First of all I have to thank Luna Sandals (lunasandals.com) for getting me entry into this epic race and providing me with both awesome adventure sandals and Injinji socks for another blisterless ultramarathon. I ran in a newer pair of Leadville Trail sandals and they stuck great to the muddy mountainsides and had great traction bombing downhill. Thanks ! And now the story...
This year's Pinhoti 100 was a debacle from the start for me. I went into the race feeling great... this should have been the first indicator that something was wrong. I had taken about ten solid taper days and had trained hard leading up to the taper. Although Run Rabbit Run had been run 7 weeks prior I felt like my running legs stayed fresh because I had such a difficult time moving quickly and maintaining focus above 9500' above sealevel (where I live). I had ended Run Rabbit with little to no recovery necessary before jumping back into training about 18 hours after completing the race (I don't get the chance to run the mountains of Colorado very often, you know...) So going in, I had high hopes and I tried to keep a positive outlook on the ever mounting poor weather predictions showing trail conditions likely to be torrential rain, cloudiness, foginess, mud, humidity, and a cold and windy night. All of which turned out to be accurate.
Arriving at the Sylacauga Parks and Recreation department Friday afternoon I had a good time checking in, hanging out with some fellow runners, and enjoying the pasta dinner/briefing. I should note that although I was at the pasta dinner I had brought along my preferred dinner of broccoli/kale/chard/mushroom/bacon/sweet potato/beet coconut oil stir fry to dine on instead of the mushy spaghetti/unidentifiable red meat sauce/iceberg lettuce and stale carrot "salad". Although I'm sure the church luncheon style buffet tasted great (especially finished off with a piece of Pinhoti wedding cake), I have been putting a lot of emphasis on nutrition lately and maintaining my dietary habits before, during, and after the race was important to be well prepared to consistently run far. Fellow runners and I learned during the briefing that course had been altered due to flooding and that the start of the race had been moved to the second aid station where we would complete an out and back to/from the first aid station in order to make up the distance between the planned start and first aid station that we would be missing out on. This was all fine although it meant that everyone would have to pass 250 runners coming head on on a mostly foot wide single track after turning around at the first aid station. It also meant that I did not study the previously sent course instructions for navigation before aid station 2 at 13.5 miles. I was assured the course was well marked and would be easy to follow. I fell asleep easily soon after the briefing and woke up bright and early to ride the bus to Heflin for the start.
Without much fanfare, with wet ground underfoot, we started the 100 mile journey on Saturday an hour after sunrise. I found a good spot about 20 people back to allow a nice warmup for the first half hour. About 2.5 miles in I felt the engine running smoothly, the gears well lubricated, and I started to speed up and pass people. The single track trail emptied us out onto the first road where markers on the left side seemed to indicate that we should be following the road for a bit so I started following the rolling forest service road down to where I thought the first aid station would be. About a half mile down this road I hadn't seen a little flag on the ground and started to get concerned but when I looked behind me I saw several runners that offered reassurance that this was the correct path. Also, there were no turnoffs of this road and there were many orange ribbons tied to low hanging limbs that were the same color as the little flags in the ground earlier in the run. It was only after 2.25 miles that the dirt road led us to a paved road and a "T" intersection with no course markings in a super scenic trailer park area of Alabama that we realized we were not on the course. I pulled out my course instructions trying to get an idea of where we should be and where we went wrong. A local man pulled up to the stop sign and reoriented us to our location. It was a dismal feeling to be lost and almost 2.5 miles away from the course only 5.5 miles into the run. We ran back, up, up, up the mountain until we saw the last flag and realized that the trail had continued on the other side of the road. The course would have been well marked had we traveled in the intended direction, but due to the last minute rerouting decision there were no flags on the other side of the trail, only on the side that we had arrived from. The 4 or 5 other "lost boys" and I weren't the only runners who made this mistake, but we took the longest to figure it out. Later many people told us this one spot was particularly confusing if you weren't aware of the fact that no road sections came until later.
So, back on course, finally at mile 3.2 of the race but mile 7.8 that I had run I found myself almost in DFL with only the other lost boys behind me. I was tense and anxious having erred so early in the race and this made me really want to expend some energy to relax. Since the first part had become an out and back I would now have to pass 230 runners head on, letting them have the right of way, and then, hopefully, come back up and pass all of the same people again from behind after the turn around. At this point I was a little upset about the course marking and a little upset at myself for not realizing the error sooner and my sandal straps were starting to make a hotspot on my heel. I did what I felt I like doing at the time, I took my sandals off and with bare feet started hauling ass and vaulting up the slanted side of the trail to avoid the oncoming runners. I put all my energy into focusing on the trail and making up some small margin of time. I did too much leaping and high intensity mini sprints for this early in the race but with frustration driving me I just didn't care. One part of my mind knew this was a mistake in terms of the race but the rest of me felt reckless. Of course this would come back and haunt me later, and I even knew that at the time, I just had a really hard time caring about potential future implications in those particular moments.
Running along I felt good although I had lost my water bottle and also despite tenderizing my feet a little on the rocks. I put in some fast miles here and decided to reshod my feet around mile 25ish. Coming into the aid station at mile 27 was a relief, I was able to pick up my first drop bag with a bottle of carbohydrate and a snack pac including coconut banana chips, a fig, and some sprouted seed fruit cubes. These were premeasured packets of about 250 calories and another 250 calories of fractionated barley amylopectin (a complex carb), or as I like to call it, science drank. I had the calories spaced out to equate to about 150-225 per hour. At this point I asked an aid station volunteer how many people had come through so far. I got a really dumb look and snide reply of "I dunno, a lot". That's great. Real nice. I could tell the gentleman assumed that if I was a "real" competitor that I would already have been up in the front groups and that he thought my caring about position in. a. RACE. was silly when I was so far back. Well, I didn't have time to explain to him that over the last 20 miles I had passed nearly 200 people and that I planned on at least trying to pass everyone else as well so I just headed out back onto the trails.
Miles 27 to 41 were enjoyable and I was able to relax just a little bit, not having to pass people so frequently. The course was really beautiful, and while it was still daylight we were treated to sweeping views of the Alabama countryside replete with the fall foliage. The forest was in full decay and the recent rains had spurred on the fruiting of masses of fungi. I was incredible stoked when I ran across a massive Hen of the Woods (maitake) mushroom but after brief consideration I realized I did not want to carry this several pound mound of mushroom 10 miles to the summit of Mount Cheaha- the closet place I would be able to drop it off with a friend. The mountains in this part of the country are old and mild, not too rocky, not too steep, and overflowing with streams. In fact there were too many stream crossings to count. Usually running in Lunas is great for crossing streams because one's feet will dry out so quickly but it didn't matter much here because the rain was pretty much incessant and I maintained "wet dog" status for almost the entire race.
At the top of Mount Cheaha, the highest point in the race and Alabama, I was treated to a great view of... fog. Lots of fog. This portion of the race was like running through a cool rain cloud. I was able to pick up my emergency "early" flashlight here, which I was so thankful I had included considering I was originally planning on not needing a light until mile 55, but that was before the extra freebie miles I put in. I was also greeted by my fellow running friend Catherine Toriello here and seeing her gave me an unexpected mental boost. She would later be pacing me from miles 68 to 85.
After Cheaha I jogged down the steep "blue hell'' which although technical was extremely short so it didn't slow me down too much. These miles between 41 and about 68 were the most successful of the race, I was able to keep my head in the moment and all aspects of my being in sync with one another. My steps coincided with the beats of my heart, the in and out of my breath, the pumping of my arms and the rhythm of my mind. It is these moments of deep entrainment, or flow, whatever term you ascribe to this state, that I find to be one of the most beautiful aspects of running. I relished this time with joy
At mile 68 I was able to pick up Catherine as a companion and her company made the ensuing dark miles breeze by. We climbed up the sometimes steep but never long lasting inclines and cruised the downhills enjoying good conversation. At one point we passed an extremely large Calvatia craniiformis, a puffball mushroom that looks exactly like a human brain. It was eerie in the darkness and I thought of the notion of losing one's mind on the side of the trail, an apt description of how it feels to run endless miles through foggy rain in the dark. It was a lot of fun to have a pacer for the first time ever and I can't thank Catherine enough for coming out to support me despite the dismal weather.
I dropped off Catherine at mile 85, and I was feeling really good. I still had plenty of leg strength and the rain had FINALLY dwindled down. I put on some fresh socks and was planning on making a run for 2nd place... I was about 18 minutes behind him at this point. I was optimistic and we had only a few short trail sections and main forest service roads to travel at this point. I think it was a little before midnight when I took off down the road and waved goodbye to Catherine and the aid station volunteers. My positive energy lasted for a few miles but soon the rain starting to come back more than ever and I started getting colder as well. With fatigued muscles from the acrobatics I did earlier in the race, jumping over small streams and road barriers instead of stepping, it was more difficult to keep the heart rate as high as I needed to maintain core temperature, In retrospect I believe I could have kept warm by focusing on breathing in the proper proportion and rhythm but this did not occur to me during the race and the shivers soon set in.
There weren't many course markings on these next road sections and I started to doubt whether or not I had missed a turn. At one point I turned around and backtracked for a half mile or so to the last flag and then on the way back I realized that one of the flags had blown over and was just on the ground. I passed a lot of flags that were no longer planted in the ground after this point and stopped to re-post many of them. I attributed the downed flags to the weather- the ground was soft and loose from all of the rain and the wind was fierce in more open areas. After running for quite a while I became desperate to reach the mile 95 aid station which felt like it had to be close but I was wet and tired at this point and I doubted my own judgement of distance. I started walking a lot more, telling myself I would be able to run from the last aid station to the finish. At some point as the trail I was on emptied out onto a road I glimpsed a headlamp behind me. Oh hell no, I was not gonna get passed this late in the game... I pointed my ever dimming headlight at the course directional arrow and took off, fast, down the road towards a lake. My light was really dim at this point and as I followed the road down, I did not see the runner behind me pop out of the woods. I realized something was wrong as the road ran smack dab into the lake with no exit or path around. Damn. This was when I just lost it mentally. I ambled slowly back to the last course marker I had seen. In my haste I had misread the sign and gone the wrong way, yet again. Losing position this late in the game and adding even more distance to the run, I gave up. It was colder and wetter than ever and I just hobbled along barely going a mile an hour. I couldn't stop shivering and I was ready to flag down the next car to catch a ride to the last aid station which had to be close. I ambled along like this in a super depressed, frozen state for I don't know how long. It seemed like a dream... if I had a lighter I would have just tried to find dry ground and kindling for a fire. I saw no one and the aid station would never arrive.
Going down the road feeling bad, I couldn't wait to get out of this freezing rain and get back to where the climate suits my clothes. Finally, another runner caught up to me, and I desperately pleaded, how far to mile 95 aid station? I'm done for... He looked at me and said, "Are you joking?" I said no, why? It turned out that we were less than 5k from the finish. I couldn't believe it, how had I missed the aid station and yet stayed on course? Knowing now that finishing was the fastest way to get out of this mess I had found myself in, I started running again. As soon as my mind turned back right side around I found I still had plenty of physical reserves and also I was finally able to stop shivering as well. It turns out all of my despair was purely mental... I should not have given up after the last time I had made a wrong turn and had to backtrack. I felt a little bad re-passing the runner who had given me back my strength by informing me of my whereabouts but honestly I just wanted to get it over with, racing was no longer anywhere on my radar. About 20 minutes later I found myself on the track at Sylacauga High School, mystified that I somehow had a new buckle in my hand. And the mystery of the missing aid station? It hadn't been set up yet... after sitting down I remembered passing the festival style tent at a turn off that wasn't fully assembled upright but I had assumed that it belonged to campers or someone else out there being that we were in the midst of National Forest. I wish I would have realized that that was mile 95 because I would have not lost my mind looking for it but then again I did learn yet another important lesson in how I, and we as humans, are effected by the power of perception and our own minds.
Overall this race was a fantastic learning experience and I had some great successes. My energy levels remaining intact through properly timing nutrition, water, and electrolytes. I held on through the hard to perceive trail in the foggy parts of the night when visibility was very poor and was able to remain very cognizant and lucid the whole race even when I was losing a positive disposition. My sandals took good care of my feet and worked great once I had them adjusted properly. Greater familiarity with course would have solved a lot of the issues that faced.
I would LOVE to run this race again and try and improve on my performance. Armed with greater course knowledge and better weather, this would have been a FAST race. The course is almost entirely runnable, fun rollers, and beautiful deep rich woods. The volunteers and execution were great, thank you to everyone who made this years race possible despite the less than celebratory weather!