On December 5, 2010, I completed the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run with a finish time of 10:01:50.
The Pine Mountain Trail at F.D. Roosevelt State Park is a deceptively rugged location for an ultramarathon. From a runner's initial perspective, the trail weaves through an idyllic setting of hardwood trees, meandering streams, and boulder outcroppings, where the sense of uncanny isolation is only occasionally breached by the sound of cars traveling down Georgia Highway 190, a road that seems to be miles away, although it is often hidden from sight just over a hilltop. In the windy chill of early December, however, when the leaves have fallen from the trees to obscure rocks along the trail, the experience of running at Pine Mountain can be a mental and physical assault. After miles of trail running with intense concentration to avoid a stumble, the fatigued runner can easily succumb to a split second distraction by the sight of distant landscapes and fail to lift the feet high enough off the ground. One foot catches the point of a hidden rock or slides on a leaf along the sloped trail surface and the runner falls to the ground to find that the thick leaf cover over the trail provides no cushion against the rocks that instantly bloody the hands and forearms. The fortunate runner will stand up, wipe the leaves and blood off, and keep going. The unlucky runner will stand up on a turned ankle that was caught in the leaves between two adjacent hidden rocks or wipe blood from a head wound. In the last days of fall, the Pine Mountain trail can literally pound the exhausted runner into surrender or into serious injury.
In 2009, I completed the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run as my first ultramarathon. I experienced dehydration when I ran out of water, I encountered the mental wall in the form of the rocky trail, I stayed one step ahead of aid station cutoff points, and I learned my first lesson about the importance of relentless forward motion when I kept moving and somehow reached the finish line with a dazed sense of amazement. On the morning of December 5, 2010, I stood at the start area of this race eager to celebrate my one-year anniversary of ultrarunning, but the Pine Mountain trails did not welcome my return and their angular rocky surfaces gave me as much apprehension on this morning that they did a year ago. The fact that I had completed this brutal race once before was no guarantee that I would finish it on this day. Fortunately, I did have the lessons learned from a year of trail running mistakes under my belt and I intended to put those lessons to use on this trail.
After benefiting from a good night's sleep at a Marriott hotel in Columbus, courtesy of Tracy, a friend and fellow ultrarunner who had secured a free room from airline miles, I made preparations for the race to prevent the mistakes that had almost wrecked me last year. Instead of the single handheld water bottle that I had carried in 2009, I would now be running with my 70-ounce Camelbak Rogue hydration pack. I filled the bottom compartment of the Camelbak with as many Crank e-Gels as I could, so that I would be able to take in 300 to 400 calories each hour from the very beginning of the race.
When I arrived at the Pine Mountain group shelter, I enjoyed meeting with several friends from GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) before we all went outside into the cold air to gather at the start line. The Under Armour compression shorts and Zensah compression sleeves that had helped the blood flow in my legs for past ultramarathons now served the second purpose of keeping my legs warmer in the 35-degree start line temperature. I was also wearing a running beanie and a pair of disposable gloves to ward off the wind that would sweep across the mountain ridges that day.
After a few words from the race director, Sarah, we took off from a road beside Lake Delano to loop around a campsite into the forest. I started the race with Scott, a friend with whom I had run on these same trails during previous races, but I soon found myself alone as I settled into a comfortable running pace, using a small handheld flashlight to spot obstacles on the trail in the early morning darkness. The cold and wind felt relentless at first, but my body warmed up quickly from the running. I soon befriended another runner, Brett, and enjoyed several minutes of conversation as we finished the first three miles of pleasant terrain and crossed over Highway 190 onto trails where the rocky terrain immediately presented itself. We ran on top of a ledge with beautiful views of the morning landscape to our right, but the demand of the trail terrain on our concentration did not give us much of an opportunity for sightseeing. Even this early into the race, I noticed that the leaf cover over the trail was much thicker than during last year's race. I would be cursing these leaves to no avail later on, but I initially responded by casually slowing my running pace along the stretches where the leaf-hidden rocks posed a threat. Joel, a GUTS friend who had finished the Pinhoti 100 mile trail race a month before, trailed behind me for a short distance and finally passed me just before the first aid station six miles into the race.
When I reached the first aid station, I had plenty of water in my Camelbak, but I stopped anyway to grab a handful of food and to say hello to another GUTS friend, Amanda. Since the daylight had arrived, I placed my flashlight into my pack and continued along. I crossed over the highway again and made my way along a series of trail switchbacks that gradually increased in difficulty from pleasant leaf-covered singletrack to short rocky ledge trails that demanded sure footing. My sweating had increased and, despite the wind chills, I made sure to follow my plan of taking an S-Cap every hour from the ziplock bag that I kept in one pocket of my shorts. I also removed my gloves to place into the top compartment of my pack. I briefly spoke with a friend, Lee, as we power-walked a couple of short hills and then began to follow a woman with a pink shirt as I sped up on the downhills that lead from the rocky ledges to a flat marsh trail covered with ferns. I made the first of many audible sighs of frustration after one muddy water crossing and, when the woman in front of me asked if I were okay, I laughed and told her that I had not wanted to get my feet wet this early on a cold race day. When I realized that I was power-walking up a hill faster than the woman was running, I passed her, but she soon caught up with me. The two of us would continue to pass each other for the remainder of this 40 mile race. I soon caught up with another GUTS friend, Amy, and we encouraged each other as we made our way to the next aid station together.
After crossing back over the highway just before Mile 11, I arrived at the second aid station, refilled my Camelbak with water, and thanked the volunteers for being there. I grabbed a greedy handful of Oreo cookies, and took off down the trail, knowing that the harshly treacherous rocks of the Dowdell Knob trail section might very well shatter my good spirits as they had during my first Pine Mountain 40 experience. After crossing another road and enjoying a series of easy flat trails alongside a creek bed, I made a sharp turn across a creek ravine and started the first of several punishing rock-strewn uphill climbs near the Dowdell Knob parking area.
As I made my way to Dowdell Knob, the hills became steeper and the boulders became larger. I had enjoyed a 14 minute-per-mile pace so far, but that pace soon slowed as the trails became less runnable and more challenging with the fallen leaves. The insidious nature of the Pine Mountain 40 first became evident along this section of hill climbs and ever-present granite outcroppings, so I was soon concentrating on each foot strike to safely negotiate the trail. I arrived at the Mile 14 aid station and was glad to see two friends, Scott and Len, helping to work the station before beginning their trail sweeper duties. When Scott asked how I was doing, I told him only half-jokingly that I was already worn out and cynical.
The most difficult section of this race awaited as I left the cheerful company of the Mile 14 aid station and proceeded into a brutally rocky area of the trail system. Being careful not to slide on the dry leaves that made the sloping trail camber even more slippery, I stepped from one rock to another. My ankles were soon crying out in pain. Every technical trail race presents a challenge to unprepared ankles, but the ankle discomfort that I experienced on this day was far worse than anything that I have been through in my ultrarunning life. I began to wonder if my concentration on weight loss during the past few months had taken too much time away from my ankle-strengthening practice runs along local trails. On the other hand, my residual fatigue from my recent races may have been the culprit. At any rate, my ankles began to shout at me that they had been through enough during the year of 2010.
I was happy to catch up to Jo Lena, an ultrarunner with whom I had run at Mount Cheaha 50K and Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run. We were both struggling and, although I tried my best to joke and keep up the good cheer, I soon found myself whining about how much my ankles were hurting. Since the only thing ahead of me was more trail, though, I had to rub some dirt on the ankle pain and keep moving along. I kept running along a scenic flat area before descending a series of potentially tragically dangerous stretches of trail switchback to the bottom of the hill.
My longtime ultramarathon strategy of walking the uphill inclines and running the downhills and flats was soon altered for this particular race. On these Pine Mountain trails, where several inches of leaves concealed rock outcroppings and occasional tree roots, I decided that I needed to run on any area where I could actually see the trail surface, regardless of whether I was climbing a steep hill or making a sharp descent. Fortunately, my recent treadmill incline workouts and Sunday morning runs up the steep Kennesaw Mountain Road had paid off, so I was often able to jog up the hills with relative ease. Of course, at Mile 17 of the Pine Mountain 40, I considered the mere ability to remain upright to be a state of “relative ease”.
I arrived at the Rocky Point aid station, a section that I would cross twice along the route, and was encouraged by two good friends, Kirsten and Paul, as I loaded up on Gatorade, topped off my Camelbak with water, and grabbed some animal crackers. I was now on temporary reprieve from the dangerous rocky trails and I could run at a steady pace along the a pleasantly flat non-technical trail section for a couple of miles before hitting a snail pace on the multiple creek crossings later on.
I ran as much as possible along the flat terrain to make the best time that I could along this lollipop loop trail that marked the farthest point away from the race start. With every blessing comes a curse, though, and I remembered how my nonstop running along this section had given way to shin pain at last year's race. As if my thoughts of injury had summoned it, a dull ache began in my right knee. Since the overuse injury pain my right knee had been one factor that led to my DNF on the same trails at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile in October, I knew that this ache was not to be taken lightly. Still, I was keeping track of the time on my Garmin wristwatch and knew that the minutes were whittling away toward the 6-hour cutoff time at the next aid station. I needed to run along these flat trails while the running was good.
The wide open spaces of the flat non-technical trail soon ended and I descended into a darker fern-covered area on the way to the first of several creek crossings. The opportunity for nonstop carefree running was gone and my good spirits had departed with it. The stepping stones over the water of the creek ravine made pain erupt in my ankles each time I stepped at an uneven angle. The ankle pain, along with my rediscovered aches in the right knee, contributed to my downcast mood while I struggled to keep ahead of other runners as I heard their voices close behind on the trail. I tried to cheer myself up by replaying Leslie Nielsen movie scenes in my head and singing lyrics to favorite songs, but the mental barricades that I had built to keep the rioting of physical pain at bay were being slowly battered down. I soon began cursing under my breath with each uneven step along the boulders, because my ankles were dying slowly with each angled impact.
I descended into a ravine by a waterfall and was greeted once again by Amy, who was back on the trail after making a wrong turn. She seemed relieved to see me, because she knew that she was on the right path again, and I was relieved in turn to see a familiar face. I tried to be on my best behavior around Amy and refrain from cursing with each uneven rock step on my ankles, but I visibly winced a few times when the pain was at its worst. Still, I resorted to to a few lame joking comments as we power-walked and occasionally ran along the ravine beds. Whenever Amy and I would climb out of the creek ravine, I would reassure her that I thought that we were finally out of the creek crossings, but the trail kept descending back down into the creek a seemingly infinite number of times. Finally, the unsure footing of the creek crossings disappeared as we ran a gradual uphill to the Mile 23 aid station.
As I repeatedly looked down at my watch and saw the cutoff time creep closer, despair kicked through my mental wall and settled into my psyche. I had experience of multiple ultra races under my belt. I had lost 60 pounds this year. I had timed my nutrition well and the loopy dehydration that had slowed me along this stretch last year was not a factor. I still was not any faster, though. Why not? I was well-hydrated, I was well-fed, and I was walking less on this course than I had walked last year, but I was so tired. My ankles were killing me and my knee was aching again, but, more than anything, I was just exhausted.
I thought about the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile trail race that I had scheduled for February 2011 and I made a decision that, if my aching knee did not allow me to finish this Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run, then I would withdraw my entry to that 100 mile race in order to start from the very beginning and slowly build my long distance running base up from scratch. If I were unable to complete a 40 mile trail race, then I had no business even attempting a 100 mile race in a couple of months. I had no plans to drop myself from Pine Mountain 40 Mile, of course, but I was certain that I would be pulled for failing to make the cutoff times.
I reached the TV Tower aid station at Mile 23 to see the friendly faces of Jaydene and Tom. Tom is the guardian angel of GUTS races and so many ultrarunners have made their way to the finish line thanks to his presence. When Tom and Jaydene asked how I was doing, I told them that my knee was bothering me and that I was close to the cutoff time. Tom poured me some Gatorade and told me that I was okay to keep going. When Tom tells you that you can keep going, you keep going. The runners whose voices I had heard behind me all along the creek crossing stretches appeared at the aid station right on my heels and I smiled to myself when I realized that two ultrarunning inspirations, Susan and Rob, were a part of the group. All this time, I had been struggling to stay ahead of a group of runners without knowing that two of them were friends who always encourage me by the very sight of them steadily plowing along the trail. One of the runners asked how close they were to cutoffs and, when Tom told them that we all had 15 minutes to cutoff, Rob smiled and said, “15 minutes is a lot of time! Right, Jason?”. I sheepishly nodded my head and joined Rob, Susan, and their friends, Liza and Tracy, for a short stretch of invitingly flat trails to our second stop at the Rocky Point aid station.
The cushioned section of trails alongside a marsh leading away from the TV Tower aid station temporarily assuaged the discomfort in my ankles and I kept up with Rob and Susan for a mile or two to enjoy talking with them. I am sure that I was quite the downer, though, as I told them that I was worried about my knee and that, if I did not make the cutoffs for this race, I would bow out of my entry to the Rock Raccoon 100. Rob assured me that I was definitely going to finish this Pine Mountain race and that I would be surprised at how much easier the trails were at Rocky Raccoon. Once again, I was helped by angels on the trail and, even after Susan and Rob began to outpace me, I found myself smiling with the realization that I only had just over 15 miles left in this race and that I would be able to keep going without being pulled at an aid station. I decided with absolute conviction that I could not let my final race of 2010 result in a DNF.
I refilled my Camelbak with water at the Rocky Point aid station as Kirsten, Paul, and some other volunteers encouraged me. I am always reluctant to take any ibuprofen during long trail races, but I inquired at this aid station and gratefully accepted two ibuprofen tablets from a volunteer. Had this been a longer ultra race, I would never have considered such a strategy for fear of the effect on kidneys and I still took care to accept only two tablets, but I knew that I only had a few hours of trail running ahead of me. I was happy to hear that I was now 20 minutes ahead of cutoff and that I had managed to make up good time as I had run with Susan and Rob from the last station.
A old ultrarunning saying, “It's always darkest before it gets pitch black.”, surfaced in my head as I soon passed a rocky stretch that taxed my ankles again and found myself on a tricky leaf-covered trail along the side of a hill. I passed a friendly couple and gave them some brief encouragement, but I immediately slipped on some dry leaves aside the hill and fell on my side on top of some pointed rocks. The couple asked me if I were okay as I stood up, inspected a patch of blood on my hand, and brushed the leaves off. I smiled, told them that I was alright, and kept running.
I ran for another fifty feet before falling a second time. I cursed under my breath and threw a handful of leaves down the hill in anger before laughing wearily at the couple behind me. I told them, “I'll be alright as long as I stop falling." I stood up and kept running.
A few seconds later, I slipped on the dry leaves again and fell for the third time. I pounded a fist on the ground and made a loud yell of frustration as I stood up and brushed the leaves away. Pine Mountain Trail had scored three points while I was still at zero.
I stood up and nodded at the couple behind me. Both of them smiled back at me with that same gracefully accepting, yet wary smile that people have when they encounter homeless drunks staggering along alleys with liquor bottles in hand. Knowing that they were both watching me from behind and hoping that I would not fall again, I sped up my running pace on an uphill when I saw that the path was clear of leaves.
The leaves and rocks of the Pine Mountain trail had given me three reality checks in short succession, but I was uninjured and able to keep moving. I ran when I could see a trail without leaf cover and then slowed to a leisurely jog or walk when the trail morphed into rocky terrain obscured by the leaves. Despite the embarrassing falls, my mood was brightening as I realized that I had a chance of not only finishing this race, but securing a faster time than I did the year before. The weather was heating up and, when the next hour hit on the hour, I took two S-Caps instead of one to ward off cramps.
As I negotiated the uneasy footing and cleared leaves out of my path on the climbs up to Dowdell Knob, I decided that I never wanted to look at a leaf ever again. I hated leaves. As soon as I returned home, I intended to delete the scenic fall leaf-change hiking photos from my Facebook wall forever. The thought of a leafless world put a smile to my face.
I realized that my knee was feeling better. This relief was too soon after the ibuprofen at the previous aid station, so I wondered if the improved knee was a result of warming up along the run in the afternoon temperatures or if it was a result of my change in attitude. My ankles were still crying out in pain with the more treacherous angled steps, but I just told myself to push through this pain. My good humor was returning, I was getting a second wind, and I wanted to ride the wave.
I saw a runner ahead of me stumble and take a scary fall on the rocks, but he smiled and told me that he was okay when I expressed concern. I told him not to feel bad, because I had recently fallen three times just a short while ago.
I arrived at the Dowdell Knob aid station with a smile and joked with the volunteers as I filled my Camelbak, despite a brief irritating moment when I failed to properly secure the external fill Camelbak lid and spilled water all over myself in the cold wind. I grabbed a handful of Fig Newtons and quickly left to make the most of my expanded time window away from the cutoffs. The large boulders along this section of trail reduced me to a fast walk, but I stayed positive with a steady pace and was soon rewarded when I descended into the creek ravine to start running with vigor on a flat section of trail that I had enjoyed several hours before.
I crossed a road and followed the white ribbon trail markers up a hill, remembering to follow the trail correctly to prevent turning in a circle and having a meltdown like I did last year at this same spot. With my improved disposition, my progress along this trail stretch was nearly effortless. I was surprised and uplifted to see Joel at the next aid station, because I had assumed that he was far ahead on the trail. He taunted me with some friendly competition and told me to catch him as he left the aid station for the trees. I drank a cup of Gatorade and took a bag of watermelon GU Chomps with me as I returned to the trail. Catching up to Joel seemed like the right thing to do and I soon ran up behind him on the trail, seriously impressed that he was making good time despite suffering from tendonitis after his Pinhoti 100 finish a month earlier. We wished each other well and I hurried along to the next aid station, enjoying the easier trail on this marked route that took us to the final aid stop.
I arrived at the final aid station and was greeted by cheerful volunteers. As I had before along every stop, I thanked the volunteers for being out there and helping us. At this early December ultra race where the wind whistled loudly and made cold stabs at the skin on top of the ridges where most of these aid stations were situated, the volunteers were the real stars of this show for standing around without a chance to elevate their body temperatures by running. I remembered my stretch of volunteer work at the Pinhoti 100 the month before and realized once again that these people were showing some real gracious fortitude for my sake and for the sake of the other runners.
I had 5.9 miles left to run and I felt better than I ever had this late into an ultramarathon. My weight loss, my recent uphill exercises, and my unwavering commitment to consume 300 to 400 calories every hour from the beginning of this trail run had come together and I knew that I had learned well from the mistakes that I had made at last year's Pine Mountain race, even if my finish time might not quite show it. I knew that I would not be beating last year's time by much, if at all, but I felt that I was running a better race this time around.
I made my way along a series of switchbacks by running the downhills and even tackling some of the uphills with a run to take advantage when leaves were not on the trail. I made a sharp turn after a road crossing and quickly climbed uphill to the ridge trail with view of a crisp cold December afternoon landscape spread out below me. I saw Amy for the third time along the trail and congratulated her on being so close to the finish for her first 40 mile ultra. After quickly power-walking through one perilous boulder stretch along the ridge, I broke out into a run when the trail veered to the right away from the rocks. I had four miles to go and I was exhausted, but the finish line was getting closer with each step.
I did something that I had never done during an ultramarathon before when I ran past the final aid station, a water stop at Buzzard's Roost by the final road crossing, without stopping for water or food. I had enough water in my Camelbak to keep going and I was going to run while I had the energy to run.
I ran across the road and was overjoyed to see Susan, Rob, and their two friends just ahead of me. I caught up to them and thanked them warmly for encouraging me during my earlier low point, because I would have certainly failed to finish if I had not encountered them at the right place and the right time. I talked with Susan for several minutes as we ran together down the final hill before the trail flattened by a creek on the way back to the finish line shelter. She cheered me along before waiting for her friends.
I had never run the final four miles of an ultramarathon without stopping for a walk break before and I wanted to test myself. Exhaustion was creeping in and the wheels on my bus were about to fall off, but still I ran. I passed by another GUTS friend, Kim, as we rounded a creek turn less than a mile and half from the finish. I remembered the mantra of a running friend who always told himself, “The faster I run, the faster I'm done! The faster I run, the faster I'm done!”
The trail crossed over small creek bridges and dipped into a few ravines. I knew that I was on my last mile, but that last mile seemed never to end. My legs were ready to fall off and I knew that several days of painful soreness awaited me, but I did not stop my continuous run. I picked up my speed as I sensed the finish area just ahead. The faster I run, the faster I'm done! The faster I run, the faster I'm done!
I ran even faster when I saw cars through the trees and I rounded out one sadistically cruel final turn that veered deeper into the woods again before running over a small wooden bridge to emerge into the open space of the finish area. I crossed the finish line of the 2010 Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run in 10:01:50, six minutes faster than my previous time at this race.
Weariness hit me like a metal wrecking ball the second that I stopped. The volunteers guided me to a chair as I explained that I had just run the last four miles without walking. I probably lacked the dazed amusement that I had at last year's finish and I was more coherent this time around, but it still felt great to sit down. I soon stood up again to cheer Rob, Susan, Liza, Tracy, Kim, and a few others to the finish and we all walked into the group shelter building.
I made short work out of some beef stew as I congratulated fellow runners and shared stories. My final race of 2010 was the first race of the year where I had managed to improve on a previous distance record and I felt for sure that this was my best race to date. One does not really finish an ultramarathon alone, though, and I was grateful for friends that pulled me out of a mental abyss when I most needed it. I hope that I can do the same thing for somebody else during a future run. I am now very much looking forward to my first 100-mile attempt in February of 2011.
One of my favorite running quotes states, “It doesn't have to be fun to be fun.” The low moments of an ultramarathon are not fun in themselves, but the enjoyment comes with finding the ability to climb out of those rough spots and persevere. When you finish 40 miles of a treacherously rocky trail in just over ten hours, you can then drive back home on an interstate highway, note the mile markers, and smile to yourself after you've driven 40 miles now that you know that you have the ability to run that distance. That kind of experience is the most pure fun that there is, because it is the fun that comes with a sense of accomplishment and a small bit of insanity.
Thanks to the race director, Sarah, and to the GUTS crowd for sponsoring another excellent race. The 2010 Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run was the best way for me to close the door on a year of races that I will never forget.
See you on the trails.