~For those of you who have followed the inspiring story of Rock/Creek’s Race Team Member Matt Karzen‘s run for a cause, you will be pleased to hear he has successfully completed his goal of running along the Georgia Appalachian Trail (about 76 miles). Matt started the adventure on July 25th. Matt is now rested and recovering and put this event report together. He shares his experience with our community in order to inspire others to parallel their activities with their passions to go and do good to make our world better.~ Rock/Creek
“I knew up front this effort to ‘one-shot’ the 76 miles of the Georgia AT would be at the outer marker of my capacity to endure – that is, after all, sort of the point. But this time the journey to the edge of my possibilities was for a reason way bigger than me. It was beyond the usual motivators, like running just because it’s fun, or racing other people. This run was planned and executed to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation – an organization that provides educational grants (and other crucial services) to the children of U.S. Special Forces Operators killed or injured in the line of duty. All told it looks like we will raise about $6,000.00, so in the end, despite the grinding fatigue, the hollow nausea, the numb spots in my left foot, the spiders in my face and the bear attack on my car (for real..), it was, in my book, a big success. Here are the gory and beautiful details:”-MK
Pre- Race Preparation:
The Georgia Appalachian Trail from north to south, consists of 76 rocky single track miles, about 20,000 feet of vertical climbing and descending spread among a stack of steep grades that profiles like the read-out on a heart rate monitor. It is an excellent place to find humility.
Friday, June 24, 2009, 5:30 p.m.: Ben Green and I drove up to Blue Ridge Gap, located on an unforgiving forest road that intersects the A.T. about 3 miles from the North Carolina state line. Ben was there to provide all manner of logistical support AND to run the last 50K with me. A former Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot who worked SAR duty in the Pacific, and an Ironman finisher, the young man is no stranger to suffering or helping others. Up front things got interesting, as I struggled to get my sedan up the rutted dirt road so as to limit our hike into the camp site to 3 miles. Once miraculously parked at the gap, we grabbed up the tent etc., mixed up some powdered nutrition drinks on my trunk and started up the trail. Upon arrival, we chilled out at the base of the gnarled tree that dominates the GA/NC border at Bly Gap, and went lights out about 9:00 p.m. During the night, unbeknownst to us, rats ate our toilet paper and, get this, a bear, apparently thinking the spilled Hammer Perpetuem on my trunk meant there was food inside, tried to eat my car. Claw scratches and tooth puncture marks now bedazzle my rear plastic bumper, and my license plate was folded in half. Did not see that coming.
Saturday, June 25, 5:00 a.m.: I shuffled around the tent, greased up the feet with Vaseline, slid on the SmartWool socks, tightened up the Salamon XT-Wings, guzzled some coffee from the Jet-Boil, and at 6:30 a.m., I stood at the GA/NC line, pressed the button on my stopwatch, and started running.
Miles 1-9: The trail from the state line at Bly Gap to Dick’s Creek Gap is super nice, especially when moving south, as it is gently downhill most of the way. I did stop by my car to ponder what wilderness-bound scoundrel might have vandalized the bumper and trunk – I did not realize it was the bear in whose living room I had parked until Ben figured it out later. Other than that, it was a very peaceful run through the early morning woods to Highway 75.
Miles 10-25: This section, through the Tray Mountain wilderness area, is challenging, home to the twin peaks of Tray and Rocky Mountains – steep, sharp topography on the section’s west end. The climb out of Dick’s Creek on the east end is also sort of a biggy, but it was the first real one of the day, so I rambled up at a clip that was appropriate given the overall goal, but making good time none the less. About mile 17, the trail arcs up, to the top of Tray Mountain. By this time it was getting warm, I was getting tired and I bumped into my first encounter with “the sadness”: That’s the emotional valley, the low in “highs and lows” that people talk about when they do things like run big long distances. About that time my buddy Jeff, who was waiting to run with me at Unicoi Gap, sent me a text message meant to motivate: “U suck. Hurry up.” Had I been on an emotional high, I might have clued in to his actual intent and been inspired to attempt a throttle-up. However, not being happy at that moment, I replied, and I quote: “Bite me. Go Home.” Sorry brother – you know I love you. Up and over Tray, fast on the down to Indian Grave Gap, heinous march up Rocky Mountain, and there were my boys at the top: TJ, Jeff, John, Ben, Rob and Georgia State Patrol Trooper Atwood, all ready to run. Sensing the desperation in my cyber-tantrum text message, they had hiked up from Unicoi. We ran down Rocky Mountain at a solid clip, to Unicoi Gap, recklessly ignoring the miles yet to come and having too much fun with that steep, technical Hahanenkam of a descent. Re-supplied at Unicoi, Ben drove on to the next road crossing down range, and off we went – me, Jeff, John, Rob, TJ and Trooper Atwood.
Miles 26-40: After the steep freefall from Rocky into Unicoi Gap, the first thing we did is head straight back up about 1100′ in just over 1 rock strewn mile. We topped out, and Johnny set a nice pace at the front. A good section of the trail is an old wagon road that slopes gently down in this direction, so for the next 9 miles or so, we were all smiling and running.
However, it was the first time running on the AT for several of the dudes with me, and during their recruitment I did not really tell them much except to say “it’s only 14 miles, pretty mellow terrain, only one real climb”. All technically true, but I guess I forgot to mention the sharp rocks that cover much of the trail, and between those, and the big climb, some of the boys were hit with empty water bottles and sore feet about ¾ of the way through. When Rob, another Ironman finisher, went to the front and stepped up the tempo with about 3 or 4 miles to go, dehydration and bruised feet took their toll on the other road-shoe clad, single water bottle guys.
Trooper Atwood went off the back, and Jeff hung with him. John and TJ had road shoes on also, and after a bit slipped back a tad with sore feet, as Rob lead me into Hogpen Gap looking a lot stronger than the previous 40 miles under foot intended. At Hogpen were Ben, and David Crowe and his wife Gay. David is a supremely powerful cyclist, a former pro, founder of Athens’ notorious Winter Bike League and a man with a gigantic heart of gold. He and Gay had a cooler full of PB&J, Coke, icy water, dark chocolate and even Heinekens. Ben, ever the first responder, had a ground pad laid out for me and I took a load off for a spell. After a PB&J and a Coke, I re-supplied and stood to move out. When I left, Trooper Atwood was still out there, somewhere, in the woods, no doubt praying he didn’t get into a foot chase that night on his shift.
Miles 41-46: This stretch from Hogpen to Neels Gap I ran alone – not real long, but with several stout, short, steep climbs. Around 6:00 p.m. the rhythmic stride of my time chasing Rob into Hogpen disappeared with a bout of ugly nausea, and it was here, around mile 43, that I began to draw on the inspiration of the Special Forces kids: No way was I going to go negative, dwell on my petty nausea and the long slog ahead. I thought of the sacrifice and resilience of those SF soldiers, and their children, and in a bizarre flip, it was they who were helping me – I knew the donations were in, I knew the money would go to the kids whether I dropped out or not, but it was the thought of what they and their parents go through that inspired.
It was then that I truly realized what an honor it was to have the luxury of doing this. Being, in that moment, all about the love of family, I called wife Pam and son Sam, who were waiting at Neels. The sound of a loved ones voice is a miracle-worker, and they urged me on, with giggles, so I stepped it up again and pushed hard into Neels Gap. There were Pam and Sam, along with Ben and others in support. What a welcome site. I munched some pretzels, took a bite of date bar, goofed off with Sam and draped a towel over my head to see if the nausea would pass. After about 30 minutes, it sorta-kinda did, so Ben and I geared up and stepped together across the road to the base of Blood Mountain: 30 miles to go, and it was definitely about to get dark in those woods.
Miles 47-56: The prospect of marching straight up 1250′ from Neels Gap to the top of Blood was so daunting that I think the utter helplessness of it actually made it easier: I recently discovered the phrase “Embrace the Suck” – one of my new favorites. Once I let go of the dread, it was actually a pleasant, although difficult, climb. It’s quite steep, with big 18″ step-ups to add to the fun. Ben and I plodded up, and somewhere along the way, the sky filled with ink. It was pitch black, with a sharp crescent moon peaking through the forest canopy, and when we hit the top of Blood, the view literally stopped us in our tracks.
Looking south, the lights of the small hamlets of north Georgia twinkled in the broad basins (valleys?) below, and the sky was awash in stars. Here we were, just north of Cleveland, Georgia, and my mouth was hanging open. It was awesome – period. There was, however, much work to be done, so after a brief audience with some of the best Mother Nature has to offer, we tipped over the summit and moved down the trail. This is where things got tricky, on so many levels.
First, it was about here that my quads sent me the bill for the fast descents earlier in the day. Each step off any ledge or on any steep down-slope activated a gland in my legs I didn’t even know I had which apparently produces pure ground glass. Plus, even with a quality 4-bulb LED headlamp, the A.T. is sketchy in the dark – sharp granite edges pop out of the trail like weeds, so any misstep could be, well, painful at best. I guess what I am trying to say is, I slowed way down.
We also got totally freaked out by the sounds of an invisible, but very large and lumbering, mammal thumping off the trail nearby, and we either saw or imagined a C-130 military aircraft rip-skimming the ridgeline on night maneuvers. Ben tells me he used to practice night flying in his Blackhawk in this area, so I guess it was real… After a while we managed to fumble our way to Woody Gap. Waiting for us there was Kirk Smith, another local animal, multiple Ironman finisher, Boston 26.2 dude and a guy who voluntarily rides a bike with Crowe. Kirk had gone on a 65 mile “single-file Saturday” bike ride that morning with David, then at 9:00 p.m., jumped in his car and drove up from Athens to do the last 20 miles with us. The man is the man. We shuffled into his company at Woody Gap about 1:45 a.m. or so, re-loaded, and now we were three for the final push.
Miles 57-76: A couple years ago, when my brother paced me at Leadville, he said afterward that “running at night has a quality all its own. If things are going to get weird, that’s where it is going to happen.” Confirmed. Again. Kirk was a great source of stability – as he put it, he was the “the only sober guy at the party”. His grounding presence notwithstanding, I could swear I dreamt the 3 hours from 2:00 a.m. until 5:00 a.m. I sort of floated between a deep, hollow void, and a giddy delusional euphoria. The down moments involved a stomach so empty it echoed, coupled with a gag reflex intolerant of more than ½ a gel at a time, plus the whole glass-in-the-quads thing.
The up moments were like having beer goggles on and looking in the mirror: I thought I was doing great, cruising along, and I was for sure having fun, but I was actually the same old worn out dude not moving very fast. The funky, head-tilting moments are too numerous to recall, but I do remember the following: The eyes of tiny spiders sitting on the low grass and leaves, reflecting like mirrors in my headlamp; some bigger spiders and their webs wrapping around my face as I passed through; a HUGE spider sitting high in his web, that looked like a freaking crab (can you tell I have a spider thing?); the dew on the underside of the leaves, reflecting a hue in the glow of our headlamps that made them look like they were covered in white fur or snow; the periodic bear rambling sounds and getting to the point where that hardly warranted a glance; eating one of Kirk’s PB&J’s while sitting in the dark, in the dirt, in the woods; disclosing more details than one ever should about the location of more problematic chafes; the first light of the morning sky. Beyond that, all I can tell you is that running (or hiking) through the woods all night is something that everyone should do at least once – I guarantee you will not regret it.
Once daylight broke, fatigue, specifically sleep deprivation, became overwhelming. The effort itself takes its toll, but once you get near 22 hours without sleep, that, at least for me, becomes the elephant on the back. The trail seemed to constantly break straight up for a short brutal 10-15 minute climb, then drop straight down in a stabbing, wincing descent, again and again and again. At one point, Ben was seeing foxholes covered in camo-netting and non-existent bridges over ravines. When the wind kicked up through a big canyon between the ridge we were on and the one to our left, I swear I heard a tailgate party: For about 10 minutes, it sounded like we were trumbling through the parking lot at UGA’s Sanford Stadium about an hour before kickoff, complete with the sounds of the Red Coat Band warming up someplace in the distance.
Auditory and visual hallucinations by our side, we pressed on. The paucity of mile markers, coupled with my earlier delusion as to our pace between 2 and 5 in the morning, left me scratching my head (and really wanting to whine) after a while as to why we were not done yet. When we hit the sign that said, to my eyes, “Matt, you still have 4.2 miles to go, and its uphill, so step up brother”, I had another moment of what I think may be a powerful new zone for me, if it continues to make itself available: Embrace the Suck. I experienced an involuntary resignation to my inevitable reality, true acceptance, and it was suddenly not nearly so troublesome. I think that if we just let go of it – if we, as Christopher McDougall said recently, “demand nothing from our endurance”, it will thrive, it will provide and it will get us where we need to be. So, in the end, at the end, the last 4.2 miles I actually felt pretty good.
Springer Mountain: David and Gay Crowe, and dog Gibby, met us at the finish. I don’t even want to know how long they may have waited. They, and Kirk, shuttled Ben and I in all of our stinky funk, back to my Yogi Bear-chew-toy car at Neels Gap. I changed clothes, ate some jerky, drank a sprite, and stapled my eyelids open to drive home because all I wanted was to see my wife and son.
So, the whole thing, as things like this are meant to be, was a grand adventure. I remain convinced that probing the boundaries of suffering and sacrifice in this manner is good for everyone, wherever those boundaries might be, and I know it is good for me. But traversing terrain in this way, on a beautiful summer weekend in the mountains a couple hours from my house, with my friends, is, in the end, a tremendous luxury.
The U.S. Special Forces push their boundaries on a level that I can only pretend to comprehend, leaving their families for months on end, ducking bullets and pursuing antagonists that specifically intend only one brutal fate for them. Indulging in my luxury run this past weekend, while challenging, vivid and beautiful, was primarily to honor all of them in the best way I knew how. They ‘do’ for the rest of us, without hesitation, at the ultimate cost and under the most grueling and dangerous of circumstances. They are my heroes, their children are my heroes, and I hope they will be blessed with strength and peace.
Matt Karzen, 7/29/09
Donate to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation through First Giving
Donate Directly to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation through their website
Inspired to test your skills and endurance on a trail? Register for the upcoming Rock/Creek Trail Series, the StumpJump 50K & 11 Mile Trail Race October 3, 2009 in Chattanooga, TN.
Weekend events feature special guest Ultramarathon Man, Dean Karnazes, for Friday 10/2 and Saturday 10/3 night speaking opportunities and VIP Reception Saturday 10/3. As well as a huge Vendor Fair hosted at Rock/Creek Two North Shore store location on Friday.