sort of mental challenge that made it difficult to come out of the forest to run on a highway. I walked it for a little while, ran some downhill, walked some flat, and hoped for it to end. When it did end, after 1-2 miles, I was turned onto a dirt road that climbed about 2400' in four miles. I had been warned that there was a big hill around this point in the race, but really didn't study the profile enough to know what to expect. So, I walked, and walked, and walked.

And walked...
To distract us, Sean, or someone, had posted signs on the trees along the road. The first one was, most appropriately, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." About half-way up the climb, I saw what I thought was someone's crew set up on the side of the road, with a huge amp hooked to his Wrangler. He saw me and offered water and Coke. My bottle was again getting low, so I took him up on the offer. He said he was sort of an unofficial aid station since Sean figured people would need some help on this climb. He also said that he had done some of the signs and that his were a bit more sadistic than Seans'. This was actually good to know because as I went on and saw some signs that said the top was only a mile away, I figured they were messing with us and ignored them. As I climbed, I was certain that I'd be walking it in from the last aid station and could only hope that the math worked out to where I'd finish before 10:00 p.m. and the first shuttle. The sun wasn't down yet, but a 7-8 mile homestretch could easily take two hours at a brisk walking pace. I thought that I had been walking fast enough up the long hill to where no one was going to walk past me, but knew I'd surely be passed by several people when I had to walk the downhill miles to the finish, if they were able to run it.
Blurry-Cam view of the last aid station
Finally, I had reached the final aid station. After asking what I wanted and offering the usual lies about "you're doing great, looking strong," one of the volunteers said something about my being in the top ten. I'm sure my jaw dropped or at the very least, I had a very confused look on my face. I knew I wasn't passed by many people during the race, but there was no way, with as much walking as I had done, I could be near the top ten. Top twenty would have been great in my mind. Then she went on, "maybe top five." WHAT??? Then one of the other guys said, "Sixth." I honestly couldn't believe it. As much as I hurt and as tired as I was, there was no way I could walk it in now. I had to at least try and run as much as possible and keep from being passed. I thanked them and headed on. There was a short uphill immediately after the aid station and then it turned into a seven mile descent to Amicolola Falls State Park.
There is a trick of telling time by holding your hand sideways at arm's length below the sun and adding fifteen minutes for each finger width between the sun and the horizon. If you know the sunset time, you can roughly figure the current time. I figured I had maybe an hour of daylight left. I was nervous about starting to run again after so much walking, but there wasn't as much stiffness as I had feared. As I ran more, I really wanted to keep from being passed, so I just tried to keep going. There were almost no uphills along this stretch to give me an excuse to walk. What started as "maybe I can run three miles of what's left," became "four miles," then "five miles." It surely wasn't graceful, but I was making my way down the steep, winding road at a pace I hadn't hit since very early in the race. I actually felt better than I had in the last forty miles--partly due to the temperatures cooling and partly because I could "smell the barn." It seemed like too little time had passed when I came out on a road and saw the Park entrance just across from me. I continued to follow the course markers through a parking lot and then onto a steep downhill trail. I had no idea how far I had left, but I could hear people's voices below, so I knew I had to be close. The trail was fairly technical, but I was still fearful of someone catching me, so I tried not to let up. Finally, it leveled off and I could see people milling about and the white finish line banner, just around a corner.
I tried to take a picture before crossing but must have missed the button. I stopped at the finish with a gasp, greeted by Sean and handed my finisher's award--an engraved railroad spike. One of the volunteers saw my camera and grabbed it for a picture with me and Sean. I look so shell-shocked and wind-blown that I can't bring myself to post it here.
I glanced down at the hand-written finisher's list beside the table and saw that I was actually 8th, but I certainly can't complain. Had they told me I was in 8th at the final aid station, I still would have tried just as hard. Overall, I think I overachieved. Ultrasignup lists my finishing time at 14:23, or over 2.5 hours ahead of what I had hoped for. I definitely overachieved, but was glad I was able to stick with my walk-the-hills plan and it worked out for me in the end.

I stayed, out of necessity, at this finish area longer than I had after any race and actually enjoyed sitting in the sheltered area and talking to the other runners. I was tired, but it was nice getting to know some others and connecting over a shared experience.
Please place these on my grave Mr. Run Bum...
Sean had to delay the bus departure by 30 minutes since at10:00, there were only about four or five of us needing the ride (and it held 56 people.) When we did board, there were still only maybe 10 or 12 going back to Vogel State Park. The bus was nice and even had small TV screens every few rows, though they lost the ESPN satellite signal often in the Georgia back roads. It was about 11:45 when I arrived back at my campsite. By midnight, I had my stuff together to go up to the Park shower and rinse off the day's sweat and dirt. Sadly, I found nothing but ice cold water and couldn't bring myself, after having cooled down for several hours, to get into it. So I did the best I could and had a not-so-comfortable night back in my sleeping bag. So, a successful day met with an unsuccessful end.
Looking back a few days later, it was a very interesting experience. I enjoyed it, but still rank Pitchell a bit higher--though maybe I'm just a homer. Most of the views were obstructed (as far as picture taking) by trees, but I bet this course is gorgeous in the Fall as the trees all seemed to be oaks/maples/etc... Though I had drawn a parallel between the two, I believe Pitchell is quite a bit more difficult. There is no way I could do Pitchell in 14:23, even if it had aid stations. I told Sean if he could combine the first half of his race with the last half of Pitchell, it would be one of the hardest races in the country.
Sean did a great job putting this race together and the course markings were extremely well done. The aid stations had everything you'd want/need and the volunteers were great. If you're looking for a serious challenge, you should definitely consider this race, but please do not make it your first ultra! Oh, and bring an extra water bottle...

Postscript: I checked with Sean on some stats. There were 164 starters and 111 finishers, if you include the two sweeps. So 53 dropped for a finish rate of only about 68%.

No comments:

Post a Comment