Friday, March 22, 2013

Georgia Death Race Postmortem

Inaugural races can often be dicey. Throw in the word "death" in the race name and a first time race director that prefers to be called "Run Bum", this race had every reason to be a complete disaster. There were bumps, big steep bumps, but the race was anything but a disaster and in fact a rather challenging and wonderful experience.

I had run the Duncan Ridge 50k a few months before the Georgia Death Race, and since the first 15 miles were practically identical, I knew a little about what I was in for and I knew it would not be easy. The Duncan Ridge Trail (DRT) is known for being steep and punishing. Whoever carved this trail into the North Georgia Mountains did not believe in switchbacks. The trail is rarely flat; either up or down.

This time around I opted to camp out in Vogel State Park the night before the race. The weather was mild and the facilities at the park are so nice this seemed like a good idea. After an uneventful pre-race meeting and a relatively good night's sleep I woke up at 3am and prepared for the race start. I don't normally run with a hydration pack, but since this race required runners to haul thermal tops, jackets, blankets and other gear, I decided to jam all of that into my hydration pack. I knew I would likely need very little of it, but remembering that this was Run Bum's first race as RD, I was prepared for anything.

At the start Run Bum gave a short speech. He advised that we would have both the best of times and the worst of times. He was right. Moments later we were off through the campsites to the Coosa Backpack Trail. This trail winds out of Vogel State Park before descending down to the bottom of Coosa Bald. Once you cross a few bridges your legs get a rude introduction of what is to come. I've heard it is about three miles up to the top of Coosa Bald. Luckily this is not the Duncan Ridge Trail so there are at least switchbacks to take you to the top.

This race started at 4am so everyone could be up on the ridge for sunrise. Some people do not like running in the dark, but I am not one of those people so I really enjoyed the first few hours of this race. On the descent from Coosa Bald I rolled into the first aid station. After a quick water refill and a handful of something sugary, I was off into the dark. You can see other runners ahead and behind you very easily as headlamps bob up and down along the ridge. We plunge into a valley along a real muddy and tricky trail. I almost slide off the trail and down the side of the ridge. How far would I have fallen? Death race, yeah, I get it.

This part of the race was brutal. So steep both up and down and it surely punished the legs in every way possible. The race continued to wind along the ridge in the dark as we made our way to the second aid station. I was cognizant to get some calories early since I knew it could be a long day, but I did not want to spend a long time in any aid station. As we left the volunteers told us to be sure and turn right in six miles when we hit the Benton Mackaye Trail.

Shortly after leaving the aid station, the sun would rise. I timed it almost perfectly as I peaked a steep climb the sun lit up the sky with orange and yellow. It was worth taking 30 seconds to stop and look around at the beautiful sight. Despite the pain on my throbbing calves and hamstrings, there was no place I'd rather be at that moment.

Along this part of the race that the Run Bum got mean.  Posted along the steep climbs of the DRT were signs taunting runners. One said that we were almost done with the climbing. Twenty yards later a second sign said, just kidding you aren't even close. That definitely stopped me in my tracks for a moment to catch my breath and contemplate exactly what I had gotten myself into today. 

The next aid station was at mile 21 and at this point I was in need of it. I start to think it cannot be a good thing to feel this bad just a third of a way into the race. Thoughts of dropping out of the race creep into my head but as I have no cell phone I know coordinating a DNF will be difficult and that puts that idea to rest. The trail drops for at least a mile into the third aid station where I loaded up on Mountain Lighting which I am told is super legit. It worked.

Once back onto the Benton Mackaye trail things got a little better. This part of the trail was more runnable and I did just that. Just a few miles into this section I was feeling much better and I was at the next aid station in no time. I had no drop bag waiting for me so I quickly filled up my water, joked with some volunteers, and departed onto a jeep road. I hate jeep roads, but this was runnable and a nice change of pace for me since it wasn't straight up or down.

At this point I started thinking big picture. I had thrown out some time estimates of 15-17 hours to my friends and that math seemed to be holding up. Could I go faster though? The temperatures were rising and I needed to be aware of my salt intake, especially as I began to push the pace in hopes of turning in a fast time. A quick stop at a small aid station gave warning of a long a brutal stretch ahead. It would be the last real single track and it would give us a lot of climbing.

It was supposed to be seven miles. It wasn't. We did; however, cover some gorgeous trail and some incredible overlooks along this stretch of the Benton Mackaye Trail. After what seemed like hours of up and down you keep expecting to come down a ridge into the next oasis of an aid station. Every downhill seemed to be meet with a opposite uphill. Eventually, I snapped. Sitting on a tree just 20 feet into a climb two runners come by to ask if I was okay. We exchange curse words about the lack of an aid station. Finally, a third runner suggests that it must be just over this next climb. I begin to drag myself up the climb again. Not much further up the road is a creek. I stop and lay down in it. I was overheating and in a bad way.

The optimistic runner was right. Just up the climb was an open field with enough pink polka dotted markings to signal a 747. I grabbed a piece and made a headband. It was humorous to me and I needed that. Previous runners had given word that #102 (me) was in trouble so the volunteers were very attentive to me when I finally arrived at the aid station. The consensus was that we were really about 38 miles into the race, but officially this was the mile 35 aid station. I wanted to stop, I wanted to drop. I told a wonderful young lady that I wanted to DNF, but I wasn't going to so instead I would sit down in a chair until I felt like running again. Several cups of ginger ale, some pretzels, and cookie, and salt pills later I was ready to leave. It was probably 15 minutes and it was exactly what I needed. 

I took this next part easy. I walked for the first couple miles but eventually felt good enough to run again. It started as mostly just the downhills, but eventually I was running the flats, too. From here on the race would be on all forest service roads. Luckily, these roads were all well maintained so while it was boring, it was easy running.

My spirits were high at the next aid station and being told the next seven miles were downhill only lifted those spirits higher. I ran almost this entire section and made great time. I was sweating and my stomach felt uneasy, but the legs felt great so I ran hard.

The aid stations and roads all kind of blend together from here on. I know at one point I got to eat bacon. I know at one point I wanted to stop and shit, but all the forest was burnt by a fire so there was none of nature's TP. I know we ran on a paved road for awhile and I passed horses and cows and goats. I know I thought about stealing and riding one of those horses. Even the horse may have broken down on the uphill forest service road that was just ahead.

The only thing I hate more than a jeep road, is a jeep road that goes uphill for miles and miles. That is what I found here. Combine a stomach  that was puking up a weird dark purple substance and shitting something worse. Those two things are not a recipe for fast running, but I kept moving. I took at the map at one point so I could try and figure how much further this climb might be. Either it was not possible to tell, or I was too messed up to effectively read it. I almost used the map to wipe my ass, but opted to put it back in my pocket instead.

After more sign taunting by the Run Bum, I finally reached the aid station. The gentleman there told me it was 6 miles to the finish, but that it was mostly down hill. After a quick swig of Mellow Yellow I took off after the final little climb. It was just about a half mile or so up the mountain before we hit a nice service road that went right down into Amicalola Falls State Park. The road was easy to run, but the faster I ran, the more I needed to shit. It was a balancing act that my shorts were praying I pulled off without incident.

When you get close to the finish you start to see people. Campers, hikers, cars, all of it starts to show up more regularly. This helps you push through the discomfort. I ran into the State Park and was looking for the finish. Where was everyone? I saw no sign of actual human beings. Eventually the pink polka dotted markers led me to a step rocky downhill and then a rooty single track with switchback after switchback. I bombed this part using trees to help navigate the tight switchback turns. Eventually I hear people and by then the trail dumps out onto a nice paved path with a simple but glorious finish line just a few yards away. I crossed in 15:54:43 and immediately plopped down in a chair. People wanted to give me food and drink, but all I wanted was a shitter and some real toilet paper.

The Georgia Death Race is hard. I mostly loved it and will certainly put it on my calendar for next year. No race is ever organized and put on perfectly, but for the inaugural running of this race Sean Cien Fuegosthechisel Run Bum Blanton and his team deserve a lot of props. I can't wait to see what he and the crew do to make this race even better and tougher next year.