Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Sunday, March 20, 2016

2016 Georgia Death Race

Well, at least I didn't die...

Sean "Run Bum" Blanton decided that the old Georgia Death Race course was not tough enough so he added on a 600 step climb up Amicalola Falls and roughly four more miles and maybe four thousand extra feet of elevation change. It would take last year's winner about 1:15 longer to finish this year's race. I've had two finishes in the 14:30 range, so how much would the changes affect my time? Read on...

It's an ongoing refrain that I seem to come into races undertrained. I suppose the corollary of that is well-rested, but I'm not sure that I'm striking the right balance between the two. Since Misgah in October, I ran a flatish Weymouth Woods 100K and the Black Mountain Marathon that should have been the Mount Mitchell Challenge, but was shortened due to weather. I had one additional 20-mile run in early February, but other than that, for various reasons, my mileage was pretty low. I knew only a handful of people at this year's race, including Jeff, who had come from California to run our 2015 TRU 50-miler. Beyond him, Also there were Stu and Tin, who I remembered from last year's GDR. I figured this would be a year of mostly running alone and trying to get some song out of my head.

Packet pickup was a pretty long affair as we have to prove we brought the required gear.
As with prior years, we were required to carry with us a space blanket, whistle, weatherproof jacket, a warm cap, thermal top, and 22 oz of water capacity. New this year was a requirement to carry an unengraved version of the engraved finisher's railroad spike. Though kind of heavy, it wasn't the weight of the spike that concerned me, but the possibility of it poking a hole in my pack. I would wear my Salomon Speedcross 3s again, curious how they would do on what I knew to be a mostly single-track, forest trail with steep ascents and descents. At a friend's suggestion, I was trying out Drymax socks.

Five school buses lined up at Amicalola Falls to take us from the finish to the start--about a ninety minute ride. Most people seemed to be getting on the busses in order so a few of us went down toward the end of the line and got in the last bus. Only about twelve people were riding on this bus, which gave us plenty of room to stretch out and relax during the ride. I at an Odwalla bar (never tried before) and a Powerbar fruit gel that looks like one of those squeeze baby food pouches. I vowed to do a better job of eating more solid food early, in hopes of avoiding a major bonk later when my appetite disappeared.

At Vogel, we checked in and were given our spike. I had only a handkerchief to wrap it in and my pack was already so stuffed, it was difficult to make room for the thing. It was roughly a 45 minute wait until we finally assembled at the starting line. Sean did his best at giving a five minute motivational speech and we were off. Just over 200 of the roughly 250 registered arrived at the start. Not seeing a Clay Warner or Jason Bryant like I had last year, I had no idea who the good runners were other than I assumed they would be starting at the front. I was starting sort of in the front 25% of the pack. It's a pretty short run before the paved road funnels down to trail and then to single track. I tried not to race this part, but I always get a little to excited in the first few miles, even though I know it takes a good six miles before I feel comfortable. My excitement was tempered on a long winding downhill at mile two when my back foot caught something and I went airborne. I came down relatively safely but my water bottle took some of the brunt of my impact and squirted maybe 1/3 of the water out. With nine miles to the first aid station, that was not the best thing that could have happened. Another thing that happened, that I didn't realize at the time, was one of the gels in the front pouch on my pack ruptured and bled through onto my phone. It didn't hurt the phone, but every time I took it out to get a picture, I had to lick it and wipe it on my shirt to get it clean.

A few years ago, when I was doing this section in the dark, I was by myself pretty early on. On this day, however, I was in sight of people both ahead and behind. One guy was apparently planning to run the entire race with his German Shepherd. The dog was friendly, but would sometimes get right on my heels, which was a bit distracting. With all the climb early in this section, it didn't take long to get heated up. I started my S-caps pretty early and tried to be sure to drink my entire bottle down between aid stations.

After the first aid station, things thinned out a little bit, but unlike prior years, I was seldom totally by myself. I won't go into mile-by-mile details as many of them have faded from memory, but it was certainly warmer than I would have liked and despite drinking steadily, I was getting dehydrated. A midday rain shower came at just the right time to cool me back down. We were required to carry rain gear but I didn't even pull it out. If the shower threatened to continue for quite a while, I would have gotten it, but it really felt good at the moment.

At either the second or third aid station, I had them fill my bottle and I drank it empty on the spot and refilled. I might have been doing a little better on staying hydrated and eating than usual, but not enough to keep from stomach issues developing later on. I did this same full bottle drink-down at a later aid station, as well.

Things went reasonably well for a while. I found myself running with a guy who had done Table Rock last year and we hung together quite a bit. Knowing I was a bit undertrained, I ultimately sent him on ahead when we reached a hill I planned to walk but he didn't. The best thing about ultras is that you have periods by yourself but also periods with someone that has at least one shared interest. That was the story for most of the day.

The trouble began around mile 40 or so when my stomach started bothering me. It was fine to walk or run downhill, but running on flat or uphill caused problems. I gutted it out with a lot of walking. A few miles short of the Jake Bull aid station at Mile 54, where drop bags were located, I pulled over to let a guy run by. He said thanks and stuck his fist out for a "bump" and right when our fists were inches away, his foot caught something and he went down in a spectacular crash and roll. It happened so fast, I could barely react. Fortunately, he was fine, but I felt bad about it happening--even though I really hadn't done anything to cause it.

After he passed, I had a period of being able to run a little and even passed him when he had pulled over to adjust a shoe or something. He caught back up when we emerged onto a forest service road and we did the fist bump thing that had been interrupted earlier. There was some downhill I could jog, and I kind of forced myself to make it to the aid station, knowing there were some easy trails afterwards that I could run.

But I couldn't. As I entered the woods after the aid station (taking a few things from my drop bag,) my stomach just wasn't right. I knew I had a few miles of mountain bike trail and then some pavement and then a long climb to the mile 63 aid station. I also knew I had time to walk it in if I had to. So, I walked for a bit, but my stomach refused to improve. After less than a mile on this trail, it became time for the headlamp. I suppose that made me feel a little better about walking--not being as able to see how runnable this stretch was. When I finally emerged onto the highway, I found spots where I could shuffle run. Nothing fast, but faster than my walk pace. Knowing that the huge, long hill lay ahead, I pushed it as best I could, relying on the fact that I'd have a long walk coming up to settle my stomach back down.

I'm not sure how it's possible, but the climb seemed much longer this year than two years ago. I don't think I walked much slower with it being dark, but it's possible. It really seemed to drag on forever and there were no visual or audible cues as to where the aid station might be in relation to where I was at any given time. The temperature dropped slowly as we climbed in elevation, but it was a totally different environment when we reached the gap and the aid station at mile 63. The wind was blowing pretty strong and the temperatures must have been in the thirties. I didn't get out my jacket, but I did change into a dry shirt.

Two years earlier, I had run down this next stretch, almost all the way to Amicalola Falls State Park. Something seemed a bit different about it this year, like the route was a tad different. I didn't run as much as I had in 2014, but I did make steady progress. When I finally emerged at the State Park, I was very close to our lodge and very tempted to just head over and be done with it. But, I needed the points for Mont Blanc and didn't want to get this far and not get them. I made my way down the rocky access road toward the visitor's center. I caught up to a couple who was dealing with a knee issue as we went down the windy trail toward the bottom. At the end of the trail, and a stone's throw away from the finish, there were volunteers there to tell me what I already knew--we now were to head away from the finish, up the road and then climb the 600 or so steps by the waterfall. Oddly, it was at this point, my stomach actually started feeling better. I "kind of" enjoyed the climb up the steps, seeing the headlights below and behind me. When I reached the section just below the top where there is a bridge from one side of the falls to the other, I looked up and framed perfectly above the top of the waterfall was the Big Dipper. Had I been carrying a better camera than just my phone, I'd have gotten a picture, but I'll just have to keep that memory in my mind.

Now came the big question. There was a lot of confusion over where we'd be going after climbing the waterfall. I had heard so much speculation and comments about "bushwhacking" that I had convinced myself we had a three mile off-trail hike here at the end of the race. Fortunately, I was wrong. We ran down the steep park entrance road for a bit and then went back into the woods onto another trail that slowly descended toward the finish. Little by little, I could hear the finish line noise getting louder until finally I could see some lights. I popped out of the woods and ran through the creek to the finish line. There was Sean and nearby was the guy I had fist-bumped. He seemed really excited to have finished. I traded my spike for an engraved one--throwing the old one into a coffin Sean had sitting nearby. I asked Sean if he was going to keep making it harder until I admitted it was harder than Pitchell, making him laugh. Though it was 4-6 miles longer than Pitchell, even with my stomach issues slowing me down significantly over the prior years, my time was still substantially better than it has been at Pitchell. I finished in 16:39:02 which is 999 minutes and two seconds! So, I broke 1,000 minutes.

This was by far my worst time at Georgia Death Race but it easily could have been much slower. I'd really be interested to see aid station splits for this year versus 2014 to see if I was ever ahead of pace. I may come back in the future, but for today I am just happy to have the Mont Blanc points I was after and will turn my attention to my third Mont Blanc qualifier later this year.

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