The Georgia Death Race (GDR) has been on my radar for several years. I first heard of the race several years ago before I had started running, and as soon as I started running trail races I knew I wanted to run the Georgia Death Race someday. It’s the most high profile, well-known ultramarathon in my neck of the woods. It’s also a Western States qualifier.
I made the decision to register for GDR last March after completing the Conquer the Rock double. Successfully completing that race over a year ago gave me the confidence that if put in the training I could finish GDR.
As I think back on GDR, it naturally breaks up into five sections in my mind. So I’ll recap my race by presenting those five sections.
Rain and Mud
The race started at 5 AM and it was pouring rain. Thankfully, it wasn’t very cold, so conditions were manageable, and not miserable.
The first two miles of the course are on the road so the rain was no problem there. However, after two miles, the course climbs a couple thousand feet up Coosa Bald on the Coosa Backcountry Trail and then connects to the Duncan Ridge Trail (DRT).
The climb up Coosa was muddy and slippery, but not too bad, especially compared to what we encountered once we descended from Coosa and headed on down the DRT.
It’s hard to describe how slippery and muddy the first several miles of the DRT were. In the early hours of the morning on Saturday about an inch of rain dumped on the area and several miles of the DRT turned into a mountainside slip-n-slide. For several miles, relatively runnable grades were barely passable. Runners were sliding everywhere.
Steady on the Trails: Skeenah, Point Bravo, and Swinging Bridge
At some point, perhaps 15 miles in to the race, conditions improved and the trail became manageable. From that point and onward for the next 20 miles or so was my favorite part of the race. I climbed steadily, felt fast on the downhills, and moved at a steady jog on the flat sections. The trail was in decent shape and the race had spread out enough that I could run the pace I wanted to run without bumping into too many other runners.
One of my favorite things about running ultras is sharing a few miles with other runners and getting to hear their stories. For a few miles of the DRT and Benton MacKaye I ran with a much more experienced runner named Jamie from Colorado who talked about the races he’s run all around the country, including legendary races like Leadville, Hyner, and Hellgate. He got me excited about the prospect trying to get up to PA for the Hyner Trail Challenge someday.
Just before the Toccoa River Swinging bridge I also ran into a local ultra runner I’ve seen at a few different races, Daniel, and we hung together for just a mile or two across the river and up the mountain on the other side.
A Mix of Trails and Gravel
Roughly 37 miles into the race the course began to transition between hiking trails, gravel roads, and mountain bike trails. To be honest, most of this section sort of runs together in my mind.
I spent quite a few of these miles running alongside a runner from Asheville named Allan. We talked about life and running and the mountains, and that really helped keep my mind off of any pain or fatigue I was enduring. During this section I moved steadily, jogging the downhills, hiking the climbs, and slowly ran or sometimes walked the flat sections.
Eventually Allan and I separated and as the miles piled up I began to slow down. It was also in this section that I got really tired of sucking down GU Energy Gels and my calorie intake fell from around 300 calories per hour to more like 150 calories per hour.
Jake Bull and Climb up Nimblewill
I reached the 50 mile point still moving pretty well, but mentally fatigued and lagging physically. In retrospect, I think I was beginning to lag because I had given up on my planned nutrition strategy somewhere around mile 40 and was slipping into a deeper and deeper calorie deficit.
At Jake Bull I picked up my “nobody” runner and neighbor, Kale, an experienced trail runner in his own right. I had hoped to be able to run quite a bit heading into and out of Jake Bull, but in reality I was struggling. I jogged the downhills and hiked steadily on the climbs, but my pace had slowed considerably.
It was great to have Kale along for the last 20 miles. He kept me distracted and positive and encouraged me to keep pushing and not settle for a death march unless I could nothing more.
Eventually we reached the long slow climb up Nimblewill and while I hiked at a steady pace, I didn’t run a single step up the 4ish mile climb.
Ten Miles That Would Never End
On paper, the last ten miles of the race don’t look that bad. However, in reality, I found those last ten miles to be the worst – especially the last 6 or so. About 8 miles from the finish the trail heads down the Len Foote Hike Inn Trail, which I’m sure is a beautiful hike on fresh legs. On tired legs, in the dark, it’s miserable.
The trail starts innocently enough but after a couple of miles it devolves into a mesh of exposed roots and large rocks. On this five mile section of trail I kicked more rocks and roots than I could keep track of, which is going to result in both of my big toe nails falling off in the next few days, and also ripped a huge hole in the toe of one of my shoes when it caught on a root.
I was relieved when we finally reached the end of the trail only to find that the descent into Amicalola state park was worse than the Len Foote Hike Inn Trail. The descent into the park follows a historical gravel road which has devolved into loose boulders and rain runoff troughs. This “mercifully” ends at a section of trail that is effectively jumping down a 40% grade on exposed roots.
Finally I reached the floor of the valley in Amicalola, turned around and power hiked my way back up the stairs to the top of the falls. From there, I planned to hike back down but somehow found the last few fumes left in the tank and was able to jog the final mile back down to the finish line.
I finished GDR 2023 in 19:40:51. 41st overall.
Takeaways and What’s Next
It’s a bit surreal to have finished GDR. It’s a race I never thought I’d even attempt just a couple of years ago and here I am a sub-20 hour finisher. So my first takeaway from GDR is wonder and gratitude. Wonder at what the human body is capable of and gratitude that I’m lucky enough to have the health, time, and resources necessary to tackle something like GDR.
My second takeaway is that there are things I can do to improve.
- While I trained pretty well, I would have been better prepared for GDR if I’d started my GDR-specific training a little earlier, gotten in more vert, trained harder on downhill running, and been more intentional about training in the dark.
- I started too slow. I don’t know how many times I have to learn the lesson to just shoot my damn shot and let the chips fall where they may. I started GDR scared. Going through the second aid station I was in 89th place. I finished in 41st place. I have a feeling that if I’d been in 41st place going up Coosa, I’d have finished in the top 25. Bold words, I know, but that’s been my experience: if I want to finish fast I have to start fast.
- I need to stick to my nutrition plan even if I’m not feeling it. I backed off my nutrition plan because I started to think that maybe it wasn’t really necessary and because I was sick of all those gels. However, in retrospect it’s pretty clear to me that my struggles in the last 20 miles were due to being under-fueled.
All that leaves is this: what’s next?
I have a few races on the calendar already: the Brasstown Bald Buster at the end of April, the Rabun Half Marathon in June, the Lady of the Lake 4 Hour race in September, and the Conquer the Rock 25k the first weekend of March 2024. Of course, now that I’ve qualified for Western States I’ll be applying for the Western States lottery in November.
Oh, and I’ve already registered to make another run at GDR in 2024. With a little better preparation and execution, and a little luck, I think I have a top 25 finish in me. Or a DNF. Only time will tell.