Monday, April 10, 2017

GDR Post-Op

Here's what all went down in the North Georgia Mountains ...

(Early Miles. Courtesy of Victor Mariano)


I signed up for the Georgia Death Race, like an idiot, after a stellar WS finish. I thought I could compete for a Golden Ticket back to the Big Show. Months of minimal and sub-standard training due to injury meant a Golden Ticket was out the window. Instead ... maybe Top 5?

Then came Baby Boy Roberts on 10MAR. Yeah, so I was supposed to drive out to Shenandoah that day and put in a solid 6-8 hours of running. Instead, the 4 weeks before GDR I scrounged up a whopping 9 hours of running ... TOTAL! At least I'd be well rested, right?!

Then I got sick the week of the race and I started feeling the weight of chronic sleep-deprivation ... so, maybe Top 10?

Let's just lay it all out on the table:  I abandoned my wife, 3 year-old daughter, and newborn son to go running in the woods, 11 hours away from home ... somebody deserves Husband of the Year!

After the way-too-long sleepy drive from DC to GA, I went to the pre-race meeting and then found a parking spot near the finish of the race to try and get some shut-eye in my SUV ... which didn't work ... go figure! I "woke up" just before 2am to get ready and catch the shuttle from the finish to the start. It was warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt. Nevertheless, I crammed my space blanket, thermal top, and jacket into my pack, and cursed Sean Blanton excessively. I was hoping the long 90+ minute drive would give me opportunity for some shut-eye, but sports talk radio was blaring in the bus and I couldn't tune it out.

... I. AM. SO. TIRED!

In the shelter by the Start, I chatted up the legendary Pam Smith for awhile. I tried to play it cool, but I was secretly #fangirling so hard inside. Come what may on the course today, I got to hang out with Pam Freakin Smith!

(Obligatory Elevation Profile. Courtesy of Run Bum)

Early Miles

At 5am we started and the pace was ... pedestrian. I cruised along, chatting up Bob Shebest and catching up with Aaron Saft. Then they bounded ahead of me...

Something feels off ... this pace shouldn't feel so straining ...

Shit, I'm going the wrong way! Half-way up the biggest climb of the course, Coose Bald, I came upon a trail intersection. I stopped for a second and didn't see any streamers, reflectors, or flashers, so I went what felt closest to straight through, just like Sean recommended. A few minutes later I looked back and saw headlamps behind me, but also above. I'd clearly made the wrong choice so I hauled ass back down the trail so I could deal with a couple miles of bounding through runners.

I quickly caught up to Dominic Layfield and another runner ... and then we made a wrong turn ... again! Damn it, Run Bum, mark your intersections and spurs better!

"That's Dominic Layfield back there. He's totally sandbagging it right now. He should be way ahead of us." -- some random runner that doesn't understand how to pace longer races.

"Is that a famous person in front of me?!"
"Nope, I don't know what you're talking about." -- Karl Meltzer
"Why are there no reflective streamers?! This is so stupid!"
"Seriously, Sean needs better markings in these early miles." -- Karl Meltzer
... You hear that, Run Bum?! Karl Meltzer just called you out!

... a little while later, after an AS stop, Karl practically leaps over me on a 10% climb, and I never catch back up to him.

At one point it was time to down my hourly gel. I reached into my shorts pocket and out came a chocolate flavored Huma gel. I immediately felt nauseous just looking at it. Great, I'm 15 miles into a 70 mile run and my body already wants to reject race nutrition. I pocketed the gel and decided to wait another half hour.

Along the Dragon's Spine section of the Duncan Ridge Trail I continued running comfortably with Layfield, shooting the breeze. He is incredibly nice and was welcome company in those early miles.

My legs feel sluggish ...

(Fun before the blown quads. Courtesy of Russ Strycharz)

The Rut

Somewhere near Mile 18, after a steep climb, my quads twinge ... then spasm ... then cramp. Two runners pass me as I stop to squat down and stretch my quads ... at MILE 18. I know they're secretly judging me!

Well SH*T! This is going to be Mountain Masochist all over again. Ugh!

Running the climbs was too painful. I couldn't maintain comfortable pace on the technical downhills. As I turned down into the 1.5mi descent to Skeenah Gap near mile 21.5, the leaders were running out ... Great, already 40minutes behind the front. Soon after, I came across Aaron, looking strong. By the time I climbed out of Skeenah I figured I was 30 minutes behind him. This was going to be an awful day ...

Along the out-and-back, I counted runners. Instead of being around 8-10th, I was 12th ... and fading quickly. As I made my way to Point Bravo and Sapling Gap (Miles 28 and 33), I continued to bleed time and get passed. I was too frustrated to look at my HR, but I'm sure it was a solid 20 beats below race effort. This had turned from a race into a painful, long, training run.

I limped down a hill and around a turn and came across ... Aaron hobbling with a burly branch. He'd overextended his leg on a downhill and tweaked his hamstring pretty bad. I walked alongside him for a few minutes. I bitched about how off I felt and how my legs had already crapped out. He maintained high spirits, cuz, well, he's a better person. Then he forced me to carry on with my day.

By the time I passed Long Creek at Mile 41, I'd gone 4 hours without running a single incline, and I was losing any remaining motivation to keep going.

... Then friggin Aliza Lapierre flew by me. It's official, I've been chick'd! Just like at Masochist. I need to avoid Aliza like the plague cuz she keeps bringing bad luck to the races we run together. This is all her fault!

At one point, I happened on a country road intersection. There were tables and chairs, and food and drink set up, and dozens of people.  It was well past noon and the sun was beating down. I was exhausted. Wait, did I forget about an Aid Station?! This is amazing! I stumbled up to the table, looking for some water and fruit. An elderly dude informed me that this was not, in fact, an aid station, but a family get-together ... the next aid station was 4 miles down the road (exactly where it was supposed to be). I lowered my head, said nothing, and stumbled off down the road. I wanted to lie down and die. I could hear the old dude in the distance, "Did you see the look on his face when I said 4 miles?! Hahaha!" ... then, suddenly, a voice ... a sweet, cheerful voice! "Would you like some water?!" A girl, about 10, had run me down and offered me an ice cold bottle of water. My GDR Trail Angel! I had plenty of liquids in my bottles but they were warm. I cracked open that sweet bottle of Kroger water and downed an ice cold gulp, and, in that moment, I immediately understood what religious people mean when they say they feel the majesty of God. I have never in my life tasted anything as amazing as that ice cold Kroger water!

After the euphoria of the Kroger water wore off, I came to the gravel road climb up Winding Stair. I tried running cuz it wasn't that steep, and it was a smooth road, but I felt sooo tired and weak. I kept trying to convince myself that it was okay to walk ... You can't be embarrassed if there's no one around to see your pathetic effort! The Kroger water was lukewarm by this point, it's healing powers long since expired.

At the top of the climb I heard cheering for the 2nd place female, Jackie Merritt.  I was officially getting steamrolled here!

Not The Worst Running I've Ever Done

As I rolled downhill on smooth gravel roads and single track, I started to feel a bit better. My legs were resigned to the fact that despite their best effort, I was going to keep on running. And so, the cramps and spasms dulled to merely a painful stiffness and throbbing. I wouldn't be setting any speed records, but I could finally start to push the effort a bit above lazy hobbling.

When Jackie passed me I tried running with her and found the pace tolerable.
... and so, for the rest of the race, we were always within a couple minutes of one another.

After we made it through Jake Bull, we turned onto the rolling country roads, pitched uphill at a meager 2% grade. This is one hell of a shock to the system! I tried running harder but "fast" in no way describes the pace I was kicking out. If this were a training run, I could be knocking these miles out at sub-7 pace, no problem. Instead, 9 minutes feels like an otherworldly achievement.

Where the hell is the climb?!

The long rolling road never seemed to end. Since Mile 18, this was the longest stretch of sustained running I'd done all day. My body was screaming for the steep climb to hurry its ass up and present itself so I could transition to a hike for a quick breather.

I managed to pull ahead of Jackie. At times I'd buckle over, hands on knees, in an about-to-hurl position from the strain of the unending miles. Each time, I'd glance through my legs to see her, upside down, running, getting closer and closer.

Finally, the f*cking climb!

I transitioned to a pattern of 1 minute run / 30 seconds hike. And I felt as strong as I'd felt all day long. I made good progress up the 1500'+ grind, muttering to myself, Green Gate, Green Gate, Green Gate! (which I demolished at States last year ... it was great having that memory, that energy, to tap into)

I neared the top. It'd been almost 10 miles of never ending running and climbing. I drained the last of my liquids. And then I came across a volunteer at an intersection who rudely informed me there was another 1.5 miles to the next aid station.

F*CK!!!!! After that herculean effort to climb Nimblewill Gap Road, I stumbled up the trail a couple hundred yards and then just started walking, dejected.

I eventually made it to the final Aid Station, just ahead of Jackie. I bumped into this guy I had run with earlier in the race. So despite having an awful day, I was going to actually pass someone! (I'd passed another guy in the previous 20 miles, but I can't quite recall where the heck that happened...) His legs seemed trashed, too. And I was clearly quicker on the flat-ish section of road we were running on. Then we hit a small climb and he blew past me. It's mostly downhill to the finish, I've got this guy!

I made a push and gapped him and Jackie. Then I put my head down and focused on building a gap through to the Falls in the last 2 miles.

The final miles went on FOREVER! Seriously it was so exhausting. The RD had changed the course so this section was about 2 miles longer than last year. ... BUT, I didn't realize that until I was well into the section. When I got to small climbs I would contemplate running, but more often than not I'd succumb to the exhaustion and hike. Each time I hiked, I looked back in fear. And then I'd hit a flat section or smooth downhill and my confidence would return.

After a billion hours of running, I finally got to the penultimate 1000' descent. Okay, you've got this! Just push through! Keep building that gap! Except ... Nope! It was too steep. And some sections were too technical. My quads protested. I couldn't get my legs to smoothly turn over.

I passed folks on leisurely strolls ... I was getting close! I passed a couple with a big dog that wasn't on a leash. A few moments later I heard and felt something right behind me. Damn it, people, control your dog! But it wasn't a dog, it was Jackie tearing ass downhill. And just like that, my spirits were crushed.

When I finally reached the bottom to begin the assault of the Amicalola Falls stairs, Jackie was way ahead of me. I should've scouted out this section of the course the day before, because I had no idea how steep the approach to the stairs really was. I was too tired and my legs were too beat up to run, and so I mostly walked roughly a half mile to the stairs. And just when I reached the stairs, I looked back and the guy I passed at the last Aid Station was right there! Damnit!!!!

Image result for amicalola falls
(So. Many. Stairs.)

As I tackled the stairs, he caught me, but we both made ground on Jackie. Every single step, I clutched and yanked on the handrail in an attempt to alleviate strain on my legs. Families gawked, some got out of the way, some didn't.

I reached the top of the 600+ stairs a few strides behind the two of them. I wanted desperately to catch them, but I also wanted to walk the final uphill yards. I was done fighting my legs. When I turned to the final 1 mile and 1000' descent, they were about 5 seconds up on me.

We turned off the 25% grade road onto steep trail again. By this time I'd caught up with Jackie, but the other guy was clearly feeling good. I thought his legs were shot! Son of a bitch!

I contemplated trying to pass Jackie, but my quads, and now my calves, were screaming with every footfall. If I passed her, I couldn't guarantee I wouldn't impede her progress on the steepest and most technical sections of trail. She was running for entry into Western States. This was her race, not mine. I backed off ever-so-slightly. My legs stopped spasming. She pulled ahead.

I tumbled down the final stretch of trail, eventually crossing the creek and finish line about 30 seconds back of Jackie and 90 back of the other guy. 14:24. It wasn't the worst time in the world, considering how poorly my day had gone -- it wasn't the day I'd hoped for, but it also wasn't the disaster I'd experienced last November at Mountain Masochist. I later discovered I'd secured 10th place male. Top 10 at a nationally competitive race when I didn't bring my A (or B) Game. I guess I can live with that! I think on a good day I could've kept pace with Layfield and Meltzer, but I won't know for sure if I really am that good of a runner until I can string together a good, healthy, sleep-filled training block.

After the race, I commisserated with Layfield, Pam Smith, and others. Then I tried to get some shut-eye before hitting the road ... I had to hurry home, there were diapers that needed changing!

(14 hours of running and all I got was this railroad spike...)

What I Liked About GDR

  • The elevation profile is amazing with lots of ups and downs
    • Race info says 20,000'+ over 68ish miles, which would put this at a gnarly ~30K of vert for a 100mile equivalent. I honestly think it's more like 17K over 72ish miles, which actually makes it more like a generic hard mountain race. But whatever. Any time you get over an 8% average gradient, you're gonna have fun!
  • There's lots of sweet, sweet single track
  • The RD threw in miles of "easy" country road after 50 miles of tough trails that make you feel like you're going insane -- this is nearly flat, I feel like I'm running a road race, but why is my pace 4 minutes slower than marathon pace?! OMG when will this ever end?! I just want to start climbing again!
  • The finishing location is at Amicalola Falls State Park, the home of the AT Approach Trail up to Springer Mountain, and an all-around beautiful place to hang out
  • Good competition
  • Long distances between aid stations at the end -- you have to earn this finish!

What I Didn't Like About GDR

  • The RD's personality is pretty much the exact opposite of mine, so the general race atmosphere got on my nerves -- "you're all gonna die", exaggerating difficulty, being bro-tacular
    • Still not sure if his Brosephus-ness is genuine or an act. I think there's some self-awareness in there, but I can't say for sure.
  • The race shirt was awful. Sport Tek -- when you want a technical fabric that feels as stiff as cardboard and itches like cheap wool, choose Sport Tek!
  • The required gear was, hands down, the STUPIDEST thing I've ever experienced in an ultramarathon. Temps were never below the 40s and they reached into the upper 70s, yet a space blanket, thermal top, and jacket were required for the entire race! It's the piddly North Georgia mountains ... we're not at altitude, there's no glaciers, and it's friggin April! We're all adults here, so trust us to pack appropriate emergency gear in our packs or drop bags, or leave with crew. I was pissed about this before the race. I was pissed about this during the race. And 6 months from now when I look back on the race I'm still going to be pissed.
  • Aid Station location changes meant there'd be a nearly 11 mile stretch in the latter stages of the race -- between Jake Bull and Nimblewill -- with 1500' of gain. Back-of-the-packers would be doing this in the dark, perhaps taking 3.5+ hours to get through this section. Race management dictated we needed to carry an insane amount of weather protection, mostly for this climb, but they didn't bother to place any water somewhere along the way for the slower runners? That was borderline dangerous. I don't take in a lot of water when I run, but I was consciously conserving along that stretch of the race and I still manage to drain all 40oz of my liquids 1.5miles before the next aid station.

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