At this point, I just have to smile. I really do.
But while I was 103 miles into the hardest race of my life, screaming at the top of my lungs over howling mountain wind, convinced my husband had abandoned me… it really wasn’t all that funny.
How did I get here? Everything had been perfect. How did it all go so terribly far down south? Nothing made sense. All I knew was I needed to finish.
And, I guess that’s where this story begins….
I signed up for Cruel Jewel 100 for one reason: redemption.
Grindstone 100, two years prior, had gone horribly wrong, and I hadn’t done a 100 since. I needed a redo. Though I had finished Grindstone, I felt my time didn’t reflect my skill. I needed another finish with a better outcome. So, I trained differently. I worked harder. I prepared better. I laid the groundwork, and I did everything right. I was ready to accept my punishment and tackle a bad beast. A cruel beast.
So I picked the cruelest beast– a 106 mile bad boy with 33,213 feet of gain. Add in the 33,213 feet of loss, and you’ve got one nasty, angry, seriously messed up piece of a course in the mountains of North Georgia.
But this was a beast close to my heart.
The race started and ended at the park I’d spent my spring, summers, and falls camping at since I was still in my mother’s womb: Vogel State Park. It was this place I first slept under the stars, where I’d caught my first fish, gave a boy my phone number for the first time, and hiked to my first waterfall. The flashbacks are endless, but suffice it to say, the place is special. Running 100 miles here would be the cherry on top of a lifetime of memories.
And I even had a crew. A big one.
I usually just kind of gut these things out dragging my sweet husband, Dan, behind me and hope for the best. If I can enlist the help of the occasional friend or family member, I’m lucky for sure.
I don’t know if it had anything to do with the race taking place at our family’s favorite park, but nearly all 5 of my siblings, my nieces, my nephew, and my parents wanted to come and support my race!
I was floored. My sister, Melissa, and brother-in-law, Duncan, offered to support me from 50 miles onward. I had Dan lined up to run 25 with me, my trail junkie friend Ashley Bailey ready to run 10 with me, and an ultra friend Erin locked and loaded for the final 20 back into Vogel. Mom and Dad would hold down the fort back at Vogel, and keep all of our kids entertained while they waited for me to finish the race.
With all the details handled, I was confident and excited to tackle The Dragon.
A little about this dragon…
The race begins every year at Vogel down by the lake. It travels out and up along the notoriously difficult Coosa Backcountry Trail, and onto the even more brutal Duncan Ridge Trail–also known as the “Dragon’s Spine” for its disgustingly steep ascents and descents. From there, the route continues along various malicious mountain trails and roads to Camp Morganton in Blue Ridge, Georgia — the 52 mile turnaround. Once there, runners would turn around and do the entire thing again, with the addition of one terribly wretched 6 mile section down and up a mountain…just for kicks.
There was nothing really “doable” about the course for mere mortals, but you know, us ultrarunners have this whole superhero complex thing going on. We’re pretty sure we can handle anything. And we usually can.
Lookin’ for friends.
At the start line, I nervously looked around for some familiar faces. Though I knew a lot of runners I chat with online would be there, it was hard to recognize people in a sea of hats and running gear. I finally spotted my friend “Gangsta” aka Zachary Andrews. In true Trail Gangsta fashion, he’d just rolled up to the start with seconds to spare. We took the above selfie, swapped good lucks, laughed a little bit, and then the RD said GO.
The instant we stepped foot on Coosa, I knew it was going to be a long day. With the race start at noon, the sun was at its highest, and humidity was up right along with it. Lord, help me… I kept saying to myself, with my thickest southern drawl.
The first 8 miles took me two hours. Now, I understand that’s still a pretty decent pace for these trails, but I felt like I was just craaawling.
Every runner I’d come to, I’d try to chat with, hoping a little camaraderie would distract us all from the pain. I was sick of running by myself. Shoot, I’d done almost all my training by myself, so when I got the chance to be around people, I wanted to talk.
Some people wanted to chat with me for a bit–shout out to Ted and Jason–and I made a few new friends here and there. Others just wanted to be competitive and blew right past me. …their loss.. I giggled to myself, thinking it’s what my Mom would say.
By the time I got to mile 20, I was pretty beat up and discouraged. “I feel like I’ve already done 90 miles.” I laughed to the aid station crew, secretly crying on the inside.
“Welcome to the DRT [Duncan Ridge Trail].” They chuckled back, reminding me just how brutal of a course I was running.
Ughh, they’re right. Dangitt… I came to terms with the fact that I had signed myself up for this mess, and I needed to work hard for that finish I wanted.
And that’s exactly what I did.
After I left the 20 mile aid station, I finally dropped the hammer. The sun began to set a little, the miles started clicking off, my mood improved, I made a few friends, and everything began to fall into place. Fuel felt right. Energy level was high. Feet ran good. Muscles were strong…I got this.
My mom and dad were waiting at Skeenah Gap, mile 25, and they were my goal I was working towards for the first portion of the race. My mom had never been to an ultra event before, largely due to the fact that I’ve almost died at them more than once, and she’s just not a fan of sittin’ around sweating bullets worrying about me. Can’t say that I blame her. But, Mom came nonetheless, and I was so excited to see her and Daddy there.
When I came down into Skeenah, I was beaming. I gave my parents a huge sweaty hug. The course was beating me up, but I was happy. I knew they were proud of me. I could feel it. Their love gave me what I needed to keep pushing onto 52 miles, where I’d see more of my crew: Dan, Melissa, and Duncan.
I couldn’t wait.
No, I mean, I genuinely couldn’t. I wanted some company. Bad. And I couldn’t get it until mile 52. So from 25 on, I freakin’ hustled. I bombed every down, and climbed every up like a boss. When I finally got to 52, Camp Morganton–in the middle of the night before Saturday morning– I was a little spent. But, I got to see my family. Like a true extrovert, I get my energy from people.
Like my mom, my big sis had never been to an ultra, and neither had her husband, so I was pumped to experience this with them. I was unsure how they would feel seeing me all bent out of shape from 52 miles, but they jumped out of their car like a couple of pros, and got to work taking care of me. They patched me up, filled me up, and pushed me out of the chair and back onto the course. I was so thankful for them! Once again, having them there was just the boost I needed. This whole “redemption thing” was going to be a piece of cake.
Dan jumped out of the truck to tackle miles 52 to 75 with me. Together, we fell into our familiar rhythm of running and laughing our butts off. Dan is not only my husband, he truly is my very (VERY) best friend. We’ve been this way since we were teens, and nothing’s changed one bit. Running with him is everything perfect. Even with 52 mountain miles on my legs, Dan gave me so much life it was like I had just started the race.
We ran strong all through the mountains towards mile 75, getting help and caffeine along the way from Melissa and Duncan.
I went through plenty of lows, but Dan made sure I got back to the highs. Several times, I remarked I had never felt so good during a 100, and I hoped it would last. He assured me it would, and that I was well trained. It would all finally come together, he encouraged me. As I effortlessly climbed up mountain after mountain, I knew in my heart he was right.
We hit a paved section around mile 70-75. We ran it at such a solid pace, that we were even running alongside some of the fast 50 mile racers who were also out on the course.
“Dang, Honey.” Dan said. “You’re killing this!”
“It’s about time I had a good race.” I shouted back. “I just need to keep chipping away. We got this.”
Dan ran me into mile 75, right into the arms of my sweet friend, Ashley Bailey. Ashley and I had some tough trail to tackle together, but she was ready. So was I.
We quickly got to work on the next few miles. Once again, the comfort of having a close friend with me greatly distracted me from the pain. But when I punted a massive rock with an already beat up foot, the distraction wasn’t enough…
“Ahhhh!!!” I wailed, as I hobbled to the side of the trail.
“Nope. Get up. Keep moving.” Ashley shouted at me.
“Ughhh. You don’t understand!” I lamented, “This crap feels broken.”
“I don’t care. You gotta finish! GET UP.” She snapped back.
Grrrrr. She was right…I had told my crew to be hard on me, and they weren’t playing games. It helped though, because I got up and continued to run hard on the downs, with my toe slamming into my shoe with each step.
It will be over soon. It will be over soon. It will be over soon.
Ashley ran me into mile 80. A little defeated, but even then, I was still moving well.
And then Big Sis Took Me to School.
Melissa, my super fit sister, had never stepped foot on a real trail, let alone a super technical one –winding its way up and over some of the meanest mountains on the East Coast. But, at mile 85, she wanted to run.
Of course I was excited to spend some time with my sister, so I was all for it. Melissa jumped right in behind Ash B and me. The camaraderie of the group felt much like a girls night out– albeit a few thousand feet of climbing dirt and kicking rocks.
My sister really surprised me with her ability to hang with me on the ups, and bomb the downs. She never tripped, never complained, and barely broke a sweat.
Geez, she needs to be racing this thing, too! I thought.
Again, the support and conversation from my family and friends kept me moving at a great pace. We brought it into mile 85 stronger than ever, and it was finally time to wrap the party up. I was so sad to leave my sister and Ashley behind, but I was looking forward to another friend.
Erin is an ultrarunner who loves mountains. We weren’t super close before this, as life just had us in different places at the moment, but she’s still always up for a good ultra run. I asked her a couple weeks before the race if she’d be up for joining me, and she quickly agreed.
When I finally ran to Erin at mile 85, I knew I was in good hands. She was armed with a pack, some lights, food, and a giant roll of toilet paper attached at her chest.
“….The crap is this toilet paper, Erin?!” I laughed.
“Hey, nobody wants to wipe with the wrong leaf.” She replied.
Fair enough! From this point on, my crew and I had to part ways. The next time they would see me would be the finish.
“See you soon!” I shouted, as Erin and I took off up the trail.
Erin pushed me hard.
Forcing me to bomb every single down, even on my jacked up feet. She made me crank it on the ups. I submitted, and did as told. As we breezed through the mile 90 aid station, I was grateful for the push.
“Thanks for making me work, girl. This is awesome.”
“Yeah, you’re doing great!” Erin replied, as we power hiked up a climb. “We keep this up, we’ll be at that finish line quicker than you thought!”
“Yeah. I think you’re right. I feel absolutely amazing!”
We kept the good flow rolling well into the night. Mile 92, 93, 94, 95… Even as the temps dropped and the wind picked up, I was still confident in my ability to finally sink that solid finish I’d been eyeing. I had it. I was on top of the world. I texted Dan to tell him the good news.
“About to roll into mile 97. I’ll be down sometime early evening.”
But then my world turned upside down.
Somewhere shortly before the mile 97 aid station as we ran into my second night of wakefulness, my brain did something interesting yet terrifying. It simply stopped firing, and it happened without warning.
I first noticed it when I tried to say something to Erin, but only three of the words I’d intended to say made it out of my mouth. The rest that came out were a warped mess of things I had no intentions of speaking. I could hear myself saying it, but I couldn’t make sense of it, and I definitely couldn’t control it.
One minute I was totally fine, and the next minute I was completely confused and wondering what I was doing. This had happened to me once before at Grindstone, and I was petrified of what was coming if it got any worse.
We kept moving and I stayed silent, but as I feared, I began to slip and the hallucinations started. One weird thing I always hallucinate about during these races –and it never fails–are little kids. I swear it’s my motherly subconscious feeling guilty about being away from my kids all day or something. Regardless the reason, I see kids. Not cute kids, mind you. Creepy kids….And, I started to see them everywhere with Erin.
Little old-timey looking boys were staring at me from behind trees.
Pioneer era girls in dresses frolicked on the trail before me.
“Erin!” I cried. “I’m losing my freaking mind! Where is that aid station? We need to get to the aid station!”
At least that’s what I said in my head, but what came out was slurred and confusing. Erin didn’t understand me, and handed me some bars. She told me to drink more Tailwind, and found some caffeine in my pack. I choked it all down and tried to get a grip on reality.
But reality only got worse.
When we reached mile 97, I felt incredibly puzzled. I still could not communicate well despite ample food, hydration, and caffeine. My words wouldn’t come out right and my thoughts were far from coherent. From what I’ve been told, I sounded full on 100% drunk. Like clearly I hadn’t been running for 97 miles, I’d just been sitting on a mountain kickin’ back with some Everclear all day.
Why was I running? Where exactly on this course was I? How would I get to the finish? Where was my husband? Who were these people talking to me?!
These questions riddled my mind, but somehow, I made it to the Aid Station.
“Do you want some soup, sweetheart?” I heard someone ask.
Yes! Yes! Soup please!… I was thinking. But apparently, whatever I said back had nothing to do with soup, and everything to do with me being a delusional, hallucinating freak show of a woman.
Erin had to get me out of this aid station stat…before I lost any chance of making it off the mountain, or any chance of ever having ultrarunning friends again!
The night had grown cold and windy, and my body couldn’t warm up. I’d found solace in the warmth of an aid station fire, but Erin instructed me to get up and move. I was getting worse by the hour.
Even delusional, I knew that where I was– sitting warmly by the fire– it wasn’t where I needed to be. So, I followed my pacer back into the darkness and down one of the easier stretches of the race towards the finish.
If the race ended at mile 100,
I could have stumbled on down to the finish line, delusional and all. I’d done it before, after all. Plenty of times. Heck, I’d probably even have a real respectable time to tote. The 100 mile redemption would be mine! Finally!
But this race didn’t end at 100.
It ended at 106, and I still had quite a ways to go on an increasingly sleep deprived brain.
Everything in my core tried to pull my mind together. I prayed hard, literally. I was begging God for mercy and clarity. I kept telling myself: You’re still in control. You’re still in control.
But it was too late. I wasn’t in control at all. I knew I wasn’t.
I started to black out. I stumbled. I felt Erin yank me up by my pack before I fell to the ground.
“Steady!” She shouted.
But I couldn’t steady. I could move my feet forward, but I couldn’t process direction.
Where am I going? Why is she yelling at me to move? Am I dying? Wait..Am I already dead?
My brain was done.
“Help!!!” I would scream. “I’m so confused! I need help!”
“You’re okay, Ashley. I’m here with you.”
“But where’s Daniel?!! Why has he abandoned me?!!” I cried.
“He hasn’t abandoned you, Ashley! He’s waiting at the bottom of the mountain.”
“No!!! No… you’re lying to me!”
As I’ve been told, the full on “mountain drunk” had progressed to higher than a kite over the course of a couple short hours. Like a bad, bad trip. The feeling felt disgustingly similar to how I’d felt when I overdosed on meth as a teen. A feeling I’d sworn to myself and God I’d never feel again.
I stumbled again into the darkness, completely trapped and hopeless in my own clouded mind.
Erin grabbed me again by my pack behind the neck,
and slowly walked behind me down the mountain at what was later described as an agonizingly slow pace. The wind was fierce. The temps were low. And I was barely moving.
“Ashley, you’ve got to keep moving.”
“I’m dying, Erin. Seriously. I am. Tell my kids I love them.”
“You’re not dying Ashley, you’re just sleep deprived.”
At one point, I was convinced I actually already had died, and I was reliving my last hours of life. The next, I was certain I was dreaming, and I had already successfully crossed the finish line. Another time, I was apparently stealing Erin’s toilet paper roll and cussing her out!… For the record, I haven’t said a swear word in a decade, guys. I also apparently started calling Erin “Ashley” for some reason.
Lord help me. I will never live down this night.
Eventually, I settled back into the fear that Daniel had abandoned me in the woods (because he hated me) and he was never coming to get me. In fact, I apparently somehow got a hold of my cell phone, plopped down on the trail, dialed his number at 2 in the morning and screamed, “You abandoned me!!!!!”
Erin grabbed the phone and talked to Dan, and he decided to run the couple miles up the mountain –in the middle of the night– to help her escort me back down. (That’s true. And that’s love, y’all.)
“But, I don’t even want to go to the finish place!”
I kept screaming this, completely unaware in my clouded mind that the finish line I’d trained the entire past year to see was just a couple easy miles ahead of me. It was close to 3am, well after I’d planned on finishing the race, but I still fought Dan and Erin hard on letting me quit.
“I don’t want to finish. I want to go home!” I slurred.
“Yes you do, Ash. You do want this finish line.” Dan said, now joined in the quest to get me off the mountain.
“Yeah, there’s no way we’re gonna let you quit, Ash. We’re finishing this!” Erin added.
“But I’m dying! I’m dying, Ashley [Erin], and no one cares!” I cried back in garbled words to Erin and Dan,”You all keep telling me to go to this finish, but I need a hospital! You’re trying to kill me.”
Now of course this is all hilarious now, but while it was happening, I was absolutely petrified.
I genuinely believed and feared the things I was saying. I couldn’t form a coherent thought. I couldn’t communicate clearly. Add in the confusion of a headlamp shining on nothing but trails, almost 48 hours of no sleep, 103 miles on one of the hardest courses out there, in and out of the blackness in my mind, and it was just one truly nasty experience.
Dan and Erin were going to make sure I got that dang buckle, though. I moved slower than a slug, and fell every few feet, but I still moved.
Finally, around 4am,
I slowly crossed the 7th 100 mile finish line of my life, huddled securely next to my trail savior Erin.
Though it was one of several, it’s the first one that I only partly remember finishing. Someone handed me a buckle, and said something about, “You did it.” I just bent over and cried. No…sobbed. I sobbed hard…and that’s all I remember.
The next morning,
I woke up in a bed at a cabin in Vogel, and looked at the ceiling. Everything came back to me about the night before, like the worst bender imaginable.
I just closed my eyes tightly and started to cry. Not happy tears really, just heavy tears. Tears so heavy with emotion, they dropped right down to my neck.
I cried for the loss of my race. I didn’t get my redemption. In fact, I didn’t even come close. My performance at Grindstone had actually been several hours better. An entire year of training, hoping, praying, striving…For nothing.
I rubbed my head, and wiped my eyes. I looked over at the nightstand and saw my buckle, and sighed. Strangely enough, I’d technically done one of the best 100 miles I’d ever done the night before, but that’s what’s so cruel about Cruel Jewel. It doesn’t stop at 100 miles.
It takes you just past that point. To 106. Just far enough to break you.
I kicked my feet out of the covers and onto the ground.
My legs felt fine. I cried again, realizing I had plenty of juice left in them. Had I not been so delusional, I could have crushed that last easy part of trail and gotten exactly what I’d hoped, worked, and prayed for all year!
Ughhhh, I cried quietly as everything sank in. What a terrible outcome.
I walked to the bathroom, and I looked around in a daze. I noticed all my family’s things scattered across the floor. My entire family was staying in the cabin. I spotted my daughter’s clothes, my sister’s makeup bag on the counter, my Dad’s toothbrush, and my niece’s bathing suit.
Dang. Everybody’s here.
I heard breakfast sizzling in the kitchen. I was embarrassed to walk into the room and face the music. My amazing race had ended in the worst way possible, and at this point, they had to know about it. But I wiped my face clean and walked out of the bedroom, ready to face the music.
And in that moment, everything changed.
My family started chanting, “Ashley! Ashley! Ashley! Ashley!”
“Woohoo!!! Congratulations!! You did it! You finished!” They shouted.
The room was decorated with signs my nieces and nephew and children had made for me while they had waited for me to finish.
Tears came rolling back down my face. Not heavy ones this time, just happy ones. Everyone got up and hugged me, and asked me to tell them all about the race.
They giggled as I told them about the memory loss, and said they’d already heard the stories from Dan and Erin. I listened to the kids rattle off their list of old familiar Vogel adventures they’d enjoyed while I was running, and I smiled. I scarfed down the big Southern breakfast my Mama had made, and in that very moment, I no longer felt a sense of significant loss. I felt incredibly and overwhelmingly loved.
You can’t always get what you want.
Everybody knows that. And after so many excruciatingly awful ultra races, I for sure know that. But I also know that if you’re lucky, you do get what you need. And that’s exactly what I got at Cruel Jewel.
The truth is, there’s something that I’ve needed more than ultra redemption for the past couple years or so.
What have I needed?
In my recent past, I’ve struggled with a lot of loneliness. My kids are in school and have friends, my husband works all day, and I work from home. I have a lot of time to myself. Though I have thousands of insta friends and twitter pals, I don’t have many real life friends. All of my close girlfriends live out of state. And out of my runner friends, most of them have busy lives. With the mountains being almost 2 hours away, hardly any friends are available for–or are even interested in– joining me in pursuing my passion of mountain running.
I know it’s cheesy, but I’ve always kind of had this dream that I’d have a group of friends who run in the mountains with me. Maybe after, we’d get coffee together, talk about life, support each other. The stuff you see in movies I guess? I’ve wanted a village. A community. A group. Something to be a part of. Shoot, I’ve even prayed for these friends to exist in my life. Often. Embarrassing maybe, but true.
That moment though,
as I walked into the kitchen where my family was, I realized something. I already had my village. No, it didn’t look like a scene from Friends, but these were my people. And it looked exactly how God wanted it to look.
It looked like Daniel, running 3 miles up a mountain in the middle of the night, and on tired legs, to make sure I was safe. The man is my lifeline, my everything.
It looked like Erin, yanking me out of sleep pulling me up by my pack, and walking with me for hours down a mountain in the freezing cold, encouraging me to never give up.
It looked like Ashley driving two hours and waiting in her car all day just to run with me and support me for 10 miles.
It looked like my sister, Melissa, lacing up a pair of my trail shoes she’d never worn and charging up a mountain for the first time, simply to encourage me along while I was feeling low.
It looked like my brother-in-law, Duncan, driving around the mountains all weekend and losing sleep, just to know I had enough bandaids and edbull.
It looked like Mom and Dad driving into the backcountry, and waiting for me all afternoon just to hug me and tell their baby girl good job.
It looked like my nieces and nephew and my sweet children, coloring little signs to tell me they were proud of how hard I’d worked.
It looked like the droves of text messages pouring in from my concerned family and friends, dying to hear how I’d done, and telling me they were praying and thinking of me.
It looked like the friends I’d chatted with out on the course like Brad, Zach, and Jason, and the volunteers who’d told me You got this!
It even looked like the messages from strangers online who told me I was on their heart all day, and they’d been hoping I’d had a great race.
It looked like my village. It looked like my crew. It didn’t look like I was lonely. Far from it. It looked like I was loved. Very loved.
It took me 40 hours
to finish 106 miles, with 66,426 feet of elevation change at the Cruel Jewel 100. 40 hours of pain and suffering, and what felt like a complete and total failure to reach my goal. But it only took me one quick and tiny minute the next day to realize and appreciate the race for what it truly was: a success. In that minute, I realized how rich my life was. My soul was instantly filled with immense pride and joy. Yes, I’d gotten exactly what I needed at Cruel Jewel, and it had nothing to do with redemption.
And funny enough,
when I checked the results for my official finish time, it wasn’t 40 hours even, but 40:01..
…I guess a minute truly does change everything.
Thank you so very much for reading my latest story! I know my experience was crazy, but I can’t say enough good things about Cruel Jewel. The RD’s put together something really special here. The volunteers were helpful, the aid stations were spot on, and of course the route was an amazing challenge. I also want to say THANK YOU again to my family and my friends for all you did for me. I’m deeply grateful. Let me know what you think in the comment section below. I appreciate the feedback! ~Ash