Sunday, March 15, 2015

Race Report - 2015 Georgia Death Race 68M

The coolest race shirt design I've seen to date.
I had been looking forward to this race for a long time. It was meant to be my first official "training race" as I slowly ramped up my training for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc later this summer. The UTMB is a bucket list race for me, so I wanted to prepare for it like I'd never prepared for a 100 miler before.

The GDR is no picnic, so I actually needed to ramp up my training for this one as well. I had lined up a serious training schedule focusing more on climbing than actual distance. It still required 65-85 mile weeks, but with a lot more elevation gain than usual. I paired up with local ultrarunner stud Rob Youngren to add some serious climbing into my training and I did manage to do a vertical mile training run as well as a self-supported Dismal 50K, a beast of a course with over 12,000ft of gain that Rob came up with a few years ago and that only a couple of folks managed to complete at that time (now there's 3 folks that have done it:-).

After Mountain Mist I ended up getting sick twice, once with a sinus infection and once with the stomach flu. Both times I was unable to training for 5-8 days. Due to these circumstances, I ran Mount Cheaha 50K with very little training. I had a great race (thanks to Tim Pitt and Dink Taylor), but I also paid a price. The technical terrain, specifically the cambered or side-sloped 5 mile section of the race course caused persistent peroneal tendonitis in my left ankle. That took me out of training for yet another 2 weeks of training all the way leading up to GDR.

I was afraid to even try as a previous attempt a week earlier caused the same discomfort after a short 5 mile trail run to the top of Monte Sano. So I waited until Thursday before the race to check if my ankle held up at all. A good friend and sports massage therapist (thanks again Chia-Chi) had been working on my ankle to reduce the inflammation by relaxing the muscle tissue surrounding the ankle tendon and it definitely resulted in improvement.

I went for a short 3 mile road run with a couple of hills to test the ankle. I ran very gingerly, but there was no noticeable discomfort. I decided then to give it a go and to just take the race one mile at a time. Keeping the bigger goal in mind, I decided that I would drop from the race as soon as the pain would appear or increase beyond previous levels. I had no desire to risk further damage, possibly ruining my chance of participating in my goal race later this year.

I decided to take Friday off from work and to follow Paul Morris and Jerry Abbot (my training buddies) from Huntsville, Alabama to Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia. We stopped for a quick lunch before taking on the 3:15 drive to Georgia. I had never been so undertrained and underprepared in my life. I usually know the course pretty well including aid station distances and how the course sections break down in terms of difficulty, i.e. elevation gain, steepness of terrain, etc. I knew none of these things other than it would be 68 miles with +20,000ft of climbing. To make things even more interesting, weather and the Forest Service forced the RD to reverse the course along with other minor course changes to minimize the impact of runners on the trails. Regardless of the validity of these concerns, the RD had to comply and I am simply amazed how Sean, Susan and the rest of the volunteer crew managed to reverse the course, make additional course changes, reassign aid stations and even change the race shirts to reflect the reverse course, all in just a couple of days, wow!!!

However, since I really didn't prepare, it really didn't matter one way or the other. My goal was to try to have fun and run with my friends and training buddies for as long as I could or my ankle would allow me. Paul was kind enough to let me share his room, which he had booked at the original finish line, now the starting line of the race, at the Amicalola Falls State Park lodge. We arrived at the lodge and race headquarters around 5:30PM in time to check in, pick up our race packets and listen to the 6PM pre-race briefing. The room was packet with runners and in general, everyone looked excited and ready to go, with a few scared faces here and there. There were quite a few familiar Huntsville faces at the race, Mike Dehaye, Chad Ayres, Jerry Abbott, Paul Morris, Kevin Mack, David Holliday, along with tons of GUTS runners from the ATL area, too many to name without risking to miss a name or two:-)

Sean provided a rundown of the new course along with some important details regarding the course markers. Let's just say that polkadots were very important. After the briefing, we went for the dinner buffet at the lodge before heading back to the rooms to get our gear ready. I had dropped off one drop bag for the 30 mile aid station with some new shoes, socks, shirt, shorts and a replenishment of gels, just in case. All I ended up actually changing was my shirt, hat and buff. We stuffed our packs with the mandatory gear along with other essential items and spent some time figuring out how to best attach our trekking poles. While trekking poles are not part of the mandatory gear, they do come in handy and I wanted to start training with them for UTMB anyway, so this was the perfect opportunity. The mandatory gear included an emergency whistle, an emergency blanket, a rain jacket, an insulated midlayer top, a headlamp with spare batteries and a minimum of 22 oz water carrying capacity, e.g. two bottles or a bladder minimum. Even with the trekking poles attached, my pack felt pretty light and it never caused any discomfort during the race.

Jerry and I shared a room and around midnight, I finally managed to fall asleep. I wasn't too concerned about getting enough sleep, since the race didn't start until 8AM the next morning. I also learned from previous ultra events that it is important to make sure to get plenty of sleep during race week, since pre-race jitters usually do not allow for much sleep the night before a race. I woke up to my 6AM alarm feeling pretty good.

Paul decided to eat a small breakfast in his room while Jerry and I indulged in the breakfast buffet at the lodge. I had already taken care of my other needs after a quick cup of coffee in my room, so I wouldn't be in a hurry once I sat down for breakfast. I opted for scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, some gravy and a biscuit. I knew I'd burn it during the day to come.

As Paul's friend John drove us down to the race start at the bottom of Amicalola Falls (thanks again, John, for helping all of us), Paul gave us a rundown of what to expect from the course. We decided that we would probably not need our trekking poles until we hit Point Bravo aid station at mile 43, so we could leave them stashed in our packs. The day started as the previous night had ended, with fog and rain, but the forecast promised a clearing of the skies later on in the morning. THAT never happened. We wouldn't catch a single glimpse of any of the surrounding mountains all day and night due to the thick fog and rainy conditions.

We arrived at the race start and checked in again at the pavilion as requested. Surprisingly, two runners had already dropped between picking up their race packets the night before and now. We met up with some of the other Huntsville runners to chat and to take a couple of pics. After a slight delay (the shuttles taking runners from the finish line at Vogel State Park to the race start had either taken a wrong turn or just took longer than expected), the race got underway at 8:10 AM local time. Paul and Jerry had decided a few days earlier that they would try to run together and I decided to join them. David also liked the idea of running in a group, so we all took off together, comfortably running in the back of the pack. Kevin had other plans and took off. We wouldn't see him again until the Point Bravo aid station.

As we made our way up the first couple of climbs including the stairs from the bottom to the top of the Amicalola Falls, I had the chance to chat with a runner from Austria as well as one from Scottland. I would see both of them here and there along the course, as it often happens during long events. Jerry, Paul, David and I quickly settled in a comfortable pace, walking every hill and running the downs and flats. I was feeling great, but always waiting for my ankle to blow up. After a while I forgot about it. The first 50K was pretty uneventful and that was a good thing. It wasn't boring, it just wasn't mind and body crushing...yet.

Spectacular Amicalola Falls, the only sight we saw the entire day because of the fog.
There were a couple of serious climbs, mostly jeep roads and even some asphalt road thrown in. My racing strategy worked out pretty well. Today, it was especially important to run a smart race from the get go. According to the RD, 50% of the total race elevation gain were contained in the final 25 miles of the course, so it was imperative to save some for that part. Then again, we also knew we wouldn't be able to run much at all after mile 43, so we did feel like we needed to "bank" just a little bit of time. Thankfully, that happened quite naturally and we didn't have to push at all to do so. My primary goal today was to finish and to so in under 21 hours, the time allowed to have your finish counted as a Western States qualifier. Upon further number crunching, I felt that 19 hours should be within reach, even with my ankle and abysmal training miles over the last month.

Happy runners unaware of the suck ahead:-)
I did have one "whoa" moment during this time. Apparently, there was a mountain bike race (Southern Cross) utilizing a short section of the same course as we were and as mountain bikers approached us on this jeep road from the opposite direction, one started yelling at me as he was passing us. As I turned around, I realized that it was none other than Dan Burstein, a fellow ultra runner, who'd apparently moved to the darkside...just kidding. I met Dan during one of my earlier ultras and since then, we've met at the Rocky Racoon 100, ran two Georgia Jewel 100s and did a Grand Canyon Double Crossing together. He's a guy I greatly admire. I can't wait to share the trails with him again. It's a small world.

We finally caught up to Kevin Mack about a mile or so before reaching Point Bravo aid station at mile 43. We had been "running" for about 9:30 hours at this point. According to everyone, the race hadn't really started, yet, but was about to. The weather had been dreary all day, fog and rain, sometimes just a light mist, sometimes more, but thankfully, the temps were never too bad as long as one kept moving. At this aid station, we met up with Jerry's wife and kids as well as John, Paul's crew and pacer. Chia-Chi was also there ready to crew (and later pace) Kevin along with another friend of his. I had also seen Aaron Maas on the trail and his crew TJ Pitts was waiting for him to arrive here as well. I'd met those two guys at last year's Stone Mountain 20M Fat Ass event, which has turned into a full 50K for this year (hopefully, my ankle will allow me to participate in this nutty event again next month). To summarize this aid station, everyone was still in great spirits and ready to keep at it.

Huntsville crew at Point Bravo AS, mile 43.
We all refueled, filled up our bottles and took our trekking poles out of our packs to finally put them to use. Sure enough, the next section started with a climb as well. We had already been introduced to the Duncan Ridge Trail and it would continue like this for a while. Suffice it to say that the race has officially started. Running had become a rarity for the remainder of the race. We still had a few hours of daylight to burn, so we kept moving at a steady pace. David sans trekking poles would charge ahead to avoid being stabbed and we would catch up to him every once in a while. In general, we continued to stay together.

The initial climb out of one of the aid stations.
As the daylight grew dimmer, the trails also seemed to deteriorate more and more thanks to continued rain and drizzle. There also seemed to be a complete lack of switchbacks. Everything was either straight up or straight down and as our legs started to grow tired, it only got worse. As the remainder of daylight disappeared around 8PM, we all grabbed our headlamps from our packs, quickly realizing that the fog was much much worse in the dark. It basically rendered our headlamps useless, since the light was reflecting directly off the fog, making it impossible to see anything unless you pointed your light straight at your feet or moved the light to your waist.

At this point, it is worth mentioning that the aid stations and all of their volunteers were simply awesome. My expectations were rather low, since I figured it would be like any other ultra in the middle of nowhere with little or difficult access. Usually, this means minimal fare when it comes to food and drink. Oh, how wrong I was and how thankful I was for being wrong. Every aid station was there to assist runners. My bottles were quickly filled at each and every aid station. They took great care of each runner. At each aid station, multiple volunteer would check on you and make sure you had everything you needed. I don't think I'd ever been so glutenous as I was at this race.

White Oak Stomp aid station at mile 59 was the one I remembered best. Why? Well, for one, Kena and Janette were working it and I consider both of them great friends. Secondly, they had shots of Fireball Whiskey. I think I was the only one at that time actually going for it, but it was fantastic. I was a little chilly hanging around there while stuffing my face and Fireball warmed me up quickly:-) At this point, Paul and I had lost contact with Jerry somewhat. He was struggling with some stomach issues and started to slow down on the hills. We waited for about 10 minutes and then decided to move on to avoid getting any colder. Knowing Jerry, he would perk up quickly and catch up to us eventually.

We had about 8-9 miles left to go and there was still plenty of climbing to do. We had about 1 mile of climbing to the top of Coosa Bald left to do before we would descend for about 5 miles to Wolf Creek water stop before the final 2 mile climb to the finish. The climb to Coosa Bald wasn't that bad, but the descend was an absolute nightmare. My memory is a little fuzzy here. I think I had slipped and fallen earlier during the race, so I was already weary of these steep slippery downhills without switchbacks. During this section, Paul bit the dust (or better mud) pretty hard. In fact, had he not been wearing a pack, he would have busted his head wide open as he was falling backwards onto a huge rock while slipping downhill. Thankfully, he came away with a bruised and scraped arm and a small bump on his head. From this point on, we moved downhill very slowly. We couldn't see and we had no footing. Out trekking poles saved us more than once on some of these sections, acting as stabilizers when our feet wouldn't gain any traction.

It was during this section that Paul dropped my favorite quote of the race: "This mud is as slick as baby $h!t". When we finally reached the bottom of Coosa Bald and arrived at Wold Creek, we knew we only had one climb left to the finish. However, I had no idea of how long it was. I dropped quite a few expletives during this section as I continued to see headlamps up ahead and way above us, again and again and again. When the trails finally leveled out we had reached Vogel State Park. Now we only had to navigate a few short trail sections before being dumped onto the main road and final .25 miles to the finish. Paul, John and I picked up the pace and finished strong. We were both ready to get this thing done and enjoy a cold beverage. As we crossed the finish line, Sean was there to congratulate us and hand us our "death spikes".

Happy finishers!
An amazing 18 hours and 9 minutes had come to an end. David had continued to run strong, finishing about 30 minutes ahead of us, Jerry finished barely 30 minutes behind us and Kevin completed the 100% finisher rate for the Huntsville contingent a short time later.

The "death spike" finisher award and every runner's favorite post race beverage.
I can't wait to see the official results. I have a feeling that there were a lot more finishers this year than in previous years, even though the conditions were extremely had. Lastly, I'd like to thank Run Bum and all of his volunteers for putting on a top notch even, even with all the distractions and changes they had to deal with at the very last minute. Job well done! Will I do this again? Well, I'm not so sure. It was an amazing event, but it is a race you need to prepare for, if you want to keep the "suck level" low;-)

This race is no joke!

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