Great Southern Endurance Run 100 Virtual

Great Southern Endurance Run is the brainchild of Thomas Armbruster. Anyone who is an ultra runner and lives in the Atlanta area has to love the idea of running from Kennesaw Mountain to Stone Mountain (100K version). In its original years, the race included a 100 miler with a nice old school buckle that paid homage to its very first runners, Ben Gray (the mustache) and Jameelah Abdul-Rahim Mujaahid (a peace sign) who tested the course before it was an official race.

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I loved crewing for it several years and helping Thomas co-direct it one year before taking it over. I couldn’t imagine spring time without this race; although I do have to admit that a 100K on roads was never a race that enticed me personally.  In May of 2020, just after quarantine but still very much the height of Covid-19, we held the annual 100K distance and added a few aid stations to help runners along the course keeping them out of mostly closed stores and restaurants.  Most runners were just happy to be out and running and really appreciated the extra aid we were able to provide.  It’s really a tough race even under the best of circumstances.

When summer came, Covid-19 was still hanging in the air and 100-mile races were starting to be postponed, cancelled or turned into virtual races.  I began to think about where someone would run 100 miles.  It occurred to me that the Great Southern Endurance Run had a course from the early years, and runners who trained and had nowhere to run might be interested.  I contacted the original maker of the buckles as Thomas had none of them left, placed an order for more, and posted the race for runners to run anytime it worked for them between the beginning of May and end of August (although I did extend it to the end of September when fall races started to cancel as well).

In the back of my mind I thought as the race director it would be very cool if I got to experience the course and race firsthand even though I was quite familiar with it.  Soon BLM protests started to hit the city of Atlanta and Stone Mountain, which made the whole thing a little questionable.  I ran Merrill’s Mile over the 4th of July weekend with Brad Goodridge and Carrie Dix, getting some long paved miles under my feet, and a chance to work on a strategy for foot care.  Roads are really not a place I love to run.  A couple days later I asked Brad if it was too soon to ask him about GSER 100 miler, haha.  We both needed to recover from Merrill’s Mile and I had the H9 50 miler coming up in August. I wanted to get through all that first.

My friend Shae Merritt-Duff from Florida texted me about a week or so after Merrill’s Mile to ask if I thought she could run GSER solo.  We then chatted by phone and the date she had in mind for mid-August worked out perfectly for me and I said I’d join her.  I soon asked Brad if he wanted to crew me, and God as my witness, he said he really wanted to run it with me!  #DontBlameMeForYourPoorDecisions

I then reached out to Rebecca Richie who is basically the queen of GSER having run it several years, setting the course record and winning it two of those years.  I had crewed for her a couple of times at the race and knew that she was well acquainted with the course and demands better than anyone.  She was still recovering from an injury and was happy to help us out.  I also reached out to a couple of the on course Aid Station homes, Franco Conti and Anne Blanton who were both happy to set up shop for us.  My running buddy Sherri Harvey who never wants to miss out on a good run offered to pace us.  Chris Fox who had completed the race six week earlier had told me if I ever decided to do it, he was happy to help, so I also reached out to him for some pro pacing and navigation.  Plan in place, help secured, almost ready.

A couple days before the race Brad and I had dinner with Rebecca.  I already knew we had the perfect crew person, but Brad I think learned real quick that we were in good hands.  She gave us lots of advice, and our group had now grown to 4 people with Candy Findley not wanting to miss out on the fun.  We needed to make all our stops quick and keep moving.  More people makes your group slower which is fine, but stops with a big group can really eat up precious time.  This race was intended to be an adventure through Atlanta seeing all the sites along the way, and it truly is that.  Thank you, Thomas for your vision, and I promise to continue it.  Stopping at every coffee shop and brewery along the route is not what you have time for.  That is probably a tour left for another day.

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Read to get this show on the road!

So let me tell you a little about our race itself, hopefully with some helpful hints if you decide to run it.  Because it was a virtual race, our start time was up to us.  We set the start time for 3:00am, which means you have to be at the bottom of Kennesaw Mountain at 2:30am to climb to the start and grab a few pictures before you begin the race.  The goal was to get in and out of Stone Mountain Park before dark.  So far over the summer with others running it, Stone Mountain and Centennial Olympic Park have been troubled areas and runners have had to bypass and work around them.  Sometimes you have to play the cards you are dealt.  For us we would find out around 8:00pm the night before starting, with Shae already in town from Florida that Stone Mountain would be closed on our race day with heavy police presence due to planned BLM protests.  The park would reopen Sunday morning.  After a quick briefing with Rebecca and Brad we decided to push our start time back to 9:00am and we’d have to punt when we got to Stone Mountain (more on that later).  Brad and I both set up live tracking on our Garmin watches trying to give Rebecca and a couple others on our team a chance to follow along.  Due to things not being linked correctly the first issue was my tracker not working but we got Brad’s going and it turned out to be a great way for Rebecca to keep track of us.

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Couldn’t resist a jumping picture at the start!

No good views but the cloud cover would be very welcomed all day.

Because it started in daylight hours it gave Shae a chance to see the lay of the land.  We were able to start off seeing Marietta Square busy with people.  We made it to Franco’s house right on schedule with him waiting for us with a cooler full of cold drinks, some bacon and Lemonchello shots.  What better way to start our day!  Franco jumped in after taking care of us and joined Sherri in pacing us to Sope Creek and through there over past Cochran Shoals area.  We had more surprises when we got to see Kim Purcell and Janette Maas as they finished their morning runs at Cochran Shoals.  Then we were off to the Braves Stadium and said our good bye to Sherri and Franco.

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Picture taken by Franco.  We are all still smiling!

We all saw our crew just after crossing over Hwy 285 near the Galleria.  Shae had her husband and dad come up from Florida with her to be her crew and pace later.  They had both also gone up Kennesaw Mountain with us to get us started.  Now they were connected with Rebecca and taking care of us like pros.  Rebecca will tell you she pealed at least 10 pounds of Cuties for us. She would peel them and put them in lunch baggies and keep them in the cooler, and during the hot hours of Saturday, nothing seemed to hit the spot like those.  I would grab a couple of bags each time I left seeing her.  But her hummus, turkey wraps were the thing that sustained me the first day like nothing else.

We made our way down to West Palisades and on to West Paces Ferry Road toward Buckhead when they crewed for us a second time.  Quick grab and go in front of Starbucks. We got a little rain after this stop but not enough to be anything more than a little cool down, until the humidity hit us. Once we made it past Chastain park and were well into the afternoon hours we decided a “quick” stop at a gas station for a icees sounded good.  Of course no stop is quick with four of us but we got in and out.  I knew Rebecca would see on the tracker that we had stopped and next time she saw us we were busted! haha

Highly recommended!

We got to our crew next at the Morningside Nature Preserve.  We were 50K into the race and time to get a few things squared away for some and pick up our pacer Chris Fox.  Huge shout out again to Chris who basically rearranged things to help us out with our last minute schedule change.  He was so great to navigate and give us the tour through Atlanta.  Shae really enjoyed so many sites he was able to point out to her along our journey.  Before we made it through the beltline we were treated to another good rain.  Shae and I put on our cheap ponchos to keep from getting soaked but it wasn’t at all cold.  Probably the rain helped clear a few people off the streets as we went through the Edgewood section of the course and worked our way over to the Oakland Cemetery.  We got more to eat and drink from our crew.  Rebecca had bought us food from Chick-fil-A and I enjoyed a cold Lemonade before we said good-bye to Chris and headed off toward Little Five Points, Decatur and then Stone Mountain.

Shae now took over as our navigator where she and I worked together using turn streets to find streets and check the GPS app.  For us the navigation part of the race was a team effort.  Rebecca had warned Brad and me in our prerace meeting how much work that can be, especially late in the race.  Candy had started to have problems with her Piriformis before we were too far into our race, and after we got through Little Five Points she was able to get a ride from a friend and ended her journey. When we got into Decatur and it was darker, we could see locating streets in the dark was going to take some work.  We made our way out to our next planned crew stop at the Columbia Seminary.  I think it was here that I changed shoes.  I usually don’t change shoes in a race unless I have trouble with my feet but I thought just switching shoes might give my feet a welcome change.  I kept my socks on and didn’t even look at my feet, there really didn’t feel like any issues were happening so why bother, although the shoe change felt good on my feet.

We were getting well into the night and our crew decided to meet us half-way from the Seminary and Stone Mountain.  This section of the course was the old school route that would take us out Rockbridge and Sheppard Roads to Stone Mountain.  After missing a turn during this section and going way beyond where we were supposed to be, it was nice to see our crew.  Rebecca could pull us up on the tracker and direct us in what roads to take to get us back on course. We were ready to see our crews again.  Unfortunately, this is where Shae decided it was time for her to tap out. She was a trooper and never uttered a single complaint the entire time. It’s an extremely rough course with 100 miles of road that can leave your feet trashed and sometimes we just know it’s time to stop.

Then there were two.  We had another 6 miles to get to Stone Mountain and Rebecca went ahead to check out the situation.  If things looked bad she would call us and we’d have to see what the alternative route would be.  Well into the middle of the night, and everything at Stone Mountain was quiet and still.  We didn’t see a single soul or car when we went through.  We got to Rebecca and she waited for us to summit the mountain and come back, so we headed down the Stone Mountain Pathway to the entrance.  Unfortunately, a short distance beyond that a huge chain link fence had been erected with large notices to KEEP OUT and Violators Would Be Prosecuted!  We knew a summit might not happen with the protests but felt we had to give it a shot.  I think not going to jail turned out to be a good decision, although later Chris Fox told me he would have bailed us out. We’ll save that card to play for another time!  Thanks for the offer though.

Back to the Stone Mountain Path towards Decatur.  It was very humid and hot overnight, never cooling off much. We saw Rebecca about 7 miles down the path before crossing over Hwy 285 again.  It was time for me to switch to sandals to give my swollen feet some room and for Brad to do some doctoring on his feet.  Let me just say that Brad clearly does not have a PhD in this area, he’ll need to work on those skills.  You do the best you can, try to limit your suffering and keep going.  Every time we would stop, the starting back up was the most difficult.  It’s that fine balance of being sure to take care of everything you can and not stay too long.  Next stop downtown Decatur.

By this time, we thought we’d seen enough of Decatur, but we seemed to circle around it and go through it every which way, and I’m certain we began to get slower, if that was possible.  Day time came as did the heat of the day.  Traffic picked up, which meant cars racing by us as we were on the sidewalk but also the traffic lights seem to last forever.  We might not have violated the laws at Stone Mountain but could certainly have been sighted on many jaywalking charges.  Now getting across streets required a light and a long wait, in the heat, uphill, both ways!

For us the final straw with Decatur was Lullwater Creek.  It seemed easy enough but with the heat and navigation, it just was not going too well.  After crossing a bridge, over a pipe and bushwhacking around a very large blow down we were finally headed out of there and not soon enough for our liking.  Finally, back to Rebecca crewing us at Dunkin Donuts, we got some breakfast and headed towards Anne Blanton’s aid station.  The long stretches of no shade and long lights took its toll.  When we finally turned on Anne’s street we were greeted by cheers and shouts, signs, balloons and happy faces.  We both were about to have a heat stroke.  It took some time to finally cool down some and slowing getting the life back into us.  We weren’t looking forward to the final stretch to the finish line, but Rebecca was now going to leapfrog us every mile or so, and Tatiana also jumped in bringing us large cokes and popsicles when she wasn’t able to find us icees  My husband Ed showed up and also met us a couple miles out and led us in.

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Ed Stepped in as RD to hand us our buckles!

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Even our posters from Tatiana made our finish feel special!

If you are considering running this race as a virtual, then let me just share a couple more small details that worked for me but doesn’t mean it would necessarily work for you.  I taped my feet up really well with rock tape and used blister Band-Aids on a couple of  my known trouble spots before the race.  My feet held up well with zero blisters but they still hurt and were sore from the beating of the pavement.  I also used a waist pack.  I knew I would see crew often and didn’t want a pack on my shoulders due to the heat and chaffing I get from my pack.  Downside is when your stomach starts to not feel well, and it did, you have something pressing on your stomach.  It’s sort of a trade off. I had my pack with my crew just in case.  With terrible chaffing due to the humidity, I opted to just stay with the waist pack. For me, that was the card I was playing.

For us, crew was a must.  If you don’t use crew reach out to the on course aid stations.  If nothing else, it gives you some friendly faces and a little bit of a “race” feel.  They are also happy to help.  Be sure to have old school printed turn sheets and have the GPS tracks on an app. Some have also downloaded the GPS to their watches and followed the course easily.  We did play with that some but maybe weren’t quite familiar enough to work it. It really worked well for our crew having a live tracker but that isn’t a must.  Have fun with this one.  It’s meant to be a great tour of Atlanta and it really is that!  There’s definitely parts of it you can’t unsee!

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Great Southern Endurance Run 100K Covid Edition, A Race Director’s Perspective

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The Great Southern Endurance Run (GSER) is a 100K in Atlanta, Georgia that travels from the top of Kennesaw Mountain to the top of Stone Mountain. It’s a small, iconic grassroots race that tours many of the highlights of the great city of Atlanta. This race is the brainchild of a local and well-respected race director (RD) here in the Atlanta area, Thomas Armbruster and 2020 would be its 6th year.

I watched the race from afar each year until one of my best running friends, Rebecca asked me to crew her and her husband Michael as they ran the race in 2017. That could be another whole story, but she finished first place overall and set the course record. The next year in 2018, I crewed her again and yet again she finished first overall and bested her course record. The next year when the local runners began discussing running the race in 2019 but the RD had not yet posted the event, I felt for them. GSER had now gotten into my blood even though I had only crewed the race, not run it. I reached out to Thomas imploring him to continue with the race and promising that I would step in and help him put it on hoping that would convince him to go ahead with it. So, in 2019 I worked with Thomas as his co-RD and began to appreciate the race from another perspective. Again, in the fall of 2019 the runners began to discuss whether their favorite spring race would be back on the calendar. When it didn’t seem to be happening, I finally made an offer to take over the race, continuing on with Thomas’ vision for the race and a strong desire to not let this race fade away.

The vision for the race was for it to be an adventure run through the city of Atlanta seeing many historical and other fascinating sites that many times go unseen. So, with Thomas’ blessing, I was handed the baton and took the reins to continue the Great Southern Endurance Run. It was later than usual when we finally got it scheduled on Ultrasignup and many runners had already made other plans, but there were still plenty that wanted to run it. GSER has always been a small family vibe race. I had a new logo created and was working with a local vendor for swag when everything came crashing down with the Covid-19 Pandemic. I immediately changed signups to waitlist only and continued to have a few sign up. Then the cancellation of races started to happen, shelter in place orders and many businesses closed to wait out the peak of the virus. What was that going to mean for GSER? Occasionally a runner would reach out and ask about the race. My plan was to wait it out. When the Georgia Shelter In Place orders came from our governor, GSER was just on the other side of those dates. That gave me hope and I wanted everyone to share that hope. Traffic was being limited on some of the trail routes and especially the Atlanta Beltline. I knew I couldn’t be reckless, but I wasn’t willing to cancel the race just yet.

Then came the virtual races. Along with races being cancelled, pushed to later dates or deferred to next year there came the virtual options for the cancelled races. In fact, my big spring race was also turned into a virtual race, but they would also be rolling over entries to the next year’s race. For many reasons you can read about in that race report, I decided to run my big race as a virtual which meant self-supporting for a tough 100 miler. I learned a lot doing that and knew for sure I did not want to turn GSER into a virtual event. I also knew that due to the way the race was set up, it could easily be rescheduled by just pushing the date out a few weeks and not completely moved to later in the year. Then things began to open up in Georgia, the “Land of the Free”! Not everyone agrees with how our governor is handling things but that’s not the point here. You might not agree with me in continuing to go forward with our race, but overwhelmingly the runners did agree. So, let me share what I did, how I did it and see if we can find a way through all this.

Once I decided to have the race as scheduled, I offered runners the option to rollover to next year if they were not comfortable with running it this year. I did not want to pressure anyone to run the race if it wasn’t something they were completely comfortable doing, no apologies needed. I let the runners know that my primary goal would be to provide safety for them and the volunteers, and I began to work through what that might look like. I felt certain I could do it. I also wanted to offer hope to runners. Hope that we would find a way through all of this, hope that races would come back, and hope that there could be some sort of return to normalcy. I knew from the runners who reached out to me, that they really wanted this. It meant as much or more to them than it did to me.

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Swag from Southen Terminus GA

I posted on the GSER Facebook page that most of the runners belong to, invited the waitlisters to join the race and also opened up a couple of extra spots. I felt certain there would be some that would not want to run it. It was a small race but with so many other races cancelled, a few others might be looking to grab onto this bit of hope.
Now to get to work. Another thing in all this that was extremely critical for me was to support small businesses. I reached out quickly again to my vendor who I had been talking with about swag, we finalized a new plan and moved forward very fast to pull that together. Southern Terminus also creates some of the most beautiful handmade wood pieces such as bowls, boxes and boards. I wanted to offer a practical and useful award and asked if there would be time to make a cutting board that was engraved on one side for the top male and top female awards. Supporting this small business and these friends really added an extra bonus.

So how would I safely support runners for this race? What was that going to look like? First you need to understand a little bit about this race. It’s more of an urban adventure type run with very limited support of a few aid stations. It’s intended to be a run that you carry some cash and enjoy places along the route, although some sections are a little more desolate as far as gas stations or stores. Normally there are 4 aid stations over the 62 miles it takes to get from start to finish. This year my main goal would be to keep runners safe and that meant trying to keep them out of going into places along the way as much as possible. Many businesses were not open and fast food restaurants at this point were only open for drive thru. So, the first decision was to add 3 additional aid stations for runners.

It seemed pretty obvious to me that the aid stations should be set up with prepackaged foods. That’s really not as difficult to provide as it might sound. Yes, it is more expensive for sure, but maybe even a little easier to offer a huge variety as lots of prepackaged snacks. Along with food being prepackaged, I would provide Crustible peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas and Clementine’s, nothing cut but available for runners to take whole. Drinks needed to be the same way. There would not be jugs of water with spouts and possible contamination areas by too many sweaty hands on them. So, I provided individually bottled water and sodas. Again, more expensive for certain. In a large race just the transport of these type of containers could be challenging as they take up way more room. One huge downside, the amount of trash is huge in comparison. As an ultra runner and outdoor lover and enthusiast, this sort of goes against my beliefs. Tough times like this force us to have to choose, and my clear choice was the safety of all the runners and volunteers. In order to put on the race, I didn’t see any other choice.

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Distanced Start Line

This race is easy with social distancing as it’s very small and spreads out over 62 miles. While there could be a gathering at the start, there was still room to spread out and keep a clear distance. To add to everyone’s safety, I reached out to a friend who had been furloughed and was making face masks for a little income. I immediately placed an order for enough face masks for all my volunteers and every single runner; yes, every runner. This isn’t a trail race in the woods, this is an urban adventure through communities. My goal was to keep runners from needing to go into places along the way, but I wasn’t stopping them from doing so. Some pathways may be crowded as parks, trails and pathway systems in our area are all open. Providing each of them with a mask (when they checked in at the start) would give them a way to cover their mouth and nose should they need to enter a store or business or feel they were in a crowded area. It was given to them in a zip lock bag so they could carry it with them and easily access it.

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Runners were all sent final race instructions which told them about the masks and asked that they wear them and social distance at the start line. Everyone was more than happy to comply with that request. I also let them know how the aid stations would work. There would be a tub with snacks and lots of choices between sweet and salty, crackers, chips, candies and much more. I had told the runners to reach out to me with any personal requests and I would make every effort to add those things to each tub. My goal was for the race NOT to be self-supported but it was self-serve. Volunteers were there to see that each runner was safe and taken care of, but from a distance. Each aid station also included hand sanitizer and wipes for the runners and volunteers to use. Many volunteers used their face masks and stayed back. They cheered on the runners, helped support and encourage them. This could be something that slows down front runners but I offered them fair warning. It takes a bit longer when you have to fill your own pack using bottles of individual water. It’s just how it works. I also highly recommended runners use a pack in this race due to the limited access to businesses and not run off handheld bottles. In addition, having a crew might also be a great choice, if possible. There was lots of communication and I felt like I had tried to think through as many details as possible. Just prior to the race, I even had a Zoom call asking for more input on what I might be overlooking which included a nurse who gave some great advice.
I feel this race was more about the planning. The actual race pretty much followed as it usually does. Runners checked in and worked their way to the start line at the top of Kennesaw Mountain. They distanced themselves and wore masks for the most part. We started just a couple minutes after the scheduled time as a few were still coming up the last short section to the top. A quick well wish of having a great day and the runners were off and going.

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Photo by Ben Gray

Our aid station workers all followed the simple guidelines of being there to see that the runners got aid safely, wearing masks or at a distance. We checked runners in at every aid station to keep track of them, following the front and the back of the race. The day was pretty hot and most were not yet acclimated to the heat. I’d have to guess that while many runners had not really been able to put the miles in to train for a 100K distance, I think most just wanted to get out and enjoy the day. It was here on the streets of Atlanta, free to run and experience the day, they could have some sort of normalcy. In the end, whether they finished or not, they were all super happy and very understanding with how the race went. The overall course record dropped by just over 35 minutes, and female runners came in second and third overall. This is a classic race that brings out the local speedsters especially among the women who have held the course record for a couple of years.

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New Course Recorder Holder showing his award

Custom made cutting board by Southern Terminus GA

Related to the Covid virus, I feel like we covered our bases pretty well. There is probably a certain risk we will all be taking for months to come just stepping out of our homes. Eventually we will all have to do that and make the decision for ourselves as far as what we are comfortable doing. At this point in time, I personally think runners need some hope. Hope that their races will not all be cancelled and hope that things will return to “normal”, whatever that might look like post Covid-19.

What didn’t work so well? Other than some small race issues more do to me directing this race for the first time and throwing in extra aid stations, I think our safety for the runners and volunteers was very good. Supporting a race this way is much more expensive with everything being individually packaged but I guess RDs will have to make some adjustments for that if they plan to provide aid. Bigger cost I think might be the individual water and drinks and certainly the amount of trash is greater with providing prepackaged food. The majority of this race was not on trail but rather through town. I’m sure each race will have to be evaluated a little differently.

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So, a short run down of changes due to Covid-19:
1. Added 3 additional aid stations
2. Provided prepackaged food
3. Individually bottled water and sodas
4. Face Masks for Aid station workers and runners
5. Social distancing at the start, using masks or buffs as well
6. Recommended packs with bladders to limit the need to refill at each aid (avoiding extra touching etc. of water hydration pack)
7. No post-race meal (this might be more specific to my race and being immediately after Shelter In Place orders ended in our state)
8. Hand sanitizer, hand wipes and gloves at each aid station
9. Aid stations were self-serve keeping volunteers from touching more things

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Trena Chellino, GSER Race Director