It was my 7th 100 mile race and I thought I knew what to expect from the course, my body, and from my mind. However, I was challenged and learned more about myself in the mountains of northern Georgia than any other race.
The Cruel Jewel is a name that is well deserved. The website boast that this is a “108 mile foot race deep within the beautiful Chattahoochee National Forest…It consists of 96 miles of trails, 12 miles of mountain roads, and 20 aid stations. Along your journey…you will experience tough, and sometimes technical, single track trails, ferns and old growth poplar trees, steep ascents and even steeper descents, a historic steel bridge spanning the Toccoa River, the Dragon’s Spine, lush green hardwood forests, rocks, roots and ridge lines … all of which will be passed before you reach your final destination. And as a bonus we have thrown in 33,000 feet of gain and 33,000 feet of loss just to keep it interesting”.
If this description wasn’t scary enough, throw in a little humidity for a guy who spent most of the winter running in single digits (I know it could have been much worse) and add an extra 6-7 miles as I did… but that’s for later.
The 3 Musketeers!
I looked forward to the weeks leading up to the start since I would be toeing the line with two of my brothers in Christ, Bobby “Goat” Weinhold and Mike “Big Peach” Cosentino. The only 100 mile race Bob and I were in together has been when we paced each other at our first. However, it was Bob who had introduced me to this sport and to be racing together made it that much more special. Mike and I have become good friends over the last few years through Bob. It was Mike who first introduced Bob to the Ultra distances and whose racing resume reminds the two guys from Pennsylvania that we can learn a lot from the Southern runner.
The Typical Low Key Start to a 100
This was the 3rd year for the Cruel Jewel and around 70 of us started our journey at 2pm on Friday afternoon. The first quarter-mile is on a road before jumping onto single track trails for most of the race. I was running alongside Mike and was soon following his feet, assured that he was more familiar with these trails than I was. I felt comfortable running with Mike but kept asking myself whether I was going too fast given his multiple top 10 finishes at other ultras. However I felt very comfortable for the first 6-7 miles but Mike took off as we begun to hit some steeper sections and I settled in with a new group of runners.
The Dragons Spine (Duncan Ridge Trail)
This next section of the course has some ridiculously steep climbs and descents that are typical of the east coast in that they lack any type of switchbacks. While they’re not very long, they add up to enough climbing that it would get you to the top of Mt. Everest and then some! It was here that I wished I had hiking poles. Most of the individuals I was with at this point appeared to fly up the climbs with their poles while my hands were on my knees and my calves began to scream for mercy. I wondered if I would be crippled on the return but it was too early to worry.
Overall I was feeling good despite being soaking wet. The heat made me less interested in taking in calories but I thought I was doing a good job. Unfortunately that didn’t last as I descended into Wilscot Gap – Aid Station (AS) 5 at mile 26 when I became dizzy and a little nauseous.
My First & Only Bonk
I didn’t panic and was particularly reassured by the fact that Bob’s parents and daughter Bailey were here waiting for Bob who wasn’t far behind. I was fortunate since they had a bucket of ice and towel ready to cool the “Goat” off given that heat is not his favorite weather (Several years ago Bob dropped near the finish line at the Peachtree 10K and was rushed to the hospital with heat stroke).
I cooled off for a little while with the ice towel on my head, took in some calories and headed off back down the trail. It wasn’t long before I started to feel good again. When I arrived at AS 6 (Old Dial Road), Bailey told me that she had called Alison to let her know I was ok. However, I wanted to reassure her and gave her a quick call before sending out my first tweet to family and friends who may have been wondering what was going on.
Nightmares Becoming Reality
I experience the normal racing nightmares before big races such as waking up late for the start. Getting lost on the trails is one that I have always feared in an ultra and the Cruel Jewel practically made it a reality. After AS 6, I was feeling very good. The night was coming with cooler temps and I had run most of the course at this point between a training run in April and the previous +10 hours. The ONLY section I hadn’t run threw me for a loop!
The course is predominantly an out and back (you run the same trail in both directions) but there is a 6 mile loop you must do twice. The first one begins at AS 8 (Deep Gap) near mile 42. This also serves as aid stations 9, 11, and 12. Aid station 10 is the turn-around point. Unfortunately you are supposed to go left, check in at the aid station before retracing your steps for a few hundred yards and running the loop once. You then check in again at the aid station before heading to the turnaround point. You then repeat this process on the return. It should have been easier than it sounds but I found out that I was not alone in not checking in first before starting the loop. However, most people realized their error and turned around to check in before continuing on. I however was in my own little world and after a while thought I would continue on given I had no frame of reference as to where I was and hoped that they would count this loop at the Deep Gap AS given my GPS.
Unfortunately I missed the Aid station a SECOND TIME since I didn’t know where I was or where the loop began/ended. I finally stopped and decided to search for the Deep Gap Aid Station. Many runners told me I was going in the wrong direction. I even ran into Mike who saw my frustration and he, like many others, tried to encourage me to turn around and finish the loop a second time given I was practically at the mid-point of the loop.
However I was stubborn, angry, thirsty, and feeling defeated as I continued my trek against the sporadic flow of runners. Fortunately a small group of runners stopped to fill one of my water bottles with their Camelbak. I accepted this offer and was reminded of the kindness often displayed by the ultra-community that is so amazing.
After adding at least 6 miles and at least 2 hours with all the stops, I finally found the aid station and showed my GPS and verbally vomited my error. I was assured that I wasn’t alone in getting confused and relieved to be told to head to the turnaround point. However I needed to sit for a minute to pray for strength and decide what to do. I heard my name and looked up to see Mike’s wife, Inge, who was helping at the aid station. She provided me with some food, helped me fill my water bottles, and prayed for me as well. Seeing her familiar face helped me to refocus before I headed to the turnaround at Aid Station 10, Camp Morganton.
The Turn Around Begins
After checking in at Camp Morganton, I stopped for a little while to figure out what I should do. Dropping out was not an option since I had to finish this race to ensure my guaranteed entry to UTMB 2016. I changed my shirt, washed my face, drank a muscle milk and took off knowing that finishing was my goal.
I wasn’t looking forward to visiting the infamous loop for a third time but it was clearly marked by this point. As I began this loop I saw Bob who was heading out and encouraged me after hearing what had happened. Bob and I passed again on a short out and back section between miles 58 and 69 as the sun began to rise. It was then that I set my new goals for the race.
New Day – New Goals – New Focus
At Weaver Creek Road (AS 13- Mile 64) I set new goals. It was to run as hard and smart as I could to either finish before the sun went down or to catch Bobby “Goat” and finish the race with him. Before leaving the aid station I found out he had left almost 1 hour and 40 minutes prior. The truth is that if the temperatures were in the low 50s or colder, I could not have caught Bob given his abilities. However, I figured if I did catch him, the heat would be the reason and finishing up together would make this race that much more memorable given the obstacles we had both overcome.
I felt like I was running strong from this point but found I didn’t gain any ground on him during the early morning hours. Then the sun climbed high in the sky and I arrived at Wilscot Gap (AS 16-80.5 miles) where I had bonked the day before. There I found I had made up over 25 minutes and was energized. I was a little freaked out as the runner behind me flew in and asked if I had seen the bear cubs run right behind me with the momma bear back in the distance. Fortunately I was oblivious to this close call and took off again making up almost another 30 minutes by the next AS. I was glad I might catch Bob while also being concerned he might be struggling with the heat. Unfortunately the previous AS was the last one where Bob’s crew could help cool him down if heat was an issue.
I also knew I had to take care of myself if I was going to be supportive assuming I could catch up. It was here at Skeenah Gap (AS 17 – Mile 85) where I completely broke the golden rule – never try anything new in a race. Fortunately the 3 or 4 pieces of bacon fueled my machine and I ran strong with no GI issues.
At Fish Gap (AS 18 – Mile 90) I flew in and learned that Bob had only left a few minutes earlier. I was excited at this point that we would hopefully finish this beast together after all the years of running and support we had given one another. I must acknowledge that this AS was memorable with free bandanas for the runners which one of the young volunteers had made. The gift was appreciated along with some new foods which included a variety of scones that I took my chances with again.
Smelling The Barn- The Finish
I flew out of Fish Gap probably going way too fast. After a couple of miles I saw the Goat and called ahead. I told him my plan and we were off with less than 15 miles to go. Bob asked me if I had seen the huge snake on the trail right before I reached him, but once again I was oblivious to another close encounter with mother nature.
We never stopped moving and caught up on the race, prayed, talked about our families, and looked forward to the finish. The last 10 miles in the dark seemed to go on forever. We both thought we remembered the beginning more than we obviously did but finally came out in Vogel State Park where Bailey, Bob’s parents and Darryl, a good friend of mine from work who lived in the area, joined us for the finish.
There is so much more to tell about this race which I will share in future post regarding the lessons learned, how my faith was instrumental in getting me through and helping me to avoid some difficult times. However here are a few thoughts that I look forward to telling you more about in the weeks and months to follow as I prepare for the Grindstone 100 in October:
- More than at any other race, I came to understand of the power of the mind in keeping me focused and controlling the desire of my body to just stop or rest.
- I’ve tried many types of music to fight the “Sleep Demons” but the effect has always been short-lived. This time I used podcast, specifically sermons, which helped fight the Demons off better than anything else.
- I should try more solid foods – preferably on training runs first!
- This was the first hundred mile race where I was excited for the next one before I even finished. I knew this one taught me so much and hope that I can put it all together in October.
The most important lesson was that I was reminded of the greatest learning running ultra’s has taught me: Just when you think all is lost and you wonder if you could or should move on, the only thing to do is to pray and keep moving as things will get better, even if it doesn’t seem possible.
Here are some miscellaneous details for those interested.
- Shoes: Hoka Conquest ATR worked great.
- Gels: I used multiple gels from Accel, Powerbar, Stinger and GU, but my favorite which was new to me in racing was HUMA – especially the cinnamon apple! (This was big given I battle UC)
- Running in humidity – There is NEVER such a thing as too much body glide or Aquaphor .. Ouch!
- Headlamp – LOVED my brand new Black Diamond Icon – it worked AWESOME!
- Electrolytes: Mostly Heat Guard for sodium as well as a few Sport Legs
Overall this race is one that I would definitely recommend if you want to be challenged. The race is well done and course is no joke with lots of climbing and a variety of terrain. It is well-marked (despite my one significant error that resulted in my total mileage = ~115 MILES) and the 48 hour cut-off is fair. One area of improvement would be the food selection at many aid stations, especially at the turnaround at Camp Morganton.
Finally, for those who want to see my splits, mistakes, and the course, here is the link to my GPS downloads on Strava.
Thank you to everyone for all your support and prayers. I am truly blessed in so many areas in my life. I must especially thank my amazing family who are always supportive and loving despite my crazy pastime.
Nicky “Boom Boom”