Monday, September 28, 2015

I don't always wear jewels, but when I do they're GEORGIA JEWELS


Right before the start at Dry Creek Horse Park
As I stumbled into the aid station at Snake Creek Gap, the 17.5 mile halfway point for the Georgia Jewel 35 Mile Run, I seriously pondered asking the volunteers if I could just take a nap on the wet gravel. I could have laid down, face-down, and fallen asleep immediately despite the rain that came and went over the 12 hours and change that it took me finish the event.

My friend Erica and her crew took care of me as soon as I shuffled over to the table. I struggled a bit to get my pack off as my arms and back were stiff. Do you need anything--water, Heed, a sandwich? Can I take your pack?

"Can I just sit down for a minute?" I asked.

"Of course, that's what the chairs are for!" She said brightly.

Brightness was what I needed. It has been a dark, foggy, and wet day. My spirits were down in the dumps. Each mile seemed like 3 miles, even the downhill ones.

Erica and I at the Snake Creek Gap AS
After resting my back for a few minutes, I was recharged enough to stand-up on wobbly, tired legs and head over to the privy for my customary mid-race visit. Upon heading back to the aid-station, Erica and Eric had my pack ready for the next 17.5 miles. She and her running club friends had left a gift in my pack, she said. "To show our appreciation for you and offer some encouragement out there on the trail."

I thanked them, smiled, and headed up Mill Creek Mountain. Later I would open my soggy pack and find a Carpet Capital Running Club T-shirt stuffed in it.

I was physically prepared for this event. I had been training all summer on differing terrain--mountain, road, technical trail, smooth trail, treadmill.  I had also been crosstraining, ensuring that the rest of my body could handle events like this.

But there is nothing quite like the Georgia Jewel, held primarily on the Pinhoti Trail in Northwest Georgia. You can never be fully prepared for what it offers. In fact, after completing the 35 Miler with a time of 13 hours and 22 minutes a year ago, I said to myself that I probably would NOT be doing this one again. It was too hard, too rocky, too up and down-y, too scary, too yellow-jackety, too energy sapping, too everything. But I managed to finish, dead last.

Fast forward to not even a week ago. I hadn't signed up for the event, knowing that I would have to traverse yet another mountain (in addition to the two from last year) since the RDs had rerouted the first half of the course, making it point-to-point. A friend that I had met during the Double Tap 50K in April (whom we shall henceforth call "Hunk Hulsey") gently and insistently nudged me to get it together and come out for the event. Registration had already closed, so I begged the RDs for admittance. They generously obliged.

After a very hectic and frenetic last couple of months, most of it the good kind of frenetic that comes with a little bit of notoriety, I was relieved to have an opportunity to relish the quiet and solitude of the trail, most of the time alone with my own thoughts. This opportunity came at the right time, and I am so grateful for it.

The Iconic Pinhoti Trail Marker. That there is a turkey print.
One of the things I love about trail running in a race is the fact that unless you are running neck in neck with other people, you are typically on your own, in your own head for hours and hours interspersed with brief person-person encounters. You must decide whether you are on the right trail going in the right direction. You have to completely depend on yourself, take care of yourself physically and emotionally. You are the one that makes the decisions and you are expected to be able to do this under sometimes extreme conditions and very difficult terrain. Self-trust, self-preservation, and self-reliance are par for the course. In any trail race, you learn this immediately. At the Georgia Jewel, if you have not learned this within the first 2 miles, you may indeed go crazy and leave the trail in a catatonic state. I managed to finish the race in excellent spirits, chattering with whomever wanted to talk about what just happened, and WHAT WAS THAT?

The race started at 7am in the parking lot at the Dry Creek Horse Park. The 45 minute ride there from race headquarters at the Dalton Convention Center was bumpy and dark. We were dropped off in the parking area where several racers had already arrived. We signed in, and got back onto the musty school bus until it was time for the race-briefing, given by Jeremy Pearson, one of the event creators.
I'm paraphrasing here:

Go here, then there. Turn right, not left. Turn left, not right. Follow the pink ribbons, if they're there. Hopefully they're there. Go through water. Go uphill, then downhill. Repeat. Don't get lost. Don't inadvertently do a 100 miler. Don't forget the rock garden. Yeah, that. Good luck. Countdown. Go.

View of the Ridge and Valley Section of Northwest Georgia in the Cohutta Mountain Region

Miles 1-10

The "easier-than-last-year" part...

The first 3 miles or so were on a forest service road and were fairly flat (in trail speak, flat typically means NOT TOO MANY HILLS BUT THERE MAY BE SOME; the last time I ran a flat trail was never, but I digress...)  That was the extent of the "easier-than-last-year" part. I ran most of it, stopping occasionally to take short walking breaks. I knew I was in for the long haul, and I knew that I couldn't quit. The RDs and Hunk Hulsey had made this happen on short notice and so I honored the chance to be on this trail on this particular day with this weather. I felt great (even on only 4 hours of sleep preceded by a long windy and foggy drive on Route 76 through the Chattahoochee National Forest), keyed into a pace that my body liked and forged ahead, hoping not to miss any signage or pink ribbons that indicated where the course traveled.

The trail crossed a stream about ankle deep before heading right onto a gravel road, onto single track trail for a few miles, then onto another curvy gravel road straight up John's Mountain. Here is where I got off course. The road up the mountain was, well, uphill. At one point, I thought I had missed a crucial turn since there were few ribbons beyond the last trail intersection. I power-hiked uphill hoping to spot another pink ribbon. None. I decided to turn around and travel back to the last ribbon I had seen (a good third of a mile down hill) just to make sure I hadn't missed a turn back into the woods.

Nope. The ribbons ended on the gravel road, so the only way to the next aid station was to go right back up that hill that I had just descended. This put me way behind the people who had passed me about half an hour before. I kept trudging up the hill, still in good spirits and knowing that there would be an aid-station soon.

Miles 10-eternity

The aid station came into view right as I crested the top of John's Mountain. What a sight for not-yet-sore eyes. There was a porto-potty, food, music, and a party-like atmosphere. I felt like a celebrity! "Can I hold something for you?" "Can I fill your pack" "Food?" "Coffee?" "I read about you..."

Did someone say coffee?


Rocky Trail Atop John's Mountain
The AS volunteers were disappointed that there were no good views from the aid station and apologized for it while I nourished myself. The mountain climb would be redeemed in less than a mile, however.

I drank strong, black coffee, crunched on some salty chips, chatted for a bit and moved onto the next section of trail. This was the most strikingly beautiful portion of the new course. Even though it was overcast and misty, right down the trail was a gorgeous view of what is known as the Ridge and Valley region of Northwest Georgia. The fall-leaf colors are just beginning to show themselves, and the dampness of the day further enhanced the multitude of hues shimmering amidst the dense green blanket of the mountains.

This was a gorgeous albeit difficult part of the course. You are essentially on a cliff, navigating on a rock face fashioned into large, uneven steps. I was glad I had brought my poles along, if only for a sense of security. I stopped several times to take photos and bask in the wet beauty of these thar mountains.

From the side of John's Mountain
There would be 3 more miles to the next un-manned aid station, and then another 3 to the half-way point at Snake Creek Gap. This part of the course was my favorite. The trail descended comfortably down the mountain, into day-use areas and by a few ponds. This is where I began to see the first hundred milers coming into what would be the 25 mile point for them. I crossed paths with Hunk Hulsey, hugged and thanked him for getting me out on the trail today. He seemed strong and in good spirits as he was about to ascend John's Mountain in the other direction.

Trail at the bottom of John's Mountain
The last three miles before reaching the aid station were rolling, eventually heading downhill. The misleading noise from the road fooled you into thinking that you were close to the AS, but just as soon as you were buoyed by the notion that there would soon be some chow, the trail would switchback, taking you in the opposite direction. The road noise would disappear and you were deep in the woods again. This happened over and over. Demoralized then buoyed, like an undulating sin wave.

Miles-17.5-another eternity

I was pretty exhausted on my way to the halfway point. My back was sore, my legs were tired. My mind was fatigued from having to deal with the sheer amount of thoughts running through my head. And that Adele song we had been practicing in chorus on Friday, stuck in my mind for three hours--an ear worm. THREE WHOLE SOMEONE LIKE YOU hours.

I would stop and bend over, putting as much of my weight onto my Black Diamond Ultra Distance-Z poles possible, so I could stretch out my back and neck. I did this many times, most frequently on the very long ascents, probably looking as if I were on the verge of keeling over and dying.

After some much needed rest and encouragement from the excellent crew at Snake, I trudged on for what would be the next eternity. I had to stop and force myself to eat. In long trail races, sometimes you forget that you have to eat because you are so intensely focused on moving forward, relentlessly. I hadn't eaten much more than a couple of chips and ONE whole date at the AS, forgetting that I hadn't even really eaten anything beyond chips at the last AS, 7 miles prior. Mid-mountain, I stopped to nosh on some uncured salami, jalapeño chips, and fruit that had looked GREAT at the Ingles Supermarket, but had turned into a warm bluish mush.

The course takes you up Mill Creek Mountain. You climb, switchbacking for a mile until the trail levels out and travels along the ridge line. Then it drops down to Stover Creek, crossing it four times. I was able to do a lot of running at this point, energized by food and a gel. There were also a fair amount of downhill and flat sections of trail, interrupted at times by short, steep climbs.

This part of the course is my least favorite. Although there is quite a bit of runnable trail, it is also very lonely and isolated. The trek to the next aid station is about 7 very long, unsupported miles. I found myself repeating all of the mantras I had used over the years to keep myself going--

Step over step.
They're just miles.
Get it done, Mirna. Just get it done.
The body is able.
Relentless Forward Progress. RFP.
It is a privilege to be able to do this.

A new one popped into my mind, the second I questioned my reasoning for being out on the trail--

I am living the dream. I AM LIVING THE DREAM!

With that, I surged on stopping only to stretch my back, until I heard voices coming from the last manned AS.

Miles 24-33

As the white tent came into view, my mind was comforted and ecstatic. I had about 10 more miles to go and I COULD ACTUALLY FINISH THIS BEFORE LAST YEAR'S TIME! I spent a few minutes drinking Coke to calm my stomach. I also took some Endurolytes and a final espresso flavored gel to get me to the finish.

I climbed up the gently sloping forest road, hearing a large crash in the distance. I ignored the thought that a bear had been watching and continued uphill until the course made a sharp left back into the forest.  This, I thought, was the homestretch.

Yeah, the longest homestretch ever.

I did NOT recall this much uphill from last year. Did they change the route? Seriously? What is this? I hate this. This sucks. WHAT THE HELL? OH, IT'S GONNA POUR NOW? Really? REALLY? THESE EFFING ROCKS! I don't remember it being this rocky. Wait. Yes I do.  I'm in for the long haul. I have no choice.

Rock Garden

After hours of traveling on vast stretches of technical, hilly, wet, and slippery trail, one enters the Rock Garden. Its name is an attempt to lessen the mental burden of what is the most difficult section of trail, steep climbs notwithstanding.

Anything with the name “garden” in it conjures up a vision of nature’s serenity and beauty, with perfectly arranged bunches of colorful flowers and hardwoods emanating from key spots in the landscape. Perhaps there is also a waterfall, its unmistakable sound of water rushing over smooth stones in the forest. Ah….

There was water. And there were stones. The water rushed over my head and seeped into my pack, and the rocks? Not smooth. The were pointy and perilous.

This is the 5-6 mile-long stretch of boulder and rock-filled trail that in the past runners had to tackle twice in the out and back course. This year, 50M and 35M runners only had to run through it once. Lesson learned: still a shit show.

The only thing that gets you through the Rock Garden is the knowledge that this is the last section of trail, though it took me forever to traverse it. In addition to rocks and boulders and the slippery mess that it is, you also have to contend with several climbs followed by somewhat treacherous trail. It started to pour at this point, but I didn't even care. I wanted only to finish. Rain was no barrier.

A few 50 Milers passed me, and I was happy to share the trail. People. So good to see people who were disgruntled and tired just like me. We commiserated and then soldiered on in search of the finish.

Miles 33-finish

After the longest-ever section of technical trail, suddenly you see power lines. Normally, I think power lines are ugly manifestations of human intelligence. That said, I have never been so happy to see one. This is the part of the course that is basically DOWNHILL FROM HERE. There is a steeply curving gravel road for approximately a half mile, that brings you to Dug Gap Road. At this point you are 1.5 miles from the finish, a long, sloping down-hill (albeit with a very short, very runnable uphill at the beginning.)

I decided that I would BOOK down the hill so that I could best my previous time. I threw caution to the wet wind and flew down, avoiding a carcass of some animal on the side of the road. I stopped only to pull up my capris that didn't seem to like my new pace and the annoying bouncing it created.

I kept checking my phone clock. Plenty of time for me to PR. And then I saw the woman that had passed me about 6 hours before shuffling just ahead of me. If there is ever any incentive for me to run fast, it's at the finish when there is someone just ahead of me. I did just that, summoning up every ounce of reserve energy in the tank. I greeted her, sailed past her and ran to the finish.

Not last.

My second Georgia Jewel! Note the TYPO--Homegirl did 35 MILES, not 30. I'll still take it!


  1. Congratulations on your second Georgia Jewel, you are truly LIVING THE DREAM!

  2. Mirna, I enjoyed this post so much! My friends and I are getting ready for the Oct. 9 24 hour run here in Maine I messaged you about previously, and so this morning I sent them all the link to your race report because everyone is nervous and struggling with doubt and fear right about now. I laughed when reading the part about your mantras, because I have the same impulse. When it hurts most, instead of slouching over and whining, I like to tell myself to "stand up and give thanks" that these legs, this heart, and these lungs have gotten me this far! You are an inspiring person doing amazing things. Please know that today that your trail report was exactly what I needed.

    1. Do you have any pics you would want to share??? I'd love to include them in a future post!

  3. You are my hero! great race report and awesome rally at the end. YEAH Not last!!

  4. Dang. You are one strong woman, both mentally and physically!

  5. Just found your blog. So inspiring. Maybe I'll do an ultra one day....I could call it middle aged lady running. Haha.

  6. What a beautiful trail and a great race report. Congratulations on your finish!!

  7. Congrats! That sounds like an extremely tough race but you are awesome for pushing through and finishing!

  8. Girl, you are such an inpiration! I don't even know what to say, I'm mind blown. Congratulations, you truly did great.

  9. Congratulations on your 35 MILER! You are truly an inspiration to many, including myself. I am training for my 1st half marathon and you often come to mind when the miles seem long. Keep up the great work of living your life the way that only you can!

    Be Blessed,


  10. Congratulations!! Found your blog through the news segment that was posted on facebook. You are so inspiring! I am a runner also and I don't fit the stereotype. It took me a long time to call myself a runner because of that but now that I have I feel so empowered! Your story makes me want to keep reaching and go further and do better. I am currently nursing a foot injury and am going crazy not being able to run. Can't wait to get back out there and your story will be pushing me along the way.

  11. Your story just gave me the extra push I needed to keep going on my own personal journal. I'll be praying for you and cheering you on from Ohio. Keep up the great work!!

  12. Excellent! I can relate to 'beating my last time' and 'not finishing last'. Your time under these conditions is my best time so far under any conditions! Here's an old post about finding inspiration at the back of a 5k!

  13. I completed 15 out of 30 miles of the Freewalkers endless summer walk from Aberdeen to Asbury Park NJ. Thank you for inspiring me to get moving again! I am proud of myself for doing it and equally proud of myself for knowing when to stop. (I tweaked my knee and really needed to stop.)

  14. I stumbled across your blog tonight, and I really needed to hear your story. I'm in a really bad place right now, and I wanted you to know your story lifted me up. You are such an inspiration to all is gals, big little and otherwise. Always keep one foot in front of the other. :)

  15. Found your blog through an Facebook column for amazing girls! So happy I read this! Truly inspiring! Thank you for sharing!! God bless!!

  16. I read about you and your blog on A Mighty Girl's facebook page. Thank you for lifting me up today. I have long believed it's possible to be fit and fat and I am trying to get there myself. Feel free to check me out at

  17. Congratulations! You did amazing!

  18. Girl, you are freaking awesome and an inspiration to me! You are the woman in Proverbs 31 who is worth far above rubies!

  19. Great posts! Congrats on the finish in GA. I love the line "It is a privilege to be able to do this." Sometimes that's hard to remember! :) Keep rollin', runner!