Monday, March 28, 2016

The Georgia Death Race

When going into a race undertrained, the mind passes through three distinct phases.  

The first is the harsh realization of the general state of things, and even worse, that there’s not a gosh darn thing you can do about it. At this stage, the best idea seems to be to just back away quietly. Cancel plans. Stay in bed. Be responsible. You know this is the logical thing to do, and you congratulate yourself on being so smart and mature.

And then the second stage hits. This is the fantasy portion, with a heavy focus on delusions of grandeur. Maybe the lack of miles in training has left you fresh? Maybe you’ll actually run better this way?  Further evidence is found in vindicating every single thing you did in the last two months that was even moderately good and how it all applies to the task at hand. You find yourself saying things like, “that run was only 15 miles, but there was an AXE involved.” This stage is actually really fun, because it mainly consists of telling yourself how fantastic you are.

Axe-based things.
So, while it’s good that you’re now focusing on what you have done, rather than what you haven’t, in some circles, that’s also described as over-rationalizing. And when the fog of self-importance clears, and you begin to understand that’s what you’re actually doing, the final stage hits.  This stage could best be described as “Fuck it.” In other words, you just pack up what you got, sashay out the door and proceed.

This is how I found myself sitting in the conference room of the Amicalola Lodge last Friday evening, watching people receive snakes from the backpack of an Army Ranger. We were told this was to help us conquer our fears. Apparently there was a lot to be dreaded in running from Vogel State Park back to Amicalola – 68 miles through the Northern Georgia Appalacians, as the t-shirt stated. Which was actually more like 70 if you asked someone, and in reality was more like 72 if you consulted a GPS.  Also the race very clearly had the word “Death” in the title.

Undeterred, at 8am, I, along with over 200 other souls left a lake in the woods and went to work on the old mountains. The air was heavy and sticky, with the afternoon’s storm clouds hanging low. Within a few miles, I was already drenched in sweat, but a delightful breeze kept me quite comfortable. I knew that even if the miles eventually caught up to me, at the very least, I was going to have a few hours of flow and happiness out there. I could tell from the start it was going to be a good day.

Straight away, I watched the lead pack of ladies fade off into the distance, like a majestic pack of steeds. They were chasing a Western States Golden Ticket, four of them for only two spots. While it would have been a blast to mix it up with the thoroughbreds for awhile, and pushing just a little harder would have allowed me to do so, I knew that I was not a horse in this battle today. If I had any hope of finishing this thing in one piece, it was absolutely imperative that I made all of my own choices in relation to myself and myself alone.

I thought a lot about the legendary Diana Finkel out there, and her seemingly singular focus on one race year in and year out. I can’t say if it is her calculated plan, but from the outside, it appears that she runs a few spring races pretty chill compared to what she unleashes every July in the San Juans. I’ve seen it firsthand – she picks tough races, starts off closer to mid-pack and just runs consistent as hell throughout the day. And while she always finishes close to (or at) the top, it’s nothing compared to the insane performances she throws down at Hardrock. I can’t help but think she’s got her eye on the prize from the moment the clock strikes midnight on the new year. And boy do I want her prize.

Once the pack began to spread out, I found myself going back and forth with a handful of characters. There was an Atlanta local with a fantastic beard who gave me intel on what to expect throughout the course.  There were two women, and a couple other dudes – definitely a motley crue of sizes and ages. What they all had in common, however, was that they were absolutely crushing me while hiking the steep uphills. By this point, we had reached the famed Duncan Ridge, and it was all playing out as billed. Straight up, straight down, up and over, do it again.  I’d actually fully expected to be destroyed by some locals on this kind of stuff. But what I didn’t expect was how well I was taking the downhills, by comparison. They were rocky and steep, sometimes muddy, and sometimes following the Missouri-style “trail by braille” – with a layer of leaves obscuring the rocks and roots underneath. What this meant was that we all kept jostling for position for hours on endThis was a bit difficult on the narrow trails, so in some cases, I found myself putting on the brakes, rather than deal with it. It really didn’t bother me at all, though, because I was honestly just thankful to be feeling pretty good while I was tackling the most difficult part of the course. To make matters awesome, the sun was finding a way to break through the deep indigo clouds every now and again, casting spotlights on the green valleys below. While the forest all kind of looked the same to me, at least it was a beautiful and familiar same. It reminded me a lot of the trails of my home state – the Ozark Mountains of Missouri.

This isn't actually terrible!
(photo: Dom)
I chose the Georgia Death Race specifically for Hardrock training. While not at altitude, the 20,000’ of vertical ascent in 68-or-70-or-72 miles seemed like a good thing to tackle in March, since I wasn’t going to be running up over 13,000’ anywhere anyway. I knew there would be a significant amount of hiking involved, and I knew it would be difficult – plus I’d always wanted to run an East Coast ultra. There were also other reasons.

I hit another extremely steep up and for the first time, I actually stopped to catch my breath halfway up. My heart was about to leap out of my chest, and my lower back was killing me. My legs felt great, but I wondered how much more of this I could take before I fried myself from the inside. I had done so much hiking in my training – so I was surprised it was having this effect. Another reason I signed up for GDR was that it seemed to favor a gritty climber over a pure runner. And since I consider myself much more tough than talented, I figured this might be a good fit for me. You figured wrong, Katie. You figured wrong.

But just like that we hit another downhill, and this one really went down for awhile. Eventually, I turned off on the one indicated out-and-back of the course, which would take me down to the next aid, plus give me a chance to see how the battle royale was ensuing. My main focus, however, was attempting to stay in the moment and enjoy the nice cruise down. Because in this case, what goes down must come up. And this was going to suck.

Actually though, it didn’t really suck at all. Perhaps it was discovering that I was actually only minutes behind the chase pack of ladies. Or perhaps it was hearing from the bearded Atlantan that I’d just completed the Dragon’s Spine portion of the course. And most likely it was filling my little soft flask with Coke. But the point is that I started running sections of the climb back out. A few weeks prior, I had found myself running with my friend Marshall, who had completed last year’s edition of the Cruel Jewel 100. He regaled me with tales of this Dragon’s Spine bullshit, where he claims he walked every step for 20 miles.  While I realize that this was during the later stages of a 100-mile race, I was still pretty apprehensive about arriving to this section. And yet here, I’d completed it before I even knew it had begun! Rejoice!

The next aid had me finally seeing Dominic – now 28 miles into the dang thing. The sun had begun to really heat things up, and I was happy to get a full dousing as well as sit and stretch my hips a bit as I refilled my pack for another 20 miles without crew. There was a chance it could be dark by that point, so I threw in some extra caffeination and treats, figuring if the moment of undertrained truth came, it was likely going to happen somewhere in the next 5-6 hours. I wanted to give myself a fighting chance. And maybe something that tasted like candy, so I would be less sad.


(faces: me)
(photos: Dom)
What this meant was that my pack was again, quite heavy. 1.5 liters of water, a small flask of Coke, 6 hours of calories, plus all the required gear including the railroad spike. Did I mention we had to carry a railroad spike the whole way? We did. It was weird, and I was into it.  Hiking hard out of the aid in the heat, plus a belly full of protein recovery drink to digest was the perfect recipe for instant sensations of crappiness. Legs good. Stomach wonky. I understood what was happening though, and focused on getting the caffeine from the Coke down to try to speed up the digestion. Salt was burning my eyes. The same folks were catching up to me and passing me, this time what seemed for good. Was this the classic ‘first phase of discomfort,’ which I experience in every long race somewhere between mile 30-40, but which always passes? Or was this the way it was now going to be? It was hard to say.

Initial discomfort always leads to questions of why I am running. Now, it’s never because I want to stop, rather more of an existential thing that I can never quite come up with a good enough answer for. Today, instead of trying to answer it, I let my mind wander to the thoughts of others.  I became very sure that they, too, had these feelings and so I thought it proper to give them a name. The Way DTs. The Why-Are-You-Doing-This moments. Subconsciously, I found myself talking another imaginary runner down from these thoughts, and in the process, talked myself down as well.

It was if the trail sensed a change of chapters at that very moment, which obviously necessitated a change of scenery. The sound of loud, rushing water gave way to fleeting glimpses of a river through the trees. I suddenly remembered I had been promised a swinging bridge of sorts, and for whatever reason, this excited me greatly. I motored down to the water to see what I could discover.

What I discovered was awesome. Tourists moved to the side as I bounded across the bouncing bridge, giggling gleefully to myself. On the other side, some dude offered me moonshine. And then the heavens opened up, the wind howled, and it freaking POURED. I started running, and I didn’t stop. I felt everything.

Here I was, having had the worst flu of my adult life only weeks prior.  Here I was, with admittedly undertrained legs but what I was realizing was an extremely well-trained mind.  It was so far from where I’d been not too long ago.  A place every run was a chance to push as hard as I could. Every race was a battle to prove myself. And yet every single day was an utter disappointment. For a generally happy person, that’s a pretty shitty way to live your life, let me tell you what.

The rain eventually abated, but my renewed sense of stoke did not. At this point, I had cranked some Marshall Tucker Band, and was bordering on D-Bo level.  The MOST stoked person I know. I sang every other word as I went to work running every step, both up and down.  Nothing hurt. Nothing mattered. I was fully and wholly in it. The flow I had forseen.

Unsurprisingly, I started catching various groups of people.  At first, it was the folks I’d been jockeying with earlier on Duncan Ridge – I told them I’d see them later as I passed, but I had an unshakable feeling that I wouldn’t. Then it was others, whom I hadn’t seen all day – and people who looked way faster than I. I tried really hard to doubt myself, but I couldn’t. “Ride me a Southbound…. All the way to Georgia, now… ‘till the train run out of track.” Yes guys, that’s my plan.

Eventually, I hit a gravel road and soon after, another aid station. Just as unexpected as my 40-miles-but-fresh-legs was the knowledge that I’d be running this same rolling road all the way to the next crew spot.  Now, while I’m normally a total slut for singletrack, the ability to open my stride on the road was melting all the tension away from my lower back and hamstrings. So I was elated with the news. As such, I filled up with more Coke and set about getting to Dom again before dark. I had told him that if I reached him there before nighttime, that would mean I was doing way better than expected. This was clearly going to happen, and I was overjoyed, as I’m sure was he. Crewing at 2am is the worst.

The race had officially turn into a runner’s race at this juncture, and the most confusing thing in the world to me was that I was now excelling in the part that would normally be my downfall. I had hiked hard, yet been supremely outhiked in the first 30. I spent the majority of the first half of the race in 8th-10th place for the women, back in the 60s overall.  Now I was cruising the groomed road and and most of the folks I passed were walking.

I rolled up to my last refill with Dom, and we did another big protein reboot. I didn’t want to drink it, knowing how I felt the last time, but knew I needed to, again – remembering how renewed my legs felt once it digested. I threw in extra caffeine, extra solid food, and plenty more VFuels – which were the one thing I was loving all day. At each juncture, I had eaten every single one of them in my pack, with a heavy emphasis on the Peach Cobbler flavor. Because, Georgia.

Being a runner in the runner's race portion.
(photo: Dom)
Samesies!
Also, did I mention I gave myself a Death Day for my Birthday? HOW DID I NOT 
LEAD WITH THAT JOKE? 

Heading out into the evening, Dom ran alongside and talked tactical things with me – like, not getting cold, remembering to eat solid food, and keeping my general wits about me. He was happy to see that I was doing so well up to this point, better than expected by both of us, but also knew that there was almost a marathon to go and I hadn’t even run a marathon in distance yet in 2016. We were both acutely aware that there was still plenty of time for shit to go haywire.

I hit a lake just as the light was beginning to change, and stopped for a moment to soak it in. Whatever happened tonight, I had done so much more than I ever expected, and I knew I could take the pain of a few miserable hours if need be. During the “Fuck it” stage of my pre-race mentality, (which you can recall was the third and final phase), I began to get the feeling that I could at least finish the thing. That was now increasingly seeming like a reality, and I felt really, really proud of myself. I set about getting to the next aid station before dark. I later discovered that I was now catching people that were at one time an hour or more ahead of me. I was legitimately Diana Finkel-ing this thing.

The rest of the race was pretty uneventful, to be honest. My stomach never really recovered from the last round of protein – probably because I started running pretty hard, so I felt a little shitty for the rest of the evening. At one point, I started running on a concrete road, which was actually a backwoods highway to a very, backwoods community and if there was ever any doubt about my body’s ability to produce cortisol and adrenaline, said doubt was now officially vanquished. For starters, I didn’t really know how long I was going to be on this thing, so I kept wondering if I had missed a turnoff. For seconds, a kid told me “you gotta go all the way up the mountain. GOOD LUCK.” which seems sweet, but he said it in a super ominous tone. And for thirds, this lady in an SUV pulled a U-ey going like 40 miles-per-hour and almost slammed into me. Her husband, or guy or whomever was standing on the corner and basically told me she was drunk and I “gotta watch out for her – she’s crazy,” despite the very apparent fact that he was also drunk. And crazy. Of all the things I’ve ever encountered while running in the mountains, this immediately became the worst. There was actually a very good chance of getting hit by a drunk driver out here. It was concerning.

On the last roller of Take-Your-Life-Into-Your-Own-Hands Road, I caught up to Nicklaus Combs from Boulder, who was to be my compatriot for the rest of the evening.  Unsurprisingly, he knew Dom, or knew OF him, which meant he had seen my run bun in a great number of Instagrams and could see me approaching. He, too, was happy to have some company and we began to work together on the rest of the climb up the mountain.

We continued to reel people in, and eventually caught one of the last women I’d remembered seeing pass me early on. At the last aid station, they had told me I was in fifth, which meant that someone had dropped. I now knew it was one of the four women vying for the Western States spot, and I knew how badly at least three of them wanted it. My heart went out to whomever that might be, but from what I’d heard, it had been a proper battle for most of the day, so I hoped said lady was now resting with a beer and the knowledge that she’d given it a very good fight.

Nicklaus and I kept it up all the way to Amicalola. My stomach was officially jacked and I’d decided to just rely on a drip of Coke for the last few hours unless it became apparent that I would need some major calories. I had one VFuel left amongst my arsenal of solids, and I knew that was all I could stomach if it came down to it. The last two aid stations require 9+ mile sections between them, so at the last I made my final move: stuffing my pack with Ritz crackers and downing the Yerba Maté shot that had been jabbing me in the ribs for the last few hours. I knew there was a chance it could wreck my stomach, but also, I didn’t want to carry it anymore and it was $4, so I didn’t want to throw it away. This constitutes the biggest risk I took for the day, and it was mainly based on economics.

Running with a new friend for the last few hours really added to the experience for me. There was no focus on legs or self or place or really anything other than getting to the end. We chatted about our upcoming weddings, life, and all sorts of things. We waited for each other to take bathroom breaks. He pulled me on the uphill hikes. I pulled him on the downs.  Before long, we were reaching the lodge and the descent to the Amicalola Visitor’s Center. The first descent, that is.

Now, this is where Run Bum goes from some fun heckling about how we’re all going to die, and making us take the hardest route at all times, and being #sorrynotsorry and whatnot, to just being plain mean.  You literally get within yards of the finish line, and instead of collapsing across it in a blaze of relief and glory, you turn right.  YOU FUCKING TURN RIGHT.

Then you run up a trail to the base of 600 stairs that climb straight up the waterfall. There is even a sign that says, “Very Strenuous.” And if you are me, your heart goes absolutely haywire and you repeatedly exclaim up to Nicklaus, “This isn’t good, man.  Iiiii’m going to puuuuuuuke.” But then you eventually reach the top, and you look out on the land like you are Simba or some shit and everything the light touches is yours. Only it’s dark, so it’s not, but you still FEEL that way. And that’s what’s important.

Amicalola Falls, as depicted by the painting hanging in my parents' bedroom since 1980.
Amicalola Falls, as depicted by Dom's calves.
As we headed into the final descent, I chuckled to myself. Yet another reason I’d chosen this race is that it was more than 100k but less than 100 miles. I’ve been saying for awhile that my ideal distance would be a race of 78 miles, and now here I was, not exactly wishing for more miles, but knowing that if I had them, I’d continue to get relatively stronger.  72 just wasn’t quite long enough.

But like I said, I was perfectly fine with it being over. Now. For the Bum’s final trick, he made us cross a freezing creek rather than use the perfectly good bridge, but honestly at that point I was too out of my mind on an exhaustion/endorphin trip to find it anything other than a completely acceptable request. Nicklaus and I crossed together in 15:52, before midnight, in exactly the timeframe I thought possible if I had a good day and ran a smart race. We exchanged our rusty railroad spikes for new, also rusty railroad spikes, but these were engraved. The one that made the journey on my back was now laid to rest in a coffin, where I immediately noticed not many others resided. I ended up in my very favorite position – 4th – for the women, and 19th overall.  Seemed like a pretty good day for someone who was convinced she was horribly undertrained. 

I’m thinking it was definitely the axe.

Dom celebrating the death of Katie DeSplinter. The next race, I'll be a Grossman.
(photo: Ashley Walsh for EastUltra)

NERD ALERT THINGS:
Shoes: New Balance Vazee Summit, aka the best shoe of all time
Socks: Injinji Snow OTC. Very stylish.
Pack:  Nathan Vapor Airess – my new fave
Fuel:  VFuel, Coke, 1 Picky Bar, Recovery mix, and 2 Ritz crackers. Just 2.
Headlamp: Petzl NAO

Shades: Didn’t wear any on my eyes, but I wore Julbos on my heart.



Recovery items.

Thank you, Mr. Run Bum for an absolutely fantastic race that we will for sure be back to do again. Georgia is good people. Thanks for having us!

6 comments:

  1. Congrats Katie - what a fantastic performance! I really want to do GDR but please don't tell me they MAKE you hold the snakes or it just wouldn't happen for me.

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  2. "I started running, and I didn’t stop. I felt everything." New favorite quote.

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  3. Way to go Katie! Unbelievable job well done. Also one of the most enjoyable race reports I've ever read. Dig the inclusion of existentialism, Simba and your description of "The Road" - aka Smokey & the Bandit meets The Devil's Rejects meets Deliverance.

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  4. If it can't be a great race, it's at least always a great read. Glad it was both - 'grats KD.

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  5. Great job, and great read! T-shirts should be made: "Fuck it! (sashay out the door and proceed)"

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  6. Glad to have you back on the blog. Great job, and good luck at Hardrock!

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