I ran the 2023 edition of the Georgia Death Race, finishing with a time of 19:40:51. Good enough for 41st out of 243 runners who started the race and 158 who finished. I also wrote up a race report describing my experience running the 2023 Georgia Death Race if you’re interested.
GDR tends to have a high drop-out rate because it’s a long and hard race. As I already mentioned, in 2023 243 runners started the race but only 158 finished. That means 85 runners dropped out. That’s a drop-out rate of about 35% – meaning, one of every three runners who started the race didn’t finish.
I never considered dropping out of GDR. Now don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy. The last 8 miles in particular were very, very hard. But I never considered dropping out. A part of that was due to pure luck (we all have good days and bad days), and a part of that was proper training and good execution.
I can’t help you with luck, but I can share what I did in my training and execution of the race that I feel helped me get to the finish line. However, before I do that, I do have a disclaimer to get out of the way.
I’m not a coach, an exercise physiologist, a sports psychologist, or a super experience ultra runner. I’m a guy who has run a half dozen or so official ultras and perhaps twice that number of ultra-length training runs over the past three years. I’m not elite. I’m a front-to-middle-of-the-pack runner. I typically finish between the top quarter-to-half of the races I enter.
In other words, what I’m sharing here are the experiences of an average ultrarunner who had a good experience on a single day. So consider everything else I say with the understanding that I’m just sharing the experience of a single average ultrarunner.
Also, my recommendations are based on the assumption that you live somewhere where you can regularly incorporate vert into your runs. If you live in the flatlands, a lot of my advice won’t be helpful and you might be better off checking out the Pizzaguy’s advice.
Finally, to state the obvious, there are many ways to train for an ultra. What I’m sharing here is primarily a description of what worked for me. I don’t guarantee that this is the best way to train for GDR, and it’s definitely not the only way to train for GDR.
TL;DR: A GDR Training Summary
I’ll dive into each of these training areas in a little more depth below, but at a high level, I believe I was successful running GDR because my training incorporated five specific elements.
- A Strong Base: I started with a strong base of running and aerobic fitness and leg strength. I’ve been running for about three years. For the year or so prior to GDR I had reached a point where I was averaging 30 to 40 miles per week running 3-4 times per week. In addition, I tried to get in 60+ minutes of aerobic base exercise 5-6 times per week (this includes my runs). I also tried to get in some leg strength training at least twice a week.
- Specificity: In my final build toward GDR, I tuned my normal routine to be as GDR-specific as possible. I was very specific about the types of runs I went on emphasizing duration (time on feet) over distance and vert over pace. I was also specific about the cross-training I incorporated (primarily the stair-stepper).
- Big Back-to-Backs: In the six weeks prior to GDR, I built in three training efforts consisting of back-to-back long runs where the first was a trail run with as much vert as possible and the second was a continuous easy run (ideally gravel roads).
- Running in the Dark: I made a point to spend some time running on trails in the dark. During GDR, unless you’re top-10 talent, you’re going to spend anywhere from five to twelve hours in the dark. So I made sure to start my long runs early enough to spend some time in the dark.
- Tested Nutrition Strategy: I had a nutrition strategy. I knew how many calories I wanted to consume and where they’re going to come from. I developed this strategy by testing out different nutrition strategies during my long runs.
So that’s it. Statistically, the chances of a DNF at GDR are something like 35%. While you can never get your chances of a DNF down to zero, by doing these five things in training I believe I dramatically increased my chances of finishing.
Below I’ll dig into each of these points in more depth, explain what I actually did, and point out things I plan to do differently for next year’s GDR.
Develop a Strong Aerobic and Running Base
You’ve probably read lots of places that if you’re an ultrarunner most of your training should be slow and easy. I’m not going to buck that trend. While I am a SWAP patron, thus I’m required to encourage you to incorporate some hill strides into your easy runs a couple of times each week, I will echo that old advice: most of your runs should be easy.
Assuming I’m healthy and feeling good, my general weekly routine consists of four runs: two easy runs, a long run, and one workout. I also do some form of cross-training one or two days a week so that I get at least 60 minutes of aerobic work in 6 days a week.
In an ideal world, I would run 5 or 6 times each week. However, in my real world running 5 or 6 times per week is a recipe for plantar fasciitis hell. My feet can handle running 3 or 4 times per week. I need off-days for my feet to recover. So that’s what I do. In order to build the aerobic capacity I need to complete ultras I run 3-4 times per week and then supplement with 2-3 cross-training days each week. My cross-training options of choice are:
- Exercise bike
- Treadhike (15% incline at 3+ MPH on a treadmill)
- Stair stepper
I’ve heard other folks swear by rowing machines and some folks like to swim or bike outdoors. I think any option that gets your heart rate up is fine. The key is getting in aerobic work, keeping it easy most of the time, and doing it 5+ times per week, week after week after week after week.
With the caveat that I try to listen to my body and adjust accordingly, I don’t plan to change this recipe going forward.
Specificity in my GDR Race Build
The closer I got to GDR, the more I trained for the specific demands of the race. Here are a few examples of how I tuned my regular training to build for GDR:
- In the three weeks before I began to taper for GDR I had six sessions on the stair stepper. Before that, I hadn’t been on a stair stepper since August.
- I made my runs as hilly as possible. As I look back at my total elevation across all activities in Strava, back in the summer and fall I have lots of weeks where I only climbed 2,000-3,000 feet. However, beginning mid-January, with the exception of a couple of recovery weeks, I averaged more like 7,000 feet of elevation per week, not including vert on the stair stepper.
- Beginning in late November of 2022 and building up to GDR, I started to increase the length of my long runs, to prioritize vert, and to keep my long runs on the trails.
Basically, the closer I got to GDR the more time I tried to train specifically to climb up and down hills and mountains out in the woods.
Big Back-to-Back Long Runs
The final piece of the training build puzzle in the last 6 weeks or so leading up to GDR was to alternate between big back-to-back training efforts on one weekend followed by a more relaxed trail run the following weekend. On my back-to-back weekends:
- The first long run was trail and vert focused: I wanted to be on technical trails and get as much vert as possible.
- The second long run was all about running continuously at an easy pace to simulate the second half of GDR.
Long Run 1: Trails and Vert
The average grade over the course of GDR is about 9%. However, the average grade over the first 37 miles or so is more like 12%. There are 5,280 feet in a mile, so average grade of 12% means ~630 feet of elevation change per mile on average. A nice round way to think about that is 1,000 feet of climbing and 1,000 of descent every 3 miles. That’s roughly what the first 37 miles of GDR demand of you and what you should aim for in your trail and vert focused long runs.
Depending on where you live, getting in that kind of vert will range from easy to impossible. I’m fortunate to live an hour from the Duncan Ridge Trail which forms the backbone of the trail portion of the GDR course. So I have the option of just going out and training on the course itself. However, doing so produces some long training days, so I prefer to get that vert locally by running up and down Chenocetah mountain.
In my opinion, your longest efforts leading up to GDR don’t have to be any longer than 5 or 6 hours. My sense is that anything much longer than that is overkill and probably does more harm than good. Because of this, my longest training runs leading up to GDR were about 5 and a half hours.
One final note: my goal during these long trail-and-vert runs was to finish feeling like I could do them over again if I had to, I took it easy.
Long Run 2: Continuous Running on Rolling Hills on Tired Legs
Most of the second half of GDR is runnable, if you’re still able to run. The way I attempted to train to run during the second half of GDR was to have a second long run the day after my trails-and-vert long run. In this second long run, I would go for a super-easy-pace run ranging from 60 minutes to 2.5 hours, on rolling hills – ideally, gravel roads to mimic the bulk of the last 30 miles of GDR.
I want to reiterate that I took these second long-runs easy. My legs were pretty fried from the trail run the day before so I set out with no pace goals on these runs. I just wanted to run continuously at any pace.
Putting It Together: My Back-to-Back Training Weekends
So here’s what I actually did leading up to GDR:
- 6 weeks before GDR:
- Sat trail run: 18 miles in 4 hours, 3,700 ft of vert.
- Sun trail run: 6.2 miles in 90 minutes, 1,800 ft of vert.
- 4 weeks before GDR:
- Sat trail run: 20 miles in 5:20, 6,750 ft of vert.
- Sun gravel run: 13.1 miles in just over 2 hours, 1,600 ft of vert.
- 2 weeks before GDR:
- Sat trail run: 22 miles in 5:20, 6,400 ft of vert.
- Sun treadmill: 5.4 miles in 1 hour, mix of easy running and hiking at 10% grade.
To be clear, this isn’t all I did in the weeks leading up to GDR. In the 8 weeks prior to GDR I averaged about 10 hours of training per week. In addition to these back-to-back, I really emphasized cross-training to make sure I fully recovered between big efforts, and made sure to get in a slightly shorter trail run on the weekends between big efforts.
Next year I want to start my back-to-back training weekends 8 weeks out from GDR and beef up the second half of these back-to-back efforts. For me, I think an ideal setup would look something like this, and this is what I’ll try to work in next year leading up to GDR:
- 8 weeks before GDR
- Trail run: 15 miles, 4 hours, 5,000 ft of vert
- Gravel run: 12 miles, 2 hours, 1,500 ft of vert
- 6 weeks before GDR
- Trail run: 20 miles, 5 hours, 6,000 ft of vert
- Gravel run: 15 miles, 2.5 hours, 1,750 ft of vert
- 4 weeks before GDR
- Trail run: 24 miles, 6 hours, 7,000 ft of vert
- Gravel run: 18 miles, 3 hours, 2,000 ft of vert
- 2 weeks before GDR
- Trail run: 20 miles, 5 hours, 6,000 ft of vert
- Gravel run: 12 miles, 2 hours, 1,500 ft of vert
Get Comfortable Running in the Dark
GDR starts in the dark, and unless you’re going for the win, you’re going to finish in the dark. I spent roughly 7 hours in the dark during GDR 2023: 5 – 7 AM and then 8 PM – nearly 1 AM. Knowing I’d be in the dark a lot during GDR, I started several of my long runs early enough that I spent 30 minutes to an hour running in the dark.
In retrospect, I wish I had spent a lot more time running in the dark. While I did have a little experience running in the dark, during GDR I slowed way down when it was dark. I also did not know my lighting gear nearly well enough.
I had two lights: a waist light (Ultraspire Lumen 400z) and a headlamp (Black Diamond Storm 400). My waist light kept bouncing around and I couldn’t get it tight enough to stop bouncing, and while the brightness was great, it eventually went dead and I didn’t have a second battery for it. The controls for my headlamp are fairly complex and I didn’t know them well enough to get the brightness where I wanted it. To make matters worse, my headlamp’s batteries weren’t fresh and while I had spare batteries I didn’t want to take the time to stop and swap them out.
Basically, I was over-equipped in the light department but still underprepared because I hadn’t taken the time to really get to know my gear.
That’s a mistake I don’t plan to repeat next year. For next year’s GDR I plan to complete several of my long runs entirely at night to get really comfortable with my gear.
Have a Nutrition Strategy and Stick to It
Going into GDR my nutrition strategy had three components:
- I would add one Gnarly Fuel2O mix stick to one or both of the flasks in my Ultraspire Alpha 5.0 hydration pack and make sure to drain any flask with Fuel2O between every aid station.
- I would take in one GU Energy Gel every hour, on the hour.
- At each aid station I would take in one drink with calories (Coke, Gatorade, etc) and grab a couple of things that looked good.
Based on my math, this strategy would mean I was taking in about 300 calories per hour, depending on how many calories I took in at the aid stations. Based on trial-and-error, that’s right at the upper limit of what my body can process which means it’s pretty much perfect.
Through mile 40 or so, this plan worked beautifully: I stuck to it religiously and felt great. Some time around mile 40, I got really tired of the GU energy gels and stopped forcing myself to take one in every hour. I was ok for a while, but eventually, backing off my calories came back to bite me at around mile 55 and I felt terrible from mile 55 to 60 when I reached the last aid station. I refueled at the last aid station and felt pretty good again until mile 65, and then basically death-marched the last 6 miles.
Going into next year’s GDR I will probably fine tune my nutrition strategy by incorporating some sort of savory foods to break up the sweetness-overload of all those GU gels. Other than that, I believe the only other change I need to make is to commit to sticking to my nutrition strategy all the way to the finish line.
Your nutrition plan needn’t look exactly like mine, but you should do some testing during your long runs to get a sense for how many calories your body can process during a long effort and to figure out what sorts of foods work best for you. Then come up with a plan based on what you’ve learned and stick to it.
Going The Extra Mile
Develop a solid aerobic base. Train specifically for the demands of the race. Get in a few big back-to-back efforts leading up to the race. Get comfortable in the dark. Have a nutrition plan and stick to it. I did those things and I think they made the difference in allowing me to finish GDR feeling pretty strong. However, there are three more tweaks I plan to emphasize going into next year’s GDR that I want to share.
Run the climbs.
I’m not elite. During GDR I’m going to walk most or all of the climbs. That may suggest that I should walk the hills in training as well. While there is some value in learning to power hike efficiently uphill, and I will spend some time on that, I believe I’ll get more “bang for my buck” by running the hills, especially on runs shorter than two hours. Running hills develops power and will make me a faster and more efficient runner.
Run the downhills fast.
By mile 40 of GDR, my quads were trashed from all the downhill running. Going into next year’s GDR, I want to be a stronger downhill runner. So my plan is simple: go fast on steep downhills and really give my quads the work. I want to do this several times during long runs leading up to GDR.
GDR includes 17,000 feet of climbing and 17,000 feet of descent. To do as well as possible, I need to be able to run the downhills all the way to the finish line.
Use the stair stepper for cross-training.
This is something that I did leading up to GDR and I think it really helped me. I used the stair-stepper as my primary form of cross-training and logged sessions as long as 90 minutes on the stair-stepper in the weeks leading up to GDR. This is a strategy I plan to double-down on heading into next-years GDR, start my stair stepper sessions sooner, and spend even more time on the stair stepper.
Train Well, Execute Confidently
I never considered quitting GDR. A part of that was luck, but a part of that was having trained well and then executing well on race day. I can’t guarantee you’ll finish GDR if you train for GDR the way that I did, but I’m sharing my training because I believe the formula I followed contributed to my success and I believe it can contribute to yours as well.