Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Georgia Death Race

I almost talked myself out of running the Georgia Death Race.

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about who I am now as a runner, a reevaluation sparked by my recent knee issues.  In the fourteen months following the surgery, my running slowly progressed.  But, as I discussed in my previous post, the last four months had been more of a setback.  Any athlete who has had a serious injury knows that the hardest part of rehab is not knowing if you'll ever be capable of doing what you used to do.  By the time I reached the start line of the Death Race, I had convinced myself that my days of running the really tough, technical stuff might be over and I needed to focus on different goals.  However, here I was, with four weeks of training, getting ready to do something really stupid.  Nineteen hours later, laying face down in the dirt, I had no regrets.  Except for maybe not seeing that root.

The Georgia Death Race is a 64 mile point to point run in the North Georgia mountains.  It starts at Vogel State Park near Blairsville and ends at Amicalola Falls near Dawsonville.  The first half of the run follows the ridgeline on single track and by the time you are finished, you have endured over 30,000 feet of elevation change.  This seems almost impossible in Georgia, but much like with the Bartram  Trail, the original trail designer must have believed that switchbacks are for sissies.  If there is a mountain, you go over it, not around.

Created by Cary Stephens (not the full course)
This was the inaugural race and everything seemed to come off well organized and well planned.  The website and handbook were informative and any questions were answered quickly on the race's Facebook page.  The race director, Sean Blanton, was enthusiastic and easy to communicate with.  The start and finish venues were ideal, with lodging, camping and ample parking.  There were a couple of facets of the race I didn't personally like, but it is the race director's prerogative and I am fine with following his rules.  One is the 4:00 a.m. start.  It's hard to get any sleep, but I did appreciate being done before midnight.  The other is the mandatory gear list.  Even Hellgate, which dishes out frozen corneas and frostbite, doesn't have one.  With the gear I had to carry on a 70 degree day, I didn't have enough room for things I actually could use.  But I knew what I had to carry when I signed up for it and I understand why that requirement was there, so I have no complaints.

The check in and drop bag drop off went smoothly that morning. After a reading from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (it was the best of times, it was the worst of times...), the RD sent  the runners off into the night.  After a short run through the campground, runners hit the single track and remained there for the next 28 miles.  Just like any race on single track, there was a long conga line, but I ended up somewhere in the middle in a pack that was moving at the pace I wanted to.  After an initial steep climb, a long downhill gave everyone a chance to spread out before the big, steep 2000 foot climb to come.  The views of the lights in the valley down below were a nice reward as you continued the climb.

Photo by John McBrayer
After finally topping out, you ran on some gentle rolling trail for a short time.  I think that was the last time there was any gentle, rolling terrain for the rest of the race.  From there it was straight down the mountain on rough, muddy, canted trail.  A failure to control your slide would have resulted in a tumble over the edge and then you would have appreciated all the mandatory gear you had in your pack. And then the pattern began. Hit the gap at the bottom and start a steep crawl over the next peak.  I learned not to look up and see where I had to go; it was too demoralizing.  I focused on the trail in front of me and just kept plugging along.  The views from the ridgelines were exceptionally nice since there were not any leaves on the trees and the 4 a.m. start did give you a beautiful sunrise.

The heat became a major issue as the day wore on.  Without any leaves, there was no shade, and although there was a nice wind, the climbs became tougher and tougher.  Around 20 miles, you drop down a couple miles to an aid station.  It is an out and back and I could tell by looking at the runners coming up the hill that it was going to be tough getting back up that hill.  It was not as steep as the other climbs, just longer and hotter.  By the time we hit the next aid station, the heat had really cranked up.  This was the first really warm weekend of the year and most of us were not acclimated.  This is what I was doing two weeks before (yes, my hair is frozen) :

 Anyway, my body tends to handle heat and cold well and I didn't have major issues.  Some other runners were not so lucky and the heat ended their race.

At mile 28, there was a short, easy road section, followed by a a nice swinging bridge and then a cruel surprise- another long steep climb.  This turned into a seven mile section of single track with more steep climbs and descents. People were really starting to suffer from the heat here.

At the end of this section, however, it was all forest road to the end.  Unfortunately, the roads were gravel and at times rough, beating up your feet pretty badly.  Luckily, I ended up running with a couple of other runners whose pace kept me moving decently and conversation distracted me from the monotony of road.

There was a particularly pretty section of paved road that went through some farm land.  Everything was green, the daffodils were blooming and the people were friendly.  When the road turned back to gravel, a never-ending climb to next aid station began.  It wasn't steep, but after a long, hot day, it was just tiring.  The mileage was off in some parts of the course and I'm hoping this was one of the sections. It sure felt longer than seven miles.

Once you reach the final aid station at the top, you have a nice easy run downhill to Amicalola Falls State Park.  Once in the park, you finish by running down a steep, rocky road, and then down a final, rooty section of trail to the finish.  About 500 yards from the finish, I took my only spill of the day and it was a good one. One moment I was upright and the next minute face down in the dirt.  Literally.  I skinned my forehead and my nose. I landed on my bad knee. After laying there briefly, laughing at my stupidity, I got up and assessed the damage.  I was afraid Tony would see me  at the finish with blood streaming down my face, so I rinsed it with my water and waited for two runners who came up behind me to make sure it didn't look too bad.   A few minutes later, I had my spike in my hand, a nice finish to over nineteen hours of running.

 So, my day....

My knee didn't hurt.  The moment I decided it couldn't handle the tough runs, it proved me wrong.  I have no explanation for that.  I was hurting just sitting the day before. Eight hours on similar terrain on the Bartram made me limp.  But today, nineteen hours of steep controlled slides, mud, off camber trails, rocks, and uneven gravel didn't bother it.  I did take some ibuprofen to keep inflammation down, but not much. When I fell at the end of  the race, I scraped and bruised the knee, but it still works fine.  I didn't feel the imbalance in my legs that I had been feeling, so my visits to the weight room have paid off.  I guess I'll know for sure when I go for a run on it in a day or two. My big problem, though, was my asthma. I already had some chest congestion before the race started.  Being stuck in the dust of other runners made it worse and my lungs ached most of the day.

I did not expect to go under 20 hours.  Even though I did not try to push my pace at any point and was careful to run as gently as I could, I finished at least five hours faster than I predicted.  I was in a good mood all day, very thankful that my knee was working, that I was capable of doing this race, and I was just happy to be out there.

The race was well done.  The terrain was extremely challenging and beautiful. The aid stations workers and radio operators were all friendly and helpful.  The course was exceptionally well marked and whenever I started to worry if I was in the right place I found a marker.  I wish there had been more real food at the aid stations later in the day, but that is a problem at many races. Apparently there had been some, but it was gone when I came through and a couple of aid stations had run out of coke. The bacon aid station, however, did not disappoint!  The drop bag return was a bit problematic, but the race director quickly contacted me and is mailing what I was missing.

It was nice to see many friends from NC, SC and GA at the race, both running and crewing. The Foothills crowd was well represented (Psyche and Charles, Byron, the Lundblads).  And congratulations to Mark Lundblad who won the race tearing it up in 11:40!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

ACL Update at 18 Months

If you are looking for a running post, I'll save you some time. This post about ACL pain over a year post-op.  I couldn't find a lot of information when I googled it, so thought I should post an update.

After Pinhoti 100 in November, I had a lot of bad runs.  My knee would start aching, I would compensate with the other leg and by the end of any run over 8 miles, I just hurt from the hips down.  I also noticed that my muscle strength was still out of balance, so I started doing some rehab again. (Once I got my weekly mileage up, I had stopped rehabbing, mistakenly thinking that the hills and trails would suffice).

Around Christmas, my long incision scar started to feel painfully tight when I ran, and then the next weekend,  I rolled my right ankle a little, which yanked on my left (bad) knee.  It hurt, but then I finished the run out no problem.  After that run, the top of my scar swelled up and whenever I tried to run for the next couple of weeks, it hurt too much.  The pain emanated from the scar, but it also felt like things were digging into the kneecap above the scar.  I got very frustrated because this was the first time since surgery that it hurt too much to run.  After a couple weeks of rest, ice and massage, the swelling and pain subsided to the point where I could run again. I did two back to back eight mile runs with what I now consider normal pain: where I can run, but the knee reminds me constantly that it still isn't 100%.

I  went to see my surgeon to make sure there wasn't something bad going on inside.  He was a little concerned that I might be having issues with the screw, but X-rays showed everything intact.  He said I probably did something to it when I rolled my ankle and in the future, whenever it started giving me trouble, to back off and get on the bike for a little while.  Ice, three advil three times a day and if it doesn't respond to ice, try heat.  He also said there's a bursa in there that might get irritated.

Since then (the end of January), I have been in the gym twice a week working my legs hard. Interestingly, my "bad" leg was stronger in some ways than my "good" leg.  After a month, I don't see a big difference in my legs anymore.  I have been stretching a lot and I have slowly worked my mileage up.  It still hurts, more on some days than others, but it is not pain that causes me to limp or compensate. Some days it feels like I have a sharp rock behind my kneecap, other times it is more patellar tendon pain, where it connects to the kneecap.

As of early March, I have run a 28 mile trail run in the snow with little problem. I yanked the knee initially on a rocky trail and it hurt for a couple hours, but subsided.  I ran a 24 mile extremely steep run and it hurt pretty bad on the downhills by the end of the day.  This weekend I run the Georgia Death Race, a 60 mile steep run and that will be the big test.