[ r a c e p r e f a c e ]
We signed up promptly, as soon as race registration opened. The calendars were marked — this was one we were not going to miss. Then came the foresight [or lack thereof] that we were going to have to train through the winter to race this early spring ultra. Brr…thank you, New England [for perfect weather conditions]. And, then opportunity presented itself, and we bought a house in Maine. I moved in, Jesse continued obligations in Rhode Island, and “visited” on the weekend. And so you have it, most of training season was spent apart. Put these conditions together, they were less than ideal for a 68 mile D E A T H race, but we were determined to make it work.
And, we did. But, I won’t spoil the story yet.
The numbers are probably enough to make any rational person say, “no way.” But, let’s put rational aside, and introduce crazy. And, take on crazy. Crazy comprised of 68 [more like 70+] miles and 40,000 feet of elevation [and…600 steps].
Let’s make one thing clear about the ultra world. The things that you always expect to go wrong never do and the things you think you have all figured out, are the things that love to turn on you.
I’ll give you the short version recap first, I don’t want to bore you with all of the details, but I do have a good story to tell. And, if you want to read ALL the details, I welcome you to read that version too. [And, Jesse’s version is coming…read that too!].
[ r a c e day ]
Let’s divide the race into two parts – the first 50ish and the last 18+.
Race day morning came at the sound of a 3:30 AM alarm. The rain held off, the temperatures were cool, but not too cool and an hour and a half after the alarm went off, we packed ourselves onto a school bus, bagel and peanut butter in hand, to take an hour plus ride through the mountains to the starting location [Vogel State Park]. Based on race preparation, we knew that the most significant climbing would come from the first part of the course and if you didn’t die by the time you hit mile 40 or so, you could really start to push yourself.
[race day rule – never trust the expected]
After a dark and winding road bus ride, we arrived at Vogel to pick up our coveted railroad spikes, take bathroom breaks [in an overflowing bathroom – yuck!], readjust our packs, wish luck and smiles and catch a glimpse of the director who relished the fact that his course is/was pure torture [as he should].
After some inspiring pre race talk [Sean, you are an incredible human], the clock struck 8:00 AM and we were off. By off, I mean a conservative start– we still had 70 miles to go. And, unless we developed legs of Andrew Miller [the 19 year old star taking 1st place, two years in a row], we would not be finishing in daylight, which only meant one thing – a long, challenging and AMAZING day ahead.
The first marathon [28 miles, Point Bravo] went by. The miles were beautiful, they challenged [in every good way]. There were winding trails, big climbs and manageable descents. We spent time talking, videoing, snapping a few shots, soaking it all in, and enjoying. We were moving, on track for a very successful finish, and I was instantly in love with the course [my best guess is, Jesse was feeling the same way]. It was a feeling of being on top of the world – it looked that way too.
Following Point Bravo [the best aid station, hands down], we finished the climb of the one and only out and back and hit some incredible winding switchbacks for some easy trail running along the ridgeline. The sun came out, the rain came, and our hearts kept telling our feet to run. My broken pack was rigged together and holding up well, especially with my makeshift third pack strap [thank you aid station one for that bunjee cord]. Race space started to even out and we had most of the woods to ourselves.
Miles 28 – 41 [I think it was 41, our GPS was reading 37]. Still beautiful, still on top of the world. Still eating [pickles, potato chips, PB&J included]. Still smelling of menthal [thank you Tiger Balm]. Still smiling. Still climbing like champions.
Night would be falling in a couple of hours and it was time to move. One foot in front of the other, over and over AND over again until we arrived at Mile 41. At Mile 41 we were greeted with the best volunteers – bottles were filled, jackets were put on, headlamps came out. Here is the point in any ultra that really starts to test you, running in the dark. [But no worries dark woods, we brought multiple headlamps AND extra batteries this time – so take that. For those of you who may not have heard this story yet, Jesse and I finished a 16 mile loop of an 88k last year, in a thunderstorm, with ONE headlamp…lessons learned..].
Leaving Mile 41, we were told that we were about to hit 9 miles [I think, the distances start to blend together…] of fire roads. Downhill fire roads. PIECE OF CAKE right….? Remember what I told you before – never trust the expected.
Potato [thank you, Cracker Barrel] in one hand, chips in the other [the things you eat to get through this type of race], we took off down the “piece of cake roads.” Slow and steady. This is where the last video of the race comes in – Jesse’s last words tell it all – “actually, my feet are on fire..” So we ran a little, walked a little, felt every single piece of sharp, pointy rocky, gravel, down and down and down the neverending roads. Friends passed as we were running out and said we will see you in less than 10 minutes [truth be told, we never saw them again]. Run a little, walk a little, hurt a lot. That’s pretty much the way it went all the way until mile 50.
* * *
Here is where the story gets good, the last 18.
The last 18 miles [enough to induce some PTSD as I write this]. Enough to make me question the order of events. Enough to make me question why I can’t wait to go back and do this again.
This is where it became very clear to me that we were going to have to fight for the finish line. And, we would fight. It was a low point, no doubt about it. Jesse was in a world of hurt I wasn’t too far behind him, but I was holding my own. Those burning feet, yes, the burning was very real [when he finally took his shoes off, he found out why]. And, this is where I had to take control of the situation – all of those alone time training miles, here is where they started to pay off. Here is where I fought back every low thought, every tear and made up my mind to put my head and heart behind us and go.
Quick side story: I always rely on Jesse to get me through these things. He is always the one that seems to hold it together a little bit better. He is he one with the strongest mindset. He is the one a couple steps in front of me. He is the one with the tough love, you’ve got this support. Let’s not discredit his ability during this race, he was achieving amazing things, but for the first time EVER, I was better off and I was going to have to put every ounce of heart into this to lead us through to the end.
So with bottles filled, and, two Snickers bars stuffed into my pocket, we said bye to mile 50 and within minutes…hello to a world of hurt, hell, why do you do this thoughts…?
It was some dirt road, paved road, middle of nowhere traveling for a couple of miles. As Sean put it, this was where the country folk lived. It was dead quiet, and pretty freakin’ erie. Now, we had traded in the shuffle run, for a walk-run-hate myself kind of pattern. Somewhere along this road was the last time I asked, “Do you think we could run a little…?” The answer was a pain-plagued, “NO”. And, that is when I really knew, nothing was working. This was never going to get easier. This was going to be a world of hurt. Georgia Death Race was going to be an all out fight [and, we were going to win].
I have a hard time putting words on paper to describe these 9 miles. But, I’ll try. They were slow, painfully SLOW [figuratively and literally], watch the time on your watch, slow. 3 miles an hour, at best, slow. They were cold, FREEZING cold, as we made our way up the neverending, completely exposed mountain ridge. Did I mention neverending? Here is where visions of curling up on the side of mountain in my medical blanket came into play [Sean said, “don’t do this” — I thought for a couple of seconds, I just might]. Here is where thoughts of having to explain why I didn’t finish the race crossed my mind. Here is where I felt 99% positive that we might have to DNF at the next aid station – a mere [HA!] 9 miles from the finish line.
So, thoughts racing, body aching, teeth chattering, we continued on. I listened closely to hear the footsteps I always rely on right behind me. I rarely looked back. I kept my head forward, focusing on getting us to the next aid station and fire.
Can I tell you just how many times I mistakenly identified the moon as a light or fire or almost there calling that night?
But, as you know, lowest of lows, don’t have to stop you. We made our way into the final aid station, and went straight to the fire, meeting up with some fellow racers, who knew the world of hurt all too well too. This is the first time I sat down the entire race. I had to warm up and I had to get us going again. Looking at Jesse, shivering in front of the fire, I knew exactly what he was thinking. And, I knew we couldn’t stay here long. Another body warmer ripped open, some food in our mouths, I looked at Jesse, and he knew we had to go.
[JUST] 9 more miles.
We took off. By took off, I mean hobbled away, and got moving again. SLOW, but moving and moving forward. That’s all that mattered. The teeth chattering continued, the hurt continued, the low continued. But, I knew we could make it, behind schedule, much slower than anticipated, but we were going to make it. NO MATTER WHAT.
We continued up the ridge for awhile [time no longer mattered]. Hit some rolling hills. Hit some downhill. Hit some of the course that all seems to blur together at this point. Mistakenly identified the moon as a light, or finish line, or the Lodge a few more times. Watched friends travel by on their own ultra running adventure. Listened to friends stumble along behind us. Wrapped myself in my medical blanket. Fought back the tears. Reminded myself of my why, relied on all my sources of motivation. Looked at that thoughtful reminder on my wrist so many times. Rambled some positive words and I love yous – over and over and over again. Put one foot in front of the other and watched for that pink polka dotted tape.
The miles crept by. But they crept. And, finally I saw the sign for Amicalola. It was really a sign signifying that we were not almost there. We knew what was to come, we knew we would pass by the finish line to endure a few more miles of suck. But, friends, we were there. We were back in the same area we woke up circa 3:30 AM. I have no idea what time it was at this point – but, I was certain the sun would start to rise before we made it to that finish [I was right..].
Into the park. Pass the finish line in the distance. Up the trail to the falls, to 600 STRENUOUS steps [karma friends – that’s what you get for making fun of the sign the day before…], holding the railing, one step at a time, up and up and up. At this point, the only problem I saw with this up, was that it was only a matter of time before we had to come back down – and down, well down, is pretty much a reminder that, “you are going to die” may come true.
I can’t quite place an order on the events inside the park [this seems to be a common theme during the last 18]. But, there was a gravel trail [WTF – and, mark my word, I do not swear, ever!], a brutal road best taken backwards or sideways, holding on to the guardrail at all times, and then the LONGEST trail ever – the one that repeatedly switchbacked it’s way down the mountain to the finish line. This trail would probably be a lot of fun IF your legs were working and you had not just completed 68 miles.
But, this trail, at 68 miles was miserable. MIIIISSSERRRABBBLLLE.
The steps, let’s talk about the steps. Unless you are a giant, they are oversized, a huge fall-on-your-face drop down and so far apart that you are forced to baby step between and hold on to the trees for dear life.
As the sun was starting to rise, we finally [emphasis needed] made it to the end. Surprise, the bridge was carefully marked off with tape [pink polka dot tape] and the river was wide open. And, I marched through, proclaiming, “I don’t even care if I fall”, wearing a smile, my medical blanket and some really smelly Lulu. Best dressed ultra runners with a few tears to be displayed [by me, not Jesse], we checked in, were greeted by Sean and traded in our spikes for those engraved spikes. [that will be carefully displayed in our home office as a reminder that anything is possible].
23 hours after we began, we were back at Amicalola. We had made it through. Nothing else mattered anymore. Every single one of those miles became love. A picture, a hug and a kiss, and just like that, the race was over. We stumbled our way over to the must disgusting smelling shelter [ultra runners smell amazing!] and couldn’t have been happier.
It’s always more than sore legs friends, and this race may be over, but it was life changing.
Mishaps and all, I wouldn’t take the experience any other way. We ran together, we ran with no pressure, we ran with smiles and heart and we ran further together than we have in a very long time. It was an amazing race, an amazing adventure and a start of a tradition. [Yes, this means our legs have healed and we are going back.]
So thank you, Sean, for orchestrating this race. Thank you amazing volunteers for helping us get through it. Thank you fellow racers for all the words of encouragement and shared enthusiasm for embracing the suck. Thank you Jesse for making birthday wishes come true, believing in me and supporting all of the crazy.
You’ll see us back in Georgia – with smiles, lessons learned and a well broken in pair of shoes.
This is my favorite part of ultra running. We all make mistakes, there is always the unexpected, and we know we can learn…
Love your shoes and socks. Do not wear new shoes on race day. Maybe even invest in those moon shoes…
Never think your gear is going to carry you through. Think back to mile 10 and the pack that came flying apart.
When the RD says, “you are going to die…” – he may sincerely mean it. You may whole-heartedly believe it for a little while too.
Maaayyybbbe, just maybe, I can’t fuel for these ultras and not expect a bathroom break. Bring tissues, leaves are never the answer.
I have the most amazing life adventure partner in the world [I already knew this, but it’s an important lesson – not everyone can experience these feats together].
Thanks for sharing this adventure with me [really, us]. Thanks for always supporting. Thanks for being a channeled source of motivation on the last, freezing cold, mountain climb.
Unitl the next adventure [88k in Vermont..my favorite race], XO. -C