Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

2015 Georgia Death Race

What might better be called the "Un-Georgia Death Race" took place on March 14th. The "Un" designation coming from the fact that the USFS had some weather-related concerns that forced a last minute reversal of the course. While it may never be totally clear why reversing the course alleviated these concerns, it certainly sent Race Director Sean "Run Bum" Blanton into a last minute frenzy to re-allocate resources, reschedule shuttles, and reflag some sections of the course. For everyone participating, it would mean the toughest part of the course would now come toward the end. For me, the now 8:00 a.m.
start (versus 5:00 last year) meant that my last miles would be in the dark this year. Ironically, since the course was reversed, it meant that the same area I ran first in the dark in 2014, I'd be running last in the dark in 2015. The course still promised about 18,000' of climb over its 67 miles.

The only real problem this caused me was that I was staying at the Amicalola Falls Lodge at the (original) finish and taking a shuttle to the start. So, I'd finish very close to the lodge. Now, the race started at Amicalola and I'd need to have friends (Leslie stayed home with a sick dog) drive a bit over an hour to get me and then bring me back to the Lodge. Well, what's an ultra without a few obstacles... I'll note that, like last year, we were required to carry a waterproof jacket, thermal top, whistle, space blanket, headlamp w/extra batteries, warm cap, and capacity for 22 oz. of water. In addition to this, I had my Nathan pack stuffed with gels, PowerBars (the new PB&J flavor,) S-caps, a 10-oz "belt-style" bottle, and my phone.

Last minute, pre-race briefing from Sean.

It was a cool, misty/drizzly morning as we gathered in a picnic shelter at Amicalola Falls State Park. I ran into Carin Smith, who has done very well at TRU several times. She asked about the cutoffs, but I had lost my sheet I planned to carry. I told her I really did not think she should worry, especially with the cutoff for the race at 24 hours. Sean went over some last minute things and sent us to the start line. As I headed toward the pack, I saw Jason Bryant and said hello, knowing it would be the last time I saw him during the race. This year's event is part of a U.S. Skyrunner's Series and it attracted a lot of fast runners, at least according to the Ultrasignup percentages. There was also a cash prize for the top three finishers. Last year, I pushed the first 1/4 mile to get to the woods (and single track) to avoid being caught in the mob where it's hard to find the right pace. This year, I knew better than to try to hang with the speedsters, so I would keep it casual from the start.

Amicalola Falls from part-way up the stairs.
The course was not a true reversal as there were a few other minor changes. The most notable, and one I hope he retains when the regular course is restored, is that after a very short stretch of pavement in the Park, we headed up the metal steps that would their way beside and to the top of the Falls. With the 8:00 a.m. start, they were in full light and were extremely impressive, falling 729' to the campground below. From the top, we looped around and went back down a service road to the start and then headed up the paved road toward the Lodge. This road has a grade of about 25% and was definitely a walker for me (and about everyone I saw.) At the top, I decided it was time to shed my rain jacket and weaved it into the bungie cords on the back of my pack. After that, it was on to the dirt road that I remembered from last year's race. I remembered it because it was a long, steady descent at the end of the race and it allowed me to run despite feeling pretty bad. Now, it would 

A blurry image of a Rhododendron Tunnel

be a long, steady climb to the first aid station. It wasn't completely familiar as there were rhododendron tunnels (pictured) I didn't remember. I'm going to assume this was the same road, though, and that it's just a foggy memory of 2014 that leads to any uncertainty. The first aid station came a bit quicker than I expected for being at nine miles. I downed a gel and topped off my bottle and headed down a long descent toward the next aid station, at mile 17.

A mile or so down this fast stretch, I started thinking about everything I was carrying. The Nathan pack felt good and there wasn't a lot of bouncing around. The water bottle in one front pouch was somewhat offset by my phone in the other. I reached up to touch my phone to be sure it was still secure in the water bottle pouch and realized it was gone... A lot of thoughts went through my mind, but two things ultimately came to the forefront: (1) I wasn't running back up this hill to look and (2) I was going to trust in the honesty and sharp eyes of fellow ultra-runners to find it and turn it in. It occurred to me that the
phone was very unlikely to bounce out of the pocket and that it probably happened when I leaned over to toss my gel wrapper in the trash bag that was lying on the ground. If so, that would put it at the aid station and surely someone would notice it's red case on this grey day. This means that there will be no more pictures from me on the course in the rest of this post.

Within another mile or so, I caught up with Brandon Smith. He had run TRU last October and felt like it prepared him for GDR. It does make for a manageable jump to go from TRU's 54 to GDR's 67 miles and there is some similarity in the trails and roads that are used. There was a third member of our group but I never caught his name. We hung together as the dirt road gave way to pavement. I remembered this section of asphalt from the prior year because it came at a very low point for me--a point where I was tired and a bit dehydrated, and realized I'd have to walk on a fairly flat and very runnable section of the course. Being only at mile 14 or so, we moved along pretty quickly through this stretch. The course here was changed from last year and we never encountered the mountain bike trail that I was expecting. I imagine this was because Sean had told us there was a mountain bike race in the area on the same day and he had to route us off the single track trail. We were told to expect to encounter some bikers on the
gravel roads between miles 17 and 26. Mile 17 brought us to the second aid station. I grabbed a chunk of banana and water and told them about my dropped cell phone, in case they were in communications with the other aid stations and started walking on, letting Brandon catch up. I figured we'd stay together for a while, until someone felt the need to push on.

Roughly mile 23. Soaked, but not broken.

I had told Brandon that last year I had walked pretty much every uphill that was more than a slight grade and that I planned to do it this year. He was good with that and we found that we pretty much agreed without speaking on where the walking would begin when we reached a hill. He walks pretty fast so it worked out really well. We passed people while walking, though they sometimes passed us back when the running resumed. On the long uphills, we saw bike tracks, but no signs of the bikes. The road was pretty muddy, but not to the point of slipping. Every runner in shorts had mud splattered all over their calves. This 6.5 mile stretch went pretty quickly and we were soon at Winding Stair Gap and the third aid station. I saw Sean here and told him about my phone, just in case it was turned in. This aid station was in the same spot as one for the mountain bike race and we actually saw one biker at his aid station while we were there.

It wasn't until we left this aid station that we finally started really seeing the bikers. We were enjoying a long downhill stretch and they were cranking up the dirt road. After passing maybe a dozen bikers, our paths split around mile 26.  Brandon said we were doing a 4:30 marathon pace, which translates to an 11.5 hour finish time or roughly what Mark Lundblad ran the first year of the event. Obviously, we were doing this on the easiest part of the course and that was due to change pretty soon. Somewhere in here, I went for an S-cap and had them all fall into the mud when I pulled them out of the vest pocket (my bag had a hole in it.) I salvaged a couple and continued on. Aid station #4 (Long Creek, about mile 30) was the first drop bag location. Brandon had a bag he was going to get stuff from and I went on ahead, figuring he'd catch back up at some point.

There was a stretch of dirt road here that had huge mud puddles as wide as the road and probably 15' across. You could see where most people had run up onto the bank to avoid them and I did the same. My shoes were already pretty muddy, but I didn't need them to be wet with so many miles left to go. Soon we were in a familiar area and we ran along the edge of a field and turned right, onto the Benton Mackeye Trail and the single track. The change would be nice, but of course the pace would slow substantially. I passed a guy making a pit stop as I entered the woods and expected him to come back by me, but he never did. I didn't know it at the time, but I would see very few runners from this point on. I caught up to another guy and followed him into the aid station. He had offered to let me by, but his pace was just about exactly what I wanted, so as long as he didn't mind me back there, I told him I was fine. I barely remember Aid Station #5 (Sapling Gap) so there really isn't much I can say about this one.

Next, the course began a steep descent that I was fairly certain would take me to that swinging bridge I remembered from last year. That meant that all this drop I was enjoying at the moment would need to be reclimbed on the other side. The drop certainly passed quicker and felt better than the long hike up it had in 2014. When I reached the bridge, there was a woman and a guy with a video camera. The cameraman followed me across the bridge, so I assumed he is creating a video of the event for future promotion and getting footage on various parts of the course. He stopped at the end of the bridge and I
started the climb up the other side. By now, the sun was threatening to come out and I was seriously worried about the heat and humidity that would come along with it. I felt pretty good in the cloudy mist, but dreaded the thought of a sixty-something degree day when I was getting into the hardest parts of the course. Somewhere during the climb, a runner came by me with the woman from the bridge. I had assumed she was a volunteer but she must have been his crew. He must have really been lifted by her presence because he jogged up a pretty good climb as I was happy just trying to fast hike it. He slowly disappeared into the distance, but I would later catch up, only to find his "crew" had gone on ahead to the next aid station.

Aid Station #6 is Point Bravo and the second drop bag location. I had sent a bag to this stop with a different shirt, my lightweight Salomons, and some food. I later realized I had put some gloves in this bag that may have come in handy later in the race. As it was, all I took was the Powerbar and the gels. I probably should have changed shirts while I had the opportunity as the day was getting later and the shirt I was wearing was pretty damp. It's just so hard to spend the time in the aid stations when you just want to keep going. It was here where the climbing really began. I had roughly a marathon left to go. The next aid
station was 9 miles away and this was the first time I would be getting into my backup water bottle. There are relentless climbs on this stretch and I think Sean said about half (9-10,000') of the total climb for the course was after Point Bravo. So, I was basically facing a single-track trail version of the Pike's Peak Marathon in terms of absolute numbers. Halfway along this section, the course turned onto the Duncan Ridge Trail. I can't really say that it was all that different from the BMT. A few of the climbs really got to me and I remember pausing midway at times to "regroup." The mist made it hard to see where the tops might be, but that could have been a blessing. It forced me to focus on what I could see rather than what might lie farther ahead. I passed a couple guys here. One who was fashioning treking poles out of branches he found and another, a bit later, who had treking poles. I figured the guy with the poles had inspired the guy making his own... When I finally arrived at aid station #7 (Fish Gap, roughly mile 51) I told them that I didn't have a watch but I was pretty certain I had done marathons faster than that nine mile stretch of trail. Since I had downed my spare water bottle and also run out of S-caps, I decided to fill the 10 oz. bottle with the SWORD drink that Sean had chosen for the race. I had never heard of this drink and I knew it might be risky to try it for the first time, but I was more concerned about losing too much salt. The next aid station was eight miles away and promised to be just as rough as the last leg had been.

The downhills on this section and the last were not always easily runnable. There were lots of downed trees and plenty of branches that had fallen onto the path. The leaves were slick and there was occasionally a little mud. More often than not, I would crest a long climb and have to walk part of the downhill just to get steady enough to feel that I could run safely. It was through here that I finally had to break out the headlamp, roughly about the same time as two guys were catching up to me. I wasn't sure if it was a runner and pacer or two runners, or even two people wandering around in the woods. I held off on the headlamp as long as I could but when I finally fired it up, I realized I had never changed the dead batteries from The Nightmare. So, I spent a few minutes walking and trying to swap in some fresh batteries. Once I got it lit, I found cause for concern. The light was bouncing off all of the surrounding mist and barely reaching the path. This wasn't a huge deal for stretches I would walk, but it made running anything additionally risky. The level of fog I dealt with varied over time and elevation. It even slightly drizzled at one point which got rid of the mist, but made it look like the hyperspace jump from
Star Wars. Sometime shortly after sunset, I passed a couple tents along the trail and heard voices from within. I had to wonder if they knew what was going on because there would be a lot more headlamps coming through their camp before the night was through. Aid Station #8 came into view, meaning I was around mile 59.

Another long climb and the course crested Coosa Bald. The back side of the bald was pretty runnable. It was probably the fastest I had run since early in the race, but it still stretched on. It may have been five miles to Wolf Creek, but when every uphill is walked, I was probably doing good to average a 5 mph pace. When I came to the creek, I honestly could not remember it from last year. I had the choice of splashing through shin-deep water or rock/log hopping. I felt ok and decided to keep my feet as dry as possible. A volunteer was there to help us navigate. I asked her what lay ahead and she said "rolling hills, you know what that means!" Well, I'm not sure about her definition of "rolling" as it pretty much just kept going up. I was 3.5 miles from the finish and basically just climbing. I tried to think back to last year and how the early miles went, but I couldn't remember much. I did remember some downhill but certainly not 3.5 miles of it. So, up I went. I could see lights high on the horizon. Then I saw some weird lights just ahead, only to get closer and realize they were road signs reflecting my headlamp. I got to enjoy a few downhill stretches and some creek crossings, but for the most part, I was continuing up. Finally, I came up on a sign that referenced Vogel State Park and knew that I must be close. I started seeing lights and smelling campfire smoke. I passed another cameraperson and volunteer who told me I had about a mile to go. I knew we hadn't spent a miles on the pavement at last year's start so unless he moved the finish substantially, I felt like she was probably a bit high with her estimate. It was in this last little stretch that I saw my only wildlife for the day--a couple of field mice darting across the path.

Finally, I was back to asphalt and knew the finish was close. I briefly turned off my headlamp, but then I remembered there were speed bumps in the park and turned it back on. It would be a tragic end to survive the mud, roots, and rocks only to be wiped out by a three inch bump. My pace definitely quickened as I saw the pavilion on the lake. I actually overshot the turn and a volunteer shouted, redirecting me down to the pavilion. There was Sean, just across the mat. He handed me my finisher's spike and said the best thing I had heard all day. "I got your phone." I sat down on the bench beside the timers and
summarized the day for him, basically summarizing in two sentences what it took me several pages to write here. Putting the climbs on the back half of the course made it tougher and the mist made the temperatures better but hurt visibility with the headlamp. It then occurred to me that there wasn't a clock so I had no idea what my time was. I asked the timing lady what the current time was and I apparently finished in the 14:30 range, so not terribly longer than last year. Someone had told me around mile 50 or so that I was rounding out the top twenty. I had passed two people after that so I figured I finished about 18th, which was far better than I expected given the Ultrasignup rankings. Of course, it's possible some of those were no-shows.

Paul came up after a minute and I followed him over to my bag where I could wipe off the caked on mud and change shirts, socks, and shoes. I gave him a slightly longer summary and would add to it on the ride back to the Lodge. Usually, I end the story with the end of the race, but wanted to note that it was a fitful sleep that night. I realized that I had taken caffeine pretty late in the day and it was still working its way through me. Twice I gave up on trying to sleep and read news on my phone. This was another side effect of the late start. A regular start would have had me finishing about 7:30 p.m. and getting back to the lodge around 8:30 or 9:00.I think if I were to go back to GDR it would be because a friend wanted to go.

The race went very well for all the last minute turbulence Sean had to navigate through to pull it off. I later learned that he has now decided to reverse the course each year. That's a good idea that will help keep it fresh.

I do plan on going back to Amicalola Falls with Leslie, so she can see the waterfall and just enjoy the area. It's not far from the southern terminus of the AT and has hikes of various distances. If nothing else, it has a nice deck to sit on and look out over the valley below.

View from the deck (and rooms) at Amicalola Falls Lodge

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