Back in March I ran in the opening race of the 2015 U.S. Skyrunner Series at the Georgia Death Race 68 Miler (GDR) that ran from Amicalola Falls State Park to Vogel State Park in the North Georgia Mountains. Aside from GDR being my first race of 2015 , and the first race of the Skyrunner Series, I was stoked to get down to see and explore the mountains of North Georgia. This area is probably a bit unrecognized by a lot of ultra runners around the United States, but it is a trail mecca, with the course crisscrossing the Appalachia Trail, and running on the Benton MacKaye Trail and Duncan Ridge Trail. These distinguished trail systems are all well-used by hikers and other outdoor recreationalists and maintained and treasured by local trail associations and other constituents. What it is known for by runners are the dramatic ups and downs, lack of switchbacks, and unrelenting steepness. This rugged and wild terrain definitely became evident during my race!
RunBumTours hosts the GDR and Sean Blanton (aka RunBum), the race director, touts the race as death itself. Although I wasn’t much into the pre-race antics that went back and forth on the Facebook. I tended to focus on what was real and present, like the actual course, logistics such as the elevation profile, distances of climbs and where they came along the course, etc., in my pre-race planning and not get caught up the the hype of ‘the death race’.
A rainy start at Amicalola Falls SP
The race was pretty calm in the early goings but still featured some stout climbing. We departed from the Amicalola Visitor Center and almost immediately started climbing up Amicalola Falls stairway, which was over 600 steps and nearly 1000 feet in less than a mile. From there we all dropped back down to the starting area on a gravel forest road before going right back up on a paved park road for nearly another 1000′ in a mile. During these first 3.5 miles and 2000′ of gain, I mainly just focused on conserving energy. Everyone hiked up the falls and then I transitioned from hiking to running up the long paved road. I hooked up with Travis Macy from Evergreen, Colorado for the first part as we were going about the same speed. Coincidentally it was Travis who I borrowed a handful of salt tablets from just 15 minutes before the start of the race, as I was quickly going from one person to another searching for some since I had forgotten my bottle was empty! That helped! It was nice getting to know him in the first part of the race. He told me about a new book he has just published called The Ultra Mindset and I’m looking forward to reading it.
We continued to go uphill for another 700′ on muddy forest paths to the Nimblewill Gap Aid Station at mile 7.5 at a controlled but still sub 9 minute pace. After the aid station it was a 9 mile downhill dropping almost 2000′ before entering the Jake Bull aid station. Although I was still focusing on being in control of pace, and limiting downhill quad pounding, I felt good enough to pull away from the guys I had climbed with and ran the next 4 miles at around 6:35 pace. The grade leveled out a bit and I maintained 7:00 pace until the next climb. In this section I ran into Andrew Miller, an 18 year old from Corvallis, Oregon, who has been running ultras since the age of 14, and who was one of the race favorites according to what I had seen. We chatted a bit and rolled into the Jake Bull aid station.
Andrew seemed like he was pretty calm and methodical in his running, and when we started the 6 mile, 1500′ climb up to Winding Stair Gap we comfortably matched each others pace. I am probably 8 inches taller than Andrew, and 8 years older, but we seemed similar in how we approached racing. As we jockeyed back and forth up the gravel Winding Stair Gap Rd. we came across the cycling race that was taking place on the same road we were on. We had been warned about this, and it was a bit interesting running up the hill the same speed or faster than the bikers. I chatted with one lady who was astonished that were were running further than their 50 mile ride. Of course, on any downhills, dozens of bikers came barreling down, brakes squealing, the red mud flying. It was somewhat nerve-racking thinking that I could maybe get run over by a biker.
As the climb steepened near the end, I stopped to relieve myself and Andrew passed me. I had no urgency in catching back up so I casually ran into the aid station and replenished my supplies with Andrew about a minute ahead. At this point David Kilgore was somewhere even further ahead in 1st place. I had heard he is a 2:17:00 marathoner and that he was a contender. Kilgore set off on a fast pace and it seemed reckless, but anytime there is someone ahead in a race, you need to at least keep check of them. At this point of 23 miles, I knew the race was far from over.
More downhills and frequent uphills on forest roads and paths went on for the next 6-7 miles before getting onto the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) and the first singletrack of the day. Andrew and I once again exchanged places a few times and was always pretty close to each other going into the Point Bravo aid station at around mile 40. I was really enjoying the singletrack during this section, and still focusing on fueling, hydrating, and staying relaxed. Andrew seemed to be climbing much better than me at this point, but then I could gain a little on downhills or any gradual sections.
At Point Bravo I got word that I was just behind Andrew and 8 minutes down on Kilgore. It didn’t seem like he had been gaining on us a while now, which made me think that carnage was setting in. I was just hoping I wasn’t carnage as well. Climbing out of Point Bravo, I feel that the course drastically became harder and that the real race began. A look at the elevation profile shows the steepness and frequency in the climbs after mile 40, with all of it being higher in elevation than the first half of the course.
Climbing out of Point Bravo at 40 miles I began feeling that uncomfortable lactic acid feeling creep into my legs. Andrew was climbing better than me and now I was feeling the hurt on the climbs. Most of the climbs required power hiking from all runners, and I was just trying to make sure Andrew wasn’t power hiking faster or running sections that I couldn’t. My mental focus began to think less about “racing” and more about how to take care of myself and persevere.
Although I was heavy going uphill, my legs were somehow still fresh. I was propelling forward with strength over downed logs, shifting well between rocks and roots. About a mile before Fish Gap aid station at mile 48 I caught a glimpse of Kilgore ahead on the trail. He was noticeably haggered, staggering up the 20-25% grade mountain. I gained on him quickly as I was running and gave him some encouragement as I passed. He barely uttered a sound. I glanced back a bit later when I was further up the hill after hearing a voice and he had called someone on the phone. His day was done and I was in 2nd place.
Although I was encouraged to move into 2nd place, I learned at the Fish Gap aid station that Andrew had put about 12 minutes on me in the 8 miles from Point Bravo and was now 13 minutes ahead! I thought it was incredible that he must have ran the toughest part of the course to this point so strongly. From Fish Gap to Mulky Gap just 2 miles away where my crew would be waiting, I set my sights on what was ahead. Since getting onto the Duncan Ridge Trail (DRT) some 3-4 miles earlier from the BMT, it was noticeable that the DRT was much more rugged and “wild.” I knew there was still even more rugged and steep hills ahead, especially going up Coosa.
At the Mulky aid station my crew was waiting and so was RunBum, the RD. I was told that Andrew was now 15 minutes up on me, and I didn’t wait long before heading out. I heard RunBum make some comment about me being a “flatlander” as I headed out for the trail. Being known as a flatlander running 2nd place in a mountainous 68 miler was fine by me at this point in the race 🙂
I ran out of Mulky hard with the intention of trying to gain ground on Andrew in the 4.5 miles to White Oak Stomp aid station. Now that there was about 13 miles left in the race, being down 15 minutes to first place, if I couldn’t make up distance now, there would be no chance unless Andrew really hit the wall. This would still have required over a minute per mile faster in order to catch him. So I put my head down and just sort of got over the dead leg feeling as I climbed more hills than I had since getting on the singeltrack 20 miles earlier. I felt confident that no one else was gaining on me, but was warned by RunBum that some guys might be coming strong. Running into White Oak Stomp the guy at the aid station told me I was 5 minutes behind Andrew – BUT the lady with the clipboard quickly corrected him and said I was still 15 minutes back! No time lost to him in this section, but also no progress in cutting into his lead.
Now there were 9 more miles to the finish, with the hardest climb up and over Coosa Bald, and the highest point on the course at 4200+ feet. After Coosa, there is a quad-crushing 2200′ descent in just 4 miles. The climb up Coosa was about a mile in 19 minutes – I was pretty happy with this. On the way back down I started to feel that ache in my quads but I was so close to the finish now that I just let go and ran hard. I still stayed pretty slow on the descent because of some technical sections but for the most part I was happy to have the legs to run down decently.
At the bottom of the long descent was the last aid station at Wolf Creek, mile 60 with about 3.5 miles to the end. I was still about 15 minutes behind Andrew and I gave up hope on catching 1st place. I was happy with 2nd place at this point, but still wanted to run the last 3.5 miles strong in case someone was coming from behind. With still an 800′ climb over the next 1.5 miles I set small goals of running hard for 2 minutes and then walking for a minute. After doing that a couple time I realized my legs were fine enough to just slow it down and keep a steady pace all the way to the finish. Running into Vogel State Park was a nice feeling, as the finish of every ultra is, to see the hard work be rewarded with the finish line. Andrew had finished approximately 20 minutes prior to me, with over an hour off of the old course record, and I was 2nd place in 10:47:00.