I first became aware of the Cruel Jewel 100 in 2015. As I followed a couple of friends who were running the race that year, I thought to myself that I would like to run it someday. Then I saw the buckle. HOLY SHIT! As big as a pie plate and 10 pounds of metal. OK, not really, but you get the idea. It was HUGE! I was doomed from the minute I saw that buckle. It was my Gollum moment: “My precious!”
Fast forward to January 2018. I was training for The Barkley Marathons, and in my state of complete delirium from hitting hills in freezing temperatures one afternoon, I got back to my car and had the brilliant idea that I should sign up for Cruel Jewel since my Barkley training would have me in top form and I really had nothing to lose.
In theory, it was a perfect training plan. But as we all know, yeah, stuff happens. I came off Barkley with unexpected results and rolled that right into Ouachita Trail 50 with a nagging ache in my right heal. Two weeks prior to Cruel Jewel, my orthopedic diagnosed an irritated heel bone spur caused by Achilles tendonitis from running all those hills. I looked at the doc and said I had a 100-mile race coming up. He shook his head, handed me some anti-inflammatory ointment and said, “I’m not going to tell you to not run. Come back in 15 years when it starts to grow and needs surgery.”
Race: Cruel Jewel 100 is a 106 mile foot race
Race Directors: Josh and Leigh Saint
Location/Course: Chattahoochee National Forest in the North Georgia mountains. The race consists of 94 miles of trail and 12 miles of mountain road. The course is an out and back, as you journey from Vogel State Park to Blue Ridge, Georgia and back. The terrain is technical, with a mix of rocks, roots and ridgelines as you traverse some singletrack trails along the lush green hardwood forest and some gorgeous flora and fauna. Thrown into the mix is 33,213 feet of gain and 33,213 feet of loss. The ascents are steep and the descents even steeper!
Difficulty: Extremely rugged and hard
Time Limit: 48 hours for 106 miles
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Pacer/Crew: Tim Landewe and Corey Lamb
Goals & Training: If I’m being honest, after hearing the news from my orthopedic, I knew it would be a long day and night and day for this girl. I figured 35 to 38 hours in the woods, but the ultimate goal is always to finish the race — and I WANTED THAT BUCKLE BAD!
Regarding training, as previously mentioned, I had been hitting a lot of hills and kept an average of 50 to 55 miles with 10,000 to 11,000 feet of vertical gain each week.
Tim, Corey and I drove to Blairville, Georgia on the Thursday before the race in pouring rain and stayed at an Airbnb that was 4 miles from Vogel State Park. We got up race morning with little to no signs of rain, full sunlight and dank humidity that felt like an armpit. We went out for breakfast and leisurely made our way to the race start as the 100 miler started on Friday at noon.
There were no big strategies laid out. The loose plan was to see my crew at Skeenah Gap (20Mi) in approximately seven hours, then again at Old Dial Road (31.0Mi) and finally at Stanley Gap (69.1Mi), where I was going to pick up Tim to pace me for 16 miles until Skeenah Gap (85.4Mi) and at Skeenah Gap I would pick up Corey for the final 20-plus miles to the finish.
I was making good time and was 30 minutes ahead of my projections when I hit Skeenah Gap for the first time and kept running steady all the way until I hit Old Dial Road (31.0Mi). This is when I started to feel hot spots on the balls of both my feet. My guess was it stemmed from all those climbs and being on my toes with my heels rarely touching the trail.
It had been a really steamy trek to Old Dial Road, and it was hard to breathe on those climbs as the humidity kept rising. I was drenched in sweat within the first 5 miles of the race and never dried thereafter. At Old Dial Road, I swapped my socks, which felt much better, and after grabbing my headlamp, I said goodnight to my crew. The next time I would see them would be sometime Saturday afternoon.
Stanley Gap (36.9Mi) to Camp Morganton (50.2Mi)
It was dusk as I left Stanley Gap, and within an hour I’d have to turn on my headlamp. I was looking forward to the cool temperature and just being able to zone out and hammer the night miles. I love running at night! Some of my fastest running is done at night, but as I left the aid station, one of the volunteers announced there was a chance of thunderstorms around midnight. Gah! I did a quick mental check of my gear to make sure I was ready to tackle the rain and charged ahead as hard as I could knowing that once the rain hit things were not going to be pretty.
Before I made it to Deep Gap (41.7Mi), I could hear roaring thunder and see lightning out in the distance. It was not a settling sight or sound. I got to the aid station as a little drizzle starting to hit the ground, put on my light windbreaker and continued with the Deep Gap Loop. Before I had hit a mile on the loop, the sky just gave out — it was a shit storm. I was soaking wet, and water was just rushing down the trail. My headlamp was useless in the downpour. My waist lamp saved my rear on this night trek.
There was no keeping dry! The rain felt good, as it helped cool down some of the heat and humidity that had built up during the day, but running was impossible. I slogged my way back to Deep Gap for the second time feeling like a wet feline. It was my worst nightmare. I had encountered similar conditions at The Barkley Marathons, and moving forward had become unfeasible, so here I was standing in the downpour wondering if it was just sheer bad luck or I was destined to DNF. I can’t DNF, I just can’t. Because I want that buckle. Plain and simple!
I pressed on as the downpour continued all the way to Camp Morganton (50.2Mi). I’d like to mention a few good and few not-so-good things about Camp Morganton. It’s the mid-point for 100-mile runners, and I’ve run enough 100-mile races to know that it’s at about the 50-mile mark that things get ugly. So, Camp Morganton was a runners’ graveyard.
- Camp Morganton is a campground, so the aid station was a covered shelter, with bunk beds, bathroom stalls and showers. All the luxuries! You can change clothes, dry out and catch a snooze if you have the time.
- All the above-mentioned things make it almost impossible to turn around and run back out and retrace the 52 hellish miles that you have just completed. This aid station has DNF written all over it.
Some observations/suggestions on Camp Morganton:
- Make sure you have a crew waiting for you at Camp Morganton, so they can get you in and out of there quick. By the time I hit Camp Morganton, it was 5 a.m. on Saturday morning and no one seemed to have a clue as to what was happening. There were a lot of folks at this aid station, and the race crew was preparing for the 50-mile packet pickup.
- Have your crew bring you some real food. It took me an hour to change out of my clothes, refill supplies, patch up my feet, change shoes and socks, and get my head back in the game. By the time I went to ask for food, all that was left on the table were scraps from the previous night, and the beef broth was nothing but beef bouillon in water.
I cannot stress enough on how important it is to have a crew at Camp Morganton!
Camp Morganton (50.2Mi) to Stanley Gap (69.1)
I had rolled into Camp Morganton while it was still dark, but by the time I finally made my way out of there, it was daybreak. I hadn’t eaten anything and being low on calories made me irritable. I reached for some bars in my pack, and as I slowly hiked up a hill, there was a bleak ray of sun peering through the thick clouds of fog. It was beautiful!
I reminded myself that I had to get moving fast, as within a couple of hours the 50-mile runners will be out running the trails. I made my way back to Deep
Gap for the third time and continued onto the loop. The loop sucked! It was muddy as hell, and there was absolutely no running happening. It was going to be a mud slog! Somewhere in the middle of the loop a few guys came flying by, which I assumed were the 50-mile runners, and by loose estimation I figured it was around 9 a.m. on Saturday morning.
Back to Deep Gap for the fourth time, I was in and out, making my way to the horrendous drop at Weaver Creek Road. The sun was out, and it was once again turning into an armpit. As I started the trek back up Weaver Creek, I paced with Simone Valentin Austin. It was Simone’s third time running Cruel Jewel, and she mentioned it was probably the worst conditions she had encountered during the race in the past two years. Simone was kind enough to share some coconut water with me, which at that point in the race proved to be my go-go juice.
Stanley Gap (69.1) to Skeenah Gap (85.4)
I was so looking forward to seeing my crew and having Tim along for the next stretch of the race. We didn’t waste much time at Stanley Gap and continued forward. I saw Simone and her crew and bummed another coconut water from them. It was nice and cold, and it felt refreshing! By the time we hit the pavement, my feet were starting to hurt and running the exposed stretch of the road made it mentally difficult. I stopped quite a bit before running again. At this point, I knew I would be looking at 40 hours for the finish. As long as I was moving, I’d be alright, as I was well ahead of any cutoff. Tim kept me moving steady, but there was no avoiding the pain in my feet and it slowed down my pace. Downhills hurt more than the up hills.
We made it to Wilscot Gap where, I had a drop bag. I changed my socks and shoes for the third time and was horrified at the size of the blisters on both my feet. This isn’t my first rodeo, and I’ve never had blisters/foot issues in my past 10 100-mile races. Aside from freaking out A LOT, I knew there was nothing to do as the damage had been done, so I popped whatever blisters I could, duct-taped my feet and kept moving forward. By the time I made it to Skeenah Gap, every step felt like a stab and my feet were on fire.
Skeenah Gap (85.4) to White Oak Stomp (97.9)
I hit Skeenah Gap, and Corey was waiting for me with a coconut water. Say what?!? That coconut water is good stuff! Tim was off pacing duties, and Corey lead the way as daylight started to fade once again.
This was the most miserable stretch of the race! It got dark, and the bugs came out and were flying at my headlamp like I was being attacked. I was tired, my feet hurt and my brain just about gave out on me. I had been at it for close to 40 hours. Every inch of my body was screaming for me to stop.
I was walking a 30-minute mile. I complained, I whined and I asked Corey to stop. I would sit at every fallen tree and rock that we came across and close my eyes — and there was Corey with his red nightlight staring me in the face. He was the devil! I swear I wanted to punch him, because he wouldn’t let me sleep. I tried talking him into letting me nap for 15 minutes on a rock.
Me: I just need 15 minutes to shut my eyes. I promise we’ll get moving after that.
Me: Why not? I’m not chasing cutoff.
Corey: Because if you sleep now I’m afraid I won’t be able to wake you back up and get you moving.
I just sat there on the rock pretending to have not heard him and closed my eyes. Somewhere in the back corner of my brain where I was still functioning I knew Corey was right. If I fell asleep, I won’t be able to wake up. So, I pressed on with my death march. I was “sleep running.” Everything felt numb; I felt no pain, no sense of smell, no nothing. Yet, somehow, I was able to put one foot in from of the other. I also hadn’t eaten in the last 6 miles. Not only was I sleep deprived, I was also calorie deficient. Everything turned my stomach. The thought of peanut butter and jelly made me nauseous, and I could smell the ramen in my head. I just wanted some real food.
We stopped once more because my feet hurt, and I figured adding another layer of socks might help. As I swapped my socks, I saw a tick embedded on my leg along the edge of my sock. I pulled at it and its mouth part snapped. I yelled for Corey: What do I do? Squeeze it and try to get it out, he said. I did as I was told and in doing so made a tiny hole in my leg where the tick was.
Onward! While in my state of delirium, I stuck my pole in the ground only to feel something swirl on my pole. I looked down. I had stabbed a copperhead and it was now partially wrapped on my pole and hissing loudly. I shook the snake off my pole and jumped ahead to follow behind Corey. We could hear the copperhead hiss loud for a few seconds afterwards.
Holy shit! That was enough to wake me up. After that, I tried not to sit on any trees or rocks and kept a steady hiking pace until we hit White Oak Stomp (97.9Mi).
White Oak Stomp (97.9) to Vogel St Park/Finish (106Mi)
White Oak Stomp is the last manned aid station, and by the time Corey and I got there, it was dawn once again. The realization that I had now been running for two days and two nights set in, and I just wanted to finish. I was famished and felt like death. I sat at the aid station trying to muster my strength for the last 8.5 miles to the finish. I cringed at the thought of the next section we were about to hit, as it was 5 miles of downhills and I was completely useless going downhill at this point. I dreaded every step I’d be taking to get me to the finish. The volunteer at the aid station was kind enough to fix me an egg with cheese on a slice of bread — it was the best thing I had eaten in the last 24 hours. I was in heaven! I filled up my water and quickly pressed on to the next 1-mile climb before we started the descent.
It was somewhere on the first decent that I heard someone coming up behind me as I commenced my death march. I turned to look back, and it was Samantha Turco. I had shared my water with her going down Weaver Creek, and she had been way behind me, but now to see her flying down the hill about to pass me. No way! I’m not ultra-competitive, but I don’t like people passing me in the last 10 miles of a race. Something about getting passed in the last few miles to the finish just blows my lid.
I looked at Corey a few paces ahead of me and said, “Let’s run.” And we ran hard! I was flying down those hills, the same hills I had been dreading going down 30 minutes earlier. The sun was up, and it was a new day! Nothing hurt anymore. I’m not even sure how on earth was I running so fast down those hills. I passed five more runners and never saw Samantha again. Running felt great! We powered through to Wolf Creek (102.3Mi). I passed two more runners and, as I ran once again, my faith in what I do was restored. I love Ultrarunning!
It’s miserable, it’s painful and it breaks you down. There’s no room for ego, and just when you’ve lost all your shit, it comes back to you. The joy, the exhilaration, the downhills, the grit and all that the human spirit is capable of enduring. Your entire life’s story can be told during a 100-mile race.
As Corey and I made it to the last bridge before we hit the 1-mile section of the pavement to the finish, Tim was waiting for us. The three of us ran hard. I passed another runner before I crossed the finish. I had left it all out there in the last 8.5 of the 106 miles to the finish.
And, finally, the buckle. My precious! I held the coveted buckle in my hands in a state of complete delirium and ecstatic bliss. I was finally done.
My feet were trashed! I threw out my shoes after I was done with the race, and I had blisters the size of eyeballs on my feet. Sound painful? More than anyone can imagine, but it was worth it! It’s always worth it!
Cruel Jewel 100 is not a race to be taken lightly, in hindsight I wish I had made Cruel Jewel 100 my goal race for the year. I can’t stress enough to make sure you have a solid crew if you plan on running this race. Things can go from good to bad to ugly fairly quickly. Keep an open mind and your goals loose. Humidity is a B.I.T.C.H!
To my pacers:
Tim, you are rock solid! If you ever decide to quit your job and take on pacing full-time, I will happily be your pimp. Your time and patience are valued as a friend. I look forward to many more running, crewing and pacing misadventures with you!
Corey, you are still the devil! That red nightlight will haunt me for years to come, but I’m so glad you didn’t let me sleep. Thank you for being there for me and patiently listening to me whine and complain about everything and then cranking the gears when I needed to run. I hope to return the favor one day when you decide to lace up for a 100 miler!
Shoes – Women’s Altra Timp
Jacket – Columbia Women's Titan Lite Windbreaker II
Socks – Fits Medium Hiker Crew
Trekking Poles – Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles
Hydration Pack – Salomon Advance Skin 12 Set Vest Pack
Headlamps – Petzl Nao Performance Headlamp
Waist Light - UltrAspire Lumen 600R Waist Light
Our blog writers are members of Terrain Trail Runners, local athletes just like you, who want to share their love and knowledge of the sport.