I won’t dismiss any of our accomplishments over the past eight months. Burning River 100, Beat the Blerch Marathon, a handful of Tough Mudders, World’s Toughest Mudder for PJ in November, NYC Marathon for me. But the failed attempt at Burning River 100 (dropping at 80 miles) had weighed pretty heavy for both of us since. PJ also wasn’t so satisfied with his performance at World’s this year so doing something really freakin’ tough and finishing was something we both needed to happen.
Sadly, I spent way too many nights crying and beating myself up thinking I was pretty inadequate. While 80 miles was 50 miles more than I had ever ran in my life before then (going straight to a 100 from a 50K was pretty ballsy IMHO) still only having 20 miles to go and not being able to do it is heartbreaking. I couldn’t bend my legs to make it up even the smallest step. Hell, I even had no choice but to crap standing up in a cornfield on a single-track as people passed me and shined their headlamps at me. I’m pretty shameless these days from things like this, so the failure did give me that.
It was time to train relentlessly for something and come through victorious, to validate my (our) abilities to do hard things. Cue Georgia Death Race. 68 miles in the Georgia mountains from Amicalola State Park to Vogel State Park with 40,000ft. of elevation change. The week leading up to Georgia Death Race I started getting a ton of anxiety. Sure, we had been doing plenty of hill and elevation training (the Hoover Reservoir Dam hill, hours on the treadmill, the Stairmaster) but not really getting to run actual technical hills in training can leave you questioning whether you’re truly ready for a race like this.
Race morning was a little more soggy than expected, but much warmer than the Ohio temperatures we were used to so it wasn’t all that bad. We had snagged a couple of pretzel buns from our hotel the day before so we munched on those and took off. We started up the stairs at Amicalola to the second-largest waterfall in Georgia. It only took us 604 steps to get up there! Actually, these weren’t bad at all (thanks, Stairmaster!) and the next 30 miles consisted of mostly paved and gravel forest service roads which we hit pretty good paces compared to what we thought we’d be doing in this race.
Those first 40 miles were nothing but joy. PJ and I discussing random life things, taking in the scenery, meeting new people, everything was going strangely great. We even got made fun of quite a bit for stopping to stretch and keeping things fluid. At one point we both even looked at each other and said “I’m kind of nervous with how well this is going. When are we going to be totally blasted with pain?!”
We came into Point Bravo, the Mile 43 aid station in good spirits. Jimmy, Nikhil’s crew and another Rocks & Roots person from Columbus, was there so seeing him was refreshing, someone who had their life together at that point. As we left and had a few continuous climbs, things started to feel hard. I felt like I was slogging up the hills, not powering up them as I had done the previous 40+ miles. I kept telling myself I just needed to get warmed up again as we hadn’t hit stretches like this in a little bit and we stopped for longer than we had all day at Point Bravo.
Then around mile 44, I couldn’t even run anymore. My stomach was wretched. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that bad on a run. By mile 45, I decided to just let myself be sick, quit trying to stomach the vomit down. As awful and taxing as it was in that moment, after walking for a little bit after, I started to get my second (or third or fourth or fifth) wind of the day. I was ready to knock out as many miles as we could before total darkness.
Somewhere between getting sick and Fish Gap at mile 52, Tobey, a runner from Georgia, joined our pack. It was nice to have someone to ramble nonsense to and pass the time. We rolled into Fish Gap all in good spirits, each threw down a grilled cheese and found Nikhil and were off into the darkness with our pack of 4. It was nice to be surrounded by 3 other people who you knew that no matter what, you all were going to make it through this thing and were going to finish, even if 3 of you had to dog sled the other one the rest of the way. The camaraderie that ensues late into the night at ultra races is indescribable.
Around mile 56, things went south again, and it wasn’t the trail because we were on a beautifully steady incline that I could only bare about .10 mile before I had to stop, gag, and catch my breath. But I kept moving, as much as I could, taking sips from Tobey’s Coke as much as I could (if it weren’t for our friendship on Facebook I might think she was an angel who never really existed and just came to save me because that Coke changed my life at least 10 times).
But I failed to realize that Coke was the only thing making it into my stomach. We were doing a good amount of walking at this point with the slippery rocky trail and mud, so our miles were taking a little longer. Meaning I was running on my severely emptying fumes for the next seven miles. The rain wasn’t letting up at this point either and my hands began to swell so bad that I couldn’t put on my gloves so I left them bare.
By the time we reached Mile 59 AS, White Oak Stomp, I was a mute mess. PJ could see this and rushed to get me some food, as did the others. I decided to sit by the heater and warm up a bit and we all decided to put our thermal layer on. Once I sat, the shivering became really intense and I failed to really be able to comprehend what anyone was saying to me or how to answer them. So I’d just nod yes or no, not really knowing what I was responding to. I got as many ramen noodles as I could down and a volunteer made me chomp on 4 Tums and sent me on my way with a handful more. (I’ve decided Tums are going to be a necessity for me in ultras as I’ve never had things go perfectly in the gut region in a race yet.)
I remember asking PJ to just leave me there and that I’d drop. The pains were so bad that walking was unbearable and running was impossible. I truly wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it and I couldn’t do the math to know that at my pace everyone else would finish too. I didn’t dare to think of anyone not getting their finishers spike because of me.
With the encouragement of PJ, Nikhil and Toby, I somehow snapped out of my mindset, and we made our way up Coosa. I wanted to cry at how much support I had right in front of me which felt much greater than just 3 people, as we walked away and they all shouted for me “197 OUT!” and the volunteers cheered us away. Good thing I was way too tired to cry at this point.
The next 9ish miles weren’t easy. But I came back to life after I began to see the finish. The fog followed us heavily throughout but in a matter of time, we exited the trail and saw the Finish. We walked what felt like was in sync, together, and got our spikes. THIS is what draws us back to ultras each and every time. An experience unlike any other you might ever have in your life, bonding strangers who are struggling equally, who sometimes give up parts of their own goal to help you achieve yours.
Yea, there were some mistakes. Ones that I’m certain I’ll learn from. But finishing a 68+mile race, with 40,000ft. of elevation change, on a rainy day in the Georgia Mountains, becoming sick with a marathon to go and overcoming obstacles, those mistakes can’t take away from that. I still smile just thinking about crossing the finish line of something called the Georgia Death Race, and getting my spike; a material object that holds much more weight than the railroad tracks they supported ever will in my mind.
We can do hard things. We can accomplish more than the average public wants us to believe we can. We can beat ourselves up physically for a day only to forego beating ourselves up for never trying years down the road. This finish gave the train a little more fuel in the engine to get to the next stop, the Florida Keys 100, a 100 mile run from Key Largo to Key West.
Bib 197 OUT!