Friday, March 28, 2014

Tempting Death In Georgia - Part One


            I first met Sean “Run Bum” Blanton last summer before a race around the Eiger in Switzerland.  We talked for awhile as we ran the first few miles of one of the toughest races I’d ever run, and he kept telling me about a race he puts on in the mountains of northern Georgia called the Georgia Death Race.  Any race that takes places in the mountains has the word death in it is right up my alley.  Once I found out the race would fall during my Spring Break, I knew I had to sign up.  As an added bonus, my good friend from high school lives in Atlanta, and he and his wife agreed to pace me the last 23 miles.  My training leading up to the race had been decent, with my focus being on getting in as many hills as possible.  I haven’t been that excited about a race in a long time.  I couldn’t wait to get to Georgia.

(Finisher From Last Year's Race)
            I flew into Memphis the week of the race to visit family and then drove to Atlanta on Thursday to stay with a good friend from high school (Doug) and his wife (Rebecca).  If you ask my mom or Doug’s mom, he’s the one who got me into running long distances (not completely true), and he gets blamed for some of my adventures.  It was great to catch up with Doug and Rebecca and get a decent night’s sleep before making the 2 hour drive north to the race start in Blairsville.  On the way up, I stopped at Amicalola Falls State Park (where the race would finish) to see the impressive sights and get an idea of what lay in store for me on Saturday.  After dropping my gear off and checking into my hotel room in Blairsville, I hiked up Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in GA at just over 4700’.  The views were spectacular, and I sat on a picnic bench and popped a beer to savor the moment.  I then headed over for the mandatory gear check and race briefing.  As per Forest Service regulations, the RD was making us carry a thermal top, gloves, headlamp, emergency blanket, whistle, hat, and weather proof jacket AT ALL TIMES.  It turns out that I would only use my gloves (for a couple hours) and headlamp, but I carried everything with me for 68 miles.  The theme I sensed during the race briefing was that the word of the day would be “ish”, as in the race is anywhere from 60ish to 68ish miles long.  The finish banner advertised a 60 mile race, but our race bib had 68 miles printed on it.  After the briefing I went to dinner with fellow San Antonio runner John Sharp and his friend Gina, as well as Mike from Virginia.  After sampling the local trout and sweet potato fries, I made a few last-minute preparations and crawled into bed for a few hours of restless sleep.

(My New Buddies Collins and Cooper)

(Highest Point In Georgia)

(Typical Northern GA Terrain)
            The 3AM alarm came all too quickly, but I tend to sleep restlessly the night before a race anyway.  Mike and I gathered our gear and made the 20 minute drive over to Vogel State Park, where the race would begin at 5AM(ish).  It was a cool, crisp morning, but the forecast called for the rain to hold off until late Saturday evening, giving us extra incentive to run fast.  A full moon illuminated the ridge high above the start and provided a beautiful backdrop.  I positioned myself in the middle of the pack, and soon after 5AM, we were on our way up a wide paved road that would lead us out of Vogel and onto the singletrack where we would spend the next 30+ miles.  Having the race start with about a mile of road allowed me to warm my legs up as I ran the modest incline, but it also allowed the field to thin out a bit before we hit the trail, making it slightly less crowded once we did.  My goals for this race were simple – finish.  I had no real time in mind (although I wanted to finish before midnight), and this wasn’t necessarily a “goal race” for me, as all of my training and effort is focused on Wasatch.  I wanted to keep the pace easy, run as much as I could, and hope for the best.  Sean had told us that if we could manage the first 38 miles properly, we would make up lots of time on the last (more runnable) 30(ish).  Sounds easy enough, right?  The trail was fairly narrow, full of fallen leaves that covered up the occasional root or rock.  I ran most of the gradual climbs, energized by the cool morning air.  Some flats, some climbs, and soon we crossed the only water of the day, less than 4 miles into the race.  Sean had warned us that there was no dry way across, so I jumped right in and enjoyed the cold mountain creek water.  Knowing I would have wet feet for over 60 miles, I wasn’t excited about what my feet would look like, but I figured I would just suck it up and deal with it, not wanting to waste any time changing socks along the way.  8 miles in we hit the first aid station at White Oak Stomp.  With the sun still down and only 5 miles to the next aid, I decided to refill just one of the 2 handheld bottles I was carrying.  My nutrition plan was to drink a bottle of Carbo Pro/Skratch mix every hour, a plan that had worked in several previous races.  This would give me roughly 300 calories an hour, and I would throw in a gel or aid station food along the way if I felt I needed more.  After a quick fill, I was out and headed up the steepest (and worst according to Sean) climb on the course, Coosa Bald. 
            Settling into a nice power hike, I was able to pass a few people on the climb (only to be passed on the descents, a trend that would continue most of the day).  The one thing that stood out most on these trails was the lack of switchbacks.  If you had 1000’ to climb, it would be straight up the hill, not the twisting, winding way I was accustomed to ascending in the mountains.  This made the climbs tough but the descents even tougher.  The sun was starting to peek out above the eastern ridges, providing glimpses of the surrounding mountains.  Most of the views were partially obscured by trees, but you could tell that we were in the heart of the southern Appalachians.  Very pretty.  After hitting the top of Coosa Bald, we began the Duncan Ridge section of the course, which previous finishers had warned about.  They told of the relentless nature of this section, how you would climb 500’ – 1000’, only to drop down an equal amount and repeat the process over and over.  Knowing this (and realizing I had nearly 9 miles to the next aid station), I filled 2 bottles with Carbo Pro/Skratch at the Mulky Gap AS (mile 13).  The temps were still cool, and although I was sweating pretty good, I felt like 2 bottles would be enough.  

(Beautiful Morning)

(Rare Flat Section Early)
            The next 7+ miles were just as tough as advertised, as we rolled up and over countless ridge tops.  The terrain underfoot was nice, but the leaves hid any rocks or roots that might want to grab your foot, preventing me from really opening up the legs (can I even do that?) on the descents.  I could feel myself applying the brakes a bit on each drop, knowing my quads would pay for the effort later.  Overall I felt pretty good, but I still had a long way to go over some rough terrain.  At the top of a ridge, a volunteer pointed me to the right and let me know I had a 1000’ descent over 1.5 miles and that I would head back up this same trail after reaching the aid station.  It was a quad-crushing descent, but I enjoyed seeing other runners headed the other way, even though most of them looked like they weren’t enjoying the climb back out.  I saw Sharpie headed up and figured he was a mile or two ahead of me.  After surviving the ride downhill, I arrived at Skeenah Gap AS (mile 21.5) and saw Sean there greeting runners.  As volunteers filled my bottles, Sean asked how I was enjoying the course.  “This is my kind of stupid fun” was my response.   While struggling to pour my Carbo Pro/Skratch mix into a bottle, I did learn an eat new trick (at least it was new for me).  Instead of opening the baggie from the top and pouring the contents in, I found that it was much easier to bite off a corner of the bag and dump it.  Way faster and less messy.  I grabbed my bottles and started the climb back out.

(Climbing On Duncan Ridge)

 (Race Director Sean "Run Bum" Blanton)