Review: Brasstown Bald Buster 5k, December 16, 2012
The Brasstown Bald Buster 5k is described as the “Georgia’s toughest race” and for good reason. Brasstown Bald is Georgia’s highest point and the race organizers strive to finish the race every year at the top. They also use an anonymous quote: “A little ol’5k run with just one hill.” In their advertising the race is described as a 5k on the paved road from the bottom to the top of Brasstown Bald. That is an 1800 foot elevation gain over the 5k with only about 50 yards of almost flat running. The rest is up. Way up. However, the materials are quick to point out that the course can change based on weather conditions and the accessibility of the top of the mountain. The weather at Brasstown can vary greatly from the surrounding areas due to the elevation so in December it is not unusual to not be able to get to the top. The race is inexpensive ($25 for early registration), you get a sweatshirt (an improvement over the normal T-shirt you get for that price range), and everyone who finishes gets an award.
After completing the half marathon on Thanksgiving I signed up for this because I realized that I may never be in as good of shape as I am right now and this would be my opportunity to do it. However, after I had paid my race fee and the race drew closer I couldn’t get a scene from Rocky III out of my head. Pain. There are not enough hills anywhere near me to get ready for this race. There may not be enough hills anywhere but Brasstown to get ready for this race. According to Runkeeper, the Atlanta Half Marathon had 1548 feet of elevation gain but that was over 13 miles instead of 3. I kept training and watching the weather. The training was good but the weather forecast was calling for 60% chance of rain and 35-50 degree temperatures. I figured on the mountain that temperature would be anywhere from 5-15 degrees lower. This would not be fun in the rain at that temperature.
The family and I spent the weekend in Hiawassee, GA before the Sunday 11 AM race start. We visited Helen, GA and Unicoi State Park the day before the race with excellent December weather. However, Saturday night into Sunday morning we heard the rain on the rooftop and I got ready for a wet run. Sunday morning I got up at a normal hour (instead of super early like most race days. Yea! 11 o’clock start!), ate a good pre-race breakfast, and we packed the family into the minvan for the 15 minute drive over to Brasstown. It was about 55 degrees in Hiawassee and drizzling. We pulled off of GA 180 to the spur up Brasstown and met the State Patrol officer directing traffic. I asked if the race was starting at the bottom since I was planning on getting out and then having my wife drive to the parking lot. He told us we needed to drive to the parking area 2.5 miles up the mountain and that the race was going to start from there. He said we would start going down, then turn around after a mile and a quarter and finish at the top.
At this point I wasn’t sure what to expect in the race. I had not thought about running downhill for that distance. Add the rain, the cold, and the sharpness of the drop and now the downhill section was just as daunting as the uphill. Regardless, we drove up to the parking area. In rain. And Fog. Serious Fog. And Steep. Mountain Goat kind of steep. As we finally got to park, after paying the National Forest Service entrance fee for the park ($6), I looked at the temperature gauge in the van: 45 degrees. I went and picked up my race number and was given the red race sweatshirt. I got back in the van. It was cold and wet. But, at least the wind wasn’t blowing. The start time approached and I got out of the van. Still cold. And raining. But not as bad as it could have been. We lined up and started down the mountain.
That may have been the fastest 1.25 miles I have ever run. It was certainly the most terrifying.
The combination of downhill, rain, and mountainside led to a lot of letting gravity do the work while also slowing myself down to prevent falling. I was terrified that if I fell, I might not stop rolling until I got back to Atlanta. Quickly I reached the “human pylon” they had standing in the middle of the road telling everyone to slowly turn around him and head back up hill. He was telling everyone to slow down since another runner had obviously tried to turn too fast and was laid out on the side of the road nearby. I turned as carefully as I have ever turned in my entire life!
There is a running saying that hills are sprints in disguise.
I’m not sure who started it but I realized how true it was going back up the mountain. What I noticed was that my legs felt fine during the whole run back up. My lungs, however, gave out at regular intervals. Going back up the mountain I developed a routine of jogging for a couple of minutes (or a minute or less by the end of the race) and then walking enough to catch my breath. I was definitely catching more runners than were passing me and that felt good. I was keeping up with a female runner that seemed to be walking when I was running and running when I was walking and thus maintaining a slight lead on me. We passed the parking lot and started up the last .6 miles to the top. Coincidentally, this is the toughest climb of the course. By now my legs were starting to ache and my intervals were much more even walking and running. We got near the top and made the final turn to the finish line and semi-sprinted across the line for a time of 28:05. The race crew was giving out numbers written on index cards as well as water bottles. We were then told to walk back down to the parking lot to turn in our finisher’s number and receive the finishers award. I could hear them tell the woman I was chasing that she was the #1 female in the race. I was told I finished 11th overall. Pretty good.
I walked back down to the bottom cheering on the racers who were still coming up the mountain. For most of them, “You’re almost there,” was all them really wanted to hear. I turned in my number, received my finisher’s award, and headed to the van to get dry. The race reviews talked a lot about the post race party and food available but for me on that day, I just wanted to get dry. All in all, it was a really good race. The weather didn’t help but it was organized yet laid back. I really enjoyed everything about it. The only flaw was on the sweatshirt. They had the date off by one day. However, this was a laid back kind of race and it certainly wouldn’t prevent me from running it again. I sent an email to the organizers after it was over asking if they had official results since I had not seen them online and he sent me the entire results in a spreadsheet by the end of the day. I appreciated that a lot and found out that I won the 35-39 age group. It was a fun, bucket-list kind of activity and I highly recommend it.
Click here for a somewhat blurry photo slideshow of the race. I’m in the picture immediately after the #1 female.