In 2017, my approach to racing was to determine my priorities and stick with them. Contending for the top 10 at UTMB was my ultimate goal. As stepping stones toward that, I raced two courses with a significant amount of elevation gain and loss, the Georgia Death Race (GDR) in the U.S. and Lavaredo Ultra Trail in Italy. After winning my first race, GDR, my focus was tested after gaining an automatic entry into the Western States 100 (WS100) with GDR a part of the Altra Golden Ticket Series.
Internally, I knew my heart was not into going back to the redundant training cycle that I had been in for this race for so many consecutive years. I felt like a hamster on a wheel, everything constant and predictable. I craved change. It was a decision that I put a lot of thought into and with ultimate respect for the race, and for the value of a slot, I declined the entry. I received criticism from others, but for me it was exciting to see another woman experience the WS100 for her first time.
Fast forward to 2018, and I was again standing at the start line at GDR. But this year was different. The desire and passion to return to the WS100 had returned. Having not gained entry via the lottery back in December, I was nervous. It was straightforward; either I earned one of the two Golden Tickets for this year’s WS100 at GDR or I didn’t. No mulligans.
With this in mind and as I stood on the 2018 GDR start line, I swayed back and forth ever so slightly, trying to not let my nervousness get the best of me. Then GDR race director, Sean ‘Run Bum’ Blanton, stood before us runners and spectators as he shared pre-race words. Unintentionally, his words eluded me as I stared into the lingering darkness and unknown.
Yes, I had run this race the year prior and had an idea of the course and what to expect given that one-time experience, but having come off a long winter in Vermont with extremely cold temperatures and big snowstorms, my confidence lagged. The difficult conditions meant more treadmill runs and when I was outside, paces were slow despite the effort being high. Knowing I had 72-plus miles to cover was daunting, so to make it more mentally manageable, I decided to take it one section at a time. I broke the course into three sections based on where I would see my crew.
The start at Vogel State Park to Skeenah Gap was my first focus section and it was 21.4 miles long. With a fair amount of climbing over this section, I wanted to keep my pace controlled. After a short pavement section, racers made a left-hand turn onto the singletrack on which we’d remain for the duration of this section. Trying to remain focused on the terrain with my headlamp, I wasn’t able to note who was around me. Within a few minutes, the chatter began and revealed that I was in the midst of the female frontrunners.
Making my way up the 2,300-foot climb to the high point of the course, Coosa Bald, the almost-full moon beamed right into my eyes. The moonlight was so focused and penetrating that several times I mistook it as a high-powered headlamp staring me down. Eventually the sun rose, taking over for the moon and exposing brilliant views. At close to mile eight, we made our way to the climb’s apex. Several miles ago, a woman had passed and I took the opportunity to follow. Although for whatever reason, she hesitated before hitting the downhill and I took the opportunity to find my own stride.
Within a few minutes, I heard nothing but my own footfall. Looking ahead, I didn’t see anyone, and the same when peering back. This often seems to be when I run my best, when I am alone and can determine my own rhythm. As I worked my way closer and closer to my crew, my rhythm changed with the terrain though my effort remained constant. I wanted to stay conservative and patient for at least the first 30 miles. As I made the 1.5-mile descent down the out-and-back section to my crew, I was anxious to see in the daylight who was behind me and by how far.
Arriving at Skeenah Gap, I received aid from my crew and was off and running before even hooking the straps on my hydration pack. I looked at my watch to compare my time to last year’s, and so I could see my time gap on the competition. About a minute later, I saw Larisa Dannis hauling down the trail toward me. We exchanged cheers and words of encouragement in the short time we had in each other’s proximity. I put my head down and got to work, and for the next mile I ran with more intention, driven by the fear of being caught.
After completing the out-and-back section, my nerves settled and I resettled into my original pattern. I reminded myself about the second section of this course. Skeenah Gap to Winding Stair was a distance just shy of 22 miles and this is where I would see my crew next. I put on my iPod to try and keep my anxieties at bay–making music my distraction. This seemed to work; the miles ticked past and the singletrack turned to dirt road. Finally another runner came into sight, and this brought a playful feeling to me, almost reminding me of a game of cat and mouse. Within a few minutes, I caught Benjamin Cook from Boulder, Colorado. We both were pleased to run in one another’s company as it had been several hours since either of us had companionship. We exchanged introductions, recollections about our races so far, and chatted about what was yet to come. Together we went stride for stride on the dirt road and this synchronicity had us at the next crew stop before we knew it.
As I approached the aid station, my husband and crew, George, gave me his cheerful whistle. George and I did a quick restock on my drink and calorie supply as he walked me out of the aid station. His words encouraged me and let me know I was on the right track to achieving my goal of earning a Western States Golden Ticket. I was confident yet cautious, knowing that there were still many miles to execute. My mood and mind remained balanced, and I was pleased that I could now shift my focus on tackling the course’s final section.
My final section was from Winding Stair to the finish at Amicalola Falls, a distance of 28 miles. Mileage-wise, this was the longest of the three sections into which I had broken the course, but by far the most runnable miles. As I worked my way down three miles of dirt road that had a decent amount of downhill pitch, my quads felt the burden. By no means were they blown, but rather the discomfort was just enough to warn me to stay in control and not get overzealous going downhill. I was leapfrogging with Benjamin and a Shawn Webber, a runner from Florida. It quickly became clear that we each had different strengths on the varied terrain. Despite them both having visually longer and smoother strides than me, I somehow pulled away and again found myself alone. I felt at ease with being by myself and serenity in the open trail.
Eventually nature called and after a quick stop to pee, I made a right-hand turn off the dirt road onto a pavement section. I passed a church with an Easter egg hunt in progress. I gazed over to see nicely dressed church goers enjoying a sunny celebration. I raised my hand as I passed to say hello. After running by, I wondered their thoughts about the runners they were seeing. At this point, the field was spread out and worn by the distance, terrain, and competition. My attention shifted as the road undulated upward to a point of being annoying. I felt sick of running; I wanted to walk and my saving grace was seeing another competitor ahead. I worked to catch him and then ran with a young runner named Max Tiemann for a few minutes before once again forging ahead on my own.
Eventually, the pavement turned to dirt and my only company was that of dirt bikers zipping past. I recalled this dirt road from last year; I knew it was long and that it climbed, but the details eluded me. I continued to run and soon had individual runners in my sights. They were not together, but spread out by about 30 seconds from each other. It took some time, but eventually I caught the closest competitor, Eli White, and ran with him for several miles until we hit the Nimblewill aid station at mile 62. Here I had a few sips of ginger ale and refilled my hydration pack. Hitting this aid station brought excitement as I was one stop closer to the finish, a semi-realization that my goal was in reach.
I left the aid station on a downhill gravel road. At this point, my quads were determining my speed and I was ready for a flatter section or even a climb as those muscles felt fine. Finally the time came for terrain with which my body was at peace. A right-hand turn onto singletrack that would bring racers into the park and closer to the Amicalola Falls visitor center. This point was significant as I was cheered on by not only my crew, but also by my father and stepmother who I hadn’t seen since the race the year prior. Thinking about seeing them brought great anticipation but also great emotion. I began to get anxious and cry, and had to remind myself to pull it together. Like most of the day, when I needed a distraction, it seemed to appear: another male competitor in my sights. I caught Dominick Layfield on an incline singletrack and we shared good conversation. Then boy oh boy did he gap me on the downhill into the park; it was inspiring to see how much he still had to give.
As my mind wandered, I was brought back to the present as I could hear the cheers from the park and George’s whistle. I was close to the finish, but had a few miles to go. I stopped for hugs from my family and cheers from my crew at the visitor center before tackling the 604 stairs to the top of the waterfall. This site is beautiful, and thus full of tourists of all ages. My eyes scanned for pedestrian traffic ahead and I spotted the competitor who had dusted me on the last downhill. Knowing I still had uphill legs, I climbed the stairs on a mission while counting each one. At stair 527, I caught and passed him. It was all a game to me; I wanted to push him.
With all 604 stairs behind me, I joked with the crowd at the top before turning around to welcome the runner behind me to the top. It was all downhill from here to the finish and I didn’t have the quads to compete with him. My goal now was to safely navigate my way down the technical singletrack while trying to improve my finish time from the previous year as much as I could. ‘Safely’ was not going well, as I tripped and fell over what appeared to be nothing but my own feet. I dusted off and laughed halfheartedly at myself. Making my way down the final pitch as the finish-line spectators cheered, I stumbled again. It wasn’t pretty, but this time I was able to remain on my feet. A few strides across the stream–because why use the bridge spanning the water if you don’t have to–and I finished in 13:31, achieving my goal of obtaining a slot into Western States.
In retrospect, it is interesting to see where I was a year ago and where I am now. In 2017, I had no interest in being back at the WS100, yet this year the fire inside me to be back at the historic race is burning. It is an opportunity that I value and do not take for granted. I am excited to shift my focus from earning a slot into WS100 to training so that I am ready to perform and execute on race day.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Did you run the Georgia Death Race? If so, how did the race go for you?