Jana Fridrichová

Dropping the spike in the coffin: Georgia Death Race

Georgia Death Race was no coincidence for me. In 2021, I met GDR RD Sean and Team Run Bum in North Carolina when I raced Quest For The Crest Vertical 10K. I was just beginning to discover the magic of mountain running after years of faster road running; some less challenging ultramarathoning interrupted by a multitude of recurring bone stress injuries as a result of overuse and hard impact and this more laid back trail running appeared to be where the road or rather trails were taking me. Naturally, I fell in love with the rugged terrain that challenged me and left me wanting more.

I returned back to North Carolina a year later to race 2022 Quest For The Crest 50K — now more experienced, I felt right at home conquering the technical vertical peaks, and my love affair with big mountains began to take its course.

Later that year, I’d been selected as a member of Team Blue — the competitive tier of Bend Don’t Break Run Bum Race Team, which also meant I could race any Run Bum event I wished to race. Immediately, Georgia Death Race came to mind and I asked to be put in. I felt the timing was right.

Zen and the Art of Loving Hill Repeats

This is absolutely my most favorite part of any ’ pre-race period” - Let The Preparations Begin! My routine is usually looking up race reports and course descriptions. Georgia is logistically too far for me to actually be able to train on the race course, so the next best thing would be finding similar grade climbs here in my western Maryland home woods and get to work. I was coming into training for GDR right after racing the Hellgate100K, which meant I was well warmed up.

My goal was to squeeze as much vertical gain into my weekly mileage volume as possible and I was able to total 150,000 feet of vertical gain within two and a half months leading up to the race. Yes, in Western Maryland. Yes, I do have a full time administrative job and I do have two busy teenagers with extracurricular activities galore! Yes, this means insane amount of hill repeats. YES! I LOVE HILL REPEATS!

Race day approached quickly. I felt ready and confident and so excited to see the highest waterfall in Georgia, as well as run through the highest peak there: Brasstown Bald or Enotah , a former homeland of the native Cherokee people.

Jana Fridrichová representing her favorite trail running club, pre-race at the Amicalola Waterfalls

I usually camp out of our SUV for many of these adventures, as there is usually a campground with showers at most of these events; this makes logistics of the trip easy for me. This adventure was just like it.

I drove to Georgia (a 10 hour drive from Maryland), set up camp, met with friends, hiked the waterfall stairs, attended pre-race festivities, ate, prepared my gear and hydration pack, and slept (barely). It was camp karaoke night and the repertoire and featured “pop stars” were not exactly soothing. Haha. All part of the experience, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Morning came. We were in for an unusually hot weekend — humid as well, and rain in forecast. GDR is a point-to-point race. Start is at 5 a.m. at Vogel State Park, and one way to get there is to hop on a shuttle school bus at 3:15 a.m. with many fellow runner friends I have never met before, many of which will turn out to be longtime friends.

Jana playing with new friends pre-race

We boarded 4 school buses. I chose bus 4, following 3 buses ahead of us. We started a slow bus ride up steep, curvy roads and I was thrilled! At least until we started smelling “something burning.” The smoke became visible and it was obvious the bus ahead of us was burning! Not long after that the bus stopped dead in the middle of an insanely steep mountain road, and went pitch black, simply dead. We stopped as well and I could hear people shouting, “the bus is on fire, get the people out of there.”

It was “funny, not funny.” The bus was evacuated, and runners from the burning bus boarded our bus, which was now full to the tippy top and carried a load no bus was ever meant to carry. We were praying, laughing and cheering all the way to the Vogel road summit, in order to make that climb on that bus. We made it!

With time to spare for bathroom trips, national anthem and …. a major rain storm downpour as soon as it was time to GO! Awesome. I like wind, rain, you name it, I love it all!

A few miles of road has been added to start of this year’s event to spread the hundreds of runners out before we it the single-track trails and the biggest climb of the race, which is right at the beginning! The winds and rain were whipping us good as we started to climb. It was humid, I felt it and I also felt it was slick and muddy. That big climb felt easy, a good sign.

Floating along the trails in the early miles of the race

I found myself running with the front pack of men, with Doug Moore by my side at this point. The conversation was flowing and miles just clicking away. Rain made the technical mountain slick and muddy in places, pace was slower, but it was ok, too soon into the race and no one risking making a wrong move to fall this early on until … I did! Slipped, and within seconds, after not being able to save the fall, I started rolling down the mountain.

It was literally seconds and I was stopped by a tree, but Doug retold that story as a slow motion Jana disappearing into the dark ravine, never to be seen again. LOL. I crawled back up and Doug pulled me the rest of the way back on trail. We stood there for a moment laughing about how exciting our otherwise quite normal adult lives are, and we ran on, still laughing for quite a while.

Fueling up at an early aid station

I realized soon after Aid 2, when going up a major climb that was an out-and-back feature, that I hadn’t seen a female. Only the top 8 men. I felt I was capable of leading the ladies’ field and perhaps keeping my top 10 overall position. Still very early into the race with 48 miles to go, but I felt confident and strong here, in my element. Checking the stats on my watch, we had covered over 1/3 of the total elevation — that is 16,000 feet of gain, and I felt solid for what was still to come.

After 20 some miles, Doug (now my new best friend and rescuer) fell behind my pace, and I continued up and down mountain climbs, now solo. The rain stopped, the sun came out, the views opened up with each climb, and that is where I usually find my “why” on an ideal race day such as this. There are places here that offer 360-degree views of mountains and tiny towns below, and a feeling of gratitude took over me. I love when I am able to tap into this feeling early on in the race, it is a good sign.

It wasn’t long after I left Doug that I ran into another male runner. He was now running in 6th place overall, a locally known and loved coach named Justin Hamilton, who resides about a mile from the race course. We shared that climb and made friends, I will never forget his encouragement for me and admiration of my strength. He exclaimed “oh my god, girl do you realize there are maybe 4-5 guys ahead of you?”

There were. Number 5 dropped out, number 4 hurt his knee and slowed down drastically, number 3 and I shared a conversation and a laugh before I took off on some now very runnable forest road sections.

We were basically done climbing with 50 kilometers to go. Everyone was suffering in the now significant heat and humidity, and there was little shade the rest of the way. This is the hard part. Finding the running legs after 13,000 feet of rugged climbs.

This was now a run/walk: run some, walk some, still some climbing left, but all quite runnable, with only about 20 miles and 2 more aid stations to go. I felt I could finish this on gratitude and adrenaline alone. Third overall now was a dream! What? This is awesome!

And then I reached last Aid Station with Male 2, none other than Tristan Baxendale, who just won The Reverse Ring for the second time. Strong runner. Inspiring individual with studly resume. He just stood at the aid station. I tried to be encouraging as this was truly the home stretch and has a substantial downhill section for miles before the final challenge. Tristan encouraged me to go ahead as he felt his legs were just done for the day.

Passing the Len Foote Hike Inn in the Chattahoochee National Forest; 10 miles to go!

I drank a small cup of coke for that last caffeine kick and started on the downhill, which at this point in any long race is more like a punishment. I was spotted by the director of Len Foote Hike Inn right around the corner, who let me know M1 was about 20 minutes ahead, and took a photo of me. Immediately after sharing the pic he started the most exciting discussion on whether I was able to catch Chris and win the entire race in the last 10 miles!

I was happy right where I was and stayed that way. The end of this race is emotional and somewhat torturous. After running 70-ish hard miles with unbelievably scenic views, while being cheered on by the most amazing crews of volunteers, the last task is to run down a bizarrely technical downhill, while almost seeing the finish line, then actually running by the finish line, only to be directed to run away from the finish line to … wait for it … climb 607 stairs up to the Amicalola Waterfall. This is an 800 foot climb and 49.7% grade segment referred to as the “Stairway To Heaven.”

Truly the Stairway to Heaven

THIS is a great time to take out the railroad spike all runners must carry for the duration of the race, and hike those stairs with that burden! YES! It feels like forever, but to feel that is a moment one will not forget.

Once atop the highest Georgian waterfall, all that is left is to run DOWN the road, which is cruel but necessary, then cross a small creek … even though there is perfectly good bridge right there, but that is not allowed to be used … and oh my god the cold water is actually heavenly feeling and voila … FINISH!

Drop the spike in a coffin, which is meant just for this special moment. Then to be given a GDR-engraved keepsake spike. It was an emotional moment for me to see there was only one other spike in the coffin. Mine was #2, the closest a woman has come to winning this event outright was that moment. I will never forget that.

Dropping that spike

An all day long, amazing chase race. The day where training, attitude, mindset, luck, love, encouragement from strangers who would become family by the end of the day … it all happened in those 15 hours and 37 minutes. I am in awe of the pure spirit and generosity of the local people that huddled around us upon finishing to ask questions about “how hard this is.”

I am humbled and grateful for all the people that send us cheers along the way. This is a wild place full of wonder and hard mountain climbs, along with breathtaking views. If you FEEL this adventure calls your name, I encourage you to train hard and dare to carry that rusty spike from Vogel SP to Amicalola Waterfalls. I am glad I did.