Why hello there.
My name is Neil. I run stupidly long races and I over-analyze things too much. To save you my frustration, I’d like to distill my seemingly unnecessary work into an easy-to-digest guide for other fellow newbie runners to understand before going into these big running events. I did it for the Spartan UltraBeast with much success, and I’d like to do the same for you on the Georgia Death Race via the perspective of a clueless runner who thinks they might be getting in over their head. After all, I registered for this event (which sold out in 49 minutes) on a whim with very little understanding of what exactly I got myself into. Nevertheless, I finished.
Here is what you can learn from me.
First of all, read the posted race guide.
I’m going to try my best not to repeat everything you see on the race FAQ. If you haven’t read the guide yet, I would stop right here and mull through it one, two or five times. Print it out into a binder for you to review on your car ride up to the event. You can get a lot of necessary information off of that, but I’d like to give you the bits of information that you won’t hear from it. That race guide changes periodically through the year and you’ll get emails that give you the heads up. Read into those changes and make sure you follow all of the rules. The race director has a marketing strategy of trying to intimidate you, but it’s in all good fun. Enjoy it!
What the course is like.
In one word – brutal. This is likely the hardest ultra on the eastern side of the US. There were people at this event saying they would happily run a 100 miler instead of this 68-ish (read: 75) mile course. The first half of the course is a series of ridge running ups and downs that are either too steep to run up, or too steep to safely run down unless you want to look like Chris Farley tumbling down the mountain in Tommy Boy. The second half is much more forgiving, but a lot more boring. As you’re running up and around some mountains you’ll find that one side of a mountain is freezing cold with strong winds, but as soon as you get on the other side of the mountain, the sun will cook you alive as the stagnant air offers little relief to your labored body. The ground you run/walk on will be just as insane, by the way. 90% of the time your eyes will be locked to the ground to make sure you don’t accidently stub your toe on a protruding rock or root. I can’t tell you how many times I saw somebody roll an ankle, trip and fall or utterly destroy their toes on something on the trail. Don’t worry about getting lost, either. The course is littered in ribbons marking the trees, as well as blinking LEDs for the night running portion of the course. I didn’t need the National Geographic map 777 or any GPS guidance for this whatsoever. Let’s go into some more detail about parts of the course.
The sections I highlighted in yellow were the sections of the course that you could easily run with little risk of injury. Keep in mind that this was the elevation profile for 2017. Obviously it’ll be a tiny bit different from year-to-year, but the current trend is that the course stays relatively the same every year. 2018 for example had some of the aid stations moved around, added or removed. The route was exactly the same, however.
You will walk. Make the most of it.
Most of the uphill sections of the course are just too steep to run on unless you’re gunning for a sub-14 hour finish. This is the part where you stay in second gear. Don’t change your pace and always walk as fast as possible while taking short steps. Let me say it again in case you just glazed over that little tidbit of information – TAKE SHORT STEPS. If you try to go uphill like you’re taking two stair steps at a time, you’re going to unnecessarily fatigue your legs and you’ll pay for it later. Take short but quick steps and don’t stop moving. We’re going to do another repeat of words here. Don’t. Stop. Moving. The second you tell yourself it’s okay to stop midway up the mountain(s) is when you set yourself up for failure. A quick 10 second break will drift into a 20 second break the next time, then a minute… and then you’ll be hating yourself many hours later when you missed a cut-off by a couple of minutes that could have been prevented if you didn’t stray from a controlled short-step pace. Take it from me… I missed the last cut-off at the Ultra Beast by four minutes in 2013. To look at that in perspective, that was an entire years’ worth of training and preparation gone in just 240 seconds. Also, while you’re going uphill in a forced walk, this is the time when you can afford to take off your pack and grab some nutrition or adjust your gear a little. Don’t even attempt that while running or you’ll tumble down the mountainside. Speaking of running…
When you can run… freaking run.
So you just made it to the top of a mountain and there’s a nice, slightly downhill trail that you can briskly walk down. The temptation to take it easy on your legs will be there, but you need to start running. I’m sure you heard that you only need to go at a sub-4 mile/hour pace, but the math for that is a little flawed. I’ll go into the math later on but for now just look back up at the title of this paragraph and run when you can, albeit controlled and cautious especially for the first half of the course. The second half of the course will be a lot more forgiving and you will even get to run on some relatively flat service roads. This isn’t time for you to walk and enjoy yourself. This is the time when you need to run while the opportunity is there. There was a 7 mile stretch of service road leading up to the second crew station that I probably ran 90% of. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have had the very small time cushion to squeak by the final 1am cutoff with just 15 minutes to spare. Take every opportunity to run, ESPECIALLY if it’s on a very easy trail that doesn’t have a sharp elevation grade. Your legs might not be able to move that fast, but you need to move them as best as you can. I think I’ve stressed the point enough. Run when you can. So we’ve talked about the course a little bit, now let’s talk about you.
Train specifically for this race.
The stair stepper is your best friend. Much like the Spartan UltraBeast, most of my training for this race was done via the stair stepper, minus the upper body training. My workout consisted of 70 steps per minute for 45 minutes, and then I’d do a 30 minute stationary bike ride at 15mph, and then back on the stepper for a 45/30/45/30/45 minute rotation. It’s a brutal grind, but so is this race you’re preparing for. However brutal the training was, it paid off. Whenever I’d be going on the uphill section of the race, I’d just equate it to another stair stepper session that my body was very well adapted to. In fact, I think there was only one section of the race where I was going uphill for 45 minutes or longer. Any other uphill section of the course was easier than what I had trained for! Since I live in Florida, I didn’t have elevated trails and hills to train on so I’d run through UCF campus and go up and down their parking garages. If you really want to prepare for this event, you’ll find a way. I had zero cramping issues on the course just because I trained very well in addition to keeping my nutrition on point.
Ultrarunning is an eating contest
If running a 5k burns around 350-500 calories, what the heck is going to happen to you after a couple of hours when you don’t have any calories left to burn? Pig out on as much as possible in the days leading up to this event and especially during the event. On one of the 7 mile stretches I ran out of calories and I immediately felt the ill effects of bad nutrition. I began to hallucinate colored spots on the corners of my field of view and I kept seeing red and black bugs on the ground plus the common dizziness and general feeling of lost hope that accompanies the ol’ bonk-out. As soon as I scarfed down some cookies at the next aid station I could feel the energy immediately return to me and I was perfectly fine afterwards. Some people can’t break past a nutrition bonk-out, so do whatever you can to prevent that from happening. Some people brought a watch that beeped at them every hour. No matter where they were when it beeped they would stop what they were doing and eat.
Take care of your damn feet
Even if you’re the most swole and fit fella out there, your feet are going to feel the effects of running 75 miles. That’s just a simple cause-and-effect bound by biology and physics. Ultra running is a chaotic and insane trial that breaks every person in some way. Your feet are going to need the best care you can provide. If you’re feeling hotspots on your feet (you will), you need to take care of it at the next aid station no matter how painful or uncomfortable it is to take off your shoes and socks. I’d highly recommend a generous application of Trail Toes whenever you’ve got the opportunity. Bring extra socks and shoes to access at each bag drop or crew station in case the situation calls for it. I’ll go into more personal detail later but for me, my feet were swelling up and I needed to change into a larger shoe. Knowing what I know now, I should have listened to my feet and switched shoes. However you want to prepare for this event, the next subject is of crucial importance…
Don’t try anything new
So you’ve made your 5th stop at REI or WalMart while you’re out there the days before and those brand new socks look really nice, or that calorie-laden snack you’ve been dying to try looks like a nice thing to put into your drop bin. No matter how tempting something is, do not try it for the first time when you’re out at an ultra. I’ve seen people with horrifically blistered feet because they decided to break in a new pair of shoes or socks, or vomiting endlessly because they discovered that their stomach actually doesn’t agree with perkey jerkey and fireball whiskey at mile 50. Use your tried and tested methods out on the course. Trying new things should be relegated to your training sessions only. As a quick example, I decided to try out wearing two pairs of socks after the second crew station. That lasted for about one mile when my swollen feet were trying to burst at the seams of my shoes without any regard to my heel blisters.
Learn from my mistakes. Here is what I should have done.
Lose more weight
I had way too much muscle above the waist that I never used at this event. In addition, I could have probably dropped 5-10lbs of fat around the belly just by eating a little more responsibly in the months leading up to this event. Every single unnecessary pound becomes an immense burden when you’re running non-stop for an entire day. Imagine climbing the steps of the Sears Tower with a 30lb wreckbag over your shoulders, now imagine how much less of a hedonistic suckfest that would be if you got to drop that on the ground before climbing. Lay off the Nutella, alright?
Put the knee brace on earlier
In the six months leading up to the Death Race, I had problems with my right knee. After 15 miles the right tendon would start flaring up in an intense pain that would cripple me to a walk. I wish I would have put on the knee brace beforehand instead of once I started to feel the pain. Doing that would have brought my speed up considerably. If you’ve got an injury, take preventative measures.
I forgot that feet swell up during these things. I should have worn shoes that were half a size larger. Had I done that I could have double-socked it and prevented many of the blisters and busted toenails that I’m currently nursing.
Many times during the run I wanted something in my camelback, but I didn’t want to take it off and dig through my pack so I just dealt with the inconvenience until I got to an aid station. In hindsight, I should have had pockets on the side that I could easily access for things like snacks and salt tabs.
Bring a to-go bag for the aid stations
A small Ziploc bag to stash aid station food in would have been amazing. My safety runner did this and had no trouble keeping a full stomach. The food they have at these stations is downright amazing, and to have a consistent supply of grilled cheese and bacon slices with you during the run is nothing short of a koala bear crapping a rainbow into your brain.
Get a good pair of socks and don’t even look at the price. I had a worn out pair of injiji toe socks that were starting to rip from previous runs. Sure enough, my big toes tore through the socks by mile 20 and my big toenails are currently paying the price. I’d suggest toe socks because your toes aren’t rubbing against each other through the entire event, which will prevent some blisters from forming.
Fill my bladder to 2L, not 3.
I thought the time between aid stations was going to be much longer than reality. Never through any section of the race did I come close to drinking 3L of water from my camelpak. Having a 2L bladder would have been plenty enough to last between stations and it would have been much less of a heavy burden. 3L of water weighs roughly 5-7lbs depending on what you’re holding it in.
Swapped shoes at mile 44
This was a big one for me. I had shoes with a wider toe box but less traction waiting for me. Unsure about what the terrain was going to look like for the remaining 30 miles, I opted to keep my smaller but more tractioned shoes that worked well in the technical terrain that I had ran in. The last 35 miles of the course were drastically different and less technical than the first. If you’ve got more comfortable shoes with lesser traction, bring these for your second crew station!
Why people DNF
This list isn’t all-encompassing since I’m sure there are other minor reasons out there, but these are the more salient issues that I personally witnessed that caused people to DNF the most.
Not pacing oneself
Too many people went too fast out of the gate. I saw people zipping past me in the first ten miles that I slowly sauntered by just miles later and never saw again. You are out here for an entire day, don’t blow it. I deliberately had my friend Kris run in front of me for the first 8 miles just because he has a better grip on his pacing than I do. Sure enough, I found myself creeping up on his ass when I wasn’t paying attention.
Not looking where you’re going
This is especially important when it’s dark out. I saw so many people smashing their toes and rolling their ankles on the errant roots and jutting rocks that littered the first half of the course. Don’t ruin what you prepared for months in advance and ran hours into only to lose it all in a split second lapse of focus. I deliberately ran without any music for the entirety of the race just to force my mind into the tedious monotony of staring at the terrain attentively. It’s only 20+ hours of suffering you have to go through for a lifetime of pride.
Not eating enough
This is a no-brainer, but even I mentally retreated from this lesson. Ultrarunning is an eating contest. You MUST keep eating. The aid stations have more than enough nutritional needs, so eat it all up!
Not doing the math
So, at the mandatory pre-race meetup there were a few people speaking to the crowd of nervous runners (present company included). One person said something that I almost raised my hand to correct, but I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ so I kept my silence until I got behind the keyboard like all internet warriors do. He said that 75 miles divided among 24 hours equals about 3.175 miles per hour, or basically running a 5k per hour. This sounds incredibly easy, and he even said he walked about 4/5 of the course. Though probably true, the math did not add up. This pace was only valid under the following conditions:
1) You took 0 seconds break at each of the 10 aid stations, and
2) There were no do-or-die cutoffs at any of the aforementioned aid stations.
On average, I took about 9 minutes break at each aid station, which equates to 1 hour and 30 minutes added to my total time. That brings the needed pace up to 3.33 miles per hour. Not too big of a difference, but it’s incredibly hard to irk out that pace in the first half of the course, which brings us to the second point. The second crew station (Winding stair) had an incredibly strict time cut-off, and for a good reason. The race director didn’t want the slow people out there all night, causing a burden for search and rescue. Your pace per mile to reach that station had to be in the 4mph range, which wasn’t easy trying to pull off in the steep uphill and downhill sections of the course leading up to it. I’m pretty sure a lot of people kept thinking back to the 5k/hr pace and took it easy, only to discover that the true math was a lot more crushing when 8:30pm hit before they reached Winding Stair. The second do-or-die cutoff for me was the very last one – Nimblewell. I got there at 12:45am, just 15 minutes to spare before I would have been DNF’d at the 1am cut-off. That means that if you made that cut-off you had at least 4 hours to run only 9 miles. So do the math for each section of the course, okay? Find the pace you truly need to go, and try your best to stay a little above that (but not too fast, pace yourself) to give yourself a little bit of a cushion in case you have to go slower than normal at a future leg of the race. Yes, I am aware that there is a section of this whole article that’s telling you not to go too fast, and yet here I am telling you to pick up the pace. Welcome to the Death Race.
Thinking outside of the present moment
This is the mental aspect of ultra running that many of you have no doubt heard about, but it needs reiteration because I heard a lot of people voluntarily quit at aid stations when they had plenty of time to finish. This isn’t just hearsay; my safety runner who volunteered at Winding Stair for five hours before I met up with him saw this happen first hand! Why would anybody in the right mind voluntarily drop, save for any obvious injuries? They thought too far ahead, or too far back. Thinking too far back into how far you’ve run so far will lull your mind into a false sense of accomplishment. It will make you think that you’ve earned that extra 5 minutes at the aid station or an easy walk through a section of the course that you really should be running in. Thinking too far ahead will just make you overwhelmed at the daunting task that lies ahead. I’ll admit, I let these thoughts creep into my mind at around mile 20. The thought of having to do those 20 miles not once, twice but almost THREE times over was insane. Granted, the first 20 miles were significantly harder than other 20 mile sections, but distance was all the same. Do NOT let those thoughts creep into your head. The hours will melt away if you only focus about taking that one step in front of the other. Thinking about that is the only thing that will benefit your current situation, so focus on that with laser precision. After all, the difference between a flashlight and laser is merely focus. You all have the ability to complete this race. Just live in the moment, and don’t be distracted from the noise. Whenever I found myself in a dark place, I would always repeat the following mantra in my head:
“Where the mind goes, the body will follow”
[2018 update] - I’d like to add on to the above section a little more, because it needs to be re-emphasized after what I witnessed as a volunteer this year. To those who were there, my group was handling morning-check in while pounding beers at 4am (hi). Every registrant had an underlying facade of insane nervousness, which was understandable. What totally baffled me was the amount of people who physically showed up to check-in, only to explain that they are not racing. Excuses ranged from “I don’t think I’m trained enough for this” to straight up “I don’t want to do it”. I kid you not.
Look, you’re never going to be 100% ready for any extreme endurance event… ever. I’ve gone in with lingering injuries, extreme nervousness and one time I even ran BFX with food poisioning and ended up 2nd place overall. The point is that if you made the trouble of showing up, just take that first step and have a good time alright? As the Run Bum explained before, ultras are like scratch-off tickets. They’re never going to give you the result you intended to have, so just roll with it. There are hundreds of people who didn’t make it past the lottery for this race who would have done anything to be in the position you are in.
Later in the day I volunteered at the aid station at mile 44 where I volunteered until my runner came through to support. During this time I saw a lot of crazy shit. The craziest was when runners who were in the TOP TWENTY deciding to voluntarily quit the race for none other than the reason that they’re going slower than they thought (wtf) or that they’re just downright exhausted (no shit). The woman who was in 2nd place overall decided to drop at this station, where we spent about an hour trying to coax her back into the race until she saw the third place woman arriving, to which she quit upon seeing that. Another guy was exhausted so he went and slept in his car for an hour, and since his body went to recovery mode from the nap he didn’t want to run anymore. He flew across the country to be there, spent all that time training and quit because of a 60 minute nap. I can go on and on with these ridiculous and uncessary reasons why people dropped here. After seeing the most over-qualified fit people mentally drop from the race, my advice to anybody reading this is that if you’ve made it to Winding Stair (mile 44), you’ve completed the absolute hardest section of the course and the rest of it is 3x easier than what you just did. So whatever you do… DO NOT QUIT AT WINDING STAIR. Here, I’m going to make the point larger for people who scrolled past this:
DO NOT QUIT AT WINDING STAIR.
Advice from other runners
Louie B - I would add in that changing socks and lubing up your feet again is worth the extra time if you have it. I changed socks 3 times during the race and had zero blister issues with my toes.
TJ Theis - Another replacement for hill running is dragging a tire behind you as you run. Many ultra runners attest to that as well.