Monday, December 7, 2009

Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run 12/6/09 (Race Report)

On December 6, 2009, I successfully completed my first ultramarathon, the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run, in Pine Mountain, GA. This was the most difficult challenge of my running life so far and I made my share of beginner mistakes, but it's fulfilling to have the first of hopefully many ultras under my belt.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Tichacek
In 2009, I completed my first five marathons, two of which were hilly trail marathons. After encouragement from a couple of friends in my local trail running group, I signed up for Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run, assuming that my completion of five marathons would prepare me for this race.

My assumption was optimistic.  Normally, during a 26.2-mile marathon race, the 20-mile mark is a good moment for me. At that point, I've run 20 miles and I know that I only have a 10K left to run. I comfort myself in the knowledge that, no matter what happens, I can complete those last 6.2 miles.
Yesterday, however, I looked down at my Garmin at the mile 20 and realized that I still had 20 miles left to go. That was a daunting moment, to say the least.

How can I describe the Pine Mountain trail?
- Lots of rocks hidden by leaves.
- Lots of rocks that presented a constant danger of stumbles, bloody falls, and hidden "toe catchers" to trip me.
- A few creek crossings that I managed to complete without getting my trail shoes wet.
- Uphills and downhills. None of the hills were outright "unrunnable", but I bided my time and walked the vast majority of these hills to conserve energy.

If you want to know what it's like to run through a 40-mile rock garden, then Pine Mountain is the place to be.

During this 40-mile distance, there really weren't many places on the trail where I could open up and outright run. Most of the trail was quite rocky with several switchback twists and turns.

After spending the night at a hotel in Pine Mountain, I arrived at the park shelter an hour before start to hang out with some trail running friends that I've made over the past year. This run was sponsored by GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society), the group that I meet with on Tueday nights for trail runs, so I enjoyed catching up with several GUTS runners.

At 7:00 AM, we all ventured out to the start line in the 28-degree cold weather and shivered as we listened to the Race Director Sarah Tynes's instructions. As is custom for me during trail races, I stood in the very back of the crowd and started running dead last in order to pace myself out slow.

For the first half hour, we all used flashlights to run along the trail while it was still dark. As the sun came up on this cold morning, we all tucked out flashlights away when the daylight made adequate visibility on the trail possible.

I immediately started my planned routine of walking every single uphill and running the downhills and flats. Even on some of the flat stretches, I relied on my Galloway pace group leader experience to stop and walk at various intervals early on even when I didn't feel like walking. One fellow runner named Scott began following me after finding my pace much to his liking. Scott was talkative, so I enjoyed listening to him and his company for the first 10 miles or so really made things easier. As time went on, I outpaced him and later learned that he had dropped out of the race when he didn't feel able to make cutoff time.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Tichacek
I was enjoying myself early on in the race. I occasionally spotted empty gel wrappers and such that had been left by other runners on the trail and paused to pick them up and stuff them into one of my vest pouches for the next trash can. Later on during the race, I was so tired that I shamefully abandoned this habit. During the last 20 miles, I'd spot trash on the trail and just sort of listlessly amble on.

Before the Rocky Point splitoff, I saw Jon Obst run by after he had already completed the end loop and was headed back to start. Jon would proceed to win this ultramarathon in style. A few other incredibly fast ultrarunners came by later on and I was inspired by the sight of them running so adeptly on the trails

At mile 15, I started experiencing shooting pains in my right shin when I ran. The symptons were not unlike my severe tendonitis in my other leg from August.  I started walking for long stretches. Thankfully, after a long walk stretch, I was able to run again without experiencing any shin pain. It was a scare, but that particular pain eventually resolved itself.

I began cramping slightly during this time as well.  I had enough S-Caps with me to take two every hour, but found myself running out of them. The aid stations had additional S-Caps, but I made the mistake of not drinking enough water when I took them.

Around about the 18-20 mile mark, the consequences of my first real rookie mistake that would come to haunt me for the entire race came to light. Instead of carrying two handheld water bottles like I had at Mystery Mountain Marathon, I had decided to carry only one so that I could open nutrition packages with my free hand.  Big mistake.   The challenges of negotiating the rocks on the trail and climbing the ascents on this course really racked my thirst and the fluids were not there when I needed them. My dehydration was exacerbated by some poor choices on my part (choosing to drink sodas at the aid stations for alertness when I should have been drinking more water, having my water bottle filled with Mountain Dew at one point, etc.).

As it turns out, I kept running out of fluid before each aid station and, over time, I began to suffer a dazed loopiness from dehydration. At times, I was incoherent and couldn't perform simple tasks, such as opening my Sports Beans, taking my S-Caps out of a ziplock bag, or remember which nutrients to take with me at aid stations. I've had relatives with Alzheimer's and I wonder if what I was experiencing can compare. It's a scary feeling to not be able to remember how things work right in front of you...when you're looking at a ziplock bag and not sure of how to get to the contents within.

At one point around mile 22, I took a minute or so to negotiate my way through the largest creek crossing and congratulated myself on being able to bound the stepping stones without losing balance or falling through the water. A couple of minutes later, though, I passed a family of hikers on the trail and a boy pointed in the direction that I had run from and asked me, "Is there a creek down there?" I stared blankly for a second, then replied, "I...I don't remember." The family asked if I was okay, I told them I was alright, and I kept going.  Thankfully, the aid station volunteers at each stop, while concerned about my somewhat listless condition, knew that I had it in me to continue and encouraged me as such.

The golden rule of ultramarathons is, "Just Keep Moving."   If you're unable to run, then walk, as Dean Karnazes says. Just keep going. Don't stop. Even during the worst low points of my dehydration, I plowed ahead in a mental vortex of relentless forward motion concentration.

I had reached the mile 22 aid station just over 30 minutes from the cutoff time of being pulled off the course. I had a low point after that and reached the mile 24 aid station with less than 20 minutes beating cutoff.

At this point, I had resigned myself to the fact that I was not going to be able to make the cutoff times and that I would be pulled from the course. I was down on myself, I knew that I had not given myself proper time to recover after my pavement marathon PR three weeks ago, and I just...couldn't....think. I was loopy beyond description and I just wanted to stop, lay down, and call it a day. Instead, I pushed on in a semi-aware state, just being sure to slow down when I started to trip over rocks more than usual and being sure to follow the trail blazes along the sometimes-obscure path.

The Mile 28 aid station was reached 10 minutes before cutoff time. Despite the close call, the aid station workers were encouraging, telling me that I could do it. At this point, it's worth mentioning that the volunteers for this course were all stellar and they knew exactly how to cater to semi-aware runners...knowing exactly what nutrition to feed us to keep us energized, etc. Just at this point right before the aid station, I was wondering why some runners ahead of me had stopped on the trail and, when I was able to see what was going on, I saw another runner downed on the path with twisted ankle from the rocks. Support personnel had surrounded him to help him back to a vehicle.

The Dowdell Knob aid station was the location for our drop bags, but I fortunately never had to resort to using anything from my drop bag. I was wearing a relatively new pair of Montrail Hardrocks and this was one of the better decisions that I had made concerning this race. Montrail Hardrocks are stiff shoes, with a firm rock plate sole and a hard toe guard, and they protected my feet from the brutal rocky terrain of these Pine Mountain trails. The Montrail Hardrocks felt like little army tanks on my feet and they also provided adequate stability for me, since I overpronate when I run. I had a backup pair of trail shoes, Mizuno Wave Ascends, in my drop bag, but I never felt the need to change into them because I was enjoying the Montrail shoes so much. Every other part of my body was in agony, but my feet felt just fine.

Shortly after leaving the aid station, I realized that I had left my ziplock bag of S-Caps there. I had run too far at that point to turn back, but Kim Pike, who was running alongside me at that point, told me that she had some extra S-Caps and handed me four of them. (Thank you, Kim!)

My meltdown occurred at mile 30. I was a quarter mile ahead of James Taylor and another runner whom I had passed earlier. I made the mistake of not verifying course marker ribbons and I took the wrong trail. I ended up going in a short circle and, when I ended up back where I started and encountered these same runners that I was ahead of, I lost it. I yelled to myself about how stupid I was for getting turned around. James saw where I had made a wrong turn and showed me.  I kept shaking my head and cursing to myself, angry that I had probably cost myself the race by wasting time getting lost and possibly falling behind the cutoff time. One of the runners admonished me that I had to pull myself together and not let the negativity get to me.  I apologized for my outburst, knowing that I was a better person than that, but that my dehydration and tiredness had gotten to me....especially at this point when I had never run over a marathon distance and here I was at mile 30 on a rocky trail course. Tired. At the end of my rope. I'm not proud of my whiny behavior at all at that moment, was exhausted.
I thanked the two runners again profusely, telling them that I would have simply kept going the reverse direction if I had not seen them.

Fortunately, I soon had a chance to return the favor...

As the two runners made a turn ahead of me, I followed them down a steep hill, then stopped them when I saw white blazes on the trees.
Me: "Whoah! Why are we following white blazes?"
Lead runner: "We've been following them all along, haven't we?"
Me: "No. We're supposed to follow the blue blazes until aid stations direct us on the white trails. We made a wrong turn."
James: "Yeah, we're supposed to be on the blue trail."

We doubled back and, although still discouraged at wasting time when precious minutes were needed to avoid the cutoff, I was relieved to find that we had not ventured far off the main running trail. We resumed following the blue blazes and continued.

A group of us made the mile 32 aid station with just 5 minutes before the cutoff point. A few of us looked at each other, shaking our heads with the realization that we would probably fail to make the cutoff time at the next aid station in 2.5 miles and that we would get pulled at that point.

We soldiered on. I was disappointed that I probably wouldn't finish the race without getting pulled, but my spirits started to lift, because I had decided that the 34 mile point at the next aid station would be a respectable distance record for me. We broke into a run for the downhills. Every so often, I would lose concentration and exclaim when I was about to trip. Other runners were asking if I was alright, I told them that I was, but that I needed to slow down. I let them run ahead of me on the downhills, but I ended up catching them again on the uphills, because power-walking uphills is my strength for trail races.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Tichacek
The last manned aid station on the course. Mile 34. We reached this station with a better time than expected and were pleasantly surprised that we had reached it 10 minutes before cutoff time and widened out window of opportunity. In a daze, I got help from the volunteers filling my water bottle.

6 miles to go. 1:30 before the time limit to officially finish the course.

Fortunately, I was feeling much better. I was finally, at long last, adequately hydrated, after downing water at the past two aid stations. I was tired beyond belief, but I wasn't dangerously in trouble of falling into dehydration despair.

I followed another runner from my trail group, Len Thompson, after another runner who had accompanied us ended up falling behind from exhaustion. Len and I talked for a bit as we traversed some of the more technical sections of a rocky ledge, then I started running a more casual speed as Len outpaced me. I was having some Achilles tendon pains after extended running at this point and an easy run, along with walk breaks, was all that I could do.

I crossed the last road crossing and was encouraged by volunteers telling me that I was about to finish with 2.9 miles left to go.

I ran downhill and finally arrived at the flat section along the last two miles of the course. At this point, I was running along self-assuredly, elated that I was about to finish.


I stumbled on a tree root and fell on my face for the first time on the whole course. The trail always humbles the inattentive runner. Shocked, I quickly got up, brushed pine needles away, and kept running. I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never going to keep me down.

After a seemingly eternal two miles, I ended up near the finish line at the park shelter. I could see the cars through the trees and hear voices. Unfortunately, I couldn't find where the trail led. I stood still, checked around me, and even yelled, "Where's the trail?". I ambled around for a few seconds, finally found the trail markings again in the obscure pine needle woods, and circled on the trail into the finish line area.

As I saw the small crowd at the finish and the 10:07:xx on the clock, I picked up pace to run through the finish well.

I finished in 10:07:46, not far removed from the time limit.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Tichacek
Volunteers and fellow runners surrounded me at the finish and asked if I needed anything. I staggered and started to fall before they caught me and sat me down at a camp chair by the finish line. I sat down and asked, aloud, "Am I dreaming?" When asked if I needed anything, I couldn't even put two thoughts together to figure out. Vikena finally asked me if I wanted hot chocolate and I nodded. I couldn't think of anything. I didn't want food. I just wanted to sit there.

I looked up and said, "Hey, a DFL is better than a DNF." Another runner answered me, "Jason, you're not last. There are still seven people behind you." Another dazed look from me, inspiring laughter.

I was touched to see that Scott Stetson, who had run a fast ultra, had stayed at the end to wait for me and watch me finish. It's an honor to have him as a friend.

After gathering my thoughts, I stood up, congratulated other runners, and enjoyed an hour eating chili and talking with some good friends. At one point, as I was leaning tired at the table, Vikena said, " faster...your legs are still shaking." I followed advice and wolfed down another bowl of turkey chili. first ultramarathon is under my belt. Woo hoo!

My sincere gratitude goes out to all of the aid station volunteers and fellow runners who wouldn't let me quit, even when I wanted to quit. Everything led to that relentless forward motion that got me across. I have my friends to thank for helping me along the way.

I won't say that this Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run was "fun" in the strictest sense of the word. In the words of one of my favorite running quotes: "It Doesn't Have To Be Fun To Be Fun."  It was the most difficult physical accomplishment that I've completed and, at times, I just wanted to crawl into a hole and emerge when the race was over. Still, there was laughter at times, there was good companionship from friends, and there were times when I blanked out looking over vistas that were beautiful in this fall season, so I enjoyed myself.  My goal now is to get myself into condition to really have fun at these ultras.

Back in 2004, when I weighed almost 400 pounds, I never imagined that I'd be able to complete five marathons and a 40-mile ultra race in less than a year. 2009 has given me my share of blessings and this Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run experience was a great way to finalize the year for me.

See you on the trails.