Struggling… Did Not Finish(DNF)… Falling short... Words I could easily use to describe my athletic pursuits over the past three years. I tried to not treat them as setbacks and have tried to learn and grow from each experience. My battle with the Ga Jewel embodies this ongoing struggle. This year I finally left my past behind and succeeded where I had failed before.
Back in 2015 the world of Ultra racing and running provided a new and exhilarating experience, every new distance proved challenging and rewarding. I ran my first 12 hour race for 37 miles, increasing the furthest ran by five miles, following this up with my first 24 hour race where I would push myself to fifty five miles. That September, on the 26th I attempted my first point to point 50 mile mountain trail race, the Ga Jewel, finishing in twenty two hours. I felt on top of the world, invincible.
After that achievement things went down hill as I suffered injuries and training mis-steps. I dropped a bunch of weight but inflamed my ITBand, an injury that would plague my running. In September 2016 I lined up for the Ga Jewel 50 mile race again, this time under new race directors and new cutoff times. I started strong and ran well, but at mile 31 the heat caught up to me and total muscle cramping saw me limping to the road and eventually finding my way back to declare the years race a Did Not Finish (DNF). The following year, I attempted a few difficult races but often my training failed me and three tiny letters haunted the result lines of my races on UltraSignup..DNF, including 2017 Ga Jewel 50 mile race on the newer safer beginning course.
I do not believe in defining myself by my set backs, instead I set my sights for the 2018 Ga Jewel race. Early in the summer I began to slowly increase my mileage and elevation, my training goal and focus involving small incremental improvements. Two weeks before lining up for the Ga Jewel I ran the Yeti Snakebite 50k, a race I have been able to complete every year for the past three years. Once again DNF reigned and I had to tap out at mile 16 due to extreme dehydration. This monkey sat on my back while I tapered and prepared to run the Ga Jewel two weeks later. I did not have time to focus on the pile of DNFs I had over the past two years, instead I had to focus on the task ahead: running my best race possible, having fun and staying positive while encouraging others around me. Realizing where my training ended and with the weight of two bad years of trying to race ultra marathons, I decided to drop to the 35 mile Ga Jewel race. Haunted by my past failures, on Saturday 22nd of 2018 I would line up for my third attempt at finishing the Ga Jewel Mountain trail race since finishing my first 50 mile ultra three years prior on nearly the same course.
Dry Creek Horse Park To Johns Mountain Aide Station
The night before the start of the race, at packet pick-up, I went through my normal routine of saying hello to Jenny Baker (one of the joint RDs of the race) at which time my yearly mantra came out… “This year will be my year”. Not totally sure I felt it, I had said that for two previous years resulting in DNF. Regardless, I strived to be cheerful and positive. Jenny went on to chide me a bit, telling me I had 31 hours to finish. With this I decided to not worry about the 12 hour cutoff, instead focusing on staying on my feet and moving forward, until being officially pulled. The following morning I got up at 3:00A.M. and began my pre-race ritual. By six in the morning I found myself at the Dalton Convention Center, the finish line of the race, 35 miles away from the start. I said good bye to the wife and found myself on a bus with strangers that would become friends as we chatted and prepared for the uncertainty of the day ahead. Nervous energy permeated the air, none of us certain if the day would end successfully at the finish line. Myself, I toted a big bag of doubt and fear, having toed this same starting line unsuccessfully the two previous years.
Exiting the bus, all the 50 and 35 mile runners milled about, chatting while excitement built for the daunting task ahead. I put all my fears away, determined to make the race about the day ahead and not the past. I put on my game face, released the past and looked ahead, focusing, lined up, ready to start the climb up Johns Mountain, on my way to the next aide station 7.5 miles away. With a shout we were off. As I began to move with the crowd, I heard Jenny Baker yell out “Aaron this is your year, you’ve got this”…. The race directors, my wife, my friends and my family all wanted to see this day end in success. For me, at that moment, my focus lied ahead and within, the only way you can participate in a race like this involves powering yourself from within, setting focus on the now and controlling the little things you can control and not worrying about thing out of your control. The emotion of everyone meant a great deal, but it was time to move. Once again, the day started with perfect weather, with hints of the later suffocating humidity riding the air, hiding behind the crisp cool morning.
I ran the first two miles at a good for me pace, trying to get into a rhythm and just move. Out of the first 7.5 miles up Johns this is the most runnable section. Within two miles the trail empties out onto an overgrown, weedy, gravel road that crosses the East Armuchee Creek, an ankle deep river crossing. I pushed on and ticked off the miles, moving fairly well. Eventually I passed a struggling runner, I tried to give some encouragement as I passed. I kept moving at my pace, pushing the rolling downs and hiking the uphills until I finally came to the gravel road leading to the aide station at the top of the mountain. I realized they had mostly snack foods and soda, unfortunately no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I made do with a few glasses of soda, some potatoes and chips, thanked the volunteers and moved on.
Keown Falls (Pocket Road) to Snake Creek Gap
Coming off of Johns mountain down Keown across pocket road to Pilchers pond provides one of the easiest stretches of the course, arguably the most runnable. The Pocket Road aide station seemed to be a disarray of crew and volunteers trying to help several people at once. Once again, snack foods but no soda available. I ate a bit and tried to adjust my nutrition. I usually train with PB&J as its at most ultra marathon aid stations, I was struggling to find analogs. I moved on and still felt pretty good. The heat and humidity had shown up fiercely and i continued to work my hydration strategy. While I managed my hydration, I fell behind on my nutrition, I would battle til Snake Creek Gap with the fallout.
I felt lethargic and out of gas. I took a gel and ate a waffle and began to climb up Horn mountain. At this point I had fallen way behind the pace of the other 35 mile runners, finding myself in the midst of the middle of the pack 50 mile runners. Not worrying, every time I ran into another runner I tried to project a positive attitude, even when feeling terrible, I often joked with them I was probably the last of the 35 milers still running. By the time I wound my way down to Snake Creek gap to finish the first 18 miles of the race, I found myself overheated and behind on fuel. My wife met me at this aide station to bring me a headlamp. Fortunately she nursed me back to health. After a long rest and heavy refueling I started to feel better.
Snake Creek Gap to Stover Creek
With fresh clothes, exhausted muscles and several PB&J sandwiches consumed I was underway. My focus did not involve getting to the finish line by the 12 hour cutoff, instead I focused on just finishing. After two miles of climbing, disaster struck. Suddenly I felt extreme nausea,I found myself struggling to move forward. I decided to sit down on a rock, take a minute to decide my next course of action. I discovered I had cell service which allowed me to chat with the wife for a few minutes. I had only two options: turn around and hike two miles to Snake Creek Gap calling it a day, or turn in the other direction towards the finish line, 15 miles of mountainous terrain leading to the finish line. Feeling sick and exhausted, I weighted my options carefully. Continuing to run the race, the next aide station’s location was very remote, there would be no turning back. I could possibly get sicker…
I sat on that rock for ten minutes, contemplating the end of my day and another DNF. I finally stood up and started ambling, heading towards the finish line, 15 mountainous rough, rocky miles away, the finish line awaited. Probably one of the hardest decisions I had ever made in a race.
I moved up and down the mountain trail, eventually feeling better, my earlier sickness fading away. I found myself moving smoother(smoother for 20+ miles of mountain running and hiking), eventually I felt rejuvenated and invigorated. The miles to Stover Creek aide station were a blur, but I kept eating calories and taking electrolytes. Finishing would involve keeping fed and hydrated, those were the things I could control. Eventually I rolled into the aide station found a chair, recovering by drinking soda, eating PB&J and chatting. I needed that rest, but I knew it was time to embrace a huge challenge … the rock garden.
The rock garden to the finish line
With renewed spirits, I left the second to last aide station with 8 miles to go and the beginning of night. My body was wrecked, but my nausea retreated. I felt as good as I was going to feel at mile 27 of a 35 mile mountain ultrarunning race. As I began the rock garden leg, my quads responded with painful cramps. I licked salt and drank water, switched my walk, fighting the onslaught of cramps that would continue to the end of my race. I focused on moving forward, one foot in front of the other, ticking off the miles. The miles passed slowly and the climbs felt like they would never end. I began to sing out loud, belting out the tunes I heard from my Spotify playlist. I knew eventually this trail would dump out to a gravel road and the final two miles of the race. I knew with every passing mile the finish line drew closer and the end was near. After 34 tough mountain miles I finally came out to the gravel road. For the first time of the day, the last eight miles, no one passed and I moved along the rocks and boulders alone in the dark. I knew at the bottom of this downhill gravel road, the final aide station and the gateway to the finish line awaited. In my first 50 mile race, I had ran the one mile road section that led to the convention center. This was later removed due to safety, the new section to the finish would be a different experience. I got to the last aide station and saw people lying down every where, it looked like a triage center. I grew a bit worried as the finish should only be a mile away, my watch showed 34 miles. I grabbed a coke and kept moving, afraid sitting would cause uncontrollable cramping. If I got a cramp while moving I could usually walk through it and keep going. At that point I found out the new section entailed 3.2 miles to the finish, including the climb up Mt. Baker. Only three miles remaining and the siren’s song of the finish line kept pushing me forward. I moved as well as possible, my quads would occasionally flare and exhaustion permeated my being. I moved on.
After running some sketchy looking trails that wound up and and down and around, the trail deposited me onto an asphalt street. I hit 36.5 miles and a fence with keep out signs hiding the final climb and the finish line. This climb involved covering 1/10th of a mile with 187 feet of gain (35-45% grade). I craned my neck upwards following the lights and skulls decorating the vertical shot to the finish line. I could not see the end. I began to plod up the mountain, sitting every so often to squelch my aching muscles. After forever struggle, I summitted Mount Baker, got high fives from the crew up top and began to amble and run to the finish line. It was just after 1 A.M. and the finish line area was hushed and silent. I ran down the shoot with little fanfare, got my finishers hat and gave the volunteers my bib number one last time. I found my wife and gave her a giant smelly hug.
I had ran,hiked and slogged 37 miles in 18 hours, climbing 6400 feet of elevation gain, a tough as nails mountain course that tried its hardest to deter me all day. After two years I had found the finish at GA Jewel again.
Til next time.