This last weekend, I took off for the hills of north Georgia for a research run. Several runners and myself signed up for the 72-ish mile Georgia Death Race for some god awful reason and now we have to train. And to train, we have to gather, which kinda happens like this:
“Hey, we’re renting a cabin for the weekend, wanna come?
“Cool! Food, booze, games, and campfires are the plan.”
“This sounds terrific!”
“Yeah, and Saturday, how do you feel about doin’ a little 30 mile run through the hilliest, climbiest section of the Death Race?”
We needed to run the hilliest, climbiest stuff. I needed reminding how frickin’ hellish the first half of this race was.
So I arrived after dark on Friday to a cabin full of badasses ready to hurt for the sake of fun and knowledge. But first, we played Exploding Kittens.
Our sleepy little creepy cabin.
Saturday, our entire group ran the first leg up Coosa Trail, a beautiful and hardy beginning. We agreed later that we started a bit fast. It takes one person to charge forward, and the rest of us competitive doofwads chase after. But really, why not? This isn’t the race. This is the time to have fun and screw around, make mistakes, and get just shitty tired.
After one person turned back to rest an injury, the rest of us started a brutal series of climbs on the Duncan Ridge Trail. I enjoy using the word “brutal” here, as we may have literally climbed faster with all four limbs digging into the hills before us.
The climbs of Saturday – we finished with approx. 8k feet climbing, my device was off for a while. The two badasses who ran a few miles more ended up with around 10k feet climb.
Everyone ran to his or her own groove, drinking or eating along the way. We stayed mostly together, but near mile 17 I was feeling the hills. I lagged behind, admiring just how awesome these folks were. Once I slowed down, my happiness made a full return. I realized I’d been growing more frustrated. When I stopped running everyone else’s pace and made this run my own, my world balanced. I knew where we were going, so it didn’t matter if I got dropped, and I had a water filter so…I’d survive? And honestly, we stayed pretty near each other because of so much climbing.
The race has an out-and-back that takes runners north to Skeenah Gap, then runners turn around and head south on the Benton MacKaye Trail to the Toccoa Swinging Bridge. Another guy and myself skipped the out-and-back (he ran a 100-miler 4 weeks before), we wanted to get to the end and put our feet in the cold creek waiting for us. Along the way, we sat at a beautiful overlook for a few moments.Rolling farmland stretched out below. Proud homes perched above cascading mounds of grass, beaming an earthly glow. A highway weaved in and out of view, slipping away, finally, into the bottom of the mountains. I thought about how racing last year I had not stopped to enjoy the views enough. So for now, I meant to sit and take it in.
The Saturday route, minus the out-n-back to Skeenah Gap
Sunday, we ran a few times around Amicalola Falls to get the finish line in mind. We ran down East Ridge Trail – up the approach trail and 600 stairs to the top of the falls, and down the West Ridge Trail. At the bottom of the West Ridge Trail, runners are supposed to run through a creek as the finish line. I remembered how I’d fixated on that creek last year. I thought I would leap through it and give the RD (Race Director) a ferocious high-five. Instead, I had lumbered through the blessedly cold creek cautiously, grinning despite the agony in my legs. Mind-numb from lacking sleep and happy to finally be done, I must have given the the RD the fishiest fish-hand high five of my life.
Anyway, with that bit of research done, we ran back up the East Ridge Trail and started our approach to Springer Mountain. The Springer Mountain Approach Trail leads to the southernmost point of the Appalachian trail. Hikers starting their voyages northward hang out on baking slabs of rock, signing the log-book which is kept in a lock box chiseled into a boulder. A fair number of hikers we passed were heading that way, huge packs stuffed to survive! Many of them cheered us on as we ran, which is strange. They will be hiking for much longer, months onward, whereas our run ends in a few hours.
But, does a run ever, truly end?
One of our runners turned back in order to return to town, and two of us continued to Signal Mountain. We ran through Nimblewill Gap, making note of it being the last real aid station of the Death Race. By the time I reached this point again, I’d be a sad mess of a human.
After a steady climb, we paused to admire the top of Signal Mountain. We watched the hikers prep their bags for the AT. One guy marked us as an audience and launched into a story of marching through a Mardi Gras parade in a tux handing out paper flowers, and my fellow runner and I politely listened. We gently inched around, motioning to start heading back. Hikers have stories, man, and sometimes it can be better than Radio Lab.
Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers at the beginning of their journeys.
Once we did start back, fatigue jumped on my back like a wet monkey wearing a weight vest in steel-toe boots. Mix that with creeping dehydration, and I started dragging ass. I was running low on water, and I bonked. I waved on my fellow runner, I knew where we were going, after all. She smiled and said, “Alright!” and disappeared over the hill.
With only 3-ish miles to go, I tuned down my running to a sensible trot. My brain wasn’t recovering well, though. By the time I reached a creek, which was pitifully close to the finish, I sat down and filtered water. I relished the pause. The water from the creek was freezing, and perfect. Now I could finally take the last steps in comfort!
This training weekend was perfect. I deserve a decent ass kicking for one reason or another, but in this case the pain prepares me for some seriously evil miles ahead. The body will be as ready as it can be. The mind…well, I’ll try and read some inspirational poetry to keep myself in gear. In the meantime, I get to chase after/run with these well-trained runners before they race for podium at the Georgia Death Race. Males and females winning 1st and 2nd place in both genders receive “golden tickets” to Western States, and I’m hoping I can cheer for some friends this year. Hell, I may fly out there just to yell encouragements at them.