My First Ultra Marathon (Attempt): The Thirsty Walk Home

It was supposed to be a 6 mile out-and-back run, but…

“Hey, it’s my last day off before I go back to work, want to do a quick trail run?” I asked.

Our older boys stared at each other. 

Their brother, the seven-year-old yells, “I’m in!”, and not wanting to be shown up by their pint-sized competitor, the teenagers  change their shoes.

“What about you?” I ask.

Our five-year-old son lifts a wagging finger and without batting an eye from Subway Surfer on his Kindle Fire says, “Nu-huh, no way! Not happening, X, No, not happening.” 

The four of us make our way to Snake Creek Gap trail head, a segment of the Pinhoti Trail in Northwest Georgia.

When we arrive, the older boys antsy to get started. I gather my supplies from the car, while they stand and watch.

I normally wear a Nathan 12L hydration pack, but today, I choose to leave its 2L bladder at the house. I stuff a water bottle in both shoulder pockets instead, one for me and one for my seven-year-old. The older boys neglect to grab water. “Oh, I forgot my water” plays on the Top 40 Excuse Countdown around our house quite frequently. I don’t force them to grab one this time. It was only a 6 mile run, so I thought this might help them remember next time, and boy will they from now on.

At the trailhead, we meet a runner getting out of an uber.  He’s training for the Barkley Fall Classic, he says. He’s running the whole way from Snake Creek to Dalton via the Pinhoti. We talk for a few more minutes. He heads towards the distraught bathrooms as we take off and ascend the first mountain.

Our Barkley buddy passes us after the first mile, just beyond the peak of the mountain. There weren’t any other cars in the parking lot when we left, so I let the boys run ahead while I relieve myself of my morning coffee. While going #1, I hear this constant metal clicking noise, I can’t place it. I know it isn’t a hiker, but it’s coming from the direction of the car. I barely have time to zip my shorts when a mountain biker comes around the blind corner. My hands are still at my groin, I yank them away (which looks even more suspect). He splashes through my pee puddle and grunts. I turn around and press forward to rejoin with my clan.

We pause at mile 6 near a creek crossing. We have officially hit a conundrum. We hate out-and-backs. Yet, there we stood. Six miles from the car or…

At the trail head, Barkley Joe told us it was 12 miles to Dalton from where we started. What if?…I check my water supply, half gone. It’s cool today though, so I figured we could make it. It would only be one more mile to keep going versus turning around, right? But, I hadn’t figured for the intense elevation gain that lay before us.

I ask the boys what they want to do. Two vote yes, and one is an unsure. I vote yes, too. So, we continue to run away from the car, hoping the old dude at the trail head had decent grades in his high school math class.

3 ½ hours later.

My dad arrives at the pick-up point. He calls to see where we are. I tell him it might be a mile, or two, or five; I’m not sure, anymore.  The seven-year-old, normally an endurance machine, is shuffling along.

I pour the last drops of water into each of their dry upturned beaks. 

We continue the death march forward, unaware of the climb ahead, eagerly looking for a break in the trees. It doesn’t come. A mile later, my dad calls again. We’re resting on some boulders, when it hits me. My fifteen-year-old looks fresh, a little dry-mouthed, but moving like a champ. I ask him to run ahead, “Go meet up with G-Paw, and you’ll know how much further we have, and can tell him how much longer before we get there.” 

He dashes off into the forest. I’m super jealous of his mad endurance. The remaining three of us stand up and push on. I’ve never been thirstier. 

After another mile, we hear voices ahead, and I’m positive it’s my dad and son. We yell back, and increase our pace. After a few hundred yards, we emerge from the trees onto a service road and see two workers hanging onto a cell phone tower. They look startled to see us, but quickly look away. We move down the gravel road, an agonizing hill, and see the final stretch. Almost there. 

We take off again in a hyper-jog. Eye of The Tiger rains down on us from the heavens. An angel gets its wings. Peace in the Middle East is granted. We take one last curve and see the getaway car, my dad at the wheel. 

When we arrive back at our minivan, I chug a bottle of hot water. 

Five minutes later, we’re downing Powerades and popsicles from the Dollar General. 

Two hours later, I’m sitting on a park bench with my wife celebrating our 10 year wedding anniversary with a bag of Arby’s Fries and a 44oz Sonic Lemonade Slush. We see some of our friends at the park and catch up a little. All the while, I can’t stop thinking about how only hours before I had experienced one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, all because I wanted to teach the boys to always bring water. Instead, I learned to never trust a random person’s mileage. It wasn’t 12 miles, it was 16, with almost 4000 feet of elevation gain. But we made it. And we’ll do it again sometime. And since Covid, they’ve changed the race course for this year’s Georgia Jewel 35 Miler. Want to guess what it is? An out-and-back from Dalton to Snake Creek and back. 🤦‍♂️

Check out my new Facebook group for ultra-runners who weigh over 200lbs, otherwise known as Clydesdales! Find fellow husky runner’s weight-specific gear recommendations, injury mitigation strategies, fueling options, and more!

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