The Book of Ultra: The Georgia Death Race

Obstacle racing has been fantastic. image3(1)

But last fall (fresh off of knee surgery), I was looking for something different. A new challenge, a new venture. Having made a brief foray into competitive CrossFit at Regionals last year, I realized that lifting heavy things for just a few minutes at a time probably wasn’t my wheelhouse. So when I sat down to think about what I love the MOST about OCR, I realized it’s running up and down mountains (or the Death Race, where all I wanted to do was hike up and down Bloodroot endlessly).

So why not try something where I’m doing just that? Let’s write a new chapter, a new book. And call it The Book of Ultra.

PREFACE

Race start at Amicalola Falls. Up the steps. I like steps.
Race start at Amicalola Falls. Up the steps. I like steps.

Enter the Georgia Death Race. 68 miles, 40,000 feet of elevation change. And an amazing race director, Sean Blanton, who agrees to let in OCR people (probably because he loves watching us fail). I signed up as soon as it opened, thinking “hey, I’ve completed 72 hour Death Races and run in circles in a wetsuit for 24 hours,” this should be no big deal.

And then it was about…the first of January when I realize “holy shit – I’m actually going to have to put in some miles.” This was promptly followed by, “holy shit, it’s 3 degrees outside.” Fail #1: not having the foresight to realize that, when signing up for an ultra in mid-march, you are going to have to put in 25 mile runs in the single or negative digits. ThankyouverymuchChicago.

It's much worse than it looks
It’s much worse than it looks

You see, but throughout the obstacle racing community, it’s become known that I’m “not a runner.”

Prior to the Georgia Death Race this weekend, I’d only run two races that did not involve crawling, jumping, climbing, or mud: a half-marathon in Wisconsin in 2011, and an XTERRA trail race in AZ on SuperBowl Sunday. Nothing else. No 5ks, no marathons, nada. So when I compare myself to other obstacle racers, the vast majority of who come from a running background – collegiate, distance, etc. – I think it’s pretty safe to say I’m kind of an anomaly. My mileage over the past few years was 15-20 miles a week, max. The rest of my training was CrossFit.

Don’t get me wrong – I love to run. I absolutely love it. But I never had any regular type of training, never any formal training plan, and never a running coach. So I did what I’ve done for OCR and CrossFit and everything else I’ve been marginally successful in – 110% made it up as I went along.

Cool, fine, dandy.

As we approached GDR weekend, I started to get a bit nervous about my mileage, or lack thereof, and especially the lack of hills around me. I’d managed to fake it before in shorter Spartan Races (cough, Killington), but would 68 miles prove to be too much for my flatlander legs? As I flew down to Atlanta, the biggest fear in the back of my mind was that my legs or body would fail me.

Of course, the things you always expect to go wrong never do. And the things you think you have in the bag are the ones that come and bite you in the ass.

I can divide the GDR into three Parts, which I will entitle (1) Cruisin’ (2) The Wheels Come Off, or, Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell and (3) Rebirth

Let us begin.

Part I: Cruisin’ (Miles 1-37)

Contemplating my toenails that would later go missing
Contemplating my toenails that would later go missing

Race morning broke, raining and foggy, with Pop-Tarts for all. The week before, the race had to be rerouted, so we were now running it backwards. This meant the first two-thirds of the course were relatively “flat”, and over 50% of the elevation change came from mile 43 to the end. I figured my best bet was to go out conservatively and comfortably, obviously not knowing what I was getting myself into. A mile in, I met up with Kandy Frey Ferris, the eventual female winner, and probably (ok, certainly) my new favorite person in the world. She was fantastic, and told me we were sticking together. I tried to make her realize that she’s likely MUCH faster than I am, but damn, she’s a stubborn one. The first 30 miles flew by – we kept up a good clip, hitting the first marathon in around 4 hours, talking and gabbing the entire way. It was amazing. I was in love. I was on top of the world.

Part II: The Wheels Come Off (Miles 38 – 52)

Somewhere after the first drop bag stop at Mile 30, I started to notice my ribs and diaphragm tightening up. It kind of felt hard to breathe. But I shook it off, thinking it’d pass. As we ran, especially up hill, it got harder and harder to breathe in deeply, meaning it was impossible to control my breaths, forcing me to slow down. WTF, I was thinking – I am NEVER out of breath. At the same time, I could start to feel my stomach spasming, and waves of nausea came over me. I progressively slowed, and eventually, even though I know she didn’t want to, convinced Kandy to go on without me around Mile 38. I traded for a walk-run-curse myself-walk kind of pattern, but nothing was getting
better.

I'm smiling. My insides are not.
I’m smiling. My insides are not.

And then, the vomiting started. I’ll spare you the details. Kidding, I won’t.

By the time I hobbled into Point Bravo at Mile 43, I was in a world of hurt. I’d lost almost an hour to Kandy in that short span of time. And despite my body feeling fine, every time I tried to run, the gag reflex started, and vomiting ensued. I smiled to Carey and Matty and Sean at Point Bravo, trying to hide what was going on, and petted the cute puppy they found on the side of the road (not random…not random at all…)

I’m not quite sure how to describe the next 9 miles from Point Bravo to Fish Gap at Mile 52. Other than I laid in the grass a few times, vomited/dry heaved every 500 yards or so, and that trying to run downhill felt like someone was driving a machete through my insides. I had visions of rhabdo and hospital beds and very sheepish emails to work explaining why I couldn’t come into work on Monday.

I took Tums and every stomach pill imaginable, but they all came back up. I ran out of water since I kept drinking it to try and get the acid out of my mouth. And I was about 99% positive I’d have to DNF at Fish Gap.

Part III: Rebirth (Miles 52-68)

And then, it passed. With a final spasm of the stomach, diaphragm, and a feeling I was being choked, utter relief. I could run. Downhill! No vomiting! So I sped up. And starting singing Katy Perry. And I was free.

By then, night was falling. And the rain picked up, and the fog was still there. And we climbed. Oh damn, did we climb. And it was glorious. And was descended. And I fell about a dozen times. And I learned I need to get much faster on technical downhills, but that my reverence for my life and body being in tact outweighed my desire to bomb down a mountain at night in fog that blocked out anything 3 feet in front of you.

Rolling into the finish line, just before midnight, I praised our sweet baby Jesus that I had made it through. While I lost well over an hour with…issues…it didn’t matter anymore. Because for even those awful, painful 10-15 miles, every second was love. And seeing Kandy, who had finished two hours before me, still sitting there at the finish line, waiting for me to come through? I knew I had found a sport like none other.

At the finish with Kandy. I'm muddy because I fell. A lot.
At the finish with Kandy. I’m muddy because I fell. A lot.

EPILOGUE

Many people told me I was crazy for starting out with the GDR as my baptism in the world of ultras. I’d probably agree, but I’ve never been known to do things the easy way. It’s an amazing race, with incredibly difficult terrain, and perhaps the best volunteers known to mankind. Of course, I made some very important rookie mistakes, of which I take as lessons (you know I love lessons), and will learn from those.

Namely, sigh, maaaaybe I can’t fuel for ultras like I do for World’s Toughest Mudder and the Death Race. I assumed, since I’d never had stomach issues before, that I’d simply stick with that – my tried and true WTM fueling formula. As I’ve learned, however, we were probably moving too fast in the ultra, with too much running, for me to be able to handle those glorious solid foods. In fact, once all the solids came up, and I stuck with liquids for the last 20+ miles, we were golden. This greatly saddens me, however, that I can no longer look forward to the bacon and grilled cheese at aid stations in ultras. (isn’t that why we run in the first place?!).

And two…the diaphragm/rib issues were likely caused by a clinched-too-tight hydration pack. I’ve had a rub that is prone to subluxation in the past, and combining the breathing, jarring downhills, pack tightness, and later, nonstop dry heaving, I displaced that rib real good. Count me as one of the only people to sustain an upper body injury at a running race.

Why yes - I did just complete your fitness test.
Why yes – I did just complete your fitness test.

But, mishaps and all, I wouldn’t have my first experience any other way. For the first time, in a long time, I ran with no pressure, and I ran with joy. So thank you, Sean, for an amazing race. Thank you, amazing volunteers. Thank you, fellow racers (especially you, Kandy!). Thank you, #lifepitcrew.

You’ll see me again soon on an ultra course somewhere. Faster, wiser, stronger, with only liquids in my stomach and a much looser pack.

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