Georgia Death Race

Preface

February 16th, 43 days til race day:

Some days you know you don’t have what it takes. You feel pathetic and unworthy of having such lofty dreams or goals. You say you want something, but you do nothing to progress toward it. After using excuse after excuse and falling off track training, you consider quitting before you even start. Things happen and you’re stuck in no man’s land. You’re damned if you try because you fear there isn’t any time left. You’re afraid that you’re going to embarrass yourself and let people down. You wish you kept the fact that you were attempting the race a secret. On the other hand, foregoing the race entirely is a sign of weakness. You have to live with the fact that you gave up without a fight; and why? Just because you didn’t want to put in the work.

Well, I chose to fight. I’ve been training hard the past few weeks and tried to get back on track. I constantly use that phrase: “back on track”, but in reality there is no track at all. Ultrarunning isn’t about following tracks, it is about crossing the tracks and not looking back. The only track is forward and you don’t get off the train until you reach your final destination. You are the conductor, you are the passenger, you are engine, and you are the caboose being dragged along for the ride.

The Georgia Death Race is poetry in slow motion. You carry a metal railroad spike, a device created to hold the tracks together. But you’re in the middle of nowhere; off the rails! The spike is your only lifeline as you march through the rugged, Northern Georgia hills. Once you arrive at the finish, you discard your spike into a coffin; you bury all the fear, pain, and doubt along with it. What you’re left with is unknown, but you know you gave the race everything you had. You’re beyond exhausted, you’re dazed, you’re confused, you’re hungry; but above all else: you are ALIVE! You made it!

This is the intro to the race I wrote and it sounds great and it pumps me up a little bit and reassures me that it will be worth the effort. In reality, I don’t know how the race is going to go. Will I just get my ass kicked and feel terrible? Will I have an incredible race and feel awesome? This is going to be fun!

April 4th:

A few days after the race and I have the resounding answer. It was worth every damn second of training; this race was a triumph for me! I feel incredible and pushed myself hard during the race. I got my shit together and trained hard to get there too. I am filled with happiness and pride toward the race and the entire weekend. These are the races you dream about! This is why I run and why I run ultras. The Georgia Death Race was the perfect blend of misery, rugged terrain, beauty, and adventure; making the race both a sinister conquest of myself and a transcendent travail of triumph. I don’t even know what to say, it was an absolute joy and celebration out there!

Why the Georgia Death Race?

I got asked this question a lot over the past several months and during the race as well. Somewhere along the line I forgot the answer, but I think it started with hearing an interview with pro runner Avery Collins and hearing about some gnarly terrain. I continued to hear about it here or there, but for some reason this race never drifted too far off my mind.

Maybe the phrase ‘death race’ caught my attention. Somehow the word ‘death’ makes the race seem more appealing. It sounds cool to say you’re running the DEATH RACE. It conveys the essence of what these races are about to me as a mere mortal mid-pack runner. The goal of each steadfast (or steadslow?) stride is to bring your fear to the precipice of death, where it’s forced to ponder its very existence. Then you run like hell to move away from fear as fast as you can before Fear realizes it is immortal. Fear is death itself and can never truly die. Fear is a deliberate, despairing trudge toward death. All you need to do is beat its terminal tentacles to the finish and the revelry of life is yours to celebrate.

Alright, enough aggrandizing and waxing; let me power hike and run you through the race!

A Tale of Two State Parks

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. It was the Georgia Death Race!”

I- Pre-Race Panic:

The race starts @ 5am at Vogel State Park, which is about 15 minutes outside of Blairsville, GA in northern Georgia. I can’t tell you much about Vogel State Park or Blairsville because we didn’t get into town until late the night before. I went to the second pre-race meeting over in Amicalola Falls State Park (where the race finishes), which didn’t get over until past 8pm. Then, it was an hour plus drive to Blairsville. Part way through the drive to Blairsville, we decided that I should get some more dinner since our eating was jumbled all day. My pre-race meal was Chik-Fil-A! This was not ideal, but we didn’t have time for a sit down meal since we prioritized hiking the stairs up at Amicalola, the meeting was 30min later than expected, and…well, I just didn’t plan it out very well.

By the time we got to the hotel, it was pretty late and I was getting stressed out about the race. All my gear and my drop bag were fairly well-organized to begin with, but it still took forever to get through. I focused on hydrating and kept worrying about what I was forgetting. I had a binder of info. on the race and felt on top of things going in, but all the sudden I found myself planning out the race all over again. As I finally laid down to try to get a little sleep, I realized these were not ordinary pre-race jitters. My head was throbbing with pain and my digestive system was shut down. Fuck! If my head continued to hurt like it did, I may not have even started the race; not exaggerating at all.

Thankfully, after my Excedrin kicked in, I woke up several hours later without a headache! I went to the bathroom a few times, got dressed, and we were on our way to the start. There was a lot of nervous milling around as usual, but especially so in my stomach. I realized I forgot to label my drop bag, but didn’t have time to correct. Another trip to the bathroom and it was time to tuck my spike in my pack. The spike probably weighed less than a pound, but it was enough to make a difference or notice still.

I took a few pre-race pictures with Elizabeth and gained strength having her there. I knew it would be a while before I saw her at the Skeenah Gap aid station (mile 21), but I was incredibly happy to have her there beside me at the start. ‘It’ll be fine’ she said. And then the race started…

Pre-race with Elizabeth
Pre-race photo

II- Happy to Be Alive!:

“Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

The race follows race director, Sean ‘Run Bum’ Blanton’s, truck for a mile or two on some very runnable roads. At the end of the road, Run Bum sends you off at Burnett Gap toward Coosa Bald and the Duncan Ridge trail. He yelled out “hey! Unless, you’re looking to finish in under 15 hours, start walking!” Ok, the race had begun.

The early trails were very cool and I felt like I was being sent off on a great adventure. I was surprised at how runnable the first section of the course was, but that myth was promptly dispelled as the trail shot up the hill. The uphill was a welcome change for my bowels as well as the jostling downhill ended for a bit. I was worried to have these issues so early on, but I kept moving and hoped it would settle down. Eventually, I was able to stabilize everything a little bit, but it was an issue for at least the first 40 miles (never too bad).

As the sun broke out, the views of the surrounding mountains were incredible! At first I thought I was looking at a huge array of lakes, but it turned out to be low hanging fog. The trail sliced across the hillside and I was very impressed by the steepness! I joked going into the race about them being hills, but these hills no joke and I’ll admit they are mountains now! Even though the top elevation was only about 4,275ft, the terrain greatly impressed this Coloradoan. Speaking of which, did I get a boost coming from elevation? Absolutely…well, I think so? One of my biggest accomplishments during this race was never needing to stop to catch my breath on the steep climbs. I definitely trained hard and adapted my pace to not burn out early, but I think the altitude factor may be needed to explain why I felt so good.

Early miles…
My camera was a little blurry early in the race
Early miles with the sun coming up
Gazing out at the foggy landscape below
A little blurry picture, but fun downhill was sprinkled in a little bit early (emphasis on little).
Love It!

My strategy during the first half or at least 30 miles of the race was to hold back and make sure I didn’t go out too hard. Between my tumultuous tummy and some of the climbs, this was easy for me to accomplish. I remember being less than 20 miles into the race and thinking, ‘I can’t wait for a break. I don’t want to do this anymore’. I was alarmed that I didn’t want to run anymore and I had to quash this negative attitude to ensure I didn’t somehow drift to quit later in the day.

Beautiful day for a death race!
I never doubted I was going to finish today, but my stomach issues made me nervous early.
Free Professional Race Photos!
Free Professional Race Photos!
Amateur Photo

As I entered Skeenah Gap (mile 21), I spotted Elizabeth on the side of the course and I started to feel a lift in my spirits again. Somehow from that point forward, I wanted to be there and doing the race! I think I needed to shake off some of the disappointment and mental damage from Run Rabbit Run 100-miler back in September. I didn’t want to just finish the Georgia Death Race and struggle the whole time. I am happy to report that I feel like I really excelled during the race and am very proud of my effort. This race was very similar to my great race at Never Summer 100k a few years ago. Every time I looked down at my watch, I was a little under 15min/mile average pace, so I felt great. 4 miles times 15 minutes per mile equals an hour is about as sophisticated as my math gets on the trails.

Professional Photos heading in Skeenah Gap (~21 miles in)
Professional Photos heading in Skeenah Gap (~21 miles in)
Professional Photos heading in Skeenah Gap (~21 miles in)

III- Spacing Out:

“The more you live in the present moment, the more the fear of death disappears.” -Eckhart Tolle

The next stretch is a bit of a blank for me, but I remember feeling really good during the middle of the race. These trails were so remote and wild that it felt like I was on an insider tour of the area. It was a beautiful course and a truly unique journey. I’ve been on lots of trails, but these ones had a distinct character and essence that I had never experienced before. For a lot of the first half of the course, I found myself thinking how incredible it was that someone even created these trails. The lack of switchbacks was just as advertised and the vistas from the Duncan Ridge Trail spine were better than advertised. I was having an awesome time out there!

A rare opening in the trees. It never got too hot anyway, but the shady trails were great!
Springer Mountain is the start of the A.T. and I think our course crossed the A.T. at one point too.
Lots of greenery
The perfect chair…is the one not sat upon.
Fun downhill toward the river

The next thing I recall is changing my socks from my drop bag at Point Bravo (mile 29) or maybe from my pack at Sapling Gap (mile 34). The volunteers at this race were incredible and the aid stations were awesome! I was offered a chair to sit down like five times, but fended off each offer for fear of my legs seizing up. So, I sat on the ground and ‘quickly’ made my way off of the aid station! The relief of a fresh pair of socks was startling and amazing! I only changed them as a preventative measure, but I remember a big boost from the socks. Who knows? Maybe there was just a downhill after though.

Toccoa River Bridge between Point Bravo and Sapling Gap

All I knew was that I was cruising along and nearing the halfway point of the course feeling strong. As I left one of the aid stations (Sapling Gap, I think), one of the volunteers told me “yeah, there is just one more aid station and then the next one is Winding Stair. You’re pretty much done at that point!” I laughed with them and a few fellow runners and focused my attention on getting to Winding Stair.

Keep on moving!
Fun ridge running!

It was a great relief to finally reach Winding Stair aid station and see Elizabeth again briefly! I tried not to take too long at this aid station, but I needed more calories and water so I took just a bit longer. Although, I had a bunch of supplies in my drop bag at the next aid station (Jake Bull- mile 53), so I just kept going. The Jake Bull aid station is known as the Bacon aid station and had lots of great food. Lots of great food that I was too scared to eat mostly. I skipped the beef brisket, but grabbed several crispy pieces of bacon. There was an announcer trying to keep everyone’s spirits up and it was a very inviting aid station, so I knew it was time for me to get the hell out of there!

Here I am about mile 46 or somewhere in the middle of this sucker!

IV- Nimblewill, Numbskull

“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” – Charles Bukowski

A theme is emerging here, I don’t really recall the specifics but I remember being told that there was a long seven mile downhill, followed by a four mile climb up to Nimblewill. This was a cool section of the race as we popped out on a remote back country Georgia road. I wish I would’ve been able to run this section harder at the time, but I made it through fairly well overall. It was a welcome change in scenery.

A few of the following pictures might be before Winding Stair, but I’m going to keep moving rather than try to figure it out right now.

Running down a random grassy field
Smooth sailing
Three-piece tree
Beautiful blue skies!
Some random lake!
The menacing road on the way to Nimblewill Road
I never found the wedding in the middle of the woods, but I had work to do anyway
Oh, hell nah! I ain’t falling for this fake aid station. A little sketchy out there.
Up the road to Nimblewill…not a very fun section and about time to get my headlamp out. Luckily, I was progressing up much faster than I expected as I was almost there all the sudden!
Nope! The race director was just messing with everyone. Luckily, I was skeptical of this sign and sort of ignored it. My watch was a little off all day, but I knew we hadn’t done anything close to four miles up yet. I hoped it was true, but knew it was mere skullduggery from Run Bum! What a bastard :)!

V- Final Countdown

“I intend to live forever, or die trying.” -Groucho Marx

I didn’t take any pictures until the finish for two reasons: it got dark and it took everything I had to keep pushing, so I couldn’t be bothered by such nonsense. I was a little disappointed with my pace and I lost quite a bit of time during the climb up to Nimblewill, but I didn’t feel like I had anything left really. I had been running almost entirely with my quads for the past several miles, which meant I generated no real power. My hamstrings quaked and my feet were trashed. The ball of my right foot hurt more with each step and I had a few blisters on my heels. After my blister explosion at Run Rabbit Run 100 last year, I was relieved to only have a few.

From Nimblewill to the finish was only 9 miles. 9 more miles to suck it up! I was pleasantly surprised to find myself reanimated and firing dormant muscles again! My feet and my legs didn’t feel any better, but I felt amazing mentally with this development. I wasn’t giving up! My finish was assured, but I wasn’t ok with just finishing that late in the race! It turned into a long and painful victory lap!

I was moving at a good pace, but was frustrated as I kept getting passed by other runners for the next few miles. I hadn’t seen any other runners for quite a while, so this was annoying. I wanted to hold my position at least and finish strong. A ‘short’ time later, we were at the top of Amicalola Falls and heading down the steep and very rocky road and path. I decided to just say ‘screw it!’ at about that point as I hammered away on my legs. It felt like shit, but I had nothing to lose as long as I didn’t totally eat it. I caught several other runners on the way down and a few right before the final climb up the 600 stairs under Amicalola Falls.

Here are a few quick pictures of the stairs from the afternoon before for context (I’ll make another post about Amicalola Falls specifically):

The stairs from the afternoon before…
From one of the first observation spots the afternoon before the race.
Looking down the stairs somewhere along the final set.

My pace up the stairs was great and I passed a few more people. I may have been passed by one or two people in the last few miles of the race, but I was crushing it and destroying everything I had left. The finish of this race was awesome with the spritzing of the waterfall and this terrible stair section. The angle of the stairs was actually a very welcome adjustment for my legs and feet, so I didn’t even mind it too much. One of my favorite moments was flipping my flashlight up on the falls to glimpse at its beautiful power. My watch died about at that time, but my legs were still alive.

At the top of the falls, we popped out on a brief section of paved road. It was too steep to comfortably run down, so I ran down it uncomfortably; probably looking like someone who had no idea how to run. It was more of a controlled fall. I didn’t care anymore, I just needed to get there! We cut back off the trail and it was steep, rocky mess once again. I kept hammering as hard as I could wanting desperately to get my nail in the coffin! At long last, I had reached the bottom of the hill!

There was pink flagging across the bridge, so I started to follow two other small flags. Yelling from across the river reminded me that the finish was straight across. I didn’t even look and I plunged and bounded across. I made it!

V- R.I.P.

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

At the finish you drop the railroad spike you’re required to carry into a coffin and in return you get a replacement spike with ‘Georgia Death Race’ engraved on it. When I reached the finish, I did not look back at the burden. Everything the race liberated from my being was simply of no use to me anymore. My soul was emblazoned with joy, happiness, and love as I soaked in the tranquil darkness of victory. It is easy for me to dismiss the past few sentences as the melodramatic drivel of a blowhard, but I leave the Georgia Death Race with immortal memories of happiness. It was an amazing experience and I have nothing but love for it!

A high five from Run Bum and cheering from the crowd was great! Then I saw Elizabeth on the side and everything was perfect! I gazed over at the race clock and saw 18 something; whatever, I was so happy and didn’t care at that point! It was a hell of an effort and I had zero regrets or reservations about my race. I never got too cold during the race, but my feet and part of my shorts were soaked from the final FU stream crossing. We started to walk over to the finish shelter, but then I was reminded that our rental car had heated seats!

The heated seats were pretty much the greatest thing ever! Or, maybe taking off my shoes was the greatest thing ever! Or, maybe guzzling Wild Cherry Pepsi was the greatest thing ever! No, it was just laughing and finally celebrating with Elizabeth! I was looking forward to it all day and I had finally earned it!

I thanked the race director right after the race and told him it was my new least favorite and favorite ultra I had done. A few days later, I have nothing but love for the race and have dropped the least favorite part. This race was everything I wanted or could have asked for! Simply unbelievable!

My Strava details are all the way at the bottom, but here is some info. from LiveTrail who had tracking at the race:

Epilogue

Here are some of my favorite post-race celebratory photos, followed by a quick Q&A:

Elizabeth and I back at Amicalola Falls the next morning! I took the ADA ramp instead of hiking back up, but was feeling ok (well, ok enough to walk a bit).
A slightly different angle…
Zoomed…
My spike!
Popeye Pose
Like a dog with a bone
So tall!
If I look exhausted, it is because I am. Scofflaw Brewing was great and has awesome IPAs!

A very special thank you to Elizabeth for her Support on this journey! I love you and am so grateful that you could join me on this adventure!

Q&A

Q: How was the race organization?

A: The race organization was amazing and it was very well done. Course markings were abundant and the aid stations were very well-stocked. Thank you to all the awesome volunteers also! These trails are remote, rugged, and super cool. My only complaint or gripe is that Elizabeth and other spectators didn’t have great access to see us runners with only the two aid station points. Also, I probably should have gone to the early meeting to get more sleep the night before, but my fault.

Q: What did you eat?

A: I mostly ate my own food, which consisted of Huma Gels, Clif Bloks, and Larabars. I didn’t eat that many Larabars and have a ton left. Also, the race was stocked with slightly watered-down Gatorade, which I relied on heavily. I had a few of my own Tailwind tubes too, which were much better and a nice break as well. The aid stations were fully stocked, but I limited myself to grilled cheese, quesadillas, and a few pieces of bacon mostly. I’m sure I had a few other things as well, but I didn’t factor in calories ate at the aid station into my fueling. I set a target of having 200-300 calories per hour minimum for the race. I didn’t monitor this too strictly, but my fueling was a success! I was especially happy with how this went given my stomach/GI issues over the first 40 miles.

Q: What did you run with?

A: I ran in the Altra Olympus 2.5, which was a great choice for me. It was a lot stiffer than the Altra Timps which wrecked my feet at Run Rabbit. Also, I used the max cushion well as I hammered down toward the finish of the race. My feet got quite swollen, so I think I’m glad I skipped the Hoka Speedgoat 2’s given my wide feet. I started off in Injinji Trail socks before switching to two pairs of Feetures light cushion socks later on. My trusty Ultimate Direction pack was solid as expected. I ran in North Face’s Better than Naked shirts, changing shirt twice. Finally, I ran in my BOA Colorado shorts, which were great! My gear performed well or didn’t generate any issues, which is all you can hope for!

Q: What’s Next?

A: Some relaxation and recovery for a while! My peak mileage was about 85 miles and I put in a lot of time, so a bit of a break or downgrade is needed for me. I’m going to try to run the Balcon Marathon on April 22nd with Mile High Trail Runners (unofficial, club run) assuming my recovery goes as planned. Then, I’ll be pacing my friend Scott at the Black Hills 100 at the end of June! After that, it is on to the Boulder Backroads Half Marathon on September 9th. Finally, I’ll be running the Marine Corps Marathon on October 28th!

I am pretty content with my trail racing trophy case right now and I am toying with the idea of really pushing to improve my road marathon time and trying to even qualify for Boston. I’m skeptical that I can shave off 20 minutes from PR a few years ago, but we’ll see. Whatever I end up doing, I hope it’ll be as much fun as the Georgia Death Race!

Q: How the hell did Andrew Miller finish this race in 11:26:54?

A: Umm…I have absolutely no clue. That dude is superhuman! The Georgia Death Race is a Golden Ticket race for the Western States 100, so the elite field was pretty impressive at this one. I didn’t really have any interaction with the elites, but I am simply in awe of them. As a mid-pack runner or upper mid-pack runner, I can’t even fathom running that fast! Congrats to Aliza Lapierre for winning the women’s race in 13:31:29 also! Again, I have zero clue how the elites do it! Amazing!

I believe the vast majority or maybe all of the elite field attended the first pre-race meeting, so I missed seeing them. Oh well, thank you for warming up the trails for me!

GPS Tracks from my Garmin Fenix2…seemed to be running a little over on elevation and mileage the whole day. Watch died about halfway up the stairs at the end.

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