When: March 30, 2019
Where: Chattahoochee National Forest (Vogel State Park to Amicalola Falls)
What: 72 (?) mile trail race with 16,500 feet of elevation gain/16,500 feet of elevation loss
NOTE (5/11/2020): When I ran GDR in 2019, I had no inkling of the allegations against Sean Blanton. In hindsight, it’s somewhat easier to look at certain things– his email correspondence, for example, with race details that included sexual remarks that were immature and off-putting at best– and question whether he’s someone I should have ever supported, whether that’s talking up his races (still some of the most beautiful courses I’ve run) or volunteering at them. That support ends now, and while the hashtag I used in this race report is referring only to one specific controversy that has nothing to do with the current ones, I no longer stand with Blanton in any way.
Hey guys, it’s me again, the dummy who slogs through stupid long races so you don’t have to. Join me as I relive the Georgia Death Race, this time with marginally amusing commentary and lots of clumsy analogies. Apologies in advance, as 70+ mile race reports don’t lend themselves to brevity. I’ll try to keep the sidetracking to a minimum.
Speaking of sidetracking, you may or may not be aware of the controversy surrounding this year’s edition of the Georgia Death Race, the tl;dr of which is that a lot of people took an incorrect trail that added about .2 miles but cut out anywhere from 200 to 500 feet of climbing. This includes the top two women and the 2nd place man, all of whom now have golden tickets to Western States.
I, personally, went the wrong way but realized it shortly thereafter and backtracked to the correct course which matters not at all because (SPOILER ALERT) I wasn’t anywhere near the front of this race. After much deliberation, Sean “Run Bum” Blanton, the esteemed Georgia Death Race race director, made the decision to assess a one-hour time penalty for the top 5 men and women who took the incorrect route, incurring the wrath of self-righteous ultrarunners and letsrun.com posters everywhere.
Look. The course was as well-marked as a 74-mile point-to-point course can be. We were instructed multiple times to follow the correct flagging and to check the trail run project app to make sure we were on course. Could that intersection have been flagged more unambiguously? It seems obvious that the answer is yes. Are runners still responsible for making sure they follow the course? You bet. Did any of these people deliberately cut the course? Heck no. Anyway, I #standwithblanton.
Logistics are an important part of GDR, as the finish (at Amicalola Falls State Park) is about a 90-minute trip by car or anywhere from a 12-24+ hour trip by foot from the race start (at Vogel State Park). Many people stay the race weekend at the finish, where there are cabins and a lodge; this requires boarding a school bus that takes you to the start. The start is 5 a.m. The shuttle leaves at 2:45. If you do this race and have someone crewing for you, you can avoid this and stay near the start, which I’d highly recommend. We stayed in Blairsville, a 15-minute drive from Vogel, and got 6 hours of sleep the night before the race, which was great. This also means that you have to drive to and from Amicalola the night before the race, as that’s where the mandatory pre-race meeting is held.
The Night Before
About the pre-race meeting: it was held outside on a balcony behind the lodge, with the sun setting behind the mountains. The weather was perfect, and the view was beautiful. There was a cash bar inside, with a line slightly shorter than the beginning of a wedding reception but with 100% more beards. Everything flowed very smoothly here; you first check in with a volunteer who goes over your mandatory gear (headlamp, spare batteries, waterproof jacket, space blanket, whistle, collapsible cup).
Then you go sit outside and look around, trying to figure out who you’re definitely going to beat, who you can probably beat, and whether that guy wearing La Sportiva from head to toe is for real. If you write shoe reviews, you take in the number of people wearing the HOKA Challenger ATR 5 and wonder whether they, too, are for real. Then Sean Blanton comes out of the lodge dressed in a Hulk Hogan costume, the reality of which is unquestionable.
My plan for this race, if you can call it that, is what I began to refer to as “The Eagles” race plan, one that I hope to employ again in the future but with less disappointing results. We’re going to break this race, roughly, in half.
The first half, which is about 38 miles, is the part where people are tempted to go out faster than they should: it includes the bulk of the elevation gain and loss (about 12,000 feet each) in the form of relentless short (ish) but steep climbs and descents along a part of the Duncan Ridge Trail (DRT) known as the Dragon’s Spine. For me, this was the Take It Easy half of the race, whereby I’d save my legs for the more runnable half (35 miles or so), the Take It To The Limit half. This plan failed to account for the weather, which was hotter than hell and half of Georgia.
At pre-race check-in on the morning of, RD Sean Blanton hands you a railroad spike. It must be carried to the finish line, at which point you may exchange it for an engraved finisher’s spike. Always nice to have some extra weight during a 70-mile race.
Start to White Oak Stomp AS (8.1 miles): The first mile or so is on paved road, and then you hit the trailhead with a few ups and downs. At some point we ran past a grouping of tents in the woods which was a little creepy, though maybe more so for the campers than for us. Then starts the long climb up Coosa Bald, with 2400 ft of climbing in 4 miles. I hiked with a cool dude named Steven from TN, and we talked about our upcoming races (good luck at BFC, moron!), the Speedgoat 3, ankle rolling, and the heat. Oh, and he saved me from three or four wrong turns- thanks, Steven!
There are no switchbacks down the backside of Coosa, so it’s a steep injury-waiting-to-happen descent; the first aid station is close to the bottom. I dropped off my empty gel wrappers and my already-broken Nathan handheld bottle (thanks for nothing) and headed back out.
White Oak Stomp (8.1) to Mulkey Gap (13.5): I don’t really remember too much about this section other than 1) it was hot and 2) the views were beautiful but I didn’t spend too much time taking them in for fear I’d trip and fall off the trail. Or on the trail. The volunteers at this AS were outstanding.
Mulkey Gap (13.5) to Skeenah Gap (21.4): This section is the infamous Dragon’s Spine section of the DRT, and included the aforementioned side trail that misguided many runners, including myself. The intersection in question is between the old DRT (which the race course follows) and the new DRT, which had just been cut a few months prior to the race. The course was marked with pink flags bearing the words “USFS DO NOT REMOVE”, while the new DRT was flagged with pink flags that had no words on them. We were told several times to pay attention and not to follow flags that had no writing.
This new trail is very inviting, however: it is cleared of debris, and rather than traversing the steep climbs and descents of the old trail, it stays low, going from gap to gap following a comparatively flat course. It then joins back in with the old DRT; most people probably never even realized they were off course. I ran, head down, following the guy in front of me, and we took the new trail, but realized our mistake and turned around. Another group of runners who had gone farther than we did also came back.
The relentless ups and downs combined with the heat and the every-so-often “shit, how many miles do I still have left?” calculations had me in a bit of a low spot at this point. I was looking forward to seeing my one-man crew (Ryan “Ragin’ Cajun” Cormier, the greatest crew member to ever exist and without whom I would not have completed this race).
The trip down into Skeenah Gap is the only out and back section of the course, with a 1,000-ft drop into the AS, and it was a real boost just to see people. It also helped to see that I was much higher up in the field than I anticipated, considering that I felt like I was crawling (don’t worry, that’ll change in short order). I got some gels, some Coke, and a quesadilla (the only solid food I ate all day) and headed back up the hill.
Skeenah Gap (21.4) to Point Bravo (27): The climb back out of Skeenah Gap was made much more bearable with the two-way traffic as a distraction. I got to see James near the top of the climb and he looked good. The trail between here and point Bravo was similar to what we had just done on the DRT heading into Skeenah Gap, although the climbing wasn’t as brutal. What was brutal, though, was the sun.
I really started to feel the temps, and without any leaves on the trees, the sun was intense. I got the hiccups for the first time on this section, too, something that would recur throughout the race, and I’m not sure why. By the fifth or sixth time it happened, though, I started to worry that I was going to be one of those people that you see on the Today Show who had the hiccups for like 8 years. I’m not even kidding I just got the hiccups right now while typing this… WHAT IS HAPPENING.
Point Bravo (27) to Sapling Gap (31.5): Point Bravo was the first drop bag location, and I got rid of all my empty gel wrappers and re-upped with what felt like 10 pounds of new gels to get me to the next crew access point at Winding Stair. Although I wasn’t quite feeling nauseous yet, my appetite was 100% gone, so I was forcing down the gels whenever my watch beeped at me. I was also drinking a ton of water because I felt thirsty constantly, and my body seemed to be holding on to the water because I was straight up puffy: sausage fingers, water belly, the whole nine. Maybe I needed more salt.
The stretch of trail from Point Bravo to Sapling Gap was beautiful and included the Toccoa Swinging Bridge and a lot of magnolia. There were two or three decent climbs during this section but otherwise, the trail was pretty tame and runnable. The heat, on the other hand, was killing me, and I still remember thinking how much I would enjoy the trail if I wasn’t hating life. Later on I’d lose even this small amount of awareness. The volunteers at Sapling Gap were my absolute favorite. I came into the AS in not great shape and they sat me down (in a chair labeled “reserved for runners, 1 min limit”), filled my bottles with ice water, and filled my hat with ice. They were so, so great.
Sapling Gap (31.5) to Long Creek (37.1): Unfortunately, no matter how hard I try, I can’t remember a thing about this section aside from the fact that I told myself I had to eat at least one gel before I got to Long Creek. I ate it coming into the aid station, so I don’t know if that counts. When I got there, one of the volunteers told me I looked like I was hating life, which was accurate but like also kind of unnecessary, right?
Long Creek (37.1) to Winding Stair (43.1): We’ve now entered the Take It To The Limit half of the race, but I’d already reached my limit so we’re gonna scrap that plan. Long Creek to Winding Stair was a perfectly runnable, partially-shaded gravel service road with some ups and downs. It was, by all accounts, a perfect spring afternoon, and when I saw other people out doing enjoyable things like picnicking and fishing I wondered, ‘Why don’t I spend my time doing those sorts of things instead of whatever it is I’m doing?’The number of times I looked back to see whether someone was about to catch me (during this stretch and for the remainder of the race) is kind of hilarious in hindsight.
It was a bit of a climb up to Winding Stair, which was the second crew access point. I came in and complained to Ryan about the heat, the nausea… wahhh. He told me I was doing great and was right on pace for finishing in the same time he did (mid 18 hours) which gave me a little mental boost. Ryan told me James had been ahead of the cutoffs all day and was having some stomach issues but was otherwise doing well. In my experience, stomach issues makes it hard to “otherwise do well.”
Winding Stair (43.1) to Jake Bull (51): While this is one of the longer stretches between aid stations, it didn’t seem too bad to me. There’s a long descent down a gravel road coming out of Winding Stair, which I’d loved to have run faster, but I fell in step with a dude from El Paso named James and we chatted and tried not to die in all the traffic on that road coming from both directions.
I’m not sure what the hell happened here because I think this road was supposed to be off-limits to crews (I saw a sign saying “Crews better not be on this road unless you want your runner to be disqualified” or something to that effect) but there were SO MANY CARS. It was awful, because it was somewhat windy and the cars were kicking up a lot of dust, so we were running blind down the hill covering our eyes and mouths with our buffs to avoid choking/blindness.
Finally, we turned off the road onto some single track, and again, this trail was amazing. The soil was red and there was magnolia everywhere. We saw some mountain bikers on this trail and everyone was courteous. I tried to hang with James for as long as I could, but he started picking it up and I could only maintain a certain speed before my nausea became unbearable. I also had the worst dry mouth.
The singletrack was mellow all the way to Jake Bull, which you can hear for miles before you see it. This AS is typically headed by Ryan “Dad Bod” Ploeckelman, who has quite the sound system set up in the middle of the woods. He wasn’t at the race this year, so everyone’s favorite Beast Coaster Andy Jones Wilkins (AJW) was manning it, and I could hear his voice three miles away. It was pretty comforting if I’m honest.
Jake Bull had everything you could possibly want in an aid station, as well as a hundred things you probably wouldn’t want. Like whiskey. But they had soup, avocado, bacon, and more, but I was 100% done with food and had been for a while. I did have some ginger ale and got a Ziploc baggie of ice to go, which was amazing. I talked to AJW for a minute or so and then headed out. In looking at other people’s pictures, it seems that Jake Bull (and maybe other aid stations) had places where you could lay down and have people massage and foam roll you, so it’s probably a good thing I’m unobservant, otherwise I would’ve been there for 45 minutes.
Jake Bull (51) to Nimblewill Gap (61.2): This is another really runnable section of the course. After leaving Jake Bull, it’s about a mile on easy single track, before coming out to a gravel road. I was employing a “run ‘til you get to that tree” strategy at this point and moving any faster than like a 10- or 11-minute mile wasn’t happening. Legs felt pretty good, but the nausea was bad.
The gravel road is pretty short, and then you’re on a paved road for about a mile and a half. This is very rural, but kind of neighborhoody. The type of neighborhood where everyone has a busted and un-safe looking trampoline, an above ground pool filled with dirty water/furniture, and several ATVs. I encountered a guard dog of questionable friendliness in front of one house and gave him a piece of ice out of my Ziploc as a peace offering since I don’t think dogs like Tailwind. He accepted it and I was glad that I didn’t have to resort to defending myself with my railroad spike.
The rest of the way to Nimblewill Gap is fairly unremarkable; it’s just a miles-long slog up a gravel road with a grade you absolutely could run but you definitely won’t. Before the actual climb starts, you run by a campground filled with people having a great time. If you’re me you try to be envious but your caloric deficit won’t allow for emotions other than dejectedness.
At some point after dark I realized that the final 13 or so miles of this race would take me 4 hours if I walked the whole way which was really too much for me to handle at that point and I pulled my phone out. I have no idea how I have no cell service while I’m at work in the middle of a metropolitan area but somehow had a signal in the literal middle of nowhere, but this allowed me to tap out several whiny texts to Ryan who encouraged me to keep going. I also saw that my sister had sent me a picture of her cuddling with my dog and I wanted to cry but couldn’t.
This was the point where I realized I needed to do something drastic to attempt to turn things around. I had gone almost 8 hours without calories, which I think my body is actually pretty good at doing. But I just couldn’t deal with the nausea any more. It was miserable. So I got on my hands and knees and sat there for a minute and just let it happen. I dry heaved on and off for about 10 minutes and was about to call BS on all those people who are like “OMG I puked and then I felt amazing!!” when Taylor, my guardian angel of the trail, appeared seemingly out of nowhere and offered me her hand.
And when I stood up…could it be? The nausea was gone!
I should have done it way sooner but now I know for next time. I focused on following Taylor, who is from Rhode Island and has done some insane races including 250 miles over 5 days in the mountains of Vermont. She’s a super strong hiker so I just watched her feet and kept going. We rolled into the Nimblewill aid station, where she waited for me to drink some ginger ale and broth, and then we set out for the final stretch.
Nimblewill Gap (61.2) to Finish (72): Every race report I read (and I read a lot of them) mentioned how cold it gets up at the top of Nimblewill, and how you’ll need gloves and a windbreaker and maybe a hat. But that wasn’t true this year, at least not for me. It was a little breezy, but it felt wonderful.
Taylor and I picked it up into a run for the first few miles of trail. Now, if you left this AS and took a direct route to the finish, you’d be there in two miles. Instead, you have to take the most circuitous route, which goes around the outer perimeter of Amicalola Falls State Park for about 6 miles. The trail is pretty chill, with a lot of boards that you have to run across through areas that I assume are prone to flooding but were dry at the time. We could hear peepers, as well as some small animals scurrying around in the magnolia and swamp cabbage, and I was hallucinating footsteps behind me the whole way.
But dudes, seriously: the last half mile or so of trail was straight up stupid. It was a steep descent through what was basically a scree field but looked more like a construction site, with drainage pipes all over the place and large cinder block-sized chunks of rock. I kept thinking that there was no way we were on course but it was flagged the whole way down. We stopped at some point so Taylor could replace her headlamp batteries, then followed the remainder of the trail to the paved path where a volunteer waited at the final cutoff point of the race, with 2 miles to go. You had to reach this point by 4 am to continue, and we got there just before midnight.
We took the paved path up to the base of the waterfall and proceeded up the 600 stairs to the top. I actually liked this part and think my hours of stair climbing prepared me pretty well for it. At the top it had started to drizzle a little bit; we turned down a steep downhill section of road for about a quarter mile, and then onto the final stretch of trail.
The first bit was technical, but it smoothed out and just meandered back and forth in these interminable switchbacks that seemed to start leading uphill again, inexplicably. I asked Taylor if there was any hope in finishing in under 20 hours, which seemed like an honorable goal at that point, but she told me we had 3 minutes to do it and bombing down the remaining trail seemed not worth the risk.
Finally, we came to the top of the last stupid steep descent down to the creek, crossed it holding hands, and finished together in 20:07, and man, it felt great. I threw my railroad spike into the pine overcoat sitting at the finish and got my engraved spike from race director Sean Blanton.
Ryan helped me up to the lodge so I could change clothes and get a slice of cold DiGiorno, which was nowhere near as terrible as it sounds, and then I crawled into the back seat of the car just in time for the skies to open up. I could not imagine navigating the final miles of that race in a rainstorm.
Post-Mortem Thoughts: GDR did not go anywhere near how I wanted it to, but I’m more than good with that. The finish rate this year was the lowest ever, at I think 54%, and man did my Ultrasignup rank take a hit. Just kidding (not really). There were bad times, but I never really entertained quitting. Anyone who knows me well knows my bordering-on-pathologic fear of vomiting, so I feel like I really turned a corner in knowing that I can throw up during a race and things will still be OK.
I met some of the coolest, toughest people out on the course and for that, it was worth it. Also: thank you so much to my family for hosting us before and after the race, to Ryan for his superb crewing and emotional support, to fellow BITR-reviewer, my coach Matt Imberman for making sure I was more prepared for this race than I’ve ever been for anything, both physically and logistically, and to James for making me see the value in doing hard mountain races when I’d rather just be able to run for 50 miles (I hate hiking).
Matt Imberman w/ Brookly Distance Running
BOCO Gear/Nathan hat
Black Diamond Spot headlamp + Knuckle lights
Nathan VaporHowe 2.5L vest
DryMax Walmsley crew socks
Altra Timp 1.5
Tailwind and Science in Sport gels