Wow I can't believe that this experience took 3 parts! I told you I had a lot to get off my chest and that this little 70 mile march in the woods really did a number on me. The good news is that the race recap goes quickly so hang in there :)
November 5th is finally here! I have this weird OCD/procrastination routine where I sill work the day before leaving for a race, get a massive amount of cleaning, laundry, house chores, and business done over night. I mean even the clothes in my closet get arranged by the colors of the rainbow (Roy G Biv thanks to middle school science). I have found that if I pack early, then I'm worried I forget things. So this is my process, which drives my wife nuts. Tammy and Steve met us in the morning, I was only an hour late, and we drove off on an adventure. After an 8 hour drive, we arrived at the cabin in plenty of time to relax. The next day we relaxed, prepped our gear, soaked in the hot tub, and discussed all things GDR and mountain related. We downloaded maps and back ups. I went over my aid station and gear strategy with my wife. Last minute prep included taping (nipples and heels), charging batteries, and laying out start gear. We packed it up and went to bed. Tomorrow would come early and I had a date with the Devil in Georgia!
Next morning I was up at my usual 4am. I slept hard but woke up often. Pre race nerves. This left me with enough time to eat breakfast (oatmeal, toast, fruit, and chia juice), stretch (thank you ROMWOD), do a round of compression (I love Normatec), and double check my gear again. Steve was up around 5 and we were out the door by 6:30a (the start line was like 15 mins down the street from our cabin).
Upon arriving, we hugged our wives, listened to final starting instructions and prepped for our starting wave at 7:30am from Reece Farms. Our wave included the slowest runners according to UltraRun. There were some head turners like the dude that work a unicorn beanie and tutu, but I was looking for the unsuspecting runners that looked like they were ready for battle. I found one dude that looked less like a runner and more like someone in the army that had gotten lost in his hiking pants. I've found in the past that the ones that look like the fastest racers are often in tears at the first crew station. Hell I had been that guy a few times. I am always amazed by the ones that show up with such a mental grit that they don't need the best gear. I was hell bent on following this guy. 7:30a came and we were off! 300 had signed up, 127 were brave enough to toe the start line. Steve and I were in the last wave. LET'S GO!!
Reece Farms to Vogel (start to 1.5miles): (which was a new part of the Covid course) was nice. Race director Sean said we had "1.5 miles of country club trails." He was right. As a result, many racers started off hard. I stayed back with hiking dude and Steve just behind. It was a lot hotter than I expected so I stripped off my Changeletes top layer tshirt and raced the rest of the way in my compression tshirt. In hindsight, I wish I would have raced bare chested early on.
Vogel to White Oak (1.5-10.5miles): Once in Vogel, we started the trails to get to Coosa Bald. The leaves sucked. They were slick and hid everything. As a result, I spent a lot of extra energy keeping my toes up and lifting my feet higher. I did not want to stub my toes so early or roll my ankle. A few miles in and it hit me, even though I had ran this path many times at GDR, I had never seen it in the daylight. I enjoyed the surprises of seeing a rushing creek and a waterfall. I kept a conservative pace and enjoyed the scenery. A race is never won in the first 10%, but it can be ruined. Side note: Steve came blasting past me smiling and said that he wanted to be ahead of me at some point. That dude is awesome :) But I did make sure to put him away since he pulled a W's on me the year earlier. The rest of the run was enjoyable. One of the reasons I run trail races is to get lost and away from the hustle of life. I didn't turn on my headphones and just enjoyed the trail. Miles 5-8 is a 3 mile death march up Coosa Bald. It sucks. But it was the first time that I had seen it in sunlight so I enjoyed it. The cool picture with my headlamp going through the woods last year was going up Coosa. This year I noticed the camera man and smiled. I did notice that my shoes, Altra Superiors 3.0s (I wore this pair in both 2018 and 2019), were starting to come apart around the left toe, but nothing major. These shoes had been here before. I had brought them in my race gear as backups and had to put them into rotation first since my Altra Lone Peak 3.5s seem to have shrunk a couple sizes. I was offered duct tape at the aid station but passed since I didn't want to lose grip with these leaves.
White Oak to Mulky Gap (10.5-15.5miles): I had lost Steve at this point but was confident that he wasn't far behind. People were starting to spread out and conversations were infrequent. I listened to a few podcasts and settled in. My knees were starting to have a familiar pain from going down, but nothing major. My shoes got worse and separated about 50% from the sole. This left my forefoot and toes exposed. The bottom flopped around. I had lost grip. This was my first obstacle in the race. Looking back, it was something simple that kept my mind off my body. But at the time I was frustrated that I hadn't taken up the offer to get duct tape last aid station. At this point my left shoes was pretty much a sandal. I was still running well but it took a lot of focus. I had also met a runner named Sonia on the trail. At age 50, this was going to be her attempt to finish the race a 5th name and claim a finishers jacket. That is awesome! We chatted about the new route and what we thought it would mean for times and finishes. She had ran the original shorter course, the course in reverse, and the traditional course. More importantly, she knew what it took to finish so I made sure to keep an eye on where she was. She was going to finish and I could too if I kept her in sight. As soon as I hit the aid station, I got duct tape and repaired my shoe. Only 2.5 miles before I could change shoes completely.
Mulky Gap to Fish Gap (15.5-18miles): This was a relatively easy stretch thank goodness. I was wondering around on 1.5 shoes with duct tape protecting my left foot from being exposed to the sticks, rocks, and roots that littered the course. Even more important, Fish Gap was also a crewed aid station. I was excited to see my wife. She has suffered with me a lot along this journey. In fact before the race she had threatened me that I had better complete it or make peace with it because she wasn't coming back. By the time I hit Fish Gap, I had consumed lots of food trying to keep my body and brain happy. I came in, sat down, re-lubed my feet (thank you Trail Toes), did a sock (if you haven't tried Injinji socks then you are missing out) and shoe replacement (I switched to my Altra Superiors 4.5 in Changelete green), and raided the aid station for boiled potatoes. It was like a Nascar pitstop with a quick tire change. I was in well before my 30 mins watch warning went off. In the rush to get out, I forgot to restock my food. It didn't prove to be dire, but it was a stupid mistake to make.
Fish Gap to Point Bravo (18-26.5miles): This section was rougher than it should have been. My knees started to ache from the downhills. I honestly think it was more mental. I was still making great time and catching more people than were passing me. Not an official goal, but a good measure when you are the last wave. So far we had pretty much completed the same course with the exception of Reece Farms to Vogel. This is where the first major change took place. In order to get to point Bravo, you had to go past the turnoff to Skeenah Gap. That was the place of 2 of my failures, including the meltdown of 2018. I swear that once I got past that turn off, my knees quit hurting. Other than that, it was just more of the same. The only major exception was that I had traded out my ipod with podcasts for an old school ipod nano that had been uploaded with random music from my buddy Dave J. Dave has always made fun of my lack of musical knowledge (I still believe that all 80's hits are connect to Bon Jovi) since I'm primarily a 90's rock/grunge/alternative guy. I had given him carte blanche to come up with my playlist. For the next several hours I went from arguing with podcasters to loving or hating the music. The important part was that it kept my brain occupied so that I didn't let pain creep into my thoughts. This section had several switchbacks so it was great to bank more time. I also ran into the race leader which had already hit the turnaround point that was next. First marathon down, 1.5 marathons to go!
Point Bravo to Sapling Gap (26.5-31miles): Another section with high highs and low lows. It seems like most of this section is going up! The highlight of this stretch is the Toccoa Swinging Suspension Bridge over Toccoa River. This place is just awesome. Last year my wife and Mike drove to this point to see me. At the time they didn't know that I was hiding a lot of pain behind a big smile. It was the stretch from Point Bravo to Sapling Gap that finished me off in 2019 and caused my pace to halt slow enough to miss a time hack. I was so focused on marching up that ridge that I didn't really think about it until I hit the aid station. Once I got there, I realized that is where my race ended last year. Sapling Gap would be the turn around point. Every step forward now was a step closer to the finish line (except for the Skeenah Gap cutout that I would have to hit on the way back). Fellow racers looked rough here. Many had the dead look that I had experienced. I made sure not to linger so that I didn't catch their funk. I refueled and headed back out to Point Bravo.
Sapling Gap to Point Bravo (31-35.5miles): On the way to Sapling Gap, I counted the number of racers ahead of me which was roughly 80 or so. This was good news since it meant I was catching people in the second wave thus being ahead of time about 45 mins. I was happy with this until I went back towards Point Bravo. I was pumped to count how many tortured souls I was ahead of as well as a brief reunion with Steve which I hadn't seen for hours. I wasn't prepared for what really happened. There were less than 10 people that I came across on the way back. And of those 10, no Steve. I went from feeling great to feeling the grim reaper's breath on my heels. I later found out that several dropped or were cut at Fish Gap, including Steve. I felt vulnerable since even with all my hard work, I was towards the back and on the chopping block. Between that fear and all the food/supplements I had choked down, I started to get very nauseous. I'm not much of a puker but nausea keeps from eating. Without fuel coming in, you are on a path to pain and doom. Your body needs fuel, especially your brain. I was not longer able to tolerate my Tailwind drink fuel. And I had forgotten to refuel at Fish Gap with all my solid foods. I needed to rely on aid stations even more. The run down back to bridge was fairly quick. I wanted to skip the bridge and swim the river to get cold water on my knees but that wasn't possible and I couldn't slow down to veer off course. The sun had started setting and it was time to break out the headlamp. The light from a headlamp while running is also a source of nausea for me. I felt my stomach turning. Soon I was searching for somewhere safe to leave the path to care of some business (I'm not sure if a bear sh!ts in the woods, but I know an ultra runner with stomach problems does!). One of the benefits of waiting until headlamp time is that when you turn yours off, no one can see how close you are to the trail :) Made it back to Point Bravo and ate all I could; bacon, pickles, potatoes, chips, etc. Feeling great on time, I headed towards Skeenah Gap.
Point Bravo to Skeenah Gap (35.5-41.5miles): This was honestly one of the toughest sections of the whole race. Up until now I was right on a 20-22hr finish by my math. Everybody understands the hell that Coosa Bald presents in its extreme incline. This section isn't nearly as steep but it felt like all of it was up except for the dip into Skeenah. One rule of thumb for me this race was to try and stay under 28 minute miles. My average pace for this section was 24:45/mile along with my first 30+ min mile. It was like the unsuspecting rib punch that caused all the damage. Going down into Skeenah gap wasn't any better. My toes were beat up and my knees were starting to feel the downs. I was unable to run any paces sub 20 min miles on the downs. That meant I would have to push harder on the ups so that I didn't hemorrhage time. It also that I would need to consume more fuel on a stomach that wasn't having it. But more important than that, I was headed to Skeenah. This time under relatively good terms. When I arrived, Tammy and Allison mentioned that runners were looking rough from that stretch, and I knew why. I was ready for some fresh shoes and socks as well as getting back my podcasts. I also made the decision to use my replacement batteries in my headlamp and grab a second headlamp as back up. I passed on my heavier windbreaker since I was still way too hot. Sonia had gotten into Skeenah about the same time so I told my crew to keep an eye on when she left so that I wouldn't get too far behind. I also saw Steve and learned about his timeout at Fish Gap. Even though he was quiet, I could see the frustration and anger in his eyes. A couple of months before the rescheduled GDR, Steve had hurt his foot in the process of completing Hard 75 and the 1000k Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee. He did his best to keep training up while trying to let the foot heal, but a hidden rock under the leaves on the trail in the first 10 miles caused him to roll his ankle and his foot told him he wasn't healed. He beat the aid station cut off by less than a minute but would need to tend to his foot preventing him from checking out in time. His race was over and he would have some scars from it. My race was still on and I had just sleighed one of my biggest foes, Skeenah Gap. I geared up and hiked out. I was doing well but I wasn't taking it for granted.
Skeenah Gap to Fish Gap (41.5-47miles): This was the first time I felt really alone. Sonia wasn't too far ahead but due to the nature of the turns of the trails, I rarely saw any headlamps. This was the first time that crossing a bear was stuck in my mind. I turned off my headphones and used the external speaker on my ipod in hopes that I wouldn't sneak up on anything. This is one of times it was great to be one of the back runners since you aren't first to spook any of the wildlife. I could hear lots of hounds around me hot on the trail of some bears. I would later learn that this was the first year that north Georgia allowed "treeing" where dog would run the bears up trees for hunters. All I knew is that it made me conscious of everything that was around me and their barking echoed through the mountains. I don't remember much else from this section. It was a slow and uneventful section. I tried to eat as much as I could stomach for the final push. I was starting to give back time so I wanted to have some emergency fuel incase I needed a last big push. I had told my crew that I wouldn't need them at Fish Gap. It was a hard drive on bad roads so I didn't want to worry about them getting stuck. I choked down some bacon, filled my pockets with potato chips, and kept moving. The volunteers were all great and helpful, but the runners were starting to look like zombies or injured soldiers on a battlefield. It was important that I got out quickly so that I didn't join them mentally.
Fish Gap to Mulky Gap (47-49.5miles): The moon was so bright that it would play tricks on me. It would hide behind trees and light an area up leaving me thinking that the next aid station was right there. It was the GDR devil playing tricks trying to get my hopes up and then crush me in disappointment. I was still uneasy with bears, my toes and knees still hurt, my stomach was still delicate, and the night made things go so slow. Just more of the same over this stretch. The huge bonus of the leg was that my crew surprised me and were waiting at Mulky Gap! It was a great boost that I needed :) My wife later stated that she was worried because I was quiet and still rushed through the station. I was focused and I knew that time wasn't on my side. I didn't mean to be short, but I had to keep moving. There were rumors that time hacks would be extended but nothing was confident enough for me to put any value in it. Miscommunication is often a side effect of such a long strung out race. Almost 2 marathons down with a half marathon left.
Mulky Gap to White Oak (49.5-54.5miles): Still more of the same. Nothing significant from this leg. My mind was on the next leg since it involved a final showdown with Coosa Bald. When I came into White Oak, the same volunteer that asked me about getting duct tape was still there. We laughed as I shared my shoe exploded shortly after. These volunteers are one of the best parts of ultra running. I slammed down solid food and soda. I also changed my water bottles to water only. I could stomach water. And I was using a lot of it to cool me down. I felt that overheating was a big cause of my nausea so I would often wet myself down to cool off. The other thing I noticed is that there were several runners sitting around the campfire. They weren't changing gear, they were resting. By the looks on their faces, they would be quitting soon. That is when I got word that all the time hacks, including the finish chute, had been extended by an hour. Rumors were that the 1st place finisher had finished almost 1.5 hrs slower than his predicted time and that the first several aid stations claimed many racers. I had just been given 60 extra minutes to complete what may have been the hardest version of GDR. I wasn't going to take it for granted especially since the climb to Coosa Bald was still ahead. The nice thing about the news was that it probably saved me bigger injuries. I was flirting with the 24 hour cutoff pace and was mentally prepared to bomb down one of the last couple downhills in order to make up the time I needed. I knew it would come at a price to my body, but I was prepared to make that sacrifice. Now I had been given enough time to not need that tactic if I kept moving.
White Oak to Burnett Gap (54.5-61.2miles): My pace had slowed to 28-30 min/mile regardless of up or down and I was ok with that as long as I kept it to that. Not having to risk a faster pace was comforting. The march back up Coosa according to the elevation map wasn't as long or as steep coming from the backside. My brain did not agree. I was all alone at the point and the slower pace just meant I was in the suck longer. I finally took off my compression tshirt and let the winds of the ridgeline cool me down. It woke me up and kept me moving. It felt like forever. I remember at one point saying a ridiculous prayer in my head. It went something like this "Hey God, I think I'm almost to the top of Coosa but my brain dead math is missing 1.5 miles so I'm worried that the Devil in Georgia is going to make me go down for that 1.5miles before going back up Coosa Bald. So if you could either transport me to the top of Coosa or can change the geography to remove that potential down before Coosa, then I would very much appreciate it and consider it a win against the devil here." Oh the things you think up when your brain doesn't have the energy it requires. As silly as that all sounds, I found myself on top of Coosa! I let out a primal growl of joy. So picture this: I'm at the top of a mountain, no shirt on, stinky from a days worth of running, ROARING AT THE TOP OF MY LUNGS IN TRIUMPH! It wasn't the finish line, but this race was over and I had beat it :) I was quickly zapped back into reality as I slid my way down the steep 3mile long side of Coosa. It did little to deter my enthusiasm but it did likely claim several of my toenails. After Coosa, it was a hike to Vogel. I thought back to how much I got to see on the way here and how this time this leg seemed familiar in the dark. I enjoyed the few landmarks like a waterfall and stream that I could hear. I crossed paths with Sonia for a final time. I gladly let her pass and congratulated her on her impending finish to claim her 5x jacket. I honestly would have preferred to stay pace with her since I had an idea that it would be barely sub 24 hours, but my stomach had come back with a vengeance and I was going to need some privacy :( I slowed up so that I would be alone. Not another headlamp in sight. I found a spot leaning against a tree and let nature call. Only one problem, I had already used my wipes several hours ago and forgot to restock at an aid station (I rarely ever have to poop during a race let alone twice). I stripped a few of the remaining broad leaves on a nearby tree and did my business. Off to the finish line I go!
Burnett Gap to Reece Farms Finish line (61.2-64.5miles): Burnett Gap is an unmanned water station right before you cross the road into the trails on Vogel. Before the race starts, it seems like such a pointless station that I wouldn't use. Well at this point I LOVED it. There was plenty of water so I pretty much wet myself down head to toe. I was still too hot and was struggling to stay awake. This hobo forest shower was AWESOME! It was time for the final stretch. The sun would be rising soon and life always gets better when the sun rises. This was a lesson that I had learned at other extreme races. you never quit at the night. Eat more food and get through the night. When the sun rises, you get a surge of energy and are good to continue for several more hours. I saw a few cabin campers waking, could smell coffee in the air, and more importantly I knew the path back to the finish was easy and I had plenty of time. I walked through Vogel smiling, around the lake smiling, across the road smiling, up the final hill smiling, down the final hill smiling. I could see the finish line through the trees and could hear my wife yelling.
Official Finish Line: 65.27 miles tracked on my Garmin Fenix 5x in 24:06:24!
GDR director Sean greeted me at the finish line. My wife reminded him that this was my 4th attempt. He was braindead and I was braindead from having been up all night. I thought I would be more emotional, more like the top of Coosa. But I wasn't. I was content. I had slayed demons. I was looking forward to hearing how Dominic had done at this XC Championships while I was out (He placed 3rd, set a new PR, and was invited to race in Nationals in December!!!) I was thinking about all the pain up on Coosa. At the finish line I was thinking about all the growth that was about to be revealed in my life. Sean handed me my engraved finisher spike and requested my rusty old spike that I had to carry. I quickly grabbed his spike and told him that he could not have my old spike. He was confused (again we were both operating on limited brain function at this point). He had no way of knowing that I had carried the same spike each race. It sat on my desk, in my treadmill cup holder, I carried it in my ruckpack all the years since my first GDR failure. Just like my scars, it was a part of me and he couldn't have it back. I plan to have it engraved with 3x Failures 2017-2019 to remind me of the lessons I learned from the previous years. The finisher spike is great and will be hung up in the office, but the failure spike is the real deal to me.
A special thank you to everyone involved in this journey. It took too many years, lots of hours training, was a sacrifice financially, disrupted my clients' training sessions, and I'm sure that many sacrificed lots when I came back broken several times. Thank you to Mike V for recommending the race, to Stephen R for joining me the first GDR, to Steve K for joining me the final time. Thank you to Tammy K for updating social media and taking pictures this year. Thank you Sean B and the entire GDR team for putting on such a brutal race in such a beautiful area. And most importantly a big thank you to my wife Allison. Your sacrifices are above and beyond. You have celebrated with me at my best and were there to pick me up at my worst. She would always say that each year was the final time she would come because it always would take so much out of her. The hours of driving and waiting are nothing compared to the months of helping me recover from defeat. And yet I know that if things had turned out differently, she would still have been by my side at the next attempt.
GDR has both given and taken a lot from me personally. I am glad to put it to rest and I'm excited to join mike in 2021 to see the final leg of the original course. I have no regrets and am ready for the next challenge :) Don't tell my wife but I think 2021 would be a great year to do my first 100 mile ultra and the almost 1,000 mile TransAmTri945 triathlon :) If you made it through all 3 parts of this journey, thanks for coming along. See you all on the trails soon!
Here are links to the previous GDR entries on this journey:
READ PART 1 HERE
READ PART 2 HERE
PS- If you are thinking about taking on a big adventure, maybe your own version of the death race or something else that is exciting and challenging to you, and you don't want it to be ruined by being underprepared like I was, then shoot me an EMAIL or a TEXT MESSAGE letting me know what your adventure is and I would be happy to see if I have any tools, training tips, or wisdom that I can share :)