By the Numbers:
16,100’ – elevation change on the 31+ mile course
9 hours, 46 minutes – total time
36° – temperature at the start line
41° – temperature at the finish line
3 – # of jumbo oatmeal crème pies I ate during the race
2 – # of times it sleeted during the race
It took me quite some time to get around to writing this race report. As such, the passage of time may have obscured or rearranged some details. I have tried to recreate the race experience as accurately as possible. Big thanks to Perry Sebastian and all the race volunteers who made that cold, rainy weekend as enjoyable as it could be given the circumstances. Allow me to take you back to that April weekend…
I shifted nervously in my seat and asked my client to repeat her question. It was 10:30AM in Columbus, Georgia but my mind was in another time and place. During a lull in the conversation, I had let my thoughts drift to North Georgia and the race I would be involved in the following day. I could see the rain falling outside the window of the courthouse and it seemed to be trying to tell me something. Exactly what I could not quite decipher but I knew I would have plenty of time to figure it.
Later that afternoon, my attention was all over the place on my drive up to Fort Mountain State Park. Much like I would be doing on rain slick rocks the next day, my thoughts jumped from one spot to the next. I tried to remain focused on the road but could not quite halt the meandering of my monkey mind.
I thought about how the weekend would be the seven-year anniversary of my first ultramarathon and the mental and physical journey the sport has taken me on since that time.
I thought about the looming challenge that lay before me. DoubleTop would feature the most challenging 50K course I had ever encountered taking full advantage of some of the steepest trails the Chattahoochee National Forest has to offer. Boasting an elevation profile that would be equivalent to hiking up and down Stone Mountain 11+ times, I knew the DT50K would test my glutes and my grit.
I wondered about race day conditions as the public radio broadcast was repeatedly interrupted with severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings, tornado watches and even reports of hail in North Georgia.
I imagined what sort of food I would find at the aid stations. I love to eat and I have had some amazing meals in my lifetime. But, I would put a PB&J devoured off a Styrofoam plate handed to you by a friendly stranger in the middle of the woods up against the best of them.
I wondered what internal demons would surface during the harder parts of the race. I speculated about how loud they would talk and what sort of persuasive techniques they might use to convince me to heed their beck and call.
I thought about familiar faces that I would encounter and new friends I might make along the way.
But mostly, I thought about the food.
I arrived at packet pickup that evening to find one of those familiar faces that seems to be a regular on the Georgia ultrarunning scene. I’m always happy to run into Brad since we share a mutual love of Thailand, mountain trails and Subarus. We first met last August at the Project 42 Southern Fried 50K when I took shelter from the brutal heat at his shady aid station. While I munched on orange slices, I listened with rapt attention as he told me about his exploits in the North Georgia mountains. Since that day, I’ve always looked forward to running into him at race events.
After getting my race bib and t-shirt, I headed back down the mountain to find some pre-race carbs and a bed for the night. Along the way, I passed sections of road where the trail crossed over and I wondered how the runners out on course were fairing. Ultrarunning tends to attract a certain breed of masochist and when you get enough of those certain people together, boundaries and reason begin to bend and blur. It was this sort of unraveling that led 9 brave souls to start their race on Thursday afternoon as part of the 72 hour DoubleTop event. Yup. 72 hours. 3 full days on one of the hardest racecourses in the southeast.
As I was driving down the mountain, not far from my climate-controlled cage, they were nearing the 24-hour mark of their race. While I had been sleeping the night before, those individuals were climbing switchbacks in the dark possibly wondering what had made that noise in the brush beside them. When I was sitting in court earlier in the day, they were running through wind swept sheets of rain. Long after I got back in my car and headed off to a hot shower and a warm meal, some of them would still be on course, still striving to reach the goal they had set for themselves. It was those thoughts of those hardy souls and the war they were waging that accompanied me as I finally fell asleep later that night.
At 5AM, I rolled out of bed and got geared up. Two hours later, I was standing in the drizzling rain with 19 other runners as we listened to the final instructions from the race director before embarking on our journey. We trotted out of the parking lot and soon left the paved road behind and ventured onto the rollercoaster of dirt and rocks that would be our home for the next several hours. Or it would have been dirt and rocks except for the fact that the rain had turned a lot of that dirt to mud and transformed those rocks into slippery ramps just waiting to roll an ankle or send you tumbling off the side of the trail and into the blueberry thickets.
I settled into a comfortable pace a few dozen yards behind a lady running in a red jacket. I typically try to avoid running with anyone at the start of a race as I find that I do best working my own comfortable pace and settling in to those first few miles. I am never worried about starting a long race too slow but I’ve certainly dealt with the consequences of starting them too fast. It is generally accepted knowledge in the ultra community that you cannot win a race in those first few miles but you can certainly lose it. Just like a car or a first date, ultras work best if you give things time to warm up before you start mashing on the gas.
I would occasionally catch glimpses of red jacket when the trail and fog opened up enough for some extended visibility. Seeing her up ahead reassured me that I was still on course or that we had both taken the same wrong turn. Either way, misery and misdirection love and find solace in company.
Around the 6 mile mark, I began the first of three 1000’+ descents that I would make over the course of the day. Many runners relish downhills as they view them as free speed. I certainly appreciate their point of view but my knees do not. I would love to open it up and barrel down steep descents flirting with that fine line between control and reckless abandon, but it is simply not in the cards for me as of yet. A combination of lack of experience on steep descents, uncooperative joints and a healthy dose of timidity kept the reins pulled in as I worked my way down the muddy and rocky slope.
Like the familiar clichéd saying, what goes down must come up and DoubleTop was no exception. I soon found myself giving back every bit of that 1000’ loss in the form of a brutal uphill showcased by a ridiculous powerline section. I had read about this segment in race reports posted online and found a bit of strange solace amidst the horror stories. My first 50K at Sweetwater State Park outside of Atlanta had also featured a powerline section and so I found it fitting that I would again get to revel in the joys of hands on quads hiking under the buzz of high powered voltage. Kind of like eating a slice of your old wedding cake on your anniversary.
The going was slow at this point but I managed to catch up with one runner who appeared to be struggling. I struck up a conversation and asked him if he needed anything. While trying to decipher his mumbling response, I realized why he was moving so slow. He was one of the 72 hour runners. At the point that I met him, he had been on course for almost 40 hours. The mere fact that he was even awake and moving humbled me. I wished him well and continued my upward journey.
At the top of the powerlines, I reached the aid station located almost halfway through the 50K course. The middle of the race is always a mental boost for me and I celebrated by grabbing my first oatmeal crème pie of the day. I ate half of it while thanking the volunteers and stuffed the rest into my vest to save for later. I was about 4 hours into the race at this point and I was beginning to feel the cumulative effect that being soaked for that long can take on one’s physical and mental condition. You can only get so wet and I had reached that point hours ago but physical and mental deterioration know few bounds and I found myself preoccupied with the hot spots forming on my soles and in the recesses of my mind. It was at that point that I stepped into an aid station tent and saw Brad. He grinned and told me that he had a message for me from our mutual friend Coach K, but that he couldn’t remember it at the moment. That was fine by me. Just knowing that somebody had thought about me out on the course warmed my heart and I felt that warmth spread throughout the rest of my cold, drenched body.
I left the aid station and made my way several hundred feet down the Pinhoti Connector trail to pick up my first playing card of the day. A common tactic in races that utilize an out and back section of trail without an aid station at the turn around point is to place a deck of cards or a book from which runners must pull a card or a page to verify they actually ran the entire route. Due to the steepness of the grade at this point and the narrowness of the trail, this was the most treacherous part of the racecourse that I encountered. Were it not for a few well-placed tree limbs and a little bit of luck, I would have surely ate it on this section. Red jacket lady was coming back up the trail as I was descending and we wished each other well as we slipped and slid past each other.
Back at the aid station, I dropped off my playing card and grabbed my second Little Debbie treat of the day. In a moment of déjà vu that harkened back to Southern Fried, I found myself again not wanting to leave Brad’s aid station. He had a nice, warm(ish) tent with chairs and lots of food. Outside, it had begun to sleet and the ringing of the ice pellets off the plastic roof tempted me to just stay put. But after a few minutes, the volunteers gave me that “get out of here” look and I sheepishly complied.
I soon found myself on a beautiful trail running alongside Hassler’s Mill Creek and for a few brief minutes, all was right with the world. The sleet had turned back to rain and the raindrops falling around me combined with the sound of the rushing water and my leaf-dampened footsteps to create a musical backdrop that lifted my spirits and spread a huge grin across my face. “This is what it is all about” I thought. But I knew it wasn’t and I knew it would not last. As ultrarunner Gene Thibeault is known to say – “If you start to feel good during an ultra, don’t worry – you’ll get over it.” Sure enough, I got over it quick enough and soon hit the lowest literal point on the course and not much later found the figurative low point as well.
I crossed the 20-mile mark and began my biggest climb of the day gaining over 1200’ over the next 2 miles on a combination of horse and bike trails. The little demons began to chat incessantly at this point. I had been soaking wet for close to 6 hours; I was repeatedly slipping in the mud and I knew I was going to have to repeat this climb (in even muddier conditions) again before the race was over. I also knew that once I reached the top of the hill, I would be a 5 minute walk from my car. “Fuck this,” the demons said. “Warm car, dry clothes. What are you trying to prove? Nobody cares if you finish this. And even if they do, they wouldn’t blame you for quitting. It’s raining and sleeting for the love of God. You’ve already ran farther today than most of your friends run in a month. Why don’t we just call it a day?!”
And the demons were mostly right. Except about one thing. I knew one guy that would care if I quit. I didn’t know where he might be or what he might be doing but I thought about him a lot as I slogged up that hill. I think about him almost every day, race or not. That guy is 80 year old me. I could feel him looking over my shoulder and reminding me that he is not able to do this sort of stuff. He has his own demons and the difficulties he face make mine pale in comparison. However, he reminded me that I had the power to give him a gift. Decades from now, he would be able to look back and recall with pride and satisfaction how he used his strength and energy when he was capable; even when he did not want to, even when he was out in the cold rain, even when demons and common sense may have chosen otherwise.
So, I stayed on course. At the Cool Springs Overlook aid station at the top of the climb, I scarfed down some M&M’s and headed straight instead of taking the right that would have led me back to my car. I ran back to Brad’s aid station, down the Pinhoti Connector trail and again along that glorious stretch beside Hassler’s Mill Creek. And once again, I crept up that 2 mile climb. When I reached the top, I grabbed my third oatmeal crème pie, thanked the volunteers and shuffled up the road to the finish line. I took my time and enjoyed that Little Debbie and the last 5 minutes of my race. I soon saw Perry standing out in the rain and knew that my day was over. I could almost hear 80 year old me whisper “thank you” as I crossed the finish line.