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…

3 comments:

  1. Holy cow! I am spent. Great report, great friends, great effort. Thanks so much for sharing.

    ReplyDelete