A total of 289 runners started this year’s Georgia Death Race. Just 154 reached the finish line. Described by organisers as a 70-mile ‘march’ through the North Georgia mountains, this year’s winner was Colorado-based inov-8 ambassador Morgan Elliott. In taking the victory, Morgan earned himself a golden ticket to race the biggest ultrarunning event in the US calendar, the prestigious Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.
Morgan will be joined in Squaw Valley, California, this June by Norwegian and fellow inov-8 ambassador Hallvard Schjolberg (4th at last year’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc), plus potentially one more inov-8 ambassador who hopes to win a golden ticket in the final qualifying event later this month.
We caught up with 26-year-old Morgan to talk about his Georgia Death Race win (clocking a time of 12hrs 34mins) and get his thoughts on the season ahead, which now includes Western States, the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race.
How was your Georgia Death Race experience?
The race started at 5am. I ran my own race. I have never gone this distance before, so I knew I did not want to take out the first 50k too fast, especially considering the race director Sean Blanton (Run Bum) said the first 37 miles is the hardest! The furthest I had ever gone before this was 60 miles, and that was back in January 2017.
So I started off the Georgia Death Race (GDR) controlled and smooth. I had no expectations and not much knowledge of the course, except that the first 37 miles were hilly and there were stairs at the finish. Oh, and not to trust the signs along the trails. I did this intentionally, I didn’t care to know about the specifications of the course. In my head, this course wasn’t any harder than what I was used too, so I didn’t want to blow it out of proportion and get myself worked up over it. I believe this helped me.
I chose to hold back and let the lead pack take off into the dark from the start, knowing that the race wouldn’t really start until mile 50 for me. I had confidence and I thought, ‘I will see those fast guys again.’
Cruising in the dark, I found myself alone for the first few miles. I turned off all alarms and sounds on my watch and was content just to focus my stride and attention on this new type of terrain… dry trail! I have missed running on dry trail. It felt so good to stretch out my legs on this terrain, rather than the snowy hard-pack trails I’d trained on all winter in Breckenridge, Colorado.
My main focus and big concern going into the race was nutrition, but I feel it went very well. I was consistent in what I drank and ate up to mile 52, when I finally looked at my distance. At this point in the race I was chasing first place and was surprised how quickly time was flying by. My stomach at this mile marker was not really happy. I felt the fluid in my stomach jostling, so I tried to control it by eating some real food and using the bathroom.
As the race moved on, I looked forward to the big climbs and the flats because I knew those were my strengths. My weaknesses were the downhills. I had a brief low point between miles 63 to 65. I was in the lead at this point and had a mild side stitch beginning to develop as I was running downhill. I told myself to relax, fixed my form and breathed deeply into the cramp. Fortunately it went away and I ran strongly into the iconic last challenge of the GDR, the 525 steps that make up the stairs!
I actually thought I had two more miles to the finish, so I was super relieved to see the line come up so early. I jumped in the creek and came out with a golden ticket for Western States. ‘That race wasn’t so bad,’ I thought, followed by a thought ahead to Western States and the words, ‘What’s it going to feel like to do another 30 miles on top of that?!’
Why is the word ‘death’ in the race name? What makes it so tough?
‘Death’ is what the race director, Sean Blanton (Run Bum), used to name this one. It’s probably because he’s taken the hardest trails he could find in Georgia and turned them into a gnarly East Coast mountain race. There are some really steep trail sections, and Sean likes to play with the heads of the runners. So many participants tend to drop out of this event, so it’s only fitting to call it a ‘death’ race. This year saw 289 starters and just 154 finishers.
How do you reflect on your 2018 season?
I admired how I went after a goal in Europe, to race and compete in the Skyrunning World Series. Unfortunately that goal was cut short due to an injury. I competed in three Skyrunning races in Europe and had an incredible time. I enjoyed traveling around Europe to all these countries and experiencing new cultures. I really hope to go back and do it again. But athletically, I know I can perform and compete at a higher level than I showed. It’s disappointing when you get injured in the middle of a season, and that was what 2018 was like for me.
What are your plans for 2019?
I am excited to see where this season will go because I finally have a coach and I trust in her direction. Corrine Malcolm with Carmichael Training Systems, CTS, will be guiding me in my workouts this summer. I have some goals this summer and I am currently planning to stay in Breckenridge, Colorado, to train before heading out to Europe to race Transvulcania in May. After that it will be Western States in June and hopefully the CCC (part of UTMB race festival) in August.
How big a deal is Western States 100 to you?
I wasn’t really planning on winning a golden ticket this year! Western States honestly wasn’t in the deck. The real plan was to race six races in the Skyrunning World Series this season and live out of my backpack in Europe for five months. This new opportunity (earned via that golden ticket win at Georgia Death Race) has caused some adjustments in my calendar! It will bless me with an opportunity to live in Colorado all summer and get in good shape.
Hopefully I will still get out to Europe for two races by the end of the year – Transvulcania in May and CCC in August. Western States will be all about enjoying the event. I will run confidently but I won’t make any big expectations for myself. I will just do my thing and I am sure something great will come out of it.
How has your training gone since the turn of the year?
Training in 2018 went well from August to the end of December. Then January 1st came along and I didn’t run for a whole month. Maybe a five-mile run once a week, but I had some aftershock of my summer injury haunting me. I reached out to Jason Koop in January and was fortunate to have Carmichael Training Systems, CTS, willing to coach me. So my first day of training started on February 1st.
I still feel like I am playing catch-up on getting fit again. I have been living in Breckenridge, Colorado, all winter, working three jobs. I did my runs early in the morning when it is dark and cold, and then again at the end of the day about 8pm.
I loved my day jobs, alternating between skiing and snowboarding all day on the mountain in Breck, then heading off as a boot technician to punch out narrow boots for skiers. I’d end the weekends working at the Nordic Center as a snow shoe tour guide. I loved my winter and I hope to do it all over again for next season.
What shoes did you wear for the Georgia Death Race and how did they perform?
I wore the X-TALON 260 ULTRA. They fit nicely on my feet and gave me traction I could trust in. I felt the outsole had good enough tread to even offer extra underfoot protection for the longer distance. Along with these shoes, I won’t be caught doing another race without gaiters. The ALL TERRAIN GAITERS were great at keeping rocks from flying inside my shoes. A must have for me!
My favorite move in this race was wearing my arm sleeves. I would dip them in the creek as the sun was slowly getting higher and I would stay cool that way. I even dipped my headwear in water and left it around my neck. This strategy helped reduce the threat and consequences of running in the heat. In the latter stages of the race, I put ice cubes inside my arm sleeves and that made life even better.
My five-litre vest pack was perfect for this race. In each of the four front pockets, I stored an hour’s worth of calories. I used the side pockets to hold my sleeves (when not wearing them), real food and energy tablets.
* All photography within this blog post was kindly contributed by Kevin Silvey (www.silveyphotography.com)
* Related links: Meet The American Running Champion Aiming Sky High | Top-10 Ultrarunning Race Tips