The Georgia Death Race Story - Part 2
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done.” — Philippians 4:6
One thing that I have accepted over the past 1–2 years is that if it matters to me, it matters to God. It was hard for me to pray to God about something that seemed small or meaningless. I didn’t want to “waste his time.” But, it seemed like more times than not, our service at CrossPoint Church here in Nashville would tie things back to how much we mean to God. And how much he wants to have a relationship with us. The many hours that I have spent on the trails training for this race gave me an opportunity to escape from the everyday struggles and connect with God. I may not always carve out a morning routine, or pray first thing in the morning or right before I go to bed, but one thing that I did keep consistent was talking to God on my trail runs. I made a point of leaving my ipod at home on most of these runs and just enjoying the outdoors and being in my own head. I knew that I was going to put the work in for GDR, but also, to trust in God and pray about everything. Don’t worry. I heard someone say one time, “worrying is like a rocking chair. You can do it all day long, but when you are done, you are right where you started.” Or something like that.
The drive down to GDR was a little more eventful than we had anticipated. We hit multiple slow downs and fender benders realizing about 1–2 hours too late that we were right in the middle of Spring break traffic driving South. It took us about 1.5 hours longer than the original ETA but we made it in time for our mandatory meeting at Amicalola Falls State park. Words cannot describe how beautiful this lodge/park is. I was amazed the second that we parked. After packet pick up, the pre race meeting, and a quick dinner at the lodge buffet, we were off to our hotel which was closer to the start at Vogel State park (almost 1 hour and 15 minutes from Amicalola). Once at our hotel, I got everything organized and gave last minute instructions to my crew, my wife and my brother, before we went to bed at 10pm.
My alarm sounded very abruptly at 3am. But I didn’t really sleep that much anyways so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I rolled out of bed and immediately ate my pop tarts and started drinking my coffee. My goal for breakfast is to have 80+ grams of carbs before an ultra. Two Poptarts have about 75 grams so I ate 1/2 of a Picky bar as well. That got me well above my goal of 80 grams. This is one of those little nuggets of info that I got from the East Coast Ultra and Trail podcast. It turns out that I have not been eating enough before these big races and going in a little under fueled. One of the other things that they mentioned on that particular episode was that it’s easier for your body to digest processed foods and on race day, you should aim to eat whatever your body can handle the easiest. Sounds like common sense, but I just don’t normally eat pop tarts, twinkies, and/or moon pies. A big bowl of oatmeal may be your normal breakfast, but 1 cup of cooked oatmeal is only about 160 calories and under 30 grams of carbs. And it is going to take your body a little longer to digest that when compared to something simple like a pop tart. Check out episode 52 for some more Ultra nutritional info.
Anyways, the rest of the morning was uneventful. I got everything organized and Casey drove me to the start which was only about 15 minutes from our hotel. We arrived at the park around 4:10am and then just waited around. After checking in, receiving my railroad spike, and making a bathroom stop, there was nothing to do but hang out. Fortunately Casey hung around and waited to see me off. I would have been a nervous wreck had she just dropped me off and gone back to the hotel. At 5am sharp, we were off.
The most unique experience of this race was the fact that we got to run the first 2 hours of this race under a clear sky with a “blue” moon. It must be rare to be able to run a race, in the darkness, and under a full moon. The first few miles were very focused on not falling and staying out of trouble. We climbed about 3,500 ft of elevation gain in the first 8 miles. I was going a little harder than I wanted to, but I was also just pacing off of the 8 guys in front of me. It’s better to have 8 headlamps to navigate as opposed to my loan head lamp. Andrew Miller was off of the front early and never to be seen again. He is truly a beast. But everyone else stayed pretty close until we hit the first big descent. Once at the peak, we could see the North Georgia Mountains lit by the full moon. Truly amazing.
Having never attempted a race of this kind of distance, I knew that nutrition would be VERY important. My goal from the start was to eat 300 calories an hour for as long as my stomach could handle it. Every 2 hour window, I drank a bottle of Sword, took 2 Spring Gels, 1 GU or Huma gel, and then usually had a packet of Margarita Clif Bloks. I did eat a few Honey Stinger Waffles, but as the day warmed up, these tasted like Saltines in a dry mouth. This plan worked well early on and it was easy to eat with all of the climbing we were doing. We ran through the first aid station at around mile 8 and I just went right on by knowing there was another in about 5 miles. I passed 4–5 guys by not stopping but we were still less than 10% in the race so I didn’t think too much about it. My goal for this section of the race was to not get injured. These guys were bombing the down hills with only the light of the moon and their headlamp. That is something that I need to practice more before my next race that is in the dark. For the next few miles, there were probably 4–5 of us that were just running single file. The guy leading wasn’t running fast, but it didn’t feel slow. We overshot a turn and realized we were off trail about 30 seconds later. Once we got back on the trail, the guys in the back of our line took off! I was barely hanging on and we quickly lost the guy who was leading. I realized that the guys that were behind us were really holding back. The sun slowly came up and by the next aid station, we had turned off our headlamps. We were around mile 13 and I figured that I was around 8th or 9th place overall. After a quick stop at the aid station, a guy named Nick and I were off. We power hiked the steep sections and ran the downhills and flat sections. I ended up putting a little distance on him on some of the climbs but he would reel me back in on the screaming downhills. We were only 15–18 miles into the race, but I could already feel my quads screaming at me to stop running downhill. I definitely didn’t want to be feeling that this early in the race, but there was nothing I could do now as I still had a lot of downhill running to go.
I knew that I would see Casey and my brother, Ben, around mile 21 at the Skeenah Gap aid station. I made the right hand turn to head down the mountain and it was only a few minutes before Andrew Miller passed me coming back up! I knew that this was at least 1–2 miles down, and then we turn around and come right back up. This was the only out and back section of the course and I would be able to see how everyone was looking and what place I was in. It was almost 12–13 minutes before I passed the next person. Andrew was crushing the course and everyone else. 2nd — 6th place were all fairly close together and strung out evenly over several minutes. I came into the aid station at around 3 hours and 48 minutes. My A+ goal was to be between 3:45–3:55 so I had hit this first section perfectly. I stopped and got my fuel from my crew and tried to be off as quick as I could because Nick came into this aid station right behind me. I was currently in 8th place.
After reloading with Sword and Spring, I was headed back up the mountain. I soon realized that I need to make a pit stop. I waited until I was off of this out and back section before making a quick stop off of the trail. After my stop, I felt much better and got back into a rhythm. I knew that I was going to have to be smart for the next 18–20 miles as I would not be able to keep bombing the downhills and running the uphills. I started power hiking the steep / longer sections of uphill and tried to keep a steady tempo on the flat / downhill sections. I was able to maintain a solid pace but was all alone until I hit the next aid station somewhere around the 5 hour mark. and once again, there was Nick! I thought for sure that he was going to pass me, but fortunately I got out of that aid station before he did, and I never saw him again. We had a long steady climb after leaving that aid station so it was back to power hiking. 15 minutes up, 15 minutes down, and then a 45 minute climb. I knew that I was doing ok as I caught a guy right before the next aid station. It gave me a “carrot” to keep a steady tempo on this long climb. I was still feeling good and the quads weren’t giving me issues so I was in and out of that aid station at mile 33ish pretty quickly and now in 7th place. The course is extremely difficult for the first 20, still very hard for the next 20, and then it’s a lot of fire roads, a little pavement, and then finishes with a few miles of single track trails. So I knew that I only had 5–7 miles left of the hard stuff left before I would be able to open up my stride a bit and get to running.
After a few more miles, I hit the top of a climb and the trail just opened up into a field. We took a left turn and I was soon running on a jeep road! Yes!!! The Long Creek aid station came quicker than I expected as I was only at mile 38 or 39 on my watch but I wasn’t complaining. From here, it was a long, not very steep descent on this road before a small climb up to my next crew stop. I averaged 8:45 pace or so for these 4–5 miles before my GPS lost signal. I know that I slowed a bit on the uphill but it didn’t matter, I would have an opportunity to see Casey and Ben and refuel/hydrate.
At Winding Stair and around mile 45ish, I saw Casey first and told her “I want a new shirt and my ipod.” and the next thing I know, my buddy Yong comes up and starts helping. I was so surprised but excited that he made the trip down. I ask “how far is the next guy?” Ben points at 6th place leaving the aid station, “he’s right there” Oh! I drink a little ginger ale, grab some more fuel (even though I don’t want to). My stomach is a bit sour, but I have been able to keep it in check so far. I didn’t want to eat anything unusual and start throwing up with 27–30 miles to go. I am about 8 hours into my race and it wasn’t until the last hour or so that I wasn’t able to take in my 300 calories. If I can just keep getting in 200/hr, then my fuel will get me to the finish.
While all of this was happening, I did stop my watch, reset it and got my GPS signal back. I hit start and I was off. It took me a mile to get my legs back under me as my quads were starting to act up a bit. The first 2 miles on this road felt like they were straight downhill. But for some reason, I didn’t see 6th place. Had he rallied and was now pulling away from me? After 5–6 miles of running, I was finally able to see him. Again, this provided the motivation I needed to get back into a groove. I passed Eli around mile 50 or 51 and then we hit the Jake Bull aid station shortly after. I topped off all 3 of my bottles as I knew it was 11 miles to the next aid station and was off just as Eli was coming into Jake Bull. My effort just stayed nice and steady. I walked some on the hills and jogged on the other sections.
After a few miles, we started our long ascent up to Nimblewell. This is a 4 mile climb on a jeep road up to our last aid station before the finish. After about a mile of climbing, I see a sign that says “1 mile to go.” What? have I been going slightly uphill for a few miles? I must feel better than I thought. Let’s Go!!!
1/2 a mile later there’s another sign “1/2 mile to go” Yes! Then another “1/4 mile to go” alright, I got this. I know the aid station is still a few miles away but at least I won’t be going uphill. Then, I see it. “You made it, Now 3 more miles to the top!” damn it…
I settled into my climbing mode. 2–3 minutes of running, 30 seconds of fast walking. ONLY 30 seconds! No more! I kept making deals with myself. I knew that if I walked longer, I might just keep walking. After a few miles, I finally make it to the top. I was able to hold 12 minutes miles on the climb and am hoping that there is at least 1 more guy in front of me that is slowing down. I go into the Nimblewell aid station at mile 63ish excited that this is my last stop before the finish. Once again, I start to run downhill and my quads are telling me to stop. ‘Shut up, we are almost there.’ I’m dropping at 100–200 ft of elevation per mile but I’m still only running 12 min/mile pace. ‘Come on! legs we got this. keep moving forward.’
I finally got to the point that every time I started to run, I would trip over something. I was fortunate that I didn’t take any hard falls, bit I sure did kick a lot of rocks, stumps, and whatever else was out there. I kept moving forward and ran what I could. But the I couldn’t see the park where the finish line was. There is a huge lodge, a huge waterfall, and lots of parking areas. ‘I should be able to see it, right? Where is it. I should only be 3 miles or so from the finish. Don’t tell me I’m 6 miles from the finish. I literally can’t run, what if I get passed? I know I’ll make it to the finish but Casey, Ben, and Yong are expecting me at this time. They might get worried. Damn it Tony, Move!’
And then I see it, a sign, “Amicalola visitor center: 1.25 miles” Yes! and I know that will be where I start my ascent up the stairs to the top of the falls, and then the quick trip down the trail from the top to the finish. I’m almost there, just keep moving. I’m looking over my shoulder every chance I get. No one. Good! It’s not long and I hear “Let’s go Tony!” What, am I hearing things? Then I see Yong. ‘Hey, my legs are gone. I can’t run.’ “Tony, get moving. Get your shit together and start running. You have about 40 minutes of running left. The next guy is only 10 minutes back. now Go!”
Oh, ok. I can do this. What’s another 40 minutes. “Drink some water” I don’t have any… “Ok, give me your bottle, I’ll see you in a bit.” And off Yong went, bounding down the trail. If only I could do that. I finally made it to the bottom and crossed over the road. Yong hands me a full bottle of water and I drink about 1/2 of it as soon as I get it. I crossed over a stream and started my ascent up the mountain. To be honest, the stairs were shorter than I had expected. We had a few minutes of running uphill on a paved trail before we hit the base of the stairs. And then, once we started the stairs, I could use my arms to help get up the stairs! Piece of cake. The first staircase had 175 stairs as was announced on a big sign before starting the ascent. and then the second stair case had 400 ish stairs as was announced on another stair case. I just had to dodge the park visitors, use my arms as much as possible, and get to the top. I knew that I would be able to gain a bit of time on someone if there happened to be someone right behind me. In no time at all, I was at the top and starting my descent back to the bottom. There was a small section on the road and then we turned onto a trail. At first, the trail was not going in the direction I wanted it to go. I need this thing to be over! But it quickly made a hard turn and we were headed straight down towards the finish. I could hear people! And there’s the stream that we cross!
I made it to the stream and didn’t want to look like an idiot by falling into the stream so I took an extra second or two before I jumped in. And 5 ft after the stream crossing was the finish. I had done it. I knew that I could, and I had finished right in the time frame that I had given Casey. I told her anywhere between 12–14 hours on a good day and if things go south, you will know early on and we can plan for more than 14 hours. But I crossed in 13 hours and 19 minutes. Check out my race file on Strava to get a closer look at how my race went.
I ended up almost 35 minutes behind 5th place and was 11 minutes in front of 7th. I know I lost a lot of time to the top finishers over the last 10–15 miles, but this was my first attempt at an Ultra longer than 50k. I knew that I would have some low spots and that happened right around mile 63–65ish. But, I guess that is why we do these things. I’ve heard that you either win, or you learn. I learned a lot and have already started thinking about how much faster I could have run it if I had raced and trained differently. Does that mean I’m planning on GDR in 2019? I don’t know, we’ll see. But as of right now, that was too much “fun” to not go back.