I got chosen for the GDR lottery last July while still wearing a boot for my second stress fracture of 2018. I had 9 months to heal, build a base, and train for a race completely out of my wheel house. Sure, I've run longer distances and done a few gnarly trail runs/races, but nothing of this magnitude. It would likely be one of the hardest races I'd run to date and I was excited about doing something really, really tough.
I ran a couple of marathons over the fall (NYC, Rehoboth) and decided to team up with a coach to get me ready for the triplicate of GDR, Boston, & Everest. I did track speed sessions during the week to keep my marathon legs intact (and build fitness) and spent many hours on the trails on the weekend. In January, I ran Mountain Mist 50k and felt I executed a strong, patient race. Things were looking great!
Then, in late February, my left foot (the one in the boot) started aching again and I sprinkled in a bunch of cross-training so as to not aggravate it. Back to the pool, back on the bike, and back to feeling the giant cloud of doom hanging over my head constantly. In reality, I only took off about 10 running days total in the whole cycle, but I was frustrated that I dealing with this potential nagging injury.
I ran the Uwharrie Trail Marathon on March 9th as a last long run and my foot seemed no worse for the wear. My coach eased me back into workouts after I recovered from the race and I was nervously happy that I was going to get to the start in one piece. Then, a freak accident at my first company softball game had me land with my leg hyper-extended and angered my right knee. It was so sore the next day that I was hobbling around the office with an ice pack.
But, it seemed to just be tweaked and I was fortunately feeling better within a couple of days. There was still a little lingering soreness when I twisted it a bit, but the acute pain was gone. I jokingly said to my colleagues at work that I would have rather been smacked in the head with a softball then have anything happen to my legs/feet. Lo and behold, I got smacked in the head while warming up for the following week's game. I can't make this shit up.
Anyway, I didn't have quite the build up I imagined going into the race. But, I did have the will to finish and the experience of running for long periods of time. Both of which would serve me well in the race.
I opted to take Friday off work to sleep in and allow myself plenty of time to pack. I checked and rechecked all my lists and made a game plan of crewing myself on the point-to-point race. I'd start with approximately 12 bars/gels/nut butters, water, Tailwind, and all the required gear (rain jacket, warm head covering, space blanket, whistle, and headlamp with extra batteries). Then, I'd put extra nutrition in my drop bags to pick up at miles 27 and mile 50. I also included a few key items in my mile 50 bag - my Garmin charger and a charging brick and a long-sleeve shirt in case it got cooler as the sun went down (spoiler alert: never needed the shirt).
After loading up my car, I made my way to Amicalola Fall State Park for packet pickup and the prerace meeting. While walking up to the lodge, I immediately spotted Keith who gave me the 411 on what to do since I was a newbie to the race. I got my gear inspected, received my race wristband, and then went into the lodge to get my big and other race swag.
I went outside on the back patio of the lodge and immediately spotted Chantal. She finished up her dinner and then we took photos with the grim reaper for ultrarunningmemes before the prerace meeting.
|Photo cred: Keith Gates|
It was an insanely beautiful night overlooking the mountains and I was feeling really, really grateful to be getting started on this race I had been thinking about for the better part of a year.
After the meeting, I dropped my car near the finishing line at the base of the fall and then Chantal graciously drove me to the start line at Vogel State Park where her super amazing parents allowed me to stay with them in their RV. I ate my giant container of pasta on the way and we made it to the park just at sunset. Knowing we were getting up just before 4am, we all turned in early and tried to get some sleep. My super power once again came in handy and I slept for over 6 hours!
Chantal and I got dressed, grabbed breakfast and coffee, and her dad drove us the 1/4 mile or so to the start (conserve the legs!). We said our goodbyes and good lucks and headed to the lodge for our final check-in.
Part of the dumbassery of this race is that you have to carry a rusty railroad spike with you the entire race and when you finish, you toss it in a coffin and receive a "clean" spike engraved "Georgia Death Race". At the final check-in, the race director, Sean, gives you a spike, shakes your hand, and wishes you good luck. I wrapped my mandatory rain jacket around my spike and stuffed it in my pack.
We headed out to the start line soon thereafter, listened to the prerace speech, and all sang "happy birthday" to Sean. Then, at 5am, it was go time!
For just over a half mile or so, the race is on pavement which allows runners to spread out just a little bit before getting on the trail. I ran next to Chantal for a minute or two and then we got separated and she went on ahead of me. I settled into the middle of the pack, telling myself to just be patient in the early miles.
The bladder of my hydration pack must have not been sealed and for the first mile a slow trickle of water spread across my pack and then onto my shorts. By the time I was about 2 miles in, my shorts were completely soaking wet. Thankful the weather was nice and I run hot anyway, I was trying to not be completely frustrated by this early-race annoyance.
Having run most of the course, I knew what to expect, fortunately or unfortunately. I knew the first few miles would be nice and runnable and then the climb to Coosa would begin. I am a pretty good climber, but with all the vertical throughout the rest of the course, I decided to hang back and just relax. It was a little frustrating to be stuck in the conga line because I was full of race adrenaline, but I knew it would pay off later if I just chilled out.
By the time we hit the top of Coosa, the sun was beginning to rise and we were able to turn off our headlamps shortly thereafter. I started talking with a guy from Ohio and gave him a bit of info about what to expect in the following miles. People were already stepping over to the side of the trail to catch their breath on climbs and we weren't even 10 miles into the race.
At the first aid station at mile 8.1 (White Oak), I had my water topped off and then quickly got back onto the trail. I was in a good place mentally and running happy with fresh feeling legs and not working too hard. Every 45 minutes, I was diligently eating a gel or a bar and things seemed to be going really well.
I came into Mulky Gap (aid station mile 13.5) still feeling good and noticed that Chantal was refilling her bottles! Yay, a friend! Also, Andy was right there with us and our little pack headed off to climb the nastiness of the DRT together. We got to about the third to last climb of the DRT and Chantal urged me to go on. I was still feeling fresh so I decided to take the opportunity to power up the climbs.
As I headed down into Skeenah (aid station mile 21.4), I was feeling amazing. My spirits were high and I was surprised at how good I felt considering how dead I felt doing the same run 5 weeks prior, over an hour slower. I gave Shannon a high five and enjoyed seeing all the runners coming back out of Skeenah, everyone shouting "good job" and "good work" as we passed each other. Unexpectedly, Jessica was at Skeenah and I was so excited to see another familiar face!
|Photo cred: Jessica Brundige|
The aid station was bit of a cluster and I had to wait to get my bottles refilled. I grabbed a few pickles, a couple of quesadilla slices, and an orange slice. I headed up and out and spent the next few minutes trying to eat and get myself organized again as I walked up out of the gap.
I got behind 2 girls in the next section and both of them slowly started to pull away as my spirits waned. I wasn't feeling good mentally any more and found myself in a bit of a rough patch as I covered the next 5.6 miles to Point Bravo. The trail section was really pretty in this part, but I was having a hard time appreciating it because of my crappy mental state.
At Point Bravo (aid station mile 27), I had my bottles refilled and then grabbed my drop bag to refill my nutrition supplies. I acted quickly and got out ahead of the girls who were still lingering at the aid station. I ran with a couple of guys in the next section up and out of Point Bravo and then down across the Toccoa Swinging Bridge. I thought the aid station would be at the forest service road just beyond the bridge, but we had to make the climb out of the gap which was a steady up for a few miles.
|Photo cred: LDaily Photos|
Once I reached Sapling Gap (aid station mile 31.5), I was thrilled to find out they had ice! It had warmed up and I was getting uncomfortably hot. I stuck a handful of ice down my sports bra and then upon a suggestion by the volunteer, stuck my head inside a 5 gallon bucket full of ice water. It was blissful! They also had sponges and buffs soaking in ice water and I grabbed a cold buff to cool off my neck for the next few miles.
After Sapling Gap, there was a fair amount of runnable trail at this point. I was really inclined to just do a bunch of walking, but forced myself to shuffle along and I played leapfrog with a girl for a few miles. I passed her tying her shoe and then she passed me back when I stepped off the side of the trail to pee. Later, I'd pass her back when she stepped off the trail herself. After than, it got particularly lonely until I caught up with a guy coming into the Long Creek aid station (mile 37.1).
At Long Creek, I drank a bunch of water and chugged a bit of Coke. I dumped water over my head and then trotted down the next section of forest service road. I actually started to perk up again at this point and found myself on some runnable terrain. The field was pretty spread out at this point, but I used people in my sight to try to either keep up with or catch. It was about 50/50.
The forest service road went into Winding Stair Gap and then another big climb awaited. Luckily, I was feeling good again and though I wasn't able to run the climb, I was hard hiking up and managed to pass a few guys on the way to the aid station.
At the Winding Stair aid station (43.1), I drank a cup of veggie broth, ate a few bacon pieces, and grabbed a handful of potato chips. Heading down the forest service road, I felt great! My legs were definitely feeling the beating of the long, steep descent, but I was happy to open up and do a bit of running again. Even as I cruised onto the trail section of Jake/Bull, I was still in good spirits. I hadn't seen anyone in miles, but the pink flags along the course let me know that I was still good to go.
However, the last mile or so going into Jake/Bull, I was feeling down again and finding my legs in the runnable parts was getting harder and harder. I was looking forward to getting to the aid station and knowing that I was that much closer to the finish. I could hear the PA system from miles away and it was messing with my mind knowing that it was so close, yet so far away. Again, because I run the trails in that area, I knew exactly how far it really was!
Sean had set up all kinds of signs in this section and the one that stuck out the most to me was "the word of the day is DNF". I laughed and threw my middle finger at it. I contemplated taking a picture, but then I didn't want to jinx myself! Luckily, someone else did and posted it to FB!
|Photo cred: Nicole Fleming|
The volunteers at Jake/Bull (aid station mile 50.1) were amazing. They refilled my bottles, gave me a baggie of bacon and grilled cheese to go, and helped me get my watch on my charger. Plus, since I hadn't seen any humans for miles, I was really happy to see smiling, happy faces. They made sure I topped off my bottles as the next section was over 10 miles without aid. As I headed out of Jake/Bull, I tried to get some of the food down and did a bit of running through the trail section.
A trio of guys caught up with me towards the end of the trail and I kept pace with them for a while on the pavement and then they took off running. I popped in an earbud and knew I planned my music crutch perfectly for the next section. I caught back up to the trio of guys and stayed with them through the pavement and then onto the forest service road. However, they had a bit more energy in their legs and left me in their literal dust.
I was still rocking the hard hiking though and though I was tired and heavy-legged, I still felt reasonably good pushing myself up towards Nimblewill. There was a sign along the climb that said "1 mile to go to the aid station" and then a half mile later "1/2 mile to go". I was thinking, wow, that always seemed to be much, much longer when I've run this section, but maybe I was actually covering it faster than I thought? However a half mile later, there was another sign that said "haha, it's actually 3 more miles". I couldn't help but laugh because I really should have known better.
At some point in the climb, I was thinking it was weird that I hadn't heard my watch beep for a mile marker in awhile. And then I fished around in my pack to discover my watch must have slipped off the charger and was dead. Oops. I got everything working again and missed only about a mile or so.
Once I reached the Nimblewill intersection, a couple of volunteers were directing us down the forest service road. They also asked if I had enough water and I was able to get a few more ounces from them. One of my bottles had been a leaky mess all day. On top of my bladder having issues, I had been repeatedly soaked over and over. My legs were sticky with Gatorade and Tailwind and I was chafed a bit on my inner thighs.
On the stretch to Nimblewill, I pulled my hat and headlamp back out of my pack and tried to get a bit of running on the flat section into the aid station. It seemed to stretch way more than a mile, but finally, it came into sight.
At Nimblewill (aid station mile 61.2), I got some broth and a few more bacon pieces. I really wanted some Mountain Dew, but they didn't have any so I settled for Coke. I topped everything off again and then headed down the next section that connected to the Hike Inn. Luckily (or unluckily), I knew everything else that awaited me after that including 5 or so miles of reasonable single track, the stupid rock-garden-Eastern-Ridge-Trail down, the stupid stairs up, and the stupid Western Rim Trail.
I was really wanting to run the single track, but any time it was flat or down, I kept catching my shoes on rocks. And so I would run a few steps and walk. Run a few steps and walk. It was better than just walking, but I was growing more and more frustrated that I couldn't pick my feet up over the rocks. Even in the nice, wide section towards the bottom of the Approach Trail, I couldn't open up. In fact, I stumbled over a rock next to a wooden stair step, rolled my ankle, and toppled to the ground. After a bunch of F-bombs, I scooped myself back up and hobbled towards the Eastern Ridge Trail.
The top part of the Eastern Ridge Trail is not really runnable even under the best conditions. It's steep, full of medium-sized rocks (bigger than gravel, smaller than boulders) and in the dark, pretty darn dangerous. I slowly ambled down and decided whatever time I was losing at this point would be okay, because I was going to be finished within the hour. I could hear the cheers of the finish line from this part of the trail and despite feeling exhausted and in pain, I knew I was to do this damn thing!
I was feeling woozy and hungry once I got back on the single track and decided to take one last gel. Bad move. It was okay for a few minutes, but then I felt the oh-so-familiar-ultra-vomit rising in my throat. I bent over the side of the trail and dry heaved four times with no results, but felt surprisingly better afterwards?
I expected to be scanned at the Visitor's Center, but there was just a table with a couple of coolers. I topped off my water again and then hiked up the path to the falls. There was a volunteer that walked the runners across the parking lot, ensuring we went the right direction. I was dreading the stairs, but also happy that I was so close to being done.
Actually, the stairs were not bad. Sure, it was not easy with nearly 70 miles on my legs to climb the 600 steps up to the top of the falls, but I grabbed onto the side rail and used my arms to pull myself up. I didn't even stop to take a breather! It wasn't fast, but I was moving the whole time.
At the top of the steps, I caught up with two more runners and we cringed as we hit the steep pavement going down. It was so painful to experience those eccentric contractions in my quadriceps. I walked as quickly as I could and then tried a bit of running once I reached the trail portion. One of the two runners went on ahead of me, seemingly bombing the descents. I watched as his headlamp bobbed down lower and lower and then started to listen for the cheers of him finishing.
As I hobbled down the last steep descent, I could hear Sean yell "into the water". I hopped into the creek (next to a perfectly good bridge) and threw my hands in the air as I finally stopped moving. Sean gave me a high five, handed me a pint glass, and explained how I was to exchange my dirty railroad spike for the engraved one. I turned to see Deano hanging out at the finish and he started helping me with my gear.
Then, Adam and Jeff popped out from the crowd and I was so excited to see him. Dirty, exhausted, and probably reeking of every gross thing, Adam hugged me hard. I had mentioned in passing that it would awesome to have him at the finish, but I wasn't sure if he would make it. I was so elated he did!
After exchanging my spike, getting a finish line photo, we wandered over to where I could get my drop bags and food. It. was. done.
As we were sitting outside, Chantal's parents walked up and like everything else that just came together, I was able to have Jeff go with her dad to get my gear that they graciously held onto while I ran. We chatted for a bit and then thankfully, Jeff drove my car home while I rode with Adam.
Like Mountain Mist, I'm proud of running a patient race. When I checked in at Mulkey Gap, I was the 83rd runner. From then on, I went to 68, 60, 54, 43, 40, 35, and finished 37th overall, 13th female. My final finish time for 71.2 - 74ish miles and 16,000 - 18,000' feet of elevation gain (no one really knows and GPS isn't super accurate) was 18:19:11. Of the 289 people that started the race, only 158 finished!
Link to (most of) my splits on Strava here and link to my race checkpoints/final standings here. (Search bib #188).
Like a stupid Oscar acceptance speech, I have many, many people to thank to make this race happen. First, my buddy Chantal who also finished the race (!!!), for the many, many training miles, laughs, and methinks the start of lots of future shenanigans. Freaking rockstar way to go over 50 miles and earn your first WS qualifier! Also, her parents deserve major kudos for letting me stay in their RV at Vogel, allowing me extra sleeping time and shuffling my gear from park to park. Chantal didn't lie when she said she had awesome parents! Huge thanks to John for all the weekend miles and adventures on the trails. Sorry for all the mud in your car and bringing the rain every time we ran together. All my friends I've shared miles with over this training cycle (Steve, Roger, Deano, Christy, Stephen, Sarah, Sean, Claire, Chris, Sam, Jeff, the Greenville crew and anyone else!). Extra special thanks to Steve who came from Michigan and Roger who came from Colorado to run some miles with me Georgia! Megan, thank you for your amazing nail art as always. I'm lucky to have you as my talented BFF! Thanks Matt for our daily random texts about nothing and everything - sorry you missed out on dying this year, but I hope you have your own chance to experience the misery in the future. Thanks to my work peeps who don't understand my craziness, but ask about it anyway. Thank you to my coach for believing in me and giving me pep talks throughout this training block. It truly helped me get to the right place mentally when I started the race. Thank you Jeff for coming out to support me at the end of the race and drive my car back home - you're always my favorite asshole. And to my #1 supporter and better half, Adam, thank you for putting up with all of my ridiculous running adventures. You didn't know what you were getting into 15 years ago, but I'm lucky that you are always encouraging of me to continue to push my boundaries. You never let me feel guilty for the many hours away training or racing and I'm forever grateful for you letting me be me.