On November 5 and November 6, 2011, I had a DNF (Did Not Finish) for my first 100-mile race attempt at Pinhoti 100 when I reached the Mile 75 aid station after the cutoff time. I completed 75 miles in just over 23 hours for a new personal distance record.
The website for the Pinhoti 100-Mile Trail Race effectively describes the challenges of the event.
“The 4th Annual Pinhoti 100 is a point-to-point trail run starting in Heflin, Alabama on the unmolested Pinhoti single-track trail. Runners will make their way over the highest point in Alabama while navigating over rocks, through creeks and across beautiful ridge lines of the Talladega National Forest. The course will consist of 80.62 miles of single-track trail, 16.98 miles of jeep road and 4.52 miles of pavement and will finish on the rubberized track in the Sylacauga High School Football Stadium.”
This rugged 30-hour time limit course of leaf-covered technical trails over rocky mountain elevations was a daunting choice for my first 100-mile attempt, but I had dreamed of running this race since volunteering overnight at the Pinnacle, the Mile 75 aid station on top of Horn Mountain, in 2009. It seems strange to say that my favorite race to date is one where I only finished three quarters of the distance, but the memories of this past weekend will leave a smile on my face for a long time. My efforts fell short of earning the finisher’s belt buckle for Pinhoti 100, but I returned home with the satisfaction that comes from fighting tooth and nail with one of the toughest 100-mile races around and leaving everything that I had on the course. I saw two sunrises without sleep, I climbed out of mental low points, I was supported by the help and company of several incredible friends, and I completed a 75-mile journey through the most beautiful fall weather trails that I have ever seen to arrive at the Pinnacle aid station, the same place where I had stood on the ridges as a volunteer two years ago and wondered if I would ever have what it took to attempt this race.
My training for Pinhoti had suffered some setbacks over the summer in the form of the accumulated effects of heat sickness on three occasions, so I understood all along that a finish on the Sylacauga stadium track was a long shot. In the weeks approaching this race, though, I soared on a wave of confidence after my running had improved in the cooler fall temperatures to result in my two best-executed races to date at StumpJump 50K and Mystery Mountain Marathon on back-to-back weekends in early October. I made a promise to myself that there were only three acceptable outcomes to my Pinhoti 100 race. I would either finish the race, get pulled from the course for failing to meet cutoff, or leave the course due to injury. I would not drop from the race voluntarily on my own accord, and I would keep moving as long as I was physically able to keep moving. Quitting was not an option.
The planning for a 100-mile race is an endurance effort in itself. I spent the days leading up to the race arranging my five drop bags that I would utilize at different points along the course. Each drop bag contained extra socks, Vaseline, Gummi Bears (my favorite running treat), Hammer Endurolyte electrolyte tablets, Band-Aids, ginger chews (in case of stomach problems), moist-wipe toilet paper, a backup water bottle (in case my Camelbak malfunctioned), and replenishments of my Honey Stinger Gold gels and chocolate Accel gels that I would be eating every half hour during the race. I also had warm clothes for the night drop bags, headlamps and flashlights with backup batteries for the night runs, and backup shoes in a couple of drop bags at strategic locations. At Mile 41, my first pacer, Jenn, a high school friend and fellow ultrarunner, would join me. At Mile 65, my second pacer, Amanda, a friend with whom I had run for a couple of years, would join me for the toughest night sections. At Mile 85, my third pacer, Tatyana, a friend and a coach who had won the Keys 50-Mile this past year, would meet me to force me through the final miles. Jenn and Amanda had both seen me at my worst during trail runs, and I had chosen them for the overnight stretches because they always knew how to say the right words to keep me moving. For the final 15 miles, I would need Tatyana’s more unrelenting coaching style, and I knew that she would not put up with my whining. I would also be surrounded by friends and volunteers from GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) at various points during the race. My promise to keep moving without quitting was also a promise that I would not let down these amazing friends.
When I woke up in a hotel room in Sylacauga, Alabama at 2:00 A.M. on the morning of the race, my resolve not to quit already seemed like an impossible commitment. As I wrapped a couple of blister-prone toes in KT Tape, put baby powder on my feet, and dressed in my running clothes and shoes, the idea that I would be wearing these clothes for the next 30 hours over two sunrises caused my legs to wobble with weakness while my stomach twisted. Shawn, a friend from Baltimore with whom I had driven to the race and shared the hotel room, woke up an hour later with less nervousness, since he had completed several 100-milers in the past. We climbed into my truck with another friend to make our way to the Sylacauga Parks and Recreation Center, where we boarded a bus at 4:00 A.M. for the hour-and-half trip to the start area. I tried unsuccessfully to catch some additional sleep in this school bus full of runners as we rode north up rural darkness and eventually arrived at a Heflin, Alabama campground, where the bus bounced relentlessly on uneven dirt roads that twisted through the pitch black woods to the start area. My legs felt like spaghetti noodles as I climbed out of the bus into the cold with my headlamp to encounter some running friends standing around with similar apprehension. Jason Sullivan, a friend from South Carolina, confided in me that he was very nervous, and I joked with him that I just wanted to crawl into a hole and come out when the race was over.
Race Director Todd Henderson gave a brief introduction in the pre-dawn darkness to the crowd of shivering runners who laughed along with his good humor to ease tensed anxiety. When Todd shouted for us to go, I started my stopwatch and 30-minute gel interval timer as I walked with others in the back of the pack. The walking continued for a quarter mile in the darkness behind a bottlenecked crowd of participants, but we all started running slowly as the rolling hills commenced on leaf-covered terrain that hid tree roots, rocks, and occasional slippery mud. For the 6.7-mile section before the first aid station, I was wearing a cheap Energizer headlamp that I had bought just to get me the first few miles before daylight, and I was quickly reminded that cheaper does not equal better. The inferior headlamp only provided a three-foot circle of illumination just in front of me, so I had to pay careful attention for tripping hazards. The jokes and company of fellow runners, however, made this trek fun and exciting. Jason, Andon, Dean, and several other runners with whom I had run at previous ultramarathons, were grouped around me, and, within minutes, we were all having fun like family members at a reunion. I was happy to be running with David, a friend who had inspired me to start running ultramarathons a couple of years ago. In fact, David had volunteered with me at Pinhoti two years ago, and we had both come full circle by actually participating in the race this time.
Daylight gave way to reveal the most beautiful trails that I have ever seen in my life. The still-treacherous single-track of rocks and tree roots covered by leaves and pine straw meandered alongside a series of small ponds before the hills brought us up to narrow trails and mountain elevations, where trees of varying leaf colors spread out above and below. I ran easily, but steadily, with a group of friends as my stopwatch counted down the first hour, and I assured myself that I only had 29 more hours to run. We arrived at the first aid station roughly an hour and 45 minutes after the start and well into the very back of the crowd, but I knew that faster hours were ahead now that I was moving forward in daylight. David’s wife was crewing for him at each aid station and I cheerfully accepted when she offered to take my cold running long-sleeved shirt, hat, and gloves to return to me after the race. I moved through the first aid station without refilling my Camelbak and enjoyed running in the brisk temperatures with my short-sleeved shirt.
I remained with the same group of runners for several more miles and, as we absorbed the reality that we still had 90 miles left ahead of us, the conversations became more gung-ho, and we all found any opportunity to discuss jobs, houses, and any subjects that would take our minds off of the task ahead. The trick with 100-mile races is to start slowly, but Pinhoti 100 presents a unique challenge to runners, since we have to run beyond our comfort zone speeds to get up and over the dangerously rocky Mount Cheaha at Mile 41 before nightfall. This meant that we had to make it to the top of the mountain at Mile 41 in less than 11 hours, and that I was starting this 100-miler at a faster pace than I had run the Pine Mountain 40-Mile Trail Run in its entirety for two years in a row. The camaraderie and jokes kept me moving happily, although fatigue was coming hard and fast.
We came to a vast overlook and somebody pointed out Mount Cheaha in the distance. I could barely see the outline of this mountain, even on the clear morning, and the fact that I still had so far to go just to get to this mountain at Mile 41 weighed down on my psyche. Around that time, we also arrived at a massive hilltop clearing where trees had been downed from tornado damage a couple of years ago. I told the other runners that the scenery reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and we all spend the next few minutes quoting from The Road, The Book of Eli, Mad Max, and other apocalyptic stories.
When I reached the second aid station at Mile 13.3, I was already commenting that it was way too early in a 100-mile race for me to be tired. I rubbed dirt on it and continued at the fast pace, until I tripped a half mile after the aid station and had my first fall of the race on some cushioned leaf cover next to a trail ridge. David was running behind me and we both laughed as I brushed leaves off myself and took off. Some other runners caught up with me after refilling at the aid station, and I stayed with them for a while as one friend, Ed, took the lead with a solid pace of running the downhills and flats while walking most of the inclines. I had been running nonstop early in this race more than I had for most ultramarathons, so I was relieved to let someone take the front reins and push me to keep moving fast.
Fatigue got the best of me soon enough, though, and I fell behind the other runners to continue alone for a few miles. At this point in the race, when I was getting tired so early in a 100-miler, my solitude worked against me as I allowed negativity to snowball in my mind and I became upset at myself for moving too slowly. The constant self-doubt that had plagued me throughout my summer returned in full force. “The harder I work, the less money I have. The more that I try to lose weight, the heavier I get. The more I train to run fast, the slower I get.” That feeling of running on a treadmill wheel to get nowhere resurfaced for the first time since summer, and I knew that I had to toughen up to get these bad thoughts out of my head. Fortunately, I managed to slightly increase my pace of running the descents and flat sections to just over a 15-minute pace per mile so that I could get to Mount Cheaha before night. I started cramping ever so often on the hills, so I took a Hammer Endurolyte tablet, since I had found that these worked better for me than the S-Caps that I had taken for races in the past. I had hoped to avoid electrolyte tablets altogether for this race, but I was now grateful that I had thought to include them in my pack. Each time I cramped over the next several hours, an Endurolyte capsule helped almost instantly without causing me to swell from an unbalanced hydration/sodium ratio.
I reached the third aid station next to a bridge overpass above the I-20 interstate highway, and was happy to see two friends, Philip and Scott, as they worked crew for another GUTS runner. Philip gave me some soda, asked me a few questions to be sure that I was eating properly this early in the race, and sent me on my way. I caught up with another GUTS friend, Charles, as we both left the aid station and turned off the road onto single-track trail once again. Charles and I ran together for several miles, joking and catching up with each other about races and life in general. My mood soared during this time as I ran with Charles down beautiful trails and fall scenery, and I realized that I was really having a fun time. I was spending a sunny fall Saturday on the trails with a good friend and enjoying good conversation. I started silently repeating to myself, “I am the luckiest man in the world right now.” Countless other ultrarunners had cautioned me that I should keep moving through mental lows during a 100-mile race, because things always do eventually get better. I had kept moving through my own first mental low a few miles ago and, as I ran with Charles, everything did, indeed, feel better. I had won my first psychological battle with the Pinhoti trail.
The good times continued as we reached the fourth aid station at Mile 22.7. Since this was the first of two aid stations manned by the GUTS group, I loved seeing several friends, Aaron, Shannon, Lionel, John, and others, manning the food table and water. When asked how I was doing, I told the volunteers that I knew that I was moving too fast and getting tired, but that my pace to reach Mile 41 was still strong. They cheered me onward as I left the aid station quickly to continue alone down the trails.
I was alone for a mile or so, but soon caught up with a couple of other runners who introduced themselves as Brent and Beau. We all laughed nervously when we came to a massive 20-foot-wide creek with no available crossing. With no other choice but to continue through the creek to the orange sprinkler flag trail markings on the other side, we toughened up and walked through the freezing cold ankle-deep water. I actually enjoyed the sensation of ice baths on my feet, and I felt strangely refreshed on the other side of the trail as my shoes started to drain. We were all feeling the burn of a fast 30 miles or so, and we walked for long stretches on the increasing frequency of hills. Soon enough, though, I realized that I needed to be going faster, so I wished Brent and Beau well as I passed them and increased my speed. The time on my stopwatch was not slowing down and I realized that I was going to have trouble arriving at Mount Cheaha in less than 11 hours as I had planned.
I reached the Blue Mountain aid station at Mile 34.6 and instantly felt depressed when I noted that nine hours had passed on my watch. I had forgotten the actual distance of the aid station, so I became alarmed when a volunteer told me that I had seven miles to go until the Bald Rock aid station at Mile 41, on top of Mount Cheaha. I succumbed to the worst psychological low point of my entire race as I mistakenly convinced myself that I was not going to make it to the top of the mountain within 11 hours. This point of the race was almost entirely uphill, and I had no chance of covering seven miles in two hours without running myself into the ground. I did proceed to run myself into the ground, though, as I struggled to go faster and fought back tears in the realization that I might get pulled after cutoffs within the next ten miles. My pacers would be waiting for me at the top of Mount Cheaha, and I had told them that I would be at the aid station between 10 and 11 hours. Jenn, Amanda, and Tatyana had scheduled their weekend to pace me to the finish of this 100-mile race, and I was going to let all of them down, since they would not get a chance to pace me at all if I got pulled for cutoff at the next aid station or at the aid station after that. Even if I kept going after arriving at the mountain peak past the 11-hour mark, I would surely not be able to get down the harsh rocky Blue Hell descent on the other side of Mount Cheaha before darkness in time to make cutoffs later on. I knew that I was failing myself, but I have tasted that dish a few times and I am acquainted with the flavor. The realization that I was now failing my friends, however, was the worst feeling in the world. My three pacers, all of whom were accomplished ultrarunners, had made the trip to Alabama because they believed in me, and I was now screwing up everything.
Ed caught up with me on the trail, and, as he passed and asked how I was doing, I vocalized all of my frustrations and told him that I was going to let my pacers down, because there was no way that I could make the seven miles from the last aid station before my scheduled time. Ed instantly reassured me, “That volunteer back there was wrong. We don’t have seven miles to the Bald Rock aid station. We only have four and a half miles.” I tried my best to keep up with Ed and I prayed that he was right. I pushed through fatigue to run behind Ed on a slight incline, only to trip over a rock and fall five feet down a leaf-covered hill on the side of the mountain. My entire body was seized with sudden cramps and I yelled out in pain. Ed turned back to make sure that I was okay, then kept moving after I emerged back onto the trail, rubbing a bloody cut on my hand and nursing a bruised arm. I walked for the next couple of minutes to ease the frazzled nerves from my fall, then resumed running.
My spirits lifted almost instantly when I saw a trail sign indicating that the Bald Rock station was only a half mile away. I followed Ed from a distance, negotiating occasional huge rock boulders. After several minutes, the Visitor’s Overlook revealed itself in the distance, and I realized that I would make the top of Mount Cheaha in just over 10 and half hours. This would allow me to make the trek back down in daylight. I came close to cheering at the top of my lungs.
I climbed up to the overlook from a series of boulder steps and smiled when I saw Tatyana cheering at me from the boardwalk. I went up the steps to the boardwalk and ran behind her for a half mile as she took photos. Jenn and Amanda were waiting for me at the aid station, along with several GUTS friends. Jenn, Amanda, and Tatyana already had my drop bag ready, along with two cups of chicken noodle soup. I was tired beyond belief, and I told my three pacers that reaching the top of the mountain in time was one of the toughest things that I had ever done in my life. Despite my dazed fatigue, the sight of my pacers filled me with motivation and adrenaline. I knew that everything was going to be all right and that I now had a great chance of finishing Pinhoti 100. My pacers handed me my Fenix headlamp and took my wet running shirts while I changed into a dry long-sleeve for the colder temperatures to come. I had just over 19 hours to complete the final 59 miles of the race.
Jenn took over the first pacer shift and led me down a paved road, where we walked for a few minutes while I allowed my food to digest. I then surprised myself by being able to run at a decent clip on the pavement for long stretches. I felt as though I were on top of the world, and I enjoyed joking with Jenn about my relief that we would make it down the Blue Hell descent, a steep boulder-covered climb that earns its namesake from the blue trail blazes painted on the rocks. I had climbed up Blue Hell during my two Mount Cheaha 50K races, but this would be my first time trying to descend this brutal path of rocks without breaking any limbs.
Blue Hell presented itself at the end of the paved stretch, and my tired legs from the past 42 miles struggled to remain stable as I grabbed trees and boulders to support myself on the giant steps down from one boulder to another. The rocks occasionally moved under my feet, wreaking havoc on my ankles, but I stayed on the move while Jenn stopped ever so often to take photos of my labored descent. I had earned a few minutes of advantage over some faster runners by not spending too much time at the Bald Rock aid station, but a handful of them caught up with me on the way down Blue Hell. As Ed passed by and said hello, I apologized for whining a few miles before, thanked him for making sure that I was safe after my fall, and wished him well as he ran ahead.
After a near-eternity climbing down the harrowingly treacherous boulders, Jenn and I finally reached the bottom of the mountain and began a fast series of run/walk intervals on a paved road leading away from Lake Cheaha. I was in a great mood, and enjoyed singing various song lyrics or telling jokes while the sun started to go down on the beautiful forest around us. We turned off at a long dirt road straightaway, where Jenn led me on some Galloway one-minute-run/one-minute-walk intervals. I was overjoyed when we reached the Silent Trail aid station at 45.25 miles just before darkness fell. I was now confident about my pace schedule. Amanda had driven to this station and was waiting for us to help me replenish with food before moving on. I had started to become confused about a countdown on my stopwatch for the gels, thinking that the time was counting up instead of counting down, so Jenn and Amanda made sure that I ate two cups of soup and a handful of candy to bring me back into the world. Philip, who was turning out to be my unofficial fourth crew member, was waiting for his runner at the aid station and wished me well as Jenn and I turned on our headlamps and went back into the woods.
I remained in good humor and kept walking and running at a good pace while Jenn and I moved along one of the toughest single-track stretches of the race. We crossed Cheaha Creek without getting our feet wet, then moved down into some pitch-black valleys before reaching a series of dangerously technical boulder rocks and ledges alongside Chinnabee Creek. During Mount Cheaha 50K, this ledge area over the falls at Chinnabee Creek is one of the most scenic and fun parts of the race. Right now, in the total darkness near the halfway point of Pinhoti 100, these rocky ledges made my hair stand up on end. Jenn kept me distracted with fun conversation, though, and we eventually made our way across Chinnabee Creek with dry feet and relieved minds.
The next four miles were increasingly tiring, though, as we weaved around endless valleys, hill climbs, and narrow trails in complete darkness out of the scope of the moonlight. I was able to run many of the descents, but I was nervous on the rock-covered trails at night, and I walked a few sections when I could have run well in gentler terrain. The weak link that would eventually cause me to DNF at Pinhoti 100, my lack of confidence running rocky trails at night with a headlamp, was starting to reveal itself. In my increasing fatigue, I had forgotten that the next aid station was located at 52.1 miles, and, instead, believed that it would be waiting for us at Mile 50. As we kept going through total darkness with no aid station in sight, I kept looking at my watch and voiced my dismay that I was going to make it to Mile 50 after the 14-hour mark, leaving me with only 16 hours to finish the final 50 miles. Jenn kept gently reminding me, “We’ll get to the aid station faster if you run faster, Jason.” In retrospect, these conversations were comical, but I was tired and anxious at the time when I thought that the aid station would never show up. I calmed down when I finally did remember that the aid station was located at Mile 52.1, but my desire to push myself faster led me to trip over small rocks with greater frequency, because I was too tired to pick my feet up off the ground. The aimless miles in the dark valleys seemed never to end, but we eventually saw the aid station lights and heard voices of the volunteers. I greedily consumed two more cups of chicken noodle soup with a cup of Coke, and continued on along the trail, this time deciding to run ahead of Jenn so that she could watch where I was putting my feet on the rocks and critique my problems with tripping on small obstacles. I was now past the halfway point of the race and pleased that I had 16 hours to get through the remaining 48 miles.
I found that my progress was more self-assured while I was in front of my pacer, but Jenn’s presence was essential a couple of times to keep me moving when I wanted to go slowly at the crest of hills. I was still in fairly good humor, despite a few subdued outbursts when I stepped on pointed rocks, and I knew that my nutrition strategy was working for me. So far, I had adhered to my strategy of eating a gel every half hour when my watch alarm beeped. In between gels, I would put three or four Gummi Bears into my mouth and suck on them as a constant source of sugar. These sugary gels and Gummi Bears, combined with the protein from various aid station foods in the night hours, kept me moving well. I was urinating after every aid station stop with a light-yellow urine color, and I had experienced no swelling during the race, because my stopwatch and Road ID had remained loose on my wrists the entire time. My feet were completely blister-free, and I was experiencing no serious chafing issues during this race. I had also experienced no stomach problems at all. The realization that many of the “little things that kill” had not plagued me during this race as they plagued many a runner, elevated my confidence. My movement on the narrow ridge-side single-track trails was still slow, but steady, and the relentless forward motion, along with the encouragement from my pacer to move faster beyond my comfort zone, seemed to be working well.
When Jenn and I arrived at a creek crossing next to a campsite in the darkness, I slipped on a rock and got my feet wet for the second time during the race. Some well-chosen profanity ensued and, when I expressed remorse for cursing in front of the campers, Jenn told me that they had probably heard much worse from other runners along the creek crossing that night. The colder temperatures did a number on my wet feet, and I reminded Jenn that I needed to change socks at the next aid station. The trail terrain became more technical and rock-strewn, but I knew exactly where I was on this stretch of the Pinhoti trail, having traversed it twice before at Mount Cheaha 50K, and I knew that we would be at the aid station soon.
Sure enough, we arrived at Mile 55, where I sat down in a chair for the first time during the race to change into fresh pairs of shoes and socks that were waiting for me where Amanda had opened my drop bag and organized the contents. I had instructed my pacers to keep me as far away from the aid station campfires as possible during the race to prevent me from becoming too comfortable and losing my acclimation to the cold, so Amanda had placed a camp chair on the other side of the aid station near the parking area. Philip was present at this aid station yet again, and he utilized his 100-mile race experiences to question me and determine my mental alertness while Amanda and Jenn helped me with my shoes and grabbed some Coke and warm soup for me from the aid station table. My calves and quads were starting to come apart from the mileage, so I asked Amanda to use a massage stick on them for a few seconds. Philip had just finished cooking food on a grill and gave me a bratwurst on a bun for some much-needed protein. After this quick five-minute break, I stood to keep my legs from completely seizing up, and started to move again, thanking Phil and Amanda profusely as Jenn and I went back out into the darkness.
The next seven miles of Pinhoti 100 took place on amazingly comfortable jeep roads, but we walked for the first mile, since the road went up an unrelenting incline and since I needed to let my food digest. We no longer had to worry about where we were stepping on this pleasing stretch of road, so Jenn and I accelerated our pace and started talking about a number of subjects to take my mind off of the mileage beatdown on my legs. As the road crested the first hill, Jenn and I started running quickly downhill to the next incline, then power-walked with an almost equal speed.
I was more than 55 miles into my first 100-mile race and I was feeling good. I was tired, for sure, but I was also holding up much better than I had expected for this distance. My consistent food routine was really working for me and, although I was remaining careful not to eat too much food and take blood flow out of my legs into my stomach, the increased calories from the previous aid station were working their charm. I reminded myself again, “I am the luckiest man in the world.”, as we took off running at a fast pace down another jeep road hill. All the while, I stuck to my routine of gels every half hour and a constant intake of Gummi Bears in between. The wind was really starting to pick up on these mountaintop roads, but I felt warm as long as I was moving in my running shorts over compression shorts and my long-sleeved running shirt. I was now carrying a cool weather running hat in my Camelbak, along with extra batteries for my headlamp and flashlight, but I felt no need to wear the hat just yet. The next day, however, I was not surprised when I found that my face had been reddened by windburn. We ran a long constant downhill stretch of a mile or so, and then arrived at the Mile 60 aid station.
I glanced into a tent enclosure to see a large group of runners who were slouching in chairs, sick or exhausted. The realization that I was doing well and passing other runners gave me momentum, but I also felt sadness for these fellow participants of Pinhoti 100. Trouble during a 100-mile trail race often means real trouble, and, throughout the race, I kept hearing snippets of news about various friends on the course. One runner had apparently hurt his ankle three miles into the race and had to drop out, another runner had blacked out at Mile 55, some runners that arrived at Bald Rock before me had doubled over vomiting from stomach problems, and so on. I sent prayers to the runners in question each time I heard scattered word-of-mouth news, and reminded myself yet again, “I am the luckiest man in the world.” I really was the luckiest man in the world. I was running my first 100-mile race and, remarkably, I felt as though I were running it well. My eyes almost teared up when I realized how fortunate that I was to be moving strong.
The Mile 60 aid station was out of warm soup or caffeinated soda, so I made do with half of a peanut butter sandwich, had my Camelbak refilled, resolved to get to this aid station faster next year, and continued to walk down the forest road. Jenn caught up with me after conversing with Amanda at the crew vehicle, and we found ourselves on an extremely rocky stretch of jeep road. We ran occasionally, but took more walk breaks on this particular road to avoid tripping on the rocks in the night. The long downhill run a few minutes before had wrecked my quads and hamstrings more than I was admitting to Jenn, but she quickly picked up on the fact that my pace was suffering. I was still confident, because I now had 13 hours to finish the remaining 40 miles of the race. I thought to myself that 13 hours for 40 miles was surely enough time, because I had run Pine Mountain 40 in 10 hours. I believed that, since I had an hour bank of time ahead of aid station cutoffs, I now had enough leeway with the time that I could walk at a brisk pace for longer stretches. I was wrong.
The wheels on the Jason bus really started to wobble at Mile 62, when Jenn and I turned off the jeep roads onto narrow rocky trails once again after seven luxurious road miles. The thought of remaining on single-track trails for the next 20 miles in darkness enveloped my mind like a real life horror story gone haywire. Shortly after we entered the trails, a runner who had apparently been resting at the previous aid station passed the two of us with ease and cautioned us, “I hope that you realize the cutoff at the next aid station is at 1:45 P.M.” I looked down at my watch and was dismayed to find that it was now 12:15 P.M. In my fatigue, I started to lose my nerve, and became convinced that I was not going to be able to maintain the time advantage over cutoffs before the next aid station at Mile 65. Jenn reminded me that I would be okay if I just kept moving quickly. We started to run for sporadic sections on the headlamp-illuminated trails, but I was having trouble picking up my exhausted legs and I started to trip over minor obstacles more than ever. The 3.5 miles of trails went by too slowly, although I was doing my best to keep up with my pacer and go beyond my comfort zone to maintain consistent timing. I was also having more trouble staying motivated. I did not feel sleepy at all, thanks to my constant sugar from the Gummi Bears and gels, but my body still wanted to maintain its sleep rhythm and shut down functions after midnight.
When Jenn and I arrived at the Mile 65 aid station, a volunteer informed us that we only had 29 minutes before cutoff. I saw Amanda and Philip waiting for us, and I shook my head in exhausted resignation as I told them that I still planned to keep moving as long as I could possibly move before being pulled, but that I honestly did not feel like the 100-mile finish was going to happen. Philip encouraged me to do my absolute best, regardless of the outcome, and to utilize my mental strengths on the course while running the downhills when I could. I ate two cups of chicken noodle soup and drank soda while Jenn and Amanda refilled my Camelbak. As I prepared to leave the aid station, Phil told me that I now only had three people behind me on the course, and that I had to stay strong.
Jenn's pacing shift was finished, and it was time for Amanda to take over. I thanked Jenn profusely, and then started to walk an impossibly steep paved hill to the next trail turn. I preemptively apologized to Amanda for my exhausted state. Poor Amanda was getting the rough end of the pacing deal. While Jenn had paced me from Miles 41 to 65, I had been in good humor and in an alert frame of mind until the last couple of miles, but, when it was Amanda's turn to pace, I was reduced to a barely coherent ultrarunner who could only stagger along with blank determination for most of the time. Amanda was undeterred, though, and she followed up Jenn's effective pacing style with her own superb pacing. She ran slightly ahead to warn me of trail hazards while questioning me about my favorite bands and concerts (as I had previously instructed all of my pacers to do, since the subject of music always gets me excited) to gauge my alertness and simultaneously take my mind off of the punishment of the trail. Of course, it probably did not help that Amanda's pacing duties began at the start of a brutal trail uphill. Another person had followed Amanda and me to the start of the uphill trail turn, but we had left him behind once we went into the forest. Amanda asked about the runner later on, and when I replied that I thought the runner had been a volunteer, Amanda assured me that he had actually been another runner and that we had passed him and left him out of sight. This did little to assuage my sloth-like progress, but the idea of passing someone on the course in my current state of fatigue put a smile on my face.
The smile turned to resigned frustration as I found myself having trouble with even a brisk walk on the trail hill as we topped the mountain and climbed to and fro along a rock formation by following the orange sprinkler flag markings. With each step on a loose rock, I winced in pain and freaked out about falling to the ground. I tried my best to run on the subsequent downhill, but my body did not seem to have any running left. As Amanda and I got closer to the Mile 68.8 aid station at Porters Gap, I tripped over small stones on the narrow trail that cambered alongside hills and valleys. I was also starting to chafe in an unfortunate location, but I knew that Vaseline awaited me at the aid station, so I did not let this minor problem slow me down any more than I was already slowing down on the dark trail. Amanda kept cautioning me that we only had 10 minutes to reach the aid station, so I picked up my pace to a continuous run whenever I could.
We finally arrived at the Mile 68.8 aid station with just minutes to spare. Jenn had driven her vehicle from Mile 65 to this aid station, so she was ready with my drop bag to keep me moving through. Philip and John were also waiting at this aid station, since the GUTS runner whom they were crewing was still behind me on the course. I consumed two cups of chicken noodle soup, gingerly applied Vaseline to the needed area underneath my compression shorts, and stood up when Philip gently, but firmly informed me that I only had three minutes until I would be pulled at cutoff.
I had run almost seven miles beyond my previous distance record, my legs were toast, my quads were too trashed for me to lift my feet off the ground, and the cold wind was kicking my tail, but I had promised myself all along that I would not make the choice to quit. I owed it to myself and to my friends to keep moving as long as I could keep moving, although I knew that finishing the race was a lost cause at this point. I may not be able to finish the 100 miles, but I was going to let someone else make that choice for me instead of throwing in the towel on my own. I walked quickly out of the aid station behind Amanda, and began the toughest six miles of my entire life to the Mile 75 Pinnacle aid station.
For the first two miles in the woods, I maintained a quick power-walk behind Amanda and even forced myself to run some short easy trail sections. The going was tough, but I had to be tougher. The simple task of forward movement was becoming substantially more difficult, though, and I was wincing increasingly with each step. I understood, with a faint sadness, that I was throwing away my 100-mile race. This was my big chance to accomplish something amazing before my 40th birthday in early 2012, but my best efforts were falling short. I shrugged the sadness off almost as soon as it had surfaced, though, and realized that I was going to complete 75 miles of one of the toughest ultra races in the country. My GUTS friends were waiting for me on top of the Pinnacle aid station, where I had volunteered with them for the past two years, and I had no choice but to continue moving closer and closer, tortoise-like, to the grueling one-mile climb that awaited me. As the clock wound down, Amanda and I both realized with finality that I would not be able to reach the Pinnacle aid station before cutoffs.
Our minds have self-serving protective mechanisms, and mine was already rationalizing my failure to complete the 100-mile distance. As I walked along as fast as I could behind Amanda and followed her cues to look out for various trail obstacles, I thought about all of the runners whom I had passed on the course never to be seen again. Had they all dropped out already? Was I now the only person left on the course heading up to the Pinnacle? I sped up my pace slightly and, although the agony in my quads and hamstrings resounded with gleeful vigor, I felt like a true ultrarunner. I had not dropped out voluntarily, and I was still standing. I had traveled on a journey for almost 75 miles with no blisters, no extensive chafing, no stomach problems, and no issues with nutrition/hydration balance. I felt that I had run a smart race, and that I had done nothing wrong. I simply was not fast enough for a 100-miler of this magnitude. The title of a song from The Smiths, “You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby”, surfaced in my mind. I would not earn Pinhoti 100 this year, but I would earn it in 2012.
Before I earned the 2012 Pinhoti 100 buckle, however, I would have to earn the next couple of terrifying miles to the next aid station. The goals of my race changed as I remembered that a trail sweeper would be following in my path very soon. I remembered volunteering in 2009 at the Pinnacle and seeing a runner arrive at the aid station with the trail sweeper walking alongside him. I was not going out like that, I decided. The end result would be the same, I knew, because I was still going to be pulled after cutoff, but I wanted to beat the trail sweeper into the Pinnacle and get to the end of my race on my own terms.
There was only one minor problem with my new goal. I no longer had the ability to move my body with any semblance of speed. I apologized to Amanda for letting her and the other pacers down, but she assured me that I was looking great for someone at this point in the race and that I was doing well to reach 75 miles after other runners had dropped out. I fell down briefly when I tripped on a rock near a water crossing and, when I tried to lift myself up, my bruised arm exploded in pain. Every part of my body was now rebelling.
Amanda and I finally arrived at the foot of the brutal switchbacks that would take us up the final mile to the Mile 75 Pinnacle on top of Horn Mountain. I wish that I could tell you that I handled this task with a rugged taciturn masculinity, but the truth is that I was whining and cursing almost constantly the entire time. I had completed 28 marathons and ultramarathons since early 2009, and I would rather have had to do all of these races over again than continue along this last mile of switchbacks. I struggled to bend my legs that refused to bend, and I put one foot in front of the other in a series of baby steps up the mountain. I had arrived in a deep dark hidden corner of the Pain Cave, and I was thoroughly exploring each new corridor and crevice.
My thoughts turned back to late 2004, when I was morbidly obese at a weight of nearly 400 pounds, and I had taken the escalator up to a Borders Bookstore down the street from where I lived. I was wearing a pair of size 48 khaki pants and a massive Polo shirt that I had purchased at a Casual Male Big and Tall Store. I should have been wearing size 50 pants or above, but I was in denial, and my size 48 khakis were so tight that blood could barely move up my legs. I purchased two chocolate chip cookies from the Borders coffee shop, because food was solace, and I walked slowly to the calendar section, because I wanted to continue my yearly tradition of buying an Ansel Adams calendar for my office. As I picked up an Ansel Adams calendar and looked at the black-and-white wilderness photos, a feeling of despair swept over me, and I realized that it was probably pointless for me to buy a 2005 calendar, because the chances that I would still be alive at the end of 2005 were slim. I put the calendar back on the shelf, wincing as I leaned over to place it on the bottom shelf display, and started to walk out of the store with my half-eaten cookies in my hand. Just before I reached the door, I paused for a second, then turned around and decided to purchase the calendar. I lost 185 pounds the following year, I started running 10K races in 2006, I started running half marathons in 2008, and then I moved up to marathons and ultramarathons in 2009.
I was constantly flinching with pain as I climbed the switchbacks to the Pinnacle and my legs felt like they were being beaten with clubs, but I was still alive. I had made it through 2005, I had made it through to the present, and I was somehow going to make it to the Mile 75 aid station. I was even walking in a photo from an Ansel Adams photo, with trees appearing in black-and-white in my headlamp. It was an evil Ansel Adams Photo from Hell, but it was still oddly beautiful.
I saw a row of bright lights just ahead on the next switchback and thought that I was close to the aid station. The row of bright lights suddenly raced away, and Amanda turned back to me. “Jason, did you see the deer? They're beautiful.” I had mistaken a bunch of deer for an aid station? I was still nowhere near the aid station? I cursed loudly and yelled that I wanted to be at the end already. Amanda reminded me that the only way that I was going to be at the aid station was to keep climbing the hill. I grumbled to myself and followed my pacer on dead legs. I saw the headlamps of a runner far below me on the switchbacks and told Amanda that I thought that this was the trail sweeper. Amanda told me that we had to speed up to beat the sweeper to the aid station. I assured her that we were moving plenty fast and that the sweeper had a bunch of switchbacks to go behind us, but I tried my very best to walk faster just the same.
Amanda and I arrived at the Mile 74.53 aid station 23 hours after I had started the race. I had achieved a new distance record in just less than one single day on a tough mountainous course and maintained a 3.2 average pace over the past 23 hours. I could go home happy. The GUTS volunteers cheered as I staggered into the station. The radio operator asked for my bib number and walked off, apparently to announce on air that I was safely at the aid station behind cutoff. My race was over. As I sat down next to the fire, the trail sweeper emerged from the forest. I had only barely beaten the sweeper into Mile 75, but I had beaten him just the same.
When I sat down in a camp chair beside the fire, I felt the flames and moved the chair six inches away to move myself from the heat. I was abruptly hit with an ice cold chill and began shaking uncontrollably. I was unable to hold the cup of soup that a volunteer had just handed to me, so one of the volunteers, Kim, took the soup before my shaking hands could drop it, and gave me a blanket. I covered myself in the blanket, put on my hat that Amanda had pulled from my drop bag, and continued to shiver for a couple of minutes until the adrenaline flush from my body was over and I felt somewhat normal. Another volunteer, Aaron, made me a fried egg sandwich on the grill, and I quickly decided that it was the best egg sandwich that I had ever tasted. I struggled for warmth inside the blanket while the GUTS crowd dismantled the aid station tent and loaded the supplies into their vehicles. I then stood up with no small amount of pain and shuffled the 50 feet to Kim's car, so that she could drive Amanda and me to the finish area. As I rode in Kim's car under the dawn skies and looked at the distance measurements click by on the GPS display, the reality that I had traveled 75 miles in 23 hours sunk in, and I smiled.
I showered at the finish area Recreation Center with no small amount of forced effort, but felt noticeably better when I dressed in normal clothes and staggered out into a warmer morning. I spent the next several hours cheering for my friends who crossed the finish line one by one. My third pacer, Tatyana, had fortunately found another runner, Tony, to pace to the finish after word of my DNF had spread to our meeting point at Mile 85, but I expressed my gratitude for her help and support just the same. My three pacers were all angels on my shoulders. My friend, Shawn, had won an age group award for his fast time, so I stayed with him at the awards presentation before we headed back to Atlanta. At the awards presentation, Race Director Todd Henderson announced that, of the 118 participants of this year's Pinhoti 100, only 66 had finished. I was one of the 44% who had not made it to the finish line, but I could live with that this time around. As I congratulated my friends on their finishes, watched a few of them earn awards, and met the race winner, Karl Meltzer, I realized how grateful I was just to be a part of all of this. I had gone down swinging on a brutal 100-mile course, but I was proud to be in the company of some of the world's most talent runners and some of the world's most modest and amazing people.
Thanks to Todd Henderson and his family for an amazing race event. Thanks so much to Jenn, Amanda, and Tatyana for devoting their weekend to my adventure. Thanks to Philip and the rest of my GUTS friends for their unwavering support, even when my lights that led the way to a successful finish started to flicker and fade out. Congratulations to all of the runners who attempted this rugged course and to all of the runners who crossed the finish line to earn their buckles. After the race, I gave gifts to my three pacers to show my appreciation for their help. I still have not purchased a gift for myself for making my way through 75 miles. I think that I will buy myself a 2012 Ansel Adams calendar. Somewhere on that calendar will be the date of my next Pinhoti 100 race, where I will finally cross that finish line and earn a buckle of my own.
|Photo courtesy of Amanda Tichacek|
The best thing that I took home with me from my weekend in Alabama is the realization that I am an ultrarunner through and through. Since I started ultramarathons in 2009, I have never felt entirely comfortable in my own skin while surrounded by faster, more talented runners. I am proud of my finishes, of course, but I have always felt out of place in the past, as if a bunch of men in suits were going to approach me at an ultra race and tell me that I did not belong there with the others. At Pinhoti 100, however, I soldiered up to run one of the toughest races in the country with some of the greatest runners in the country, and I did not stop punching or taking punches until the sound of the bell. I passed runners of all shapes and sizes, I kept moving, and I suffered no injuries or sicknesses during my race. I did not complete the distance, but I believe that I ran my smartest race to date, and that I continued to learn more about the sport than I ever have. This is what I do for fun, and I look forward to spending the rest of my life improving myself for even better races and for the 100-mile successes that I know are waiting for me in future years.
See you on the trails.