Seventy-five of us hit the course at noon on Friday, May 15th, the first leg of the Cruel Jewel 100-mile ultra-marathon which follows the Coosa Backcountry Trail out of the Chattahoochee National Forest. I took up a position around 10-15th place as we rolled quickly by Wolf Creek, the first aid station, then hit our first big climb -2000 vertical feet- to the top of Coosa Bald. A few miles later we descended to the White Oak Stomp aid station. I enjoyed the camaraderie of those first ten miles, getting acquainted with guys like Jake from Idaho, Miles, Mike, Aaron, Nathan and others. Soon enough the field would inexorably spread; racers few and far between, the light conversation of the social, early miles replaced by the quiet introspection of the solitary ultra athlete.
I must keep on task, solidly moving ahead. How far can I get before nightfall? The crazy unrelenting steepness of the Duncan Ridge Trail is behind me now -until the return, that is. Such technical steepness is one reason for the extreme difficulty and slow finish times of the Cruel Jewel; there’s lots of hiking -and perhaps crawling- involved.
I’m now trying to make some time on the Benton Mackaye Trail, named for the visionary behind the famed Appalachian Trail. I’m thinking Poison Ivy Trail might be a good alternative name; the noxious weed is healthy and plentiful and constantly brushing my legs. Oh well, at least the itchy effects won’t likely be noticed until after the race is over. The aid stations fall behind me -Fish Gap, Skeenah Gap, Wilscot Gap- and the smiling helpful souls tending them I won’t see again until much later. I’m headed toward Old Dial Road now, via a big long climb up and over Brawley Mountain.
“The climb to the fire tower will be one long 3.2 miles,” Mike warns, having been here before. Ok, I hunker down. Two-thirds of the way up I notice a wet area a little off the trail and spy a pipe with a decent flow of water issuing forth. The words of my training buddy Joe echo in my mind, “The heat is a potential unraveler. Take advantage of any trail-side water source you come across to douse yourself down.” Unraveler. I love that description. He’s right, of course. The heat has been my biggest challenge so far, and water sources have been few. Dousing my head in the cold water, washing the grime off of my hands and arms, is a godsend. The cool-off helps propel me up the mountain in renewed spirits and I yodel to the fire tower as I bob past it.
“Shallowford Bridge 4.5 Miles,” reads the next sign I encounter. Ahh, that’s the next big landmark of the course, the Taccoa River crossing. And I can get there before dark. I’m sure of it.
“You may find the trail torn up by wild boars, but the course markings should be sufficient to keep you from getting lost,” went one of the prerace announcements. Huh? Wild boars? They don’t maul people do they? I did find signs of boars out in those Georgia mountains, where the trail was dug up in their foraging, but I never got physically lost – mentally yes!- on the course, and being attacked by a boar turned out to be the least of my worries.
The course drops steeply, still on the Benton MacKaye trail, and deposits me onto a gravel road amid a semblance of civilization: cabins along the Taccoa River. I cross the river on the old steel span, pause to dunk my head into the cool current, and jog along country roads for a few miles to the Stanley Creek trail head where there’s an aid station, mile 37. Cheerful volunteers fix me up with some delicious chicken noodle soup.
Time spins in the weird way that I’ve only experienced during ultras, and after enjoying the fragrance of honey suckle along quiet, dark Snake Nation Road, I arrive at the modest hustle and bustle of Camp Morganton—Cruel Jewel 100 turnaround point. It’s about midnight at mile 52, not quite the halfway point since there’s an extra out-and-back to Weaver Creek on the return, but nonetheless I’m happy to be at this important landmark. When asked by race director Josh Saint what I want here there is no hesitation: ice water if at all possible! Josh rummages and finds a large stonewear mug which he fills with ice and water and delivers to me. Ahhhh. This is definitely one of the best drinks I’ve ever had. Period.
With grilled cheese sandwich in hand I head out into the night, along with Helen and Tim with whom I have been loosely affiliated for the past few hours.
Helen and I ran much of the first loop of the Flat Creek Trail together. She’s tough and inspires me with her steadfast courage and calm. Now we exchange light conversation but not much; weariness is setting in and we must focus on the task at hand—getting through the night.
And this night is a black one. There’s no moon above and even if there was the heavy foliage overhead on most of the course would obscure it. My world is eerily limited to that illuminated by the white light of my headlamp. The hoots of several pairs of Barred owls accompany me as I go. My brain has gone interstellar but there is nevertheless a song that continues to intermittently burn within it —”Head Over Heels,” by the Go-Go’s, circa 1982. It’s not a bad song. I can live with it.
At some point early in that engaging night, perhaps at about the 47-mile point, I had a brief, frank discussion with myself. I realized that in spite of my intense training and focus over the previous months, the hard conditioning physically and mentally that I had devoted to preparing for the Cruel Jewel, it might not be enough. Finishing this race may be beyond my capability.
I pause at the Deep Gap aid station for the fourth and final time. It anchors the course’s two loops of the Flat Creek Trail, one inbound and one outbound. The atmosphere at Deep Gap is grim. I’m relieved to finally be moving on from the place, on to other treacherous suffering in the form of Weaver Creek.
The Weaver Creek funfest is a 6-mile out-and-back jaunt undertaken only on the return trip from Camp Morganton. Twice would have killed me. Getting to Weaver Creek aid station involves a torturous drop of 1,800 vertical feet. It seems a little wretched down here at my predawn visit, and as murderous as the climb out is, and as spoiled as I’m feeling -that’s the opposite of fresh, right?- I am cheered to be moving up and out of that hole.
Coming up on noon on Saturday May 16th I’ve been moving for 24 hours, longer than my previous longest outing -the Grindstone 100- at 23:09. It’s an odd feeling, moving into uncharted waters of endurance. A brief systems check reveals that I’m still in one piece and still moving. Would I need to sleep in order to finish the race? I had decided beforehand not to nap during the race as a strategic move; I would only sleep if I absolutely had to.
It’s beautiful out on this course and I try to continually remind myself of that fact. The mountain laurel blossoms are in profusion, and occasionally I pass a resplendent orange- flowered variety. And a good look at the exquisite Pink Lady Slippers I encounter helps me deal with “the room of pain.”
I meet up with my beloved crew of one, wife Marybeth, at my return to Old Dial Road aid station. It was agreed upon beforehand that she would not start pursuing me until Saturday morning, and this gave me incentive to get as much of the course behind me as possible before seeing her. I had really been looking forward to it and indeed to see her smiling face is a big boost. I try to smile for her too! She douses me with water from a gallon jug and sends me on my way -severely depleted physically, yes, but considerably buoyed emotionally.
It’s about mile 82 and I’m awash in a dream state of low grade optimism with which I counter growing torment. I’m still moving along, but I’m lagging. From behind comes the only entrant with whom I was acquainted before the race, Kyle, a fellow Beast Ultra Series competitor from last year.
We chat briefly before Kyle announces, “Well, I’m feeling a second wind so I’m going to take advantage of it.” He moves ahead, while I remain in a slow groove of, well, inexorably losing my grip. A little while after Kyle disappeared, I pop out of my funk -become lucid again- with a novel thought: if Kyle can get a second wind then so can I! I laugh aloud at the thought of willing myself a sense of renewed energy, and further I giddily announce aloud, “that’s it, by golly. I’m getting a second wind too!” And I do.
The mind controls it all. One’s spirit, and the ebb and flow of the virtually limitless energy it can access, is what controls the physical performance. Someone once said that ultra running is “90% mental and 10% mental.” You read that correctly. Physical training for ultra racing is simple: you run for hours at a time on difficult trails over a period of weeks and months. It’s the psychological conditioning that’s the most demanding for successful ultra running.
Perhaps I would like to be able to say, “the last few hours of the race passed in a haze.” But no, they didn’t. I remember every detail of those last miles, I remember exactly how I felt.
After twenty-six hours of running I’ve returned to climbing Rhodes Mountain, on the Dragon’s Spine of the Duncan Ridge Trail. It’s “Game On” as the race course description goes. And I thought it had been ‘game on’ for the past 26 hours already. Anyway, further described as “ridiculously steep,” I concur. It’s slow going; I’m hiking a lot. Listen to this course description of this section, representative of the whole race really: “continue climbing Rhodes Mountain, descend to Rhodes Gap, ascend Chinquapin Ridge, descend into Gregory Gap, ascend Gregory Mountain, then climb Payne Knob, descend to Sarvis Gap, then climb High Top Mountain, then finally drop to Fish Gap and aid station.
Pressing on to White Oak Stomp aid station, I’m amazed that I’m still underway and making progress toward home. A high point along here is that I run, on and off, with Mike, a kindred soul whom I met within the first few miles of the race. His wife and teenage sons have been with Marybeth at the last few aid stations and we’re all feeling in this thing together. At White Oak Stomp, mile 97.9, Marybeth waters me down and gets me fortified – more Snickers, some mini Moon Pies- for the remaining ten miles to the finish, and Mike picks up a pacer, his 14-year-old son.
As a father of three sons myself, that makes this very weary and beat up guy smile. I leave the aid station first -remember, I don’t stop for long- but soon Mike and son breeze past me. They are looking good and that gives me a lift too, even if I can’t quite keep up with them. Alone again, I work methodically to cover the last miles. Shadows are lengthening, and a glance at my watch confirms that I’ve been moving now for over 30 hours. How is that even possible I wonder. And can I finish before dark? I drop down the long 2000 vertical ft. descent of Coosa Bald and trot purposefully bythe last aid station -unmanned, water only- at Wolf Creek. I’m really strung out mentally now.
I glance at my watch. It’s almost 20:00, 8:00PM, Saturday night, and that means I’ve been running for almost 32 hours. Up ahead I see an opening in the trees. Its the trailhead, where this path I’m pounding spills out onto the road. I see signs, cars, people. I’m headed down the hard surface now. I can see the finish line banner at the picnic pavilion. I see more people. I start whooping with joy -hoarsely, involuntarily. I’m. Going. To. Make it. I’m going to finish the Cruel Jewel 100. I see Marybeth. I think I’m crying. I stumble through the chute in a time of 32 hours, 5 minutes, and 5 seconds. Out of 75 starters I’m 18th place overall.
A total of 48 would eventually finish. I never fell down during the entire race – amazing- but I am seriously wobbling now. Marybeth holds me by the arm and leads me over to the finishers table where co-race director Leigh Saint presents me with the biggest, baddest, most beautiful belt buckle I’ve ever seen. I immediately think, “this is the most difficult-to-acquire possession I own.” I am awash in gratitude, relief, and happiness. Thanks to my tag team crew of Broaddus and Marybeth, all the race volunteers, and of course the very many who’ve inspired me.
Within the hour I’ve eaten a plateful of fully-loaded nachos, downed a liter of water and passed out in the tent with Marybeth. Eight hours later I awaken to a new day, a new life. Life, that is, after the Cruel Jewel 100.
Anything. Is possible.