Sunday, August 31, 2014

Paddle Faster, I Hear Banjos

The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

July 2, 2014:

I found myself resting on a cliff side..."lost in oblivion..." cooling off from the summer heat…


We had organized a RootsRated run at Ruffner Mt at 6pm, so I had come out early to put in a little distance before the group arrived. As I sat peering into the quarry, my thoughts drifted a little further north to the Appalachian mountains

“This is your life and it is ending one minute at a time.”

My plans of gallivanting among tall mountains for the 4th of July were “pooped on” by my wife. She ever so sweetly laid out the fact that gas was expensive. Cornelius had caught wind of my crushed dreams of mountain endeavors and shot me a text…

“I may be able to give you a ride and a place to sleep… stay tuned cowboy.”

I patiently waited for Cornelius’ text…

“We’re leaving around 2pm on Thursday.”

My phone buzzed. 15mins until the RootsRated event. I crawled from my cliffside bed and started back down the ridgeline to the ball fields.


We saddled up and headed out to explore Ruffner Mt. We did a short loop around the quarry before we scurried up to the Magic City lookout…


On the return trip, Jake and I snuck off from the group to do some mountain-goating along the cliff sides…


The RR team wrapped up the evening with local beer and giveaways. I got caught up talking with Greg about adventures to be had and unfortunately lost track of time… so I hurried home, threw a bunch of running gear in a backpack, and drifted off to sleep.

July 3, 2014:

"You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank."

I walked out of the warehouse at 1pm to make my way downtown to meet Cornelius. Before we knew it, we were scarfing down slices of pizza froLupi’s Pizza in downtown Chattanooga. After finishing my beer, we set our sights on North Carolina. A quick stop at a family friendly package store resulted in a bottle or 2 of whiskey. We then had to brave the local Wal-Mart for weekend snacks. Cornelius had mentioned they had planned to enter a local 5k in Bryson City on the 4th of July. He also mentioned that he may have brought a pair of American Flag running shorts and a cowboy hat

Fun Fact 1: When no females are present... 2 guys will get strange looks when searching vigorously through the women’s swim department.

We finally rolled up to the cabin and found Tyler waking up on the couch.

“What the hell took ya’ll so long?”

Unloading our gear from the Element, it was impossible not to be moved by the bass drops coming from down below. We were intrigued and it didn’t take much to convince Tyler to come down for a beer.
We drove down the mountain, parked, and walked across the road to a “casual patio setting” called the Kudzu. A DJ was bringing the bass and the seasonal locals (river/raft guides in for the summer) danced through the night. We grabbed a seat in the back to take in the sights over a local brew. Tyler pointed to a short man with a Paddy cap.

“That’s Blue. He’s playing up here tomorrow night.”

Blue is a local banjo legend. His album can only be found at live performances deep within the Nantahala Gorge. I suggest getting your hands on this little gem.

One beer and a failed photo bomb attempt was enough to get a feel of the Kudzu. We gulped down the last drop of goodness and headed up to the cabin to reside for the night.

July 4, 2014:

I woke up groggy and stumbled into the kitchen. Tyler was pouring a cup of coffee. He looked me up and down, chuckled and headed out onto the porch.


Tyler pointed out all the peaks that were visible from the back porch.

“There’s Cheaoha Bald. We’re going to run there tomorrow. There’s Clingman’s Dome… and on a clear winter’s day… you can see Andrews Bald.”

Fun Fact 2: Andrews bald was named after me.

After a cup of coffee and breakfast, Marla made her first appearance as she walked through the door with the dogs.  Tyler and I hopped in the back of Cornelius’ Element and the 4 of us headed into Bryson City.

Tyler and Marla hung back... “You guys go ahead. I don’t want to be seen with ya’ll.”

I still don’t understand why they didn’t want to walk with us… but we finally got Tyler to pose for a quick picture... 


After standing around getting gawked at by the locals, we headed over to the starting line.

Like monkeys ready to be shot into space...” we waited paitently at the starting line.

The gun sounded and we were off! Tyler and I went out hard. We hopped a curb to bypass a few runners and tore off down the city streets

“I ran. I ran until my muscles burned and my veins pumped battery acid. Then I ran some more.”

Fun Fact 3: To ultrarunners... 5ks hurt worse than 50ks.

I pressed hard as we exited the city. We poured onto country back roads... running wide open... chasing picture perfect mountains. Now I’m not typically too keen on running 5ks…but hands down this was the most beautiful 5k I had ever ran.

was carrying a good pace but my heart had zero desire to pursue the city’s high school cross country team who had surfaced to apparently dominate the field. I ran neck and neck with a girl and guy as we closed in on the city. We hit the city streets and the girl in all purple took off. I was now alone with the Crossfit poster child…

“YEA!!! It’s just you and me bro!! LET’S DO THIS!!!”

I casually glanced over, tipped my cowboy hat to him and said, “Nah bro… you got it.”

Crossfit pursued Daphne while I tried my best to view the opening times of the Nantahala Brewery as I raced past. Current time: 8:16am… to my dismay… it was not open.

I crossed the finish line in 18:3something, grabbed a water and walked over to Marla. Tyler finished a few seconds later and we waited for Cornelius to finish.We walked down Bryson City streets to grab a cup of coffee and a muffin. Best damn blueberry muffin I’ve ever had. Luckily "Planet Starbucks" hadn't been discovered here yet and everything was local.


We got back to the cabin and rested on the back porch until it was time to pursue our next adventure. Tyler, Marla and Cornelius were heading down to the lake for a little paddling, cold beer drinking, and hammock napping. I needed to loosen up my legs from the treacherous 5k, so I opted for a mountain run up the Noland Divide trail…



I wrapped up my 8 mile excursion and headed over to meet the gang at the lake.


We hung by the water’s edge for a few cold beers before floating down to the big rope swing. A girl was leaning against a tree by the rope swing… posted up like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused…

“Don’t jump from the platform. You’ll hit the tree.”

Cornelius grabbed the rope and headed straight to the platform. He climbed the ladder and launched…


"I am Jack's complete lack of surprise."

 
SMACK!

Cornelius drilled his leg against the tree. He hit so hard the force threw him around into a spin. He recovered and eloquently jackknifed into the lake below. I gave the jump a 7.5/10.

The girl looked over at Tyler with her expressionless face…

“I told him he’d hit the tree if he jumped from the platform.”

Fun Fact 4: Always take advice from the girl posted up near the rope swing... she's always right.

Tyler opted out of the platform and swung perfectly into the lake. Of course Cornelius had to redeem himself and did… but the bruise on his leg was already visible from where Marla and I floated. We made the long swim back across the lake, packed, and headed back to the cabin.



We changed clothes and headed to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) for dinner. It doesn’t get much better than pizza and beer next to a bon fire by the river…



We finished our brews and headed to the Kudzu...


The Blue Review – A Mountain Mystery:

We parked in the Nantahala Village parking lot and walked across the street to the Kudzu. There were only a handful of people at the venue due to a big fireworks show in Bryson City. We sat with a beer and listened as Blue played his guitar. A girl at the bar kept eying Blue as she would go back and forth to a car. This was NOT the same girl Blue was all touchy feely with the night before…

"I am Jack's broken heart."

The line of cars whipping by the Kudzu indicated the fireworks show was over in Bryson City. A few minutes passed... Blue was getting antsy that there wasn’t a crowd. A jacked up 4x4 pick-up truck hauling a loud group of seasonal locals rolled into the yard…

“BLUE!!!!!! WHOOOOOO!!!! BLUE!!!!”

Blue’s face lit up and he started squirming with excitement. His fan base finally showed up.

The truck full of river rats remained in the parking lot downing the last bit of their chosen poison. They drowned their livers and began swinging each other around on the dance floor…


A guy in boxers and a Hugh Hefner bath robe walked up to me…

“Hey man! I know you!”

I laughed. “I can assure you that you don’t.”

“Yea! Aren’t you a raft guide?”

I hadn’t showered since Wednesday night, ran a hard 5k, put in a few hours running in the mountains, and played in the lake… there was no doubt I could have passed for a raft guide... but "sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken."

“Nah man. I’m just up here to run mountains.”  I pointed back at Marla, Tyler, and Cornelius…  

“Those guys paddle.”

He was a funny, good time having guy but no doubt had a sketchy side...

“I’m going to take a quick bathroom break and be back to play some more.”

Blue did not go to the bathroom. He went to the bar. He then scurried over to his car to talk to the girl sitting in the front seat… the same girl giving him the sexy eyes from earlier.

We had moved to a different table on the opposite side of the patio so we could face the stage and parking lot. A group congregated around Blue’s car.

"We have front row seats for this theatre of mass destruction."

Something was happening… the atmosphere was changing. Tension floated through the air like the early morning fog through the mountains...

A group left the car and walked across the road, down the walkway in front of the Nantahala Village, and disappeared around the corner. Another small group followed. Finally, Blue and another acquaintance trailed along.

The Kudzu was vacant of music with only minimal chatter. The only bartender… hell… the only person that appeared to have any authority in the bar… left her post, liquor shot in hand, and walked across the road in search of Blue. She soon came back… liquor shot still full.

Minutes to midnight... we heard people coming back across the street. 2 guys ran across the road…

“We gotta go! Gather up the group!”

The 4x4 truck was loaded within seconds. The driver spun the tires, slid through the gravel parking lot and raced down the mountain road vanishing into the night.

Tyler spoke to the table, “What the hell was that all about?”

All of a sudden Blue’s female walked across the road and headed towards the bathrooms that were tucked away behind the bar. Blue ran across the road…

“Just grab any equipment you can and load it in the car!!

Hugh Hefner started helping Blue load the sound equipment in the back of the blue sedan. The stage was cleared within a matter of minutes…

Cornelius glanced my way… 

“Go see if you can see what’s going on with Blue’s girl.”

I started across the bar and neared the bathrooms when a glass shattering scream from across the road pierced the cool night air…

I focused my attention in the direction of the scream. As I turned... another gut wrenching scream came from the women’s bathroom…

The “I think I ruined my life” scream…  

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”

I stood frozen on the pathway. Blue moved quickly towards me... unbuttoning his black shirt as he passed.

“You ok Blue?”

His face was ghost white. A quick left to right shake of his head was proof enough that he most certainly was not "ok." He tossed his crumpled shirt into the woods as he darted into the bathroom.

"I am Jack's cold sweat."

I walked over and sat down at our table.

“What the f*@% is going on?!”

We watched Blue and his girl peel out of the parking lot and drive off into the night.

The bar was alive with curiosity. People were bouncing from table to table trying to piece together the clues of the night's story. The flashing lights of 3 county cars pulling into the Nantahala Village silenced the bar. The officers walked over with hands on holstered pistols…

“Everyone ok here? We got a call of a fight.”

No one said a word. The fuzz walked the bar as if it was a normal routine. We could tell they were locked-in; searching for someone specific… which led us to believe this was probably not the first occurance at a Blue show.

Fun Fact 5: Blue is a sketchy mofo... but a damn good banjo player.

After a quick chat with the bartender, the officers returned to their cars and started down the road. In an instance, the officers flipped on their lights and sped down the hill... descending deep into the Nantahala Village. It was time to leave.

"We just had a near life-experience."

July 5, 2014:

I awoke from my drunken slumber to the sound of John Denver’s voice bouncing off the wooden walls. This had become the weekend indicator that it was time to rise and grind. I stumbled into the kitchen to again see Tyler pouring a cup of coffee. He smiled…

“How about that Blue?” 

We sat in the living room area drinking coffee and eating breakfast... recapping the previous night’s events. Down below cops were swarming the Kudzu and Nantahala Village.

Marla had a cup of coffee and the 2 dogs in her lap… 

“I’m just mad he didn’t play Country Roads.”

After multiple criminal theories and numerous cups of caffeinewe set off for a morning of balding.

*Balding – running up mountains in hopes of reaching an area destitute of natural growth or covering.

Tyler had mapped out the 13 mile route, so he took lead. With one final check of the map… we set off for Cheoah Bald.


The first part of the Bartram trail consisted of a winding gravel road. It wasn’t very entertaining for me and Tyler... but it is well known across the lands that Cornelius looooooves fire roads... 


It wasn't long before we were on single track climbing switchbacks. We made our way up along the mountain side until we passed a little over 3000ft. Cheoah Bald sits roughly 5100ft above the sea. According to Tyler’s Suunto we were right on track... well, as far as elevation/mileage was concerned. Then we started descending…. and descending… and we descended even more.

"I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom."

We passed over a small stream and quickly came to the conclusion that we had probably started our route going the wrong direction…


Our assumptions were confirmed when we came upon a sign indicating that Wayah Bald was 18 miles away.  Well damn…oh well...

"It could be worse. A woman could cut off your penis while you're sleeping and toss it out the window of a moving car."

We went a little further before retracing our steps back towards the trail head. We popped out of the woods at the top of the gravel road…


“We should be over there…”

Still… it’s hard to be upset when you get a view like this…


We flew down the gravel road until we hit the last patch of single track spilling us back past the trail head…


We had agreed not to call and bother Marla, so we started walking to a parking lot down the road to see if we could hitch a ride back to the NOC.

Fun Fact 6: It’s easy to hitch rides in a river town.


We got dropped off at the NOC and met up with Marla. We told her of our misadventure as we headed back to the cabin. We didn’t spend much time at the cabin… just enough for a quick change of clothes and a bite to eat, then it was right back to the NOC for some paddling.

I dropped my companions off at a put-in spot up stream…


And watched the 3 of them paddle out of sight…


I headed back to the NOC. I grabbed a local brew from the bar and started wandering around the paddler’s Mecca. I watched playboats turning flips in the rapids; young kids splashing around in the cold water… even saw a dog get swept downstream. Tyler had spoken of a waterfall downstream and how it  is rarely traversed because it is extremely dangerous for unskilled paddlers. I accidently eavesdropped on a conversation between a group of paddlers discussing going down the waterfall. I ventured down a little further to the waterfall to see if they were actually going to follow through with their plan… and they did! It was intense. They hit the line as smooth as glass.

I made my way back up to the NOC just in time to catch the crew getting out of the water…


We loaded up the truck and headed back to the cabin to change clothes for dinner. Tyler and Marla took showers. Cornelius and I hadn’t showered since we arrived. We simply changed clothes, poured ourselves a whiskey drink and enjoyed a little nap on the porch…

"Babies don't sleep this well."


Fun Fact 7: River water = mountain bath

We piled into the Subaru and headed into town for some fine Mexican dining. We had accumulated trash over the past few days so we stopped by the dumpster for a game of “trash toss.”


Marla and I scored quickly and tied for a 1st place finish… Tyler and Cornelius had to go another round…


At the Mexican restaurant we caught a glimpse of Hugh Hefner sneaking away to the back room. Cornelius tried to hunt him down to inquire about the previous night’s happenings, but he could never get him away from his table.

We made our way back down into Bryson City to have a few drinks at the Nantahala Brewery.


We sat around listening to a really good band when the drummer came up to the mic…


It was Artimus Pyle from Lynyrd Skynyrd! This man is in the Rockin Roll Hall of Fame, survived a plane crash that killed 26 people (including 3 of the original members) and even got shot by a farmer after the crash because the farmer thought he was trespassing… man has been through the ringer. He introduced himself and spoke a few minutes before inviting a few guest musicians to the stage… 


No trip to the brewery would be complete without a little hoola-hooping…


We left the brewery and made our way through Bryson City. We came across 2 guys stumbling down the street. We asked if they knew what went down at the Kudzu. They didn’t have a clue, but didn’t seem surprised when we told them it involved Blue.

July 6, 2014:

"If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?"

 
John Denver blared from the living room. 

"Is Tyler my bad dream?"

found Tyler smiling over a cup of coffee. We sat around eating breakfast as we packed our hydration packs for the morning’s adventure. We planned a route along the Appalachian Trail up to Cheoah Bald and then back down to the NOC. Tyler had personally ran this route before and ensured us we would not get turned around this time.

Marla dropped us off at Stecoah Gap and we headed out onto the AT.


We swiftly moved through the lush green North Carolina Mountains expelling toxins we had taken in over the last few days. We started the last vertical push up to the bald... 


We stopped on the bald for a snack. We took in the beauty and freedom of the Appalachian Mountains. 


We finished our mountain snack break and began the long 8 mile descent to the NOC. Bounding down the AT was a blast...



I loved watching Cornelius attack the downs… his thunder thighs and blubber ankles destroying the technical terrain with slightest of ease

Fun Fact 8: Clingman’s Dome is visible from any lookout… ever.



We descended down the mountain until we found a small stream of water flowing over a very strategically placed leaf. Cornelius and I ducked our head underneath to get a quick splash of cold mountain water while Tyler gulped a few sips…


We eventually came upon a few cabins nestled in the back of the NOC indicating our trip was almost complete. We popped over the railroad tracks and made our way down to the riverside where we found Marla asleep in the hammock…


We ordered from the restaurant near the river and recapped our route over a well deserved ice cold Coke. I wasn’t ready to leave. I wanted to stay. However, we eventually headed back up to the cabin to pack and bid adieu to North Carolina.


Fun Fact 9: Gas stations are robbing the American people.


"In the world I see - you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway."

The following week Tyler and Marla headed back to the mountains and back to the Kudzu. Tyler walked up to the bar…

“What happened last weekend? Did you ever find out?”

The bartender’s eyes told Tyler she knew but her lips remained sealed...

Will we ever know what happened on that fateful July 4th night at the Kudzu? Maybe. But the mountains hold secrets... and they hold them well. I have a feeling they won’t be sharing this one any time soon. 

Warning: If you are reading this then this warning is for you. Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life. Don't you have other things to do? Is your life so empty that you honestly can't think of a better way to spend these moments? Or are you so impressed with authority that you give respect and credence to all that claim it? Do you read everything you're supposed to read?  Do you think everything you're supposed to think? Buy what you're told to want? Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you're alive. If you don't claim your humanity, you will become a statistic. You have been warned." - Tyler Durden - Fight Club

In Tyler we trust. 

Till tomorrow...
























Wednesday, August 13, 2014

H9 - Hard Time On The Dragon's Spine


Earlier this year Alabama went through a SnowpocalypseYou would have thought World War Z had come to fruition the way the South shut down…
People got stranded at work, set up camp in their cars, and some even had to seek shelter at stranger’s houses. I was no different. Out of gas, I had to ditch my car and run 7 miles to the next town to take refuge at someone’s home. That someone was Sunny.
We were connected through the BUTS  Facebook page, but the only time we had officially met was the week before the Snowpocalypse when I had passed her and her family as I was running up to Shackleford summit. 
During my stay at the Workman’s and over a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies… we discussed 50 mile races. Sunny asked me to send her a list of the 50 milers that I would want to do. So I did. A few weeks passed and she shot me a message saying she wanted to do the H9 50 and was curious if I would help train and pace her on some of it. I adore the Georgia mountains, so immediately told her I would just run the whole thing with her!
In order to officially sign up for the H9 50, you have to first sign up for the marathon and then send an email to the race director (Perry) to let him know you are interested in running the longer distance. This is mostly due to the fact that the 50 miler is a “Fat Ass” type of race that doesn’t completely follow the marathon/50k route… meaning the extra distance would have limited aid and be rerouted through service roads and what appeared mostly likely to be animal trails that lead up the side of random mountains…

I sent Perry an email as well, requesting entry and added that I was running the entire race with Sunny. Sunny got an email back…
 “You do realize this is a hard 50 right?”
This lit a fire inside of Sunny… she started training hard… like lifting 346 ton boulders hard…
We started doing weekend long runs together, so we could get acquainted with one another’s pace…

And I had to get Sunny accustomed to my “trailgangsta” ways…

She put in the miles…

Even in the worst weather…

She had the support of great trail friends along the way…

We had a blast training together…

Before we knew it… the better part of the year had passed and it was time to tackle the Duncan Ridge Trail… better known as the Dragon's Spine.
Friday before the race, we made a quick stop by the FARM  so I could have Dr Beard tape the ankle I tweaked. It wasn't really bothering me, but I wanted a little added security for the adventure. After the FARM visit, Sunny and I made the 4hr trip up to Vogel State Park so we could catch packet pickup and ask some last minute questions about the race. Owen (Sunny’s husband) had to wait back until the kids got out of school and Kati (my wifey) decided to have a well deserved relaxing weekend at the house. We got to the park, checked into the cabin, and laced up for a small leg-loosening jaunt…

We cleaned up and headed over to race headquarters at Cabin #7 to pick up our swag and to get some clarification on the race route.

After the meeting we headed to an Italian restaurant in Dahlonega to split a pizza. Of course I needed to swing by and get a few items for my drop bag…

Hi. My name is Zachary Andrews. I am addicted to candy. The Twizzlers were demolished in the time it took me to drive across the Wal-Mart parking lot. Fail.
We got back to the cabin and packed our race gear. I had to MacGyver my Salomon pack to ensure my nutrition didn’t slip through the already safety pinned front bottle holders. Thank the good Lord above for princess duct tape…

A few crisp Octoberfest beers and then it was off to slumber…

H9 – “Hard time on the Dragon’s Spine”
I woke up to the sound of the Sunny heating up coffee in the microwave. I grabbed my personal sized milk from the fridge, peeled back my .50 cent package of off brand Frosted Flakes, and joined her at the bar for breakfast. We chatted for a bit before we collected our vests and headed down to Cabin #7 for the start.
 We walked down the park road under the soft orange glow of the street lights until we reached Cabin #7. I was greeted with a few faces I’ve become familiar with from running the epic Georgia races such as the Cruel Jewel  and the Death Race. Strange how the mountains bind people together and how you can truly miss people that you’ve only hung out with a handful of times…

Like the hilarious Jason Green (http://yetitrailrunners.com)... who helped me establish my Rule #6: drink locally when applicable…
And Brandi… who I hadn’t seen since last October when I met her and Erin for a few beers the day before Pitchell.

And ultra BA Brad Goodridge…

Perry walked through the small group with his laptop that displayed the minutes steadily ticking towards 630am. There was no starting line, no gun shot, no commotion… as soon as the timer hit 630am… our small group slowly jogged down the driveway and through the campground to the trail head.
We left the campground and made our way onto the Coosa Backcountry Trail. It wasn’t long before the sun was up and our head torches were tucked away. We were a little over a mile or so onto the trail when I heard cheerful singing behind us. It was Warren!

Love that guy. He’s another one of those people that I’ve only met a few times, but have remained in contact via social media. He hung out and chit chatted with us as we passed over Wolf Creek. There was supposed to be a water drop there but a downed tree blocked access. 3 miles in water isn’t really needed… and if you walked into this race and didn’t bring enough water on your person to last at least 8 miles… you’ve made a mistake. We continued along the Coosa Trail for a little ways and then veered off from the Mary/50k route onto a forest service road. Forest service roads can be daunting at times, so we had to keep the mood light hearted…
We rolled into Fire Pit aid station (Mile 8) and refilled our bottles before we set out onto the Duncan Ridge Trail. The DRT (Dragon’s Spine) is an extremely demanding trail. It is a constant series of long ascents followed by long descents… and Georgia doesn’t believe in switchbacks. It’s a law. Look it up.  

I wanted to hit some of the steeper and longer climbs pretty hard to get my body prepared for what awaits in October, so Sunny gave me the OK to push ahead on the uphill. Jason (a new bearded brethren) had been running with us off and on for the last couple of miles, so Sunny was in good company for the climb.
I caught up to Brandi on the ascent and we chatted until the trail started leveling out. I wished her happy trails and watched her disappear into the overgrowth…
I enjoyed the silence and serenity of the wilderness for a few moments until Sunny popped into view…
We popped out of the woods at the Wolfpen Gap aid station (mile 12).
We left the DRT and made our way up a forest service road. We had about 4 miles until the next water drop and roughly 7 miles till the next manned station.
We carried on down the old forest roads…

Through a few small water crossings…
There was supposed to be a water drop at mile 16ish, but we didn’t see one. I topped off my bottles at Wolfpen because if I have learned anything from “fat ass” or self-supported runs it is this: don’t get upset and always be prepared for sh*t to go wrong.  Again, not a big deal that there wasn’t any water since we were only a few more miles from the next manned aid station.
Sunny had mentioned something about her hands being a little swollen, so I took a look at mine. I’ve never had any issue with my hands swelling, so I’m not really sure why I looked… maybe it was my way of trying to keep myself entertained on the forest service roads. The only thing I noticed was my “bib number” (a sharpie written #2) was almost gone… I was EXTREMELY worried that Perry was going to disqualify me for losing my bib number…
We finally got to the Lipstick and Lugnuts aid station (mile 19).

 Lipstick and Lugnuts?! Don’t worry… we asked.  Apparently in a past event, 2 girls with no cup were running this aid station and got a flat tire… forever binding the name of this aid station.

We chatted with the volunteers as I gulped down a cup of Coke and a few banana halves. A forest service ranger was at the aid station and told us that we had to stay on the service roads and take the rain route. We were only to get on the DRT going over Coosa Bald. My heart sank. I had been looking forward to taking Sunny on the Dragon’s Spine the entire trip. Of course my face didn’t show that grand old feeling of disappointment… I had to stay positive for Sunny. We carried on down the forest service road, until I heard Jason Green yell down from a trail.
Jason had run the course twice before and knew these trails well. He assured us that we were supposed to veer of the service road and onto the Yellow Mountain trail. The 3 of us headed back down the service road a little ways to try and find a marking… the only thing we found was a big group of the 50 milers heading back up the road. The ranger had pulled the flags that lead us up to Yellow Mountain.  We will call this an honest mistake.

 Like Brittany and Tiffany Wilson from White Chicks…
We threw a little “BF” and carried on the correct route… back onto the beautiful single track…

I was extremely happy that we got the opportunity to continue on the original route. Jason had told me this was one of the areas with the oldest growth. There is something so ancient and original about running through an old forest…
It wasn’t until we made the turn down towards Shope Gap that we saw another flag. Thank God we bumped into Jason back at the turnoff onto Yellow Mt…
Knowing we were back on track, we regained confidence and pushed through the Georgia backcountry…

We surfaced at Mulky Gap where there was a water only drop.
Throughout the entire race I kept having flashbacks to the Georgia Death Race… a little section here and there would trigger a fond memory of suffering through my first 100k…

We re-entered the Dragon (DRT) and started the ascent to Fish Gap. The weather was supposed to be stormy and rainy off and on all day, but we had been blessed with wonderful weather all morning. It was extremely humid, but the temperatures were as pleasant as it gets for early August in the South. We were lucky enough to have a few breaks in the tree line that exposed distant peaks…
This was what it was all about. Climbing big mountains… pushing your body… getting to see the beauty of the mountains in a way that only a small portion of the population chooses to view them… this is why we run trails.
We both slowed to soak in the beautiful scenery… but it was short lived. We dove back into the brush…
My main goal for H9 was to aid Sunny in any way she needed in order to help her successfully complete her first 50 mile race. Whether it be moral support or being a trail guide… whatever she needed I was ready to offer. Our time goal was simple: finish before cutoff (20hrs). We had predicted that we would finish the route in 18-19hrs… but I knew better. Sunny set the pace for most of the day with the exception of a few sections where I hopped in front to subliminally push her a bit… I knew we could pick up some time if I gave her a little discrete push. 19hrs. PSSSSSSSH. Not on my watch. Of course I never told her… but my personal goal was to get this chicka in under 17hrs.
I runner came up from behind us…
“I know you don’t know me… but I’m extremely obnoxious.”
He immediately burst out into a chorus of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”
Loved it. This is why ultra/trail runners are my favorite people. They know how to have a good time. However… I was a little pissed at him… Madonna then resonated through my dome for the next hour or so.
As we closed in on Fish Gap, some 50kers were making their return trip to Mulky Gap. We finally rolled into Fish Gap at mile 26 and chatted for a bit as we ate and refilled our bottles. There was a steep descent coming before we broke off from the DRT to head for a separate loop. After a few minutes we left Fish Gap and headed down to Sarvis Gap where we left the trail and descended towards Knight Creek. Did I mention there were a few downed trees?
We hopped back onto forest service roads to begin our loop. We saw a box at one of the turns. I assumed it was the aid for this section, but upon closer inspection it looked like it just had a few miscellaneous supplies. We left it alone and continued along the road. Back at Fish Gap, Brad had mentioned the volunteers heading out to set up the aid station had got stuck in some mud. Radio contact was really sketchy and no one had cell service, so it was hard to stay in contact with all of the volunteers. We continued past the sign indicating the first loop…
We finally broke away from the road and ventured into the woods. At the base of a climb I told Sunny to press on. I wanted to lube up my feet. They had been soaking wet practically all day, and we still had a loooooong way to go. I didn’t want to take a chance and have some of the skin on the bottom break. About the time I finished lubing up my feet I heard Jason yell at me from the woods. This section was supposed to have an aid station that we were to pass twice. Jason explained that where we saw the box was where the aid station was set up last year. We were both a little worried because we were low on water and still had a long climb up to the DRT and then a few rough portions along the Dragon’s Spine before we made it back to Fish Gap. We shared another “BF” while climbing. I had to push the climb a bit so I could catch back up to Sunny. After popping back on the service road, I started a quick descent where I bumped into Sunny at the stranded aid station…
There were still a few runners behind us and the aid station was sparse on water, so they asked us to refill sparingly. I refilled half of my bottle and opted for a couple of cups of Mt Dew to quench my thirst. After “doing the dew” and a banana… we headed back down the service road in search of the sign to lead us up to the DRT.

It was along this road where we surpassed the 33 mile mark so I asked…
“How does it feel to venture into new territory?”
Sunny replied…
“I feel good! My legs are a little in the pain cave, but I feel good!”
We pressed on until we saw the sign for the 2nd time. We started the climb up to the DRT. After a long extended climb through what I think was just flagged forest… we popped up onto the DRT. I smiled and let Sunny take the lead.
I’m not going to lie. The smile was borderline sadistic. I knew the evil that awaited… I had been dying to be on this trail since the moment we started. The DRT is no joke. To say it’s hard is an understatement. It’ll destroy the strongest of runners and will diminish any spirit… no matter how bright. Why do I love it so much? Because of all of the stated reasons above. When you ride the Dragon’s Spine and walk away from its torturous claws… you feel a sense of accomplishment. You feel as though you can conquer any obstacle… that you can slay any dragon.
The DRT is really just an extended series of long climbs and equally long descents without switchbacks. It’s the sort of climb where you feel the need to stop every 15yds or so to catch your breath and let your heart rate drop back down from the 32oz Monster Energy drink levels. We only had to a few miles on the DRT until we reached Fish Gap again.
Perry was at Fish Gap (mile 38) this time manning the aid station. Sunny was in high spirits.
“Are we still good on time? We aren’t gonna hit a cutoff are we?!”
We were hours ahead of hitting the cutoff for the Fish Gap aid station let alone the finish cutoff. I had kept a close eye on the time all day and pushed a little harder early so Sunny would be comforted by the amount of time we had left to finish. Sunny took a seat and cleaned out her shoes while we talked with Perry and another runner (Kevin) that was there. Kevin was hurting a little and was contemplating dropping. He looked too energized and alive to drop this close to the finish, so we persuaded him to tag along with us the remainder of the way. The 3 of us left Fish Gap in route back to Mulky Gap. We chatted along the way to pass the time. A few minutes in, I decided to change socks. Although we only had 11 or so miles to the finish… I knew we had some extremely long hours ahead of us before Vogel came into sight. I sat on a log and changed my socks while I happily sung “Like a Virgin” in my falsetto voice…
Approximately 45 seconds after I started back running, the heavens opened up and blessed us with a torrential downpour.  Mother Nature just pooped on my dry socks. I laughed the entire way back to Sunny and Kevin.
The rain was still coming down hard as we made our way to Mulky Gap (mile 41). We stopped and topped off our bottles before heading out.
“Is this a trash bag? Nope… looks like someone’s drop bag.”
Well that drop bag was ours and we didn’t even know it! Owen had dropped it off earlier in the day.
 I knew Mulky Gap to Coosa Bald would be slow. This section of the DRT is so relentless and demanding… especially on tired legs. There really isn’t any way to prepare someone for this section. In my mind I knew Sunny was about to face a challenge unlike anything she’s ever done, but there was no point in verbally telling her that. She had to overcome this obstacle regardless of knowing how hard it would be. Her legs were tired, she was soaked to the bone, and the sun would soon submit to the moon and it would most definitely be a dark and foggy night. I was trying to stay focused on remaining positive and upbeat for Sunny… and I was still having a blast... 
But the climbs were brutal…
I could hear it in Sunny’s voice that her psyche was starting to wear thin.
“I’m so sorry I’m moving so slow. I need to stop for a minute to let my heart rate drop. I’m so sorry.”
She was moving slow, but I expected the last 10 miles to me extremely slow. That’s why I was trying my best to push us a little early on, so we could have plenty of time during this section. But for her to be upset about how “terrible” she was doing… now that… that was absolutely the most absurd thing I had EVER heard! She was doing an amazing job and I couldn’t have been more proud of her performance!
We stopped again.
“I’m so sorry… I need…”
I cut her off and chuckled.
“Sunny! You’re doing great! But enough with the apologies! If you need to stop… simply say… ‘I’m stopping.’ You’re in charge girl!”
And from there on out… that’s how it was. If she needed to stop at any point… she just said “hey I’m stopping real quick” and the group stopped. We were in no rush. We would finish. There was no doubt in my mind.
The night was slowly creeping in when we saw our last flags. I was leading at this point, keeping a steady pace up the climbs. 3 very visible flags in front of a log blocking access to the road pointed us left. So we went left. I KNEW the DRT… I KNEW the directions Perry gave… I KNEW we were to stay on the trail until we literally ran into Fire Pit… but I still started to doubt myself. I hadn’t seen a flag in forever and I started to get paranoid.
So began the silent conversation with myself…
“Did I lead them the wrong way? Surely there should be confidence flags. Well we are still on the DRT... we are fine. Right?”
This went on for a little bit until I turned to Sunny and Kevin and said…
“I’m going to press ahead a little and make sure we are going the right way.”
I basically took off in a dead sprint down a couple of drops and ascents. Nothing. Sh*t. I headed back up towards Sunny and Kevin. 
“Guys… I know we are supposed to literally stay on the DRT until it runs into Fire Pit… but I’ve not seen any flags. Should we have crossed the road where the flags were pointing left?”
They didn’t really know what I was talking about. They were just following me. Great. After a quick discussion, we concluded that we were going the right way. I just needed some reassurance from my group. I think I had put so much pressure on myself to NOT lead Sunny astray that I was 2nd guessing my instincts. If I would have been alone I wouldn’t have even entertained the thought of being off track.
I turned around and saw Jason making his way towards us.
“Jason! Are we going the right way?!”
Jason responded with a hearty “F@8% yea we are!!!”
Before starting the next climb we all put our torches on…
We still had a little ways to go before we made it to the Fire Pit aid station at mile 45. We settled back into the same DRT routine and trudged along. After a very long and brutal portion of the DRT… the glow from Fire Pit aid station popped through the woods.
We were greeted with a warm welcome at Fire Pit. We laughed and carried on for a few minutes as we replenished our bottles. The world stopped at the mention of hot dogs. The cheerful chef handed us a few freshly cooked wieners and we scarfed them down. Solid, warm food. Nom.
We finally started back along the DRT upwards to Coosa Bald. It was slow moving with the thick fog. The scene was eerily familiar to the scene at 2013 Cruel Jewel... running along the DRT… through blinding fog… can barely make out a few feet of trail in front of you… ahhhh mountain running J
“I’m sorry… I need…”
“Sunny! No apologies! You’re doing great!”
We kept the DRT rhythm going until the trail started to flatten. We got to the top of the Bald and started descending down until we reached the Coosa Trail. Sunny kept saying that once we get to Coosa bald the race was over… I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the last 3 miles were going to be extremely long and drawn out. Yes… it was mostly downhill… and we were going to tag a service road for a mile or 2… but the mountains are deceiving and play mean tricks.
We steadily descended down the Coosa Trail... and again started conversing with myself... 
“Did we take the wrong trail? No. We were to go to Coosa Bald, hit the Coosa Trail and descend until we hit the forest service road. But we’ve been descending for a while.”
I had to have another powwow with the group… and again concluded we were going the right way. What the hell was wrong with me? I was so worried about letting Sunny down.
My headtorch started dimming, so I told Sunny and Kevin that I was going to push ahead a little bit. Finally… the forest service road. We stopped at the bottom and Sunny shined her light as I grabbed my spare batteries from my bag. We took a right down the service road. The road seemed to go on forever. We walked… then ran a little… walked a little more… ran a little... and walked some more. After what we deemed as a lifetime… we popped out onto pavement. We were literally a mile from Vogel.
We descended down along the same trail we had climbed up 16hrs earlier. We finally exited the woods and made our way through the campground. We stopped and walked a little bit… saving up enough energy to make one last push up to the cabin. I looked over at Sunny and said…
“When we get to that light we have to run ok? The cabin is right around the corner.”
We entered the soft glow of the street light and began to jog…
“Mommy! Go mommy!!"
We headed through the dark following the sound of an excited, cheering child. It was such a sweet scene... it was all I could do not to cry.
There was a group gathered outside of Cabin #7 as we made our way up the driveway.  Before turning the corner… Sunny grabbed my hand, squeezed and in tears gave me a big hug.
“Thank you so much.”
I’ve finished a lot of races and have been blessed with a win or 2… but this moment rose above anything that any race that I’ve entered has offered. To have been there by Sunny’s side every step of the way… watching her work so hard for months… pushing past her perceived limits… and in that moment… getting to see her walk away victorious…  hands down… was one of the most memorable moments of my life.
Perry handed Sunny that very much deserved and earned piece of metal. Sunny explained to Perry and group how every time she wanted to quit or slack off during a training run… she would think back to his email…
“You do realize this is a hard 50 right?”
Perry smiled and gave Sunny a hug. She did it. She completed one of the hardest 50 milers in the South… covering 53 miles with 17-19k feet of elevation gain over some of the hardest and most unforgivable terrain somewhere around 16hrs20mins. 

I let Sunny have first dibs on a shower so she and Owen headed back to the cabin to clean up. I stuck around for a few more beers and talked with the runners and volunteers at the cabin before heading back to clean up. I eventually said my farewells and followed the street lights back to the cabin.
“In 2 years I won’t remember a win or a good position… but I will remember a good day in the mountains.”  - Emelie Forsberg
And ladies and gentlemen... this was a good day.

Till tomorrow…