Five years ago I finished my first fifty mile trail race, the Georgia Jewel… The following two years I attempted to repeat that initial effort, leading to two Did Not Finish (DNF) efforts(2016). Numerous factors contributed to the lack of finish line success in those years, extreme dehydration and muscle fatigue combined with injuries I had amassed as I grew into running just to name a few. For two years a successful finish line eluded me until last year, my fourth year running the Jewel, I found the finish line again…
The Georgia Jewel Trail race has changed and grown since the first time I participated in the fifty mile race, five years ago. The fifty mile course used to start thirteen miles away from the thirty five mile course starting point, behind a worn out building in the middle of nowhere. From there runners progressed straight up a steep three to four mile stretch of power line climbing. The problems with this fourteen mile segment of trial were numerous, including miles of road running and uncertain river levels as well as an additional start line to coordinate. As well, to finish the last miles of the race back then required exhausted runners to amble down Dug Gap Battle road to the finish line at the convention center (same as today’s finish line), a road that contains narrow shoulders in places and drivers speeding down the hillly road at all hours, night and day.
Several years ago the Georgia Jewel changed hands as the old race director followed other pursuits, handing the race directorship over to Jenny and Franklin Baker. With the transfer, the belt buckle for the one hundred mile finishers got an update, the finish line became more of a celebration, the finisher jewel award was replaced with BOCO trucker running hats, whose design changes every year, and the course got modified, making it safer by removing road sections and adjusting aid stations (in some ways harder too with the addition of three miles and a 185 foot climb at the end of the race). Additionally packet pick-up moved from a hotel room to the finish/start line to downtown Dalton Burr Park, where the city has now embraced and adopted the race, making the weekend a true event.
Race Morning – Dry Creek To Johns Mountain Aid Station
When I signed up for my fifth Georgia Jewel trail race, I figured I could train better this year and shave some time off my slow finish from last year. With time to plan and prepare, I worked on building my mileage and training smart. Sitting on the bus and chatting with my fellow runners, I really did not know what to expect for the day. I knew I would be slow, speed had not improved much, but I hoped I would finish faster than last year. I knew, regardless of how fast I ran or moved, the day would be long and I would have numerous struggles ahead that could possibly keep me from the finish line.
As the race started I eased into my pace, not letting the herd of other thirty five mile runners control my speed. This year I focused on a steady pace and less on cutoff times, figuring I would keep moving til I got pulled. As I eased into my race, I quickly fell behind the pack. My training had paid off and I found myself moving faster than last year on this section. I gradually eased up Johns mountain and actually had a fairly uneventful climb to the aid station. At the aid station I refilled my bottles, nibbled on some food, thanked the volunteers and moved on. I really did not want to drop too much time as I wanted to finish faster than last year.
Pocket Road To Snake Creek Gap
I eased onto the Johns Mountain trail and traversed its miniature version of the rock garden (a well known section of the race trail I would encounter later). I easily kept moving along, hopping boulders and working to move with intention til I finally hit the Keown Falls stairs, an uneven mess of rock stairs of various sizes and lengths whose planning and original design proved to now be lost. Unlike last year, the Forest Service was performing maintenance on the Falls trail we used forcing the race down the faster less technical switch back portion of the Keown Falls loop. I eventually came into the aid station and fought to not get sucked up in the craziness and chaos. I lingered a bit too long as I enjoyed solid bathrooms instead of leaves and twigs and eventually moved on.
In my training this year, I ran all the trails in the section between Snake Creek Gap to the Johns Mountain overlook numerous times and in various patterns. This part of the run proved familiar, but I noticed my pace had begun to slow. I inched my way up to Horn mountain, enjoying the pleasant ridge line running. I kept moving and working my way over the terrain as numerous fifty mile runners caught up to me. For a few seconds I had company as each runner over took me and eventually continued on, out pacing me. Unlike last year, I did not feel tired or exhausted and never felt the need to sit down. I was controlling my race even though my pace continued to slow, I felt great and in charge.
I pulled into Snake Creek Gap,eighteen to nineteen miles from the start, way beyond the cutoff but feeling great. After a promise to Franklin Baker that if I started the next fifteen miles I would finish, I was given the green light to continue.
Snake Creek Gap To Power Line Aid Station
Franklin’s reluctance to let me continue past cutoff times probably stemmed from the remoteness and difficulty of the trail sections after leaving Snake Creek Gap. While this stretch contained an aid station, getting in and out of it was difficult, resulting in runners who drop there to be stuck there til it closed the next day. This segment of race trail has often proved the most difficult for me. Last year, shortly after leaving Snake Creek Gap, my stomach forced me to heave and I grew sick. I have never ran or moved well on this section,often avoiding it in my training. Those factors probably contributed to my increased slow down as I left Snake Creek Gap heading for Stover Creek Aid Station, seven and a half miles away.
As I continued, more of the fifty mile runners passed, often in groups. I encouraged them and we exchanged pleasantries. For a few brief minutes I relished the joy of company on the trail, knowing I was not alone. But I knew it would not last long and eventually it would just be me and the trail and my internal struggle, pulled along by the finish line with its promises of rest, food and celebration.
I arrived at the Stover Creek aid station and probably hung out a bit too long. I realized my pace had slowed down a lot and I would probably finish later than last year. Growing dark, the last eight miles of trail did not allow me to focus on that for too long. My awareness of the section ahead knew it would prove challenging, it was just me and the hundred milers spread out on the trail, most of whom would be hours behind me. Ahead lied the rock garden partnered with the perception that the remaining trail endlessly wound on, leading to thoughts of despair and fears it would never end. I knew at the completion of this section, the trail would open up to a broken road and a final mile jaunt downhill to the last aid station. I turned on my headlamp and pushed myself towards the last eight miles of endless rocky boulder fields and the embrace of the night It was just me, the perceived unending trail and endless piles of rocks and boulders.
When I reflect on the inner strength it takes to finish one of these races, its this moment, this stretch of trail… the hours of late night running on remote boulder strewn paths with no sign of life around, just me and the world around me defined by a narrow beam of light emitted from my headlamp. All the other thirty five mile and fifty mile runners have long finished, eaten real food, drank beer and celebrated their victories. Many of them have finished with others. I know my struggle, my battle, the here and now, the late night. Knowing I just have to keep moving, eventually I will come to the elusive opening emptying onto the road, promising civilization, marking the end of this section and the beginning of the final drive to the finish line. I know I am still out here because I chose to continue, while slower than other runners, finishing means more to me and so I struggle and fight to reach the end, well past the time this distance should have taken. All I can do is move on.
A few times, I look out and seeing the lights of Dalton below and the Gibbous moon rising above. At one point I stopped to relieve myself and check my hydration, when I suddenly heard whispers and talking behind me. I knew no one was there but I still looked around. Eventually, I found the culprit,a Canebrake Rattlesnake escaping into a crevice between the rocks. I witnessed several of these frightful dances that night.
As I closed in on the final miles of remote trail, I was startled by the first one hundred mile finisher. When you have been alone on remote trails in the dark for so long, its easy to get startled by the presence of another. The runner and I cheered each other on and I felt enthused by the brief exchange. Eventually I came off the trail and onto the broken road, down to the aid station. I only had three more miles and one tough long uphill 185 foot climb to finally be done. The end was so close.
After refueling at the Power Lines aid station, I could feel the pull of the end, only three more miles. Well after two maybe three in the morning,I knew my long day, a thirty eight mile slog and run ended only three miles away. I felt the tug towards the finish, quickly runing down the power lines and onto another less remote trail, eventually being released into subdivision cul-de-sac. As I run and move, amble and push on, the early dark morning, post midnight silence, leaves the world creepily silent, occasional dogs bark and garage lights flicker on from my passage, but the entire world slumbers. I keep moving, determined to see the finish, to finally eat something more than Gels or Maple Syrup. At one point I surprise a opossum in the street, murmuring in its direction while passing: “Its just you and me out here tonight buddy.” It turned its head at me briefly, possibly listening before finally running off, obviously not in the mood for an extended discussion.
Finally I approached the last private property sign accompanied by a Georgia Jewel sign, inviting us runners onto this nugget of private property. As I cross the yard I startle an Armadillo out for a late night/early morning stroll. I continue on, deciding this time to forgo an attempt at conversation. As I came upon mount baker I was suddenly passed by another hundred mile runner and his pacer, even compared to those runners with more miles on their legs, I am slow. I crane my neck to look at the top, I know a tenth of a mile, 185 feet up is the finish line and hamburgers and maybe even Jenny Baker this year, there to cheer me to my slowest finish. I slowly climb, unlike last year, I stopped but did not sit, just kept moving up towards the finish line and the end of my long day.
At the top of Mt Baker music played and the aid volunteer offered me his final beer. He remembered me from last year and provided an escort to the finish line. To my surprise, Jenny Baker was there waiting to congratulate me on my long finish. I felt dissapointed I had taken longer this year, but a finish is a finish. My race took longer than all but the one hundred mile runners, regardless I know I won my internal struggle to not quit and choose comfort once again…
Til next time.