Facing My Own Dragons
Disclaimer: If you are reading this to get insight into this race because you are either on the fence about running it or are looking for a course description to better prepare you, then this is not for you. If you want that, then just look up any race info about the DRT…or just go run the DRT, it’s only a 40-mile loop after all.
Like most good stories, they tend to start with a bad decision. So, to combine a couple of my favorite sayings (local ultrarunners will get the references), “If you’re going to make a bad decision, then make it an epic bad decision so it’s a better story.” My bad decision started with a single click of the mouse, signing up for a race I knew would be harder than anything I had attempted, in which only 2 other gullible victims signed up for, and I would be the 3rd sacrifice to the ultra-trail gods. Signing up for the Fierce Dragon 100 would be my first of many bad decisions and boy did I not realize the consequences.
It’s 11:06 AM on Friday and I can see the first aid station in sight. I have such a comfortable lead right now that I haven’t seen a single runner since the start of the race. I feel like I’m not pushing too hard but feel really, uncomfortable that I’m in the front. This is the first time I’ve led a race before, and it’s 100 miles, on the DRT. Am I making a mistake going out in front? Either way, the damage is done, and I fill up after some brief socializing and head on out for another few hours to the next aid station. It’s such a beautiful day and can’t believe how good its going. I don’t want to say perfect, but I’m feeling good and the weather is great for running – just soaking up the experience in the mountains.
It's been a long day, but a good one. 35 miles in...my knees are wrecked and I’m on the loneliest forest road in existence. I really wish I could get in a good stride, but the best I can do is hop a little and support myself mid-air with my trekking poles to make my stride seem like a run. I’m taking note of every rock on this road because I’m going so slow. But I should be in good spirits because I’m close to finishing my first 40-mile loop and the sun went down not too long ago. This road is just so long and when your legs feel trashed, it’s just depressing. It’s slow going and there’s no sign of the end until you see the one-mile trail leading into the park. Finally, I see it. Only one more mile to the aid station and change out of these dreadful shoes. These shoes have carried me down this same road in August of 2019 when I finished the H9 50-ish mile trail race. I think I should just burn them at this point.
Midnight – that means it’s a new day already. I’ve ran all through Friday and now it’s Saturday; day two of the race. I think to myself how I plan to finish this race around 36 hours. I’m hoping to finish up around the same time my wife comes into town so we can celebrate together. The winds tonight that are picking up are really testing that theory out. They come in so fast and howl that it makes me wonder if I’m actually alone out here. I don’t remember the last time that I ran – it’s been a lot of walking and hiking. But I shouldn’t be surprised since I’m only halfway up my 3,000-foot climb to the highest point on the trail – Coosa Bald. I wonder how close people are getting behind me. I’ve been running this race solo in the lead since the start, but what it’s almost done is removed me from the race. I have no idea what’s happening behind me. Are the other runners doing OK? Are they still on course or did they drop? The “dragon” (the affectionate name for the DRT due to its elevation profile) is really started to show its true self now. I’ve been preparing for this moment all week. Going into this race I knew how difficult it would be since I’ve been on the DRT before. I’ve lost a lot of sleep just thinking about the race and how the lonely miles would be even lonelier given how hard each mile would be to complete. How far am I into this race? Well, all I know at this point is I am somewhere between 40 and 50 miles since I haven’t gotten to my 4th aid station yet. Some warm food will be good.
I see the lights coming up behind me, but who the hell would be on this trail in the early Saturday morning hours when its 30 degrees out, windy, and raining? I know I’m pretty stupid, but are there others? Maybe it’s a search party because they figured I died. But I know I’m alive, just my soul is in pieces – especially after those last 2 hill climbs. Oh yeah, the DRT isn’t tough enough, so we do random hill climbs to get in more elevation change – yes hill repeats in the middle of a mountainous 100-mile race. They soon pass me, and they seem almost as miserable as me due to their quiet passing, but I can mask mine pretty well due to the dark hours of the early morning. (I came to find out later that this was a group of BUTS runners completing the Georgia Loop the same day – they crushed it.) Eventually after making my last big climb, in this direction of the loop, and down the long descent into the aid station at 60 miles just as the sun was coming up. I want to drop, but just because the weather stinks and I’m starting to lose the heart to finish this. I’m very capable of finishing this animal, I just don’t want to. After getting some warm food in me, new gloves, and a new jacket thanks to the RD Perry, I have a change of heart and decide that I can make it through the next 20 miles of the DRT back to the cabin. Hah, what was I thinking?
Just get there…that’s the mantra going through my head. I run when I can and walk when I can’t run. It’s just a routine of putting one foot in front of the other no matter how difficult it is to put the next foot forward. It’s crazy to think that if I was running one of my more “normal” 100-mile races, I’d be done now enjoying the day and lazily drinking a celebration beer. But I still have another 40 miles to go. I can’t think those thoughts though because that’s dangerous thinking about anything other than this trail. I’m lucky that the section to Fish Gap is very runnable and the weather is clearing up…I’m getting back into the groove that I had yesterday, or was that 2 days ago? Sleep deprivation is definitely making this interesting. I’m trying not to think of climbing Coosa right now because the trail is just below the pockets of wind and rain…when I made my last “hill climb repeats”, the weather was completely different at the top of the climbs. Violent wind, cold rain, and almost zero visibility – and it’s the middle of the day.
Going up Coosa isn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. Everybody hates this climb, and I should hate it, but I think to myself I only need to summit the bald 2 more times in this race. It’s windy and rainy, but I’m hanging in there. Now for the descent, holy hell where did this weather come from?! All I can think is get to lower elevation before I get hypothermic. Everything I’m wearing is soaking wet…shoes, socks, gloves, pants…I even feel wet under the Frogg Togg’s jacket that Perry gave me. Going back to this morning at sunrise which seems so long ago, I remember being thankful for the gear Perry gave me. I never realized the importance of that. The ice rain that is falling would have ended my race before getting to the next aid station on Coosa Bald if I didn’t have the gear, he lent me. This has got to be the worst weather I’ve ever been in during a race. I’m done with the trail descent…now onto the forest road. I thought the last time I was on this seemed terrible…hah that was a good traverse of it compared to this. My legs are too trashed to run to warm me up and I’m exposed to the same winds that were whipping across Coosa Bald and I’m drenched from the rains all day…perfect recipe for sickness to take you out of the race. Thinking back to mile 60 aid station – I could have ended my race there, why didn’t I? I left that aid station as the only runner on the course. It took less than 24 hours for everyone to drop except for me and I’m the only one out here. The Dragon is unleashing its full fury on me and I’m just getting battered around like a dead limb that fell off a tree. Back to my mantra of ‘just get there’. I must get to this aid station, not to keep on going in this race, but so that nothing worse happens to me out here. ‘There’ is much better than ‘here’. I hope I can stay away from ‘here’ for as long as possible.
Mile 80, probably 82 or 83. I gave the Dragon everything I have, but this is where I come short. Having no way to put it in words I’m hiding in the blankets that are draped over me trying not to have a complete breakdown and hide the tears. If only this was the first time I teared up during the race, I’d think that this is just a bad spot…but it’s not. I’ve been in low spots before, but this is a whole new level. I am scared to the bone to go back out there…the fear is that I’m not sure I’ll make it back. I’m not sure if it’s fear of coming back as a different person or just coming back at all. I get tired of complacency all the time, but I feel like I’ve been in an uncomfortable place for the past 20 hours…how much is too much? No matter how much I protest and how angry I am about the weather, myself, and this race, Perry refuses to let me quit. Is this a contest against the course or the race director? Both are blurring into the same thing. Then comes the unthinkable…I’m going back out into the frozen hell that is out there. From hell no to let’s go – I really must hate myself right now. My new best friend Charles has decided to pace me and everyone, including me, gets behind the idea. I’m trying to get some new life back in me, joking around with everyone – but in the back of my mind I know what’s waiting for me.
At this point, I’m too exhausted to make any decisions for myself. Charles is helping me find the course, giving me updates on where we are, and stopping us every hour to make sure I eat and drink so I can make it to the next aid station. Everything about me is useless…my legs and core are trashed, my feet are so waterlogged it feels like I’m standing on glass shards, my emotions are all over the place, and I can’t see anything but the trail that is directly under my feet. I’m depending on Charles for everything…he’s become my lifeline that gets me through this. This loop is destroying everything left in me and then I get a big surprise at the aid station. My wife is there. I knew she was close to the race, but showing up at the aid station? I do everything I can to seem strong and it’s a huge boost. I need every boost I can get at this point. Although the Dragon is trying to take everything from me, I’m in good spirits. I feel that with Charles, I have a chance to finish this thing…not being hopeful, like really actually finish this. It’s the first time I’ve felt this way since the start of the race. Charles is cheering me on, step by step. I’m not even checking time or thinking about where we are at this point. I forget most of the time what day it is, that it’s the 3rd day of the race for me. Miles pass by slowly and hours pass by quickly and then somehow, we’re on the paved road in the park. This challenge is coming to end. I’ve held on to my trekking poles for dear life holding me upright and soon I can let go. I can let go of everything and finish. Everyone from the race is there cheering for me and I collapse in my wife’s arms…surrendering because I’m done at last. The balance is complete because as low as the lows were, the high right now is at the other extreme. I’ve come through this challenge somehow…the lone wolf, the lone finisher, the lone dragon slayer.
Happy Trails Ryan
I want to read more!