My Thoughts on the 2019 Georgia Death Race Controversy

AJW writes about the 2019 Georgia Death Race controversy.

By on April 5, 2019 | Comments

AJW's TaproomLast weekend, I had a fantastic time volunteering at the Georgia Death Race outside Blairsville, Georgia. In what has quickly become one of the top races in the United States, this year’s race featured perfect weather and a competitive field.

In the aftermath of the race, stories surfaced about how many runners, some estimate as many as 40% of the field, took a wrong turn early in the race. The course section in question was in the infamous Dragon’s Spine portion of the course where the race traverses a series of steep nobs and gaps, a unique geographical feature in this region of North Georgia. On one of these nobs, there is a U.S. Forest Service crew working to re-route the trail around the nob and it was there that the runners made the wrong turn. It turns out that the Forest Service crew had marked their trail with pink ribbons which were the same color as the ribbons the race was using. The result was a route that was 0.3 miles longer with 400 feet less climbing. After reviewing the situation, race director Sean Blanton chose to issue a time penalty to all the runners who took the wrong turn and the results were adjusted accordingly.

While I understand the sentiment of those who are calling for all of the runners who deviated from the proper course to be disqualified, I support Blanton’s decision to issue a time penalty rather than a disqualification. Ultrarunning is, by it’s very nature, an imperfect sport. Part of that imperfection is clearly on display here. Most of us know that marking trails deep in the mountains can be challenging. Indeed, some long events take as long as a month to mark their courses ahead of their races. Clearly in this case, the race is somewhat at fault as they did not more specifically block the wrong turn or provide more obvious disincentive to take the re-route. As such, for the race to take responsibility for that is the correct move as is the issuance of a time penalty rather than a DQ.

What all this brings to mind for me is that it is an example of how much I enjoy and even cherish being part of this community. Here is a situation that is clearly rife with conflict and will invariably be a lose-lose scenario for the race. So, knowing that, I have to believe Blanton made the decision he thought was best, which is and always will be the race director’s prerogative, and made it publicly known. Then, the community members can make their future decisions based on this information.

In so many parts of modern life, we feel powerless; we feel as though life is just something that happens to us. In ultrarunning, it’s not that. Rather, life is what we make it. In this case at GDR, there are certainly opinions and fault and blame. But there is also a wonderful opportunity to implement change, make better decisions, and learn so that we can do better next time. But in order to do that we need to accept that there will different perspectives and move toward those rather than away from them.

From my perspective, this situation is a classic ‘spirit of the law’ versus ‘letter of the law’ debate. In our sport, while there certainly need to be rules, we tend to be a place where the spirit of the law generally prevails. Sure, 40% of the field ran a slightly longer section of trail with slightly less elevation gain. As a result they were penalized. That seems to me to be about right. And, here’s the best part, if you think it’s wrong there is plenty you can do about it and in that resulting dialogue we can move us collectively forward not as a divisive bunch of frustrated pessimists but as a more open and cooperative group, united by the love of what we do, even in the midst of vehement disagreement.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Creature Comforts Brewing Company in Athens, Georgia. This past weekend Jason Green gave me a can of one of their limited-edition beers and it was incredible. The I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore Hazy Double IPA is simply one of the best beers of this variety I have tasted. If you find yourself in the Athens area this spring/summer, be sure to pick some up.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Please feel welcome to share your thoughts on what happened at the 2019 Georgia Death Race. We appreciate that this is a sensitive subject for some people, and that we will also have different opinions. We welcome debate and disagreement, but our comment policy requires you to do so in a constructive way that is respectful for all members of our community. Thank you in advance.

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.