The Pinhoti 100
We stood there in the darkness, the woods lit only by our headlamps. It was nearly 6:00am. Stars were overhead, our breath and bodies steaming mightily in the 20 degree temperatures. Over one hundred of us checked our watches, stripped off our warm outer layers, and prepared to run 100 miles through the mountains of eastern Alabama. As we walked to the start I made sure that I was literally toeing the line for the command to "GO!". The course starts off as single-track trail only a foot wide, which is a pleasure to run on, but regulating your OWN pace can be nearly impossible if you aren't in the front for the start. Passing would become nearly impossible in the train of runners snaking their way to Aid Station #1, 6.5 miles down the trail if placement wasn't perfect upon entering the course.
I played my cards right jockying for position at the start and found myself inches from Tim Barnes in third place after several minutes of racing. Ricky George was on my heels in 4th which meant Louisvillians, (and good friends), held 2nd through 4th place, but the race was young. Regardless, the rubberband effect of running on single-track was in full effect as within only minutes the runners were spaced out in groups with sizeable gaps between them. I kept my pacing conservative in these first few miles but balanced that conservative pacing with a continued effort to keep an eye on the runners I felt were my biggest competition. If they wanted to fly by, so be it, this was my race and my pace. However, we all stayed together coming into Aid Station #1 for the mayhem.
The crews for all the runners were crowding the exit of the trail into Aid Station #1 as they awaited their runners. The mayhem ensued like it was a 15 mile race as opposed to a one hundred mile endurance event. Stephanie and Kara were crew extraordinaire for me, asking what I needed and trying to make haste getting me what I wanted. I think they were a little surprised at the craziness unfolding and the hurried nature of the ordeal. The first aid station in most hundred milers is not like the rest, adrenaline is still flying, and runners want to get on their way. It doesn't set the tone for the rest of the race, but you don't want to lose your mark or time that early in the race. You need to get some miles under your belt first.
The second aid station came sooner than the first after more rolling single-track trail in the beautiful Alambama mountainscape. On the ridgeline, we heard a train and it was the talk amoungst the racers that the tracks cross the course. Apparenty, Wayne, the guy who shot off in first like a rocketship barely made it around the train by a yard or two. He did NOT feel like stopping and waiting for a train while his gap to second place shortened! Once again, I was planning on settling into my hundred miler pace later and I was still trying to make haste at the aid stations. I was in a very good mental place, but due to the hurried nature of the aid station stops Kara and Stephanie were growing concerned about my energy expenditure this first quarter of the race. They knew my goal was to take this at my own speed, and I WOULD, and I WAS, I just didn't want to lose time in the aid stations at the begining of the race. I knew I had plenty of time to relax starting around mile 15 once other runners began to settle into a managebale pace. Kara was also concerned that our water jugs would not be enough to supply my bottles later in the race and so she was filling my race bottles at the water coolers instead of already having them ready. Kara and Stephanie were phenomenal during this race and I could not have done it without them! -But for now, we needed to quicken and streamline our resupplys at the aid stops or else my competition would be hedging a lead not only on the trails but in the aid stations as well. Tim, (as the runner I deemed my closest overall competition), was making his aid stops a little faster than I was but I would catch back up to him once on the trails. His stops were faster, and I wasn't trying to catch him, but once back on the trails, I would close the gap and run with him for several miles. Then it all changed.
We were running in a valley, I was probably in about 8th place due to losing some placement in the aid station rush. I closed the gap inadvertantly and found myself gaining a few spots back after runners who hurried through the aid stations needed to stop and relieve themselves on the side of the trail. It was now, Tim, myself, and another runner. The trail veered left and sharply uphill and where the trail turned it appears a lot of runners run straight for several feet before they realize it. This often happens on the trails, you stop for a second, look behind, and regain your course, but all it takes is a second to pass someone. I popped in front of Tim to show him where the course went and then began the small climb up to the gap at the ridgeline. I expected Tim to get back in front at some point but he didn't. This concerned me. Tim always starts really strong, and I DID NOT want to be in front of him this early in the race. I did what my game plan told me to do though. I ran my own pace. I ran like I was the only one out there, and I continued to run alone. No one passed me. I made it all the way to the next aid station. I planned on taking a break for one minute or so. I knew, from here on out, that the race was nothing more than my crew and I going one hundred miles. I didn't care about placement any more, as this was the point in the race where good attitude has to take over. I put in my hard work the first 18 by jockying for position, and now it was time to do my thing, and run. I reached the aid station however, and found my crew absent. Then, upon my departure I saw them walking down the street towards the aid station. They did not find the same hurried runner as before. They needed to see the runner they came to crew, the one who smiles, and this is who they found. This was the plan all along, and they were very relieved to see the person they came to crew, not stressed, just out having a blast on a one hundred mile run. This is the attitude that would rule the next 82 miles, allowing me to finish in the fastest time possible. It is synergistic.
Leaving Aid Station #4 I was entering another strech which had no crew access for quite some time, and I knew it would be awhile before I saw them again. The other runners and I had spaced ourselves out, and I passed the rocketship, Wayne, climbing a hill to the next Aid Station. I had people in the aid stations telling me I was in fourth or fifth, but I didn't care about placement at this point. Rather than saying I didn't care about placement, I suppose it would be much more adequate to say that I did care drastically about placement, and the route to placing myself closest to the top at the end, was by not altering my speed relative to placement this soon in the race! This race was still young and that meant everything. The strongest runners only had to maintain pace throughout the last 25 miles and they would easily blow by anyone who was feeling the effects of the first 70. Running one hundred miles is all about finding a pace, and sticking to it for one hundred miles. Plain and simple. Go out easy, finish strong.
The trail was incredibly beautiful. I was not expecting such grandeur. Pine and hardwoods ruled the environment. The size of these mountains is deceiving. Running along the ridgelines the views were remarkable, vast expanses 30-60 miles out, with rocky outcroppings, amazing water features, and mountain streams with white washed rocks and cascades.
The first monster climb was about one third into the race at mile 32. The course ascends to the highest point in Alabama, Cheaha Mountain. The climb probably took about thirty minutes, and I plowed my way up, managing to pass several more runners on the way to the summit. All the while, listening to my Ipod, and trying to zone out as there was a lot more racing to be had. The climb involved relentless switchbacks, however the breeze on the ridgeline, the rocky yet scenic terrain, and the challenging elevation gain kept me entertained to the top. Upon reaching the peak, there was people everywhere, and it really felt like some progress was underway. The legs felt good still, considering that I had just completed the biggest climb of the run, and was nearly 40 miles in, however, the decent off of Cheaha was really the bruiser. You have to downclimb boulders and car sized rocks which eventually lead to a fire road where the course picks back up. Upon the short road run section here, I became gravely concerned for the first time in the race that I was lost because of the lack of markings, alas, every time I would really worry, I would see a course marker confirming that I was in deed, on the course, heading to the next aid. The sun was out and warming my chilled bones from the morning, the scenery was great and I was expereincing my first real high of the day. I felt great and things were underway. Upon entering the deserted Aid Station greeted only by the volunteers and my wonderful crew of Stephanie and Kara, I finally encountered another runner, Mike Cosentino, who caught me from behind. We ran together for several moments talking about the outdoor industry. My wife, Kara is a buyer for an outfitter in Louisville, and Mike owns several running shops in Atlanta. We seperated and I found myself out in front again, running through some of the most scenic terrain of the day- Mostly in a valley, a mountain stream rushed over white washed rocks. The trail was well worn and many backpackers were in the area, some pleased to see the race, some not, as it hindered their wilderness experience. At the previous aid station, I was encountering my first high. I was singing along with my Ipod, (which, as a sidenote, I have NEVER raced with an Ipod before), and things were grand, but this was an Ultra-Marathon. Ultras are known not only for there highs, but for there drastic lows as well.
Miles 45-55 were bad. I don't remember much of them, but I do remember that it was late evening. I was getting tired. My head was pounding. I don't know if I needed sleep, or caffeine, or both. I was also finally starting to expereince some abdominal cramping. Thankfully, my crew would be awaiting me at mile 55. I knew that this would be the first time I would actually sit down during the race. I needed a break and I had to figure out how to alter my nutrition strategy.
I reached Adam's Gap Aid Station and was delighted to learn that I was at mile 55 and not mile 52. While running into the aid station, I thought I was on mile 52, so those extra 3 miles were a boost to my morale. I was so certain that I was actually at mile 52 upon entering Adam's Gap that I didn't even believe the aid station volunteer until they all convinced me otherwise.
My nutrition strategy was mainly centered around Powerbars every hour and a bottle of EFS every hour. I also took a shot of energy gel as needed at every other aid station or so. On many of my 6 hour training runs this worked perfectly, but who knows what would happen after 10 hours, as the only expereince that truly replicates racing 100 miles is actually going out and running 100 miles. The amount of carbs in the Powerbars and EFS were finally giving me some gastric issues once I went over the 10 hour mark. I got to Adam's Gap, and after our discussion of what mileage I was actually at, I decided that peanut butter filled pretzels were a wise option. Getting in calories without much sugar seemed optimal and I forced the pretzls down. I think I ate some chips too which digested easily. All in all, I probably sat for a couple of minutes and then noticed a chill as the sun was begining to set. (Thankfully the chill was from the weather, not the same chills brought on by a sore-throat that scared me the previous day!) I grabbed some warmer clothes and then changed my race plan to follow the master rule of staying in the moment, and running point to point, NOT, 100 miles in one go. I decided that although the original plan was for Kara to pace me in the last 15 miles, I needed a boost, and a boost is what I got. I decided to have Kara run with me for a stretch, and I didn't worry about what that meant for the future of the race. Lucky for me, Stephanie was able to meet us just 5 miles up the trail. We could then adjust race strategy as needed, before mile 68, where the toughest stretch of trail starts. After mile 68 would be the longest stretch of the race without crew access, about 18 miles. It also contains a climb up The Pinnacle, the other "big climb" of the race. As we left Adam's Gap at mile 55, I told Kara about all the single-track beauty of the first 55 miles. The first fire road run of the race is the section she was running with me from miles 55-60. As I talked about the previous course miles, it must have seemed a stark contrast to the well maintained fire roads we were then running on!
Apparently Tim was running strong behind me while I felt like I was fading in and out. True, my spirits were higher since Kara was running with me, but my stomach had settling to do, and I was not fast, considering the brunt of the race lay ahead after mile 68. I couldn't have been happier to have company during that strech. It was fun to chat about the race and get myself back into it. Originally, the plan was for Kara to run with me from miles 65-68, as a little boost into the darkness, and then I would be on my own for the next 18 miles over the other big climb of the race, The Pinnacle. Instead, she ran with me earlier than planned, for 13 miles from 55-68.
Coming into Aid Station at mile 68, I knew that the race was about to heat up, but I wasn't sure how. This was the most important stretch of the race and anything could happen. Once I hit the Aid Station with Kara as my pacer, I knew Tim must be closing a gap on me, because for the first time in a while, Tim's crew was already there waiting for him. I still stuck to my plan, and was proactive. I took a break for a minute at the Aid Station to take off my shoes and place a small bandage on my small toe of the right foot. I could feel a warm spot and I didn't want to deal with any blisters this race. My shoes and compression shorts had been perfectly flawless during the race, and I wanted to continue the streak of no chaffe and no blisters! I ate some boiled potatos with salt and took my time getting out of the Aid Station. I alerted Tim's crew that I wasn't running in top gear and the race was "open". My long break proved a wise decision, because I ran very well out of the aid station. I didn't realize it, but the next Aid was at The Pinnacle, meaning the big climb up it was directly after my long break at mile 68. Even with this break, I was still slow climbing The Pinnacle. I never imagined walking any section of the course, but I had to succomb several times while ascending The Pinnacle. I kept looking back expecting to see Tim's headlamp, along with his pacers. I knew some of my competition had pacers at this point, and upon reaching the upcoming aid stations, some volunteers were surprised to see me without one. I was shocked to see the lights of The Pinnacle Aid Station while slogging up the relentless switchbacks. The station came sooner than expected. The Pinnacle has this reputation of horror, because it can be seen while climbing, and you can hear the cheers, and supposedly, it seems to take forever, so when I saw the station for the first time, I settled into the climb, not expecting to reach Aid so soon. I was glad the reputation was well spoken of and I had prepared for the worst! Nonetheless, I still had to take a shot of energy gel to help me get up the mountain. On the climb I think my energy was still down from the several miles I had to run without eating much to ease my stomach. Lucky for me, it was a little better now and so I gladly accepted a fried egg sandwich at The Pinnacle Aid Station, as well as some chicken soup, and a lot more energy gel to fuel me through the next stretch.
I was eating my egg sandwich at The Pinnacle when I heard the cheers. I knew 4th place was closing in, and that I had better get moving. The following stretch of trail was a treat for me, smooth fire road for a mile or two, and after my good food at the aid station I was starting to feel a lot better. I lit up the gravel and dirt fire road like it was a marathon, not 4 marathons. The single-track was tough once the course left the road again, but I was taking in an energy gel every 20 minutes and my energy levels was growing finally. I knew the time was upon me to dig deep.
There were a few steep and horridly rocky miles to reach Aid Station at mile 78, but I made it sooner than expected. I was surprised to see that I had opened up a gap again, and so I grabbed some gels at the Aid Station, stuffed some boiled potatos and salt into my mouth, and made my way. I was feeling good again, but not on a high- I felt like I had energy that could last to mile 100. I had found my saving grace, and it was energy gels every 20 minutes, and bioled potatos with salt. The more frequent stretches on fire road helped my speed tremendously also. The single-track would beat me to a pulp, and the increasing rocks in the trail made it slow going and painful, but once on the dirt and gravel fire roads, I had enough energy to let loose and crank it up a notch. (cranking it up=a blistering 6 or 7 MPH, which is very slow in reality, but hey- it's 100 miles...)
The sky was black with stars everywhere, and it was cold- maybe about 30 degrees. As I ran down to the Aid Station at mile 85, I knew that Kara and Stephanie would be there, and Kara could start running with me again, but I had different plans. I wanted to secure my placement in this race, and I was feeling phenomenal considering the distance I had just run. I was ecstatic to reach the Aid Station, and I told Kara and Stephanie to both go to mile 90. I felt certain I could hold 7 or 8 MPH and light it up to seal my placement over the next stretch of trail which was all downhill. I saw Ricky's wife
Nicole, and can't describe how happy I was to hear he was having an incredible race after some foot problems a few weeks prior to the race.
I was smiling, content to the core, bounding to mile 90, where I knew I could push through anything. Over the last 20 miles I had hit a few patches in which I was weak, with headaches, and nausea. I rested when I needed to, and pushed on through. Now, after force feeding gels, boiled potatos, and switching from EFS to Heed I was feeling the race come to me, and I actually had the energy to push Kara and Stephanie, my awesome crew to mile 90!
About the time I rolled into mile 90, I was feeling disturbingly normal, listening my Ipod, and just running along. It was getting very cold though, so I grabbed some gloves for the upcoming 10 miles and set out with Kara who would pace me the last 10 miles. We talked about Tim, Ricky, and Cynthia Heady; all friends who were all doing great in the race. Kara finally got to experience a touch of the beauty as the stars were in full force guiding us to Sylacauga, Al.
The trail for the remainder of the race was downhill mostly. I couldn't believe it. I kept waiting for a climb! Our biggest problem was cold batteries in our headlamps. They were even lithium which aren't supposed to be as affected by cold, but we were losing visibility fast! The feeling of overwhelming joy and elation consumed me. The last few months of training culminating to this finish gave me strength and energy renewed so the last few miles were manageable. The trail coming into town was off kilter and rooty and rocky, a beast for sore knees but still, we motored on down. With the dwindling light supply in our headlamps, we lucked out once we realized they had just placed glow-sticks on the course to help us find our way through the woods.
At the final Aid Station Stephanie gave us one last cheer, and said she would meet us at the FINISH. I sat down for several minutes at the Aid Station, mile 95, and I remember the strong smell of some kind of warm wine that sounded tasty, alas I had none. I ate one last boiled potato and a ton of chips and hazily stood up with help from the volunteer to crush out the last 5 miles!
Upon entering town, my stomach finally gave out on the side of the road, (twice!), and I lost my cookies in more ways than one, but mentally I was great and I was running uber-fast, because upon looking at my watch I realized that I might be able to beat 20 hours and 45 minutes if I high-tailed it into town. We made our way to the stadium, and funny enough, the only place I got lost on the entire course was right at the finish. Kara and I ran right past our turn, and a police officer enlightened us of our mistake. Fortunately we hadn't gone much out of our way, and now I can say I ran 101 miles instead of the posted 100.59 miles.
We ran into the Sylacauga High School Football Stadium and we were greeted by Stephanie and a few others, but most of the other runners were still on the course so as usual, the most defining description of the finish to an innocent bystander could be "anti-climactic". I waited around to see Tim and Ricky finish, but realized I needed to go get some sleep, so we parted ways with the course with plans to see everyone and party it up the next morning at the awards ceremony. Imagine that, going to sleep before the awards! I was in heaven.