The Georgia Death Race and the Hot to Trot 8 Hour Race:
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. — Mike Tyson
I come from a family of stone cold losers but that ain’t nothing to scoff at and it ain’t bad neither. They’re regular folk who caught sight of the America dream, set sail to get it and scuttled their own boats on purpose for reasons too horrible to describe to the uninitiated.
I’ve held up my end of that stupid bargain by running in races I was vastly unfit to run, knowing full well I was doomed. I ran the Georgia Death Race this year. It’s a 68 mile romp along the Coosa Backcountry Ridgeline. This is the same trail as the Duncan Ridge 50k which was the sight of my first DNF.
I got 5 minutes into the GDR and found my headlamp dead as I hadn’t changed the batteries in that particular lamp since the Barkley Marathons of 2013. I ran 8.5 miles through the Coosa Backcountry trails, up Coosa Bald and along the ridgeline in pitch dark.
I rolled my ankle 11 times, took 3 face-plants and fell backward over a felled long and dislocated my hip. I saw the sunrise up over the top of Coosa Bald and sobbed like a baby at its sublime majesty. I also DNF’d 10 minutes later as my right leg was numb and my left leg felt like it was broken in 15 places.
I hung out with the Aid Station crew until they could drive me back to the trailhead and a hot shower. These three good old boys in the truck with me were all knee-slap-guffawing first at my catastrophe which they pretty much summed up as their own experience out on those trails.
One of them let on how he’d had been in a motorcycle wreck the week before but refused to tell his wife until she found him on the bathroom floor, passed out in pool a whatever had been in his stomach earlier that day.
He apparently had three broken ribs and possible something a little punctured. They laughed their butts off as we skittered down the narrow mountain roads, nearly slipping off into certain death 8 or 9 times. It’s the funny thing about our sport. You court death a little.
You push yourself until you either finish or break and that might be dying or just admitting you ain’t got what it took. I most decidedly didn’t have what it took that day but I knew that fact going into the stupid race.
I knew that when we bought three cases of beer the night before the race and my crew drank one of the cases that night. I didn’t bring ultra runners. I brought drinking buddies. They didn’t even ask what happened when they picked me up. They just handed me a beer and we drove to Raven Falls.
We were drunk when we got there. We were more drunk when we left. We were pretty much drunk the whole weekend. I believe I went to a high school play what gave me night terrors as they told me later I’d wake up every thirty minutes screaming and then just pass out again.
It took me five months to dry out and get my training back on track. I quit beer. I quit beer. I quit beer. I quit eating meat. Mrs. Baker is about to get me to quit sugar and gluten. I got no idea what gluten is but its days are numbered. I have become a paragon of good intentions.
The truth is though, is it’s working. I can’t run short distance much faster than I ustacoulda but my body’s all lined up for the long stuff and my brain, hardwired from a year of just going out into the woods running and staying out, is smooth and calm as moccasin-filled pond water.
I ran the Hot to Trot 8 Hour Race earlier this month and it wasn’t my fastest 50k time (6:39) but it was steady and thoughtful. I let gravity do all the work on the down-hills and just steady cruised the up-hills. I let people pass, let them worry about who they were beating and never chased anyone, mostly.
I almost left after I finished the 50k but someone bribed me with a cowbell from the Yeti Running Club and I walked the last hour or so. I met some fine folks who welcomed my company which is rare if you’ve ever been forced to listen to me for anything over 15 minutes. It was just like that sunrise.
My next race is the Chattooga 50k. It’s a Terri Hayes race which means low key and likely a sketchy map but she has such a big heart and love of our sport that I don’t mind getting lost. It’s the last time this race is gonna get run and she invited me to run it.
I was set to run the Barkley Fall Classic, a 50k, three weeks after Chattooga which is to say, I had not planned on running Chattooga but its like this, I can only do some much before that gene I got kicks in and I scuttle my boat.
The BFC is a tough race. It demands your attention. It’s the candy arse trail from the Barkley Marathons plus some stuff the RD found to round a 15.5 mile loop you run twice. It’s a 50k with 32K feet of elevation change.
It’s just that Terri invited me to run the last running of Chattooga. It ain’t never gonna be run again by Terri. I reckon some local SC runner will pick it up and add aid stations; Chattooga only has three and you hit one of them twice with two 10 mile gaps to suffer through. The trail is only blaze-marked and its pretty much just wilderness.
It’s the mack daddy of stupid races at this stage of the game. But see, one night I stayed up til two in the morning talking to Ms. Hayes while she waited on some errant 50 miler volksmarching her race German walking stick and all, and he was only 50 miler. That’s the level of her dedication. They’ll run it again with a nice RD and better support but without Terri so who cares.
Terri Hayes loves this sport. Meeting her is like meeting one of those punchy old boxers. There is such a majesty in knowing how much they’ve seen and how gentle time has made them that if you are not in awe, then you are heartless.
I remember seeing her at night at Ancient Oaks last year, 40 miles into a 100 miler and seconds away from my second DNF. I was a wretched bloodied mess and she came along, headlamp turned down, all smiles and good intentions. I would not have been surprised if she offered me cookies.
Chattooga wasn’t in the cards until she invited me. I started off by telling myself I would run 20 miles and hike 11, miles so it would only be a long run with a hike. But then I worked out the time it would take to run the whole thing which was only 10 minutes slower than my last 50k and I thought, hell why not just run the damn thing.
It’s like I said, I got this stupid gene and no matter how well intended I might be, how well things are going, I am bound and determined to blow it just because life it too full and bountiful for me to turn down either fork in the road. I will take them both just to see if I have the legs for it.
Maybe reason will settle on me like a blanket. I’ve been racing short trail races this summer, 5 miles and such. I’m slow by my own half remembered standard but I’m smarter, except I’m not. You have to understand this about me or you will just miss the point.
It isn’t the result, it’s fight. It is a way you face that great mystery called life and death. It invites failure in the most catastrophic ways. It begs us to hope and believe. There is a place at Duncan Ridge, as you’re coming down a massive descent at the end, when you can see the wide valley spilling out below you.
I remember being so tired at that moment it was as if stopping and going was the same thing. Low in the valley between the mountains, lost in the sweep of everything, the immense horizon, the trees, rocks, the ground so muddy and rich it would swallow me if I stopped running,
I felt like the only person left on Earth. I can’t speak for God’s presence but I am certain I heard the universe’s lonely voice in the moss covered lowland calling out to the mushrooms and the worms, the hawk and the boar. No matter which trail I took I was headed toward this voice.
I was in the last few miles of the race, the last few breathes of my existence might fit into my palm as I ran and yet, I knew then like I know now that I cannot be alone. My coming and going from this world might mean nothing like the deer passing into moss means nothing but my fight was everything.
The deer runs unto death to stave off the hunter’s bullet. And it is the same as the 5k, 30k, 50k runner pushing their bodies beyond what they believe is possible, throwing themselves against the fatal wall just to find out what happens next.
It isn’t an ultra thing or a runner thing or even an athlete thing. It’s a human thing. There is no value in knowing that I can do a thing I already know I can do. It is that thing just beyond us that we ought to hunger for in our lives.
It is the branch just above our heads, the pace one breath away from what our lungs will give. No matter what we do, something will happen and we will be richer for it. We’ll know more about who we are. Maybe we’ll be stronger.
Or maybe we will be silent and everything we have remembered all these years will be forgotten. I believe whatever comes is good. If we live as fully as we can live, holding nothing back for later, then everything that happens is victory.
I meditate now. I kneel and let my attention fall to my breathing. When a thought comes, I acknowledge its presence and let it pass. Maybe I won’t go to Chattooga. Maybe all this is can just be a thought that rises in my mind and drifts off like a cloud.
The Pugilist picks, moves, and sometimes loses for over thinking and not fighting. The Brawler rushes in for the slug fest and sometimes, lost in his own fury misses the well timed glove coming up under his chin.
Like I said, I think I’m smarter but maybe not. I’d like to think I’m like the boxer, I know I can take a punch. The trick is getting in close enough to lay few of my own.