Cruel Jewel 100, Running on the Dragon Spine
Cruel Jewel 100 is a race that every ultra runner should do at least once. It doesn’t have the high altitude challenges that the Hardrock 100 has but it has a different kind of challenge that is equally as difficult. Comparing the two races you can quickly see that the total elevation gain and descent is very similar. Cruel Jewel takes place mid-May and ensures some unpredictable weather. The Georgia humidity can be a problem for some especially those not from the area.
The Cruel Jewel 100 mile race is actually 108 miles long. The course takes you 54 miles out and back. It’s at least 108 miles. It’s not short. If anything, it maybe longer. The course has 33,000ft of elevation gain and 33,000ft of elevation decent according to the website.
Are you two brothers? Hey, you two match.
Paul Morris and I had trained for Cruel Jewel 100 for six months. He and I ran both Georgia Death Race (GDR) and Double Top (DoubleTap) 100k in the North Georgia mountains preparing for the race. Our weekly training elevation ranged from 6,000 to 10,000 feet per week leading up to the race. We ran the same races because they are perfect training races for CJ100. In fact, we ran so many of the same races together getting ready for this event, everyone was starting to ask us if we were brothers. That started getting old after awhile. Of course, we were training with others as well, but because we had a similar goal, we had lots of overlap. It helps me to stay motivated when I have peers pushing me towards a common goal. Apparently the two of us like the same colors for running shirts. So, at one of the races we ran for training, we unknowingly had the same colors on for part of the race. This became very noticeable since it was a loop course and we were running together for the entire race. Needless to say, we always have extra shirts with us now to ensure we aren’t labeled as twins. 🙂
Wonda, the kids and I stayed at the campground in Vogel State Park with 3-4 other runners. I rented a two bedroom cabin with plenty of space for the weekend for some other runners and Wonda and the girls. The cabin was perfect. We could walk from the cabin to the start line for the 12 pm (noon) race start and we could walk from the finish to the cabin after finishing.
Starting at noon is different. I can’t say if it’s good or bad. It’s just different. If you don’t do anything stupid like try to drive a long distance the morning of the race or anything like that it’s probably an advantage. It gives you time to sleep in, eat a good breakfast, have you required bowel movements and get mentally prepared for the race.
If I’ve not learned anything else, I’ve learned that when running a difficult race, start conservatively. This was our approach at Cruel Jewel. Paul and I took our time. We stayed at the back of the pack and kept our cool.
Coosa Bald up to White Oak
The climb up Coosa over to the Dragon Spine is proper for this race. It lets you know what you’ve gotten yourself into and sets the stage properly for the race. The views on top of Coosa are wonderful and the tail has a neat feel to it. Being fresh at this point, it was an enjoyable climb.
What can be said about the Dragon Spine? It consists of back to back mountains that aren’t easy to climb but also aren’t long climbs. I can’t remember exactly how many but I think if you count all of them, there are nine climbs and descents that range from 200 feet to 800 feet.
Deep Gap Loop
After the spine, you make your way over to a loop before heading to the turnaround. It’s really a no-op. I mean there’s some miles involved but, it’s not especially hard, it’s just miles. The volunteers at the aid station, just alike all the aid stations, are top notch. In most cases, they have experienced ultra runners just giving back to the community. The final stretch running into Fort Morganton is smooth sailing.
Once at the turn around, I’m pretty sure I was suffering from some major ultra-brain. Kathy Smith and Town Owens were both there waiting for their runner. They chatted with me and Paul a bit. Wonda was also there to help us do the things we needed to get us back on the road. I don’t think I could survive these races without Wonda’s support. She looked about as tired as we were. Crewing is hard. I’m hoping she starts blogging about crewing so these blogs can help share in that area as well. At this point, we were actually moving at a pretty decent pace. Speed wasn’t that important to us, but we didn’t want to be last. We had thought that if we took our time, we would roll across the finish somewhere around 36-37 hours.
After eating and getting freshened up, we got back on the road and trail feeling pretty good.
Deep Gap Loop to Weaver Creek
The return to Deep Gap seemed to go quicker. I probably wasn’t moving faster but it felt like I was. The loop was completed fast and we headed back up to do the bonus out and back the RD added to the course to ensure the course is equally as challenging as HardRock 100. Shortly after we started down the trail to the Weaver Creek Road we bumped into a familiar face coming up the trail. It was Martin and he looked like he was about to fall over. He didn’t have any caffeine and he was falling asleep while running. We gave him shit about looking so pathetic and gave him some caffeine pills. He later told us that helped him out big time.
We finished our run down to the aid station, got us some food and drink and headed back up to the main trail so we could get back onto the trail. The climb out from Weaver Creek was probably 100 feet. This section taking us to the start of the Dragon Spine was a hard section for us due to the heat and some other complications we were dealing with.
Paul started having some heart issues. I don’t know what caused it. But, shortly after the sun came up, he started having a racing heart. He was expecting it to go away after a short break at the next aid station but it didn’t happen. We walked more than we usually do but we knew we had plenty of time so we charged on just a bit slower. The option of one going on without the other wasn’t there. We had trained for the race together and the plan was to endure the distance together. It definitely makes the race more tolerable when you run a race this difficult that way. However, after about 6 or 7 hours of these symptoms, I could tell he was starting to feel really bad. Not normal 70 miles of a 108-mile race bad, but he was doing the math and was wondering if he could finish another 10-12 hours of running with the symptoms. We had taken long breaks at the aid stations we had passed through and it wasn’t helping. We were running out of ideas. It was hot and we were thinking that had something to do with it not getting better even though we were taking breaks. Since we knew we were about to see Wonda, the kids, and Jeff at Old Dial Rd, we came up with a plan for Paul to get into the Pilot and run the AC for a few minutes. I was planning on changing shoes so he would have plenty of time. I treated my feet and ate some food and Paul took a small break in the Pilot to cool down. Wonda started it and let the AC run for a few minutes so he could cool down. It took about 5 minutes. Paul said as soon as he cooled down a few degrees the racing heart symptoms left.
After that, we left the aid station at Old Dial Rd and headed out onto the spine. We had Jeff with us and we were feeling ready to finish the race.
The Dragon Spine on the return trip after being up for 24 hours is different than the first go. You’re tired and you just want to get off the spine. We had picked up a pacer that joined us to see what an ultra was like. Jeff started running with us when we headed back onto the spine at Old Dial Rd or mile 75. It was nice having Jeff with us. He talked much more than Paul and I were talking and it helped pass the time. We were both hurting and nothing helped.
Jeff kept us moving at a good pace. He kept us alert and prevented us from getting lost a few times when we might have if he wasn’t with us.
When we finally got off the spine we had to climb up the Coosa Bald. However, this time we were doing it in the dark and the weather was not as friendly. It was still a good time but it wasn’t easy.
Coosa Bald up to White Oak
The climb up seemed relentless. On this section, we started to see and pass other runners that were suffering more than we were. Normally I consider the dark a good thing, but on this particular stretch, it seemed to make the distance take much longer than we expected. I now know it was because we were moving so much slower. We did get energy from the passing others but it wasn’t something that made us faster. It just made us keep going. At one point, we thought we had gone off the trail. I think Jeff felt responsible so he proactively ran ahead looking for flags. We even double backed a bit. But, it turned out that we were on the trail but the flags were far apart in that section. We just had to keep moving and we would have bumped into one. But, after that, we start calling out when we saw flags. This kept us sane and helped keep our confidence up that we hadn’t gone astray.
When we got to the top at the aid station, I saw some crazy folks. The aid station volunteers were helping runners who came into the aid station suffering from exhaustion and dehydration. I guess the symptoms can cause runners to go a bit crazy. The volunteers at that particular aid station (White Oak) deserve a special pat on the back. They were literally nursing runners back to life so that they can finish the race. Jeff said I wasn’t talking much at that point. But, if I would have been talking, it would have sounded something like, “let’s get out of here before the crazy rubs off on us”. Jeff said I was only grunting when someone talked to me.
Journey Down to Wolf Creek
After White Oak we headed out to finish the race. We had one more water only aid station and we were heading to the finish. The journey from White Oak to Wolf Creek took an eternity. Agan, the darkness made the distance seem longer not shorter. It seemed we kept getting to the bottom, again and again. So many switch-backs, to many to count and enough to test your mental toughness. We passed some folks that had opted to just stop and take a break. Just chilling on the trail.
Despite the fact it seemed to take forever, we did finally get to the aid station. There we topped off some water bottles and started the last climb of the race. When we got to the top of that climb, we would have one more down hill that takes us to the finish line.
We survived the climb. Crossed the road above Vogel and headed down into the state park area. It felt great running that last section. We knew the end was close and we just kept moving. After kicking out off the trail onto the road and we run the final stretch into the finish.
We FINISHED! I remember walking back to the cabin. It was a slow walk. Of course, Wonda had managed to stay awake and met us at the finish. She took a few good pictures before we walked back to the cabin. I think I made some plans with Jeff to visit after we showered. Of course, after my shower, I went directly to sleep.
Paul and I had trained all spring getting read for this beast. We train with a small group of runners in Huntsville. Martin, Jeff, James Duncan, Ed Johnson, Rick Rawls and a bunch of other ultra runners who live in Huntsville helps keep us company on our training runs. Our training had paid off. We completed it and lived to tell the story. Paul and I will run some more races together I’m sure. We enjoy the running as much as the competition. We don’t feel like we have to win or come in top 10 or anything that creates unnecessary stress. I personally enjoy the community of runners and the volunteers that we always see at each race. I just want to do as well as I can and minimize the suffering.
Crew and Pacer
Having a good crew at this race helps. I personally don’t like out and back courses and that is what Cruel Jewel 100 is. My wife is my Crew Master. Her helpers are my two girls. The do a most awesome job. Sometimes they do to good of a job and I don’t want to leave the aid stations. 🙂 But, she always starts reminding me I’m taking to long and I get back on track. I’ve run a few races without a pacer and I’ve run a few with a pacer. If you have the option of having a pacer, I strongly recommend using a pacer. It just helps you to keep your spirits up and it always helps you move at your fastest possible pace. They are fresh and you aren’t. Their slow is usually your fast.
With the crew, don’t expect them to read your mind. Plan out what you need for both good aid station visits and also for times when you come into the aid station and you are sick and suffering. If heat is an issue, have a plan for heat. If cold is an issue, have a plan. In my case, my wife is starting to learn what works and doesn’t work for me so the prep is very much a joint effort. I think the best thing about the crew is seeing someone who is happy to see you and wanting you to do well. They smile and immediately ask you what you need. The smile is as helpful as all the other things they do. You know they are spending their time to support you in your goal to finish a gnarly event. It makes a difference in your mood and makes you want to do well.
Thanks for reading this blog. I know it was long but I hope it will give you or someone you know some tidbit of information that will make a future event easier for you.