It’s 3:10am. 24 hours ago I was chasing the moon up the steep GA mountains. It seems a bit surreal...until I doze off and somewhere between consciousness and deep sleep I start dreaming. I see my feet in my headlamp and about 6ft of rocky, rooty, wet trail in front of me. I’m on the Notorious “Dragon Spine” of the Cruel Jewel course. I’m flying down the mountain, leaping over tree limbs, scrambling over downed trees and trying to skip over slick rocks. My heart rate climbing, I slip...and jerk wide awake. Dammit! I reposition and it happens over and over again. That’s what I get for trying to sleep cramped up in the back of the Jeep as we make our way home. No longer in the jeep, now in a hotel room with a comfortable bed I can’t sleep, I’m wide awake.
Rewind to 2pm Friday May 16th. Driving from the cabin to the start it begins to rain hard, then hail….hard. I look at Todd and say, “Next come the locusts”. He looks at me a few minutes later as we slow down to see the road with hail hammering the jeep, and says, “Is that a boil on your skin?”. Hoping the hail is not an omen of things to come we continue to the start. Fortunately as we arrived things let up. Here at the start, all of the runners trickling in, getting race packets. Todd and Ethan playing catch. Thunderstorms had passed and the skies were opening up. It was chilly, in the upper 50s. I felt good, ready. Here's the course profile....
Last minute instructions from the race director and at 4pm we were sent on our way. We descended the gravel path onto paved road. Down for about a mile then up toward the trail head. Trying to find my comfortable climbing pace...and of course counting the females ahead of me..1,2,3 with 4,5,6 right behind me. A fairly good size lead pack of men breaking away. Remember Lori, “swift...smart...strong”, that is how you are to run today. “smart” being the emphasis early on. We hit the trail and I refocused on MY effort, keeping myself in check and not working too hard on the climbs. We climbed gradually but steady and I mostly ran, only downshifting if effort felt more than moderate. We then gradually descended back into the Deep Gap Aid station at mi 8.5. I stayed relaxed on the downhill and let the trail come to me. It felt great to descend for longer periods than I’m used to in Oklahoma. “I love this” I thought. I left deep gap and started a gradual 2.5 mile climb. This was almost entirely runnable for me. Trees rustling and the trail was fairly smooth and mildly technical. We descended again for a couple miles into Weaver Creek aid station at mi 13ish. I had decided to go with gels and water during day and switch to sport drink at night. I was trying to take in 200-300cal/hr. By the time I got to Weaver Creek, I was a little nauseated. I drank some cola, filled my pack with water and was off. Up next was a 3.5 mi climb. I alternated running/fast hiking this one. I was right behind the 3rd female, Jennifer and about 5 minutes behind first female Jaclyn and second female Alicia. I was climbing well. I was finally getting into a groove where I was focused on my own effort and getting comfortable. I passed Jennifer on this climb. As we were cresting the top I joined up with another runner and we climbed together, chatting some. It was nice to have company for this stretch. We crested the top and hit the next descent taking us into Stanley Creek aid station at mi 19ish. I felt good cruising down and passed a couple of guys. I was really pleased at how good I felt at mi 19. I knew it was early, but I also knew I was managing my effort well. I was keeping my effort moderate, trying to take advantage of daylight and move faster on easier trail, but not taxing myself. I knew this was the “easy” part of the course and I indeed needed to keep my effort in check and conserve for the notorious “dragon’s spine”...a 15 is mile section of “shitty trail” along the highest elevation ridges of the course.
At mi 19, I refilled my pack and re-arranged my gels so I would have easy access for what I would need the next stretch. The next 4 miles would be dirt/mostly paved road. I joined forces with Vince. That pavement running took it’s toll on my IT bands, feet, hips. Everything was aching quite a bit. I knew I was well hydrated, so I took some ibuprofen which was miraculous. I had set my alarm to beep every 20 min to remind me to take in a gel...or at least try. My stomach is very tricky on races. I completely lose my appetite and can only tolerate sport drink or gels and water. I hate gels, but I can keep them down...it’s getting them down that sucks! I had hoped I would be able to tolerate a peanut butter blend, Pocket Fuel, which I love on training runs, but I just knew it was not going to stay down so I stuck with the ole gels. The aid stations were stocked with all kinds of goodies, including homemade treats from the volunteers. Up to that point I was getting about 250-300 cal/hr and about 20oz water per hour. My new found friend and I chatted as we ran the road. Talk of family, why we run, and our histories. My “food alarm” would beep and I would try to act all excited..”oooh guess what time it is Vince?!”, “It’s gel time, yay!”
We were both surprised to find ourselves knocking out pretty easy 8:30-9 min miles on the rolling road, but they were painful and we were both longing to get back on trail to ease those aches/pains. At around mi 24 we got back on single track trail as the sun was starting to go down. I pulled out my headlamp and got to work climbing the next little section. I was getting excited to see Ethan and Todd as well. I pulled ahead of Vince briefly, and then it happened. I finally bit it. Tripped over a root and dove shoulder first into the dirt/leaves. Vince caught up as I made my way back to my feet. No damage done, just got dirty. We descended into the Old Dial Road aid station at mi 25. I was still feeling great in general.
It was so good to see Todd and Ethan. It had been just under 5 hrs since I last saw them at the start. Ethan grabbed me and gave me a huge hug. He immediately asked what I needed and dug and couple things out for me while todd filled my water pack and stashed more gels. He promptly said, "go mom, those girls are just ahead!" And I was off. I was about 15 min behind the first female. I had planned to switch from gels to sport drink at this point, but, since I was “tolerating” the gels, I was hesitant to change fueling sources. Also, I would have to carry enough sport drink to last me up to 3 hours, and unless I put it in my hydration pack that would've been cumbersome at best. I'm also not great with mixing it up. I typically try to stick with what's working as long as possible.
I left Old Dial Road knowing I had 3 steep ups ahead and I was getting closer to the meat of the race. I shifted between running and hiking depending on the grade up. I was swelling some and nausea was becoming more than an intermittent problem. I was now only able to get 2 gels per hour and water. I took a nausea pill and climbed. I was solo for most of this section, passing a few runners. I was pleased with how my legs felt in general. My quads and calves still strong. I was really focused on going down as quickly as possible, staying relaxed, but feeling like i was moving "swiftly and keenly".
Here Ethan is looking for mom....I came in to Wilscott Gap at 31 mi about 10 minutes off the first and second girls Jaclyn and Alicia. Word was they looked like they were pushing eachother hard and were alternating back and forth. I was hopeful that would take it’s toll and they would have to slow down. Ethan, getting even more excited, hurried me out of the aid station. The aid station volunteers were amazing! Lots of kind words and encouragement. Todd was awesome and quick to fill my pack and get me on my way. No time to linger...although so tempting!
The next section of trail would be more technical with and immediate mile and half climb which was fairly steep, followed by shorter, but still steep ups and downs. My hands on my quads climbing, pushing them down with each step on some sections I thought of how I saw Anna Frost climb, pushing her hands into her quads and thought, “strong”. There were some grades that had me whimper they were so steep and it was difficult, but fortunately they didn’t last long, and I just kept picturing Anna and thinking, “strong”. I chuckled a bit too, thinking, well...at least Im not at 11,000ft doing this (that will be later this summer).
I came into Skeenah Gap aid station mi 35, 10 min behind the first female and right on top of the second female which at this point I think was Jaclyn. I tried to be quick about getting out and the aid station volunteers and my crew were awesome! I was in and out of this aid station fast.
This would be the start of the Duncan Ridge Trail, aka "Dragon's Spine", aka "really shitty trail", aka the DRT. I think "really shitty trail" is the best descriptor, but for names sake, I'll politely refer to it as the DRT. I'm pretty sure before it's all said and done, the DRT will have claimed the lives of 3 toenails and will have blessed me with the worst case of poison oak ever. This is also where I swear I saw pythons. Lots of them. They looked a lot like medium sized tree roots and limbs, but they were pythons on this shitty trail/rainforest known as the DRT. Within a mile or so of the aid station I caught and passed Jaclyn. We exchanged well wishes as I passed her going downhill. It was short lived as she passed me on the next climb. She asked who was behind me. I told her I didn't know, but was thinking, "I don't care who's behind me, it's who's in front of me that I'm after!". She climbed quickly ahead of me and was out of sight before long.
Then it happened. I got lost. The trail was marked well with maroon tape with Grey reflective stripes tied to trees. The problem was that the maroon was difficult for me to see at best and the Grey was not really reflective. I had studied the map well, but at an Intersecting trail I missed the flag to veer left and I went straight. Straight down, down, down. Probably 1/4 mi before I realized I had not seen a flag in way too long. Shit. I turned around and hiked up that steep mother. Another runner, one of the 100 milers had made the same mistake. She was from Brazil. I explained our error. She was sure I was wrong. I tried to assure her she too was headed the wrong direction. She relented and followed me back up. I was relieved she did, as we found the flags again.
Continuing down that trail would've made for a really bad day. I told myself to pay better attention and and we were off again. Well hell, the next section of trail was really grown with grass and debris and I'll be danged if I didn't veer off again. This time it only took a few minutes to right my wrong, but now with 2 mistakes made in quick succession, and having tacked on about 20 minutes, I got nervous. I was frustrated realizing the lead girls were now likely out of reach. Still, I pressed on a little slower making sure I was spotting flags. I would rather move a little slower and finish than get lost and end up with a DNF and a search party. The downhills were more technical, wet and slick in spots. ..no longer running freely down and several times stopping to climb over giant downed trees.
I came into mi 48.5 White Oak aid station a little deflated. I didn't ask how far ahead they were. I knew it was too far. Ethan was asleep and Todd loaded me down with what I would need for the next haul. Next aid station would be Wolf Creek at mi 53. Here's where I made my final mistake. My garmin was not accurate on distance travelled, so I was guesstimating at this point based on what I did know about what mi the the aid stations were at, what the course was like in between and how many miles. I knew the next aid station was about 4 miles away, at the end of a long descent. I thought the next aid station was a full aid and crew station (ie..lights, people, vehicles). As I was descending, at what I thought was only about 3 miles, there was a water stop...a table with water and gatoraid. I thought that was odd since the next full aid station should only be another mile ahead. I was going downhill at the point and moving fast so I kept going. Another 1/2 mi past and no crew/and sid station. I was also now climbing. I knew I shouldve seen the aid station and crew by now and I knew I was supposed to see them BEFORE I started climbing again. With my 2 previous mishaps and my brain a little foggy, I started to convince myself I had gotten turned around and was somehow going backward on the course. So... yep...I did it. I turned around. I ran back down, I don't know for how long. I stopped. I realized I didn't know where I was. Was I really going the right direction? Still nighttime and unable to use the dawn as my directional guide and the moon now behind the trees enough I couldn't see it either. I resigned myself to backtrack to the the aid station and right myself. Thank God about that time I saw a runners headlamp. "Which way is Vogel?" "That way" he pointed the direction from which I had come. Well shit! I said, you mean that water stop was Wolf Creek? "Yep". I told of my ignorant assed folly and I was grateful I did not continue another 4 miles back to White Oak. I was aggravated at myself. I just knew wolf Creek was a full aid/crew station. Oh well, no sense in getting my panties in a wad. I remembered the Race Director's quote on the race website, "poor decisions make for better stories" and chuckled.
I took off up the final climb and descent into Vogel State Park. Followed the flags to an arch of blue Christmas tree lights. No people through. Hmm. Where the $@#! Is the timing mat? Where the #$@! Is the actual finish...The timing dude? I walked halfway around the building and finally relented to going in. I flung the door open and said, "where the $#@! Is the finish line?" They all looked up up from their plates and beverages and said "here!". "Well hell, give me some food then!" I was so glad to be done! I finally got to meet the first and second girls. Jaclyn Greenhill from GA came in first and Alicia Hudelson came in second, just 2 minutes before me. Those 2 were right on each other the whole way. I can’t imagine how intense that was to race together the whole way! I didn't realize how close I had come though, which made me feel fantastic. These are 2 very tough girls with a lot of rugged climbing races under their belts. We had a great time at the finish, congratulating each other and other runners as they came in. Huge hugs from Ethan and Todd. I could never have done this without them both. Todd, my rock, Ethan, my encourager/motivator.
This was a huge finish for me. Prior to this race I was questioning my ability to race the 50 and 100 mi distances in the mountains. Last year I was only able to survive my 50 and 100 milers. Struggling just to finish. This race taught me that I can climb and descend...fairly well. That I can “race” a full 56 miles and do more than survive. I CAN finish feeling strong. That even though I don’t live near mountains, my training is good and is preparing me to be able to do it. A lot of questions in my head were answered. There will be lots of unknowns this summer, but a few less now. It may have been a Cruel Jewel, but a jewel of a race nonetheless, and a treasure that taught me a lot about myself and others. These mountains are amazing. Beautiful, rugged, packed with history….and pythons ;)
Thank you so much DUMASS events for putting this one on! Your volunteers were all amazing and wonderful. Their energy and kindness penetrated deep in those mountains and in our hearts.
Left to right...Alicia Hudelson (2nd), Jaclyn Greenhill (1st,) Me(3rd)...feeling the pain a bit!