This race is all about the elevation change. Let there be no mistake that RunBum did his best to avoid anything that even remotely resembled flat land when marking this course. He warned us from the beginning, and the reports I read from previous years confirmed the difficulty. However, in my mind, this was somewhat balanced out by the less technical nature of the trails themselves. The terrain itself was indeed not the most technical I’d ever run, but it was far from easy, and looking up still meant going down so I remained diligent throughout the many hours of running. At the risk of offering up an early spoiler, I will tell you now that I remained upright for the entire race, and was quite proud of that fact, especially with the amount of running I did after the sun was a warm, distant memory.
I should be careful not to get ahead of myself, of course. We understood very clearly that the course was marked with numerous pink flags with black polka dots so as long as we kept them in sight, we’d be in good shape. The course was indeed marked incredibly well, and Sean had a host of volunteers helping him mark the course in the days leading up to the race. I would meet many of them at the various fantastically stocked and staffed aid stations throughout the race. The first 8 miles to the first aid station hammered home the significance of the climbing pretty quickly, with almost 3,500 feet of elevation gain, including a 3.8 mile stretch with 2,300 feet up to the top of Coosa Bald. I was feeling good throughout this stretch, and running conservatively, and power-hiking the climbs as best I could. The trail was still relatively crowded at this early stage in the race, which I didn’t ultimately mind all that much because it kept my pace in check. I’ve regretted going out to fast at far too many races, and I was determined not to make that mistake again this time!
The views throughout this initial stint of climbing were quite spectacular, even with the partially overcast skies, and the cool temps kept everything comfortable. Luckily, the rain that was once scheduled from 8AM to 2PM ultimately held off, aside from a mere 30 minute period after mile 8. I slipped into the first aid station pretty easily, took in some nutrition, but didn’t bother filling up my bladder since I had plenty of water/Tailwind left, and the next aid station was only 7 miles away. The next 7 mile stretch to the Fish Gap aid station might not have had “quite” as much climbing, but it more than made up for it with the mountain goat, cambered ridges we were running along. At one point, the woman behind commented on how shocked she was as she watched my ankles bend the way they did. I felt very lucky to pass through this section (which was otherwise quite runnable), without a twisted ankle!
I arrived at the Fish Gap (mile 15.5) aid station in a little over 3 hours and my legs were still feeling fresh, and I was loving the trail experience. I had clearly kept my pace in check, and had been hydrating with Tailwind consistently, as well as supplementing with other items at the aid stations. The result was a rush of pure joy that I’d hoped I’d feel throughout the race, considering the amount of build-up it had entailed. I topped off my hydration bladder with the help of a fantastic volunteer, and set out on my way. The next aid station at Skeenah Gap was as the midway point of a new 1.5 mile out-and-back on the course. The sole purpose of this addition was adding more elevation gain, because the course obviously needed it 🙂 The 1.5 mile run to Skeenah was a wonderful downhill romp. I tucked in behind two other runners finding beautiful lines down the trail, and I felt like I was flying! As I passed by folks heading back up in the other direction, I knew what awaited me but I focused on the joy of the downhill and had a blast. I got to the bottom full of energy, topped off my bladder again, and helped myself to a small shot of Fireball (I told you I was feeling good!), along with a few Girl Scout Cookies and some salted boiled potatoes. Who knew that the combo of Fireball/Coke/Samoas/Salted Potatoes could taste so good in your mouth at the same time! I’m always amazed at what tastes good during a race, and this was a new and delicious combo!
I took off out of Skeenah and headed back up the almost 1,000 foot climb at a far slower pace than I had descended. Although it was a bit of a slog, the terrain was quite hike-able, and I had plenty of endorphins to fuel my ascent. After reaching the top, I turned right and continued on my way. The overcast skies began to give way to some patches of sun, and it began to get a bit warm so I shed my long sleeve shirt and stuck with the short sleeve Northface flight series t-shirt. In another 5 miles of smooth sailing, I reached the Point Bravo aid station, which contained my first drop bag. I was able to restock myself with Tailwind, fuel up again with some PB & Js and potatoes, and head out again. I had 28 miles under my belt and I was feeling good.
By the time I reached Point Bravo, the routine of the aid stations had become commonplace for me and I looked forward to it. I announced my entry loudly so they could check me in, and always felt a ping of excitement when I bellowed my departure. Leaving each aid station became the start of another mini-adventure, and I was enjoying these small moments enough not to think about Mordor at the end of the trail! I took off from Point Bravo having logged a bit over 6 hours, and was still feeling quite good as the afternoon sun warmed things a bit.
The next 19 miles and two aid stations ticked off rather nicely and I had reached a point of comfort with the trail and my pace on it. Based on my time and pace, as well as the strength left in my legs, it was clear to me that I had finally nailed my early pacing, which was a huge boost. The climbs continued up and down the ridge line and I embraced them. I fell into a routine that involved effectively pushing off on my quads while climbing, and simultaneously massaging them to keep them as loose as possible. I’m not sure if this had any actual physiological impact or it was just a placebo effect, but I embraced it nonetheless. The beauty of the landscape around me helped to hide the difficulty of the course, as I knew it would, and I had no problem rolling with it. Somewhere along this section, I fell into the same pace as another guy and we got to talking as it became clear that our paces and attitudes matched up well. I would end up running the remainder of the race with him, and it once again demonstrated why I love trail running and ultras so much. It’s the people.
We were making good time and doing some solid power hiking on the steeper inclines as we made our way to the Winding Stair aid station. This was a crew access point and the first opportunity for pacers to join the fray. The beautiful epicurean wasn’t able to join me on this adventure, so I was on my own for this journey, hence my attention to my two drop bags. However, my new running friend had a group of friends waiting for him and another runner at Winding Stair when we rolled in around 8:30PM. I’d been running for over 12 hours at this point, and it was finally dark and time to bust out the headlamp. I slipped my long sleeve shirt back on, along with a beanie and a pair of gloves, and topped off my bladder with the help of some very energetic aid station volunteers. I did my best to say thank you as often as possible when I passed through each station, but really no thanks is quite enough for the investment they all made of their own time. Our sport thrives on each of us helping each other and giving back to the community, and it’s yet another reason why I’m so passionate about it.
The two of us left Winding Stair with a new pacer ahead of us, and the moonlight to light our way. The next stretch was mainly along old fire roads, which made the terrain more manageable but still challenging since our torches were lighting the way. The rolling hills continued and we seemingly climbed higher and higher with each drastic turn on the road. Things were starting to get sore at this point, and I was considering a few ibuprofen to avoid the aches in my quads, but I held out and ultimately avoided taking anything at all. We were at mile 47-ish when we left Winding Stair, and we new the next aid station, Jake Bull, was about 7 miles away. The next few miles were full of short bursts of running followed by more power hiking, but we were moving right along. The fire road had plenty of random offshoots that looked like they could have been trailheads, but weren’t. Thus, we were keeping our eyes peeled for the pink polka dot flags! We hopped on a section of single track for a bit, and then back out on the fire road again as we continued along.
After about two hours, we reached a fork in the road and realized we didn’t see any course markings. We ventured down one side, stumbled upon an interesting campsite full of guys drinking and laughing, their enormous Jeeps parked everywhere, and this was our first significant indicator that something was wrong. After surveying the area a bit more, we came to the conclusion that we had taken a wrong turn somewhere and missed the trail markings. This realization made for a rather significant sinking feeling in my stomach. We were on pace to finish in around 19 hrs 30 min, which would have brought us in well under the 21 hour cutoff needed to qualify for Western States. I tried not to worry too much, knowing we had a sizable cushion, and we doubled back in search of our missed turn. We had been descending for the better part of the last hour, which in retrospect should have probably been a sign of error itself. However, this meant we had to do some decent climbing as we retraced our steps and tacked on some additional miles.
The search felt like it took forever. With each false trailhead illuminated by my headlamp, I felt my 21 hour goal slipping away. After what seemed like forever, we finally found the turn we missed. In total, we had gone almost 6 miles off course, and lost around 1 hr 45 minutes. There was nothing any of us could do at this point, so we simply hopped back on the trail and began climbing the ridge line again towards Jake Bull. Just before reaching the Jake Bull aid station (mile 54), we heart a distinctive snorting noise that sounded like a wild boar coming from the woods. A short pause to collect our thoughts was followed by a much more brisk pace into the next aid station. I’m pretty sure the noises were nothing more than a speaker hidden in the woods, meant to scare us, but that reality didn’t occur to any of us until much later!
We rolled into Jake Bull, accompanied by several runners that we hadn’t seen in many hours, and tried our best to stay positive. At that point, the reality of our situation had sunk in, and I knew it was more about simply staying focused on finishing, and recognizing what an incredible race experience this had already been. We fueled up, warmed up a bit by the fire, and took off for one of our final climbs. The next and last aid station, Nimblewill, was 9 miles away and pretty much all uphill. It was dark and the temperatures were dropping into the low 40s by this point, so it was a chilly march up to the top of the mountain. The road and trail undulated like a continuously moving serpent, and we were never out of the wind for more than a few minutes before we turned back into it. On a clear, sunny day, this section would probably have been quite beautiful, with the mountain always to our left, and enormous drop-offs to our right. However, in the dark, I was much more focused on staying on the trail and not getting to close to the edge! Surprisingly, despite it now being after midnight, I was wide away, and the effects of very little sleep hadn’t gotten to me like they typically do. I’m guessing this had something to do with proper nutrition intake, and the steady stream of caffeinated Tailwind all day, and it certainly made me even more of a believer.
We finally made it to the (almost) top and the Nimblewill aid station and fueled up for our final descent back to Amicalola Falls State Park. As we were leaving, we asked the volunteers how far it was to the finish, or at least to the base of the falls that we would then climb. We received some pretty mixed estimates, ranging from 4 to 7 miles, which wasn’t quite the precision any of us were looking for after having run almost 70 miles. However, we set off on the final leg and wove our way back down the mountain . Upon reaching the bottom, we had the pleasure of running past the finish line (within 100 yards) and heading for the base of the falls and a final climb. Earlier in the day, I had run into another runner who shared that we would encounter 179 stairs up the falls before heading back down on an accessibility path to the finish. I had kept that number in my head for the rest of the day, and psyched myself up for the final ascent. By the time we reached the base of the falls,climbing felt much better than going down did, so it was simply a matter of doing it. The stairs were no walk in the park, but we reached the top of the 179 stairs as promised, and turned left down the path. That’s when we say them. The course markings turned right and up the remaining 400 stairs to the very top of the falls! I’m sure I uttered a few choice words, but I had come this far and I was ready to do it regardless.
This 600 stair climb to the top of the falls would be challenging on fresh legs, let alone after running approximately 79 miles. We stopped a few times to catch our breath, and eventually made it to the top. It was a short-lived feeling of accomplishment, however, as the reality of our descent sunk in. The grade along the road up to the top of the falls and the lodge was around 25%, which meant a 25% grade descent was now standing between us and the finish. It was probably one of the more painful descents I’ve ever encountered, for a short time on the road, and then winding through a more technical trail to the bottom. However, the excitement of finishing trumped everything else. We could hear folks at the finish cheering, and see the lights and fire up ahead as we reached the base. As if meant to add one more challenge, we then needed to cross a large stream before crossing the finish line immediately on the other side. Lifting my legs and doing any sort of jumping was out of the question at this point, so I simply jumped directly into the water, which rose above my ankles, and walked across before climbing out the other side and greeting Sean at the finish with a huge smile and a high-five! I pulled out my old railroad spike from my pack, tossed it into the appropriately positioned coffin at the finish, and claimed my engraved finishers spike.
I was equal parts elated and exhausted as I unclipped my pack and released the metaphorical weight from my shoulders, along with the material weight. I finished in 21 hrs 40 min, having run 81 miles (instead of the projected 72) and had long since come to terms with missing my qualifying time goal, but not disappointed in the least. The extra adventures, extra miles, and extra memories are all part of the ultra experience, and just made the experience that much more memorable. I had been planning for and training for this race for longer than most, and couldn’t have been happier to be holding that engraved railroad spike. It was the perfect symbol of the hard work that made this finish possible. This race had come to represent #chasing42 in some very significant ways, and it will stick with me for a long time to come.
The journey home involved a bathroom wet wipe bath, shipping my finishers spike home, and catching a flight back to Philly but it was all a blur. I crashed pretty hard when I got home, which was only fitting, but I was back at it with classes Monday morning. Oh, and in case you are wondering- I most definitely tackled a mile run on Monday to keep my streak in play. It wasn’t comfortable, but sometimes #chasing42 isn’t about comfort. Sometimes it’s about pushing the limits of what you think you are capable of, and discovering that you are capable of so much more. Now on to the next challenge!
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