I caught an evening flight into Memphis to spend a few days with family before flying to Atlanta for the Georgia Death Race in the mountains of northern Georgia. Before I leave I call to confirm my reservations at the lodge at Amicalola Fall State Park, where packet pickup is on Friday and the race will end sometime around midnight on Saturday. I chose to stay here so I wouldn’t have to drive anywhere post race and wouldn’t need to move my car, choosing instead to catch the 3:30AM shuttle over to the race start at Vogel State Park at 6AM. After a short layover in Houston, I arrive in Memphis to find my bags soaking wet from the rain.
I didn’t set an alarm and slept in for the first time in a long time. It felt great. My parents and I went to breakfast (breakfast is hands down my favorite meal) and then ran some errands with my sister. I received an email from the RD letting us know a big announcement was forthcoming later that evening. Not thinking much about it, I visited with my sister and then had dinner with more family. After dinner I checked my messages and saw the announcement. Due to issues with the Forest Service (heavy rain in the forecast was creating concern over potential trail damage), the race would now be run in the opposite direction and start at 8AM instead of 6. This may sound like an fairly insignificant change, but it meant the race would now begin with 50K of forest service roads, with lots of climbing but still pretty runnable. The big change would be the finish, which would consist of 35(ish) miles of super steep and gnarly singletrack. Instead of getting this section (half of which is run on the infamous Duncan Ridge Trail) done early in the race while the legs are still fresh, we would tackle it at night on tired quads. Over 60% of the elevation change (roughly 25,000’ of the 40k total) would occur in the last 25 miles. Also, since we would now start at Vogel and finish at Amicalola, they would be busing us from Vogel over to the start. So, I could keep my room at the lodge and sleep in, or I could get a room closer to the finish so I would have my car there. The later start meant more time running at night and a later finish, thus less sleep post race. I quickly searched around a found a small cottage located inside Vogel State Park, about 100 yards from where I would finish. This would be perfect! I booked this and canceled my reservations at Amicalola.
(Nothing Beats A Good Breakfast)
I slept in again and felt great when I woke up. Well, great except for the horrible chest cold and cough I had. With the course now reversing directions, I had to re-work my drop bags and pacing chart. The more I thought about it, the more I got excited about the new challenge, which the RD promised would be much harder than the originally planned direction that I completed last year. I spent much of the day visiting with family and relaxing, even managing to squeeze a little work and a nice 6 mile run.
(Hanging With My Niece Hannah)
(See the Resemblance)
Awakening to rain for the 3rd straight morning was getting old, and when I checked the forecast for the race I saw that I could expect more of the same. Of course, my last 4 races had been run in sloppy rain and mud, so this shouldn’t have been surprising. I stuffed myself with some good Memphis BBQ (pork, the way it should be) and then headed to the airport to catch my flight to Atlanta. Luckily for me, I connected through Baltimore (sarcasm intended). I could have driven to Atlanta in less time. After 2 uneventful flights, I arrived in Atlanta, picked up my rental car (was mistakenly given a Jeep Wrangler), and drove to a high school friend’s house to grab a few hours of sleep.
(My Buddy Lance Guarding My Door in Atlanta)
After a restless night, I awoke (tired) and visited with Doug, a good friend from high school who paced me last year at the GDR and ran a 50K with me in these same mountains last December (where it poured rain and was incredibly muddy). After spending the morning with Doug and his wife and kids, I headed to meet 2 friends from college for lunch. Scott, Walt, and myself had graduated together and played basketball at Washington & Lee, where we were the only 3 seniors from our class that played all 4 years (11 started together as freshmen). I hadn’t seen them in several years, so we had plenty to talk about. After lunch I stopped in to a growler store to sample some local brew. The keg ran out as he was filling my growler, so he gave me the imperial porter for free. This had to be a good sign of things to come.
After making the hour and a half drive north into the Georgia mountains, I arrived at Amicalola State Park for packet pickup and the race briefing. Like many European races, the GDR requires runners to carry a number of mandatory items at all times throughout the race, ranging from a rain jacket and thermal top to headlamp and space blanket (plus spare batteries, water bottle, warm hat, and whistle). For the most part, I deem these items as “things no idiot would go into a mountain race without”, but some people show up totally unprepared for the changing weather the mountains like to dish out. The RD runs quite a few races in Europe (I met him at a 100K around the Eiger), and it is typical of Euro races to require certain gear. I picked up my bib and sat through the trail briefing from RD Sean “Run Bum” Blanton. The briefing can best be described as a PG-13 rant against the Forest Service. He explained why he needed to reverse the route (totally justified in my opinion) and apologized for any inconvenience. He also stressed that the word of the day (I learned this when I ran the race last year) would be “ish”. As in, it is 8ish miles from one aid station to another. The race would be anywhere from 63 to 68 “ish” miles and no one should complain if their Garmin said something different.
After the briefing, I quickly made my way to the car, wanting to complete as much of the hour plus drive to Vogel State Park (where my cottage awaited) in the fading daylight. I knew the road was winding and would fill with fog and rain, so I wanted to get going. Sure enough, the rain came down harder and the fog thickened as I wound my way up to the top of the mountain and over the other side towards Vogel. I was going 20mph at times in an effort to keep my Wrangler on the road. Eventually I pulled into Vogel and went to the office to grab my key. I had called earlier in the day to let them know I’d be there well after they closed. I was told it was no problem, that they would leave an envelope on the board with all my info and key. I scanned the bulletin board for my name, but it wasn’t there. Hmmmm, this is weird. I looked again, and nothing. I knew which cottage I had rented, so I walked into the pitch black night to find it. I quickly located it and checked the door – locked. The windows were locked too. This wasn’t good. I went back to my car to see if I could muster any cell signal. I had just enough to find the reservations number and call. All I got was a recording telling me they were closed for the day. I opened the email containing my reservation and noticed that I had indeed booked the cottage for Friday and Saturday nights --- of the following week. Awesome. Now I was sitting in the parking lot in the rain with no room. I knew there were hotels (not many and none that were decent) in the small town of Blairsville 20 minutes away. I remembered passing the Blood Mountain Cabins at the top of the mountain a few miles away and thought it would be worth giving them a call. The man who answered informed me that he could help me out and had a cabin available, but that it was a few miles down the road. No problem, I just needed a place to stay. I headed back up the mountain into the fog and knocked on the door at the general store that served as the front desk for cabin rentals. The man gave me a map and explained where my cabin was. He even apologized for not having anything smaller, but I wasn’t complaining since I now had a bed to sleep in and the price was cheaper than a hotel room. I drove back up the road and turned off the main highway. To say this area was desolate would be an understatement. I’m pretty sure this is where the guys from Deliverance go to unwind and relax. After several wrong turns, I found the cabin and pulled into the driveway, careful to keep my car running with the headlights on in case I needed to make a quick getaway from a bear or these guys...
The cabin was great, equipped with a fireplace and full kitchen to go along with the 3 bedrooms. I unloaded and re-packed my race gear and settled in for a few hours of restless sleep. I got up and drove back down the mountain to Vogel to catch the 6AM shuttle (Sean told us the buses would leave at 6 sharp). I got on the bus at 5:55 along with several other runners. The rain was coming down, and we chatted about the adventure that lay ahead. When the bus was still parked at 6:15, the bus driver told us he was waiting for the RD to come give him the ok to depart. That would have been great, except the RD was at the start, over an hours drive away. We ended up leaving just after 6:30 and made the long (we were in school buses) drive over the mountains to Amicalola, where Sean informed us the start would be delayed. Great, this meant more time running in the dark of night and less sleep post race. Oh well. I made one final bathroom stop and said hi to Jason Bryant. At 8:15, we headed off up the road to the stairs that would take us to the top of the falls.