It’s a pretty regular occurrence at ultras for the RD to hype up the race extensively to the point of overselling the beauty, runable trails, or difficulty of the course. I’ve found these claims to be oversold more than not. This was not the case with the Georgia Death Race. I registered for this race the day it opened in September (it sold out in 10 hours), and I’ve been receiving messages from Sean “Runbum” Blanton, the RD, ever since. In that time, he’s done everything in his power to scare us, warn us, and prepare us for the difficulty of the course. Until I registered for this race, I didn’t know there were so many ways to tell someone they were “going to die” at a race, but that’s simply the tip of the iceberg where Sean’s contagious personality is involved. I’d been looking forward to this race for months, and only registered in the first place because I was finally living in a location where I could train on some decent trails and tackle some respectable elevation gain. This race represented my transition to living on the east coast, and a transition in my running in many ways. It has come to represent that life change and so much more as I reflect back on the experience!
There are a number of ways I could share the experience with you, but I’ll try my best to break it up into digestible bites and do my best to elaborate on what was probably the hardest race I’ve ever tackled!
Preparation and Travel
I’ve been steering all of my training towards this race for the better part of 6 months. I’ve incorporated more vertical climb, more miles, and more challenges into my routine than ever before. I wanted to be as ready as I could be for this race. I’ve tackled plenty of races along the way, including my 100+ miles at Across the Years, but I really always viewed those races as preparation for the GDR. In the process, I’ve come to know the trails in the area much better, but I still look forward to the exploring I have left to do.
As the race approached, I started to focus more on the logistics. Originally, I had planned to drive down to Georgia with the epicurean, but it soon became clear that not only was the drive cost prohibitive, but the thought of spending 12 hours in a car after the race didn’t sit very well with me! I was able to find a cheap direct flight, and I booked a rental car and nearby hotel room for the night before the race. From there, I turned my attention to making sure I had a plan in place for the required gear and other essentials I might need. This was the first race I had run with a required gear list, which meant more weight than I had previously carried on my back during a race, but it became evident pretty quickly why the items were necessary.
It’s amazing how everything managed to fit!
As you know, I obsess at times over gear, and love optimizing my choices and finding the best tool for the job whenever possible. Ultimately, I think I did a pretty good job of whittling things down and still meeting the requirements for the race. Below is my gear list, if you are curious.
- Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin Hydro 12 running pack: the 12L capacity seemed to be just right, and I was able to position everything evenly throughout the pack so that my load was evenly distributed. It even had the required whistle attached.
- space blanket (came with the pack- convenient)
- Saucony Exo Waterproof Jacket– I’m a big fan of this fully seam-sealed jacket. It’s a bit heavier than some, but still folds down quite small, and is truly waterproof. Luckily I didn’t have to bust it out, as it keeps the sweat in as well as it keeps the rain out!
- Underarmor Coldgear Thermal Shirt- rolled up in a ziplock bag
- Spare battery pack, Garmin charging cable, and spare headlamp batteries- I kept these items in a waterproof pouch and it fit nicely in the main compartment. Only the batteries were required, and I didn’t end up needing the backup battery/charging cable- lesson learned.
- Petzl Nao Headlamp– It lasted me around 7 hours, which was decent, but I had hoped to get through the night with it.
- Nathan Zephyr Handheld– this worked nicely as my backup torch. The band on torch made for easy carrying and the output lit up the trail nicely in the final hours of the race.
- iPhone 6 w/ Lifeproof case- I kept it on airplane mode, but wanted it for taking pictures.
- Honeystinger chews- I packed approximately 6 servings to supplement my other nutritional choices.
- Hydrapak 2L Bladder w/ Tailwind- The bladder worked perfectly, and w/ the Tailwind portioned out, lasted approximately 25 miles, which was perfect for the spacing of my dropbags, which contained more Tailwind.
- Old Railroad Spike- The final “award” for finishing was an engraved railroad spike, but in order to finish officially, we had to carry an unengraved spike with us for the entire race! I wrapped it in bubble wrap and it fit nicely in the main pouch.
- Northface Better-Than-Naked Long Haul Shorts
- Northface shortsleeve tech-shirt
- Saucony longsleeve baselayer
- UnderArmor running gloves
- Northface waterproof mittens
- Nike Beanie
- CEP calf sleeves
- Dirty Girl Gaiters
- Darn Tough socks: I typically prefer Drymax socks, but these have been particularly effective at managing moisture and preventing rubbing/chaffing, and they worked like a charm!
- Hoka One One Challenger ATR 2
Surprisingly, these items all fit in the pack or on my person. As I’ll mention later, the added weight of mandatory gear didn’t seem to impact my running, but I certainly felt it when the race was over.
Not a bad view for packet pick-up, eh?
After relaxing in the hotel, getting my gear organized, and eating some lunch, I headed out for the 30 minute drive to the Amicalola Falls State Park & Lodge to pick up my bib and other accoutrements. As I drove through the gate and made the turn up the hill to the lodge, I felt the 25% incline very quickly and realized I’d be going up and down this incline at the end of the race, since this was the site of the finish. Ouch! I arrived in time to have my mandatory gear checked, pick up my bib, along with my sweatshirt and trucker hat, and find a seat for the pre-race meeting. Sean gave us a great overview of the course, along with some additional information that would be helpful the next morning, and again reiterated our impending doom. He then introduced a former Army Ranger for a motivational talk of sorts, and emphasized the importance of digging deep and overcoming our fears and apprehension. After the meeting, I walked outside to the back deck, and took in the amazing views of the enormous rolling wooded hills that formed the backdrop for this beautiful site. I had yet to see the falls in question, but their audible signature was unmistakable, and I looked forward to visiting them on Sunday morning. I simply hoped I had enough energy to remember the experience! After a few pictures, I made my way back to the hotel to settle in for an anxious night of sleep. I did my best to relax and get to bed early, but I still didn’t fall asleep until after 10PM.
Pick your poison!
The 3:45AM alarm was unfortunately quite easy to turn off because I was already awake, having popped out of bed at 3:30AM after a fitful few hours of sleep. No matter how prepared I am for a race, I always get the same excited feeling that I got as a child on Christmas Eve. Sleep is simply not a priority. I ate a Clif Bar and drank some water as I slid on the clothes I had laid out the night before, moving around the room in silence. I wanted to exert as little effort as possible prior to the race, and my planning allowed for just that as I zipped up my suitcase and walked out to the car to repeat yesterday’s drive in the dark. I arrived at Amicalola Falls around 5:00AM, and quietly interspersed myself with the others waiting to board the bus to the start. We quietly boarded the yellow and black school buses and I was quickly reminded that these vehicles were designed for much younger patrons traveling much shorter distances. I did my best to get comfortable at the harsh 90 degree angle compelled by the seat, but never really found my groove. The 90 minute drive to Vogel State Park became one of self-preservation as I attempted to make sure I didn’t cramp up along the way.
It was such a serene start, quite effectively disguising the intensity that was about to ensue!
We arrived at the starting area around 7:00AM and I made a beeline for the restroom in anticipation of the long line that was sure to form. I did my best to stave off my usual colon difficulties and checked in for the race. I had the pleasure of claiming an old railroad spike, which I was nicely asked to carry along for the upcoming 68-ish mile ride. The spike felt more like an awkward hitchhiker initially, but I wrapped him in a nice bubble wrap sheath, slid him in my pack, and knew that we had plenty of time to bond.
A few last words of encouragement…and reminders of our eager dance with death!
I had met up the night before with a friend from Iowa, and we found each other in the bathroom line prior to the start, and chatted some about our upcoming challenge. We would end up running together for the first several hours before technical difficulties held him back, and then later navigational difficulties held me back. That, however, is a story for an upcoming post. We made our way to the starting area, and Sean bellowed out some last-minute sage advice. We uttered a group countdown, and then slowly followed his truck out of the park to the trailhead. The race to death was just beginning, and we all tackled the trails like naive teenagers unaware of our impending mortality. I would age a great deal as I continued my quest #chasing42!