This race was forever ago, the beginning of December. I’ve written two different drafts on it, but I didn’t like them. So here it is.
TL;DR — I got 4th place in a 46 miler against some stellar runners. There were a bunch of mistakes made by everyone, and it was a cold, rainy , muddy day. People dropped due to hypothermia or general ugghhness. Volunteers so happy and chummy, you wanted to squeeze them to death. For their warmth. Bagels so cream slathered and carbacious, the only decent thing to do would be to draw the shades, dim the lights, and sing praises to a toasty, poppy-seeded lord.
My race became competitive in the last half. I got a kick-ass mug trophy.
I left the house at 4:30a.m. First mistake. The race was an hour-and-a-half away, so I’d arrive at 6 a.m., if I drove perfectly.
*Race arrivals are never perfect*
The race started at 6:30a.m., so I had enough time to check-in, for an uneventful bathroom attempt, and to pop in my contacts. When I heard the runners start, I tripped over my untied shoes and half pulled-up tights while still dressing at my car. It was dark and I couldn’t see where the start was, but by god I heard those on-time jerk-faces hootin’ and hollerin’ as they stomped off. Like, who starts a race exactly on time?! I saw headlights bobbing away on top of a hill I had no idea how to reach. Another late runner with killer red hair extensions ran up and helped me find a staircase. We climbed that, wished each other luck and were off. So, I started at the very back of the pack, with my headlight in my hand, and, in my rush to get dressed, I had brought about half of the gear I’d meant to bring. It was a cold day, and it was going to be a long, cold day.
The positive about starting at the back, I got to spend time passing people. Aside from serving my ego, this meant I got to interact with everyone racing (just not those really, really fast people). Little hello’s and quips about “what a fine morning this is, fellow Earthlings!” Real nice.
The sun slowly rose somewhere behind a gloomy grey fog and rain. The morning was warm, and I removed my waterproof shell jacket, exposing my arms and throat-wearing only a sleeveless top. There’s a fine balance in maintaining core temperature, and overworking the body in order to keep heated. Someone else can explain the science, but it felt good, I went with it. My hands turned to icy stones, yet the cold air felt invigorating. Even as the rain poured down, I hesitated putting my shell back on. Eventually, I’m glad I did.
At the second aid station, I stopped to put the jacket back on. My hands were totally numb. I fired active thoughts to my fingers, telling them to close, to open. It took me some thirty frigid seconds to undo the zipper on my pack. Under a freezing, foggy sunrise I performed a sloth’s rain dance. Holding my jacket and spinning, my arms outstretched and searching for a sleeve. Feet drawing circles in the broken gravel earth. For centuries I danced. Runners passed before me. Whether they saw me, or through me, I do not know.
And the rain fell, eternal.
Once all that was finished, I warmed up under my jacket. With the rain and mist no longer landing directly on my skin, I realized I had been operating under stupid cold. My adrenaline had pushed me forward, but with still 30+ miles to go, I’d have bonked hard at some point.
I had forgotten my buff and a long-sleeved shirt, so I was less warm than I suddenly wanted to be. So I stuck the zipped-up collar of my thin shell-jacket over my mouth and practiced deep, rhythmic breathing to keep myself warm. It was super effective. I improvised rhythms, and my breath warmed my upper body. Again, look somewhere else for the science, but I am now a fan of breathing techniques. I imagined someone watching me, hearing my “Hrrrrrrrhh”, “Hrahhhhhhh”, and “HrroooooH” Viking-esque battle chants. Very impressive it would be, I’m sure. That raw…ness.
The rain dogged runners throughout the morning. Hills churned into muddy rivers, soaking the feet to the shins. To run on the side of a flowing trail, runners risked slipping on leaves or tripping on hidden roots. Yet, none of this detracted from the beautiful land. Fog walled off distant views, but in my imagination I ran miles above the world through misty, forgotten hills. Rain filled creeks did not babble, but burst! Flipping over themselves in raucous play, overjoyed for the excess water.
Somewhere near the halfway point, I ran into an aid station and watched a man stumble away, supported by two women on either side. He’d forgotten his gloves on the aid table, so I jogged them over to him. I called out, “Hey! Are these yours?” At first he didn’t look back, all I could see was his curly blonde hair bouncing with each lumbering step. He was dressed like a contender: short-shorts, sleeveless-top, arm-sleeves, a hairband and a small hand-bottle. One of the women turned underneath his arm to take the gloves. She said thank you, and the man slowly turned to face me. Dude was halfway between our world and another. Beyond obvious fatigue, I guessed early hypothermia. Lethargic movements, unresponsive, generally pitiful. But, he was the one walking away with ladies under each arm, so it wasn’t all that bad, eh?
(A few photos I found online of the course–just imagine crappier, rainier conditions)
This part was confusingly different from so much of the trail, but a pleasant interim. (C/O: atlantatrails.com)
Here’s a good photo of some wispy trail from a blog called Georgia Snail–This runner has another nice write-up of running these trails, linked here => Georgia Snail
Snagged another photo from Georgia Snail
Dancing along a wisp of trail, I twinkle-toed over jagged rocks and roots. A chest-high embankment on my left exposed the roots of trees above, and a steep drop to my right, a creek about 10 meters down. I could see trails weaving on the other side of the creek, certainly where I was headed. When I approached the crossing, I was too far upstream to cross without getting my feet wet. Well, I thought, it’s not that far a jump. Instead of walking back to a narrower section, I leapt onto a log lodged midway in the water. My dumb idea formed into a realization just as my toes touched the log, which disappeared below the water. My foot followed, plunging into the icy waters. The creek frothed around my ankle as my hands shot skyward like an Olympic diver preparing to spring skyward. My arms then settled wide (2nd position) so as to welcome as much of the water’s surface as possible. Water that appeared quite excited to receive me, too. Perhaps a rock or two would say hello. As the cheek of my face met the creek, as water spilled over my mouth, I tasted churned sediment, and I uttered, “Nice,” and splashed below.
The icy water crawled over me, seizing my legs up to my waist. Murky dirt wrapped my tongue. My hands found leverage, and I laid prostrate with the water flowing over me, smirking. I knew I was an idiot. But this idiot just stumbled into a much needed mid-race ice bath. It felt amazing! I laid in the water for a few seconds, laughing at myself and soaking up the rejuvenating cold. I climbed out breathing quickly from the shock. My steps fell with a squish! But my squishes were fresh!
“Hohhh yeah, you’re in seventh place!”
I choked on a mouthful of grilled cheese, staring at the human who’d recently taken up fibbing with strangers.
“Ho Ho, oh yeah, you’re doing pretty well! Those other fellas were just a minute or two ahead of ya, Ho Ho Hooo!”
This strange Saint Nicholas of Grilled Cheeses must have been confused. I’d spent this race talking to people and eating so much more food than usual. I’d started dead last.
I wiped crumbs from my mouth, filled my water bottle and waved goodbye. Saint Nick of Grilled Cheeses and his wood elves wished me luck. If I was only a minute or two behind, I wondered if I could close the distance. I picked up my pace.
The time between aid stations started to shrink. I bustled into the next aid station and spotted a runner ahead of me, Mr. sixth place. I’d spied him on and off for the last twenty miles. He was refilling one of his bottles and speaking with a volunteer. While he spoke and messed with his pack, I slipped in right beside him, hurriedly refilling my water bottle and sports drink. I saw him look at me, but I focused on refilling my bottles. Capped off, I shoved the bottles into my vest and took off! I heard him stuffing his pack together as I ran. The moment I was out of view I gunned it. I didn’t want him to lock onto me and know where I was. I wanted him to believe I disappeared, that I was running too hard to catch.
The weird thing was, I was running hard. I ran terribly hard to distance myself from him. By casting this illusion, I pushed myself into making it real. Though, in some ways it was still an illusion. Neither he nor I knew how close we were. So I kept pushing hard.
Pine Mountain 46 Miler is an out and back. By now I was backtracking over terrain I had seen before, so I had a general idea of how far I was from the finish. Every landmark or pile of rocks I recognized brought a jolt excitement and anxiety. The sands of time had shifted, becoming bottom heavy. There was little time left to play. Before long, I noticed somebody gaining on me. It wasn’t the runner I’d left at the aid station. This was a dude in shorts, dry-fit T-shirt, and a ball-cap with a handheld bottle. He cruised on up and started drafting me. Cool. We did this for a while, and I figured he would politely wait for an opening to run around me. But after we ran past several excellent opportunities, he still ran behind me. So I stopped. I stood to the side of the trail and looked at him.
“Dude, just run ahead of me.”
He mumbled an agreement and moved forward. We resumed running, but I drafted him now. He asked my name, I got his, and he prodded for a small conversation. Despite my excitement for doing so well, I wasn’t in the mood for pleasant chatter. If anything, I became inordinately agitated. I didn’t contribute much. After a time, he slowed and decided to pee. I carried on at the same pace. Again, once I was out of view, I charged over the hills. I attacked the technical sections, wanting to lose this guy. Now I was running from two fast people.
Just before the next aid station, I found the 5th place runner. He gave me a great smile, telling me, “Good job!” as I passed him. This dude was incredible. He had on a cotton T-shirt underneath a blue flannel that had long since been defeated by the rain. A pair of simple shorts and a handheld bottle. His hair slicked against his head from sweat and rain. Exposed to the elements so, I was crazy impressed with his strength. And, he was still smiling. Even so, I hopped into the aid station and, again, hurriedly filled my bottles and swung back to the trail. I saw him leave the aid station behind me. He wasn’t going to let me take 5th. I was going to have to run the remaining miles as hard as I could.
A few minutes outside of the aid station I tripped. I tried to roll out of it, which I usually do well, but this time the outside of my left knee slammed into a rock. It felt not good. I stood up and immediately started moving, but it took a minute before I could put my full weight on my left leg. I leaned into it, placing my left hand on the knee and hobbling forward. I know I looked crazy and pathetic, but all I could think about was the flannel-shirt guy catching up. He’d smile, and he’d pass me. And that’d be that. I breathed heavily as my leg began to feel better. I muttered to myself, “Go as far as you can, for as long as you can.” A silly mantra I’d started earlier in the race. I began to fixate on the words, like a wee wizard in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
At one point, I spotted another runner ahead of me. I snuck up quietly as possible. Once he heard me, however, he didn’t say a word. He turned into the hill we were both marching up and tore full bore into it. He disappeared over the top. I hoped that I would catch him out of breath on the next series of hills. But no, I lost sight of him.
I knew that if I didn’t keep tackling the technical sections, the runners behind would gain on me. I knew they’d march the uphills, so I ran as much as I could over every hill. I began to feel a mix of painful fatigue, but electric excitement! I would steal a glance behind me when the trail would horseshoe around a bend. I kept running hard, because if I crashed I wanted to be as far ahead as possible.
I ran through the last aid station. A gamble, but I felt I had adequate fluids for the last leg. I remember running across two paved roads, and at each one my left leg flared with pain from the knee up. A pain I had felt on paved sections of the Georgia Death Race. I braced both knees with my hands and hobbled back onto trail. I knew these two roads put me dangerously close to the finish. The trees around me became more lush and green, the terrain more level. It was dark when we started, but I remembered this from the beginning. When I spotted the slick bridge I had nearly slipped on before, I knew I was only a few minutes out. Then, I spotted cars through the trees ahead. I chugged liquids and pounded into the best sprint I could give.
Sprinting across the open field, I felt a new burst of life, and a wild sense of happiness to be done. I crossed the finish line in 08:56:42, hugged the heck out of the RD, and sat the hell down (1st place time was 06:44:34, for perspective–He was home and asleep by the time I finished). One of the finishers ahead of me informed me that a runner had gotten lost, so I actually came in 4th place. I stared at him for a few moments, then shook my head and laughed. My laugh wasn’t cold-hearted. So many times before, I had been the one to get lost. That’s part of the race. I was happy to place well on this cold and soggy day. Yet, I know that it sucks losing time because of a missed turn.
I watched runners come in for a while, clapping and cheering for them. The race director, a few volunteers, any friends or family of the runners, and myself hanging out by the finish.
It wasn’t exactly a hero’s welcome.
Our cheers dampened by the wet leaves and trees that, frankly, didn’t care. Birds and squirrels were chattier than us. Yet, with the finish line in sight, each runner’s own intimate battle swung into clear view. The head swiveled, followed by the body. Arms pumped the air. Feet fell sure, tearing into the earth. Eyes locked on the mark. Nothing left but a few steps until everything was over.
GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning Trailrunning Society) is incredible for putting this race on. I’ve loved getting to know its members more, and look forward to running more of their excellent races.
Now, it’s a bunch of mental and physical training for round two at the Georgia Death Race.