Last Updated on January 22, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
When I first started running back in 2008, I printed out a handful of motivational pictures and hung them on a bulletin board near my treadmill. This was obviously before Pinterest, back when you actually, literally, had to “pin” something to the wall. One of the pictures was a Nike advertisement featuring a traffic sign that said “Running never takes more than it gives back”. I liked the sentiment: running was a source of joy, an escape, something I could invest in and expect a positive return. At a time when my life was sometimes scary and full of uncertainty, running was something that would never be a source of emotional heartache. It would never disappoint me. And for years, that was true.
And then I discovered ultrarunning.
Friday morning Geoff and I packed the car and headed for Helen, Georgia. It was the closest, reasonably priced hotel that I could find almost last minute between the starting line and the finish line of the Georgia Death Race. Trip advisor reviews of the hotel were decent enough. “Hotel needs updating” was mentioned a few times, but I didn’t care – we literally sleep on the floor at home. And that is the extent of what I knew about Helen.
Fun fact: turns out Helen Georgia is actually an adorable tourist town with a completely out of place Bavarian theme. WHO KNEW?
(Probably lots of you. But we’re still kind of new here in the South.)
We arrived into town much earlier than anticipated, so after oogling at all of the adorable downtown buildings that looked like life-sized cuckoo clocks, we headed to Ruby Falls just a few miles away, in the Chattahoochee National Forest and Unicoi State Park. It was surprisingly crowded for a Friday in March, so I can only imagine this place (Helen) must be a family spring break destination. As we made the very short hike to the falls, Geoff and I laughed at how the paved climb was harder than any incline we’ve seen in months. It actually left me a little winded.
I should have known from the get go that Georgia was going to kick my ass.
After our short waterfall excursion, we found ourselves a five star lunch of Subway (we are classy), drove back and forth across the tiny town trying to find a gas station that was actually open, made a bunch of schnitzel jokes (hey, when in Helen…) and then checked in to the hotel. While Geoff ate, I double and triple checked that I had all of my required gear that was needed in order to get my bib. Packet pickup was exactly one full hour away, and the race director had made it explicitly clear that if you were missing an item, you weren’t getting a bib. I didn’t need to mess this up already by missing any details.
Packet pickup was at Amicalola Falls State Park, the location of the finish line for the Georgia Death Race. In typical Heather fashion, I made sure we arrived for the 5:00 pm packet pickup by about 4:15. This is a lasting habit from growing up in Vermont where everything was at least a 20 minute drive away, and you never knew what you might encounter on the way there. Could it be a freak blizzard? A moose, blocking the road? A log truck going 25 mph down a windy road with absolutely no opportunity to pass for at least 15 miles? You never knew, so you better leave for work/school/that appointment early.
5:00 pm finally arrived, and we lined up with dozens of other anxious runners. My gear was checked by a volunteer who then put a Georgia Death Race bracelet around my wrist. I got my bib and my t-shirt. And then we sat, because in my rush to make sure we weren’t late, I failed to remember that we had 1.5 hours to kill before the mandatory meeting. Oops.
If you’ve ever met me in person, you know I have two very distinct personalities. There is the super outgoing, loud, won’t shut up and give anyone else an opportunity to talk version of Heather. And then there is the quiet, reserved, “is she shy or just a bitch?” Heather. I quickly fell into the latter version of myself. But it wasn’t because I was shy, or even feeling standoffish, it was because I was nervous.
Weeks earlier, Sean Blanton, the race director of GDR messaged me and asked if I would give a 5-7 minute speech about my fundraising efforts for the American Cancer Society. Of course I agreed, he likely caught me on a typical “Heather loves to talk” day, sitting behind the safe, comfortable wall of my computer screen. But about an hour before said speech was supposed to happen, the reality hit me that this was far more intimidating than standing in front of group fitness class with my wireless mic, like I do a few times every week. No, now I was here in Georgia, at a race of a caliber far more badass and professional than I was used to. Hell, the race director for the Western States 100 was in the crowd, as were hundreds of accomplished ultra-runners who have seen, and crossed the finish lines, of races I can only dream about. Further, I was about to talk about my Dad to these strangers, something I still emotionally struggle with sometimes.
As such, I was nervous as hell, and I spent the entire hour and a half quietly re-reading the speech I wrote over, and over, and over again.
So imagine my surprise when RD Sean, who walked out in front of the crowd dressed like Hulk Hogan, literally opened the meeting by saying “Is Heather Hart here?” Hell. I was going to have to speak first, even before the race director himself. And in a panicky moment with a microphone that I didn’t know how to use, I ditched my speech and effectively did what is known, scientifically, as “winging it”.
I shook, I stammered, I said “umm” a lot, but I think I got my story across. And I was absolutely honored to do so. Thanks again, Sean.
Saturday morning, 3:00 am. The alarm went off, and I was surprised that I actually slept through the night. Thursday night I had countless dreams about GDR, the classic “you missed the start” dream, and others that don’t actually make a ton of sense when you are awake. So I expected another sleepless night on Friday, and was pretty stoked to wake up realizing that didn’t happen. I immediately got to work getting the rest of my gear ready, and thanked the Friday night version of myself for taking the time to make a list of things I needed to do Saturday morning.
By 3:30 am we were in the car, and ready to make the 40 minute drive to Vogel State Park. By 4:30 am I was shaking Sean’s right hand while he put a railroad spike in my left hand. Everyone who runs the Georgia Death Race is given this spike, a “burden” they must carry with them for the duration of the race. If you finish, you hand the spike back, and you are given an official finisher’s spike instead. If not, you keep your “burden” as a reminder.
For the record, you never actually grasp how heavy a railroad spike is until you realize you have to carry one in your already full hydration pack for the next 72 miles…
Eventually, we are instructed to head back down the road to the start line. Sean gives us a few parting remarks, but I can’t hear him from my place towards the back of the pack. It’s a blur anyway, I was so nervous. We sing happy birthday to Sean. I see two running friends, Heather and Irene, and give them both hugs. Familiar faces in this sea of badassery brings me a little peace and comfort (though don’t be fooled, these two women are badasses as well). In a moment of panic that my hydration pack is way too heavy with all of the required gear and the other plethora of stuff I initially deemed necessary, I start unloading things on Geoffrey. I hand him my battery pack and chargers, and decide I’m not going to turn my Garmin on anyway. I give him a layer of clothing, because it’s pushing 60 degrees already and I know I won’t need it the second we start climbing. I’m panicking, but we’ve run out of time.
The crowd takes off.
Start to White Oak – 8.1 miles
We’re running down a paved road through the park and past the quiet campground. I’m immediately reminded of Conquer the Rock 50K in Table Rock, SC, a few weeks ago, where I burned myself out in the first mile just trying to keep up with everyone else barreling up these mild grades that feel like mountains to this flat lander. And thus my mantra “run your OWN damn race” begins repeating itself over and over in my head, a theme that will carry on for the rest of my race. I unapologetically slow down, and even walk when the climb gets steep enough
Unlike Table Rock, however, it appears a large majority of these runners realize they have about 72 miles left to go, and they need to preserve their legs. I’m not the only one walking.
We head off road and hit a single track trail. It’s not overly steep nor technical, and I’m immediately grateful for the endless hours I spent climbing on a treadmill, ad nauseam. This doesn’t feel terribly difficult. I vow that I will only try to pass people when their speed is slower than my “comfortable” pace, and I fight like hell to tell the voice in my head that is already screaming about cutoffs to sit down and shut up. As such, my heart rate is remaining low, and I feel good.
But I did panic and turn my Garmin on anyway. I’ll figure the battery situation out later.
Confession: I didn’t over analyze the elevation profile before the race. In fact, if it wasn’t for the small handwritten note on Econo-Lodge stationary that was in a Ziploc bag in my pocket, I wouldn’t have even known the names of the aid stations, never mind how far away they were and what the cutoffs were. As I mentioned in my last post, there was a subconscious denial on my part going into this race. I wasn’t prepared emotionally, and my lack of preparation in the planning department showed. Point being, when I glimpsed at the elevation profile, of course I first noticed the massive climb up Coosa Bald, and completely ignored the first small climb and relatively long descent that followed.
Therefore I was totally taken aback – in a good way – by the nearly mile and a half we ran DOWNILL near the start of the race. I enjoyed it, and fell into place at a comfortable pace, slowly passing people one by one as I let these long legs do their thing. It was a warm up if you will, and it left me feeling confident by the time we did hit the 3.8 mile, 2,300 ft. climb up and over the summit of Coosa Bald.
In one of my past lives, I was an avid Hasher (ON ON). It’s been over a year since I’ve been to a trail, so I’m pretty sure my status has been revoked, and I’ll probably have to be renamed. But anyway, in hashing we have zero actual rules, and a bunch of highly suggested tips and tricks that hashers abide by. Such as: never point at anyone, because you don’t know where that finger has been. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And never follow hashers, always follow hashmarks, or else you’re gonna get lost.
Clearly I’ve forgotten the rules.
Because at some point early on during the race, I fell in behind a guy who was holding a pace that I felt comfortable with. Our pace was strong yet smooth, and as such, we were passing quite a few people. I subconsciously fell into a routine of letting this guy lead the way. He would pass someone, I would pass that person, and on we’d go. We temporarily came off of the trail onto a fire-road / clearing that was near a few tents in the middle of the woods. At this point, guy ahead of me passed a couple of runners, and I took that clearing as an opportunity to pass as well. A few more guys followed behind me. And in doing so…we all missed a sharp left hand turn into the woods. It really was just bad luck that I chose to focus on passing right at a turn, and take full responsibility for getting lost. This course was marked more than ANY other trail race I’ve ever been on. Yet still, we were lost. It took the lead guy a solid 5 minutes or so of forging ahead, uphill, before the four of us turned around only to see the long trail of headlamps climbing in the dark in the opposite direction of where we were headed.
And just like that, barely an hour into the race, we were already lost. We all turned around and barreled back down the hill to try and make up the time and distance lost. I was feeling really good though, and didn’t let this slight mistake get to me. It could have been worse. It was still early. Keep your head in the game, Heather.
We find the turn we missed, and start heading back up the hill. Much like a brand new runner who has a hard time pacing themselves, I’m finding that I have a hard time pacing myself UP climbs when no one else is around. The aforementioned guy I was following took off up the hill, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to blow myself up this early trying to keep up. The other two guys were well behind me, and so I was alone, climbing up this hill. (I’m not sure why I keep saying “hill”. It was a 4,000 foot mountain.) Trying to find a “not too fast” and “not too slow” pace was daunting – my default was “too fast”. As such, I quickly caught up to other runners and began passing them.
To be honest, this first long climb truly wasn’t as horrible as I anticipated. I climbed smart, I climbed strong, and I stayed on top of my nutrition. Before I knew it, I hit what must have been the summit, because there was a nice photographer there that hit me with the most insane camera flash I’ve ever experienced. I can’t wait to see that photo, I probably look terrified.
Suddenly, I am alone in the woods again. I find this kind of ironic, as I had spent plenty of time assuring my husband that I’d likely never be alone out there, because there were like 300 other runners on the course. Keep in mind, we’re Eagle Endurance regulars who have absolutely zero issues stomping around the Francis Marion Swamp in the middle of the night, with literally maybe only 8 other people out on the 100 mile course. Therefore GDR might as well have been one of those Rock N Roll half marathons for me, with this many people running around.
Yet I was alone, this early on. And I wouldn’t have cared…if it wasn’t for the loud crashing I suddenly heard in the woods to the right. Now, as an avid trail runner, I know my critter footstep sounds in the woods-mostly. I know that a squirrel can sound like a cougar, so you don’t need to necessarily panic when you hear leaves rustling. But when you hear something that legitimately sounds like the weight of an elephant stomping around, then you worry a little. ESPECIALLY when the race director, not 24 hours earlier, posted a photo of a mama bear and her cubs on this very trail. I hear the crash again and mentally prepare myself for what I might have to do. I can’t see anyone ahead, and I look over my shoulder only to discover that I can’t see anyone behind either. I briefly wonder how well the pepper spray I bought myself for this race will work against a bear, and I already know the answer: probably not well at all.
Thankfully, it was a runner that popped out from the bushes instead of a bear. I told him “I THOUGHT YOU WERE A BEAR!” to which he didn’t respond. Turns out, not very many people were very talkative during this race. Not that I can blame them: we were almost always ascending or descending, there was rarely any time to relax.
We fly down the hill and land at aid station #1, White Oak. I’ve made it there with 34 minutes to spare before the cutoff. I have no idea if this is “good” or not. We were only given 3 hours to run these first 8+ miles, and I’ve been told the first 3 cutoffs are very tight, and not easy to make. So I figure we’ll call it “not bad for a flat lander”.
The volunteers take my number, and ask me what I need. I look around and take a mental inventory of what’s still on me, only to realize I don’t need anything. Nothing. It’s such an odd feeling to barrel into an aid station and need absolutely NOTHING, but look at me, actually being prepared for once. I didn’t know anyone, no one knew me, there was no one to share my “I thought I was going to get attacked by a bear, but it was just a guy pooping in the woods!” story with. So like an awkward 12 year old at a middle school dance trying to look cool and casual, I kind of mosey across dirt road and slip out of sight back onto the trail.
White Oak to Mulkey Gap – 5.4 miles (13.5 miles total)
I honestly don’t remember what happened here. I guess this is a good thing, right? We climbed, we descended. The sun came up. We climbed some more, we descended some more. I took in nutrition every hour, just like I promised myself I would. Maybe I’ve blocked it out of my memory, but I don’t recall anything feeling bad. I was just cruising, and kind of minding my own business. But I make it to Mulkey Gap with 25 minutes to spare. I’ve lost a little time on my aid station cutoff lead, but I try not to stress about it.
This time I do need something: a piece of a pickle. And that’s it. I’ve been alternating chocolate GU and Gingerade Stroopwafles every hour, and I’m feeling good. I’m off again. As I head across the street I overhear a volunteer telling some runners that this next section is called “the hills of pain” for a reason. I almost immediately discover what he was talking about.
Mulkey Gap to Skeenah Gap – 7.9 miles (21.4 miles total)
I find myself on what I like to call “counting climbs”, as in, the kind of climbs that I force myself to count 100 steps before I allow myself to stop and rest. And if the counting climb REALLY sucks, 50 steps is the new minimum. These are the kind of climbs where you will see runners scattered along the trail ahead of you, literally clinging on to trees to take a rest break while making sure they don’t tumble backwards down the trail. These are the kind of climbs that literally suck the life out of you, and steal a tiny piece of your soul while they are at it. But all you can do is put your head down and keep going, knowing deep down that it has to end, eventually.
And eventually it does end. But here at the Georgia Death Race, the end of a climb only signaled an equally as steep – if not steeper – descent. I’m only 15 miles into this race, and I’m contemplating which hurts less: the ups or the downs. Each one has it’s pros and cons. The climbs make your lungs scream, but are pretty easy on your body as a whole. The descents give your lungs and heart a chance to relax, but jam your toes into the front of your shoes and set your quads on fire. So, take your pick.
At some point during these “hills of pain” I catch up to a localish (Charleston) runner that I know, Chad. It’s great to have a familiar face on trail with you, someone you can friendly banter with, without seeming like a total wierdo. The two of us fall in line behind two other guys who seem to know what they are doing. So naturally, we start picking their brains. Turns out, they have done – and finished- this race a few times before. They assure us that this really is the hardest part of the race, and that these first cutoffs are the hardest. Their words reassure me, but not nearly as much as their slower, easier pace reassures me. If these guys KNOW what they are doing, and are holding this comfortable pace, then I’m gong to be just fine.
My confidence soars. So much so that I’m chattering their ears off – a classic sign that I’m feeling great. Eventually though, their pace is just a little too slow for my comfort. So I thank them for the company and pass them by to run my own race. As it turns out, that would be the right move to make.
Eventually I come up to an intersection with two volunteers. They tell me it’s 1.2 miles downhill to the Skeenah Gap aid station. I’m stoked, this is the aid station where I’ll get to see Geoff.
It’s insane how much can go wrong during a 1.2 mile downhill.
The temperature is climbing fast. Normally, heat doesn’t bother me, but it’s still only March, and we haven’t had time to adapt to the heat and humidity yet. Plus, downhills in this race are freaking tough. Not to mention, this particular downhill was an out and back, so I was constantly jumping to the side to let other people who were climbing have the right of way. In that moment, I can’t remember who has the right of way, but I figure climbing sucks more (or does it?) so I try to give the ascenders the space. This hill feels like it’s never going to end. As I get closer to the aid station, I notice how people coming out of the aid station do NOT look happy. This doesn’t bode well – usually you’ll never find a runner happier than when they’ve just seen friends, family, and had fistfuls of snacks. But everyone looks downright miserable.
And I’m starting to feel that way too.
I hit Skeenah Gap with 20 minutes to spare. Again, I’m slowly losing that lead I have on the aid station cutoffs. But those guys DID say this was the hardest part of the race, so I don’t necessarily panic. As I run in, the crowd of spectators and crew at Skeenah is overwhelming. They are cheering like crazy, something that would normally make me smile huge. I even hear my name from people I actually know. Yet when my husband says to me “how is it gong?” I reply “I don’t know” and choke back tears.
This surprises me.
I check in at the aid station, fill my hydration bladder, and headback to Geoff to have him help me with my feet. I’ve been very lucky with my feet in the past: they rarely blister, even when stomping through the unforgiving swamps of the Lowcountry. Yet today they are on FIRE, sliding around in my shoes on the endless descents.
I’m feeling bonk-ish, so I do what it’s taken me about a decade to learn to do when I feel this way: eat more food. I down a Huma Gel and immediately follow it with an applesauce pouch and an endurolyte. While Geoff bodyglides my feet, I apply some Runner’s High Herbals to my low back, which is starting to kill me from the climbing, another issue I’ve never experienced before. I don’t linger – I know what that will do to my brain (it will make me want to quit. I’m not fucking quitting). And before I know it, I’m back on the trail.
Skeenah Gap to Point Bravo – 5.6 miles (27 miles total)
It’s 1.2 miles back up that same damn trail. This time I’m the one probably looking miserable as runners are flying down the hill towards Skeenah. About halfway through the climb, I look down at my watch only to realize that these people flying down hill into the aid station probably aren’t going to make the cutoff. I’m flabbergasted as I see the two aforementioned, experienced guys I was following before come rushing down the hill, looking panicked. Shortly after that, I see another runner that I know, one that I watched absolutely destroy (and win) the summer Hell Hole Hundred last June. I suddenly realize what I’m up against: an unforgiving course that was making victims out of runners with a hell of a lot more experience than I have.
But I had to focus on my own race.
Count 50 steps, rest. Count 50 more steps, rest. I was becoming increasingly dizzy, and found myself wondering why that food and electrolytes haven’t kicked in yet. As the wind picked up around me, I found myself alternating between feeling too hot and too cold. I wondered if this was the finicky March weather, or just me. In retrospect, it was probably me. I finally reached the top of the climb and met the same volunteers that told me to go downhill about an hour earlier. This time they told me to take a right, and said it was another 5 miles to Point Bravo.
This isn’t my first trail rodeo. I know that mileage is all a big freaking estimate, and you can’t trust what anyone – or anyone’s GPS watch -says. But I had just spent the last 1.2 miles figuring out that the 5.6 miles between Skeenah and Point Bravo, minus the 1.2 mile climb, should leave me with 4.4 miles until the next aid station. The fact that the volunteers said “5 miles” made me irrationally, well, irrational.
And that’s when things started getting fuzzy. Climbs, flats (not that there were many of them) or descents, it didn’t matter: every few feet I had to stop and rest. Everything that had been wrong with my body for the last two months came flooding back in one big protest. My heartrate was elevated beyond control, and I just felt like utter shit. It got so ridiculous that I resorted to simply walking, because it meant I could go further without having to stop. People began passing me left and right, until it got to the point that I was pretty certain there was no one left behind me.
I literally did not have time for this. The cutoffs in this race are unforgiving. But every time I would convince myself I felt up to running again, I’d end up on the side of the trail, hands on my knees, hunched over at the waist trying to not a) puke, and b) pass out.
I was so pissed at my body for not doing what I asked it to do. I quickly transitioned to being pissed at myself for thinking I was some sort of superhuman that could go from a solid 100 mile training cycle and race, IMMEDIATELY into training for something like the Georgia Death Race, with those two races only being two months apart. I knew better. Of course my body was protesting. What the hell did I expect?
So here I was, a victim of my own stubbornness. I kept going forward. It was all I could do. I knew I’d be cutting it close to the next cutoff, but I didn’t know how close. I had no idea how far I was from Point Bravo, all I knew was that the 1:50 pm cutoff was approaching closely.
And then it arrived.
And the aid station still wasn’t in sight. But I kept going, refusing to face the reality of what was to come. A few minutes later I could hear, and physically see the aid station. I also saw two volunteer starting to take down signs.
Now let me tell you, I’m a solid middle of the pack runner. Sometimes, front of the pack runner, depending on who I’m up against. Missing cutoffs isn’t a thing I’ve ever had to experience. But as I powerhiked my way towards those volunteers, their demeanor said everything that no one was willing to say out loud. One simply wouldn’t look at me. The other had a forced smile with sad eyes as she said something along the lines of “you did great today!”
Not “keep up the good work”, as you usually hear from volunteers and spectators. Not “you can do this” or “keep going”. Nope. “you did great”…but your day is done. I knew it. And yet still, I held it together. And then as I thanked her and passed, she yelled back “I loved what you said about your dad yesterday. He’d be very proud of you.”
And that my friends, is when the tears started flowing.
I walked across the bridge into Point Bravo, where a race official was waiting to scan my bib. He didn’t have to say anything. I knew my day was done. I missed the cutoff by just under 7 minutes.
27 miles, 8,140 ish feet climbed, and my day was done.
Another volunteer ran to grab my drop bag (this was the first of two drop bag aid stations) and another offered me a chair. I chose to sit in dirt and silently shed a few tears. I was grateful that everyone left me alone and let me have my moment.
I don’t cry for long. I’m not one to have a woe-is-me moment in public, I save it for this blog (ha!). I am fortunate that a volunteer offers up the back of his pickup truck to myself and 5 other runners who have DNF’d at this spot. We are in a no-cell service zone, and I have no idea how I would have gotten ahold of Geoff otherwise. So we pile in to the back of this truck and spend the next hour bouncing around down dirt roads in the back of a stuffy, hot, smelly pickup truck bed. It was hilarious, and a fitting end to my Georgia Death Race experience. At some point I am able to get ahold of Geoff, and he says he will meet me at Amicalola Falls, where the truck is headed.
It was probably around 3:45 pm. The sun was shining, and the roads and parking lots at Amicalola Falls State Park were jam packed with cars and traffic, from both weekend warriors, tourists, and race spectators. The traffic was so crazy that Geoff called me and told me to be ready for him, he was going to have to]do a drive-by pickup to collect me. When I saw him pull up, I had just finished saying thank you to the race directors for such a good time, joking about the hour plus bumpy car ride I had just spent in the back of a pickup truck with 5 other smelly runners. I thought I was in good spirits. I was probably still in shock. Because as soon as I sat down in the front passenger seat of our car and shut the door, the tears uncontrollably began falling.
Among the words that came flooding out of my mouth were something along the lines of “I don’t know why I keep doing this. Running perpetually breaks my heart.”
Geoff immediately cut me off with some sort of “that’s not true…” response, the kind of thing a husband is supposed to say to a wife when she is being somewhat irrational. But then he stopped, he listened, and he let me keep crying. In fact, he even told me to keep crying if I wanted to. It’s what I needed.
In those immediate hours post race, I was angry. Angry at only myself, of course. I did this to myself. I didn’t rest properly after my 100 miler. I made the stupid decision to run a 100 miler two months before attempting the Georgia Death Race. I foolishly and severely underestimated the difficulty of this course. I foolishly allowed another race to get under my skin. It’s not like I’m a professional athlete after all, why do I let this bother me so much?
And I was ashamed. Because just the night before, when I gave the speech about my dad, and I told everyone to think of my dad when they wanted to quit. I told them to keep fucking going. And throughout the race, dozens of people took the time to tell me that they kept thinking of my words, and of my dad, and that they were going to keep going.
Unfortuantely, I couldn’t keep going. I missed the cutoff. I won’t lie, that was demoralizing.
In fact, a lot of this past year has been pretty demoralizing. “DNF” has become a regular in my life. I’ve been pushing my physical limitations TOO far, and as such, I perpetually keep crashing and burning. One can only do that so many times before the failures stop being motivating, and instead become embarrassing. ESPECIALLY when you know better.
But in the end, the logical side of my brain understands exactly where we (me, my brain, and my body) went wrong.
(And in the end, I went back to my hotel room, scarfed down leftover Moe’s rice and beans, had a drink, and spilled my guts to my husband, all of which helped bring me back to reality).
The bottom line, for me, was this: I was not physically prepared for this race. It wasn’t a blister, or “just” stomach issues, or a bad day alone. My body simply wasn’t up to par. I thought I could race Frozen Hell Hole, recover in a week, and hop right back into high intensity training for GDR, and I was wrong. Very, very wrong. The mind is an incredible thing, and mental strength can take you so very far. But our bodies are not infallible, and we can only mentally will ourselves to go so far before the body says “yeah…no thanks, I’m out”. It’s a hard lesson to learn, especially at the cost of a race that meant a lot to me. But as my Dad would have said “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.” Oh how my father loved all of those cliché dad sayings (“Money doesn’t grown on trees” and “you make a better door than a window” were two of his favorites.)
I simply didn’t show up to this race in the physical shape this race demands. And holy shit, does this race demand a lot. That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
But do you know what? It’s OK. I’ve had a few days to think it over, and I’ve realized that it still stands true: running never takes more than it gives back. Yes, sometimes, running will absolutely break your heart. Running will humble you. Running will make a fool of you. Running will tear you down, often forcing you to face some realities you may have been running to escape from in the first place.
But if you are patient, eventually running truly will give back more than it could ever take. This weekend I had the opportunity to meet some incredible athletes. This weekend I had the opportunity to run in the gorgeous trails of the Northern Georgia mountains. This weekend I had my ass handed to me as I was humbled by those same trails, which if you ask any ultra runner, is a secret pleasure of ours. This weekend, I had the opportunity to tell my dad’s story to a few hundred strangers. And countless runners came up to me over the course of the race, telling me they were thinking of my dad, and how those words were helping them dig deeper. I can’t tell you how much that means to me, to know that my Dad’s memory was helping people tackle a race of this magnitude.
This weekend was a huge eye opener, on a number of levels.
So I’m going to take my own advice here. I’ve got some work to do. Well, first I’ve got some physical healing to do. But I have no doubt that the heartache of another failed course will only pay off double in the future. Head up Heather. You aren’t a quitter. Keep fucking going.
GDR…I’ll be back for you.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.
I can feel your heartache as I read your words, but I love how you ended: head up….keep going. I can’t run anymore (my knee still hasn’t forgiven me for running a marathon January 2018), but there are days in my workouts that I want to quit. I’ll remember this post and……keep going…..
Organic Runner Mom
Wow! What an emotional roller coaster ride. You are brave for just going after these incredibly tough races. Thank you for sharing your race story.
Run Bum posted a picture of you speaking on his Instagram story, I wish I could remember what he said about you but it was really awesome and I saw it and thought THAT’S HER! I read her stuff all the time, that’s who I donated to,I was so excited for you, I knew I had to come see if you had wrote anything about it… Reading this I felt like I was there, I felt the excitement and the lows and when I read that you didn’t make it to the check point on time, I started bawling. Not because I was disappointed you didn’t make it, but because reading so much of your stuff, I knew how important this race was to you, and how disappointed you probably where with yourself… and then when I finally stopped crying, you got me again at the end lol.. You’re right, you’ve got this, you are enough, and you’re not a quitter! You should be proud of your fund raising and your speech, all the people you inspired, and for even being there.. I hope to one day be able to do the GDR too.. Thank you for all your articles and inspiration.
This is a great write up. DNFs are tricky. You have a good head on your shoulders and I think you have a good mental take on this one. I DNF’d an Ironman last year. It was my 8th start. It was my choice to pull out and it was the right choice to make. Even still it messed with my head for a few months. Which is all just to say that this might come up in your thoughts a few more times. I hope not but mine did.
I loved this. I was there and ran close to you for a little bit. Your experience was so close to mine (I was cut at Skeenah by one minute – one of those flying down the mountain). It took me back to that day and all the emotions – up and down. Thank you for sharing.
Are you returning next month? I’ll be there, and I’m freaking out a little with the course changes and found myself reading blogs about the sections I didn’t see. GDR was my first DNF, and I might just do it again. I’ll think of you if I end up in the back of a pick up truck. 🙂