Saturday, November 15, 2014

Race Report: Strikhedonia--Georgia Sky to Summit 50K

(Originally posted as a Facebook note on 15 November 2014.)

(I don't usually write race reports.  A few of you asked for this.  Pardon my out-of-practice writing skills. 
For my American readers--please forgive the use of the metric system.)

Like many languages, German is a cesspool of many words that are difficult to translate into English because they would take entire essays.  One of these, sehnsucht, represents an emotional state which stems from "inconsolable longing" (in the words of C.S. Lewis) for an unfamiliar, far-off land which one can easily identify as their own home.  As the nature of running ultras seemingly just consists of making infinite despair your only friend and constant neighbor, I've lately taken to traveling into random, distant places for my races to attempt to complement this lovely aspect of racing through attempting to satisfy my sehnsucht.

My boss told me back in late May that I needed burn off a few more vacation days before the end of the year.  It's tough to take vacations when you already live next to the rockies, and when you need training runs for a race season spanning from April to mid-October with races every month (including an odd six-week, three-ultra spell).  So logically the only thing I could do was extend my season into winter.  With no room to burn off days in December due to me being busy with annual regulatory disclosure work, my only choice was then to find something in November that was at least 50K but not as high as 100mi or a 24 hour run as I expected to be physically and mentally fatigued by late September.  I logged on to UltraSignup and found it to be full of races with multiple loop repeats during the month--all except the Georgia Sky to Summit 50K.  This took place in rural nowheresville in NE Georgia, where I had never been before, and it seemed to be much better than the concrete jungle of Atlanta.  It seemed like a good idea as I would have the elevation and altitude training for it already, the foliage would be nice that time of year, and that I would experience a whole new level of technicality that didn't involve sharp scree or fresh bear scat.  After a few minutes of thought, I played the YOLO card and signed up for it.

looking for some singletrack
looking for some singletrack
Race day felt normal for me--the start was right above freezing at 5°C with frost clearly visible on the ground, so my 4" inseam shorts were still good at the start line.  (Canadians are weird like that.)   While waiting for the race to start with some newfound friends, I noted to myself that this was the fourth time this year I would race through a ski resort facility--even though this had turned into a country club.  It had been a while since I was in a race with just over a hundred of us at the start, and I quickly realized how much I missed intimate, "fun" runs like these.  I toed the line with the fasties to warm up on the paved asphalt roads uphill but quickly throttled back as the grades started increasing until I reached a comfortable pace on the forestry roads leading up to the first Rabun Bald summit.

leaves leaves EVERYWHERE
leaves leaves EVERYWHERE
It must have been a long-ass climb as I immediately embraced the downhill towards Wilson Gap upon summiting, without even noticing the view of being at Georgia's highest point, or the fact that there was a large observation deck right next to the junction.  I tried pushing it down the single-track but found that I had unconsciously settled into my winter running stride--large vertical oscillations to account for snow cover and severe step hesitation due to exposure to roots and rocks at a shallow depth--except that this race had ankle-deep dead leaves in the place of snow.  It still was much preferable than ice, but I had to let a few definitely-local sprinters rip past me, though I found comfort in the thought that I was enjoying the scenery as much as I could during my stay in the South.

I don't normally bring fireworks with me on a trail run.
I don't normally bring fireworks with me on a trail run.
On top of Rabun Bald, looking towards SC
On top of Rabun Bald, looking towards SC
Once past Wilson Gap I had to contend with the three creek crossings on the way to Darnell Creek.  I had never attempted creek crossings at these temperatures before, even being from Canada--but it turned out to not be a big deal as I had already sufficiently rolled my ankle a few times on rocks and my IT bands were on fire from the nearly-700m drop, so my legs weren't complaining.  There was a campfire set up at the turn around point so naturally I hung out there for a few minutes to fill up on solids and to shed my jacket before embarking on the long climb back to Rabun Bald.  This turned out to be a bit of a hike so I naturally settled into a conversational pace and making a few more local friends--Meredith, who was running her first ultra, and Michael, who was pushing through a hamstring cramp on these brutal hills like a boss.   After the 12km climb was complete I was surprised by the presence of the aforementioned observation deck, and by the fact that I somehow missed it my first pass.

I took a few minutes off to grab a selfie (in the words of my philosopher friend Joedine--"selfies or it didn't happen") while Meredith proceeded downhill, and I was amazed by the sheer beauty of the Georgian landscape--Sean definitely was not kidding when he said this was the most scenic 50K on the east coast.  It was like I had torn open a rainbow--being this high, and being able to see mountains in three different states was essentially the epitome of why I trail run.

The downhill from Rabun Bald to Three Forks ended up initially being a whole lot steeper than what I wanted.  My Hokas were having none of the rocks under the leaves, so I tried 'skiing' down the slope with my poles for support but that just led to more toe stubbing.  I throttled it back some more until the slope leveled out but I knew I had bled off a lot of speed as a few more locals overtook me--including another one wearing flip flops.

Holcomb Creek Falls
Holcomb Creek Falls
Three Forks was a sight for sore eyes as it had been 12k since the last aid station, so I spent around five minutes there refuelling.  A few people passed me while I had stopped but I ended up catching up with them on the wide forestry road boulevards prior to ducking back into some sweet singletrack.  I stopped for another selfie at Holcomb Creek Falls--we don't have a lot of decent waterfalls in Alberta--before coming back out onto the road to Hale Ridge.  Even though I was on the road, my quads were needing another creek crossing by now so I saw a few more runners come up in the distance behind me.  One of them, Larry from North Carolina, looked substantially older than me (he was nearly three times my age) so I tried to drop him to save face; unfortunately this was made difficult by a gently upward-sloping road.  We ended up run/walking together, and I somehow learned that he had a mutual friend who also lived in Calgary.  I liked the pace we were at so we just stuck together for the rest of the run from there--we quickly dropped the others behind us while discussing various running topics, and what similiarities and differences there were between our running cultures fostered on opposite sides of the continent.

Once we got to Hale Ridge Road the volunteer there noted that we sounded like we were having too much fun, and while that is totally the point, she was also absolutely right.  It was probably at that point where I felt that I had rationalized my sehnsucht--I had wade through an ungodly amount of dead leaves, rolled ankles, stubbed toes, badly timed cravings for cake, the disappointment of being passed by yet another racer wearing flip flops (for those who don't remember, the first one was at Big Sur this year)--and yet, I felt like I was home.  The strange camaderie in the culture here between runners and volunteers and spectators had made the tough climbs, stitches and cramps totally worth it.  All of a sudden, amidst all the pain in my legs, and my disappointment that she did not have any cake--it felt good.

After one last sojourn into singletrack we came out behind some houses at Beegum Gap.  We were back on paved roads proceeding gently downhill; I could have sped it up a little bit as such but there wasn't much point as I was thoroughly enjoying my chat with Larry at this point anyways and that there was no one in sight behind us.  We cruised down towards the finish line--Larry gave me his approval to send it to the finish line, in case there were cameras there, so I did--but we both still finished in the top 25% of the field.   I bought Larry a Stella and we hung out at the finish line cheering incoming runners while drowning ourselves in some warm pasta and some of his Canadian Club.

I've run tougher 50K's than this--this was actually my second fastest 50K to date, second to a road 50K.  But that being said, there were still a few challenging aspects of the course--for starters, I must admit I definitely underestimated the terrain here.  There was no way I could have trained for this back up here in Canada as the only way to do so would be to go out on first snow, when the base hasn't frozen yet so rocks and roots and fallen trees can still be felt with every step, but that period happens concurrently with this race.  I had done some step work with roots and stuff already, but I was unable to prepare for a sea of dead leaves.   There was also a bit of tediousness I wasn't prepared for in the sense that it took a while for me to erase the sounds of leaves crunching out of my head, but that stuff builds your mental discipline anyways for longer runs.

Would this experience make me want to come back to Georgia?  Unfortunately I had signed up for the 68mi Georgia Death Race that occurs in March at Blairsville prior to running this race, so I guess I have to--not that I am complaining.  I am definitely already looking forward to partaking in some more familiar mountain goat climbs in these fantastic landscapes, especially in the company of Larry, who will be around pacing someone else, along with some other newfound friends and awesome people.  It takes place in a different part of the state, involves a grade I have never attempted before, and as Sean said, Sky to Summit won't prepare you in any way for the GDR--so I think it'll definitely be an adventure.

In any case--I'm pretty sure I'll still feel right at home.


By the numbers:
  • Total distance: 50.2km
  • Elapsed: 7:13:46 (8:38/k)
  • Moving: 7:00:15
  • Elevation gain: 2223m
  • Average vertical oscillation: 8.9cm
  • Average ground contact: 377ms
  • Place: 26/102
  • Gender Place: 25/75

Other notes:
  • Shoes: Hoka One One Rapa Nui 2
  • Poles: Black Diamond Ultra Distance
  • Proof heckling sometimes works: while drinking Canadian Club with Larry I was yelling at incoming runners to run faster as the beer was getting warm (they were in ice buckets, so this was a lie).  One of these runners came up to me afterwards and thanked me for making him sprint to a barely sub-eight hour finish. 
  • Larry and I could have won the most-trash collected prize as we found a mattress on the road to Hale Ridge that definitely weighed more than a meth cooking barrel, but neither of us wanted to lug that through single-track. 
  • Other races I've done this year which go through a ski resort: Trailstoke (Revelstoke), The Rut (Big Sky), Tour de Tirol Kaisermarathon (Wilder Kaiser), and now this. 

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