The climb out was relentless, and I knew what was coming since we had just descended this same trail. It was uplifting to see other runners headed by me down to the aid station. I grunted up to the top, waved at the volunteer, and tried to chase down a couple guys in front of me. It was getting warm, and the sun was taking its toll on my legs. I repeated the process of catching people on climbs only to be passed by them on the downhills. Everything felt good until I was less than a mile from the next aid station. I began to feel that all too familiar feeling in my gut, and soon everything I had consumed over the previous few hours was deposited on the side of the trail. This continued several more times until I had northing left to sacrifice to the trail gods. Feeling better (but devoid of calories), I jogged into the Point Bravo (mile 28) aid station, the largest station on the course. Since my stomach wasn’t feeling great, I opted for only one bottle of Skratch/Carbo Pro, choosing to fill my other bottle with watered down Coke.
I repeated this process for the next 17 miles, though I did manage to keep from puking in this stretch. The climbs were tough, the descents even tougher. I was in survival mode, nursing my Coke and water between aid stations, trying to ingest any calories I could. A few miles from the Winding Stair Gap aid station (mile 45), where I would meet Doug and pick up Rebecca as my pacer, we emerged from the woods onto a rough jeep road. There was a creek on one side and rock walls on the other. As a bonus treat, there was the occasional spring cascading down from a crevice in the rocks. I took full advantage of these and would stop to soak my visor and neck under the refreshingly cold water. I ran these miles with a local guy who kept me entertained (or frightened) with tales of his training runs in the area in which he would encounter rattlesnakes, copperheads, and even an angry mother bear with her cubs. This helped pass the time, and soon I had arrived at the aid station and saw Doug and Rebecca waiting for me.
Rebecca would pace me the next 8 miles, and Doug would pace the final 9, 11, or 15 miles (depending on who you believed about the final race distance). Sean had told us that the stretch from Winding Stair Gap to the finish would be mostly downhill road (gravel) running. My legs were sore, and my mind didn’t want to run, but I didn’t want Rebecca to come all this way to simply hike 8 miles, so we started to trot out of the aid station and soon caught the local guy I had been running with earlier. It was nice to catch up with Rebecca, and the conversation helped take my mind off the pain shooting through my legs. We certainly weren’t setting any speed records, but we did manage to keep a sub 9 minute pace (fast for at this point in the race) for most of the downhill section. I continued to drink Coke and water, which seemed to be working for the most part. I had mentioned to Rebecca that I had a friend from San Antonio (John Sharp) running somewhere ahead of me. After I described what he looked like, she laughed and said, “We saw him come through the aid station. Everyone was talking about him. He was loud and made quite an impression”. Yep, that’s John. Soon we all hit the Jake Bull aid station (mile 53), where I would drop Rebecca off and pick up Doug.
As Doug and I left the aid station, I picked up a couple white chocolate macadamia nut cookies. They tasted great, and I could feel my energy return almost immediately. We hit a short section of singletrack, and I picked up the pace. Doug even commented how fast I was running for this stage of the race. I felt great! We talked about how my mom “blames” Doug for getting me into running. Yes, Doug ran a marathon before I did, but he never steered me down the path of ultras. He is a talented runner who has turned in some fast road marathon times and just completed his first trail ultra this past fall. The nice singletrack soon gave way to a paved road, and almost instantly my stomach revolted. I told Doug that I needed to pull off to the side to toss my cookies (literally), much to the surprise and enjoyment of two little boys who happened to be riding their bikes past us as I was puking. They thought it was hilarious. I didn’t think it was as funny, but couldn’t help but laugh anyway. The surrounding area we were running across reminded me off the movie Deliverance (insert banjo joke here). As much as I wanted to run, my stomach said no. After a few more miles of paved road, we hit a dirt road that would take us up the last (big) climb of the course. We switched on our lights and trudged up the road. As bad as I felt, we never once heard another runner or had anyone pass us. This race was tough on everybody. Finally, we hit the last aid station, Nimblewill (mile 61), where as sign greeted us that we had 7 miles to the finish (guess the race really was 68 miles long). As I grazed through the aid station food, my eyes lit up as I saw a blast from my childhood past, Bagel Bites. I hadn’t eaten one of these in nearly 20 years. With only 7 miles to go, I figured it couldn’t hurt. Boy did they taste good.
After consuming at least 7-8 of these little gems, I took my bottle of Coke and water and set off for the final stretch. The next 7 miles were relatively uneventful (no puking or banjo sounds in the woods), and I had a ton of fun re-living old stories with Doug from our high school days. We had 5 miles of road and then a nasty descent down from the top of Amicola Falls to the finish. 17 hours and 11 minutes after I began the Georgia Death Race, I crossed the finish line – alive. Sean handed me my railroad spike for finishing, 30th overall out of 111 finishers. I was happy with how things had played out and was glad Doug and Rebecca were there. They had picked up my rental car from the start (over 2 hours away) and driven it to the finish. I had planned on taking a shuttle bus back to my car and sleeping a few hours in the back before driving back to Memphis, but they drove it back to Atlanta to their house, where I enjoyed a hot shower and a decent night’s sleep in a real bed.
Aside from the puking, I had a great experience at this race. The course was brutal, which I loved. The volunteers were superb. I would highly recommend checking it out. Sean has reportedly found more climbs and added extra vertical for the 2015 version, advertising 40K of total elevation change. Then again, who knows how many miles or how much vertical there really will be. That’s all part of the mystery and allure of the Georgia Death Race.