“A man does not yield when the mere universe has turned against him; he yields when his own heart has turned against him. We surrender, not when circumstances are miserable, but when we are miserable.” – GK Chesterton
This past weekend, I returned to one of my favorite races, the 74(ish) mile Georgia Death Race (GDR), which is run from Vogel State Park to Amicolola State Park. Runners have 24 hours to complete the distance with its approximately 35,000 feet of elevation change. This year’s race was my fourth, and I PR’d in 2018 with a respectable time of 16:33:43. I wanted to bring that PR down even more, so I set an ambitious-but-possible goal of finishing the 2019 edition of GDR in 16 hours. I trained properly, rested well, and carefully planned my race logistics and target times. When I awoke at 3:30AM on race day, I felt primed to nail my goals. Little did I know that I was soon to be in the most difficult race of my life.
The first 30 or so miles of GDR are the hardest, so I planned to run those miles at a relatively easy pace. I lined up a little behind mid-pack to help me avoid going out too fast behind some of the more elite runners. With headlamps shining, we snaked our way into the mountains, heading first for the peak of Coosa Bald, the race’s biggest climb, with more than 3900 feet of vertical gain in about eight miles. I was a little bottle-necked on the climb, which put me a little behind my target times but I knew I had a lot of time to make it up. My race continued mostly as planned through the next two aid stations at Mulky Gap and Fish Gap (mile 15ish). The next big goal was reaching Skeenah Gap (mile 22ish) at 10AM. On the long descent to Skeenah’s aid station, I realized I’d be about 15 minutes off schedule. This deficit was not necessarily insurmountable, but certainly a cause for concern. I grabbed some cookies, refilled my water bottles and headed back out on the course. When I left the aid station, I was in 44th place, right about where I wanted to be. I hoped to then start moving ahead of people in front of me. That did not happen.
The first sign of trouble popped up as I was climbing back out of Skeenah Gap. It was a twitch, a hardly noticeable knot in my right hamstring that grew in intensity as I pushed on toward Point Bravo, a little over five miles away. After about two miles, my leg went into a full blown cramp as I fought off the muscle’s involuntary contractions. This slowed my pace considerably and I pulled into Point Bravo 45 minutes behind schedule. I sat for a few minutes at Point Bravo, massaging my angry muscles and sucking down Tailwind. After about eight minutes I hobbled back out and continued up “The Dragon’s Spine”, a mountain ridge that is as pleasant as it sounds. Trying to baby my cramping right leg must have changed my gait, which resulted in even more cramps, now in my left leg as well. Every few minutes a calf or hamstring muscle would begin to contract so I’d stop to fight it off and then push on, only to stop again to do it all over again. Tears came to my eyes as the pain and anticipation of the cramp began adding mental stress to this perfect storm of problems. Runners continued to pass me as I slipped farther and farther behind. By the time I was approaching the aid station at Winding Stair, I had been “running” in significant pain and stress for nearly 18 miles. My crew would be at Winding Stair, and I began to think that dropping out there, where they could pick me up, would be the best choice. “Maybe a finish this year just isn’t in the cards”, I thought. “Maybe I tried to cheat death one too many times.” I reached the aid station and collapsed in a chair. That was mile 43 and I thought it was the last mile I would go. I was prepared to tell Pete (my crew chief) that I was dropping out. Pete could see I was yielding to the pain but he was not convinced that I should drop. He handled the situation like a real pro.
The first thing Pete asked me was, “What do you need to keep going?” I was not expecting this question, anticipating instead something like, “How do you feel? Do you want to continue or are you thinking about dropping?” The difference in these two questions may seem small but I believe the nuance here is important. If Pete asked me if I wanted to drop, he would be giving me an easy out. A simple “yes” would end my misery for the day, and his question would indicate that he also thought the situation was bad, thus reinforcing my belief that my race was over. But instead he framed it as though we both knew that I would keep going and he only needed to know what to do to help make that happen. This reintroduced the idea of continuing, an outcome I had pretty much abandoned. “I feel like someone is putting sewing needles into my legs”, I said, wincing. He gave me some time to think and sprinted away to get some food and fluids, including some potassium drink that really helped pep me up.
Pete was not indifferent to my pain and followed up with another important question: “Do you think you’ll cause a serious injury if you keep going?” I didn’t think I would. I explained that I felt mentally and physically drained and could not picture going another 50k in this condition. “I’d probably have to walk,” I said, “And I don’t think I have the mental fortitude to walk for that long in this condition.” My voice cracked as a mix of emotions flooded over me at the thought of dropping out. As I stared ahead, other runners streamed into Winding Stair. Some looked happy, others clearly drained. I could see that this aid station was a decision point for most of us. This struggle was playing itself out in the lives of dozens of ordinary people who were trying to do an extraordinary thing by finishing this punishing course. Some runners got patched up and headed back down the trail while others slumped into chairs, admitting defeat and taking themselves out of the race. It was here at mile 43 that I had to decide which one of those runners I was going to be. Even in my weary state, I understood that this decision would most likely have ramifications for future events. If I stopped now, I would be more likely to stop when the going got tough in other races. If I could push through, then I would be more likely to persevere in other adverse situations.
Sensing my dread of another 50k, Pete masterfully re-framed my goal: “The next aid station is just seven miles away and it’s almost all down hill. Do you think you could make it to there and reassess? If you feel like you have to drop out there, just message me and I’ll come get you.” He was thinking more clearly than I was and saw that I needed to shrink my goal to something I could visualize and possibly achieve. I began to think that leaving Winding Stair was possible. More runners entered the aid station and dropped out. Others were helped out of their chairs, stiff and tired, and continued toward Jake Bull, the next aid station. My self doubt began to subside, replaced by a rising sense of urgency to at least make an attempt at reaching Jake Bull. Before I knew it, I was changing into fresh footwear and a clean shirt. I rinsed the salt from my face, strapped on my pack, and asked Pete to help me stand up. We embraced and then I shuffled down the road. I was even able to run a little.
I made it to Jake Bull, and then did the 13 miles to the aid station at Nimble Will, which included a nearly 6-mile long climb on a gravel fire service road in the dark. I was now 10 miles from getting my finisher spike. I rested again, my legs still burning with pain. After some soup and Coke, I pushed out of the aid station and down a long hill. I knew then that I would not be going back. I burned any bridge that would allow me to return. The only way to end this was to finish the race.
After about three miles, a light rain began to fall and the wind picked up. The temperature began to plummet as I winded through the mostly downhill trail toward Amicolola. One large obstacle remained: the 600 stairs up the front of Amicolola Falls, a cruel way to end such a brutal race. By the time I hit those stairs, the rain was coming down in buckets, nearly blinding me as the droplets reflected the light from my headlamp. I counted a “1, 2” cadence as I steadily climbed the stairs. Now I was only 3/4 mile from the finish. I sloshed through the mud and felt like I was becoming numb to the pain. I crested the last ridge and heard people cheering for me. I crossed the stream. I finished. My time of 22+ hours was way off my PR, but still good enough for a Western States qualifier.
Based purely on the numbers, this race does not look like one of my finer performances, but in the days since I’ve come to see it as one of my best races, from a “grit” perspective. On my way home from Georgia, I began to think about what I learned from the experience. Two of my big takeaways:
The language we use to frame our challenges is important: Pete had a way of re-framing questions and comments in terms of solutions. Thinking about going another 50k was too much for me in the moment, so he broke it down to just the next seven miles. I usually do this when I plan for my long races, but I was lost once my original plan blew up. Once he reoriented me, I began to see my goal as reaching the next aid station, not covering 32 miles. He also used positive language: “What do you need in order to keep going?” This is a question we can even ask ourselves when the going gets tough.
Ground your race in a meaningful and achievable goal. I really had my heart set on that 16-hour finish. When that goal began slipping away from me, my motivation to keep going took a serious hit. Having finished the race three times, I think maybe I neglected to spend time thinking about my purpose, other than setting a new PR. Backup goals could have been finishing with a Western States qualifying time or some other adjusted time goal. We need to prepare for things to go wrong and have internal motivations to keep us moving forward.
Long-distance running can be a heart breaking experience. Even when you train properly there will be times when you feel like everything is conspiring to make you drop out. Instead of seeing these races as failures, we need to re-frame them as opportunities for personal growth. Mile 43 of the 2019 Georgia Death Race was one such opportunity. Even after dozens of ultras and 38-hour trek through the Alps, I consider it one of the most defining moments of my running career. I was miserable at 43, but with the help of a trusted friend, I summoned the strength to find the finish line.
Good luck to all of you who will face these same kinds of decisions in your training and races. I hope this might help encourage you to gut it out.