Where do I start? First off this was a race that I was not planning on running… ever! It was never really on my “list of races” to run. Mainly because it just sounded too hard or maybe there was too much climbing and “carnage” involved. Just look at the finisher rate. Ha! I didn’t want to set myself up for my first DNF on purpose. But what are running friends for? I guess to get you out of your comfort zone and signing up one year in advance during a post-race sale, right?
I’m not big on races with huge amounts of elevation gain – shocker I know. I enjoy races with views and moderate elevation gain of 5,000’ – 6,000’ over 50K distances. However, I’ve run races with much more and have paid the price too. It requires a different type of training and one that is difficult for me to prepare for without traveling… a lot.
The weather was looking like rain and hot. I’ve not done well in hot races in the past and struggled to keep calories in and down, but the last several races I’ve done well in and learned to dial in my nutrition a bit more which has proven successful. No Business 100 that I ran last October showed me that, but weather was better too. Still got to get that video recap out. Uhhh… procrastination. I rode up with and was staying with Joseph Koca, Matt Trommater and Quintin Koca (Joseph's bro and our crew).
Paul and Jana (2nd Overall) behind me
Fast forward to the start. Matt and Joseph both ran GDR last year. Joseph finished sub 20 and Matt came back for redemption. The weather seemed fine on the way, but no sooner than we arrived and was walking up to the shelter to hear Sean “Run Bum” Blanton give us the pre-race brief and Kevin Silvey perform his awesome rendition of the National Anthem, the drizzle started to increase. We headed toward the start line and the rain began to came down in sheets. The wind was blowing it sideways as we were totally exposed on the first couple of miles of road. Check out the Run Bum video below. I remember running down the road and the rumble strips were full puddles splashing with every step, my feet now completely soaked.
Walking up to the shelter
Me, Matt and Joseph
For the next 3 hours the rain and wind drenched the mountains. We climbed and climbed while Carlita Farmer led a group of at least 10 with Matt T. and I right behind her. Her light was so bright I could barely see mine and it lit up the trail well. After breaking away a bit later, both I and Matt with several others eventually hit the summit of Coosa Bald. Then we had a huge descent which was super sketchy. We couldn’t use poles until the first aid station at White Oak. So, we had at least 5 miles of sketchy, slick mud to contend with and my headlamp was slowly dimming. I found it hard to focus with the rain coming down and each step and slide was pushing my limitations and ability to keep from falling. Lots of runners slowed way up trying to navigate each step which essentially made it worse. I packed my poles and was only planning to use them for safety or injury. I trained without them and was not planning to use them if possible.
White Oak Aid Station - Photo by Jonathan Newton
White Oak AS1
We finally made it White Oak and I was thinking I really need to break out the poles because it was so slick on the mountain. People were sliding everywhere. I captured a video of a guy falling over. No traction and you were looking for any rock, limb, or pile of leaves to add some friction between you and the ground to keep off the slick mud which was already caked on our shoes. I hit one rocked and slipped right on my wrist which could have been bad. I was so ready for the sun to come out and the rain to stop. I was behind my pace time by 6 mins and it continued to slow in the conditions.
Akin Mountain just out of Mulky Gap Aid Station
Mulky Gap AS2
The sun did come out on the way to Mulky Gap, but the rain was still there. Coming and going. Finally, before hitting Mulky Gap AS the rain let up a bit, but I was already soaked and behind my arrival time by 20 mins. People were peeling out of their layers prematurely due to the extra effort, but because it was still cool and we had to climb back up on the ridge, some soon regretted that. On the ridge, wind gusts of 15-20 mph were howling. I kept my raincoat on for a while until I felt like it was warm enough to remove. I was really hoping I could make up some time on the downs. Legs felt good because I didn’t blow them up on the climbs.
Matt T. and I ran pretty much ran the first 20 miles together, but he tends to leave me (and he did). He arrived at Skeenah first but had to change socks/shoes due to hot spots. I was in and out after seeing Quintin and giving him my rain jacket and shoe gaiter, which finally broke from a root. I was expecting Matt to catch up, but I never saw him again. Later, I found out why (his knee went out before Winding Stair).
Point Bravo AS4 & Sapling Gap AS5
I ended up catching James Bragg who was way in front early on but had been battling knee and nutrition issues. He still was moving strong and he set a good pace as we ran at least the next 10 miles together. We came in to Point Bravo where I had a drop bag with nutrition. I filled up, and took a bit longer dipping cold water from the creek. James was in and out quick and I lost him. Fortunately, I caught back up to him. We then rolled into Sapling Gap around mile 31 and I knew I had to address some hot spots. I lubed my feet and put on a fresh pair of socks which I was not expecting to do until Winding Stair or Jake Bull.
Unfortunately, all the early, drenching rain had taken its toll. James was waiting around, and I told him to go on. He eventually did. I lost 10 mins, and it took me about a mile or so to catch up with him but found him slowing up a bit. We caught up with some other runners and we were back and forth. When we hit the climbs he and another runner fell back, while me and another runner moved on. Eventually, I passed the other runner and began to move pass single runners here and there. I didn’t see James again.
Long Creek AS6
I ran in to Long Creek and saw my friend Joseph who was way in front early standing at the aid station. I was surprised to see him there. He said he had dropped to 20 min miles and wasn’t feeling good and was going to take it easy. I wished him luck and took off. I took advantage of the down hills trying not to blow out my legs. I knew I could go faster but had a long way to go still. I had to slow myself down which can also blow out the quads. I tried to just let gravity take over but was getting some ankle pinching from the new shoes. Yes, I had to pick up new shoes on the way to the race because I forgot mine at home. Doh! Not recommended. I used some sheep’s wool to cushion, and it helped.
Winding Stair AS7
I arrived at Winding Stair AS, around mile 43 at 4:18 pm with an elapsed time of 11:17 hrs. There was a descent climb to get there. After Skeenah Gap I had been steadily increasing my lead giving myself a bigger cushion towards my 20-hour goal. I was no longer concerned with AS cutoffs as I had a 1:45 hr buffer now. However, I’ve seen that cushion before in a 100 and with aid station stops, GI issues and lots of walking, that can quickly dissipate. But I stayed steady and continued to run what I could, when I could. All I could think about was all the advice I was given from GDR veterans and what Andrew Miller said on the Run Bum podcast which I listened to a couple days prior. He talked about running everything you could and make up gains on the roads, even the climb to Nimblewill, and I did. I picked up 13 spots on the way to Jake Bull.
Coming in to Jake Bull - Photo by Jonathan Newton
Jake Bull AS8
I came into Jake Bull and saw Quintin who was helping crew Joseph, Matt T. and myself. I told him about Joseph, and he told me about Matt. He had my drop bag with lights and nutrition. Jake Bull was a large AS and he was parked at the opposite end of the AS which I ran to first, checked in and then had to backtrack to the van, then after changing shirts and getting ready for the night, I had to run back to the AS. I lost 10 min here, although I planned for fifteen, but I also used more at other aid stations than planned. So, I got out of there as quickly as possible. I had previously read a text from Victoria Kendra about not getting caught up in the party at Jake Bull just before rolling in. Many did as crews were everywhere. All I could think about was how many left out in front of me and how many I was leaving behind. You can gain or lose many spots at an aid station.
Long jeep road on the way to Nimblewill
Two runners I had previously passed left out ahead of me, and I quickly caught up and moved around them in the next mile or so. I hit the long, paved road that just rolled up and down what seemed like forever, then the dirt, fire/jeep road to Nimblewill that just kept going and going. Many were walking and I was passing groups of 3 and 4 at a time. It was only a 6-12% grade. Just enough to get the legs burning and the heart rate up to walk, but not steep enough to have to walk the whole thing. Runners were struggling now with the heat and lack of nutrition from GI issues. I ended up seeing Paul Tilley who was 5th male sitting under a tree filtering water. I went over and asked if he was ok. He said he had been getting sick from the heat and was taking a break. I saw a few runners catching up, so I wished him well and took off. I felt blessed to still feel so strong. Even though my legs were hurting, I could still run, and I did every chance I could.
The "fake" Nimblewill aid station. Ha! Love the tunes!!
I looked down at my watch and my pace chart and continued to manage my cushion by almost 2 hours. I was surprised. On the way up the Nimblewill climb there were signs saying I was almost there. Not!! I even saw a lady on bike tell me I was, but I knew I wasn’t, and it was still 3.5 miles away. I was waiting to hear the infamous “party in the sky” music and finally I did as I rounded the corner and heard reggae blaring with disco lights everywhere. I still had 1.5 miles to go to the aid station. It was a good jolt of encouragement, but that next 1.5 miles to the top sucked.
Finally, at Nimblewill I fueled up because I knew this was the last hot food and soda until the finish. I grabbed bacon, quesadillas, avocados, Coke, broth, mandarins and headed out. Gels supplemented the next 10+ miles too. By this time, I had picked up 11 more spots. I clocked off the next 5 miles catching runners who had been in the top 20 all day. I had no idea what place I was in. I met up with a fellow F3 Pax, Estevao Franco (F3 Picanha), from GA. I saw some other F3 guys crewing but didn’t know who they were there with. I talked with Tim Newell (F3 Rubbermaid) from Waxhax, NC and he said it wasn't him. Then I found out it was F3 Picanha. He was struggling with some GI issues, and we ran the next several miles together. We then both caught up with Lindsey Clemens who was needing nutrition and didn’t get much of anything from the last aid. I was really surprised to see so many amazing runners struggling. But in an ultra, anything can happen even to the best of runners with the best training. GI issues are something that are a bit of a mystery to overcome in a race. Check out Sean's post race interview with Lindsey (4th overall female) and Jana (2nd overall) here https://youtu.be/vYLr-5J81eI.
The Last 10 Miles
Estevao and I took off and kept moving. This was his longest ultra… Wow! I couldn’t believe he chose one so hard, but this was his training grounds too. Even though he was struggling, I knew he was a faster runner and felt like I was holding him back, but he stayed with me. I then took a gel that had ginger and it did not agree with me. With less than 5 miles left, I got sick and told him to go on. He had picked up the pace and I knew I couldn’t hang with him especially knowing we had 1000’ of descent, 800’ of ascent with 604 stairs and then another 800’ of technical decent in the last 2 miles.
His light moved out of sight and I never saw him again. But I was still on pace for sub 18:00 hours. I knew the stairs were going to be slow. Within the last 3 miles another runner I had passed way back came out of nowhere. He apparently got a third wind for the finish and then he was out of sight. I hit the technical downs with all kinds of roots and rocks just after crossing over Amicalola Falls Lodge Dr. This was the East Ridge Trail. It was steep and winding. Then I stubbed my toe on a rock big time. I felt it resonate all the way to my head. Ouch!!
Just the beginning of the 604 steps
Stairway to Heaven
Once reaching the bottom we had to run behind the Visitor Center. I could see the road and lights and knew I would come within a few hundred yards of the finish line before having to ascend those 604 stairs. I just kept going and going. “Where are these dang steps!” I said out loud. Then, I hit a paved greenway that just kept going up and up at 18% grade. Finally, I saw a big sign that showed “175 Steps, Very Strenuous.” I hit the steps and quickly climbed them. Then the quads started to burn as I grabbed on to the hand rails. I looked up in the air and thought I saw falling stars, then realized it was headlamps moving. “OMG! That’s a long way up!” I said to myself. These things went on forever! It was pitch black and all you could hear, and feel was the massive amounts of water rushing down. I just kept going, section by section taking small breaks on the landings, thinking I was going to lose so much time. I was doing about a 30 min mile by now.
Official time of 17:49:20
The Taste of Victory
I could see the last couple of sections, and I got up them to flat ground looking for the course flags and lights. I saw them to the left and took off. My quads where so heavy, it felt like a brick run after doing 50 miles on a bike. But now, I had to contend with a very steep road descent. It was like trying to run fast and put on the brakes at the same time. The quads were resisting big time. I knew we had to get back on the trail somewhere. So after about .3 of a mile I entered the trail to the left and it was steep technical terrain with sharp switchbacks and drops. Everything my legs didn’t need. It was like this for the next .7 of a mile before I could hear the cheers from the finish line. The trails were so steep, it was all I could do to keep from sliding down. I saw a runner about to cross the creek and I went for it. He heard me splash in and quickly picked up the pace. I tried to leap up the embankment, but he was able to pull away just in time as we both crossed the finish line within seconds of each other. In the end, I came away with a finish time of 17:49:20. That’s 2:10:40 faster than my 20-hour goal time. I finished 14th overall, 11th overall male and 7th in the 40-49 age group. I was super ecstatic with my time all without poles. I thank God for this opportunity and give him the glory for sustaining me and helping me to finish strong and with no injuries. GDR sure lived up to its name! Thank you Run Bum crew and all the volunteers that made this race possible.