CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE 100-MILER
I left work early on Friday afternoon, November 5th, and drove three hours from Atlanta to the small town of Sylacauga, Alabama, for the 2010 Pinhoti pre-race meeting and pasta dinner. As I checked into the Jameson Inn, the host hotel, I noticed that most guests in the lobby were race participants, all busy chatting about their recent training. Among the hotel guests I met was Christian Griffith, the burly, jovial ultrarunner who has become the “Hunter S. Thompson” amongst us for his gonzo race recaps. I also met Dan Burstein, a fellow Atlanta-area ultrarunner who nurtured high hopes of finishing Pinhoti after having experienced DNF’s at his two prior attempts at the 100-mile distance.
I, too, was looking for redemption. Two years ago I had DNF’d at the inaugural Pinhoti 100. At 80 miles, my right hip flexor had seized up, preventing me from so much as raising my leg. This year would be different. Or so I hoped.
At the pre-race meeting, race director Todd Henderson gave the 120 runners race details and course specifics. The race packet contained great swag, Moeben arm sleeves, a Pinhoti technical shirt, a regular cotton t-shirt, a Trail Runner magazine, an Ultramarathon magazine and a pair of Defeet merino wool socks customized with the Pinhoti 100 logo.
Dinner was pasta with either red or white sauce. To ensure optimal carbo loading, I ate both and came back for seconds, along with a piece of cake for desert. (I have great aptitude for carbo-loading.)
One notable attendee at the dinner was Monica Sholz, an incredible ultrarunner who had run TWENTY (20) 100-milers this year alone. She would be competing in the race. I couldn’t help being inspired by her achievements.
After dinner, I went back to my hotel room and spent a considerable amount of time selecting my race gear. The temperature for race day was forecasted to be sunny with a low of 25 and a high of 55. Perfect running weather!
For shoes, I decided on my minimalist Adidas Adizero LT road racing flats for the first 50 miles. I would switch then to my lightweight New Balance MT101 trail shoes, as I believed the trail shoes with grippier soles would be better suited to running the rocky, leaf-covered single track at night. For socks I wore double-layer Wrightsocks which help prevent blisters. I also decided to wear my UnderArmor compression underwear, which had helped prevent thigh chafing in some of my longer training runs. For running shorts, I picked my North Face running shorts with a built-in compression lining. As a base layer I wore my StumpJump 50K patagonia technical tee shirt.
My midlayer consisted of a clingy 86% nylon, 14% lycra, long-sleeve neon-green shirt with thumbsleeves, made by Lululemon. I believed the material would be ideal for cold-weather running and equally as good as gear made by the top-shelf trail-running suppliers (i.e. Mountain Hardware, Salomon, North Face, etc.) I was a bit embarrassed wearing the shirt, however, since Lululemon is actually a Yoga outfitter. Hoping to avoid the “girly” comments, I wore as an outlayer a lightweight black 100% nylon Nike running jacket. I also chose old cotton warm-up pants that I would throw away at the first aid station. I decided against tights because: (1) tights might get too warm, and (2) the guys would seriously question my manhood if I wore the tights and they happened to discover my Lululemon shirt.
My headlamp was a Fenix HP20 that turned out to be the Bomb! Best $100 I ever spent on a piece of running gear. I joked to other runners that they could get a crimson tan off the intensity of its beam. As a backup I carried a single AA-battery-operated Zebralight H51 that puts out a lot of throw (200 lumens) for such a compact light.
The night before the race I set two alarm clocks and requested a 3:00 am wake-up call, too. I had to be at the Sylacauga Parks & Recreation Center by 4:00 am to take a bus to the starting line in Heflin, Alabama, for a 6:00 am start. After a few hours of fitful sleep, I jumped out of bed and hurriedly dressed in my chosen gear. I was ready for the battle at Pinhoti. My primary goal was simply to finish, although, deep down, I thought I could finish in 24 hours…if the stars aligned.
On the bus ride I sat with Scott Guild, who had flown in from Las Vegas. Scott, an Ultra veteran, had run a number of tough 100-milers including the H.U.R.T. 100-miler in Hawaii, the Ultra Trail 166KM Du Mont Blanc run in France, and the Angeles Crest 100 in California. Scott, too, was shooting for a 24-hour finish.
Running with a Prince
At the starting line I met up with Prince Whatley, who had finished in 24 hours and 11th place in the prior two years’ races. A fellow Darkside Running Club member, Prince had run a few miles with me during my unsuccessful attempt at the inaugural Pinhoti 100 in 2009. As a well regarded “Team in Training” running coach in Birmingham, Prince has loads of knowledge regarding the optimal racing strategy. My plan was to run as long as possible with Prince who would run a reasonable pace at a consistent tempo. Running with Prince would also keep me alert and occupied. While Prince is a top competitor at running, he is absolutely world class as a conversationalist. For those of you who know Prince, you know what I mean. His conversation never lags!
Prince wanted to run a tad slower during the first half of this year’s race because he thought his fast starting pace last year caused difficulty in the last 15 miles.
We began the race in the first quartile of runners and stayed in our position for 50 miles. The single track course was typical Southern mountain terrain: rocky, rooty, rugged and covered with leaves. There were a number of creek crossings, but the water level was low enough to cross without getting your feet wet. I saw a couple of runners wearing fingered barefoot shoes, which I thought was pretty amazing in light of the rough terrain. During the first half of the race I felt pretty comfortable with our pace, although I didn’t feel I had much zip in my legs.
My clothing worked as planned with two exceptions. First, my running shorts lacked a waiststring, which caused my shorts to periodically slip down waist after I’d lost a few pounds. I was getting irritated from continually having to pull my shorts up. Second, around Mile 40 or so, I became aware of booty-and-crotch chafe. This soon developed into The Rash from Hell. Apparently my compression underwear in conjunction with my compression running shorts had not been a good idea.
The minimalist Adidas road racing flats felt good throughout the first half of the race, although I did fall down backwards when I slipped on a moss-covered boulder. Around mile 40, I began to experience cramp-like pain in the center of my forefoot area. I don’t believe it was related to my Adidas road racing shoes, though, since I had the same pain when I switched to my New Balance MT101 trail shoes. Fortunately the pain was bearable and did not significantly worsen as the miles progressed.
One fascinating aspect of running 100 miles is that pain often fades with time. It’s as if your brain initially recognizes pain and then figures out how to deal with it.
Another fascinating feature of running 100 miles is how your sensory perception and emotions are greatly heightened as the miles add up. You begin to obsess over basic items such as food, drink, warmth and rest.
The offerings at aid stations become central to your mental well-being. The stations at the start were stocked with adequate, normal ultra fare: flavored gels, pretzels, potato chips, cookies, Coca Cola, Heed, water, gummy bears, bananas, salt caps, ibuprofen, etc. At the second aid station, however, I was looking for hot chicken noodle soup. I was told that the soup would not be served until mile 40. I recall having strong feelings of disappointment and a little anger upon learning that I would have to forego hot chicken soup for another 30 miles! Forcing myself to rise above my tumultuous emotions, I realized I needed to put a positive spin on the situation by using the hot chicken soup as my primary reason to run strong for the next 30 miles. The chicken soup became my holy grail. I thought about how lucky I would be to get hot chicken soup in only 30 miles! Ditto experience with the fried egg sandwich that the Georgia Ultra & Trailrunning Society (GUTS) members were serving at mile 80. When distance running heightens your emotions, it is critical to maintain a positive outlook. Negative thoughts can lead to a DNF.
Mt. Cheaha & Blue Hell
At around mile 40, runners must climb up Mt. Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama. Although the climb was taxing, I was actually feeling pretty good at the Bald Rock aid station on the top of Cheaha, but I knew that the descent down Blue Hell was up next.
Blue Hell, as the trail down the backside of Mt. Cheaha is affectionately referred to, consists of giant rock formations that have been spray painted with the blue Pinhoti trail markings. Runners must negotiate the trail by climbing and jumping from boulder to boulder. Trust me on this: After a 40-mile run, rock climbing/leaping loses some of its universal appeal.
My friend Roman joined Prince and me at Bald Rock. After Blue Hell, we ran pretty close to schedule until around mile 55, when Prince started feeling leg weary. We ended up walking a significant portion of the miles from 55 to 60. Prince then told us to go ahead without him; he didn’t know if he would regain his leg stamina. Roman and I took off and ran the next 8 miles at a fast clip until we reached the Porters Gap Aid Station at mile 68, which is the beginning of the climb to Pinnacle, the toughest section of the course.
Pinnacle, Powerline & Bulls Gap
Roman was done pacing me, so I ran with Greg Vannette, a tall triathalon specialist from Sarasota, Florida, who was running his first 100 miler. Greg and I proceeded to tear through the majority of the Pinnacle section until we were forced to walk the last mile up the steepest series of switchbacks that climbed to the Pinnacle Aid station at mile 74. We were both elated to be at the top of Pinnacle and get our fried egg sandwiches.
The next section, known as the Power Line, had been like a burning ember in my mind since the start of the race. This was where I had DNF’d two years ago. Fueled by vengeance, I ran strong throughout the difficult five mile stretch.
The Bulls Gap section was next. Bulls Gap consists of a gradual four-mile climb up a jeep road and then a two-mile trail portion leading to the mile 85 aid station. I’d been looking forward to this section—it meant that I’d run further than in my failed Pinhoti attempt. I was also excited because the last 15 miles was supposedly the most runnable section of the race.
Bulls Gap, however, proved to be the worst of the race for me. The 6.1 miles seemed to last forever. I was cursing and whining about how the distance must have been measured wrong. This is another example of enhanced sensory perception and emotional response. The six miles between aid stations in the beginning of the race seemed much shorter than the same distance in the latter stages. My high at completing the Power Line was dashed by the low of Bulls Gap. I felt as if I were on some strange bipolar rollercoaster.
The Road Less Traveled
We finally reached mile 85 and I was joined by my friend Clay who would pace me the last 15 miles. I told Greg that I was feeling good and would try to run the next section fast. Greg waved for me to go ahead. Clay and I hammered from mile 85 to the aid station at mile 90 at the fastest clip I had run all day. 23 hours and 20 minutes had elapsed since the race had started. All I had left was 10 miles, and I was feeling terrific. I was now certain that I could finish in little over 25 hours. Although I’d fallen short of my 24-hour goal, I would still be very pleased with my effort. Once again my emotions had flip-flopped. The despair of Bulls Gap gave way to elation: I was at mile 90 and running solid.
Clay and I left the aid station running at a strong, steady pace. I hoped to complete the next 5.5 miles in about an hour and ten minutes which would put us at the mile 95 aid station at 24 hours and 30 minutes. After approximately 1:10 had elapsed on my Timex, I excitedly began looking side to side for the mile 95 Aid Station.
The mile 95 Aid Station, however, was nowhere in sight. Nor would it be.
It dawned on me that I had taken the wrong road. The bipolar rollercoaster tipped again on a steep decline.
We turned around and headed back to locate the source of the error. I hoped aloud that maybe we’d just missed a recent turn, but I knew in my heart that we’d gone wrong at the start of the section. It was a 12 mile mistake. I was now out of water, out of gel, and out of any chance to finish in 25 hours. It would be a challenge to finish prior to the 30 cutoff. When we got back to mile 90, we saw that the Aid Station sat at a fork in the road. Red flags marked the route we were supposed to have taken. How could I have made such a boneheaded mistake? I had added twelve miles to my run!
The dreaded 30 hour race deadline was approaching fast and I still had 10 miles to the Finish.
Running with an Angel (or at least an Engel)
I ran the remaining 10 miles with Bob Engel, a seasoned veteran of over 100 races of marathon distance or more, who had a fine, dry wit and a no-worries outlook. He was like a college professor of ultrarunning, wise to the trials and tribulations of running 100 miles. According to Bob, many a runner during the late stages of an ultra race make a wrong turn and run additional miles. The added miles are commonly referred to as “bonus miles”. Bob, who’d flown in for the day from Cincinnati, ran at a decent, even pace, listened to his walkman and uttered occasional philosophical truisms that kept me laughing. Running with Bob had changed my emotions from doom to hope.
About a mile from the finish, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I met up with Greg Vannette, the strong triathlete from Sarasota with whom I’d run from mile 68 to 85. I thought Greg would have finished the race hours ago! Greg said his wheels had fallen off after I’d left him and that he’d struggled to finish the remaining 10 miles. Who would have expected that it would take both of us over five hours to complete the last 10 miles!
I ended up crossing the finish line with Bob Engel in 28 hours and 20 minutes, and Greg finished a few minutes later. Crossing the finish line, I felt great satisfaction of earning a Pinhoti Belt Buckel and having been the lucky recipient of 12 bonus miles! One final reflection on running a 100-miler…or a 112-miler, for that matter: Always expect the unexpected. And savor that chicken soup.