Race Report: Sky to Summit 50k 2016

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The valleys and mountains of north Georgia are just waking up.

It’s Nov. 9th and Donald Trump is our President-Elect as I sit down to write this race report. I spent yesterday working the polls at my local precinct helping people to have their voice heard. Of course, I don’t know how any of them voted, but I do know that of the 4000+ people registered to vote at that precinct 2600+ of them showed up. It’s always about showing up.

The idea to run the Sky to Summit 50k came to me around April as I looked back on the Bel Monte races in Feb. where I dropped down from the 50k to the 25k because of some awful IT band issues. I was determined to use the next few months to regain some fitness and get strong.

Choosing Sky to Summit as your first ultra is maybe not my best idea. I’ve never been one for moderation in life. If you know me better than most, you can vouch for this.

The Sky to Summit course is a tough mountain course with almost 8000 feet of elevation gain with 3-4 intense climbs and the same number of descents along some occasionally technical single track. The course has runners climbing up and over Georgia’s second highest mountain…twice! Add all that to a couple of long (~5-8 miles) stretches between aid stations and it can get downright grim if it weren’t for the amazing views.

Further, the race allows no crew, no pacers, and no drop bags. There are aid stations full of friendly, calming, helpful, and amazing volunteers but that boost that comes from seeing a friend or family member wasn’t going to happen unless I made it to the finish line where my wife and son would be waiting.

Until this weekend, I’d never run more than 17-18 miles in training or a race. That Bel Monte 25k was my longest effort. Over the summer, I had a few 18 mile days on trails around our area. I also paced my friend Jim at a 36-hour race and got in about 18 flatland miles which gave me a bit of hope.

I wasn’t sure about running overnight at Jim’s race but I wanted to hang out with Jim. I wanted to get a taste for running without slowing to climb or descend but just hold a steady pace for hours. I wanted to help a friend and have a new experience. I wanted to show up.

Pacing Jim at Holston River went well, so I planned a trail marathon in September to test my training, nutrition, and equipment. I had hoped to run the Douthat Odyssey Trail Running Rampage marathon. About two weeks before that race, I was diagnosed with a heel spur that was really limiting my ability to train effectively. So, I skipped the race in an effort to heal a bit. I did not show up.

That meant I arrived in Sky Valley, GA with an ailing foot and a month-plus of limited training for the hardest race I’ve yet to attempt. My confidence was extremely low. I felt that I could finish the race but that the time cutoff, while generous at 10 hours, would still cause me problems. I knew that I would need to make up time going downhill but that’s exactly what causes my heel spur to really ache. It was a bad combination.

Like many of the Run Bum races, Sky to Summit is a bit more low-key and grassroots affair than some other races. No giant banners or inflatable finish lines. The course is stunningly beautiful though and the volunteers are amazing. Saturday morning didn’t feature loud music or product pitches or sponsors giving away swag. Just a bunch of people standing in the cold dark listening to the Run Bum get us fired up. And it was dark. Smoke from fires on the west side of the GA mountains obscured the moon and stars.

The start was even delayed for a bit so we’d have a bit more sun on our first ascent to Rabun Bald. That wasn’t true for runners who chose to take the 30 minute head start option. I did not take that option. Remember that for later.

The race starts with a steep climb up a small, neighborhood road which had most of us just hiking and getting warmed up. I ran into a couple of guys from my hometown, Albany, GA, and we chatted a bit about what was ahead of us. One of them, Jason, was running his first ultra ever and we joked about racing for last place. We talked about our training and being nervous about doing this for the first time. It’s scary to put yourself in a position where you are so vulnerable. But Jason showed up.

After about 4 miles of hiking/running up 1500ft of climb, I was at the top of Rabun Bald where the views were amazing. I stopped for a couple of minutes to take some photos and enjoy the sunrise trying to clear my head for the rest of the day. I thought this might be the best I felt for the next several days. I wasn’t wrong.

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The first summit of Rabun Bald as the sun comes up.

Descending 4-5 miles down to the Wilson Gap aid station, there’s about a 300ft climb to maneuver over and down but it’s mostly nice single track where I fell into what felt like a decent rhythm. It was in this section when the leader and eventual winner, David Kilgore, passed me headed back up to Rabun Bald. He finished in 4:19 or something. Just incredible. I cheered him on and shook my head. David showed up.

Leaving Wilson Gap, the course does a loop with a little out and back section. Coming back out of that loop is a challenging, technical climb to get back to Wilson Gap. Somewhere in that loop, I fell and did a pretty sweet somersault and got back on my feet. Nothing was hurt and it was almost a parkour move. So much so that the folks running behind me laughed and said it looked like I did it on purpose.

It was in this loop that my GPS watch appears to have lost its signal and gone all kinds of haywire. I still had the elapsed time but the pace and distance measurements would continue to degrade to the point that at the end, my watch was around 3-4 miles over distance and the pace was 2-3 minutes/mile faster than reality. Suunto did not show up.

When I got back to Wilson Gap at mile 14 or so, the volunteers let me know that I was 1:30 ahead of that aid station cutoff so I was looking pretty good. I started back toward Rabun Bald feeling good about making some time on the runnable approach to the Rabun Bald climb.

However, when I hit that 300ft bump I mentioned earlier, my quads pretty much locked up. I had about 2 miles where I could only walk and it was on probably the most runnable part of the course. I was losing valuable time. My mental state fell into the pits. I was thinking about dropping if I could make it to the top of Rabun Bald. I was passed by 5 or 6 runners I had previously passed. I was hurting and mad and frustrated. But my watch was telling me that I was making good distance. It was lying.

I started the climb back up to Rabun Bald and my legs started loosening up. I was even able to run some of the up and finally got to the top. My mood came up a bit and the views at the top reminded me a bit of why I was out there.

Officially, that’s around the 19 mile mark but my watch said 21. I did not write down the distances to the aid stations or landmarks anywhere and neglected to ask the volunteers on Rabun Bald. I thought I was 2 miles ahead of where I was when I started down toward the Three Forks AS. Lesson learned that relying on elapsed time and noting distances to identifiable locations is better than GPS and pace.

The descent down the backside of Rabun Bald is sketchy. It’s steep, filled with rocks and drops of 4-5 feet. It’s covered in dry, crumbling, slippery leaves. There is nothing keeping you from just tumbling down about 1200ft. of mountain. I slid on my butt on several sections of it. It was faster and safer.

My quads couldn’t take much of the climbing down anyway. They were beginning to tighten again. Even as the trail flattened a bit into another nice, runnable downhill section, I was barely able to jog because of the pain in my quads. My quads did not show up.

Eventually, I got to Three Forks AS where I saw a sign that said 21 miles. I was still 10 miles away from the finish. I was 30 minutes ahead of that AS cut off. That meant I had about 2.5 hours to get to the finish but would need to do something like 4 miles an hour over the next 10 miles with at least one steep, technical climb and one long gravel road climb.

Upon telling me this, the volunteer must have seen something in my face because he said, “Do you want to continue?” Two other runners were dropping from the race feet away from me, one of them in tears. I looked up at this man with concern washing over his face and said, “I might not make it but I’m not stopping here.”

The next section had a decent amount of fire road running which reminded me a lot of the Mountain Lake area roads that I trained on. I tried to power up them and get some time behind me but the miles were catching up to me and the clock was not my friend.

At one point, the volunteers and dropped runners from the Three Forks AS passed me in their vehicles. They had broken down the AS and were headed to the start/finish. They asked me if I was OK. I lied and said, “Great!” At least that’s what I think I said. Either way, they drove off and it was then I knew I was very much alone out on the trail and maybe the last person on course.

Somewhere in that last 10 miles, there’s a section of trail that takes you to the Holcomb Creek Falls. They are rugged and beautiful and the climb up them is challenging. I was so taken by trying to hustle up the hill and staring at the falls that I missed a turn and went about a quarter mile too far. I realized my error because the trail ended in an overlook over the falls and there was nowhere else to go. I might still be out there if that trail hadn’t been a dead-end.

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I’m smiling about the waterfall not the climb up it.

At this point, I know that the last AS is 2 miles from the start/finish and I need to be there by 9:30 to safely make it under the 10 hour cutoff. I turn onto the Bartram Trail and see a sign for Bee Gum Gap (which the AS is named after) and it says 2.7 miles. I stopped for a minute in front of that sign recognizing that 2.7 miles of that trail plus 2 miles past that AS and unless I could do like 8 minute miles, I wouldn’t make it.

Here’s how it went down in real-time:

I’m not sure if I need to do the whole trail. Maybe the AS is named after the trail but isn’t the end of it. Maybe I’m only a half mile from the AS. I’m hoping that around every turn there’ll be the AS. I know that I can’t trust the distances on my GPS so I don’t really know how far I have to go. I also know that it doesn’t matter. I just have to keep going. I have to show up.

I arrive at Bee Gum Gap AS at exactly 10:00 into the race. The race cutoff has hit and I’m 2 miles away from the start/finish. Between me and the end is an all-downhill run on pavement. I jog into the AS and I say, “I’m a bit late for the party.” The volunteer, maybe Run Bum’s Dad?, smiles and says, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to pull you. We’re an hour over the AS cutoff.”

Here’s where my inexperience comes into play. To the degree that I’d calculated any distances and cutoffs, I’d been using the whole race cutoff to figure out pace. I hadn’t considered that the last AS would have a cutoff a whole hour ahead of the race cutoff given that it’s only 2 miles from the end. Lesson learned.

I look at the volunteer and he sees in my eyes a mixture of fear, fatigue, pain, strength, pleading, and confusion. He points to a couple of runners sitting on the side of the road and says, “These guys just dropped and you can catch a ride with them.” A second volunteer pipes up, “The bus is leaving so come on and we’ll go get something to eat.” I just stand there stunned for a moment. I ask the third volunteer if she needs my bib. I assume they take it from you if you aren’t in the race anymore. She says, “No, honey. You can keep that.”

Again, the second volunteer says, “Come on and get in.” The first volunteer says, “There are few folks still behind you,” as he points back down the trail. I look into his eyes and I ask, “Can I run it in?” He’s confused. Doesn’t really get what I’m asking. I repeat, “Can I run it in? I don’t want anyone to get in trouble but I don’t want to drive down the mountain.” He says, “You look strong enough, but, well, it’s almost dark and we need to be safe and I just don’t–”

“I can do it. I will make it.” I’m pleading but I’m wary of being rude. I’m wary of making these amazing people angry. These people who are trying to keep me safe. These people who’ve been out here all day so I can spend some time pushing myself and finding out what’s inside. I want them to want me to finish.

He glances at the ground and then back at me, “Go ahead.”

They are asking me questions as I tear ass out of the AS at full speed. I fly down the hill as fast as my shredded quads will let me. The car with the second volunteer and the dropped runners (this is the second time I was passed by a car of dropped runners today) passes me and the driver rolls the window down and asks, “Can you go a little faster?” We both laugh and I try to run a little faster.

I near the end of the race. I’m on a switch backed road just above the start/finish when I hear my wife, Danielle, yell, “You can do it! Just keep going!” Then, I hear my son, Oliver, shout, “Come on Dad! We’re here for you!”

I immediately blubber a bit and make the final turn. A car full of runners, finished and full of beer and BBQ, shout my name. The volunteers at the finish call out to me. I finally turn toward the finish line with Oliver by my side and see Sean, the Run Bum, waiting for me. I grab his hand and half-hug him as I whisper, “Thanks for waiting.”

I finished in 10:30. That’s 30 minutes over the cut off so it’s officially a DNF. I ran every foot of the course. I climbed every foot of elevation. I made it to the end. Later that night, as I’m lying in bed, my son comes over and whispers in my ear, “I know you didn’t make the time but I know you finished and I’m really proud of you.”

I showed up.

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My invaluable crew: my wife, Danielle, and my son, Ollie.
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Author: Alex Ezell

A web developer who has also been a literature teacher and wanna-be art historian.

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