The older I get, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the authentic. Authentic friendships. Authentic experiences. Authentic love. The modern world has us chasing instant gratification and it seems like a new trend comes and goes every single day. Some people and events can mask themselves in authenticity, but if you stare long enough, you can see through the makeup and nails to reveal the gimmicks.

I remember standing outside of Camp Morganton in 2013 when a slender man with a bull horn drew a line in the gravel with his foot.

CJ – the beginning

I was an abecedarian in the world of mountain ultra running, but instantly knew there was something genuine about Cruel Jewel. It was raw. It was real. You couldn’t “fake it till you make it” your way through this race.

Originally, CJ56 started at 4pm and was essentially a night ultra. I lined up with 16 other adventurers and set off for Vogel. After 15hrs20mins, I arrived to the park first, but there was no finish line. The finish was a cabin with a few folks hanging out. For my first ultra win, I got a fist bump and a cold beer. Authentic to its core.

CJ 56 – 2013

Since 2013, I’ve gone back to the beautiful North Georgia mountains to experience the Dragon several times. Before changing directions, I had my eye on Hardrock and fought my way through 2 Cruel Jewel 106 mile finishes (2016 & 2018) to snag qualifiers. Cruel Jewel holds a special place in my heart and my skin…

But let me be authentic with you guys… I’m sure as shit glad that Covid canceled the 2020 attempt. I was not looking forward to battling the Dragon again. The 106 mile journey is such a massive undertaking and a labor of love. It not only takes a special kind of personal grit, but it also takes a special type of human to sacrifice their own time and well being to crew/pace. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, crewing/pacing a 100 miles is harder than running a 100 miles. I’ll forever be blown away by those who support these types of endurance endeavors.

Due to the 2020 covid cancellation, runners were given the option to defer to the following year or get a credit for Dumass events. Since grad school hadn’t really offered the free time to properly train for a 100 miler, I chose to drop down to the 56 miler to give myself a lil more grace with my weekly mileage. My approach to ultra running training during grad school looked completely different than pre-grad school, but I think the approach has been effective. Ive felt happier and healthier with lower mileage paired with more quality workouts/runs. Plus, a lot of my longer efforts have been solo and I believe that’s played into the overall mental well being of my running.

Speaking of grad school…. I’M FINISHED!! I graduated on May 8th! It still doesn’t feel real! Perhaps it doesn’t feel real since I opted for a shorty shorts Mount LeConte graduation instead of the typical walk across stage in a black robe type of graduation.

Professor Fierce doing the honors

Heading back to North Georgia for the 2021 CJ56 felt like freedom in so many different ways. I didn’t have school work or internship looming in the back of my mind,… I wasn’t searching for a job since I had recently secured a therapist position at a private nonprofit… I was free to enjoy the N Ga mountains with no bonds or ties.

Since we (the Road Prong Boyz) already had a big mountain adventure planned for June, the usual suspects couldn’t make it out to CJ to crew. I had originally planned to just snag a campsite and shuttle/drop bag my way through the race, but Kati said we could make a weekend out of it and she’d crew me. My wife Kati has always been one of the biggest supporters of my endurance endeavors, but after I botched a few experiences for her… I gave her a life long pass of not having to come out to anymore events. I got super stoked when she suggested coming along with me since we’ve not gotten to spend a lot of time together due to grad school and such. So we said goodbye to our cats and headed to Blue Ridge.

Wobbles the 3 Legged Phenom

We snagged a cute little AirBnB about 10mins from Camp Morganton called “The Happy Place.” It was quiet and allowed easy access to all the crew accessible aid stations for the race!

After dinner in Blue Ridge, we called it an early night.

Oh damn, it’s kinda cold!”

Race morning weather couldn’t have been any better. 42° and gorgeous.

After a quick sexy photo shoot showing off the 3 day old Salomon S/SLAB SG 8’s...

An adventure cat wished me luck…

And we headed out of Morganton!

We had a small, chatty group as we made our way down the asphalt of Snake Nation and up the big hill towards Deep Creek trail head. The road had been my friend for the past several months so I felt comfortable moving quickly along the blacktop. I didn’t have much of a strategy for the day and had no real plans of competing with anyone other than myself. I wanted this race to be more of a celebratory run than a competition. My personal plan was to go out quick and stay consistent until I reached Skeenah, where I’d inevitably slow down to cater to the Dragon.

I pushed through Deep Gap aid (mile 2.7) without checking up. It had been years since I’d run this loop in the daylight and enjoyed the easy movement. Ya tend to forget how pleasant a section can be when you have +50 miles on your legs already.

I passed my girl Sunny on the backside of the loop. She was back for revenge. Sunny and her pacer Stan were pushing through the first morning. I stopped for a quick hug before carrying on to the aid station. The mental fortitude and persistence that resides in Sunny is something out of this world. I can’t even begin to explain how proud I am of her finish.

I got back to Deep Gap aid (mile 8.5) and quickly had a volunteer verify my bib punch before heading towards Weaver.

Oh Weaver… how thou sucketh so badeth.

This pointless out and back is why you are running 56 miles and not 50 miles.”

Yea… that sign sucks… but it sucks even worsewhen you change the numbers to 106 and 100. Dropping down to Weaver isn’t so bad when it’s mile 10 and not 60. I passed 2 other BHM lads (Don and Robby) pursuing their CJ buckles.

Congrats my dudes!

I found myself enjoying the climb out of Weaver. I wasn’t falling asleep to the sunrise with Matty Fierce like I was in 2018…

CJ100 ~ 2018

I wasn’t deliriously wondering if some old man with a rifle was gonna shoot me and OJG like in 2016… (thassa true story tho…)

CJ100 ~ 2016

I was just climbing and enjoying the morning when I came upon another Birmingham bad ass tackling the 106 miler. As always, Missy looked fresh and was moving well!

Once I topped the climb out of Weaver, it was easy running down to Stanley (mile 18.9).

pic: Tony F (thx dude!)

The guys weren’t too far behind me so I decided to kick a lil on the asphalt to try and bank some extra time for the Dragon. I got into a steady groove and was well ahead of my anticipated arrival (by ~ 45mins) for Old Dial. I was a bit worried I’d miss Kati at Old Dial aid (mile 24.8) and told the volunteers to be on the lookout for a cute girl in a black death metal t shirt. Luckily, Kati had litrully just parked when I was leaving the aid tent.

I took a quick sip of Coke and tried to monch a Clif Bar, but solid foods weren’t the ticket for the day.

I quickly headed out of Old Dial and up towards the fire tower. Even though it’s been since 2018 that I’ve been on this particular portion of trail, everything felt familiar. I allowed myself to revisit some old memories and conversations as I pushed up towards the fire tower, but quickly snapped out of it when they started turning negative. I rolled into Wilscot aid (mile 30.3) a little overheated. Though not as hot as previous years, this was still one of my first exposures to warmer weather this year. Hell, it was 30° with snow flurries during last weekend’s 25 mile adventure in the Smokies w/ Matty Fierce!

I was starting to feel a bit dehydrated and knew I wasn’t taking in enough liquids. I grabbed a 2nd handheld from Kati before leaving Wilscot. As you can see from the above chipmunk cheek picture, the bacon at Wilscot was top notch.

Wilscot to Skeenah was pretty uneventful. I kept pushing as hard as my body would comfortably allow through some of the more runnable sections. Every time I felt overheated, I’d douse myself with a little water and catch a cooler wind through the trees.

Skeenah (mile 35.2) was a welcomed sight. Skeenah marks the beginning of the end. The Duncan Ridge Trail is a relentless beat down when you’ve got a pair of fresh legs… but the Dragon Spine is just down right fierce when you’ve already got many tough mountain miles under your feet.

I was curious of how I’d feel about the DRT when I only had to cover its ground once. As always, the climb out of Skeenah along the BMT was long and hot! As I turned onto the DRT, I gave myself a little pep talk.

Alright Andrews, 20 miles. Stay steady. Pick up your feet. Stay consistent.”

Typically when I run long alone… I’ll get a song stuck in my head and it’ll become my mantra. I’ll tie myself into the song’s cadence or deep dive into the lyrics to take my mind off the present. At Blood Rock 50 it was MGK’s “Kiss, Kiss” that played on repeat in my dome piece. At CJ56, it was Taking Back Sunday’s Timberwolves at New Jersey.

Get up, get up
Come on, come on, let's go
There's just a few things
I think that you should know
Those words at best
Were worse than teenage poetry

Very fitting…

As I started rounding into Fish Gap aid (mile 40), I saw Ryan James well into the late miles heading to another 100 mile finish. Dudes been crushing lately.

It was good catching up with RJ for a bit. I hadn’t seen him since he made the move to Black Mountain from Birmingham. We came into the aid together where the wonderful Baker family was volunteering.

“Ya just need to make it to Fire Pit and you’re done.”

Ryan was right. If I could just drop down to Mulky and fight my way to Fire Pit, I’d be sitting pretty for a solid push to the finish.

After Mulky, a fleeting memory of the Lesbian Mountain Dew adventure flashed in my mind as I passed a certain area along the trail. Years ago… out of water with no access along the DRT, a friend and I came across a strange couple camped along the trail. It appeared that their main form of nutrition for the trip was a 24 pack of Mountain Dew. I verbally expressed my longing for one of those bright green cans and they were generous enough to offer us up a couple.

The memory triggered an immediate need for Mountain Dew at Fire Pit aid (mile 47.4). After a cup or 2, I buried that memory and poured some out for a lost homie.

I slogged my way up to Coosa Bald and was relieved when I topped out .

pic: Paige

I spent the next 4 miles descending towards Vogel. Despite the 50 miles or so already on my legs, the descent was a lot of fun! I knew the guy behind me (Brian) was relatively close (he’d been 1-6mins back all day), so I needed to push the last couple of miles. I hit Wolf Creek aid (mile 52), filled my bottle with a lil bit of water and dug in for the last 4 miles. In the last couple of CJ100s, the headlamp would come out for this long, drawn out duck waddle into Vogel. I was stoked that the sun was still shining bright and I still felt strong (and that I wasn’t at mile 102). I crossed the road and passed Becca as I dipped back into the woods. She snagged a 2nd place overall female finish and honestly… it didn’t even look like she had been moving through the mountains for +30hrs!

The moment my feet hit the pavement at Vogel I heard a camper yell:

“You want a beer?!”

Damn it felt good to be done.

11hrs20mins ~ 1st overall

pic: Grant

The Cruel Jewel folks really know how to put on a first class, authentic event. I can’t speak highly enough of the amount of effort, love and passion they put into this journey each year. The RDs and volunteers are half the reason I keep coming back to support this race.

pic: Grant

I can’t thank my Dark Princess enough for the incredible support she gave me all day!

Kati and I walked into the dining area to sit down for a bit. The heat and the gel diet was slowly catching up to me….

We enjoyed talking with Brian Oestrike post race. He’s such a humble bad ass. Hopefully I can link back up with him at Pinhoti 100 when I’m a lil more talkative and there’s a lil less poison ivy!

I spent the drive back to our cabin periodically getting Kati to pull over so that I could throw up in various Blairsville and Blue Ridge parking lots…

Thankfully the nausea settled overnight and we got to spend the next day exploring the Bigfoot museum…

And Amicalola Falls!

Cruel Jewel was the perfect way to cap off the end of a tough season of my life. I’m sure I’ll see ya again Dragon… in a couple of years.

“An adventure isn’t worth telling if there aren’t any dragons in it.”

3 thoughts on “Dragonborn

  1. It is grand the race finally held some mild and pleasant weather more conducive to running. Congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey, congrats! Been a while since I’ve thought about you. Seems like you really had a chance to work out some issues on the course. And that’s healthy. Glad you’re in a better spot now. Peace and love.


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