Tuesday, March 29, 2016

        Road to Western States-The Georgia Death Race 2016
                              "It never always gets worse"

Before the start at Vogel State Park

     I signed up for the Georgia Death Race back in October of 2015 on impulse. A friend of mine had signed up, and I thought it would be a fun road trip. I had heard about it before, and that it was a tough-as-nails kind of race. The course description, the race profile, the elevation gain all appealed to me. It seems very suited to my strengths as a runner. Then, not long after I signed up, it was announced as a Golden Ticket race to gain automatic entry into the granddaddy of ultras, the Western States Endurance Run. I remember getting chills realizing that this just might be my chance at something special. This was the first time an east coast race had been included in the list of golden ticket races. When I failed to get into Western States through the lottery (I had 1 ticket), I knew it was game on.
     After recovering from the Hellgate 100K in December 2015, I eased back into training the first week of January. There was no time to waste! With the help of my coach, January mainly consisted of base-building miles, and long runs with tons of climbing. January flowed into February, and then March with one of the best training blocks I've ever had. I hate tapers, and the week leading up to the race was excruciating. When Andy Jones-Wilkins and I finally started the long drive down to Georgia the day before the race, a serene calmness came over me. Normally, I'm a bundle of nerves, but I was just relieved that it was finally here. I knew I had done everything within my power to get to the start in the best shape possible, physically and mentally. My mantra for the weekend was "trust your training, trust yourself". The rest isn't worth worrying about. 
     We arrived at the pre-race meeting to a flurry of activity (and snakes!). I had a short pre-race interview with Ashley Walsh of eastultra.com. She did an amazing job of covering the race over the course of the weekend. There was a lot of tension and nervous energy in that building. We didn't stay long as I wanted to get settled in at my hotel, and get to bed at a decent time. At least with an 8am start, I could actually get a decent night's sleep.
     Race morning, I woke up still strangely calm, which was crazy considering what was at stake. Andy, Horton, and I made the 15 minute drive to the start to check in and pick up the railroad spike we would be required to carry all day. I was blown away by the beauty of Vogel State Park. If you have never been down to Georgia, go! It's absolutely beautiful. We gathered at the start, and I was able to chat briefly with Katie Desplinter, Jennifer Benna, and a few others people, then we were off!
photo credit: werunhuntsville.com
Running along the Duncan Ridge Trail
     My strategy was to take it slow and steady for the first half since a lot of the climbing came in the first 38 miles. I'm typically a slow-starter anyway; I usually question my sanity for the first ten miles or so in these races. There is a long grinding climb in the first 8.5 miles, and Maggie Guteral, Jennifer Benna, and I quickly settled in together hiking the climb at a steady but conservative pace. Almost within the first 10 minutes of the race, I started feeling bad. My legs felt heavy, my heart rate felt too high, and the climbs felt harder than they should have. The same thing happened to me at the Masochist 50-miler last October, so I didn't panic yet. Sarah Woener had already bolted to the front like a jackrabbit. We collectively decided to let her go. It was a very long race, and it didn't make sense to push the pace in the first hour. As the miles slowly (and I mean slowly) ticked by, I kept waiting for my body to come around and settle in. I could tell Maggie and Jen felt better than I did, so I just hung on the back and tried to keep up. I even remember Maggie saying it felt like a slow training run pace. It felt hard to me, too hard so early in the race. Crap! This wasn't going how I had imagined.
     The next 20 miles or so went by roughly just like this. The Duncan Ridge trail is a relentless series of steep up and downs with very little runnable, flat sections. Usually, I love hiking and climbing, but it just felt like work. I could tell the other ladies were  stronger than I was. I just tried not to show just how bad I really felt, but it was bad. My first mistake of the day was forgetting to put S-caps in my pack. They were safely tucked into my drop bag with my crew, whom I wouldn't see for 28 miles. The day warmed up quickly, and I knew in the back of my mind, that I might be in trouble. Maggie graciously gave me some powder stuff that had electrolytes in it, which unfortunately tasted like sawdust! I choked it down anyway knowing I needed the salt. There is a short out-and-back section going into the aid station at mile 21. I think Sarah was already 18 minutes ahead at this point and looking strong. I, on the other hand, continued to feel like death. My second mistake of the day was trying to rush in and out of that aid station without checking my hydration bladder. I made it about half a mile back up the trail and tried to take a sip of water....and not a single drop came out! Even though I thought I hadn't been drinking that much, it was completely dry. I now had to go about 6 miles without water, and was starting to panic. I began to think that this just might not be my day. Thoughts were going through my head about the long, sad drive home accepting that my dream was gone. I thought of all the people back home rooting for me, and how disappointed they would all be. I began to wonder why I was still trying to race these stupid ultras, and that maybe I should just retire and find a new hobby. I have a name for this alter ego, which appears during my extreme low points. Her name is "little girl", and she is a whiny, pitiful creature. She wants to cry, and wants everyone to feel sorry for her. It's not a good thing when she makes an appearance, and many times, it means my race may very well be over. On top of everything else, my stomach had started going south very early on, probably within the first 10 miles of the race. I think the heat, along with the climbs, and lack of proper planning caused my stomach to stop absorbing anything. Basically between mile 21 and mile 28 I didn't really eat or drink anything other than sipping on a single gel. However, we had some good downhill running, finally, which is my absolute favorite part of trail running. 
     There was nothing I could do about running out of water, so I just put it out of my head. There was no point in worrying about something I couldn't change. At least I was finally able to catch my breath on the downhills, and get my heart rate down a little bit. Magically, I started to feel just a teensy bit better. I could feel my body finally settling into a little bit of a rhythm. We made it to mile 28 where we saw our crews for the first time. I think I commented to Andy and David that I was starting to feel better, and maybe it just takes me 30 miles to warm up! I drank some kind of Starbucks coffee drink, took some ibuprofen (don't hate), loaded up on caffeinated gels, and took off after Maggie and Jen. My plan had been to save the caffeine for the second half of the race, but I was desperate for something to pull me out of the hole at this point. I knew things had to turn around quickly. We started up yet another long climb, and took turns being in front. Sarah had put yet more time on us, and was about 28 minutes ahead by this point. I can't imagine how hard she must have run those hilly miles. It now seemed to be a race for the second Golden Ticket, which was a strange position to be in. The three of us had been working really well together all day, but I know all of us wanted that spot. It had to have been in the back of each of our minds what would happen later. We even jokingly talked about finishing the race all together for second place. What would they do if we tied for the second golden ticket? I don't think any of us wanted to race each other for that second spot. 
     Somewhere about mile 31 or so, it started raining suddenly. I had moved into the front of our little group at this point, and everyone stopped to put on their jackets. I had been so hot all day that the rain felt good to me, so I pushed on. It wasn't really a conscious attempt to pull away. I just felt really good for the first time all day, and got a little excited. I could climb without feeling like an out-of-shape 90-year old. I kept going, thinking that everyone else would catch up eventually. I didn't know how long I would feel good, so I decided just to go with it. Little did I know that would be the last time I saw either girl. It is kind of a blur from there until our second crew point at mile 47. I just remember feeling absolutely amazing through here. It's hard to explain the feeling, but it's that point when you feel like you are flying and could run forever. My legs felt light, my breathing was calm, and I just knew I was running well. 
     I came into the point bravo aid station at mile 47, and learned that Sarah was now only 4-5 minutes ahead. I had made up 24 minutes in 20 miles! It was game on! My stomach was still giving me problems, so I grabbed a bunch of different stuff trying to get some calories down. I think Maggie's crew person, Dylan, gave me some pepto-bismol chewable pills here, and I ate some pickles. Weird, I know, but they tasted really good. I downed some ginger ale too, I think. I'm pretty sure this was the first time I've ever eaten pickles during a race. I charged out of the aid station, whooping and hollering, as I started down an awesome 3-4 mile downhill on a dirt road. I absolutely love coming from behind and being on "the hunt". At the same time, we still had 25 miles to go, so you still had to be careful not to push too hard and risk blowing up. There was another aid station at mile 51, and I was told that Sarah had just left as I came in. I didn't need much here since we had aid 4 miles before, so I left pretty quickly. I finally saw Sarah probably within a mile of the aid station, and purposely didn't try to pass her. I wanted her to come back to me without having to work too much. I came up behind her and she graciously said I could pass. However, this was right at the moment my stomach finally had enough. I dropped back a few yards and promptly puked on the side of the trail. It was actually a relief to finally clean out the gut. I stood up and tried to run again, only to start gagging and have to stop again. This went on for about half a mile, until everything was out. Finally, I was able to sip some water, and eat a few honey stinger chews without gagging. I quickly caught back up to Sarah, and we talked for a few brief moments. I could tell she was worried about who was behind us. I decided that this was the time to go, since I had no idea how far back the other ladies were. I pulled ahead, and just focused on trying to eat and drink. I plugged in my iPod, and settled in. 
     This next whole section is sort of non-descript also. I just remember running along a paved road for an eternity! I was starting to feel the miles a little bit. I ran by fields with cows, and a house where a little girl ran out to give me a handwritten note of encouragement. It was pretty cute, but my mind was preoccupied. There were very few streamers along this stretch, and I was terrified of getting lost 55ish miles into the race. True road running isn't my forte. I was worried that someone would gain on me here. I would later find out that Maggie did indeed get within 4 minutes of me on this section. The paved road turned into a long gradual climb up a dirt road to the final aid station of the race. I had to turn on my headlamp somewhere around mile 60 or so, and I tried to keep my mind occupied by seeing how far I could go before I had to turn on my headlamp. I didn't run this road particularly well. I walked pretty much the entire uphill; I think the lack of calories was finally catching up to me. Before the race, my coach, AJW, had given me a good mantra that he learned years ago from the legendary Tommy Nielson-"Always run like there is someone 3 minutes ahead and someone 3 minutes behind you". This went through my head over and over, since I had no clue where anyone else was. I kept glancing behind me expecting to see a light. I finally made it up the climb to the last aid station, with about 7-8 miles to go. If I could just hang on, this might actually happen!!!
     I knew that there was a lot of downhill from here to the finish, which is usually my strength. I knew I could dig deep, and race harder if it came to that. My favorite Eminem song, "Lose Yourself" came on right at that moment and it felt like a sign. The words "look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment. Would you capture it or let it slip?" spoke to me. It seemed like the words were meant for me in that moment. The miles alone in the dark seemed endless, but I finally made it to Amicalola Falls State Park. The final two miles of the race are a ridiculously cruel 2 miles. You run down a nasty, rocky section of trail that takes you within 100 yards of the finish, only to turn around and climb up a million steps to the top of the falls. My only thought was to be careful and not break anything. The stairs were brutal, and again, I just kept looking back expecting to see someone's light right behind me. I reached the top of the falls, and had about 1 mile to go. For the first time, I relaxed, and realized that I was going to actually win. This was really, really happening. I was going to get my Golden Ticket! I jogged slowly down the final stretch of trail and came to the stream crossing 50 feet from the finish line. I waded through carefully soaking up every moment of the final few feet. I walked up to Sean, the RD, and gave him a quick high five. Just like that, my world changed, and I was going to Western States! AJW gave me a huge hug, followed by another great hug from Horty. I heard that Maggie was 10 minutes back, so I waited for her to cross the finish line. We hugged as she finished, and I couldn't believe we had done it. We had been talking before the race about wanting to get the top two spots, and now it had happened. I then promptly ran over to the side out of the way of the finish line, and puked yet again. This would continue several more times that night as my body crashed from the effort, and refused any food or liquid. It didn't matter. I had my golden ticket, and nothing else mattered.
     It's been about a week now, and it is finally sinking in that I'm actually going. My fairy tale came true. It doesn't really matter what happens at Western States in June. That is just icing on the cake. The Georgia Death Race was one of the most rewarding and meaningful races I have ever run, as well as one of the hardest. I still can't express properly what it means, and maybe I never will. It is a memory I will cherish for a lifetime.
     I'd like to say an extra special thank you to Horton and AJW for coming down to support me in the race. Any success that I have is thanks to your generosity in helping me along the way. 
     Also to Sean Blanton, this was an AWESOME race!! I was a little skeptical at first because I'd never done one of your races. But you are absolutely a FIRST-CLASS race director and have an amazing future ahead of you directing races!! 
     Lastly but most importantly, thank you to all the great ultra runners that took on the Georgia Death Race. This sport is so awesome and its' participants so generous. I'm so thankful for all the friendships and talks I get to have with each and every one of you during these events. My accomplishments are no greater and my dedication no more significant than any of yours. Anyone that commits to running and training for these races is a part of the same ultra running family that I belong to. 

photo credit: Eastultra.com
At the finish with my two heroes, Andy Jones-Wilkins and David Horton
photo credit: Dylan Abrons Armajani
On the left trying not to puke

Sometimes winning ain't pretty, but it sure was worth it.

     So here is what I did wrong:
  1. I forgot to take S-caps with me, which hurt me immensely early on.
  2. I didn't top off my water at mile 21, and subsequently ran out of water. Check your water!
  3. I tried to get out of the aid stations too quickly, and didn't grab my go-to gel (EFS), which usually works when my stomach is upset. I never told any during the race, which was a really stupid mistake. This would have cost me big time, had the race been 100 miles.
  4. I had gotten ginger root at the store to put in my bladder. I was lazy, and didn't put it in at the star.
  5. I also had ginger chews in my drop bag in case my stomach went south. I never used these either. I have no idea why, really, other than stubbornness.
  6. I ate more solid food at the beginning including candy bars. Bad idea! Stick to what you know. 
Here is what I did right:
  1.  I didn't panic when up I felt crappy for 28 miles. Learn to embrace the suck instead of fearing it. It truly never always gets worse (favorite quote by David Horton).
  2.  I didn't let the puking get to me. It used to cause me to freak out and stop racing. I've learned that it can actually make you feel better, and you can come back from it.
  3. Trust your training, and trust yourself. I knew I had put in the time and the miles to run well. Even when it started unraveling at the beginning, I tried to remember that. I knew I was fit and strong. Trust your training.
  4. I know that I am a better second half runner, so I tried to be patient and calm.
  5. I put "little girl" in her place, and she never came back.  
Gear list:
Shirt- Patagonia Capilene short-sleeve top
Sports Bra- Nike Pro
Shorts- Saucony PE shorts
Shoes- Pearl Izumi Trail N2
Socks- Balega enduro low-cut socks
pack- Nathan VaporAiress pack

Food (although I failed in this department)
-one snickers-very bad idea
-Honey Stinger chews-Orange blossom is my favorite
-Powerbar gels -Strawberry banana is the best!
-lots of Coke
-pickle juice at an aid station ( I was desperate)
-Starbucks Frappuccino
-A few boiled potatoes



  1. I love that all 4, top women took the time to write up a detailed recap. It's so interesting to read the feelings and strategies you all experienced at the same race, on the same day. Thank you for sharing this, and congratulations on your win. What a great takeaway and reward.

    1. Thank you! It was really cool to read everyone's perspective from the race, since we never know what the other runners are dealing with.

  2. oh. also : "I pulled ahead, and just focused on trying to eat and drink. I plugged in my iPod, and settled in."
    That. That's The Feeling. Seems so simple, but I completely understand how you felt, there, and it's just that moment you strive for, mid-race.
    Again, nicely done.

  3. This was an awesome read! Looking forward to your writeup on Western States!

    1. I will absolutely write a report for that race. I want to remember the experience, no matter how it turns out.

  4. It's so amazing the many ups and downs that take place in a long race. Whether mere mortal or elite, we all go through them - it's how we respond that's the key! Well done :)

    1. Thank you! Everyone deals with their own problems, it doesn't matter whether you win or finish last!

  5. Gracias por compartir su experiencia con nosotros me encanto leer relato y felicidades !!!!!

  6. Gracias por compartir su experiencia con nosotros me encanto leer relato y felicidades !!!!!

  7. Gracias por compartir su experiencia con nosotros me encanto leer relato y felicidades !!!!!