Patrick was able to get George, George, Dave & Vinny to all join us as pacers & crew. We loaded up the RV Thursday morning and headed north. I have come to believe I do these races almost as much for the break from responsibility and routine, as I do for the event itself. On the ride up, we watched movies, exchanged stories, and generally acted like we were 25 years younger with nothing more important in our lives than being ready for the next set of final exams (except we now discuss wives and children instead of girlfriends and professors). We arrived at Vogel State Park about 2 hours north of Atlanta just before dusk and settled in for the evening. Our camping spot was only a stone’s throw from a babbling brook. Vinny built a small fire, and we spent a quiet evening enjoying the respite from civilization.
Because it has a 48 hour time limit, the race was scheduled to start at 2:00 PM on Friday. Patrick and I slept in until 8:00 AM, and awoke to a breakfast of eggs, hash browns and bacon cooked up by Dave under the trees. Vogel State Park is at the turnaround for this out and back race, so the group went for a short hike on this far end of the course. After a good deal of nervous fidgeting and re-packing race supplies, we headed off in the minivan (we had towed behind the RV) to the start/finish at Camp Morganton near Blue Ridge. We checked in, getting customized bowling shirts for entering the race and gawked at the outlandish finishing belt buckles which include a line representing the race elevation chart. We HAD to finish to get one of these. Willy Syndram ( Race Director), gave a pre-race briefing to our very small group an hour before the race started. This was the inaugural running of this race, and with the course difficulty, he had a small group of 23 runners signed up, of whom 21 toed the line at 2:00 PM.
I started the race with my new Garmin Fenix watch on my left arm which is advertised to have a 50 hour battery life. But because I had not had a chance to test it, I ran with my Garmin 310XT on the right arm to keep track of pace. The first 2.7 miles of the race are on pavement leading to Deep Gap. It was mostly uphill, with a 450 foot climb, so there was a lot of walking, even this early in the race. Our crew of 4 pulled alongside with the minivan door open singing the Muppet’s ‘Mahna-Mahna’ song through a bullhorn to send us off. We waived goodbye knowing we wouldn’t see them again until the first crewed aid station at 8:30, just before nightfall. Patrick’s and my plan was to average 20 minute miles with would bring us in to a 34:52 finish. Our goals were to finish (Good), break 36 hours (Better) and if we felt good, come in under 34 hours (Best). We planned to run well within ourselves early knowing this long demanding course would take its toll over time.
The second leg of the course is Deep Gap, a 5.8 mile loop that started with a 300 foot descent, an 800 foot climb and then a 500 foot descent. We tried to take it as easy as we could, but kept finding ourselves finishing miles in 13-17 minute splits. Even the first major climb of the race (1,400 feet) on the Weaver Creek section was offset by the following 1,000 foot drop and we kept banking time. I fell twice early in the race. The first was a toe hook on a stump that resulted in a clumsy somersault and roll across my shoulders. I managed to continue the roll back up onto my feet and keep running without Patrick having to stop behind me. The second fall was uglier as my foot slipped, and I dropped down hard onto my hands giving a painful jolt to my hands, lower back and knees, all at once. Fortunately, it was my last fall of the race. We reached the Stanley Creek aid station 20 miles in over 2 hours ahead of pace. But the crew was there, re-energized us and off we went. The next 3 miles was pavement and we ran easy 10 minute miles, getting even further ahead of pace.
We crossed the Shallowford Bridge, ran alongside the Toccoa River for a half-mile, and then turned onto the Benton-Mackaye Trail and began climbing into what was the first tough section for me. In quick succession, we climbed Free Knob, Garland Mountain, Brawley Mountain, Bald Top and finally Tipton Mountain with descents to the gaps between each. It was late afternoon, the temperature was the hottest of the entire race, and this 7+ mile section really took it out of me. We had caught Will Jorgenson at the last aid station and spent most of this section running and chatting with him. I had met Will at several previous races, most recently finishing just behind him at the Georgia Death Race in March. He runs with trekking poles, and used them well as he pulled away on the final descent to Wilscot Gap as Friday night darkness began.
The Tampa crew was here again, and we refueled with Boosts, solid food, and whatever else we could chow down quickly. Willy had told everyone at race briefing that the first 30 miles to this point were easy compared to what was to come. He did not lie. I had run the remaining 25 miles to the turnaround at the Death Race in the opposite direction. But that was the first section of that race, on fresh legs. Now I had 30 hard miles already in, and had to do this section twice, once in each direction. The next 50 miles is the hardest thing I have ever done.
We were now on the notorious Duncan Ridge Trail and this section is called the Dragon’s Spine. Look at an elevation chart for this trail and it is not hard to understand why. Over the next 13 miles, we would climb Rhodes Mountain, Chinquapin Ridge, Gregory Knob, Payne Knob, High Top, Fish Knob, Clements Mountain, Akins Mountain, West Wildcat Knob, Buck Knob, and finally Buckeye Knob before descending to White Oak Stomp. It was one wicked climb up over 3,000 feet, one after another, separated by knee shattering descents. What makes it particularly hard is the lack of switchbacks. Normally trails built on steep slopes wind their way back and forth up the mountain in a punishing, but doable climb. Not here. The sadists who built this trail followed the ridgeline throughout, straight up and straight down. It was hard in March, but that had been in daylight and temperatures were in the 40s. Now it was dark, hotter and brutal. And then the weather changed.
Sometime in the night (exact times are no longer clear in my head, nor were they then) it began to rain. It was a light rain at first and pleasantly cooling. But it soon began to come down in earnest. The trail got wet and muddy, footing was difficult, and we began having trouble seeing the trail markings. What we thought was fog, turned out be clouds when I realized we only saw it at higher elevations. The wind was blowing, so we had misty fog blowing hard left to right, with heavy rain falling down from above. At times I could barely see the trail at my feet. The trail throughout the course was mostly runnable, but at the higher elevations became more rocky. On one steep descent, Patrick slipped on a rock, and slid several feet downwards on his butt. He stood, covered in mud from his heels to his back. Another time, he tried to stop at the top of a large flat rock to pick his route down. But he slipped, and skied 10 feet down the rock back to hard ground. He was soon quoting a line from Armageddon, “Worst, scariest possible environment ever.” We agreed, the solo runners would have a really hard time keeping their spirits up through the night in these conditions. Remarkably, as hard as it was, our moods didn’t turn – yet. To my disgust though, my new Fenix ran out of battery here, less than 16 hours into the race. I had enjoyed being able to constantly monitor altitude on one watch and pace on the other.
After the White Oak Stomp aid station, it was only 7.5 miles to the turnaround at Vogel State Park. There was a 750 foot climb to Coosa Bald, the highest point on the course, and then a long 2,000 foot descent to Wolf Creek. Patrick had been having trouble all night with elevation sickness. He had read in Runner’s World that lowlanders like us, could have trouble anytime we went over 2,500 feet. I wasn’t affected as far as I could tell, but every time we approached 3,000 feet (which was a lot), he had trouble breathing, and got light-headed. He handled it well until the descent off Coosa Bald. At some point in the heavy fog I missed a turn. We had to back track and search for the route, adding an extra mile to our run. We made the long descent unsure we were on track, I choked back tears thinking our race could be over, and Patrick lagged behind just trying to stay on his feet. After one last 800 foot climb into Vogel, we stumbled into the turnaround cabin exhausted.
Dave & George had cooked breakfast sandwiches and were waiting for us. The aid station volunteers were great, and we were encouraged to find that we were 4th and 5th in the race overall. The 2nd & 3rd place runners had taken a 90 minute nap at the turn and had left just ahead of us. We had completed 58 miles (55 on the course info) and had 49+ left going back (the return lap skips one out & back section). I gave Dave both watches to recharge, he gave them back to me at White Oak Stomp several hours later. We took our time before heading back out just after daybreak and walked uphill for a while with Vinny joining us as our first pacer. Patrick encouraged me to go ahead of him now that Vinny was with him, and I finally took the bait on the next downhill. But the longest climb of the race back to Coosa Bald did me in. I walked uphill for over an hour, feeling my tank bleed dry. I shook my head when I saw the easy turn we had missed in the dark and fog just hours before. I started the descent to White Oak Stomp and just couldn’t shake the cobwebs, making terrible time in a relatively easy section. 100 yards before the aid station, Patrick passed me, rejuvenated and ready to go.
Dave joined us as a second pacer from that point, and amazingly ran the last 43 miles of the course. The steep ascents and descents on the Dragon’s Spine really took it out of us now. Occasionally we would stop mid-ascent, bent over, trying to recover our breathing and heart rates. Vinny really struggled with the altitude through here, and eventually fell back before we made it to Skeenah Gap. When Patrick was feeling well, he ran much stronger than me. He pulled away from me both descending and ascending and I had to work really hard to catch him again Midway through the 5 miles to Wilscot Bridge, we caught the third place runner who was walking and struggling. When Patrick saw the chance for a podium finish, he dropped the hammer and left me in the dust again.
I managed to catch him not long before the aid station, and we sat down preparing for the 7.5 mile multi-climb section to Shallowford Bridge. We took our time at this aid station and just as we were about to leave, Will Jorgenson surprised us by descending off the trail just behind us. Patrick took off like he had been shot out of a cannon, he was not giving back his spot that easy. It took me nearly half an hour to catch him and Dave again. Patrick soon had another down period, and I took point for the first time in hours. Not long after, we crested Brawley Mountain, passed the fire tower, and I started the next descent. After a bit, I realized I had not heard Patrick or Dave speak for several minutes. I slowed to a walk and called behind me a couple times. When I did not hear a reply, I decided Patrick was still recovering, but I didn’t want to wait. I trotted down the hill thinking they would catch up soon, if not on that section, on the 3 miles of pavement ahead where Patrick would be much faster than me. But the longer I trotted, the better I felt.
I made great time all the way to Toccoa River, Shallowford Bridge, and Willy was at the aid station telling me I looked great. I hustled through the aid station and was able to run fairly solid all the way to Stanley Creek where our crew awaited. George, George & Vinny made sure I had everything I needed, pumped me up with encouragement, and pushed me on my way telling me to hold onto third. I had just over 13 miles to go, and this would be the last time I would see them. As I headed into the woods, I looked back up the road, surprised not to see Patrick or Will approaching. I found out later, Patrick had run out of water at one point, lost a bunch of time recovering, and fell over an hour behind. Will came through about 20 minutes behind me.
I was juiced now, even as the sun set on the race for the second time. I wanted third place badly, I’d never finished that high in a hundred miler (I was 5th at the 2010 Arkansas Traveler for my bachelor party) I ran the shallow uphills, strided the steep uphills as hard as I could, and pounded the downhills with everything I had left. I tried using Patrick’s tricks of shunting thoughts of pain to the side. The only thing that mattered was holding pace. I got more than a little loopy down the stretch, repeatedly thinking I could hear Patrick, Dave and Will talking just behind me. I looked over my shoulder dozens of times expecting to see them overtaking me. I ran scared, and I ran as fast as I could.
I hit the Deep Gap aid station gasping for air. I quickly refueled and hit this 5.8 mile loop. I knew that Patrick and Will would both likely be on the loop when I returned to the aid station and I’d be able to know how close behind me they were. I noted the clock time, and realized I had an outside shot of breaking 34 hours, my stretch goal. I had made up huge time on the last three sections. Running the loop backwards from the start of the race, I humped up the 500 foot climb as fast as I could and took the 800 foot descent even harder. It was rough going as the previous night’s rain had turned the previous day’s wet spots into flowing streams across the trail. My head kept playing tricks with me, as I tried to figure out a shortcut back to the aid station. The entire loop goes around a loud mountain stream; and I frequently (thought I) heard Patrick and Dave just behind me. More than once, I turned off my flashlight to peer into the darkness and catch them sneaking up on me. I then became convinced they were running in darkness to lull me into slowing; so I pushed even harder.
But when I approached the last aid station, Dave and Patrick were both there, Patrick in a chair cleaning out his shoes. He was clearly suffering and just trying to pull it together for the finishing push. The aid station volunteer told me Will had come through just 16 minutes behind me though. I knew Will was strong enough to have cut that lead in half on this loop. That meant I might have as little as a 6-8 minute lead with just under 3 miles of pavement left. I was in full flight panic mode as I raced to the finish. I turned my flash light off when there were no cars, I didn’t want to give away my position to Will. I turned onto the Camp Morganton driveway and sprinted to the finish in 33 hours, 38 minutes, third place overall. George, George, and Vinny cheered me across the line and I immediately went inside to cool off and recover, elated.
Will Jorgenson crossed the finish line just 10 minutes behind me. That made the final push even more rewarding for me, as I now knew for sure I had needed to push every step of the way to stay ahead. I took a hot shower, ate some pizza, and waited for Patrick who finished in 5th place in 35:47. He had vomited on the Deep Gap loop and just held it together to finish. After he cleaned up, George made the 45 minute drive back to Vogel State Park and we all collapsed into bed in the RV around 3:30 AM.
Last I heard, maybe 11-13 runners had a chance of finishing, but final results have not been posted yet. This was a brutally difficult course, and one I would highly recommend. The course is fantastic, although I measured it at 107.5 miles (not including our bonus mile, giving us 108.5 total), a little longer than advertised. While the ascents and descents are harder than anything else I have run at this distance, it is completely runnable. There are few spots with so many rocks that you can’t run consistently. The views from twenty something different peaks and ridgelines are magnificent. The sound of mountain streams and bird songs dominated the air. Willy had everything well organized, the aid stations were all great, the course was well-marked. I don’t think there is any doubt it ascends to being the second most difficult race east of the Rockies behind the inimitable Barkley. I will hold onto how good it felt to run the last 22 miles the way I did for as long as possible. Unless my work and life schedule dictate otherwise, I will be back next year.