Before we get into this, I want to clear up a few things:
- Trekking poles - Bring them with you. Take them out immediately. Don’t bother putting them away. This isn’t Umstead or the Virginia Creeper trail. Some points of the race are so steep that you can reach out in front of your face and touch the ground. The downhills are straight down, because you know, who likes switchbacks.
- Salt - Its Spring in the south. The temperature will be somewhere between stifling and oppressive. You’re going to sweat a lot. Take somewhere close to the lethal dose of salt for you height and weight for the day.
- Rain Gear - Its still Spring in the south. The humidity is either 90% or raining. If its the latter and you’re 16 hours into the race at night on the side of a windy bald, you’re going to get wet and cold. I made the mistake of eschewing rain gear and was shivering in my short-sleeved shirt for the better part of 10 miles in a raging thunderstorm. It might encourage you to move your ass, but see notes on trekking poles; you can only move so fast on terrain that is fondly referred to as the Dragon’s Spine (or as I normally refer to it between heaving breaths, the worst-trail-in-the-world-dear-god-why-do-I-keep-coming-back-here).
- It’s 56-58 miles, not 50. That matters. And don’t go thinking that you’re halfway through at mile 28. When you hit Skeenah Gap at mile 34ish, look at your watch. Double that time; thats probably how long its going to take you to clear the last 22 or so miles.
Alright, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s begin.
The 2017 Cruel Jewel 50 started at 8:00 on Saturday May 20th at Camp Morganton in North Georgia, 20 hours after Cruel Jewel 100. I woke at 6:30 AM full of anticipation, water, and salt. My wife had been feeding me salty this that and the other for a full 24 hours. I packed my gear and headed to the Camp with plenty of time to mill around, chat with my friends, and fret over the day to come. 100 mile racers were rolling in from their efforts the prior day; few looked chipper as they taped their toes and waddled like sweaty penguins back on to the course. I had a lot to look forward to.
My pack was full of salt, protein drink, tailwind, salt, some snacks, water, salt, trekking poles, chapstick, and some salt. I’d been training for a solid 6 months for this effort, repetitively running up and down Kennesaw Mountain nearly every weekend, and slogging away on the stairmaster at least once a week. I packed that away as well. At 7:50 AM the RD scraped a line across the gray gravel path outside of the camp with his foot; the starting line. After a few shouted announcements, we were off. 100 or so raving lunatics took off down the path to Snake Nation Road, and the race was on.
Paces varied between “Why am I running so fast?” and “Am I going out to hard?”. I tried to stay in the latter camp, and several runners pushed ahead of me on the easy section of open road leading to the first trailhead. I was playing it safe today, and didn’t mind being toward the back of the pack at the start; it was going to be a long day. The heat of the open road was mounting, but as we caught up with some of the 100 mile runners they confirmed some positive news; it was better than the day before. The temperature would reach a mere 86 degrees today compared to Friday’s 90, and the humidity had miraculously dropped into “Sweating actually matters” territory.
At some point on Aska Rd, we turned out onto the first trailhead under welcome shade at Deep Gap. I was still a bit anxious on the initial loop. Had I taken in enough salt? Running with Matt, he informed me of his strict schedule during the heat of the day: 1 SaltStick every 30 minutes. It seemed like a good strategy so I adopted it. Barely 4 miles in we deployed the trekking poles. They never went back in my pack.
Heading up Davenport Mountain was a good taste of things to come. Not so steep that you’re filled with self-loathing over your decisions in life, but no picnic either. I carry too much upper body weight to be a stellar runner, but the trekking poles made up for any genetic disadvantages I may have as a runner. In no time we were headed back down to Deep Gap Aid Station.
On the way down the mountain I had a niggling sensation in my right calf. My nemesis, the muscle cramp was creeping up. Matt’s schedule of 1 SaltStick every 30 minutes may work for him, but I was going to have to up the ante to stay ahead of ol’ crampy. I started popping those bad boys once every 15 minutes until the sensation passed. If I made any good decisions during the race it was that one. By the time I reached Deep Gap again at mile 8.5, Lord Crampus was satisfied with my salty offerings. I still ate a handful of potato chips as extra appeasement.
We headed out onto the trail again, ready to link up with the Benton-MacKaye trail. I have no idea who Benton or MacKaye were, but they sure knew how to cut a pleasant trail through the mountains. The descent to Weever Creek Rd was difficult; I later found that we’d be climbing right back out of the hole we were rushing into, but the trail was so damned beautiful I didn’t mind. We passed several 100 milers, looking tired but determined on their way up the trail. These guys and gals had soldiered on for almost 24 solid hours now and were a little more than halfway through. I did my best to raise their spirits and send some positive vibes their way, and pay my respects as I let them pass on the crowded single-track trail. If my day was hard, their’s was hellacious.
At Weever Creek Rd I had the chance to catch up with old friends, give a few sweaty hugs (Thanks Sarah!), eat a few salty chips, and gulp down some pickle juice. Pucker up. 13.5 miles in and it was time to re-fill the packs with water, salt and Tailwind. If my mood was anxious at the start, I was quickly heading towards elated. Matt and I stomped up the trail out of Weever Creek road toward Stanley Gap and the next aid station.
The climb up Rich Mountain is similar to Davenport. You won’t question your existence or see the White Buffalo, but you’re going to do some work. We trudged ever upward, passed several runners, and by the time we reached the top the game was finally on. The descent down Rich Mountain is a steady drop to Stanley Creek, and the perfect place to make up some time. I took advantage of my good mood and the conditions, put a smile on and took off. Somewhere in here I lost track of Matt but ran into several other runners that I’d see throughout the race. People had come from all over to experience this: Chicago, Dayton, the Philippines. How lucky am I to have these proving grounds in my backyard?
At Stanley Creek aid, almost 19 miles in I was craving nothing by ice cold coke. I never drink coke, but today the caffeine and carbonation were right on the money. I had several refills, more pickle juice, and literally drank from the salt shaker. The next section started with a few miles of open road, and the sweat was already flowing in the 85 degree heat.
This segment of the race started fast and furious. The road is relatively flat, so if you’re feeling fresh you can make up some time here. The sun was oppressive so I remained cautious, but packed in some quick miles here before the onslaught of the trail again after Old Dial Rd. Along the way I encountered a few 100 milers still doing the work, still getting after it. I walked with a woman from Canada who was looking a little sleepy. I donated my emergency caffeine gel to her, and we kept on until we hit the Toccoa river. It was too tempting to pass up; she got in and sat down for a while, and I dunked my hat and threw it back on. It lit us back up. I left her with another 100 mile competitor and headed up the trail. A few more miles of ups and downs to Old Dial Rd where my crew (wife) and friends were waiting.
By the time I reached Old Dial people around me were starting to think I was high. I wore a permanent smile and did my best to spread my mood to anyone I encountered. Cary, Bill, and Nikki were waiting on our fellow runners there. I felt positively pampered. Bill and Cary helped me fill my pack. Cary had made me some miso ramen noodles on a camp stove, and even though I didn’t feel like I needed to sit down, I gave myself 2-3 minutes to suck down some noodles and salty broth. The soup was hot, but really hit the spot and packed away another reserve of salt for me to draw on. Aaron, friend and 100 mile competitor wasn’t too far ahead. He’d had some early struggles with nausea in the brutal heat but was pushing ever onwards. I wanted to catch up and spread some good energy. I grabbed another cup of coke before heading out up Garland, Brawley Mountain and Bald Top.
A few miles in I encountered Aaron and Ivars. They were taking a rest when I came up on them, and I probably annoyed the hell out of them, but rest time was over and we got moving again. Hopefully it wasn’t to their detriment. We were on one of the hardest sections of the BMT during one of the hottest parts of the day and I count it as a blessing that I encountered these guys when I did. We all slowed down and trudged up and down together, bantering about ultrarunning, youtube, past races, and what we were planning at the next aid station. There are few things in life better than shooting the shit with your friends on the trail. In no time we’d hit Wilscot Gap.
At Wilscot we’d agreed to hide away in our crew’s cars for a few minutes and spend some time in the AC. Rich Schick had suggested this strategy to me a few days ahead of the race, and it worked like a charm. 5 Minutes in the cool air, some ramen noodles and coke, and I was a new man. Caitlin, who’d spent the morning pacing fellow friends, was going to join on and march us over Wilscot to Skeenah Gap. A lot of runners stress over the effort ahead of them. Caitlin drinks a beer, shrugs, and says “Lets get on with it”. I didn’t drink a beer, but the attitude was inspiring so I took that with me along with the excessive runner’s high I was experiencing as fuel for the effort to come. Aaron and Ivars got a little rest in the car as well, and after some changes to provisions were ready to head back out towards Skeenah Gap.
The climb up Wilscot Mountain is rough. You’re getting closer to the real deal on the Duncan Ridge Trail; this is really the last hurrah of the relatively pleasant BMT. We trudged on toward the top, taking almost no breaks. The heat was abating and I was sweating less. I started to reduce my salt intake and stuck mostly to Tailwind, protein drink and water. Around the top of Wilscot I looked at my watch. I’d been at this for almost 10 hours now, and I was about to reach the last pleasant aid station before the real work began. Extrapolating ahead to make the finish in fewer than 20 hours, I decided it was time to break away and make for Skeenah on the double. Coming down Wilscot I went for it, and hit Hwy 60 at Skeenah Gap at a full run where the whole crew was waiting.
I got a lot of help from Cary at this aid station, the last time I’d see her before the finish. I refilled on protein drink one final time, topped off the rest of my fluids, grabbed a Snickers and slapped my headlamp on for the night. Dark clouds descended and the smell of turned over soil permeated the air. It was going to rain. I hadn’t brought any rain gear; I figured if it did rain it was hot, so it wouldn’t matter. I had neglected the cool mountain air, and didn’t appreciate just how much rain we were going to get. It was looking ominous as I waved goodbye to my wife and friends at Skeenah up the long climb to the Duncan Ridge Trail and the finish.
The climb out of Skeenah is notoriously steep. There are multiple false tops where you feel like running might be an option, but around every turn is another uphill march. It continues for several miles until you hit the Duncan Ridge trail, and make the left turn into the hills from hell. The race prior to this point was the warmup, and downright pleasant in comparison. It was time to get to work on the spine.
The sky dripped and the wind raged just as I saw the first blue blaze. Thunder in the distance signaled the oncoming storm, and I passed several 100 milers who had stopped to gear up for the drenching. Rain is usually my element. It cools me, my sweat rate drops off, and I typically pick up the pace dramatically. The sky opened up just before nightfall, and so did my pace. I wasn’t too cold yet, but I moved fast up the steep inclines and carefully quick on the declines. Several times I surfed the mud for 5 or so feet, only my trekking poles kept me from taking a butt slide or going over forward. I still don’t know how I managed to make it through the entire race without a single fall.
I could tally off the mountains, gaps and balds that you have to cross on your way to Fish Gap, but this race report is already dragging on. The only advice I can give is to put your head down and march upwards. Stop and breathe when you have to. Smile, you signed up for this. Use gravity when you can, carefully, on the downhills. Just keep moving forward.
The space between Skeenah and Fish Gap is a bit of a blur. Its a long section whether you measure by time or mileage. The lightning lit the sky every few minutes, illuminating everything on the dark trail for an instant. I’m certain I heard boar in the underbrush. Other runners claim to have heard bears calling. I think I saw the shadow of at least 20 in the distance every time lightning struck. That might have been my imagination. The rain and fog were so thick that using your headlamp on anything but the lowest setting was impossible. I just pressed onwards until the welcome light of Fish Gap appeared in the distance through the rain.
It was a dark moment for many runners at Fish. 100 Mile competitors had been at this for over 30 hours at this point, exhausted and underfueled, they were cold and hypothermic. Shivering under a tent or beside a fire, many decided to call it quits here, so close to the end. Many considered it, but hardened up and carried on. I ran into Mark, working his way through the rest of his 100 mile effort and looking really good! I crewed and paced Mark at the Bear 100 in 2016, and knew from experience that he could turn it on at the end of even the toughest races. Today was no exception. I made my stop quick. I was getting cold in nothing but my short sleeved shirt and needed to move fast to keep my body hot. I ate a few snacks, some coke without ice, and pressed on.
The next section of the race is in my opinion the toughest. Your tired legs are begging for rest. There is no such thing as a flat section after the first quarter mile out of the aid station. If you’re not ascending, you’re descending. To some degree I count it as a blessing that I was wet and cold. It made me move when I wanted to stop. The rain let up for a while, but the damage to the trail was done. Slipping and sliding on the bare mud was the rule for the rest of the race, and any chance of picking up speed on the downhills was out of the question. It was better to play it safe and finish rather than risk taking a spill off the trail to improve my time. Besides, I was already having a good time, so what did my finish time matter? Somewhere in here I met up with a few runners who were marching at exactly my pace, and I stuck with them for some good conversation about bears, beers and family. The previous 10 miles I’d covered in relative solitude, it was good to have folks nearby for a while.
By the time I reached White Oak Stomp I was starting to feel the effects of a very long day on my feet. I was still happy to be out there, but ready for the race to be over. I had warmed back up since the rain had stopped to little more than a sprinkle, but still made my rest brief. It was here that I ran into friends Wes and his pacer TJ. Wes had taken a spill early on that earned him a softball sized welt on his right calf. By some miracle of personal fortitude he had put this injury aside and managed to get out in front of our normal crew of racers over the course of 90+ miles. Taking a little rest at White Oak Stomp to change out a few articles of clothing, he looked ready to take on the rest of the race. Ellen, who I’d met in the previous section was ready to head out of White Oak right when I was, so we trudged out together.
The hike out of White Oak is as steep as it gets. Here you can touch the ground in front of your face as you ascend. Its a relatively brief climb, but brutal. We reached the top heaving a bit, and started making the long, treacherous descent. This three mile section is hard to take even in good conditions; the slick trail meant constant sliding, testing foot positions, and struggling to stay upright. I had several near misses, but Ellen kept her footing nicely. It was long and slow, but not impossible. I sympathized with the 100 mile competitors; every footfall is work at the end of a 100, every one of these steps were extra credit.
The sky opened up again during the descent into Wolf Creek. The going was so slow that I was having a harder time keeping my body temperature up. I was begging for some uphill as we approached the bridge at Wolf Creek, and the race delivered just in time. The last aid station is just a water stop. We walked right on by; the torrent of rain was plenty to drink if you just opened your mouth a little as you hiked.
The trail had turned into a creek bed of ankle deep water. The last 4 mile section is plenty runnable in good conditions, but a barely hikeable swamp when wet. We slogged ever upward, getting quieter as I began to shiver. We both wanted this race to be over. We reached the road suddenly, and I knew the rest of the trail very well. We crossed down the stairs and into the park. I bid Ellen adieu in an effort to move quickly and get my body temperature up in the last 2 miles. I was at a dead run when I hit campsites at Vogel, and the rain was driving hard all around me. As much as I could sprint at the end of a 50 something mile race, I did. The horse had smelled the barn, and I was ready to cross the finish line and find a nice, hot fire. In the pouring rain, to a crowd of perhaps a dozen, I crossed the finish line and accepted my belt of victory. To an outsider, the end of an ultramarathon may seem anticlimactic, but for me its a reminder that the joy was in the running, not in the finishing.
My race was over, but my day wasn’t. I still had friends out there working their way toward the finish, and I wanted to be around to see them cross the line. After a quick bite to eat, I peeled my shoes and wet shirt off, hopped in the car to get to our hotel room for a quick shower, then headed back to the finish line. One by one friends new and old were rolling in. Wes survived his early injury and crossed with TJ with confidence. Mark managed to stay awake and crossed the line shortly afterwards. Matt had caught up to Aaron at White Oak stomp, and a few hours later they crossed the line together at a run towing a crowd of fellow combatants with their pacers. A highlight of the finish, Ivars appeared minutes behind Aaron, at a full sprint, decked out in a red cape he’d fashioned for himself from a red Georgia Bulldogs tablecloth he’d found at the aid station. Ivars had fallen asleep for a spell and when he woke, was completely re-energized, if a bit cold. He’d solved his hypothermia problem ingeniously and hilariously. It was inspiring to watch these guys and gals fight their personal struggles out there and overcome them all to finish, come hell or high water (and we had both).
After the requisite post-race elation, we congratulated each other on a job well done, and planned our next battles. As drowsiness started to set in, we said our goodbyes, satisfied with the weekend’s work.
People seem to think running is a solitary. Absolutely not. You have the support of the good people who volunteered their weekend to work at aid stations, make you grilled cheese sandwiches, and teach you what a Pickleback cocktail is. You have the folks who spent the days prior to the race marking trails so you don’t get lost out there. Many of us have crews and friends out there to give us aid and to keep an eye on us. You have your fellow runners out there on race day, reminding you that this is only 10% race, 90% community. You have your training buddies, keeping you honest and making sure you get out of bed for the long hauls in the months prior to the race. You are literally surrounded by friends and supporters the entire time.
I’d like to thank the Race Directors for putting on a hell of a good show. But most of all I’d like to thank my wife, who tolerates many long hours of training, and sacrifices weekends to come out and support me whenever she can. In the days leading up to the race and for the duration of the struggle, nobody helped me more than she did. I’m lucky to have her by my side.