Sunday, May 15, 2016

Cruel Jewel "100": Race Recap


I met Rob Goyen and Steven Monte at the Atlanta airport, and we drove to Blairsville, with a stop for amazing pizza along the way.  When we checked into our hotel, I received an envelope from the front desk clerk; inside was a handmade card from my amazing Trail Racing Over Texas teammate Katie, with motivational quotes on little slips of paper!  I carried them with me all 37 hours of the race.
Katie's inspirational surprise!
Race Day: The Start

The race start was Friday at noon, which was kind of nice, because we got to sleep in.  I don't think I've ever gotten nine hours of sleep the night before a race until this experience!

The pre-race briefing was basically: "If you DNF, do it at an aid station.  Follow the pink ribbons.  Red is dead.  Your SPOT tracker might not work; don't come bitching to me if it doesn't."

From the gun, Gia and Steven and pretty much ALL the other runners left me in their dust. I hadn't run for two weeks, and my back was so stiff and sore that my running gait was more of a shuffle.  I didn't want to take tons of ibuprofen during the race, because I know it can lead to rhabdomyolysis, and I had already taken four that morning.  However, I made it only fourteen minutes into the race before I concluded that the risk was worth it; I couldn't make it 108 miles with this SI joint as bad as it was.  I decided I would be sure to stay well hydrated and take pills as sparingly as possible.  By the race's end, I had taken a total of 12 ibuprofen, mixed with probably 7 caffeine pills.  Towards the end of the race, I didn't do great at hydration, but I did say a little apology to my kidneys when I took my final dose of ibuprofen, so I felt like that made up for it.

Warming Up

My doc, the best in the world, told me he thought it might take maybe 10 miles for my SI joint to loosen up.  It actually took about 40 miles, but then it did really feel better.  At the mile 20.6* aid station, Rob told me there were only 8 runners behind me.  Eight.  I spent the rest of the race, once I felt better, trying to move up in the field.

*All distances provided for this race were short, by all accounts.  If it was supposed to be 5.5 miles from one point to the next, it was liable to actually be 6.  If it was supposed to be 7.6, it would actually be 8.1.  Some information about the race online says it's a 106-mile race; some says it's 108 miles.  I'm guessing it's at least 110.

The early miles are all a blur to me, but my biggest impression was regarding the landscape.  I'd never been to Georgia before, and didn't know what to expect.  What we got, in the Chattahoochie National Forest, was what Gia described as a green tunnel: the tall trees provided a shady canopy that kept us cool in the 75-degree heat, while obscuring any and all views of the beautiful, smoky mountains in every direction.  Literally, there was not a single nice vista in the entire race course; all you could see were teases of the views that might have been.

Some of the beautiful views we did not get to see
I had a lot of time to reflect on the landscape, because as soon as we hit the trails, I was almost immediately alone.  The only times during the race when there were people around me were the Deep Gap loops, the stretch to the turnaround at Camp Morganton and back, and the Weaver Creek spur.  The rest of the time, I was left to my lonesome, alternately cursing aloud and silently: "F this f-ing course!"  (More on that later.)

This was the first race where I've used trekking poles.  They were a lifesaver on the climbs, although carrying them for that long posed some challenges.  Miraculously, I never tripped myself or poked anyone with them; however, I did accidentally throat-punch myself once when the end of my left pole rammed into a tree while I was running.  Could've done without that.

A Moveable Feast
Some people like to stand at aid stations, like they're at a buffet without plates.  Since time equals time, I like to grab some food and go.  I relied heavily on the aid station food at this race, rather than eating packaged food I brought with me.  I ate their potato chips, PBJs, grilled cheese, ramen, orzo, pickles, frosted cookies, and an oatmeal cream pie.  The most delicious food was a rice bar made with avocado and sweet potato.  I came up with this great system where I'd grab, say a dixie cup of orzo and a PBJ sandwich, stick the sandwich in the cup, and stick the cup in my bra.  Then I'd take off down the trail, and whenever I felt like I needed calories, I'd reach in and grab something.  It was so perfect! 

Rob ran something like 11 miles with me during the race, which was so much fun.  Once, as we were running, I reached into my bra and pulled out a quesadilla and started eating it.  Rob got this look of wonder/disgust.  Here was the conversation:

Rob: It was all fun and games until Julie pulled a quesadilla out of her boobs.
Me: Shit's getting real, Rob.
Rob: Shit's getting real real.

And then there was this conversation, at an aid station:

Me to Rob: Remind me to throw away my bra garbage.
Aid station volunteer to Rob: I'll take that cup.
Rob to Aid station volunteer: Lady, you do not want this cup.  Trust me, it's nasty.  Boob garbage.
Aid station volunteer: ???

(After the race, at 2:00am Sunday, back at the hotel, when I undressed to take a shower, multiple bread crusts fell out of my bra onto the floor.  Yikes.)

High Times, Low Times
I felt really good during the first night.  I passed a ton of people during the first Deep Gap loop, especially.  I guess I reluctantly embraced Chris's nickname, for me, "Mistress of the Night," even though it does make me sound like a hooker.  But coming back from the turnaround point (not quite halfway through the race), I had a low point.  The turnaround is in a shelter, with lights, flushing toilets, warmth, and humanity.  Leaving it at 11:45pm for the 50-degree darkness, knowing I still had 56 or so miles left to run, was not fun.  Especially since at the aid station I stupidly grabbed a potato and put enough salt on it to kill a million slugs.  My stomach immediately started cramping, and I spent the next couple hours alternating between stomach cramps, dives into the woods to take care of business, and not wanting to eat for fear of more problems.

The Devil's Buttcrack
When the sun came up, two guys from Ohio caught up to me.  I thought they'd want to pass, but they stayed behind me for the next 9.5 miles, for which I was so grateful.  Not only because the guy immediately behind me, Pacer John, was funny and entertaining and playing Beatles music, but also because Runner Steve sounded just as miserable as I felt.  That section, which took us on a spur trail to Weaver Creek Road, was basically a 2,000 foot descent into the seventh ring of hell.  With every steep step we took down the mountain, all I could think was, "No! Not more down!  We're just gonna have to come back up!"  I thought the descent would never end.  But then it did, and there was nothing for it but to turn around and head back up.  Again, thank goodness for John and Steve; suffering through that misery would have been much worse without them.  I was so grateful, in fact, that while John was telling me about Ohio, I actually said out loud, "Go Buckeyes!"  Don't worry; I immediately felt regret and secretly took it back.  I plead temporary insanity. 

The Road
We got to run on the road between Old Dial Rd and Wilscot Gap.  It was a really nice change of pace after all the up/down trails.  Despite the fact that it was a cloudless, bright sunny day, and I had neglected to carry a hat or sunglasses in my pack, I really enjoyed that 5.5-mile* section.  I was feeling good, Rob was with me, and he said later we were running 8-something-minute miles, which was great considering I'd run 80 miles already.  This was also where I moved into 5th place, which I held til the end.

The Dragon's Spine
There's a 4.9-mile* section (read: closer to 6) called the Dragon's Spine.  It's after the last dropbag location, about 82 miles into the race.  The entire race course travels up and down mountains constantly, and there's no such thing as a switchback.  But this particular section is a bitch and a half.  I thought it was never going to end.  Rob ran it on his own, and told me later that parts were literally 30% grade.  Long before this point, the front of my ankle/lower leg had swollen up and become very painful on the uphills, due to the angle my foot had to take on the ups.  This made it all the worse.  With each new uphill stretch, I'd look around, fully expecting to see other runners lying in a heap on the side of the trail, sobbing and begging for deliverance.  I was really proud of all of us, that we didn't; I can't be the only one who had a desire to do just that.  When I finally finished that section and dragged my @ss into the aid station, there were several runners sitting around in camp chairs, with dead eyes, looking broken.  I looked around at them, pointed behind me at the trail we'd just come from, and said, "What the hell was that?!"  The ones who had energy gave me a pity laugh.

Towards the Finish
Coming out of the Fish Gap aid station, I could not find my mojo.  Fifty-milers (who had started Saturday morning from the 100-mile turnaround) were passing me, and disappearing so quickly ahead of me on the downhills.  I just couldn't seem to go faster.  My head seemed to be floating above my body; I was really out of it.  Fortunately, I've been there before, and I remembered what Stefan told me at Cactus last year: "Maybe it's calories.  Take a gel every 20 minutes until you feel better."  I happened to have 3 gels on me, so I followed that strategy, and after the third one, I seemed to get a little mojo back.  I was able to run much more quickly down the hills, and with a couple miles left before the last manned aid station, I re-passed almost all the 50-milers who had passed me when I was feeling low.  Unfortunately, the next aid station didn't have any gels, so I took some cookies instead.  In the last 7.4 miles* (more like 9 miles), I didn't even care about eating or drinking.  I barely took a sip of water.  I downed ibruprofen #11 and #12, another caffeine pill, and emitted a cloud of profanity so large that it's probably still looming over the Georgia mountains.  

When it got dark, before I got to the last aid station, the wind picked up a ton, and it must've been around 40 degrees.  I pulled my arm warmers and light jacket out of my pack, and pulled my buff over my ears, but my poor legs were still freezing.  Part of that strectch in the dark followed a ridge line, where the trail was right next to a big drop-off.  This was the second night in a row of running on zero sleep, and I kept thinking, "What if I took one bad step and fell off the cliff? I could really benefit from a buddy system!"

There was one long stretch in the last 4 miles of the race where there were absolutely no course markings.  When I passed a guy in this section, he asked me if we were going the right way, and I said yeah, but after another 5 minutes of running, with no confidence markers in sight, I started to wonder.  Eventually I got worried enough to turn around and backtrack to the last marker.  Fortunately, before I had gone half a mile, I ran into someone who said he knew the trail, and we were on it.  But there was 1 extra mile that I didn't need when I'd already done over a hundred.  And then when we came to a road, I took it, thinking that, mercifully, this was the road we had started on, that led back to the start/finish.  Unfortunately, after a few minutes of running down the hill, I realized this was not the right road, so I had to turn around and go back up the bleeping hill.  Another half a mile or so that I didn't need to do.  

Back on the correct trail, again there was a distinct absence of trail markings.  And it seemed to last forever.  I'm not an angry person; I get mad maybe once per year.  But this was it for me.  I started angry-muttering.  Things like, "Great!  I hope this trail NEVER f---ing ends!"  Fortunately, the trail gods didn't hold it against me, and the race did end.  I crossed the finish line, received my enormous buckle, and found my friends waiting in the warm shelter.  Here's me forcing a smile for Rob:

At some point on the Dragon's Spine, I said to myself, "F--- running.  I need to reexamine my life choices.  What the hell am I doing here?"  Steven said that something similar crossed his mind, that during the race he thought about retiring from running.  Of course, by Sunday he was already thinking about coming back for his 3rd Cruel Jewel.  (I told him he's out of his f---ing mind.)  As for me, I'm not eager to do this particular race again, but I am thinking about other mountain hundreds.  After all, if I could accomplish this, which seemed impossible, injured or not, it would be cool to see what else is possible.  It's kind of fun (albeit in a sick and twisted way) to test yourself with a challenge you've never experienced, where there's an actual risk of failure, and feel that accomplishment of coming out on the other side, scraped and swollen and sore, but alive.  

One lingering effect of this race, in case you haven't noticed, is that I'm still cursing like a sailor-turned-truck-driver who also works part time on an oil rig.  It's coming out in my writing, for which I apologize.  Hopefully that will wear off soon, at least until the next mountain race.  (Oh, which is in 3 weeks.)