The Georgia Jewel Just Got Real
Earlier this year I signed up for my first ultra marathon. And until last weekend that's all it was. Me signing up for my longest race ever, as well as my first trail race. Longer distance. New surface. New challenge. Nothing more.
Now I know my simplified thinking turned a mountain into a mole hill.
Last weekend my friend Nicole and I stepped onto the Pinhoti trail at Snake Creek Gap. It was the start of a 17 mile training run to prepare us for and familiarize us with the 35 mile Georgia Jewel race we'll run in late September. Our 17 mile trek from Snake Creek Gap to Dug Gap would cover the final half of that September race.
The rain forecasted for the morning didn't show up. But the fog did, creating the perfect setting for stepping into the unknown. And now that I know just how much that unknown ended up scaring me, I'll add a little music from Deliverance or the Blair Witch project on my playlist the next visit.
The first 6 miles or so we absorbed the newness of it all. It was exhilarating to be in the middle of nowhere without a single glimpse or sound of anywhere or anyone. It was just us and a dirt trail winding onward and upward - a whole lot of upward - through the green thickness of what was once a simple dare greatly idea: "I think I want to run the Georgia Jewel."
At about mile 7 I began to wonder if daring greatly had set me up to fail ungreatly. The humidity, working and smiling hand in hand with elevation, was waging a war on my energy. The wilderness fog began seeping into my head and I started wondering what on earth I'd gotten myself into. I began the great running game of IF: if today was race day I'd still have another 28 miles to go.
The best part of that game? It allowed me to momentarily forget I didn't know how we would cover the final 10 miles of our current run.
At mile 8 we ran into my friend and race director Jenny Baker and company. They were handing out drinks and snacks. I wanted desperately to pull up a chair and enjoy some doughnuts and a coffee. Enjoy an impromptu Starbucks experience in the land of the lost. Barista Jenny and my race partner Nicole made it clear that wasn't happening. In the most loving way possible they both said "get going."
Get going we did. We stumbled - and tripped - our way through the next mile or so and into the infamous rock garden. When you hear the word garden you likely think of something good and life giving and beautiful. Which is precisely why I would suggest the name rock garden is a bit misleading.
When Jenny introduced the rock garden to us in our pre-training run prep talk she advised us to walk and not try to run through the garden. As rock after rock reached up from the wilderness floor and grabbed hold of my ankles and with all their might tried to reduce me to nothing more than a motionless rock myself, I asked Nicole, over and over, and maybe with a bit of frustration, "who on earth could run through here?"
I'm not sure what she said. I'm just thankful she didn't suggest we could.
I remember looking at my watch at the half marathon mark. At this point we were about 4 hours and 15 minutes into our run. A run that to this point had involved very little running and a whole lot of mountain climbing. I told Nicole next weekend I'll be running a half marathon back home and I hope to run it an hour and a half faster. The 100 foot climb at the end of the Patrick Henry Half Marathon suddenly seemed less daunting in the face of the 2,500 feet we'd end up climbing this day.
By this time I was feeling nauseous and the only thing I could think about was the paved downhill road that would take us out of the wilderness and to my car. Jenny told us when we started out that morning the final mile or so would be out on the highway and downhill. I never thought the words "highway" and "downhill" could sound so soothing. But they were consuming my every thought. That and maybe wondering how an ambulance might reach someone who was lying in the middle of a trail precisely where I was barely standing.
Then I looked up. Standing at the top of the latest incline was a man we'd seen off and on the last several miles. He'd found our wilderness exit. He seemed as grateful to be standing there as I was to see him there. We began to walk together down a long gravel road. He talked about several of the trail races he'd run before. Some in Kentucky where he lives and some elsewhere. I wondered why anyone would do this more than once. In Kentucky or elsewhere.
As we continued along the rough road, my legs wobbling more by the step, I spotted an overlook. I walked over, climbed up on a rock and took some pictures.
Looking out over this valley I recalled a conversation I had with my buddy Gregory Byerline. In a recent podcast interview I did with him (An Interview With Gregory Byerline), he talked about old hymns and how we sometimes skip over verses that reveal the glory in creation. As I stood there taking in the end of a day, the end of the first leg of a journey, one particular verse of an old hymn we discussed suddenly came to life.
When through the woods, and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze
Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee
How great thou art
There I was, in the midst of discovering the beauty in one long, hard day, when the voice of heaven came rolling up that gravel road. God, is that you? Did you really just hear my soul singing?
No, it wasn't God. But close. It was Jenny Baker. Friend and race director. She told us we had two choices. One, we could get in the van with her, where there was an ice cold Coke and potato chips, or........ I quickly stopped her right there. I just knew the or was going to include finishing that final 1.5 miles by some means other than that van. Some means that didn't include a cold Coke and potato chips. Some means which would likely include my tired and fading fast legs continuing onward.
"Show me to the van, please."
In a way, it really was God. Jenny's encouragement on that van ride back to the car gave me more than I could have ever found in my legs finishing up the final stretch of that run.
Jenny was part
I believe you can do this,
here's what you need to do to get better,
all rolled up in one brief spirited mile a minute Jenny Baker pep talk.
There I was on a van with the friend who encouraged me every step of the way that day, and the friend who showed up to remind me I could do this at the exact moment I was doubting I could.
Jenny reached out to me yesterday and asked me how I felt on the drive home from Georgia. She said I don't want to know what you were thinking. I want to know how you felt. Here's what I told her.
I had two predominant feelings: Gratitude and confidence.
I'm grateful for friends. My friend Nicole is speedy. It overwhelms me she'd spend an extra two hours out there making sure I got it done. (And probably making sure the old man is OK). I was grateful for my race director friend Jenny. You being there at the end saying everything I needed to hear and giving me the perfect advice was God's perfect timing. I was grateful for the new friends I got to meet in the Georgia Jewel family. And I was grateful my family gave me the opportunity to come do the practice run this weekend.
Confident. Well, any time I started "thinking" about how I couldn't do it, when I thought about the ever clearer magnitude of it all - God overwhelmed me with the words that have been my mantra since I started this journey: "I won't win this battle with the strength of my own hands. You're the mountain mover, only you can." (From the Steffany Gretzinger song Confident). I heard God saying, you didn't think I was sending you off to do something easy did you? I heard him asking, how can I move a mountain if there aren't any mountains.
So I'm not incredibly confident in me, but I'm more sure than ever that God's got this. So I'll spend the next 5 weeks on the stair master and running stadium steps. And then show up and let God move that mountain.
So that's where I'll be friends if you're looking for me between now and Dalton, Georgia. On the stair master.....
Life is like running.