Before we get to the end, this story is truly best recognizing the beginning. Like many crazy life stories, the story of my Adventure to slay the Georgia Death Race (GDR) came during a brainstorming session with a client. It is an emotional tale of defeat, inner demons, friendships, and ultimately victory. It will be long and for that I am not sorry.
I had been racing obstacle course racing (OCR) since 2012. While I still loved it, I was looking for something a little bigger, longer, and harder. Something that I couldn’t just wing it. In 2015 I was transitioning from an athlete that focused on best placement to one that was looking for more adventures. My gateway drug into the ultra trail racing world was the Dances with Dirt series (LINK). Back then they had 4 races (Devil’s Lake Wisconsin, Hell Michigan, Gnaw Bone Indiana, and Dade CIty Florida) and each one offered a range of unique challenges from bluffs, stone stairways, and technical ski slope running to swamps with gators, the hottest bug bog ever, and a 50k with less than 100ft of gain the entire course! I really should go back down memory lane and do a separate entry on just that series since it included my first BONK, first campouts pre race, first hallucinations, and many other terrific/terrible first time experiences with the ultra world :)
But back to the race at hand. After having some amazing adventures, I sought more. One night during a lifting session, Mike Vanderpool brough up GDR and a series of races ran by a RunBum. It featured 70+ miles of about 14,000 feet of evevation gain through the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia. Hiking the Appalachian Trial has always been a dream of my since getting into outdoor fitness so this was a great way to get closer to that goal since the ending of the race was at Amicola Falls, the unofficial start of the AT. And I would have 24 hours to complete, which would allow for a moving pace average of 20 mins/mile. EASY PEASY..........famous last words......
Mike had already registered stating that the race sold out in minutes. He was in for 2016 but I would need to wait until 2017. No worries, that would give me a year to prepare. I signed up for more 50k races in Indiana and assumed I would be ready. Mike went on to complete his 1st GDR finish and I got insight into the race. Mike and I were competitive with each other with the advantage slightly tipping in my direction. Even thought the race boasted approximately a 50% finisher rate from their pool of 300 registrations (162 finished out of 249 in 2016 when Mike ran) my ego lead me to the assumption that since Mike finished then there was no doubt I could do it. PRIDE BEFORE THE FALL!!
I came into 2017 way undertrained. Not an excuse, just a statement of how I assumed my finish was just so logical that I didn’t need to focus. In 2017, my youngest son, Chase, came on the scene in February. My oldest son also had just had open heart surgery to close an ASD a few weeks before GDR so I was more focused on real life than GDR. Afterall the pace was so easy that I was sure I could wing it. I had failed some races before, but they seemed more extreme. I was ready to check this off my bucket list and go get something bigger. 308 official registrations included me, Mike, and fellow OCR racer, Stephen Roetz. I was so unassuming of this race that I drove down Friday morning, split a hotel with Roetz and his mom for a night, and planned to drive back on Sunday after a short nap. Roetz and I elected for the early start wave in order to have freedom to enjoy the trail.
7:46:57 later, and only 21.5 miles into my first GDR, I was a shell of man :( My flatlander knees had turned into GLUE with pain on every step down (the bane of my GDR required skill set was to learn how to condition my legs for the downhills). At the Skeenah Gap crew point, I was dazed and confused. WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?!?!? I wasn’t emotional, I was in shock. I hoped in the car with Roetz’s mom and took my DNF on the chin. I later went to the Winding Stairs crew point to cheer on Stephen and Mike. Afterwards I waited around to hear updates about their race. Unfortunately GDR claimed all 3 of our souls that year. 308 registered, 184 finished.........but not us...... about a month later, I was able to pick myself up and redeem myself at the SISU Iron, where I has missed the last time hack the year before and grew a lot as a person in that failure. GDR was just a faint memory, a fluke, a casualty of life circumstances.
2018 was game on! I had failed other races before BUT I had NEVER FAILED THE SAME RACE TWICE. All 3 of us were able to get signed up again for 2018. Lots of miles and lifting later, I was back to the starting line again in March 2018. 289 people ready to give GDR hell! I opted for the early start wave again, because this time I wanted all the extra time I could get. I had trained well but not perfectly. It was a pretty traditional ultra training block with running local trails and lifting. I had my racing buddies back and was convinced 2018 was the year........
......until it wasn't :( 7:40:39 into the race I was a sobbing mess on the side of the road. I had made it to the same exact point, in about the same time, with the same busted up knees. I had spent most of the time with Mike on the trail but lost him after an emergency pee break. I saw him on the way into Skeenah and smiled, but I knew my day was over. Once I got into the aid station, my wife helped me change shoes and try to get back on the course. She even recruited one of my favorite Spartans, Andi Hardy, to help. Andi even messaged Matt Waller to get a motivation pic of his butt (inside joke from SISU Iron race where Matt came by and said that the only way I would finish is if I could keep his butt in sight). I put on a brave face, gathered my things, and limped out of the aid station. Less than a half mile later, I was sobbing and wincing in pain. My mind was not able to beat my body. I turned around and went back to the aid station. The volunteer at check in was shocked, I was a hot mess, and I waived my wife down on the side of the road.
That year broke me. I lost the will to train for things. I felt like a fraud as a fitness professional since I couldn't figure this equation out. My oldest son, Dominic, was also there and was not happy that I didn't finish something I committed to doing. I stood toe to toe with my personal devils and walked away in defeat. Physically I was a mess with ITB friction syndrome in my knees. But I was devastated mentally. This single defeat went on to wreck an entire year of events and self confidence. I registered for my first Ironman in Lake Placid and deferred it. I had registered for the inaugural Florida Xtreme Triathlon for that fall. I tucked my tail and deferred that entry. It was a very hard time for me. Quitting has a habit that I was becoming desperate to replace. Roetz and Mike both finished that year. I was happy for them but selfishly it made me even more bitter.
Then came 2019. I wasn't sure that I wanted another shot, the last race had left me so scarred. I was afraid to have a repeat performance. After much reflection, I was more worried that if I didn't redeem myself, then I may never get back what I had lost in those mountains. So I was ready to sign up again. One major issue though, due to the popularity of the race, it switched to a lottery system. My chances for redemption hung on the random selection of a computer program. Not a way to start with confidence. I went ahead and started training and waited for the lottery.
Sean Blanton hosted the drawing online live that year. Mike and I had both entered. We were both glued to our computers. In the first 50 picks, my name was drawn! I had mixed emotions. Happy to have a chance, worried that I now had another chance. Unfortunately Mike's name was not drawn and my task was even more daunting. The race alos removed the early start option which meant that I had 1 less hour to achieve what I wasn't able to achieve before. 2019 was already on shaky ground.
I can honestly say that I had a good training block. I doubled down on rucking in hopes that it would prepare my knees and ankles. I deadlifted, I hiked uphill on my incline trainer, I added strength. I reduced my running mileage in order to strengthen my foundation. Afterall I wasn't missing cutoffs, I kept falling apart in prior attempts. Mike had serious FOMO so I enlisted him as my safety runner to help me complete the last marathon leg of GDR. We went down a couple days early. My wife was keeping us on track while Mike and I planned logistics like gear swaps, food intake, pace settting, etc. 2019 had all the makings of a great redemption story......
The race was still the same course. I had all the same demons. I found previous GDR finisher, Neil Murphy, and hawked him. I knew that if I could keep him near me, then I would be in a good position. 21 miles in and I was back in a lawn chair at Skeenah Gap. I wasn't running strong, but I wasn't a mess either. I changed shoes, socks, and for the first time in my GDR experience, I hiked out of Skeenah holding on to hope :) In 22 more miles I would be able to pick up Mike and then all would be right to the finish.....
Then mile 33 happened. It was primarily downhill so I should be able to bank some time for the next big uphill. But my knees had other plans. I was okay to go up and could jog on flat land. But anything more than a -3% incline caused intense pain in my knees. Sort of like two giant knife blades wedged into them. My downhill mile pace was 28 mins, a far cry from the 16 pace of the downhills before. More importantly, it was off the 20 min pace needed to stay on track. Mile 34 @ 26:38, 35 @ 25:41, 36 @ 27:02, 37 @ 29:26........oh no......I can feel this slipping away.......and I can't do a thing about it.
The next few miles were more of the same with almost 30 min/mile average pace. I felt a since of desperation but not the same as 2018. I kept moving and trying to catch time where I could. I knew that if I gave up like I had the other 2 times, then I would suffer lasting consequences. I WAS NOT GOING TO QUIT!! Failure does not equal quitting. I drew some strength from a previous SISU Iron 36+ hr event where I DNFd (Did Not Finish) but was given a patch from Dave Huckle that reminded a DNF is not the same as QUITTING (the patch has a bear holding a sign that has DFQ for "didn't F@ck!ng quit").
At mile 37 my fate was sealed for me. I missed the cutoff time and was pulled from the race. Almost 13 hours from the start and I was done again. I wasn't a mess like last time. I wasn't happy, but I had peace. They loaded me up in a truck and drove me to my wife and Mike, which were surprised to see me (the truck got there quickly). I was more disappointed that I had let Mike down. He took vacation days and a weekend out of his life to come run with me, and I wasn't able to make it far enough for him to get to enjoy that. One of the biggest changes from my last attempt is that I desired a rematch. I had made progress and I knew that I could do it. I made a vow that I would return if I made it out of the lottery and that I would be ready. 305 souls signed up for 2019, only 156 would make it to the finish line. I was not one of them, but GDR no longer owned my soul.
I kept a reminder with me this time. The cloth bracelet that was given to us at gear check as a way to validate or required gear would not leave my wrist. I vowed to look at it every day as a reminder to get better. I also felt ready to take on another epic race and officially enrolled in 2019 Florida Xtreme Triathlon, a 330ish mile triathlon across the state of Florida in 3 days. I knew that wasn't bulletproof, but my confidence had returned. I had the confidence to go to Lake Placid for my first Ironman. A few months later, I had completed the FXT and also found out that I had been selected to bypass the 2020 GDR lotto due to a social media post about keeping my GDR band on to motivate myself for redemption. The stars were lining up and March 2020 was going to see me as a best version of myself. One that GDR couldn't beat............
Up next: GDR 2020: what is COVID-19?