By NATHAN athlete Jackie Merritt.
“It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” – Rocky
Even though in the literal sense Rocky was talking about getting punched in the face, I think his words are a good summary of the day I had at the Georgia Death Race last weekend. After a shaky start, the day that I thought was going to be a complete disaster actually landed me with a Golden Ticket to the Western States 100 Endurance Run!
We made the 2 hour drive from Atlanta to packet pick-up at the finish area on Friday afternoon. My stomach had felt a bit off for the couple of days going into the race, but I cast it off as nothing, just motion sickness on the car ride up. There was a bit of pre-race chaos with gear check and fortunately (maybe) I packed my own dinner (my typical pre-race homemade pizza that I made right before we left Atlanta) so that I didn’t have to eat too late. By the time we had checked into the cabin and got stuff ready for the next morning, I had about 4 hours of sleep before the race start.
The race started in the dark with perfect temps, just under 50 degrees. We toed the start line with loaded packs of all the required gear, including the infamous rusty railroad spike and enough food and fluids to last the next few hours. When Sean Blanton, the RD sent us off at 5am sharp, Liz and I jetted up the short uphill section of asphalt road a little quickly to avoid the bottleneck at the single track trail ahead. We seemed to find ourselves in a perfect position when we started on the long slow climb to the top of the first mountain.
Things felt good enough in that first mile. I opted to swiftly hike up any incline of substantial grade. Aliza swiftly cruised by us on the first pitch of the climb but I soon caught back up on the long smooth descent that broke up the climb. Aliza has been a role model to me in the sport since I started running ultramarathons 9 years ago and I have followed her successes on the east coast and at Western States for years. This was the first time I had met her and it was kind of surreal that I could actually be running with her at any point in a race. I knew that we had similar racing strategies; very consistent with a slow start and come back to pick people off in the back half of the race. We chatted a bit about running and life and our paces seemed to lock in together over the next couple miles.
But around mile 3, it hit me. We were starting up the next climb and my stomach suddenly didn’t feel so great. I had to pull off on the side of the trail to make a pit stop that lasted a couple minutes. A ton of people passed me here but I wasn’t worried. This stuff happens in trail running. When I started back up the climb though my stomach ache lingered. I popped a couple of ginger chews and just prayed it would pass. I caught back up with Liz but soon had to peel off and make another pit stop. This went on for several miles in the darkness and as daylight emerged…I would run for a few minutes but soon have to stop again each time I would catch back up to Liz. If it were not so miserable it might have been comical!
A progressively worsening stomach ache plus waves of nausea were also not making this section very fun for me. I was forced to slow down my pace and modify my nutrition strategy. I had originally planned to take in lots of calories in solid food during the first 30 miles of the race while it was cool and I still could, but I could barely force myself to eat anything right now. I changed up the plan and made a sickly concentrated Tailwind mix in the bladder of my hydration pack. I started sucking that down the best I could, just trying to salvage any energy and prevent an epic bonk. I felt sick, I could barely get any calories in me, and my ballooning hands and mild headache were telling me that I was becoming progressively more dehydrated. Forget a top 2 finish. After 15 hours of this, the Georgia Death Race was going to eat me alive! By mile 15 I felt like this just wasn’t going to happen today and considered planning my first DNF ever. I had never felt this badly at the start of a race and something just wasn’t right today. I was only 3 hours in. Not even close.
Still there were some factors to remain positive about. Like how I had just completed that section of trail that tore me apart on a training run and, today, it barely phased me. I was so hyper-focused on how my stomach felt that those 20 miles of insane climbs on the Duncan Ridge Trail didn’t feel so bad.
Then, around mile 20, things started to look up. My stomach ache and nausea became less severe, pit stops less frequent. It seemed risky but I took a Larabar out of my pack and started eating it, finishing the whole thing without vomiting! And even after almost 10,000 ft of climbing, after 20 miles my legs felt like I had barely run at all. At that moment, even if it wasn’t “my day,” I knew I was going to finish this race I had worked so hard for.
There is one small out-and-back section on the course where you can see your crew for the first of two times all day at the bottom of the mountain. With somewhat lifted spirits, I bombed down the 1.5 mile descent into the aid station, where I met my crew, Jeff and Matt W., filled my pack and promptly chugged all the ginger ale that I possibly could.
I was 5th place woman at that point. On the way down I was actually surprised to see that the lead woman, Anne Weasley, was only 7 minutes ahead of me with all the other women close on her heels. I had pulled ahead of Liz on the way down to the aid station and she caught me climbing back up. We ran together mostly for the next few miles, until it was about that time again for me to make another pit stop. I enjoyed the nice descent down into the mile 28 aid station, caught back up to Liz at the aid station, but she quickly zipped out of there and out of sight.
From miles 28 to 41 aid stations, I ran mostly by myself. I was running in 6th place with no real way to tell how far the others were ahead of me. At this point my stomach felt much better and I was doing well with eating and rehydrating. I sucked down a few Muir nut butter packs, ate a couple more Larabars, and continued to drink all the ginger ale I could stomach at the next couple aid stations. Still, it was hard not to feel a bit disheartened. I told myself that I had to be patient. We had been running for 7 hours and the race was barely half over. I was feeling great and there was bound to be some carnage I could pick off in the hours to come.
Then, soon before the mile 41 aid station I saw the former 1st place women, Anne, and the guy who had been running with her. I caught and passed them within a the next few minutes, and just minutes later I caught and passed another women, Alondra Moody, going up a shallow climb to the aid station. At the top of the climb one of my favorite local Atlanta people, Jason Green, was waiting to cheer us on. You can’t help but smile when Jason is cheering you on and tells you that you are in 4th place and that Liz and Pam are just a minute in front of you. I left the aid station with lifted spirits and ready to race.
The course hopped onto a long rolling gravel road. I felt good so I let myself pick up the pace a bit on this section. It took a couple of miles but I caught up to Pam. Conveniently, a fast downhill section came soon after I passed and helped put some distance between us. A few minutes later I was really excited to see Liz, mostly because I had been running by myself for a while now. She shrieked and practically jumped out of her skin when I scared her coming up behind. It was pretty funny but I tried not to laugh too hard. Liz looked strong, but seemed a little paranoid. I assured her that if she maintained her current pace, there was no one behind us that was going to catch her. I thought we might run together for a while but I started pulling ahead…
And, almost suddenly, I found myself in 2nd place, riding in that Golden Ticket spot.
I didn’t let it sink in yet though. Liz and Pam both looked good and there was plenty of race left. The heat of the day was setting in. I was very excited to see my crew at the top of a long gravel road climb at mile 47. As advised, I took a few minutes here to cool myself off with iced towel and frozen Buff, eat, drink, and reload my pack. This was the last time I would see my crew until the finish and I wanted to make sure I was leaving good to go. Just as I was leaving, Liz came into the aid station and I knew Pam couldn’t be far behind.
The next section was mostly fire road and back country roads with long hot sections of full sun exposure. I felt my lack of heat acclimatization here and had to dig deeper to hold my pace. All I could think was one word: maintain. All I had to do was hold on to this. We had been running for exactly 10 hours at that point and I figured I probably had about 5 hours more. Five hours. I rationalized this number in my brain. That’s less time than a 50K, which was no time at all. Holding on for 5 more hours seemed completely doable.
Around mile 60 started a long lonnnggg uphill gravel road climb to the final aid station. I started up the long beast of a climb with an alternating run/hike interval strategy. I really didn’t want to walk, as the grade didn’t seem steep enough to warrant it, but I feared if I pushed my luck here I might blow up. But I told myself if I was going to hike, I was going to make it count. So when I was running, I was running, and when I was hiking, I was power hiking like a crazy person, arms and hips swinging wildly like an Olympic race walker.
That gravel road climb went on for miles and miles and somewhere along the way I got into a rhythm. At some point I forgot about the hiking part and just kept running up the whole thing. The sun was beating down on me and sweat was pouring from my body and into my eyes. I felt more strong and determined than I had all day just steadily trucking up that climb. The drive in the moment was empowering. Suddenly, for the first time all day, I knew that Golden Ticket was mine. In the wave of emotion that followed the realization, a few dry sobs escaped me. I am typically not a person to cry when I run so I couldn’t help but to literally laugh out loud at myself. So there I was, running up this road to nothing in the middle of nowhere, laughing, crying, focused and determined, and looking like a I was completely insane.
I finally reached the top of that climb and the last aid station, refilled my fluids, drank probably too much Coca Cola and took off down the steep asphalt descent ready to conquer the now 9 miles between me and the finish line. Forty thousand feet of elevation change started catching up to my legs with 5-6 miles left to go. This was the moment I trained for.
The course hopped into this lovely rolling single track trail where every little molehill of uphill undulation felt like a mountain. It seemed like every moment when I wanted nothing more than for this torture to be over, the forest would part and I would suddenly pop out along an amazing ridgeline overlooking miles and miles of beautiful majestic mountains, and there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I wanted to collapse and to stay out there running forever all at the same time.
Even with the progressively declining state of my quads, I was able to pass a couple guys bombing down the long rocky descent into Amicalola state park, where I saw my crew and the finish line at the bottom of the mountain. I literally saw the finish line clock..but of course it wasn’t over yet! Instead of bolting straight into the finish line, the course hung a hard right and led us back out for another 2 mile loop, which included a climb of 600 stairs up a waterfall.
I might have been feeling great until I hit those stairs. They hit me like a ton of bricks. Ooofff. I quickly adopted some horrible, ugly, crouched-down hunched-over climbing strategy where I was practically crawling on all fours to get my body up that waterfall. At one point, some tourist tried to stop me to ask if I would take their picture. I may have given them the look of death.
When I finally summited the top of those stairs and attempted to start the steep 1 mile descent back down to the finish, I felt like a baby learning to walk. Everything felt wobbly and my legs didn’t quite remember how to coordinate this movement pattern. I made it down and somehow crossed the creek of a finish line without falling over.
With a finish time of 14:24, I was the 2nd place female and Golden Ticket winner! Aliza won the race and came in 24 minutes before me. I never saw her all day after mile 3. She ran an incredibly smart race and steadily gapped me all day, even after I started feeling good again. Despite winning, she declined her Golden ticket and it went to Alondra Moody, who must have made an incredible come back somewhere in those last 30 miles to come in 3rd female in 14:55ish. Pam finished 4th and Liz behind her in 5th place in the longest race she had ever run. Running with this group of women all day was really motivating and inspiring, and I am so happy that I could be a part of it. By the way, I think young buck Liz has some big things coming her way over the next few years. You heard it here first!
While the Georgia Death Race was not exactly the day I had envisioned, I am so grateful for the experience. It reminded me that you can be in the best shape of your life and sometimes it doesn’t matter in an ultramarathon. It’s about how you adapt to what the day throws at you. Last weekend, the ability to adapt is what saved my day and, ultimately, is why I will be toeing the line at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance run in June. Western States is a race that has been on my list for a long time and I am incredibly excited to be part of it this year!
Happy trails and #seeyouinSquaw !
Bonus #1: Gear list of all my favorite stuff.
1. NATHAN VaporHowe 12L Race Vest: This pack is as comfortable as wearing another light-weight sleeveless shirt. I had zero chafing with this pack all day, even in the heat and with 10lbs of stuff I had to carry. Pretty incredible.
2. Saucony Peregrine 7 Trail Shoe: Perfect aggressive tread and cushion/responsiveness for the Georgia Death Race terrain.
3. MilestonePod: Gait and shoe life tracker. Geek out on the data below.
4. Saucony Bullet Tight Short: Favorite running shorts of all time. Stuffing ice into the side pockets at the later aid stations was awesome.
5. Lululemon Cool Racerback II
6. Oiselle Verrazano sports bra
7. Swiftwick performance socks
8. Nathan Buff headware
10. Standard Timex watch
11. Nutrition: Tailwind nutrition (naked and green tea buzz flavors), Muir nut butter energy gels (cashew lemon, cashew vanilla, cacao almond peppermint), Lara bars (banana nut, blueberry, cashew cookie), ginger chews (Trader Joe’s brand), Coca Cola, Ginger ale of all kinds!
Bonus #2: Collection of MilestonePod data