The Death Race is a tough event in the Georgia mountains that has more than 40,000 feet of elevation change between its start at Vogel State Park and the finish at Amicalola State Park.
I registered for the race for multiple reasons: It is a qualifier for the Western States 100; it provided me training motivation through the winter; and I’d get to spend time with a large group of local running friends who were going to be running the event.
There is positive momentum and negative momentum. Positive momentum can lead you to amazing summits in both running and life. Negative momentum can lead you to some dark and low places. I believe that we can chose which direction we are going — up or down. External factors do come into play, but the events of our lives do not control our lives, rather our reactions to those events control our lives.
The beginning of both of the last two years has started off rough for me.
Last year, my wife left me.
This year, my best friend — my dog — Penny Lane, was diagnosed with a severe kidney disease.
Her kidneys were failing.
Penny was a three-year-old white boxer. I can honestly say that I do not know how I would have gotten through my divorce without having her take care of me.
The exact cause of her kidney disease was never identified, but my vet assumed it was hereditary. She was only three years old — normal dogs with these symptoms were significantly older.
After diagnosis, we immediately put her on a new diet and some medications that would help. Every week from then on got a little harder with a different set of obstacles. At least once a week I would spend an evening in vet’s office burning a small hole in my credit card account.
The good news was Penny had an amazing support team; between my dad, Sara, family, and friends we kept her in good company and diligently administered her medications.
We believed we could establish a situation where we managed her condition and kept her comfortable for a few years. To ensure we were doing everything we could, we booked her an appointment at the highly respected veterinary school at North Carolina State. The earliest available date would be the Monday after the GDR.
Heading into GDR, I was hoping to use the race for more than just a qualifier into the Western States lottery.
I needed momentum.
I had no premonitions of setting a PR. I was battling a lot of negativity — worrying about Penny, stress at work, and a nagging Achilles issue — and my training had not been ideal. A trip with friends, a day in the woods, and finishing a tough race would be a great way to pivot my way back into a positive mindset.
However, the week before the race Penny took a rough turn. Her energy levels were low and she stopped eating. I talked to Sara and my dad about the possibility of not going to the race so that I could stay with Penny, but the night before we left, Penny ate a good amount and showed more energy than she had the previous few days.
I decided to push on.
I spent most of the trip down on Friday thinking about Penny. My dad called a few times worried about the lack of energy she was showing, and he decided to make an appointment with the vet for that afternoon. I considered turning around more than once, but by that time, I would not have been able to make it back by the time of the appointment. The only thing we could do was press on toward the race, attend the pre-brief, and start the next morning.
The GDR has more than earned my respect.
The worst section of the Grindstone 100 is climbing up Seven-Mile Hill and the worst part of the tough TWOT loop is death marching up Hanky Mountain. Those are harsh sections of two of Virginia’s more challenging courses. I swear, in the first 28 miles, the Death Race managed to connect Seven-Mile Hill with five back-to-back Hankys.
Picture a dragon’s spine. It sucked.
Early on, I met a runner on trail who had finished the Hardrock 100 four times and he had great advice: establish a rhythm. I worked the inclines at a pace that was just slow enough to keep my heart rate from redlining. If your heart rate redlines, there is almost no coming back. Once I would crest the hill, I would jog the short straight away and then resist the urge to bomb the downhills.
I came out of the the first 28 miles feeling pretty ragged.
Sara met me on trail about twenty yards in front of the aid station. I just remember looking at her and asking if the next 28 miles were anything like what I had just come through. Honestly, I was pretty beat down and it was still early in the race. I was thinking back on past races — such as the Laurel Highlands 70.5 — that had started off with me feeling like shit then turned things around by the end. But after that first 28 miles I was questioning my abilities.
The next 20 miles were far more forgiving. The section consisted of mostly down hill to slightly rolling jeep road. I hate jeep road, but at least I knew I could run on jeep road. Since I did not know how the rest of the course would go, I knew I could put in some quicker miles in that section than I did in the first 28 miles.
During this section the Penny situation started to get to me. I knew that there was a good chance that she was either going to be put down while I was running, or that she already had.
Being mostly alone on the trail, all I could feel was helpless.
I had no cell phone signal.
Sara had told me she hadn’t been able to get a signal.
I was nine hours away from the situation.
I cried multiple times while running down that road thinking about all of the things that dog had done for me.
Around this time a dog caught up to me.
I had seen the dog with its owner at the start of the race. I was amazed the dog had made it more than 40 miles. The dog’s owner-runner caught up and we shared some stories. It was refreshing. It made me smile to share a few miles with another guy and his dog; knowing that they were creating good memories with each other.
As I was coming into the aid station at Mile 54, I slowed to a walk. I had asked about Penny at the previous station and Sara hadn’t had any news. There had been no cell signal. There was a good chance I would get bad news at this aid station. And I was trying to prepare myself.
Sara is amazing. Before her, I hadn’t ever really had a crew. The first time she crewed me was last year at the Pinhoti 100-miler in Alabama. She lead me to a six-hour PR.
I love coming into an aid station to find her waiting for me somewhere a few hundred yards out. And coming into the aid station at Mile 54 — even knowing that there was a chance I would get bad news — seeing her standing there smiling made things a little easier.
She had no news; so I set out running.
By now the sun was starting to go down. It was an absolute treat to watch the sun set on a beautiful day in the Georgia mountains. Watching the sun blaze orange in the distance I started to think of Penny again, but forced myself to pick up my pace so I could get some quick miles in before the sun dropped.
From Mile 28 until Mile 58 I felt pretty good. But this race has “Death” in the title for a reason. Prior to reaching the last aid station, there was a five-mile climb up a winding stretch of jeep road. During this never-ending climb I was alone. The wind started to pick up and the temperature dropped. I looked back down the road searching for lights coming up the mountain behind me, constantly a little worried I was off course.
And I thought of Penny.
I thought of everything that dog meant to me.
How much she had brought to my life.
How we had found each other at the exact time that I needed her most.
She helped me focus and find the momentum I needed to move on with my life. And now I was facing life without her.
I cried again. Then I got angry that I was crying.
I looked back to make sure no one was catching up with the jackass crying on the side of the mountain.
After the final aid station, it was almost all down hill. Well, unless you count the 550 or so stairs inside of the state park. From the time I spotted the lights of the park, I kept repeating “I’m fucking here, I’m fucking here, I’m fucking here,” both internally and out loud.
Then I was.
The race ends abruptly. You give up on finding the finish line, thinking you will just be circling within Amicalola State Park until you die. I mean it is the death race. But then you hear the crowds, turn a corner, cross a stream and you’re done.
A few minutes after receiving my finisher’s rail road spike, I asked Sara about Penny.
She told me I needed to call my dad; I knew in my heart why.
But I waited.
I went inside and got warm.
Tried to enjoy my accomplishment.
Told some stories with the other runners.
And then I walked back out in the cool night air. I leaned against the wall of the building.
On one side of the wall were tired, sweaty runners celebrating and telling stories. On the other side was me, trying to hold back tears as I learned I had lost my best friend.
Losing a friend is hard. Penny Lane was my best friend. She was my Little White Devil. She took care of me through my divorce. There are not enough words for me to describe how much my relationship with Penny had meant to me.
In some regard, the GDR ended the way I had hoped it would: I have qualified for the Western States lottery.
But losing Penny, well, that makes gaining momentum hard. The race wasn’t the push towards positivity I needed.
It has taken me a few weeks to deal with everything, but I am lucky.
I am lucky to have had such an amazing dog.
I am lucky to have such an amazing father.
I am lucky to have Sara and such an amazing group of friends.
I tried to generate momentum and losing my dog meant hitting a brick wall.
The one positive is I have never received so much support. I found the momentum I needed by realizing how great of a support system I have.