Thursday, March 21, 2013

Georgia Death Race

Where to begin...

I'm not exactly sure why, but this is the hardest race I've finished.  Hardest course? Not really. if it had been 30-out and 30-back, then definitely, but I think the 38ish miles of road balance out how difficult the first marathon is.  Something about the race was tough.  The heat, the exposure, having to stretch out your stride after grunting up and downhill for 7 hours--they all contribute.  Honestly, the difficulty of this race is synergistic, that's all I can come up with.

I got the idea to run the Georgia Death Race in the fall, after Grindstone, while looking for a new challenge away from the Virginia mountains I've already gotten to know very well.  Plus, I planned to throw my name in the hat for Hardrock, and 60 miles with 15,000 feet of climb seemed to be a pretty good tune-up.

Over the past couple months, my goals for this race shifted around quite a bit.  I went from plans to race it hard to do it as a training run to just trying to make it to the finish line in one piece.  Humorously, I think I failed to actually accomplish any of those goals, but I'm still content with the day.  Not thrilled, not frustrated--content.

The Saturday before GDR held a super fun, arduous 35 mile 'event' to which I could not turn down an invitation.  35 miles one week out--great way to force a taper.  I had been dealing with achilles problems off and on since before Holiday Lake, so when I had a week of cooperation, I had to date it and ended up with 74 miles on that week.

Onward,  my good friend Rudy and I headed down to Hilton Head to relax hard before the Georgia Death Race.  We had both done the event the weekend before and knew we needed serious rest--like sleeping 10+ hours every night.  We spent most of the week laying around reading and dealing with allergies, and I ran a total of 4 miles the 5 days prior to the GDR.

Race day:
Everybody woke up at about 2:45 (awesome), had breakfast, and made our way over to Vogel State Park to get settled before the start.  The course climbs 3000 feet in the first 7 miles, so we just settled in and hiked (rather vigorously) up and up to Coosa Bald, the high point of the course.  All downhill from here!  Rudy and I started together and resolved to stick together for most of the day, as we seem to normally do these days.  It is always nice to have company when you are running most of the day.

The first 20 or so miles of the course fall on the Duncan Ridge Trail, which is known for it's last of switchbacks and general painful nature.  We spent the first 26 miles of the day grunting up super steep climbs and trotting down the backsides of each mountain--the descents were too steep to trust with a full stride.  When we hit the mile 25 (that was mile 27) aid station, and our first drop bags.  I felt like I had just put in 50 miles or more, not 27.  My body was already weary; last week was catching up to me I thought. I checked my watch--8700 ft of gain. Yikes.  At least that made me feel a little better about the state of my legs. Two ibuprofen, a bottle of coke, a gel restock, and I'm good to go.  A few miles later I had forgotten about how bad I felt there, enjoying the caffeine and company of Shaun Pope and Rudy (when he felt up to talking--rough days all around).  From here through mile 40 or so, the miles ticked off the way they usually do in an ultra, except no one felt good.  This is the one stretch aside from the first 15 or so miles where I did not feel bad. I did not feel good, but I wasn't miserable for a little while.

Then, after a quick left at an open field and another aid station, we hit some very long, dusty service roads right in the heat of the day.  Living in Blacksburg, I am used to cold, and not much else until summer.  We had 10 days last month with the wind chill below 20 degrees.  Being exposed in 80 degree heat is not much fun. Rudy and I actually sat down in a creek at one point just to cool down.  That rejuvenated us for a little while, and we made decent progress to the next aid station.  I should note that with how bad we felt, no one actually passed us through all of this, and we actually passed a couple people too.  Rough days all around.

Mile 40 (that is actually Mile 44) holds the second drop bags.  More food, more water (lots of water) and I was out of the aid station quickly, leaving Rudy to change his shoes and socks (something I seriously should have planned to do).  Soon after, I realized we were on the 6 mile descent that is distinct on the elevation profile. I leaned forward, stretched out my legs, and hoped that if I forced some more actual running, I would feel better.  Well, that was a bad idea. About two miles down, Rudy came flying by, seeming completely revived.  I tried to match him, and did not hold on for very long.  Then, everything came crumbling down and so began the true grind. For the next 18 miles.  I resolved to jogging downhill, walking (not hiking) the (pretty small) uphills, and forcing as many calories down as I could.

I came into the mile 51 aid station thoroughly worked, and took a little time to stock up on calories before walking out. Back at mile 27, I tried emptying debris from my left shoe to no luck--I thought it must have been in my sock.  Oh well, I never get blisters.  Oh how things change.  My left foot was starting to hurt more now, and I took a couple more ibuprofen that did absolutely nothing--or if they did, I worry about how I would have felt otherwise. Here to the finish line, everything became about grunting forward.  I managed to force a run for the next 3 miles or so, although it probably wasn't much better than walking. Then I hit the final climb.  Thankfully, Jon Barker, a local and former British adventure racer extraordinaire, caught back up to me.  We had spent some early miles together, and were both very glad for the company these last 10 miles.  I'm not sure how much worse my race would have ended without him sticking by me.  We ran for a bit, walked for a bit, and made good progress up the climb.   The mountains in Georgia are distinct enough that we could spot the gap where the aid station was located from several miles away, giving us a landmark to check ourselves with.  He stopped to call his wife at the aid station, and I waited, wanting company more than much anything else. 6 miles (actually 7 miles) to go.  We made reasonable progress the next several miles, and I could actually "run" downhill so long as my left foot never stepped on a rock--which is pretty hard to do on jeep road.  Jon lives near the finish line, and knows the area very well, so we always had a good idea of how close we were from coming into Amicalola Falls, the finish area.  The course was rerouted "due to traffic" the last couple miles, sending use down some gnarly single track as opposed to the paved road. Another nail in the coffin.  I did my best do just maintain a running cadence, and even that was difficult.  When the buildings at the bottom of the falls came into view, I lost it.  I basically hiked the rest of the way down, about a mile, swinging my arms as furiously as I could trying to build some momentum.  I trotted across the finish line and collapsed in a chair, as spent as I've ever been.

No race has ever hurt so much, or felt so rewarding to me.  Grindstone in 2012, maybe, but that was a different kind of reward--one of months of preparation and perfect execution.  March 16 in Georgia, however, I learned how much I can really suffer, and apparently I can suffer quite a bit.  Being able to force 40 miles and grind for 6+ hours is reassuring with more than one 100 miler on the calendar this year.  When I collapsed into that chair at the finish line, I knew I had worked my ass off for the finish.  A few days later, my legs are feeling normal again, the heat rash is gone, trench foot fully dried, blisters treated, and I can walk normally for the first time in days.  You'd think this would have fried me more than it did, but I am actually excited for Terrapin Mountain, now only three days away!

VT Ultra had a perfect finish rate for our 5 entrants, which is awesome.  From everyone I've talked to, people suffered throughout the whole field; it is nice to know I wasn't alone.

The numbers:
65 miles
13,800' gain
14,800' descent
14 hours 37 minutes
9th place!
lots of suffering

Post-run Feet--much nicer in the photo

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