My original goal for this year involved two giant goals, run a 24 hour race possibly getting 50+ miles and running the Tortoise and the Hare 50k race in November again to commemorate my first ultra distance race and see if I have improved my time. Besides these big races I had decided to throw in a few 50ks and 12 hour races to round off the year. The last race I envisioned myself running would be a 50 mile technical trail race.
In the middle of June I completed my first big race, the 24 hour ultra Midsummer Nights Dream with 55 miles over 24 hours, besting my longest distance of 37 miles over 12 hours (race report here). A timed race involves runners completing as many miles as possible in a fixed amount of time, all runners finish with the same time. Often the race courses are a mile to a mile and a half mile long, often on a flat track (some are ran on terrain, but not often). The biggest advantage of the races is that they have an aid station at a fixed point and you run til the time is completed. At this race another ultra friend of mine mentioned that she was running the Georgia Jewel 50 mile race because they had a thirty hour cutoff. I had not planned to run a 50 mile point to point technical trail run this year, but the time cutoffs had me interested. The day after the race, while I could barely move from running the farthest I had ever ran before, I signed up for the Georgia Jewel 50 mile race.
Unlike running in circles for hours the Georgia Jewel 50 mile race (there were 100 mile and 35 mile options also), ran on the Pinhoti trail from Ga Hwy 27 to Dalton Georgia, involved starting from a different starting and finishing point. The trail and course itself would encompass a challenging 8,000 – 9,000 feet of elevation on a mix of technical rocky trails, forest service roads and a few miles of asphalt. The provided aide stations were a mix of manned and unmanned aide stations and often were spread out every five to eight miles apart. I knew this challenge would be unlike any race I have run to this point, the elevation and rocks alone were going to provide major challenges. With this new challenge two to three months away I focused my training on preparing for the distance and environmental conditions, running 250-280 miles a month with heavy weekend miles ran on sections of the Pinhoti the race would be running on.
Race Start To Manning Road
After months of high mileage weeks and grueling long runs on technical trails and elevation it was time to race. The 100 mile runners race started at 5 A.M. Saturday morning from the Dalton Convention center, where they would go out 50 miles turn around and come back. For the other race distances we would only see the Dalton Convention Center at the conclusion of our race, either 35 or 52 miles later. On the race morning my wife and a few of my other running friends loaded into my car and we headed to the 50 mile race start, the 100 mile turn around point. There was a bus offered, but I wanted to get to the starting point earlier so I could calm down and relax.
Eventually it was time to start and all the 50 mile runners were off, we were on our way, heading to Dalton some 52 miles away. Immediately from the start the course showed its teeth, I had to traverse the massive, long, steep power line section straight up. The weather forecast for the day was light rain early in the day with a drying up later in the afternoon. The fog got thick and visibility proved non-existent in spots. I climbed the power line section and dropped back from all the other runners, letting myself get into a comfortable pace for myself. I was alone and last, right where I prefered to be.
Eventually the power lines gave way to the Pinhoti, initially these trails were currently utilized logging roads which gave way to trails. A good portion of this section involved long running lanes traversing old and new logging roads, some with fresh gravel recently poured. After a quick eight or so miles I came to my first noticeable ridge, Taylor’s ridge. At the end of this ridge run started the long descent down the mountain to the first manned aid station for the race.
After eleven miles I came to the aide station, got my pack off, where they could refill the water bladder with water and my nutrition supplement, munched on some food and soda and continued down the dirt road that would give way to asphalt for two long miles.
For this race I really wanted to focus on reducing my aide station times as I have a tendency in tough races to stop and linger way to long. Knowing this weakness I went into the aide stations with a mission and a goal and pretty much did a great job of getting in, getting what I needed and getting out.
At the end of the long asphalt highway of the Pinhoti the trail diverged onto forest roads again and eventually ridge line running along Strawberry Mountain. At this point I found I was moving pretty strong and was surprised to see I had been going faster than I expected. After roughly 18 miles of running roads and technical trails, ascending and descending hills and mountains I had finally came to the first big aid station Manning Road aid station where my drop bag would be. Once again I got my stuff I needed, refilled my water and nutrition, changed shirts and pushed on. Immediately after this aide station there was a water crossing where the water covered the calf. I opted to get over this and then change my socks so I would have fresh socks for the next several miles. It’s amazing how changing socks and a shirt can provide a huge boost to morale in a long race.
Johns Mountain… Where I Make a Mistake
Up to this point my pace had me on track to possible finish under twenty hours. I had been refilling my tailwind and water every eight to ten miles and eating and grazing at all aide stations. From the Manning Road aide station the biggest and largest challenge loomed ahead as the next big challenge, the climb up Johns Mountain. Starting from mile 20 this challenge involved climbing 1100 feet over 7 miles. On top of the steep, massive climb the morning misting and light rain had muddied the trail enough to make it slippery. As I started the final mile to the top of the mountain I found I was still moving pretty well. As I came to the aide station on top of the mountain the sky opened up and the rain got thick and heavy. I ate some of the limited food and drank some soda. The volunteers were working to keep dry and trying to get the tents to stop leaking. They still did a great job of taking care of me and helped refill my water bladder. I found I was tired of my nutrition mix and I made the mistake of just filling it with water, this deprived me of a guaranteed 500 calories over the next ten miles.
The rain continued to come down as I left the aide station. Shortly I came to the Keown Falls stairs,a scattered collection of mixed sized cement/stone slabs,made slippery by the rain, I ended up traversing these at a snail’s pace. As I left the Keown Falls park and headed to the beginning of the climb up the final mountain before the Snake Creek Gap aide station my energy waned and my speed slowed down. I was a bit over half way and I had run 27 miles of tough technical trails faster than I had ever done before, but now the rain and a bad nutrition mistake slowed me down and pushed a sub 20 hour finish away. I still felt strong and in good spirits and continued moving, marking off mile after mile. Eventually day gave way to night and it was time to finish the last twenty miles by headlamp.
Snake Creek Gap… The end is Near
Snake Creek gap provided the biggest milestone and felt like the gateway to the finish line. Snake Creek Gap aide station was setup in the Snake Creek Gap parking lot, a spacious gravel parking area for cyclists and equestrian riders. From here I had finished 34 miles of running and only had about seventeen more miles to go. My wife agreed to meet me here with some cheeseburgers and as I pulled into the aide station she had me put on fresh clothes and forced me to eat. For once I was starving but not really hungry. I ate anyways. After about fifteen minutes I pushed on, kissing her goodbye and heading for the start of the last twenty miles of the long 50 mile race.
Leaving Snake Creek Gap entailed a long mile climb, that taxed sore achy quads, glutes and hips. About half way I up my body decided it wanted to throw up the food I had just ate. This proved troublesome as I do not throw up easily. I drank some water, sucked on some gummies and took some deep breaths. After 7 miles I came to the last aide station where I was offered some ginger ale and hot chicken noodle soup. It did the trick and I quickly left for the last ten miles.
The next eight miles involved climbing and descending hills in the midst of dense thick fog, over non-stop never-ending boulder fields. This section is commonly dubbed the rock garden. In training running this did not seem too difficult, but with 45 miles and over 20 hours on my legs, every little rock proved to be a major challenge as my legs were not as controllable as earlier. I danced,hopped and flowed through the strewn boulder field constantly darting into patches of light drizzle and thick fog all lit up by the tiny headlamp dangling from my forehead.
After hours of dancing around the boulder fields I finally came to the dirt and gravel road descent that would start the final two and a half miles that would take me to the finish line. Eventually the dirt and gravel steep road gave way to Dug Gap road. The end of this race is a tough mile downhill road run. After running on tough technical trails for 22 hours running down an asphalt road to the finish line is brutal. For the first time of the day my calves threatened to spasms, but my body held together. After a long 22 hours and 5 minutes and a recorded 55 miles I completed the hardest race I had ever ran.
This course proved to be tough and challenging and I loved every minute of this race. The aide station volunteers and everyone involved were incredibly supportive and went out of their way to make our race as effortless as possible. I finished my first 50 mile mountain race. With different weather and on a different day I could have finished faster.I was extremely pleased with the results of all my training, especially how strong I felt throughout the race and that my muscles held up well with the climbing and ascending required by this race.
Til next time.