2024 Cruel Jewel 50 Race Report

Cruel Jewel 50 (CJ 50) is officially a 57.4 mile trail ultra with 17,435 feet of vert that climbs up and down the north Georgia mountains. CJ 50 is run on the same course and at the same time as Cruel Jewel 100, both of which are put on by the Dahlonega Ultra-Marathon Association (Dumass Events). The Cruel Jewel races are known for their difficulty and for being well-organized events put on by a great organization. In addition, CJ 100 is both a Western States and Hardrock qualifier, and as a result the CJ races attract a large and competitive field of runners.

The Cruel Jewel races have been on my radar for several years, but it’s only been in the last year or 18 months that I’d begun to feel ready to take on the challenge of CJ 50. When my plans to run Georgia Death Race in March 2024 were derailed I quickly registered for CJ 50 which shares many of the same trails and which I expected to be comparable in terms of difficulty. Having run both, I do think CJ 50 and GDR are comparable in terms of overall difficulty.

Course Breakdown

Every year Dumass Events puts together a race manual that has the most detailed course information of any race I’ve run. For the most details possible, you should just check out the race manual as it has far more detail for each section of the course than I’m going to provide.

Instead of regurgitate the information Dumass has already put out, I’m going to provide my own take on the different sections of the course and my impressions of each section now that I’ve run the race.

Note that all mile distances are based on my own GPS file and may vary a bit from the official distances.

Starting line photo showing the author dressed for the race with race bib pinned on in front of a forest
Geared up and ready to go | Photo courtesy of race photographer Emily Cameron (@ecam44 on Instagram)

Miles 0-2.8: Reece Farm to Poor Decisions

The race starts at Reece Farm and Heritage Center just down the road from Vogel State Park. Right out of the gate the race heads up a steep paved path only wide enough for two runners side-by-side. So right at the start all of the runners are immediately forced into a bottleneck. If you’re a faster runner it’s critical to find your way to the front right at the beginning.

Thankfully the paved path only lasts about a tenth of mile before opening up onto a grass path that’s roughly the width of a single lane road and it gets a lot easier to pass and be passed. The grass path ends at around the one-mile mark and from there to the Poor Decisions water-only station the course follows the paved Wolf Pen Gap Rd.

This section is deceptive. On paper it looks runnable, and I suppose it is, if you’re borderline elite. If you’re a more average ultrarunner, given that you’re only starting your 58-mile day, you’ll want to walk most of this section. There are some downhills you can run, but a lot of this section is uphill at modest grades that will push your heart rate into unsustainable territory if you run too much.

At the same time, you do not want to take this first section too easy because the next section is the most runnable trail section of the entire race.

Miles 2.8-5: Poor Decisions to Wolf Creek

At the 2.8 mile point the course dives into the most runnable trail section of the course. The next 2-ish miles are nearly entirely downhill on single-track trails.

Hopefully you jockeyed for position during the first section of the race. If you did, you’ll now be rewarded with the fastest and funnest running of the day. On the other hand, if you didn’t jockey very aggressively you may find yourself where I did: stuck behind a couple of runners who were going a lot slower than I wanted to go and who weren’t letting other runners pass.

I’m not proud of it, but after a minute or two of waiting for two slower runners to let me pass I plowed down the side of the trail as fast as possible at a moment when the trail was a bit technical forcing the lead runner to slow down. I bounded by, looking like an ass I’m sure, and headed on down the trail. I felt a bit like an ass in the moment, but seriously, this is a race and you’ve got to run while you can.

Dense foliage crowding in on a narrow dirt trail
Running in the north Georgia mountains in May often means dense foliage, including lots of poison ivy, right up to the edge of the trail.

Miles 5-10: Climbing Coosa

As soon as you leave Wolf Creek, you continue on single track trail and the course heads up Coosa Bald for the longest climb of the day. The climb up Coosa isn’t insane. It’s very long; you climb nearly continuously for about 4 miles. However, it never gets overly steep for more than a few steps at a time.

This early in the race the name of the game is effort management. I kept my head up, my chest open, and tried to maintain a sustainable pace. During this section I began to pass the back of the CJ 100 field which was either approaching or leaving Wolf Creek which is basically the halfway point in the 100 mile race.

A view of distant mountains under cloudy skies
Most of the DRT is a long green tunnel, but there is one clear view of the distant mountains.

Miles 10-23: The Heart of the DRT

You tie into the Duncan Ridge Trail (DRT) part of the way up Coosa. From that point until about the 22 mile point you’re on the DRT. The DRT is somewhat legendary among local hikers and trail runners for it’s relentless steep short climbs and descents. During this section you will climb anywhere from 50 to 500 feet, at grades as steep as 30% or more, only to immediately plunge down the back of the climb on a grade just as steep.

Surviving the DRT is all about eating and drinking continually, managing your effort on the climbs, and not blowing out your quads on the descents. However, if you haven’t trained to run steep downhills in the lead up to the race, your quads don’t stand a chance. The DRT will expose how well you trained for the specific demands of this race. If you didn’t train well enough for the vert – both up and down – the DRT will expose your weaknesses.

The author takes a selfie deep in the forest. Author is sweaty and forest is very green and dense
Moving well, sweating excessively, but feeling good. I carried those Shokz headphones for absolutely no reason. Ended up not using them.

Miles 23-28: Flowing BMT Goodness

Just before the Skeenah Gap aid station the course leaves the DRT and heads down the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT). Leaving Skeenah, the next few miles include a few manageable climbs followed by very runnable downhills. The grades on this section of the BMT aren’t bad at all, the trail is wide and clear, and if your legs are still holding out you can log some really great downhill miles in this section.

This section ends at the Wilscot aid station which is roughly the halfway point in the race and also the location where drop bags could be accessed for the 2024 iteration of the race.

Miles 28-35: More BMT, Less Goodness

Leaving Wilscot, the course continues on the BMT, but the trail is more challenging. The climbs are steeper, the trail isn’t as wide open and clear, the downhills are a little steeper making them harder to run. The trail is still easier to navigate than the DRT, but the miles don’t come as easy as they did before Wilscot.

This section includes the Old Dial aid station and ends when the BMT dumps out onto Shallowford Bridge Road.

A view across the Shallowford Bridge
Looking across Shallowford Bridge

Miles 35-40: Five Miles of Runnable Roads

The BMT eventually lets out onto Shallowford Bridge Road and for the next five miles the course follows a series of asphalt and then gravel roads. If you have anything left in the tank, nearly all of this section is runnable. There are some modest climbs in this section which nearly everyone will walk, but they are short and there are runnable bits sprinkled throughout.

The Shallowford Bridge across the Toccoa River is the highlight of this section and serves as a welcome point of interest.

The author is running across a wooden bridge
Crossing the Shallowford Bridge | Photo courtesy of race photographer Emily Cameron (@ecam44 on Instagram)

Miles 40-42: The Calm Before the Storm

Eventually the BMT picks back up as a single track trail and for a couple of miles climbs gently but persistently upwards. This section is very manageable but leads you to what many consider the worst part of the course: the pointless out-and-back.

Miles 42(ish)-50: The Pointless Out-and-Back

Just past the 42 mile point the course reaches an intersection. To the left: a pointless out and back that all runners in both races must complete. To the right: homeward bound. And we all head to the left and plunge down the pointless out and back.

The pointless out and back is exactly that: a pointless part of the course that adds nothing other than a handful of miles and about 1200 feet of bonus climbing and descending. On way down, the out-and-back is nearly entirely downhill and feels exceedingly long – and that’s because it is exceedingly long. It’s about two and a half miles out, and two and a half back.

The trail is runnable at times and not at others, and for all but the very front of the pack it will be completed in partial or total darkness. There isn’t much to note either. You just keep going down-down-down, all the while aware you’ll have to come right back up, until you mercifully reach the Weaver Creek aid station where you finally are rewarded with the opportunity to hike back out.

I do have to add that the folks at the Weaver Creek aid station in 2024 were fantastic. I had issues with my headlamp and they did their very best to help me out. In the end, I had to use the flashlight on my phone or follow another runner very closely most of the rest of the way, but I’m appreciative of their efforts to get my headlamp working.

The pointless out and back ends at around the 48 mile point and the next two miles are mostly downhill to the Deep Gap aid station.

Miles 50-55.5: Flat Creek Loop

Leaving the Deep Gap aid station, all runners have to complete the Flat Creek Loop. For the 2024 edition, the loop was to be completed counterclockwise. In my opinion, this is the slower direction.

The first half of the loop is mostly uphill on a wide and gravel-covered path. The second half the loop is a mostly downhill but the trail is very hard to run and pretty technical with lots of roots, rocks, and badly eroded. As a result, most of the loop simply isn’t runnable, especially in the dark: the first half is uphill and the second half is mostly too technical to run at any sort of decent pace. If the loop were run in the opposite direction the second half would be runnable. In any event, there’s a bib punch spot at a secret (though very well marked) spot in this loop to ensure everyone completes the entire loop.

During my run, a volunteer at the Deep Gap aid station mercifully allowed me the use of their headlamp. I am incredibly grateful to them. They saved me a lot of time and misery.

Miles 55.5-57.4: The Home Stretch

The last two(ish) miles of the race are the home stretch – finally you’re past all the carnage the course had to throw at you. The last two miles are a breath of fresh air. You begin the home stretch running on asphalt that starts out uphill but quickly becomes a gentle downhill grade.

The last mile or so of the course runs together a bit in my memory. There’s some gravel, some trail, some asphalt. It’s a mix. It’s all manageable and runnable.

Finally you’re on the last bit of gravel road heading into Camp Morganton. It’s uphill, but you can hear the finish now and that’s enough to keep your legs pumping. Before you know it you’re across that beautiful finish line.

Cruel Jewel swag including a hat, t-shirt, finishers belt, and race bib
Hard-earned race swag including the finishers belt and the best-fitting hat I own.

Raceday Logistics

CJ 100 is an out-and-back race. You start and end at Camp Morganton. CJ 50 on the other hand is a point-to-point race. You start at Reece Farm and run back to Camp Morganton.

Point-to-point races are great in some ways and challenging in others. It’s awesome to see the distance you’ve covered in a point-to-point race and it’s fun when nearly every step of the race is new and interesting.

On the other hand, point-to-point races pose some logistical challenges. If you park at the end, how do you get to the start? If you park at the end, how early are you going to have to get up? If you have someone drop you off at the start, how are you going to get home after the race and how will your ride know when to pick you up? Do you have someone in your life willing and able to pick you up late at night or during the wee hours of the morning?

Getting to the Start

The race organizers provide a shuttle from Camp Morganton back to the start of the race for CJ 50 runners who opt to drive themselves to the race. This is a great option, but it also means starting your day exceedingly early. The race doesn’t start until 8 AM, but to allow time for a 90 minute drive to Camp Morganton, bib pickup, and a 75 minute shuttle ride back to Reece Farm I found myself climbing out of bed at 3 AM on raceday.

I arrived at Camp Morganton a little after 5 AM and got checked in. I pinned my bib on, got my gear together, snoozed in my car for 15 minutes, and then boarded the shuttle bound for Reece Farm.

The shuttle left at 6 AM sharp and arrived at Reece Farm shortly after 7 AM. I did my best to snooze a bit on the drive, but that’s tough to do sitting in a bus seat next to a stranger (or new friend for you extroverts).

At Reece Farm, I along with 150 or so other runners got ready to go: bathroom trips, pre-race calories, loosening up, getting our gear squared away, dropping off drop bags, and so forth. Finally at 8 AM, after a brief talk from the race director, we took off.

Back at the Finish

I finished CJ 50 at 12:03 AM on Sunday, May 19, 2024. Between the 50 mile and 100 mile races, there are folks finishing beginning during the day Saturday and on through the day Sunday. So at 12 AM the finish line was very much a lively environment. Runners were coming through every few minutes and were greeted by volunteers and organizers, a photographer, and any family and friends dedicated enough to be out that late (early?).

The race provides a post-race meal at Camp Morganton. When I finished race I wanted nothing more than to sit down. After about 30 minutes of sitting I did eat a modest plate of rice, beans, and taco meat. Then I started looking for my drop bag.

Drop Bag Kerfuffle

What happened next was the second hiccup in my day (the first being a headlamp issue I’ll get into below). The 50-miler drop bags had been accessible at Wilscot aid station, which had closed down at 9 PM. I had thought that this meant that drop bags would be back to the finish line a few hours thereafter. However, by 12:30 AM when I asked around, I learned that the drop bags weren’t back yet.

What happened is that multiple vehicles parked in a no-parking zone at Camp Morganton which made it impossible for the U-haul truck full of drop bags and other gear to make it into Camp Morganton. To make a very long story short, I ended up dozing in my truck until about 3 AM. At around 3AM I could see the U-haul had made it back to camp. However, it wasn’t yet unloaded. I ended up helping unload the drop bags and at 3:30 AM I started up my truck and headed for home.

Getting Home Safely

By the time I headed for home I had slept about 90 minutes over the past 24+ hours. I felt pretty alert at the time, but I knew I was tired. With a 90 minute drive head of me, I cranked up my music, rolled the windows down, and focused on the road.

I did well until about halfway home when I started fading. Recognizing I was tiring rapidly, I pulled off to the side of the road near Helen and took a 15 minute power nap, after which I felt alert and was able to drive the rest of the way home safely. I finally arrived home at around 5:20 AM, roughly 26 hours after I left on Saturday morning.

Training to Run Cruel Jewel 50

My preparation for CJ 50 began in earnest in February 2024. I signed up for Conquer the Rock as a training milestone in the build up to CJ 50, and my training for CJ 50 began when I trained for and then ran Conquer the Rock, a trail 50k with over 7,000 feet of vert, in March.

After Conquer the Rock I pivoted to training with CJ 50 squarely in my sights. After allowing two weeks for recovery post-Conquer the Rock, I had eight weeks to train for CJ 50. Without getting too far into the weeds, here a few key stats from my training for CJ 50:

  • My peak training week was four weeks prior to CJ 50 and included 44 miles of running with 10,000 feet of vert, plus three hours on the elliptical, two brisk evening walks, and two strength sessions, for a total training volume a little over 14 hours.
  • I emphasized getting as much vert as possible in the lead up to CJ 50 and I had 5 weeks with over 4,000 feet of vert in the 8 weeks leading up to CJ 50.
  • Aerobic volume was also a point of emphasis, and between running and cross-training (elliptical) I spent at least 8 hours training my aerobic system in 6 of the 8 weeks leading up to CJ 50.
  • My biggest single effort was a marathon-length effort with over 7,000 feet of vert five weeks out from CJ 50.

If you want to know more about my training for CJ 50 check out my Strava. All of my training is logged and public.

Nutrition and Hydration Strategy

My goal for CJ 50 was to average around 100 grams of carbs per hour. I planned to do this by using four products:

My plan was to take in either half a 90 gram gel, or an entire 30 gram gel every 30 minutes. I planned to take two 90 gram gels, followed by one 30 gram caffeine gel. In addition, I wanted to drink one hydration packet per hour where each packet contains an additional 15-18 grams of carbs. I would also drink water to thirst in addition to the one hydration packet per hour.

I did the math on all of this, and if I stuck to it I would average just under 100 grams of carbs per hour.

In addition, I planned to eat from aid stations if my body seemed to be craving anything in particular. My theory is that the body knows what is needs. So if something looks really good at an aid station, that because my body needs it. I try to exercise judgement in this regard and not eat things I think may upset my stomach, but within reason I grab anything from an aid station that looks good in the moment.

My nutrition and hydration strategy largely went to plan. It did come off the rails just a little towards the end when I ran into issues with my headlamp. Due to headlamp issues I couldn’t eat or drink while running for the last 12 miles or so because I had my poles in one hand and my phone in the other. I made up for this by bingeing on gels and fluids as I reached the last few aid stations, but I’m sure this did hurt my pace in the last 12 miles or so of the race.

Challenges Encountered and Lessons Learned

Overall, this race went extremely well. I got in lots of calories. My legs held up. I felt strong all the way to the end. Looking back, there are four lessons I want to take away from this race.

Always Have a Backup Headlamp

My headlamp did me wrong. I had four fresh batteries that I popped into my headlamp as it was getting dark and clicked it on, but it wouldn’t stay on. I ran into the Weaver Creek aid station and they graciously gave me four more batteries. I popped these into the headlamp and initially they seemed ok. However, as soon as I left the station and clicked the headlamp on it turned back off.

Thankfully, I had kept my phone on airplane mode all day and it had lots of battery left. I ended up running the last 12 miles or so either running right behind another runner to steal their light, or using my phone with the flashlight on 50% power. Both of these options were highly suboptimal.

At the Deep Gap aid station a volunteer loaned me their headlamp to run the Flat Creek loop and I’m very grateful to them. I gave that headlamp back upon completing the loop and finished the race with my iPhone in hand.

On Sunday, after the race, I tested out the headlamp and surprisingly it seems to work fine. I think what happened is that it was raining lightly when I first put the batteries into the headlamp and I think some rain got inside the headlamp causing it to effectively short out. Then, after it dried out, it was good to go again. In any event, the lesson-learned is simple: have a backup headlamp.

Just Stick to Speedgoats

I’ve tried lots of different running shoes. However, for my feet, nothing comes close to the Hoka Speedgoat. I ran CJ 50 in a pair of Nnormal Tomir 1.0’s. I had used these shoes on training runs up to 26 miles long and they did fine. However, they were just too firm and rigid for my feet over the course of 58 miles. I finished the race feeling pretty good overall, but my feet were in rough shape. I rarely blister and I had multiple blisters on both feet. In addition, my left heel was pretty badly bruised during the course of the race to the point that it’s still painful as I type this race report 10 days later.

I’ve tried most major shoe brands and models and at this point it’s clear: the Hoka Speedgoat is what I need to wear when I run ultras, especially ultras longer than a 50k.

Training Specificity Pays Off

Leading up to this race, most of my long runs consisted of hill repeats up and down Chenocetah Mountain. That trail is only 1.5 miles long, but it drops between 800 and 900 feet in that distance. I did lots of runs where all I did was go up and down Chenocetah. It was boring and not particularly fun. However, my legs never gave out. I ran strong all the way to the end. My quads didn’t blow up and my knees held together.

100 Grams of Carbs Works

When I ran GDR back in 2023, I averaged somewhere around 50-60 grams of carbs per hour. I ran strong for about 40 miles, slowly fell apart over the next 10 miles, and then power hiked the rest of the way. CJ 50 is a little shorter than GDR, but I ran way stronger in CJ 50 beginning around the 50k point.

Lately there has been lots of reporting in the ultrarunning world about taking in 90+ grams of carbs per hour during races and long training runs. My experience is just one anecdote, but my anecdotal experience confirms that there is a world of difference between taking in 50-60 grams per hour and 90-100 grams per hour, especially once you get past the 50k point.

My Results Running the 2024 Cruel Jewel 50

My goal going into CJ 50 was to go sub-16 hours. I felt like I could run 15:30-15:40 if things went well. In a pipedream scenario I thought I could run sub-15, but that would require everything to go perfectly and for me to have a really special day.

In the end, I ran 16:03. However, considering the headlamp issues and reduced carb intake over the last 12 miles, I think I was dead-on with my estimate. Without those issues I think I would have finished at around 15:40.

I’m really pleased with 16:03. It was good enough for 17th overall out of 111 finishers (plus 33 DNFs). More important than the specific finish time, I ran strong all the way to the end. While I was certainly fatigued and hurting when I reached the finish line, I could have kept running, especially with a change of shoes and some foot care, and finishing strong is what I take the most pride in coming away from CJ 50.

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