Sunday, March 17, 2013

Georgia Death Race - March 16, 2013

Progress. That is the best word I can use for how the weekend went at the Georgia Death Race. I didn't set any personal records, or post a top-10 finish, or anything else spectacular. But I had a really good race and satisfying result. It was real progress towards accomplishing the things I want to do as a runner.

Last year, I beat myself up running a handful of hundreds, three of them on very difficult courses; Massanutten, Black Hills, and Pinhoti. I've grown to love the mountainous courses with lots of true single track running. For me, nothing compares with running in the middle of nowhere, winding up and down slopes through various habitats and climes. But training in flat Florida has left me ill-prepared for the heart-thumping climbs and quad-shattering descents these races present. They leave me battered and bruised, and crawling in for slow, dispiriting finishes.

For 2013, I resolved to run easier races. But then I saw the posting for the inaugural Georgia Death Race, a 60 mile jaunt through the mountains north of Atlanta, with 30,000 feet of elevation change. My plan was to take the family to our house in the mountains of western North Carolina for Spring break and get one good week of hill training in before the race.

Georgia Death Race

I also started lifting weights with my legs for the first time in nearly a decade. I have been reluctant to do any leg training in the gym for fear of damaging my knees with too much weight. But I had to try something different if I was going to keep signing up for tough courses. Over the past several months, I've worked my way up to 10 sets of really light weights, but lots of reps (25-35) per set. I've done a mixture of deep squats, hack squats, legs extensions and calf raises; all trying to build strength for steep ascents and descents.

Two weeks ago I ran the Long Play 33 1/3 mile race at Croom and ran surprisingly well. There aren't a lot of hills on that course, but my legs felt strong throughout and I was almost an hour faster than I had anticipated. I kept up with the leg workouts and came into the Death Race feeling like I had a chance to perform better.

After convincing Sandra that running the "Death Race" did not mean I need to sign a new Will before leaving, Greg Vannette and I headed north Friday morning. Other than getting stuck on a mountain road for an hour while the police investigated a fatal motorcycle accident, the commute and pre-race preparations went well. Dahlonega, GA is a cute mountain town with a real outdoor sports bent and a number of nice restaurants (we took a chance and ate Mexican).

The race director, Sean Blanton was engaging and definitely had put a lot of work into preparing, including marking the entire course himself.  Sean's briefing was amusing as he went through a list of do's and don'ts, or "You could die out there." We were required to carry a headlamp, thermal top, gloves, thermal hat, rain jacket, space blanket, and emergency whistle at all times during the race. You could not check in if you didn't have everything on the list. If you were caught on the course without those things, you would be DQ'd. I had bought a new Camelbak, removed the bladder, and carried the required race articles in there. I also wore my Nathan belt for my water bottles and normal race stuff conveniently at hand without being on my back. I was a little worried about the extra weight, but it worked out well; I was comfortable all day.

The race starts at Vogel State Park in the parking lot. The 4:00 AM race time temps were a surprisingly balmy 55 degrees, albeit windy, so it still felt chilly. After a half-mile climb on pavement, the race turned onto single track with a long, rocky, and often wet 3 mile downhill. On at least a dozen occasions, we had to leap across narrow streams of water. From there we started a long series of climbs up to Coosa Bald punctuated by brief descents to Locust Stake Gap, Calf Stomp Gap, and Bull Gap.

It was here I began to understand the cruelty of this course. Apparently, the trail blazers here years ago had no understanding or respect for the wisdom of switchbacks. Switchbacks usually mean you are on a steep grueling climb, but the back and forth across the mountain face reduces the rate of ascent to something less than soul-sucking. Not here. These bastards ran the trail straight up. Spring foliage is not out yet, so you can see quite a distance through the trees. At times, I would look ahead and see runners 1/4 mile or more up the trail, bent over, holding their knees; and know I had 10-20 more minutes left in the climb. Even with temps dipping into the low 30s on the windy side of the ridge line, I had sweat pouring off of me as my heart tried to leap out of my chest. But my legs were surprisingly strong and I resolved to keep my feet moving forward, no matter how slowly.

Somewhere in here, I passed Michelle Matys on a climb who looked liked she was doing well. But I did not see her again during the race. After climbing Coosa Bald, Whiteoak Stomp, Buckeye Knob and Buck Knob in quick succession, we dropped into Mulky Gap and a crewed aid station at mile 12.5. Just before we got there, I heard the local runners behind me comment we had just finished mile 13 and only had 51 left. Wait a minute. I thought this was a 60 mile race, not 64?  My Garmin registered 13.3 as I came into the aid station and refueled with Greg.   I told him my pace was going to be closer to 18 hours, not the 16 hour stretch goal I had been hoping for, this course was just too difficult.

The aid station volunteer, as well as another runner told me the next 8 mile stretch was the toughest on the course. I resolved to stay smart, and not over press, regardless of what it meant to my time. The crowd had thinned out, so I put on my iPod and lost myself in the music most of the rest of the day. And this section was as tough as advertised. We climbed Akin Mountain, then Clements Mountain, Fish Knob, Parke Knob, Payne Knob, and finally Rhodes Mountain. I alternated between trying to keep my heart rate below 190 on the climbs, to trying to make my feet move fast enough to not fall on the descents.

Finally, the trail turned down towards Skeenah Gap and AS4. The aid station was the end of a short out and back, so the first 1.3 miles out of the aid station was a climb back to Rhodes Mountain which I did with a young guy, Zack from Birmingham, AL. I was spent at the top, and took a minute to regroup, drink, and pee before trotting ahead. I was almost 23 miles into the race, and my overall pace had slipped to 17:20. I soon felt much better though and started to run more freely. While we climbed Licklog Mountain and Wallalah Mountain in this stretch, it felt easy and I started gaining back time.

Just after Tooni Mountain, I came over the wooden foot bridge at AS5 (mile 25 the course map, but over 28 on my watch) and saw Greg for the second time. I told him I felt great and was quickly on my way. The next 15 miles just flew by as I continued to run well. I talked to two other local runners along the way and confirmed that their consensus was this is a 64 mile course, not 60. I mentally added an hour to my projected finishing time, but still had a sub-17 hour goal for the 60 mile mark.

At mile 34 (actually 38), the course switches over to forest roads until the final mile of the course. With smoother terrain, I really started to run well. I had not been passed since around mile 20, and resolved to pass as many other runners as I could during the last half of the race.   I flew down the Silvermine Ridge descending to the Winding Stairs aid station at mile 40 (44). Greg met me again here telling me he would race ahead to Jake Bull at mile 47(51) and run backwards to pace me into the aid station from there. By now I was really gaining confidence and running strong, and he was barely a mile out of the aid station when I met him coming the other way.

By now, I was really starting to understand what a great day I was having. My legs were surprisingly strong after 40+ miles and I still had leg drive on the uphills. Many times while running alone, my thoughts can wander and dwell on family issues, work situations, whatever. Not today, any time a distraction popped into my head, I put it aside immediately and refocused on the race. More than any other race previously, I was completely "in the moment". It was a truly great feeling.

The Jake Bull aid station had bacon. So I took a minute to wolf down several pieces, as well as a bacon and cheese sandwich. I bragged about how good I felt, I had not had a real low spot all day. Bad Karma coming... I had caught Will Jorgensen here also. I've met Will at several previous races including Black Hills and more recently Ancient Oaks. We ran/walked most of the next 6 miles together, talking away, distracting myself from my bruised feet and various other sore spots. But a mile into the leg, I hit my first low. I should not have opened my mouth earlier, it was an instant jinx. I was light-headed and weak.  I let Will pull ahead while I walked, taking in salt and sugar. Within minutes I recovered and set about catching him and pulling ahead.

After Jake Bull, Greg raced ahead in the truck to the finish at Amicalola Falls State Park and raced backwards to meet me. He caught me about a mile out from the last aid station (mile 55/59). We trotted into the Nimblewood Gap aid station, I refueled one last time, and we set out quickly. Greg told me it was about a 1/2 mile of steep uphill and then mostly downhill to the finish. He also told me I was somewhere close to top-30 in the race.  I broke into a run on the downhill and soon hit the 60 mile mark in 16:01:10. I was elated at having come so close to 16 hours and used the positive energy to pick up the pace. To my surprise, I still had drive in my legs and the next 3 miles were amongst the fastest in the entire race.  I bombed the next 35 minutes, even running the short uphills.

Then bad karma hit me again. I was just telling Greg how well marked the course was and that I had not missed a turn all day. In the very moments those words left my mouth, we were running past the final turn of the race. We soon discovered the error and backtracked slowly in the dark until we found the turn. I checked my watch as this happened, I went an extra 0.4 miles and lost about 8 minutes.

We ran into Will just as he was missing the turn as well and we brought him along with us. The final 0.8 miles of the race is a punishing 1,000 foot descent on rocks and roots. Will surged ahead using his trekking poles for safety. My quads finally revolted and I came down at a much more sedate pace, satisfied with the day's performance. I crossed the finish line in 17:11 with 65.1 miles on the Garmin. I compared notes with other runners, and 64-65+ miles was the consensus.

Maybe the only disappointing thing about the entire race was the finishing spread. It was typical aid station fare of chips, pb&j, and fruit.  None of thiswas appealing at this point, I wanted real food.  I cooled off, threw on my sweats, and we left fairly quickly.  But not until collecting my finisher's award, an engraved railroad spike (Sean says you have to be tough as nails to finish this course) which looks excellent in the trophy case.

We raced to Dawsonville to get sushi before the restaurant closed, I took an ice bath, and was in bed by midnight, a great day.

As always, it was great to have a close friend as crew and pacer. I am looking forward to returning the favor to Greg soon as he rebuilds to race shape from his knee injury last year. Looking back on the race, I am just thrilled with how strong I ran; the weightlifting seems to be making a real difference. I still have work to do to be able to go to a Mont Blanc, Wasatch, or Massanutten and post a good time. But this was a big step in the right direction. Progress.