|Posted by misterbenwilliams on March 21, 2013 at 8:15 PM|
Dead Man Walking
This race was growing infamous in the weeks leading up to the event. The posted 30,000 ft of elevation change, peculiar 60 (ish) mile distance, uber-rugged location, 4-page course description and ridiculously lenient cut-off times were leading to a surge of speculation on how this race was going to shake down. The Duncan Ridge Trail is also the trail system of choice for the revered out-and-back Duncan Ridge 50k. Having had run the DRT50k back in November, I was blown away at the prospect of running the hardest parts of the DRT50k, and then tacking another 50k on the end! I had to experience this race first hand to believe it.
Pulling into Vogel State Park I had some PTSD like symptoms that came on when I remembered the suffering that took place on the same trails last November. The early bird safety briefing was on at the group shelter where Sean “Run Bum” Blanton walked the eager group of runners through the mandatory safety spiel. Dead dry humor laced with colorful language were staples of Blanton’s safety speech, and as we would soon find out, staples of the 60(ish)mile course layout as well. The race began at 4am the following morning with a macabre reading from Dickens’ “A tale of two cities” from the director himself.(see video) With that we were off into the void.
Darkness prevailed as we wound up to an approach trail for Coosa Bald. Starting at 4 am, we would run in darkness for 3 ½ hours before the first hint of light. (Much later in the race, after the sun would go down, I would run another 6 hours in the dark before my hobbled finish at Amnicolola State Park) The trail to Coosa Bald would climb 2,200 ft over the next 3.8 miles. By the time we topped out atop Coosa, the bottleneck of runners had dissipated and once on the summit, high altitude winds pummeled the ridgeline. Coosa Bald is the 11th highest peak in Georgia, and your ears will pop halfway up the ascent!
The deafing roar and blustering winds that surrounded me forced me into my shell, even though the unseasonably warm forecast and the grueling climb led me to believe the shell wouldn’t have to make its appearance quite so early in the race. I screamed down the backside of Coosa Bald leading another racer to call me a “Damned billy goat” as I passed. Downhills have been the balancing force to my dismal climbing abilities! We emptied out at the festive “White Oak Stomp” Mile 8 aid station. They were complete with a DJ and generator to pump out the jams.
The following 13 miles on the Duncan Ridge trail and Several more miles on the Benton Macaye were the type of punishment that you need therapy to forget. Sean Blanton has been an advocate for the difficulty of this trail, saying he has yet to run another trail globally that goes gap to peak to gap as relentlessly as the DRT. While I am no globetrotter, I am inclined to agree with him. The climbs up each new ridgline and peak were direct and straight up to the peak, with no switchbacks to offer solace. The only thing as unrelenting as these mountains were the “Run Bum” motivational posters that mocked your efforts, gave false hope and downright asked you to give up already. One example was “You’re almost done with the climbing” only to be followed by another one that said, “Actually, you’re not even close.”
There was nowhere to “cruise” or find a regular pace. It was your choice of trudging up the dubious grades or jackhammering down them. In this bitter stretch on the DRT and Benton Macaye trails, I would pass the Mulkey Gap aid station at mile 13, Skeenah Gap Aid station at mile 20, Point Bravo at Mile 25, and Long Creek Aid station at mile 35. I would also pass Fish Gap, which was the turnaround point for the DRT 50K.
I was hoping the mountains up until this point were the worst but racers trudge more of the same demoralizing grade changes for the remainder of the singletrack trail section of the race- (Long Creek AS at Mile 35) While the scenery was breathtaking, it was also a sadistic dejavue as it seemed you were running the same devil peak over and over for 12 hours! (That’s right, I took over 12 hours to get this far!)
During this time on the singletrack, I still had some unforgettable experiences. Skeenah Gap at mile 20 was fun because it was a long winding downhill to get to the aid station that was almost enjoyable until you realized you would have to climb that same stretch to get back on the course! What Trickery, Run Bum! Seeing my beautiful wife at Point Bravo at mile 25 was inspiring as I burst across a small bridge and out of the tree line to find her and get a sympathy smooch for my suffering thus far!
Toccoa Bridge Aid Station was exceptional for the long suspension bridge that me and 3 other racers bounded across, bobbing 30 feet above a posse of fly-fishermen in the Toccoa River below. (I would have rather been in the water at this point!) It was during this point that my hands had swollen like spongy flesh mittens. I had to remove my wedding ring so it wouldn’t cut off the circulation in my finger! Culprit for this medical anomaly is most likely overdoing it on my electrolyte supplements and not drinking enough water. I tied my ring onto my inspiration rag from the Ronald McDonald House in Chattanooga and kept on moving, tucking my hands under my shoulder straps whenever I had a slow climb to help drain some fluid out of my hands. (At least I didn’t have any muscle cramping!)
Winding Stair gap at mile 40 was where runners could coast down 6.8 miles of long and winding downhill dirt forest roads. The catch is after 40 miles of torture, “shuffle-hobbling” is much more accurate than “coasting”. This is where sunlight waned and darkness became the backdrop once again for the rest of the race. It was 8:00pm, 16 hours into the race. I made it to Jake Bull Aid station, (The one with bacon) and treated myself to a strip of the good stuff. Saw Cassie again and headed off into the dark abyss once more. A portion of the Jake Bull area after the aid station was random stretch on pavement for about a mile and a half. We were out in the boonies with nary a streetlight and the words “Texas Chansaw Massacre” were muttered more than once by my fellow racers. While my feet found solace on the smooth pavement, the barking dogs and hollering kinfolk left me quickening my pace until we crossed back onto dirt and gravel state park forest roads.
I was on route to the LAST aid station of the race before the 6(ish) mile victory lap to the finish. I’m home free, what could go wrong? Worrying about my salts after the swollen hands fiasco earlier in the race, I had thrown two effervescent electrolyte tablets into my hydration pack before leaving Jake Bull Aid station for the climb up to my last aid station (Mile 54?) Nimblewill Gap. The course description had warned that this would be a 4 mile approach with an accompanying 3 mile winding ascent that would ascend 1,500 feet.
“ It will feel lengthy”. I was half way up this ascent when me and another runner came across a reflective heap in the ditch on the side of the unrelenting uphill forest road. Upon further inspection, it was another racer who had fallen ill and was entombed in his emergency blanket (required gear) until the race director could go pick him up. Bad omen.
It was only a little further up this ascent when my new fizzy water in my hydration bladder began making me so sick to my stomach that had to sit down. I got up and tried to trudge along a little further, and got dizzy again. I was out of food and had no fresh water other than the stuff that was making me sick. Wrapping up in an emergency blanket, sprawled out on that pitch black forest road seemed to be the most viable option for me too. I clammered to my feet, realizing how dangerous thoughts like those are, and staggered dizzy and hunger-drunk up the mountain. A group passed me and stopped to talk. A lady was concerned and offered to walk with me or call in help. I stammered about something and sat down again in the ditch until they left. I was so out of it that just sitting down was easier than trying to form words. I got up one more time on this unending death march upwards until I saw a light bobbing and swaying toward me. “Don’t go into the light!” was all I could think!
A concerned aid station worker asked if I was the guy with facial hair that was in trouble. I agreed. I had finally reached the last aid station and I was going to drop out of the race. I wrapped up in a blanket in a chair and stared off, while the worker replaced my water, made me a PB an J and brought me a banana. I ate and contemplated the logistics of my dropping the race. I thought about how I would make up the miles for the sponsors that pledged money “per mile”. I also realized that I was feeling better after finally eating. With that realization, I willed myself up out of my chair before I could rationalize the need to stay seated, slung my bag around my shoulders and thanked the Aid Station worker profusely for bringing me back to life. “It’s what we do.” he replied. I wrapped my inspiration bandana around my fist and took off like a shaky bottle rocket down the final 6(ish) mile stretch toward the finish. On this final stretch, my eyes played a lot of tricks on me, seeing black bears in most of the mud puddles that I came across. I even stopped and snuck up on a mud puddle to see if it was indeed a bear or not. I thought I saw scarecrows hanging from trees that would prove to be clumps of leaves. Some may not have been hallucinations. I saw bats swoop at me constantly, inches from my headlamp. I heard toads chirp at me as I ran past them like they were talking to me! I even took a picture to see if they were real. ( I was 20 hrs in at this point, give me a break)
I felt like I was rocketing over the dirt roads. My gps watch reminded me that I was only running a 13 min/mile. I finally came to an intersection at Amnicolola Falls State Park and sniffed out the course markings up a paved road. The last entry on the course description was about taking a road down into the finish so I was ready for my victory lap! Upon following the course markings, I got further from the main road and any lights from the park facilities. The pink ribbon markers pointed down a long fire road, right into a trail system and then another near mile of tight and twisty technical downhill! My feet were screaming at me as every new step made my feet feel like ground chuck. Curse You, Run Bum!
I dumped out at the bottom and plodded to the finish line where I got my finisher’s railroad spike and a pat on the back. “Hey, it’s the death race, do you want a parade or something?” I never thought it was possible. Many times it wasn’t. Every time I had a doubt, I tugged on my bandana, which is signed by all of the families at the Ronald McDonald House of Chattanooga. They can’t drop when life is unbearable. They trudge on and tugging on that bandana reminded me to release those crippling doubts and to trudge on as well. I learned that I am surprisingly resilient as long as I have a steady supply of solid food. I learned that good aid station volunteers could mean the difference of life or DNF (did not finish).
The Georgia Death Race may have had some varying course descriptions and undershot mileage (many racers swear that it was actually a 100K). The course was actually very well marked with the exception of one last minute change. These can be complaints to some or part of the Death Race experience for others. The experience that the Georgia Death Race planners and volunteers have designed is a no-frills slugfest with some of the gnarliest terrain that the southeast can conjure up. How should you prepare for this race? Run, train, devour some hills and prepare to lean on a little bit more than training. Along with the lengthy required gear, you will need to pack some serious inspiration to ride out every one of the towering peaks and grueling valleys that await you on next year's "Georgia Death Race."
Keep moving forward! -Ben Williams