• Local residents Michelle Lafon and Brandan Lail stop at the Duncan Ridge Trail sign as they make a practice run before the inaugural run of the H9 Fierce Dragon race.

Local couple completes 200 mile event

Local residents Brandan Lail and Michelle Lafon knew it was going to be challenging.

But that's why they like it.

The couple is not afraid of racing through difficult sections of trail for what seems like impossible lengths.

And even more—they actually seek out the most difficult races in the area and around the country.

About a month ago they took on their most intimidating challenge yet—a race in its first installment that pushed them to their limits.

It's known as the H9 Fierce Dragon, a race consisting of not 68 or 100 miles (like most ultra-length races) but an incredible 200 miles along the Duncan Ridge Trail—which goes through Lumpkin and Union counties.

"People say 'Man you can't do that,'" said Lail. "Any time people tell me you can't do it—it's a motivation for me."

Lafon said people only use a fraction of their potential, therefore, "You just want to see how far your body can go."

She said it was also rewarding to do the race as a couple, "To work as a team to get through something like that" And of course Lafon said she loves being outside in the mountains.

The race began at Vogel State Park and lasted a mere five days—requiring participants to hike 40 miles per day with very limited time for sleep or rest.

Each leg consisted of 20 miles (out and back), said Lail. They completed two of these per day. The five-day race took them a total of 120 hours to finish.

"The spine of the Duncan Ridge Trail was the most difficult part of the Fierce Dragon race and you do it 10 times in this race," Lail said. 

He said this is known as "10 lashes by the dragon" among the participants.

Not many athletes were willing to test the dragon in such a way during the inaugural run, with just four people finishing the race (out of six who started, said Lail).

Most days took them 18 hours to complete, said Lail, and some were even 20 hours.

The first morning they left at 8 a.m. and met the turnaround at Skeenah Gap at 3 p.m. After resting for 30 minutes they began the return hike which took eight more hours. They slept until 4 a.m. and then did it again.

"You are starting to see stuff," said Lail, who added that he thinks he saw an orange bus and even the Keebler Elves during particularly strenuous sections of the race.

And the couple didn't receive much help from the weather with snow the first day, rain the second and even a tornado warning on the final day.

"People underestimate the brutality of what mountains we have to offer because there is no altitude," said Lafon.

But she added that the humidity can get you too. "Humidity and altitude are equalizers—you have to train for each."

"We trained for six months together with our packs on, said Lail.

 

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He has never thought of himself as an elite athlete. 

Lail, who had previously done several 100-mile races plus many ultra marathons, said he began this hobby about four years ago.

The 46-year-old real-estate developer said four years ago he was 200 pounds with a herniated disk in his lower back and doctors were telling him that surgery was imminent.

He humorously recalled the bad feeling he had when he was told by a worker at a clothing store that he would have to wear pleated pants the rest of his life."

"I went from nothing to my first 100 mile race in one year and avoided surgery," Lail said.

He is now enjoying the benefit of having a "clearer head" as a result of his training and getting "physically in the right direction."

Likewise, Lafon said she had no athletic background. 

"And I hated running," she said, "I couldn't run a mile without dying."

She said she was about 40 pounds overweight six years ago.

But now Lafon, who owns a cleaning service business, looks forward to the physical activity. "It turns into something that is a release."

When they trained, they called it "dating the trail."

"This is our home turf," Lail said. "You get familiar with all the little things on the real trail."

To make sure they didn't take shortcuts during the real race Lail said that the organizer, Perry Sebastian, left books along the trail and participants were assigned a specific page to bring back.

And unlike typical races which include aid stations every five miles, this race had just one at the start at Vogel and one at each 20-mile turnaround.

Their endeavor didn't go without people trying to talk them out of it.

"We had some serious nay-sayers," Lail said, "But we finished it."

He added that people who are interested in the world of ultra-distance events love challenges like this, plus the camaraderie that comes as a result.

"40 years old is not necessarily the beginning of the downhill," Lail said. "People who are 20 haven't had the life experiences that would give them the drive to do it. If you are in your 40s this is a sport you can compete in."

Lail encouraged anyone interested in the sport to get more information on races of any length at ultrasignup.com

The couple is now planing to prepare for races such as the Double Top 100 in April, the Georgia Jewel 100 in September and the Pinhoti 100 in November.

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