Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race 9/22/12 (Race Report)

On September 22, 2012, I earned a ninth place finish at the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race with a time of 12:08:19.
Photo courtesy of Wayne Downey
The Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race, an out-and-back course that takes place along the northwest Georgia section of the Pinhoti Trail, features roughly 8,500 feet of elevation gain on rugged rock-covered technical trails that demand constant attention to footing.  The exasperating experience of climbing up and down mountains while side-stepping pointed rocks with fatigued ankles reduces even the best trail runners to the frayed ends of mental stability.  I once saw a television interview with a famous author who, when asked if he enjoyed writing novels, replied that he enjoys having written them.  Did I enjoy negotiating the dangerously rocky trails of the Georgia Jewel as I encountered one false summit after another on mountain ridges while my arms and hands bled from repeated falls along a race course where manned aid stations were ten miles apart?  I enjoy having completed this race in the company of friends and beautiful scenery, and the proudest moment of my entire running life was when I crossed the finish line.  The Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race tore me down emotionally, and the process of slowly rebuilding my mental walls brick-by-brick was infinitely satisfying. 

The toughest trail race that I have ever run ironically featured remarkably painless and uncomplicated start line logistics.  On the evening before the event, I drove straight up Interstate 75 to Dalton, Georgia with a friend, Kat, who was participating in this 50-mile run as her first ultramarathon after having completed only 18 miles as her previous distance record.  We were pleased to find that the host hotel of Georgia Jewel was located within sight of the interstate exit and less than a half-mile down the street from the race start area at the Dalton Convention Center, where we arrived in the predawn hours the next morning and parked 50 feet from the start/finish line.  The brave participants of the Georgia Jewel 100 Mile Race had started their event at 4:00 in the morning, while those of us who were running the 50-mile and 35-mile race options took off from the start at 6:00 in pleasant early fall temperatures under a dark sky. 
The Georgia Jewel course wasted no time introducing us to the relentless hills, and the first two miles of the course rose almost 800 feet from the start line to the top of the first mountain.  After a brief enthusiastic dash out of the start area, most of us slowed down to jogging and power-walking on the 1.3-mile paved road that wound higher and higher out of our line of sight.  The gallows jokes and nervous laughter between runners blended with sincere wishes of encouragement as the crowd thinned and we all settled into our respective comfortable paces.  I must have climbed the paved road faster than expected, because I soon found myself in the company of faster friends whom I had identified from previous races as being well out of my league in running ability.  The steepness of the paved road was soon matched and exceeded when we turned left onto a gravel forest road that, once again, twisted beyond view above us.  As my headlamp illuminated the road surface in front of me, I longed for a fast-forward button to speed up the sunrise before turning left off the road onto the next eight miles of brutally technical single-track trail known as the “Rock Garden.”  My wishes went unheeded, though, and I soon left the road to follow the pink trail ribbon markers that led me into the dark forest.

The brutal assault of rocky terrain began at once and snapped me out of my early complacency.  The Rock Garden, an express elevator down to an endless hell of insidious pointed rocks that seemed to trip me up every few feet, had begun and there was no relief on the horizon.  The predawn darkness was a blessing in disguise, because the view provided by my headlamp obscured the harshness of the terrain, and I felt confident enough to run at a moderate pace while talking to friends.  Even the darkness could not hide the most daunting stretches, though, and I took my cue from runners ahead of me who slowed to a walk when stepping over the most technical trail areas.  The Rock Garden had only just begun, and the knowledge that I had eight more miles of this terrain ahead of me was worsened by my realization that I would have to traverse this same trail in the opposite direction at the end of this 50-mile race.  As I often do during these ultramarathon events, I amused myself by pondering the turn of events and twists of fate in my life that had led to my actually getting out of bed hours before daylight on a Saturday morning to put on a headlamp and run along rock-covered trails for fun. 

Pleasant conversation held the mental challenges of the trail rocks at bay while I ran with two friends, Andrew and Angela.  At the end of the first hour, I removed my headlamp under the rising sun and joked that the happiest moment of my morning was stuffing the headlamp into the top zippered compartment of my hydration pack.  Our random intervals of restrained running and fast walk breaks on the boulders continued and I was astounded to find that we reached the 5.4-mile unmanned water stop in less than an hour and 15 minutes.  Surprised and pleased with my progress, I kept pace with Andrew and Angela when the rock-strewn trail occasionally revealed less-technical stretches that invited nonstop running.  Strangely enough, I suffered my first fall as I ate a pack of Sport Bean jelly beans during a walk break.  The first of many bloody gashes on my forearm did not deter my positive demeanor as I caught up with my friends, but the initial stages of my fatigue revealed themselves as I started to trip on the rocks and catch myself over and over.  I kept telling Andrew and Angela that I was going to slow down, because I had started the race too fast and was getting tired on the rocks, but I somehow kept pace with them through the entire Rock Garden despite my intentions. 

I was overjoyed when we finally emerged from the hazards of the Rock Garden trails onto a gravel forest road and arrived at the 10-mile aid station in two hours and 20 minutes.  I refilled my Camelbak with water, grabbed a handful of Gummi Bears, and ate them as I ran nonstop down a long descent along the forest road.  Every ultrarunner runs his or her own race, and I was not surprised to find myself all alone on the forest road after some friends ran on ahead and other friends lingered at the aid station behind me.  My solitude was short-lived, however, as I soon caught up with a small group.  Jason, the race director of the rugged Yeti Trail Race 15K that I had completed a week before, and several other local friends, had banded together and, sensing that I had been asking for trouble with my faster-than-comfort-zone pace early on, I decided to stick with these friends for a while and follow their cue as they took extended walk breaks on the forest road that had now turned uphill.  We climbed and we climbed nonstop along the turns of the forest road, and I assured myself that I was going to enjoy running downhill along this same stretch on the way back to the finish. 

Photo courtesy of Kat Schuller
After a long while, we left the assuring embrace of the forest road and returned to rocky technical single-track trails on top of a mountain ridge.  I often blind myself to fatigue early on during a race, only to suffer from abrupt mood swings when the extent of my exhaustion reveals itself.  This race was no exception, as I soon began to react in a high-strung irritated manner when I tripped over rocks and took occasional tumbles.  When a mountain biker appeared behind us on the trail and startled me, I yelled and became so rattled that I shook for a few seconds after the biker passed.  Despite the fact that I eat race gels or other similar quick-sugar offerings every half hour from the beginning of a race, I always seem to hit a mental low indicative of glucose shortage around the 15-mile mark of every ultramarathon.  This time around, however, my mental state was taking a sharper downturn than usual.  At 180 pounds, I had finally arrived at my weight loss goal, and I knew that months on my low-carb style of the Paleo Diet could have very well played a part in my present situation.  I also knew that my one non-Paleo guilty pleasure, Diet Coke, probably contributed to my increased jittery behavior simply because I had been drinking the same amount of caffeine every day while losing over a third of my body weight in eight months.  On the other hand, I may have simply been psyched out from the realization that I was not even a third of the way into a 50-mile race.  I did not know what exactly was causing me to become so high-strung.  I just knew that I had to find a way to keep going.  My friends and I were in the middle of a seven-mile stretch without aid stations, and the only solution was to move forward. 

Thankfully, our forward progress was impressive by my normal pace standards.  I was proud of myself for keeping up with Jason and another local friend, Brooke, since these runners had both finished races faster than I in the past.  I enjoyed joining in on the conversation, but I was equally content to trail behind Brooke and Jason as they exchanged stories about their children.  I was fully aware of my fatigued state by now, but I still repeated the same comical scenario of telling my friends that I was going to slow down only to continue at my current pace to keep up with them.  As the three of us negotiated rocky trail obstacles while running nonstop down a mountainside trail to the Mile 17.1 aid station, a handful of 35-mile race participants passed us in the opposite direction after their turnaround point and wished us well.

I arrived at the Mile 17.1 aid station in a head rush of sudden tiredness from the extended nonstop downhill run and grabbed two whole sweet potatoes from my drop bag while a volunteer refilled my Camelbak with water.  After getting directions from a volunteer, I left my friends behind at the aid station and continued onto the trail by myself.  I wanted to remove myself from the pressure of keeping pace with other runners, and, for the moment, complete solitude would provide comfort as I mentally put myself back together. 

Photo courtesy of Kat Schuller
My decision to stock my drop bag at the Mile 17/Mile 33 aid station with sweet potatoes was the most intelligent decision that I made for the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race and, in the end, I believe that this nutrition strategy may have been the deciding factor in the ultimate outcome.  The slow-working gradual-effect sugars in the sweet potatoes worked their wonders, but, more than that, the potatoes just tasted wonderful.  I ate one sweet potato as I left aid station and carried the remaining one in my hand until the next half-hour mark on my nutrition schedule.  Even in my tired and increasingly irritable state, I kept laughing to myself that I was officially the quintessential hardcore Paleo caveman as I climbed a mountain trail with a whole sweet potato in my hand. 

I spent the next mile power-walking up a moderate mountain trail and managed to pass another runner.  I soon arrived at a beautiful ridge and was pleased that the trail terrain was forgiving enough for nonstop running.  The next two miles to the Mile 20.7 unmanned aid station were runnable, and I took full advantage by plowing along at my fastest pace so far during this event.  Occasional rocky sections slowed my progress, but these two miles of gentle downhill were a breath of fresh air for my psyche.  I knew that I would suffer compounded fatigue later on from the nonstop running, but I also knew from past experience that, when trails are runnable during a long-distance event, I needed to take advantage and bank some time under my belt while the running was good.

My primary goal for the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race was to earn this distance on my feet as a training run for my upcoming second attempt at Pinhoti 100, a race that ended for me at Mile 75 the previous year when I failed to make the time cutoffs.  My secondary goal was to finish the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile in less than 13 hours, since a sub-13-hour 50-mile race finish would qualify me to run the Laurel Valley 35 Mile, an intense self-supported ultra that takes place along the Foothills Trail of South Carolina and accepts first-time runners as race sweepers.  These two goals were conducive to one another, and they were further entwined with my extreme desire to complete my second trek through the Rock Garden section before nightfall.  I would suffer several moments of crippling weakness in the miles ahead, but the thought of night falling once again on these rocky trails shocked me like a cattle prod each time.  I was still moving in pre-noon hours, but my nonstop running along mile 20 of this course was nonetheless fueled by my need to race against the sunset. 

I passed the water containers of the Mile 20.7 aid station without pause, confident that I had enough water in my Camelbak to get me through the next four and half miles to the turnaround point of the race.  I had recently read the new Tim Noakes book, Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports, and was utilizing this new information by doing my best to drink according to thirst instead of drinking by schedule, since I have long struggled with my hydration/nutrition balances during ultramarathons.  A visible vein that now runs down the side of my forearm as a proud badge of accomplishment from my recent weight loss served as a rough indicator, and I figured that, as long as I could still see this vein on my forearm during the race, my hydration was adequate and my arms were not swelling.  I would eventually realize that I am still far from being an expert on proper water intake, because mild dehydration likely contributed to the emotional lows that I later experienced. 

The toughest mental struggles were still over the horizon, though, as I quickly power-walked a mild incline after the unmanned aid station, ran down the other side, and emerged from the woods into a vast meadow.  I followed the pink trail marker ribbons around the periphery of the meadow to find a beautiful pond ahead of me.  When I paused briefly to look for the next trail marking, a blonde woman suddenly appeared like an angel out of nowhere from behind a tree line and told me that I would go left of the pond and follow the next three miles to another aid station.  I thanked the volunteer for being there, and then took off running to the left of the pond.  I continued an extended nonstop run for the next mile or so as I followed the trail markings along the wonderfully forgiving surface of soft gravel forest roads.  Fortunately, the trail markings were easy to see.  Race Directors Karen Pearson and Don Gibson are both experienced ultrarunners, and the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Run was brilliantly organized, from the race registration logistics, to the aid station setups, and, finally, to the placement of trail markings by the volunteers.  Even when I am running a supposedly obvious trail, I enjoy seeing periodic trail markings to assure me that I am heading in the right direction.  I always had that assurance along this race course. 

Because of an ongoing series of Achilles tendon problems that I had suffered over the past couple of months after sliding on muddy trails at the Camp Croft Challenge Trail Marathon in July and a recent shin injury that had caused me to drop out after running 41 miles at the Merrill’s Mile 24 Hour Run on Labor Day Weekend, I was using the Georgia Jewel to test some new race gear for the first time.  I was wearing a pair of CEP compression socks that I had bought at a local running store the day before after having a calf measurement to determine the proper size.  I have worn compression leg sleeves that stop at the ankles during many previous races, but this was my first time running with compression socks that held tightness over my feet, ankles, and calves.  As I ran down gravel roads 23 miles into this event, I was thankful to have experienced no Achilles weakness at all so far, and I crossed my fingers for continued luck. 

I arrived at a road crossing and followed the markings to another gravel road that led to the Keown Falls Trail.  I was familiar with the Keown Falls area, since I had spent my senior year of high school in the nearby city of Rome, Georgia 22 years ago and enjoyed many a weekend at the park with friends back then.  A gradual ascent on the gravel road provided a welcome respite from the nonstop running, since I was now tiring rapidly in the rising heat at 11:00 in the morning.  I smiled when the first-place 50-mile runner, a friend named John “Taz”, ran by me in the opposite direction on his way back from the turnaround and wished me well.  When the realization dawned on me that I was only a mile from the Mile 25.1 turnaround point and had only just now seen the leading runner in the opposite direction, a surge of energy reserve gave me the strength to start running again.  I kept running until the forest road ended at the Keown Falls trailhead, where I now had to climb 700 feet of elevation to the falls overlook. 

Happy nostalgia of high school weekends spent at Keown Falls only carried me so far, and I soon suffered an extreme energy drop as I power-walked a series of switchbacks up to the falls overlook.  This is a common occurrence for me after I have been running nonstop for a long period of time, so I accepted the low that comes with the territory, not realizing that my physical and emotional descent was only just beginning. 

The trail switchbacks carried me up to a beautifully vast overlook that was devoid of tree cover and exposed to the rising sunny temperatures.  Another fast 50-mile runner passed by me in the opposite direction and advised, “You’re in for a real treat with the stairway of Death.”   I remembered the “stairway of Death” from my high school years, and knew that my already-exhausted legs had a brutal task waiting for them just ahead.  I cursed quietly to myself as I encountered two downed trees, crawling underneath the first one on tired legs, and carefully stepping over the next one that was lower to the ground.  I ascended another switchback and arrived at the “stairs of Death”, a series of unyielding stone stair steps that climbed steeply up the side of the mountain with a wooden rail to protect hikers from falling.  I put one foot in front of the other to reach the top, but my relief was short-lived when I encountered a friend, John, who was returning in the opposite direction.  I asked him if the next aid station was close and he told me with a sympathetic expression that I still had a very long climb ahead.  I felt worn down to fumes as I thanked him and continued my trek by turning right at the overlook and starting a mind-numbingly gradual ascent up a forest road. 

I was now shaking with exhaustion and whining aloud to myself for divine intervention to help me, but I still somehow passed a handful of other runners as I exercised relentless forward motion up the road to the John’s Mountain overlook where the 25.1-mile turnaround aid station awaited.  In retrospect, I have no idea how I managed to walk past other runners when I felt so helpless and weak.  I just wanted an aid station, I just wanted some sugary snacks, and I just wanted somebody to tell me that I could turn around to go back down this wretched hill climb.  The smiling faces and encouragement of a couple of other 50-mile runners who were returning from the aid station greeted me with understanding, because these runners had just experienced the same difficulty. 

Photo courtesy of Candy Findley
I arrived at the top of John’s Mountain in a frazzled state and the sight of my pale, shaking appearance must have concerned the aid station volunteers, because they advised me to sit down.  I told them that I just needed a few minutes to gather myself, and that, if I sat down, I would never stand back up again.  This aid station was manned by three friends, Jessica, Mitchel, and Brandon, who knew me from previous races and quickly helped me refill my Camelbak while I downed a couple of cups of Mountain Dew and some orange slices.  I wanted nothing in the world more than to rest for a while, but I stayed at this aid station for only a couple of minutes before grabbing a handful of Gummi Bears, thanking my friends, and taking off on a downhill run on the rock-strewn forest road that I had just climbed.  I was elated to have reached this Mile 25.1 aid station in five hours and 45 minutes, and I took comfort in the knowledge that I had over an hour of extra time in the bank to complete the return trip for my 13-hour time goal.  I enjoyed a careful nonstop run down the forest road and, when I saw the tired faces of friends on their trip up to the aid station in the opposite direction, I paid forward past favors by encouraging them along. 

My rattled state literally returned with a bang when I tripped over a rock during my downhill run and suffered an extremely painful fall that scraped my hip and drew more blood on my right forearm.  I yelled in pain, knowing but not caring that others probably heard me from miles around.  The situation went from bad to worse when I started to descend the stone stairway, and banged my knee when I tripped over a rock.  I cursed to myself and actually sobbed for a few seconds.  Another runner just a few feet ahead of me asked if I were okay, and I replied, “I’m just…tired…of falling.”  The runner replied that he had felt that way many times before.  I thanked him as he soldiered on ahead while I limped for a few minutes to put myself back together. 

I encountered several friends who were climbing up the Keown Falls Trail in the opposite direction on the way up, and, although I was still too physically and emotionally exhausted to offer extended conversation, I smiled at everyone and wished them well.  A few of these friends had finished considerably faster than I at past races, and I was surprised to see them behind me on an ultramarathon course.  I remembered the paved road that climbed over a mile at the beginning of the course and realized once again that I must have climbed that hill faster than I had imagined. 

Photo courtesy of Kat Schuller
I was still tired and shaking when I reached the bottom of the mountain at the Keown Falls trailhead, but miles of runnable forest road stretched ahead.  I remembered a Patrick Swayze quote, “Pain don’t hurt.”, from the movie, Road House, and I took off for a slow run on the gentle gravel downgrade.  I walked the next incline, but resumed running on the other side.  The next two miles to the Mile 29.5 unmanned water stop went by quickly, although my running was interrupted by frequent walk breaks this time around in my state of fatigue when I passed by the pond and meadows once again.  The runner who had expressed concern for me when I busted my knee on the stairs was just ahead of me, and, although he occasionally sped up his run, I kept him in sight most of the time.  I topped off my Camelbak at the unmanned water stop, since the noon heat was still climbing, then started to power-walk the gradual unrelenting climb to the top of the next mountain.  I remembered the comparably luxurious two-mile downhill run that I had enjoyed in the opposite direction on this stretch a couple of hours earlier and knew that I was in for a long hike.  The runner whom I had been trailing for the past couple of miles sat down beside the trail on top of one incline and, when I asked if he needed anything, he simply smiled and said that he was taking a break.  I passed by and resumed a careful jog on a rocky descent down the other side.  Just keep moving.  Just keep moving. 

A scenario that would repeat itself countless times for the remainder of the race occurred at this point when I attempted to run, tripped over another rock, barely caught my fall with rattled shaking and profanity, and slowed down to a walk.  I was failing miserably as a trail runner, because I just could not pick up my feet enough to avoid the rock hazards.  I had no mental strength left to give and I was sapped to my emotional inner lining.  There was no way that I could keep going for the next 18 miles, because I tripped over rocks every time I tried to run.  The exaggerated low self-esteem stabs that assault me during moments of sheer exhaustion and pained frustration returned in full force along this stretch.  I recalled some vague internet statistic stating that the typical ultrarunners were successful middle-to-upper class professionals who successfully balanced families, children, and work with their running accomplishments.  As I struggled to keep from stumbling on the rocks, I realized that I could not even successfully balance myself.  I began to doubt whether or not I was cut out for ultrarunning in the first place.

There’s a scene in The Godfather where Marlon Brando’s character slaps his godson in the face and tells him to act like a man.  My inner Vito Corleone surfaced and slapped me, ordering me to snap out of my gloom and focus on the positives.  I had lost almost 100 pounds over the past eight months, I was in the best physical shape of my entire life at the age of 40, my running ability had improved significantly, and I was experiencing the adventure of a lifetime in a beautiful forest on a Saturday.  I was also having the best race performance of my life on one of the toughest ultramarathon courses in the world.  My Achilles felt fine and my shins felt fine, so I was able to take advantage of an ability that was a gift and not an entitlement.  I started to run slowly down the mountain, and somehow managed to stay upright.

I was still shuffling through strong emotions when I arrived at the Mile 33.1 aid station in weary condition, but I wasted no time finding my drop bag and removing the two remaining sweet potatoes, along with a sealed pouch of chicken breast meat that I had left especially for this point in the race when I would need some protein.  I ate several bites of chicken straight from the pouch in a dazed manner as I simultaneously downed three small cups of Mountain Dew, then thanked the volunteers and started to walk away toward the impossibly steep mountain climb that loomed ahead. 

The subsequent mountain climb was a tough-as-nails, slow-walking, hunched-over, hands-on-thighs struggle, so I just ambled along at first while eating one of the sweet potatoes.  I had a little over five hours left to reach my 13-hour goal, and I was moving with shaky confidence, but still moving.  Just before I reached the top of the next mountain ridge, I encountered one of the faster runners who had been ahead of me on the course so far.  He was now limping slowly down the mountain in the opposite direction with a pained expression on his face.  He told me that he had injured his ankle on a rock and was trying to get back down to the aid station that we had both just left.  A rare window of opportunity suddenly presented itself in my mind, and I realized that, if I helped this runner back to the aid station, I would not have to keep going for the final 16 miles and that, instead, I could earn karma points by sacrificing my race to help an injured runner in need.  I could walk slowly back down the mountain at this runner’s side and, within a half hour, I would be resting happily in a camp chair waiting for a ride back to the start.  I envisioned accolades from the ultrarunning community.  Jason heroically put his best race performance aside to help an injured runner back to safety.  I asked the runner if he needed help, and he replied that he would be okay walking back down the mountain on his own.  I wished him well, and continued on my way, faintly disappointed that I would have to keep going for the next 16 miles after all. 

I broke out into a run once I reached the top ridge, tripped over a rock once again, and endured a painful fall that battered my already-scarred forearms.  Over the next four miles, I ran only sporadically, and, instead, utilized a technique that I consider to be my greatest ultrarunning strength.  My self-described “Jason Voorhees walk” is an intensely focused power-walk where I take large steps as my arms swing by my sides.  My weekday workouts consist of power-walks on a 10% treadmill incline where I move fast enough to remain at a metabolic heart rate for one hour and I am often able to walk almost five miles during that span of time.  This workout routine is always intense, but it is a surprisingly low-impact way for me to protect my legs between weekend long runs and it has ultimately worked wonders for my uphill running.  The benefit of this workout is realized most of all, however, in times like this when a speedy walking pace serves me better than a hesitantly cautious run on technical trails.  My “Jason Voorhees walk” enabled me to pass a handful of runners along the rolling hills of this beautiful mountain ridge. 

When the frustratingly rocky single-track finally gave way to one last forest road stretch, I took off running on the downhill once again for a long time before reaching a series of small creek crossings at the bottom of a valley and then following the forest road up a steep ascent to the Mile 40 aid station, which would be the last manned volunteer stop of the race.  The sight of three faster running friends whom I have always admired resting at this aid station was a mental game changer for me, because I realized that I had been plowing forward at a pace well beyond my wildest expectations.  I had over three hours to make it through the next ten miles to reach my 13-hour goal, and one of these friends assured me that I could reach that goal just by walking.  I laughed and told him that this was exactly what I was planning to do.  When I left the aid station with a handful of Gummi Bears and finally reached the top of the forest road hill that led back into the dreaded Rock Garden, I started running after all and continued to run for several minutes until repeated stumbles on the rocks demanded caution once again. 

Photo courtesy of Candy Findley
The next several miles through the Rock Garden were the most mentally challenging miles that I have ever completed in my life.  I was grateful that I was traveling this stretch in broad daylight on my way back, but I still tripped and occasionally rolled my ankle on the pointed rocks and boulder outcroppings.  An agonizing shooting pain surged through my right leg at one point as a foot blister suddenly burst apart when my foot slammed into one particular rock. 

The sick irony of my situation was that I now felt energetic enough to run nonstop, because my nutrition and physical resource expenditure had all come together in a great way that left me with a positive second wind of motivation, but I was unable to open up into such a run on the rocks and boulders for the real fear of injury.  I was so close to the finish, but I was also an eternity away. 

How long is a mile?  This is a simple question in terms of physical measurement, but the mental interpretation depends on state of mind.  In the same way that an hour-long church sermon can fly by in the mind of an adult, yet last forever in the mind of a restless child, the distance of a mile can go on as long as the runner’s mind allows.  My “Jason Voorhees walk” pushed me past several more runners, but the cursed Rock Garden seemed never to end.  I knew that the final unmanned aid station at Mile 44.6 was close, but it seemed to take days for me to reach it as I negotiated the rocks.  After I finally reached the aid station, the next three miles of Rock Garden dragged along like a slow death. 

Mental metaphors of blood and punishment reached their height when I did finally summon the confidence to take off running down the trail, only to take one last harsh tumble with my hands out in front of me to break the fall.  I stood up, startled and shaken, to find that holes had been torn into the palms of both my hands in a “stigmata” fashion.  I resumed walking, but used my Camelbak to wash water over my bleeding hands and remove the dirt from the open wounds.  The pain was excruciating, but moving forward was the only option.

The concept of “relentless forward motion” is the most useful mantra in the ultrarunning world, because relentless forward motion involves finding out how far you can physically push yourself and continue to move, even if you are reduced to a walk or a crawl.  Relentless forward motion had carried me 47 miles in the form of happy running, fun conversations, gradually accumulating fatigue, slow walk breaks, labored climbs up stone steps, and through stretches of dazed hopelessness.  I had not sat down for the entire race, and I was not about to sit down now.

I reached the end of the Rock Garden and finally emerged onto the forest road that descended steeply out of view.  I took off running, relieved that the horror of the Rock Garden was behind me and that I could hear the vehicle traffic from Interstate 75 at the bottom of the mountain.  The forest road is not exactly a smooth travel, but I sped down the hills of loose pebbles and torn asphalt without a tumble.  I was well within my time goal parameters and now excited to push the envelope on safe terrain to the end.

Photo courtesy of Wayne Downey
I turned off the forest gravel road onto the final 1.3 miles of paved road and ran along the left side, facing the speeding vehicles that rushed toward me as dictated by running safety guidelines.  I thanked my compression sleeves for holding my calves and ankles in place as I ran fast down this road and pounded my quads into oblivion.  One of the oncoming cars honked at me, and turned around to follow me.  A local friend, Wayne, held his iPhone out of the car window to take a video while shouting encouragement.  I reminded myself, “The faster you run, the faster you’re done.   The faster you run, the faster you’re done.”, and accelerated my pace, even while talking with Wayne from across the road.  The insanely steep pavement descent finally leveled off and I saw one runner ahead of me who had slowed for a walk.  Wayne shouted for me to pass the runner and I did pass him just as we both turned the final corner onto the finish area. 

I crossed the finish line of the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Race in 12:08:19 and placed 9 out of 39 finishers, earning my first top ten placement on a fixed-distance course.  My training and weight loss over the past eight months had paid off beyond my expectations.  I hobbled to my truck, grabbed my recovery meal of sweet potatoes and chicken breast, and then sat down to cheer as several friends finished.  Kat crossed the finish line a short time later to complete her first ultramarathon, and several other local friends sped across the finish to sit down with me and exchange stories.  I thanked the amazing race directors, Karen Pearson and Don Gibson for putting such an epic event together, and then drove home with Kat as we exchanged more stories and relived the day.

I enjoy having run the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile Trail Race.  I do thank Karen, Don, every single volunteer, and every single runner that provided company, encouragement, or simply another human encounter in those remote woods.  There were moments of joy and elation interspersed throughout the day, even during the roughest stretches, and these are the moments that always fill my rose-colored rear view mirrors of memory if I do not take the time to capture everything else in a long race report.  When I inevitably sign up for the next Georgia Jewel race, and perhaps even set my sights on the Georgia Jewel 100 someday, I will return to this blog report and smile at the surreal absurdity of things that I now do for fun. 

See you on the trails.



  1. Great job Jason. I ran the 100 last year and know how tough this course is. I am going to try the sweet potato, probably will down easier than other foods.
    Laurel Valley will be much easier.
    Hope to see you at Pinhoti this year.

    John Dove

  2. Congratulations on a solid race. Keep up what you're doing, cause it's working great!

  3. Congrats, Jason. Your perseverance at this race definitely has you prepared for Pinhoti. You'll also love running LV next year. I had a rough one myself this year, but loved every minute of it. I can't wait for the Pinhoti finish line photo with you and me smiling into the camera and holding Pinhoti buckles in our hands.

  4. Great Job! Well Done and congratulations on your maintained weight loss and 50 mile PR!! Excellent race report.