The sun is hiding below the mountains as I turn on my headlamp, press start on my watch, and step onto the trail.
Twenty minutes from the nearest city, with no cell service, on a trail section named for an abundance of snakes, in an area of the county known for bear and other large predators, I wrestle my anxiety. The Killers’ Battleborn album plays on my cellphone’s speaker. I push forward. I’ve got a lot of climbing to do today, and I want to get in as many miles as I can before the sun peeks over the ridge.
This is my first time training with mountain repeats. Not hill repeats, I do those often, this time I’m climbing a small mountain with 500 feet of elevation in exactly one mile. I plan on ascending and descending ten times or for six hours, whichever comes first. I hope that my years spent droning away on an assembly line can come back to me now.
Halfway up the first climb, I’m realizing how hard this will be. I check my watch, my pace is sitting around 25 mins per mile. I want to speed up, but I restrain, knowing that my first mile or two are always the hardest for me.
The top of the mountain sneaks up on me, and I’m greeted by a six foot pile of stones and an old camping site as my watch beeps, indicating my first mile. I look east, towards the Cohutta Wilderness and the Blue Ridge mountains. The sun still rests below their crests.
I jog back towards the base of the ridge. Never having descended technical trails in the dark before, I turn up my headlamp’s intensity and tighten my form. I don’t want to fall out here. It’ll be a few hours before other hikers come through here, and my phone is useless in an area where the old Verizon, “Can you hear me, now?” guy must have missed. Thankfully, I don’t fall, and I make it back down the mountain to complete my first climb.
On my second climb, I am fifteen seconds from seeing the sunrise. I catch it halfway. Beautiful!
My next few climbs are uneventful, other than running into a handful of runners who are also training for the Georgia Jewel. I meet a man and woman; the man was stone-faced and focusing on his run; the woman told me they were training for the 18 miler. I also ran into a group of four guys that told me they too were also training for the Jewel.
I stop to rest at my car after mile six. I’ve loaded the back with plenty of food. But my water is less than abundant. “It’s OK, I just need to ration my water a little better.” I tell myself.
A few climbs later, I see an enormous bald eagle sitting on a stump near the trail. But as I turn to get a better look, he’s gone. I look away, puzzled, and see him again, perched on the same stump as before. I look his way once more. But no eagle. I’m dehydrated and hallucinating.
On climb six, I roll my ankle. And my knee feels funny. At the bottom of the sixth climb. I tell myself to quit. That was plenty, I think. But as I walk to the car, I bargain and curse myself in true David Goggins fashion. Instead of quitting, I down a Coca-Cola, throw back a peanut-butter sandwich and take off, back up the mountain, repeating the mantra, “Just one more”, all the way to the top. After a Rocky Balboa dance at summit, I stumble back down, losing my balance once and almost falling off the trail.
At the bottom, after five hours of climbing, I quit. I’m out of water. I wanted to climb ten times, but I only reach seven.
My legs, other than the niggle in my knee, feel great. I could have continued, but the lack of planning with my water has benched me.
This was my last hard training before the race. I’ve now have a month left to train my strength and balance; I also need to put some more time in the books, paying close attention to hydration.