Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Running the Dragon Skywards

At the invitation by Jamil Coury to join the Run Steep Get High Mountain Running Team this spring, I put aside my summer plans to race Vermont 100 and Leadville 100. The new U.S. SkyRunning series had just been announced and spoke to my passions for ultra-trail running – exploring and climbing tough trails. In early January I settled on the ultra-series of the SkyRunning events and coordinated my work and race schedules.

First up on the SkyRunning Series was Cruel Jewel 56mile in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Who would have thought Georgia would host a SkyRunning event! Where are the big mountains?   

But I was intrigued by Cruel Jewel since it was in the SkyRunning series, with over 15,000ft of climbing, and a section of trail known as the “Dragon’s Spine”. The race name “Cruel Jewel” and slogan “the dragon is waiting” certainly felt like hype but left me wanting to experience the Blue Ridge mountains for myself.

After a frank but humorous race briefing by Willy, the race director, we toed the line in the late afternoon scratched into the road next to a quaint grass banked pond. It was a picturesque cool afternoon in the Blue Ridge mountains of northern Georgia. The race aligned perfectly with a break in the weather between heavy preceding rains and rains the following day.

Arizona represents! At the start is
Garrett Smith (left) with roots in Atlanta,
Jamil Coury (center), and me (right).

Peachy Georgia Trails – Coming from rocky southern Arizona the first 31 miles of trails were heavenly smooth blanketed with the previous fall’s leaves. I found myself in the company of three other Arizonans and a local Atlanta runner just after the start of the race. Dealing with an injured calf muscle that left me apprehensive to even start the race, I went out conservatively – even doing a quick side step up the short climbs - but found myself still pulling away from the field. The joy of these sweet trails carried my feet forward and 15 miles later the pain gradually fell away.

Then…in a brief moment of inattentiveness I found myself just over ½ mile downhill from a wrong turn. Damn! Realizing my mistake I turned around and headed back up the hill I just bombed down. At the next aid station (~mile 19) the volunteers informed me only one runner, Alex Kaine (a fellow Arizonan), had moved ahead about 5 minutes during my lapse. Ok, still early in the race I can easily make that up I thought.

A winding road section – much to the dismay of many but still with beautiful back road scenery – allowed me to make up some time as I clicked off 3-4 miles at a comfortable ~7min pace. Then crossing the river it was back to grinding up a steep trail ascent. I topped out and begin the short descent to the 25 aid station where my crew was waiting.

UMPF! – A tree root catches my toe and I dive forward landing hard on my right forearm. A grinding pop and then my shoulder painfully slides back into place. I lay stunned and slowly peel myself off the trail. I look back at the offending root and curse myself for another moment of inattentiveness. I hobble forward and bring it back to an easy run and soon arrive at the roadside aid station.
My first aid station with my crew
and just before dark.

Nearing 8pm my crew (my wife Lisa and her sister Jess) hand me a hand light, restock my Honey Stinger chew supply, swap out an empty water bottle for another mixed with 200 calories of CarboPro, and I shovel down a ½ banana. Typically 4hours into races I switch from energy bars to chews and liquid calories, and consume bananas at aid stations.

I’m informed that Alex is only a couple minutes ahead and so I set off to catch him hopefully before dark. And as the last orange rays of the setting sun filter through the trees and before the Dragon’s spine I do.
Refueling in advance of meeting the Dragon,
The Dragon Begins – At mile 31, I’m feeling good and hungry to tackle the long-awaited dragon. I grab another bottle of CarboPro and move out. The smooth sweet trails quickly turn into steep, twisting, rooted, rocky segments often overgrown with a short grass concealing potential missteps. These trails begin to resemble the Tucson mountain ranges, but instead of expansive views across broad valleys, I run within a dark towering tree tunnel. Add in the night time tunnel vision, and the rugged trails seemed endless.

Despite these difficulties, I find a rhythm in tune with the dragon.  I pass several 100milers positioned in the top 5 who started 2 hours ahead of us. I try my best to offer encouragement knowing that they will need to muster all their energy to tackle the dragon a second time. One pass running the dragon is good enough for me, no need to slap it on the ass and try again.

The Dragon’s Head - Not having memorized the course profile I ask with hope in my voice at the final aid station at mile 48, 8 miles before the end, “Am I done with the dragon? Any climbs left?” I grab a ½ banana and a cup full of ginger ale.

“One big climb left.” Comes the response. “But, a fun one!”

What the hell does that mean I think? The climb is long and steep and tops out at the course’s highest point with still no sweeping view of the surrounding landscape.  I dub it the “dragon’s head” as it rises up above the dragon’s spine and has the potential to finish you. I was feeling proud that I had maintained my quads through the race but, the following 2200ft descent brought out a bit o’ jello legs to humble me.

Confident with my lead I relaxed the final 4 miles and was grateful for the numerous creek crossings to absorb my exhausted Arizonan mind. Finally, after 10 hrs and 53 minutes, I made it to the Poor Decisions aid station, the end point for the 56 mile ultra run.  Though this is by far my slowest run of this distance, I was happy to set a new course record.
My crew team staying warm at 2am at the finish.
My sister-in-law Jessica Thompson (left)
and wife, Lisa Shipek (right). 

Winning the inaugural U.S. SkyRunning Ultra race of the series was a great honor, and the $1200 cash prize was icing on the cake! Big props to my Run Steep Get High teammate and team organizer, Jamil Coury, for finishing 2nd! Local Atlantan, Hunter Orvis, chased close to Jamil through the race, and finished strongly in 3rd. Another local Georgian, Jaclyn Greenhill, was the first female finisher and took 4th overall.

Southern BBQ – And, yes – either to your dismay or delight – despite my vegetarian roots, I did sample the southern-style BBQ pork at 3am and went back for seconds.

A warm thanks to Willy for creating and running a great race through the depths of the Blue Ridge Mountains that will surely revive dragon lore across the U.S.  I encourage Western runners to try out this race and enjoy a new challenge and some southern hospitality. 

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