Years ago, I read about the possibility of a bike path that would span the entire Georgia coast, 155 miles through six rural counties, from St.Marys to Savannah- the Coastal Georgia Greenway. Although the article drew my interest I did not have any notion that one day I would be running the entire Greenway, completed or not, over bridges and bike paths, through marshlands and rural communities, on sidewalks and sides of highways, through some of the worst and best weather conditions that occur on our unpredictable coast. Yet that is exactly where I found myself on the morning of Friday, April 1- being dropped off at the Cumberland Island ferry landing with 4 adventurous friends, 14 lbs of gear and food, and a map. The next 47 hours, 41 minutes would be spent in survival mode with one focus in mind... getting back to my hometown, Savannah.
The morning began well enough, with my friends Dan Hernandez, Jason Hallman, Jason Edenfield, and Brian Garvin being graciously given a ride by John DuRant to the start of the run on St.Marys Island. Spirits were high as we chatted about logistics and gleaned tips from John who had completed the course last year. Of course we were nervous, especially with the extreme weather predictions of lightning storms beginning Friday afternoon, but we were able to laugh from the start and we took our first steps toward Savannah at 9:00 am. After warming up together we separated into two groups with Jason H. and I leading with a steady pace through the increasingly humid morning. St.Marys was beautiful and Jason and I ran many easy miles chatting about life, pursuits, running, and nutrition. Running long distances is a great way to get to know someone, and I have made connections with people from all walks of life through hours spent shared in the pursuit of pushing our physical limitations. It is always an enriching experience.
As we progressed out into the more rural countryside, the humidity continued to rise with sun until it felt as though we were swimming through the sultry air. Although I am used to these conditions from running in Savannah, the humid air is still stifling and will slow a runner like molasses in January. Ambling along at a reduced pace, we found a little relief in the shade of oaks along beautiful pedestrian trail traveling through Woodbine. The trail ended at the meandering blackwater Satilla river and we crossed the first of many bridges.
Coming up on the second trail section, a 5 mile converted railway, we had completed the first of six marathons. It was apparent that I would not be able to keep my pace down enough to stay with Jason for the rest of the run (we did not plan on sticking together). Knowing that I had to push myself the first day to get miles in before the storms hit, I pushed onward ahead of Jason after a brief goodbye. Although I love to run with people, I also appreciate the solo experience, and also find that I can pass miles more quickly late in a run without any distractions.
The trail through and around White Oak was wide and shaded. Conditions were good and I was feeling mighty fine clicking off the miles at a good pace. I saw some snakes and deer here, and passed several farms on the side of the trail. This section went by quickly and I before I knew it I popped back out onto Highway 17 to cover the 9 miles to the second county.
Although 17 is a highway, the traffic here is light. These areas have not seen much traffic since the completion of I-95 in 1980. After the superhighway was built, much of the traffic was diverted and many, many businesses along the slightly slower, more scenic road ended up going out of business. It is my personal hope that more local businesses with more character and uniqueness of locality with reemerge with increased travel that completion of the Greenway will spurn.
Crossing the bridge over Laurel Grove Creek, I entered Glynn county. Once in Glynn the clouds really started rolling in. I had been compulsively checking the weather every couple hours before the start of the run as a massive storm system was headed east from Louisiana and expected to hit Georgia in the afternoon and last until the next day. Despite the tornado warnings and potential hail, we had been planning the run for months and did not want to cancel it without at least an attempt. I was getting nearer to Brunswick when the clouds broke above me and I stopped to pull out my pack cover and rain jacket while a torrent of water began dumping on me. I hoped rain would break up the humidity but it remained warm and humid, just a lot wetter. I quickly discovered that my rain coat, which had not been used for quite some time, was no longer waterproof and, in fact, was at the point of disintegration as it flaked off in fluorescent chunks, sticking to my clothes and skin. Guess I should have checked my gear before hand... I laughed at myself. Two things kept me going despite being soaking wet- it was warm enough outside, and there was no lightning within 5 miles. I found a convenience store about 9 miles outside of Brunswick where I stopped to reapply lubricant to my skin to prevent chafing. The rain was slowing and I did my best to dry out under a hand dryer in the bathroom. I don't know what people thought entering, seeing me, soaking wet in short shorts with a backpack, balancing on one leg with my other foot lifted up under the hand dryer, bouncing up and down trying to maintain balance on stiff, road weary knees but they declined to comment. Although it was awkward, it did help, and I walked outside just as the rain was revving up again. Having just gotten slightly drier, I opted to go get a coffee from inside, and sit on a bench under an awning for a bit. I caught up the group phone messages from fellow runners and found out that Jason had dropped out not long after we had parted ways due to risk of injury from a strained hip. We were down to 4 and the run had just begun...
As I sat under the awning, the rain slowed and it seemed that the worst had passed for now. I seized the opportunity to head back out into the misty drizzle and make more progress toward home. The next 9 miles to Brunswick were awesome! The coffee I drank was the first caffeine and in combination with a bottle of ensure I was feeling really good. I could see the bridge that I would have to cross to get over the Fancy Bluff Creek but I didn't pay too much attention as it was still over an hour away. This section was fairly quiet and I was overwhelmed by the scents of blooming sweet citrus flowers, tea olive, and wisteria. I sang some songs to pass the time while the sun was setting and the rain was intermittent, watching powerful purple lighting in the distance over the Atlantic ocean. It was beautiful.
Crossing the bridge into Brunswick, the sun had set and it was time to try out the new headlamp I had recently been awarded after winning a fantastic race, the Fort Clinch 100. It was comfy, bright, and lightweight- I'm happy to have a good headlamp finally. The bridge was long and offered nice views from both sides. Entering Brunswick I was excited by the promise of hot food somewhere- my appetite was getting voracious. I ran through some scenic neighborhoods with gorgeous historic architecture before popping out into a public park with a short running trail that led me back to Highway 17. It was too late for anything besides fast food so I stopped for a break in a 24 hour McDonalds and tried to reorganize my wet mess of a mind and supplies. This was a really nice break- I had a small chocolate milkshake, a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit, and a coffee while I took off my socks to dry my wet feet and put on clean socks. There is nothing quite like a clean, warm, dry pair of socks after you have been stewing in cold wet ones for hours on end. And I was able to sit entirely under the hot air hand dryer in the bathroom, drying my clothes and hair quite a bit. It really is the simple things...
I headed out into the night, fresh and reinvigorated, ready to press on toward Darien and the third of six counties. The rain had dwindled down and checking the weather I saw the storms were not expected to hit hard again until 3 am, when there was a tornado warning. That estimation gave me 4 hours to travel the next 15 miles to Darien and find a good shelter to nap in while waiting out the storm. Plenty of time, or so I thought.
The next 10 miles took less than 2 hours and I took some time at a 24-hour gas station to eat a snack and wash up in the restroom. I continued on fairly leisurely, enjoying walking breaks and talking on the phone for a bit before pushing on through the final 5 miles of the day. I was in a good mental place but soon the rain came back and with as much gusto as ever. Then the lightning began in the clouds to the west. Whenever a strike would light the sky up with an electric blue vein I counted the seconds until the arrival of the rolling thunder. It takes sound approximately 4.7 seconds to travel a mile so I decided to find the nearest shelter if the gap between the lightning and thunder decreased to less than 12 seconds. Most strikes were about 3.5 miles away but the nearer I got to Darien, the closer they became. About 2 miles out they finally breached my 12 second rule and I began to look for a place to take cover. Unfortunately, I was in a no mans land- the road was basically a bridge over marsh with no forest or buildings on either side, just a few low trees and marsh grass. I pressed on and right outside of Darien, within a mile of the town, the lightning got dangerously close. With every strike the Earth shook and all nearby power lines fizzled and transformers popped. Fear prompted me to speed up and I ran the fastest mile of the run into Darien.
It was a huge relief to step foot into a lit up gas station on the South end of Darien. I asked the gas station attendant if she know of any affordable motel nearby. Earlier in the run, I had not wanted to stay in a motel, but everything I had was soaked through and I was a soggy mess, desperate for a place to lay down out of the rain. The prospect of any bed with a blanket as well the ability to put wet clothes in front of a heater or fan for the morning was like the sweetest dream. The rain was predicted to continue until noon on Saturday so I figured it would be worth the $40 or so dollars I'd have to pay for the privilege of prepared accommodations. She said there was only one, about a mile away, that would be inexpensive. All other hotels were 3 miles away (in a direction opposite of the course I was traveling) so I opted for her recommendation. I bounced along for another mile, sure that within an hour I would be curled up cozy and warm, getting some useful rest at 70+ miles into the journey. Unfortunately, what greeted me at the end of the mile was so far away from the expectations in my mind that I still shiver thinking about it.
The first thing I noticed was that this "motel" was more of a dilapidated base of operations for what I sure was either a chlamydia research facility, termite farm or a crystal meth ring. Actually it was probably a some combination of the three. It was a squat, strip mall style place, and people had left their guard dogs tied up by ropes outside their rooms, all night in the terrible weather. I was greeted by an unchained junkyard dog that I had to placate to get to stop barking at my arrival. Next I noticed the sign, “No Vacancy” and then the office, locked and unoccupied. Then the storm got even worse. I found myself under a leaky tin awning, looking at a soaking wet cushion-less couch. The idea of going back out into the storm and traveling another 2 miles off course was too disheartening to consider so I decided the disgusting, moldy couch was slightly better than the wet concrete ground. In retrospect I'm not sure that it was. I was lucky however, that for the past 2 years I have been carrying in my backpack an emergency space blanket even though I had never needed it until right then. It stuck to my wet skin and being wrapped in it shielded me from the wind, the wet couch, and the incessant drips of rain through the awning. At 2:30 in the morning, I found myself sitting soaking wet, shivering, with achy joints and pain pulsating from my shoulders from carrying a backpack for 70 miles. I drifted in and out of consciousness while the storm raged for the next 6 hours. I managed maybe 45 minutes of restless sleep but would be constantly woken up by reverberations of lightning and the pain of laying uncomfortably. It was hopeless and dire, one of the times when you have to totally succumb to the suck and just wait in misery for conditions outside of your control to change on their own accord.
When the sun finally rose in the East, the weather turned as well, and I wearily packed up and began to head back to the course. Although the night was incredibly awful and slightly traumatic, the new sunrise brought both warmth and hope. My mood became downright jubilant as I bounded down the sidewalk. It seemed like providence when a few blocks later I passed a run down laundromat with an open door. I could not believe my luck, especially when I realized that this was perhaps the only coin laundromat in existence that lacked a quarter machine and I just-so-happened to have two quarters change from buying a coffee the night before. I unpacked my bag and threw all of my wet clothes and my wet backpack into a dryer for the next 14 minutes. I had saved a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit from the night before, and although it was old, cold, and hardened it was the best damn breakfast sandwich I've ever eaten. With a little bit of food and the promise of dry gear, I was damn near ecstatic. I put on my warmed shirt and repacked my dry backpack and I hit the road again, singing songs on the way back to the course.
Returning back to the riverfront area of Darien, I passed by the docks of sailboats and under massive Spanish moss laden live oaks that shaded the paths bordering the river. This was one of my favorite parts of the run and I took my time, taking pictures and enjoying the beauty. I waved at people out in their yards gardening, collecting the mail, or just sitting in rocking chairs on their porches. The architecture in the area was classically Southern- big airy Victorian homes with high ceilings, large porches, and decorated cast iron window frames. The weather was warm and humid but it felt fantastic.
At this point I was making decent progress but not pushing myself. I had started the run with the idea of having a fun adventure and enjoying a long run without the pressure of racing. The weather had made the situation stressful in a different way but I was still enjoying myself. I walked occasionally when I felt like it and stopped at most businesses since they were very sparse at this point. I stopped for water at a little shop 10 miles outside of Darien to indulge in a ice cream cone. The clerk could see that I looked pretty haggard by then, even though I was grinning and obviously enjoying myself. She asked me where I was headed and I said I was headed home to Savannah. “On bicycle?” No ma'am, I replied, I'm traveling on foot. She looked confused, “Son you have a long way to go”. I just smiled and said I know, thanks for the ice cream!
On this section, following GA99 and hugging the marshlands surrounding Blackbeard Creek, I found the most interesting discards on the roadside. Over the course of about 20 miles I discovered a brand new pair of sunglasses, enough tools to fill a toolbox, 5 phone chargers, 6 phone covers, 3 rolls off multicolored yarn (all about ½ mile apart), and 1 wallet complete with ID, credit cards, library card, and workplace badges but no money. The splatter pattern of the credit cards on the roadside made it likely the wallet was thrown or dropped out of a moving vehicle. Another highway mystery and a story that will never be known. I salvaged the cards to send back to the owner, a 55 year old living in Townsend.
I made my way into Crescent, where I approached Bubba's Diner. There was something about the old school hand painted sign that made me want to experience the “HOME COOKIN'” and the second sign, “RIBS”, sealed the deal. Well Bubba was there, but the ribs that day were long gone, so I opted in stead for a massive slow cooked turkey wing smothered in gravy and cabbage stewed with salt back and black pepper. All for only $4! This was in part an experiment, just to see how I would react to a stomach swelling portion soul food on a long run. It was delicious but it did slow me down for a good half an hour. It was worth it though!
Shortly after Bubba's I got a message from local low-country runners Tony Varney and Ann Kerkman. They were on their way to provide some aid to Dan, Jason E., and Brian and did I need anything? I replied no, that I was trying to stay in the Vol State mentality (a 500k unaided race through Tennessee). They excitedly informed me that “road angels” do not count as aid, and as veterans of the Vol State, I trusted their judgment and we made plans to share a quick beer en route. The few minutes I spent catching up with Tony and Ann on the side of the highway were a really nice break and I felt quite grateful for the kindness and effort they put into helping us with the endeavor. Oh and the beer!!! Thanks!
The beer was great for my mood but not for my motivation or lack of sleep. I had, unfortunately, not gotten much sleep in the lead-up to start and the lack of sleep throughout the storm had compounded the effects of sleep deprivation. I was maintaining decent focus but as soon as the alcohol buzz kicked in I needed a nap badly. I slowed to a walk until I found a gas station where I sat on a bench and almost fell asleep sitting up. Noticing the grassy lot nearby with three Uhaul trailers on display for rental gave me an idea. Like a bear looking for a cozy cave to hibernate, I realized that the Uhaul cavern was dark, dry, quiet, and totally free of chiggers and tics. I crept around back and ever so slowly began lifting up the sliding back door of the trailer. What I saw was the most beautiful flat, dry, empty, dark rectangle of space I could have imagined. My mouth was almost watering for sleep as I hopped in the container and closed the door behind me. I was instantly in heaven... which lasted for about 3 seconds. I had been spotted and heard the hollering as soon as I was shut in. “Hey you, whatchu doin' out in back of dem Uhauls?!!!?” I sighed, slid open the door, and returned to the light of day. I explained myself to the old woman attendant and apologized for not asking first if I could rent a Uhaul for a 40 minute nap. I explained how exhausted I was having been kept up stuck in the storm and she understood, but they weren't even her Uhauls so she couldn't allow me to camp in one. The adrenaline that I got when she first caught me did wake me right up though. I drank a little coffee and headed out with renewed vigor. I would be sticking to the original plan of making it to Richmond Hill where ½ mile off course I had a place to nap and some food thanks to the generosity of another runner, Sara Maltby. All I had to do to get there was go another 40 miles on legs that had already traveled 90 miles on 45 minutes of sleep... no problem, right? It was gonna be a while before I could get a nap.
It was slow going for a while, I traveled about 8 miles in 2 hours to crest the bridge over yet another leg of Blackbeard Creek and enter into Liberty county. At the border, I was bummed when I turned my phone on and found out that Dan, Jason E., and Brian had decided to drop out of the run. The storms had put them too far behind schedule and there were other issues as well. And then from five, we were down to one. It was disheartening but I was still determined. After surviving the night of living hell I had a lot of steely resolve about finishing. I was not going to quit even if it took a week to get back.
In a little while I was picking up steam again, knowing that my one “aid station”, a cooler filled with food, water, and goodies, was waiting for me, stashed in the back of a construction site in Riceboro, a mere 6 miles away. I made haste toward the cooler and ran quickly for 5 of those miles. Finally seeing the construction site that I had left a cooler in early in the morning Friday, was a huge boost. I took my time reorganizing my pack and supplies as well as picking up some of the strongest “black drink”, an Asi yaupon tea infusion, that I had ever concocted. It was so strong that it was entirely opaque and even the bright sun would not light up this stiff brew. I did not need much to feel the effects shortly after, and it help me continue on with increased mental focus despite my sleep deprivation.
From the cooler it was only 18 miles to make it to Richmond Hill, hot food, a shower, and a nap in a real bed in a waterproof shelter. Heaven. The sun set as ran further north and once I passed through Midway and was within 13 miles of Richmond Hill, I hit a low. These miles were the toughest to stay moving through because the shoulder on Hwy 17 was virtually non existent, the traffic was heavy, and the ground outside of the road was soggy and muddy. Running toward the bright headlights in the night was disorienting and incessantly jumping into the squishy ground between the groups of cars was tiring and hindered progress. It was a drag but as I got closer to Richmond Hill I recognized more and more landmarks which were encouraging. I was able to push the pace any time there was a break in the traffic. Finally hearing the roar of I-95 and seeing the halo of light in the sky was a whiff of the barn and I sped up to get past the interstate and finally off of the section I dubbed Die-way 17. It was a massive relief to be on quiet residential streets after the mental duress of running against a lot of fast traffic late at night.
Arriving at Sara's was great, but it was all business. I planned to leave her house at 2 AM and since I arrived late, I had less time to relax. I scarfed down an avocado with a baked egg inside, a few pieces of bacon, stripped and took a quick shower, and hit the bed in about 20 minutes. The time was 11:45 PM... my alarm was set for 1:45 AM. It did not take me long to fall asleep like a rock. I enjoyed two beautiful, blissful, warm, dark, and dry hours.
Waking up 2 hours later, I felt super fresh and after rocking my joints back into motion, I threw on my gear and hit the road at exactly 2 AM. It felt amazing to swap out my backpack for a hydration vest (at least 10 lbs lighter) and to have Dan's assistance crewing for the last 50k. I warmed up rather quickly and I was surprised at how much more easily I was able to move after the brief respite. I got back on the course where I left off and got out of Richmond Hill heading back up17 for a short section before crossing the Ogeechee River and diverting to back roads. This section then followed a short trail to a residential neighborhood. The cool night air felt amazing. I made quick progress, running well, despite being so sleep deprived and physically spent over the past 42 hours.
I made it back to 204, one of the main drags in Savannah and was dismayed to turn left instead of right. Knowing this area well, I knew that I was turning away from the shortest route back home, but I had to stay the course. Soon after, I passed the Ogeechee Canal Historic Park and it brought back memories of being being a boy scout with Troop 30 in my youth. Not only did we camp on the banks of the canal many times over the years, but I had also completed my Life Scout project here, a 6 tiered canoe/kayak storage shelter with a roof, with the help of fellow scouts.
Getting off 204, I followed a quiet road bordering the banks of the canal. It was quiet and the stars were out so I turned off my headlamp and ran many peaceful, uninterrupted miles through the cool dark evening, listening to the owl calls and the chorus of frogs, amphibians, and crickets. The road then turned into a fantastic trail and although it was obviously quite beautiful with the amount of cypress knees welling up from the flooded surroundings, it was dark so I was restricted to what I could see in the orb of my headlamps glow.
I followed more quiet roads into Pooler, and Dan helped me out on the way. It was great to have him for a crew. Every 3-5 miles I would find him on the side of the road with supplies spread over the hood of the car. I did not have to worry about running out of water, carrying too much, or stashing trash and it made the final push from Richmond Hill infinitely easier.
The last leg before downtown Savannah was an 8 mile stretch on Highway 80. I frequently run in this area anyway so once I got withing a few miles of town I was able to imagine that I was just out for a morning run, watching the sunrise over the Savannah river. 3 or 4 miles out I ditched all my stuff except a handheld and felt light and free. A few people were coming to meet me to run over the Savannah river bridge and I did not want to be late so I hustled into town. Being back in downtown Savannah, under the oaks, next to the cobblestone streets, the run felt over even though there were still 4 miles to go. I rendezvoused with my parents, Kelly Luckett, and Brian who had come out to run over the bridge with me. We took it nice and slow, I wanted to savor the finish.
From the top of the bridge it was all down hill and flat for another 5k and although part of me wanted to see just how fast I could run those 5k, I held back and tried to reflect on the experience of the past 48 hours. There was no need for ego at the end of this one, and I enjoyed talking to my Dad and Brian as we rounded the last corners of the Hutchinson Island racetrack and made way for the ferry landing. Coming down the steps to the ferry was both cathartic and serene. The morning was sunny and cool, a beautiful day for running. The sun reflected off of the Savannah river and the windows of the historic businesses on the cobblestone streets as sea birds swooped low eyeing the banks for food and cargo ships headed to their port of call. I met Dan on the landing. He handed me the CGG buckle he had designed for the run finishers and we relaxed and laughed for some photos. The trek was complete!!!
I was pretty exhausted but so excited by finishing that I did not quite want to rest yet. With Brian, Kelly, and my parents, we went out and enjoyed an awesome breakfast with coffee while enjoying good conversation. It was surreal to be home doing such a familiar activity as eating Sunday brunch at an outside cafe in downtown Savannah. I looked around at the fellow diners enjoying their food and company outside and had a quiet laugh to myself considering the vast difference in the past 48 hours from my perspective to theirs. While they were out drinking at the bars, I was dodging traffic in dark along a muddy highway, sucking exhaust fumes. When they were waking up late Saturday morning to coffee and a newspaper in their warm robes at home, I was already miles into the day, sleeplessly pushing forward with all my might after one of the more traumatic nights of my life. While they were cozy in bed Friday night, the lightning storm an excuse to stay in and watch a movie with popcorn, I was curled up wet and shivering, wrapped in a piece of glorified tin foil. It was an interesting thought and I realized that this dichotomy of experience between humans exists all the time and it is important to remember. While we live out our mostly comfortable existences, at any given time there are many, many, people experiencing suffering.
I learned many things during the experience of running the Greenway- the limits of my own abilities to withstand suffering and sleep deprivation, the ephemeral nature of emotion whether positive or negative, and also the joy of overcoming the trepidation of stepping into the unknown. I found out that I can withstand a lot and still maintain a reasonable level of mental focus and acuity, that the bad times nor the good times last forever- we are always on a pendulum between the two, and also that I continue to love adventures and explorations into unknown territory. The run pushed the boundaries of mental capacity and perceived limits and I am so happy that I decided to undertake the endeavor.
The Coastal Georgia Greenway itself on the other hand was just incredible. The rural coast of Georgia has so much to offer in terms of gorgeous scenery, boundless nature, friendly people, and fantastic regional cuisine. The opportunities of this area for ecotourism are limitless- hiking, biking, kayaking, fishing, camping, and birding are all possibilities in this pristine environment. In combination with the fascinating and rich history of the area- from the Creek Indian civilization thru Spanish conquests to the Civil War, the completion of the Greenway will be a great asset for all Georgians and visitors to our communities. It will also spurn a revitalization of some of these rural communities through increased tourism. We have no doubt lost some value by circumventing some of these localities in favor of faster travel on I-95. Let's bring back some local flavor and support local economies in rural areas as well. Let's finish the Coastal Georgia Greenway!
I immensely thank Dan Hernandez who conceived of the idea, put in all of the legwork on planning and route finding, and also crewed me for the last 31 miles. John DuRant who woke up early on Friday to give us a ride to the start. Sara Maltby for being literally the best aid station of all time at mile 125. Brian Garvin, Jason Edenfield, Jason Hallman, and Dan, for having the cajones to attempt the trek and for the shared miles. Tony Varney and Ann Kerkman for the roadside beer and encouragement. Kelly Luckett, Brian, Jason, and my parents who came out early Sunday morning to make sure I didn't fall off the bridge. Asi Yaupon tea for supplying me with tea for late at night when I needed it (yaupontea.com). Luna Sandals for providing me with a great pair of Gordo Monos for yet another blisterless distance running experience (lunasandals.com). Special thanks to everyone in our group message who kept tabs on our progress and offered much needed words of support and humor that made the voyage that much easier, I love our community!