The Georgia Loop isn’t exactly a race, but after doing it, I think it certainly deserves a report to share my experience. It’s like running the Grand Canyon R2R2R in some ways. It’s not something you just wake up and decide to do one morning. It takes a lot of time to plan and strategize. (Note: if you want more detailed information about running or hiking this Loop, see the detailed notes at the end of this report)
If you live in Georgia and have been an Ultra Runner for at least a little while, you’ve probably heard of the Georgia Loop. It’s basically just that, a looped route that connects the DRT (Duncan Ridge Trail), the BMT (Benton MacKaye Trail) and the AT (Appalachian Trail). It can be done in either direction and has about 3 main easy access points where you can start and finish. The mileage of the loop is approximately 56-60 miles and around 16,000 – 18,000 feet of climbing. Because the mountains tend to be cold and snowy in the winter, and hot with little water in the summer, the time of year and weather are critical factors when making your plans.
There was a lot of chatter on Facebook and among local ultra runners in the last two months of 2017 about putting together an attempt at the Loop. These types of things usually start with a large number of interested people, but then slowly dwindles down to just a few who can stay committed and get it on their schedule. In my case, I piggy-backed off others who had people committed to crewing for them. There are not many places a crew can actually help you, but it is still critical to have crew you can meet at a few important points along the way. Essentially, you need to be a runner who feels comfortable running 10-15 miles with no help or crew, which makes those few crew access points very important. Think of it more as a self-supported run with potential crew stops.
Just 2 days before our planned Saturday morning start, the weather was showing a large chance of thunderstorms overnight on Saturday. Not knowing how long the run would take but certain most of us would be out there for some overnight hours, the start was changed to Friday night. This would get everyone to the finish before the storms. This also added another factor of being up all day, then running all night and into the next day as well. This plan may have just gotten harder. Time would tell. Afterwards, it would be deemed the “Georgia Loop after Dark!”
Dropping Water at Woody Gap just before we started
Ten runners ended up starting. One solo runner with a pacer, additional groups of 2, 3 and 4 runners, with only 5 of us finishing. I started in a group of 3 with Rich Higgins and David Yerden. We dropped our cooler with supplies and other items to “our” crew, Jason Anderson, just a few hours before heading to the start. In case you are wondering what I packed, just about everything! And then I packed some more, because “That’s How I Roll”!!! If you know me, run with me or have ever crewed for me, you might be familiar with my infamous “notebook”! I like details and to cover all the bases. I might be a little OCD, but I’m not admitting to it. This was just a training run or adventure run, so there was no notebook, but I still packed every possible item and a back-up, filled my cooler with Cokes, Ginger Ale and lots of snack options. You never know what you might need or what’s going to sound good at the moment. In the end, usually nothing sounds that good to me except a nice cold Coke! I filled the cooler with supplies for the three of us and dropped it off with a bag of extra clothes, shoes, lights, and other items I probably wouldn’t use.
Rich and I drove up to Dahlonega together and met David so we could get a good meal before starting our run. We dropped in at Dahlonega Mountain Sports to say hello to Sarah and Sean, the store owners. Go visit them if you are in the area, it’s an awesome store and be sure to tell them I said hello! Sean shared with us his experience running the Georgia Loop the year before, and while he mentioned the suffering, my mind played down that part. I would soon remember his words to the wise, which I wasn’t wiser for until I experienced it myself.
On our way to the starting point, we stopped at Woody Gap to stash a supply of water. It was our safety plan if for some reason crew couldn’t get to us at that point. We knew we would need a water refill for the last 9-10 miles of the run. Our starting point was Wolf Pen Gap, where we could park cars along the fire road and run the Loop in a counter clockwise direction. Going that direction put us on the toughest section of the DRT first, then the BMT, and finally the AT, with a short section of the DRT at the end to get back to Wolf Pen Gap. There were only two major turns on the course, but they were critical turns with no flagging. You can run this totally unsupported if you want to drop water and supplies along your route beforehand, but it takes about 4 hours to drop everything off, you need to use bear canisters for your supplies, and it takes 4 more hours to pick everything up afterwards. Probably not a good chance to get a cold Coke either, so that’s why we decided to use the help of a crew.
We got to Wolf Pen Gap, got ready to go with a final check of our packs and headed out at roughly 7:10pm. It was already dark, so our headlamps were on from the start. If you’re familiar with the route, you know it’s pretty much a climb from the very start. It was exciting, just like at the start of a race, and the adrenaline was really going at this point. It was exciting because it was new for all of us, and it was a bucket list run we were doing.
Quick Photo before we start this thing!
The temperature was perfect. I wore a long sleeve shirt and a breathable jacket over it. Most people know I wear double what everyone else wears. The guys were in short sleeve shirts with jackets around their waists! We were off to a great start with lots of climbing to the top of Coosa Bald and well under way to our excellent adventure. This may seem a little unbelievable, but it’s totally true. The three of us were having a great conversation about the safety of running with others. Of course I’m a female, I just don’t run alone and I always carry my phone. For one, my husband would not want me out there alone, and secondly, I was always taught the safety of having someone with you. You just never know what might happen. Even if someone knows where you are, in an emergency they really can’t get to you that quickly. David is more of a solo runner at times, and I think even considered running ahead of us. He is certainly much faster and stronger than Rich and I. With our limited crew stops, and timing the run to not get ahead of our support, we decided to stay together as a team. This wasn’t a race, it was really was about training and the overall experience. And then – BAM!! David went down. He was at the back and when Rich and I realized he had fallen, we looked to see him pick his head up off the ground and his hand covered his right eye. Blood was clearly dripping all over the place. I remember David’s immediate words were that he knew it wasn’t good. I quickly thought of what I had to help stop the bleeding, and pulled my buff from around my neck and gave it to him. A few minutes of pressure and the bleeding began to subside. Rich took a look when David pulled the buff away and told him he saw a pretty good gash that he thought could need at least a couple of stitches. NO! We were only 4-5 miles into our adventure. Luckily, David did not feel dizzy or lightheaded. He was able to get up and even kept a good pace as we continued on towards our first support stop. We discussed how David would need to stop when we got to our crew at Mulkey Gap and go to the hospital for stitches. He felt pretty good considering, and it was hard to accept that he would have to end his run before it even really got started, but we all knew there wasn’t much choice. We got to Jason and he agreed with our assessment, so if it’s any consolation, David, you were pulled by medical at mile 8. Sorry buddy, it won’t be the same without you. I will say that we didn’t miss your altimeter readings later on when the climbing was so tough. We could have been forced to toss you off the side of a cliff if you had kept giving us those readings! (As an update, David received a total of 13 stitches in four separate lacerations around his eye. He’ll be back to run it again!)
We aren’t even close!
So now our team of 3 was only two. We felt terrible for David, but knowing he would have been there if he could, we added him to our list of people we were running for. Their strength pulled us through at times when we had none ourselves. We had about 11 miles to go to get to Hwy 60, or as it was called “The Highway to Hell Aid Station.” Our crew wouldn’t be at this stop, but we would see crew from the other groups and get some water and snacks if needed. The climbs across the DRT seemed long and endless with each mountain higher than the one before. Most runners call the DRT the Dragon Spine. Straight up, straight down, with no switchbacks. If the steep ups don’t wear you out, the steep downs will get your quads, your toes, or both! For Rich and I, the steep downs seemed to do the most damage to our toes, getting smashed into the end of our shoes. Before we got to the DRT/BMT intersection our toes were in pain, and running steep downhill’s was going to be rough.
The steepest of the climbs gave way to some easier trails for a few miles. We caught up to one of the early groups about a mile and a half from the Highway to Hell AS, and then came into the AS just after the first runner had arrived. Except for our toes, we were feeling pretty good at this point. We refilled our packs with water, taking note that we had not been drinking enough. We needed to do a little better at that. We both drank a cold Coke and quickly headed back out to continue the journey.
It was 2:00 a.m. when we left Highway 60, (about 19 miles into the Loop) and we would see our crew again around mile 33-35. We both had our headlamps with one set of batteries as a backup. While the climbing did not get easier, we enjoyed the moon that was out and the awesome temperatures for a February night in the mountains of Georgia. Not too long after crossing the Swinging Bridge over the Toccoa River, my headlamp started to fade. I knew I had an extra set of batteries, but we also knew I only had one extra set. Depending on how long the new set would last, that was it. We had no crew, no AS, no help. So I pushed on as long as I absolutely could before putting in the backup batteries. Next it would be Rich’s headlamp starting to fade. He pushed through as long as he could on the first set of batteries, also. Rich had also been dealing with leg cramps in the last few races we’d run. Somewhere between miles 25-30 the cramps hit him. Being a training run, Rich had purchased some highly recommended Hot Shots to try out for the cramps. He had taken one before the start (as directed), had one in his pack and one with our crew supplies. They are fairly expensive but Rich felt it was worth a try. Soon he was stopped in his tracks with a painful leg cramp. Sure enough, the Hot Shots almost instantly took his cramp away and we were off climbing again. Rich was now very cautious on the climbs, because he felt the strenuous climbs set off the cramps and we had no more Hot Shots with us. We would have to pick up the last bottle when and if we saw our crew again.
It was a long dark night and then rain came. It was a light rain at first, but eventually we had a good hour of fairly heavy rain. We had our rain jackets on to keep us dry and comfortable, while we continued making our way with frustrating headlamps on what seemed like constant uphill climbs. Without David, one thing that could go wrong was a missing a turn or taking a wrong turn. We knew our way and we knew the directions, but you know how “ultra brain” and “ultra fog” can affect you. In our pre-adventure planning, one thing I did was mark our course using the AvenzaMaps app on my phone. We would not need a cell signal to use it, and could easily see where we were. When we came to the big open field we’d heard about at the southern end of the BMT, we had no idea what way to go. We wandered a little aimlessly in one direction by following hunter tacks, but once I pulled out my phone we realized we were totally off course and headed the wrong way. Having to climb back up a hill we just went down, we were soon back on course, and the crisis was averted. Best money ever spent, and best advice received from the Duffer, AKA Brad Goodridge, who I might say is a local legend and the best source of information for doing the Georgia Loop. Thanks, Buddy!
Finally day light and our crew!
We made the left turn at Long Creek Falls shortly after that and were now on the AT. But we didn’t know where or when we would see our crew again. It was a bit of a mind game that can get to you when you’ve been up all night. Otherwise, we were still doing well. Our feet were still sore, but we were feeling pretty good as the light of day began to break through. At this point, I’d managed to kick so many rocks in the dark, over and over again, that I was sure my big toe nail was no longer attached. Toe nails are for sissies anyway, and this stuff is not for those folks! We knew we should see Jason, our crew, somewhere around mile 33-35. He told me he would be at Hightower Gap, although others mentioned different places, and we just resigned ourselves to the fact we’d see him eventually, but not knowing exactly where that would be. We did need water and hoped we’d see him sooner rather than later. Finally, as we began to drop into the Hightower Gap parking area, we heard calls and cheering! What a welcoming sound that was! But we didn’t expect to see Thomas there, as well. Thomas was part of the group of 4 runners we had left behind at the Highway to Hell Aid Station. For them, their hell ended just a few miles later when one of the runners who had been having serious stomach problems since mile 8 decided it was time to call it quits, and they were all in or all out together as a group. Regardless, we were happy to see a familiar face, and our gear bag and cooler with ice cold drinks in it! Thomas even had sausage and egg biscuits from McDonald’s for us! All was right with the world, for a few minutes anyway! We made it a short stop and were soon on our way. I think we got to this point some time early in the morning shortly after the sun came up, maybe between 7-8am.
We were now working our way across the AT towards Blood Mountain, but unfortunately there were several mountains to climb before we got anywhere close to Blood. Being on the AT in daylight gave us some spectacular views! The top of each climb was always rewarded with an awesome view and we didn’t fail to grab a few pictures along the way. Jason was able to crew us a couple more times along the way and we finally got to Woody Gap, our final crew access point around 1pm. We refilled our water and headed out. We were in the home stretch, but 9-10 miles is still a long ways from home and now every climb and every step just hurt. We were ready to be done.
View from Preachers Rock
We might even have entertained the thought of quitting, but there was nowhere to quit. Rich told me later that in some of the final miles he had thoughts that someone was going to have to come get us. But there were no access points, no help available. He said he knew that, but figured they’d send a helicopter, drop a basket or something! The things some people think of! It was definitely a very long stretch from Woody Gap to the turn onto the DRT! I have run that section to Blood Mountain before, and was looking forward to a familiar easy section, but right then there was nothing easy about it! We enjoyed a beautiful view at Preachers Rock and ran into one running buddy coming back from Blood Mountain, but aside from that we were on the struggle bus and just wanted off. We finally made it back to the DRT and knew then we were very close, but not before climbing just one more mountain! Worse than climbing up that mountain was the very steep downhill on the other side of it, dropping us back into Wolf Pen Gap and the car!
The sight from the top of the last hill dropping into Wolf Pen Gap was bittersweet. We had been anticipating the view of the car below for hours. We knew we had made it, completed a bucket list item, and finished something only a small list of people complete in a day’s journey. But darn it all, that last hill was steep and my toes were killing me. We officially finished in a time of 22:04! We didn’t care about our time, but some of you might be wondering how long it took us.
Afterwards we waited an hour for the second group of 2 runners to come in. John and Scott started about 30 minutes after us the night before, and all day we expected them to catch up to us. We all shared stories and took a group picture as we waited for the final runner to come in with her pacer. In the end, we decided we needed to head home because we didn’t know how far behind us she was. It was getting dark again and we were very sleep deprived. It was a great training run and a fantastic experience! Ten of us started and 5 of us finished! Those who didn’t finish will no doubt be back to try again, and who knows we might even consider another run at it, but not anytime soon.
We made it!
John, Scott, Myself and Rich after getting some dry clothes on
If you are reading this blog looking for information on running or hiking the Georgia Loop, the following is information that Brad Goodridge assisted us with:
Nemesis Loop (Brad’s notes)
Woody Gap to Wolfpen (10 miles)
Wolfpen to Mulky (8 miles)
Mulky to BMT/60 (12 miles)
BMT/60 to Hightower (13 miles)
Hightower to Cooper Gap (8 miles)
Cooper to Gooch Gap (4miles)
Gooch to Woody (3.5 miles)
If you plan to do the whole loop at one time (without support)….
You need to put aid out the day before the attempt (Wolfpen, Mulky, BMT/60, Hickory Flats, Hightower, Cooper Gap). Food In ammo cans (Bears) (there is ZERO water on the DRT). Takes ~4 hours of driving to put aid out.
You should also do section runs before you do it again (can be tricky between big bald and Hightower (there is a turn at Long creek falls) when you are tired in the middle of the night). The last 3.5 miles from Gooch Gap to Woody is a killer (you will want to die).
NAT Geo Map #777
The easiest place to start is Woody Gap on GA-60 CCW.
Going North, follow the White blazes on the AT to the DRT (Blue blazes) about 8 miles in (trail on the left before Blood Mountain)
You can also start at Wolfpen Gap (near Vogel off of SR-180).
Some people like to start at 3 forks, but that’s a hour drive on forest road drive and a mile from the AT/BMT (depending on the direction). Same with a BMT/60 start.
The DRT blue blazes turn into BMT White Diamonds on the top of Rhodes mountain (DO NOT right turn like the GDR or Crewel Jewel Course).
The only tricky turn is at Long Creek Falls (it a 3 way turn)
You want to take the left trail (AT north), straight goes to 3 forks and Springer, right goes to Long Creek Falls (nice place if its daylight)
These are all places you can drive to.
Hickory Flats (about 3 miles before Hightower)
Looking… Hightower to Gooch are all off of USFR-42 (turn left on GA-60 about 3 miles past Woody Gap (before the 180 turn)
Whiteoak Stomp – N34.783989 W83.975463
Woody Gap, N34.67650 W84.00048
Wolfpen Gap, N34.76396 W83.95211
Mulky Gap, N34.79909 W84.03974
Fish Gap : 34.802165, -84.071082
BMT/60, N34.76638 W84.16353
Hightower Gap, N34.66361 W84.12971
Horse Gap, N34.65571 W84.10543
Cooper Gap, N34.65294 W84.08452
Gooch Gap, N34.65221 W84.03217