Thursday, November 8, 2012

Pinhoti 100 11/3/12-11/4/12 (Race Report)

On November 3 and November 4, 2012, I completed the Pinhoti 100-Mile Trail Race with a finish time of 28:54:18.

Photo courtesy of Philip Sustar
At the Pine Glen Campground in Heflin, Alabama at 6:00 AM on Saturday morning, Race Director Todd Henderson gave a short speech to the 192 runners at the starting line and then sent us on our way.  As I shivered from the 45-degree predawn chill in my short-sleeved shirt and started to walk along with the other participants in the back of the pack as camera flashes and cheers of encouragement from onlookers surrounded us in the darkness, I smiled with calm assuredness.  I was in the best physical shape of my entire life at the age of 40, I had arrived at the starting area 70 pounds lighter than I was a year ago during my unsuccessful first attempt at this race, and my combination of training and diet had given me a tough edge capable of withstanding any of the challenges that I had faced at recent ultramarathons.  I had finished in ninth place at the rugged Georgia Jewel 50 Mile race a month and half before this day, I had taken nearly an hour off my fastest time at Mystery Mountain Marathon three weeks before, and I had beaten my fastest 10K time by three minutes on the previous Saturday.  After analyzing my mistakes from my first attempt and developing a wiser strategy, I had gathered an outstanding crew of three pacers and I was grateful to have a widespread net of supporters along the course that would energize me every step of the way.  As I turned on my headlamp and flashlight to follow the long line of runners into a narrow trail that disappeared into the forest, I believed that I had nothing to fear from the Pinhoti 100 this time around.  I was wrong.

The website for the Pinhoti 100-Mile Trail Race gives a short description of the course.
“The 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.”

During the first mile, I conversed lightheartedly with others as our early shuffle accelerated into a steady jog in time with the single-file line of runners ahead of us.  At the same time, I mentally reaffirmed my modest game plan to finish this race within the 30-hour cutoff limit. Run the first marathon in less than six hours, run the second marathon in less than seven hours, run the third marathon in less than eight hours, and finish the rest of the distance in less than nine hours.  A brisk and deliberate pace for the first several hours was essential, but caution was the primary goal during the first 45 minutes of the race when darkness obscured tree roots and slippery leaves on the series of moderate climbs along ledges that overlooked creeks and small ponds.  100 miles is a long way, and I would not gain an edge by racing too quickly during the first three miles and risking an ankle roll before the sun illuminated the trail. 

I carried an assortment of Sport Beans and Accel Gels in the lower compartment of my Camelbak to eat every half hour on my stopwatch.  In the right pocket of my running shorts, I carried a small ziplock bag of ginger chews to offset any stomach problems.  In my left pocket, I carried a ziplock bag with a mixture of Gummi Bears and full size marshmallows for periodic added sugar in between the half hour intervals to increase my approximate hourly nutrition intake to at least 300 calories.  The combination of Gummi Bears and marshmallows worked better in theory, since the marshmallows were often melted by the time I pulled them out of the bag, but the mixture tasted good and gave me a surefire bounce of energy each time I reached into the bag for a small portion.  I limited my hydration strictly to drinking a couple of sips of water each time I put the sugary foods in my mouth, since the reduced water intake had served me well at recent ultramarathons.  The predicted unseasonal temperature high of 82 degrees promised the hottest Pinhoti race on record and an increased risk of hyponatremia if I were not judicious with my water consumption. 

A November sunrise in the Talladega National Forest is always a treat, as the light shines down on some of the most beautiful fall leaf season landscapes in the Southeast.  As the sun came up, I removed my headlamp and shoved it into the top compartment of my Camelbak along with the flashlight, so that I would have these on my person as backup light sources many hours later when I would be on the trails through the night with my best headlamp.  I ran at a consistent and comfortable speed as I passed occasional runners who stopped along the trail to adjust shoelaces or wait for friends.  I walked the lengthy or steep inclines, but did not relax my running pace for the shorter hills. 

The first aid station, located almost seven miles into the course, was a circus of people as crews and families crowded around the tents to take early photographs of their runners.  I had instructed my own crew that I had wanted to be alone until the first pacer pickup point 41 miles into the race, since I wanted to get my mind around the feel of the event in my own way before my coherence waned in the last half of the course.  I waved at a few friends, but ran through this aid station without stopping since I had plenty of water and nutrition on hand.  I was pleased that I had reached this station 15 minutes faster than I had last year. 

Photo courtesy of Vikena Gavalas Yutz
As the Pinhoti Trail climbed in elevation, the gorgeous scenery of the fall landscape spread out before me with every turn as the trail twisted along hillside ledges.   Ever so often, I would pass runners who had normally completed races much faster than I in previous years.  I resisted the urge to slow down and pace with these runners, since close friends in the ultrarunning community had recently advised me to be more confident in my own running fitness and to understand that I was a lighter and faster runner now than I had been when these people had finished ahead of me over the years.  I felt good at this point, and my timing felt right, since I was faster on the course this year without putting forth any additional physical effort. I suffered one minor setback when I took a fall on the trail and my right kneecap landed directly on a sharp rock, but I was running with no pain after a few minutes.  
I reached the second aid station at mile 13 around the three-hour mark and was pleased that my plans for completing the first marathon distance within six hours were falling into place.  I grabbed a banana from the aid station table, but still hurried through without having to refill my Camelbak with water.  I crossed over a bridge and returned to the trail, excited to be running well in this scenic terrain.  The next several miles of the course consisted mostly of soft trails covered with pine straw and I took advantage by running the downhills and flat sections at a brisk clip. I passed occasional runners on the inclines with my fast power-walk, but I also took the time to take my focus off the trail and look up at the tree leaves during these hill climbs in order to relieve the blurry vision that plagues me sometimes after concentrating my eyes on the trail in front of me for hours in the early morning.  The blurry vision went away soon enough, although I was wishing that I had more opportunities to savor the beauty of the wilderness around me.  I was singularly fixated on hitting the first marathon distance in less than six hours, and, even when the trails crested mountain ridges, I was looking at the trail in front of me instead of looking at the spread of mountain scenery in the distance.  I continued to eat a packet of Sport Beans every half hour along with occasional handfuls of Gummi Bears and marshmallows from my ziplock bag in the interim. 

I was tiring by the time I reached the third aid station at mile 18, so I grabbed a cup of Coke from the aid station table and walked out of the aid station for a hundred yards while a friend who was crewing for another runner walked with me and encouraged me that I could soon settle down into an easier pace since I was making great time so far.  I crossed the I-20 overpass bridge and resumed running as the Pinhoti Trail turned back into the woods.  I enjoyed the experience of keeping up with a local ultrarunning friend, Joel, for a few miles, since he had normally left me in the dust at previous races.  By this time, though, the daytime temperatures were starting to rise at an alarming rate.  When the two of us caught up with another friend, Victor, I finally decided to check my pace and stay with Victor while Joel ran ahead.  Victor’s sense of humor kept me smiling and laughing for the next mile until we reached the next aid station.

Photo courtesy of Scott Hodukavich
The fourth aid station at mile 22 was the first of two stations manned by Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS), so I enjoyed talking with friends there as I had my Camelbak refilled with water for the first time and I grabbed a handful of orange slices to take with me on the go.  I was close to the five-hour mark and proud that I would be successful with a six-hour first marathon.  I was starting to pay the price for my long stretches of nonstop running, though, and the rising heat was throwing harder punches with each mile.  I soon caught up with Joel again as he ran with another local friend, Margaret.  Joel and Margaret both cautioned me not to pace myself too fast, and I kept assuring them that I would slow down if I felt fatigued to an unsafe level.  The two of them continually outdistanced me while we ran the downhills and flats, but I would catch up with them again during my uphill power-walks.  A trail marathon is a pinnacle of athletic ability for many excellent runners, but that distance was merely a warm-up for me on this particular weekend.  The enormity of my task for this race weighed down on me as my exhaustion climbed, but I continued to run at a seemingly unfazed pace and enjoy the moderate trail terrain while I could. 

During my first couple of years of trail running, I had gained a reputation as the guy who always finishes ultramarathons.  I was heavier than most runners and I was ungainly on the trail terrain, but I always seemed to arrive at the finish line just by soldiering on and refusing to quit.  The 2011 Pinhoti race, however, was my first experience of failing to reach the finish line simply because I was not fast enough.  The strict cutoff times of this 100-mile race had required a skill level that I did not have at the time and that I doubted whether or not I would ever have.  My DNF (Did Not Finish) at Mile 75 had left me physically and emotionally battered, knocking the wind out of my sails in the same way that Rocky Balboa had lost his focus after losing to Clubber Lang in the movie, Rocky III.  The Pinhoti 100 was my personal Clubber Lang, and I was determined to defeat it in this 2012 rematch at all costs.  As I pushed past the point of safe fatigue levels on the way to the fifth aid station, I reminded myself of the need to put as much terrain behind me in the day as possible in order to have a time buffer between me and the trail sweepers after dark.  

I reached the short out-and-back section on the way to the Lake Morgan aid station and encouraged a handful of faster friends who were on their way out of the station along the same trail.  I climbed up some unsettlingly high rock steps and found myself looking across the beautiful lake with the aid station waiting for me just yards away.  I looked down at my stopwatch, and was elated that I had reached this Mile 27 station in six hours and 10 minutes, and, therefore, fulfilling the first marathon time goal.  I was also tired to the point of confusion, though, and had to struggle to remember what I needed at this first drop bag location.  A volunteer refilled my Camelbak with water as I ate some chicken breast meat from a sealed packet in my drop bag and had the lower compartment of the Camelbak refilled with packs of Sport Beans and gels to replace the ones that I had eaten so far.  I took a sweet potato with me from the drop bag, thanked the volunteers for their time, and walked out of the aid station to let the food digest. 

I wanted to make it to the Mile 41 Bald Rock aid station in nine hours or less to build a time buffer ahead of cutoffs, since I had been struggling the year before when I had reached that station in just under 11 hours.  I now had less than three hours to make it just over 13 miles, but was confident with my progress.  After walking for a half mile or so from the Lake Morgan aid station, I sped to a run along some pleasantly forgiving trail terrain leading down into a valley.  The 82-degree temperature high was arriving, though, and my nonstop running stretches were starting to wane.  I caught up with another familiar local runner, Gregory, and enjoyed some conversation as we hit a few mild trail climbs.  The heat was taking its toll on me, but I needed to keep moving strong.

Somewhere between mile 28 and mile 29, I suddenly stopped sweating on my arms, I developed chills, and I became lightheaded.   I recognized the signs of heat sickness, and knew that I had fallen victim to its potentially life-threatening symptoms.  In my mind, digital video game letters suddenly appeared on the trail in front of me.  Game Over.   Game Over.  Game Over. 

I did not stop moving, but I did slow to a power-walk and start to drink small sips of water from my Camelbak, because I knew that increased hydration was now essential to trigger my body’s cooling systems.  I had a problem, but my survival instincts kicked in and I realized that I had to look at this problem as a problem-solving opportunity.  If I were running a road marathon, I would have stopped by the side of the road and waited for the sweeper vehicle to ride me to the finish. Right now, though, I was in the middle of a remote trail stretch with at least another five miles to the next aid station.  I told Gregory about my heat sickness symptoms and asked him to pass me on the trail if he wanted to go on ahead.  I plodded up a steep climb and then sped up to an easy jog on the downhill.  A rush of dizzy nausea swept over me in a short time and I had to slow to walk again just to keep from collapsing. 

Photo courtesy of Vikena Gavalas Yutz
The next mile or so was a painful exercise in staying upright as I power-walked the inclines and briefly jogged on the descents until lightheadedness took over.  Gregory stayed with me during this section, and that is an act of kindness that I will always remember.  We reached a creek crossing around mile 30 and waded through 20 feet of water that rose up past our ankles.  The freezing water was a mixed blessing that felt like relieving ice baths for my battered feet, but also exacerbated the problem that I was having with my own body temperature control.  The chills on my arms became worse.  I was still sweating on my forehead and did not think that I was being hit with a full-blown heat stroke, but I was certain that I was working toward one.  When Gregory passed me one final time, I assured him that I would be okay on my own, thanked him for his company, and encouraged him to run ahead to complete his own race.   
I soldiered on by myself along the trail for what seemed like an eternity.  The Mile 35 aid station finally appeared and I sat down for the first time in a camp chair, surprised to see several faster friends taking a rest here as well.  I realized right away that I was not the only person struggling with heat exhaustion, and the aid station volunteers must have realized it as well, because they quickly came to my rescue with cups of Coke and offers to refill my Camelbak with water.  Since I had been on the verge of passing out on the trail, I took my time at the aid station and rested in a camp chair for a good five minutes to re-gather myself. 

I was no longer interested in finishing Pinhoti 100.  I just wanted to stay alive until I reached my crew of friends at the mile 41 aid station.  My crew would put me into their vehicle and take me to a doctor if needed.  If not, I would have a ride back to my truck at the finish area where I had boarded a bus to the start at 4:00 AM that morning.  I had some tough climbing miles left to go to get to that next aid station at the top of Mount Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama, so I was going to have to take it slow and easy to keep from collapsing from my dizzy lightheadedness.  During the first mile out of the last aid station, I heard loud puking noises from a runner somewhere behind me.  The puking noises would sound out every couple of minutes, and I joked with a runner in front of me that we must not have been the only ones about to die from heat sickness.  The climb up to the Bald Rock aid station at the top of the mountain was constant gradual descent, and I thanked my lucky stars that my determined power-walk did not worsen my nausea.  My stomach felt alright, thanks to some ginger chews that I had eaten over the past few miles to offset problems in the heat, but my head was not right at all.  I am not a fan of alcohol, and the last time that I was drunk was 20 years ago back in college at a 1992 party, but I clearly remembered the ensuing hangover feeling, and my current lightheaded state reflected that condition.  Unfortunately, I was not sitting up in a campus apartment bed five feet from a bathroom while someone’s Alice In Chains and Smashing Pumpkins albums played from the next building.  This time around, I was on a rocky trail miles away from a road and I could be in real danger if I were not careful.   I kept drinking water out of my Camelbak, since my thirst had increased, and put one foot in front of another up the mountain.

The dizzy spells continued, and I occasionally had to lean on a tree to keep from falling.  I now had a new health problem, though.  My hands were starting to swell noticeably from the increased intake of water.  I had now lost control of my electrolytes.  I continued taking a packet of Sports Beans every half hour and putting Gummi Bears in my mouth, but the agonizing power-walk did not improve.  When I did finally reach the Bald Rock overlook to be greeted by friends, I had taken on the form of the walking dead.  Last year, I had run down the wooden overlook boardwalk to the aid station with excitement, but I could only walk this time with a steady hand ready to grab a rail if I felt as thought I were collapsing.

Photo courtesy of Leigh Eoff Marsh
I made it into the Mile 41 Bald Rock aid station in almost nine and half hours to the cheers of a small crowd, but a quick assessment of my condition compelled them to sit me down in the nearest camp chair.  My three pacers, Lauren, Leslie, and Wilson, surrounded me with looks of concern.  Tears flooded into my eyes as I told my crew that I was suffering from heat exhaustion and could not stay upright.  Leslie handed me a cup of warm turkey meat from the aid station table and Wilson handed me a Coke.  As per my request, another volunteer put a napkin full of banana segments into my lap. 
In the weeks leading up to the race, I had repeatedly warned my crew that they would be seeing me at my absolute worst during this race, and I had sent detailed messages explaining possible scenarios and how to help me through them.  None of us, however, could have predicted that I would be suffering this badly less than halfway through the race.  Lauren, Leslie, and Wilson leaned over me with words of encouragement and with more cups of turkey or Coke, but they also glanced at each other with uncertainty, apparently wondering whether or not my race was over.   Jennifer and Jay, a couple who were running the aid station and who had run with me during several previous ultramarathons, came over to help as well.  When I showed them my swollen hands, they assured me that I was okay as long as I was urinating regularly.  Leslie urged me to take in some electrolyte tablets to counteract my low energy, but I told her that I was afraid that electrolyte tablets might make my problem worse by causing me to retain too much water. 

I never could bring myself to say the words, “I quit.”, to my crew, although part of me wanted someone to pull me from the race for my condition.  The primary rule of thumb with experienced aid station crews at 100-mile races is that they do everything possible to convince runners to keep moving, unless that particular runner is suffering a clear medical emergency.  I knew that my crew and the volunteers thought that I could keep going, and, deep down inside, I believed that I could as well.  Jay told me something that finally lit the fire under my camp chair.  “Jason, you have over 20 hours to go 60 miles.  You can do it!” 

I stood up slowly to lessen the inevitable rush of dizziness and laughed weakly to my crew that the absolute last thing in the world that I wanted to do was stand up and keep moving, but that I was going to do it anyway.  Wilson told me to keep moving, but that he and Leslie would be available for my first pacer, Lauren, to call by phone if I passed out on the trail or needed to stay seated.  I walked out of the aid station with tears in my eyes, and with my first pacer, Lauren, at my side.  I told her that I was just going to walk for a while, because I would pass out if I tried to run, and she assured me that I would be okay if I just kept moving.  We walked a mile or so down to the trees at the edge of Bald Rock campsite area of Mount Cheaha, where the infamous Blue Hell descent began.  We were about to descend 900 feet in just over a half mile down dangerous boulders, slippery cliff faces, and treacherous crevices where I would have to support myself by grabbing trees while I was dizzy and struggling to keep from passing out from heat sickness.  What could possibly go wrong?

Lauren followed me down the rocks every step of the way, joking and cursing loudly each time she tripped behind me.  Despite the circumstances, I could not help but smile.  Lauren is an ultrarunning friend from Alabama whom I had chosen to pace me from mile 41 to mile 60 because I knew that her quirky sense of humor and our mutual love of science fiction would bring discussions that would help take my mind off the technical trail terrain that we would both face along the way.  My dizziness and lack of energy did not improve during the climb down the boulders and rocks, but my mental outlook had noticeably brightened, and I knew that I had made the right choice for Lauren to pace me here.  I had to stop a couple of times on the way down Blue Hell to sit on a rock and let the more vicious attacks of lightheadedness pass by, but I looked at my stopwatch each time and told Lauren that I would only sit for two minutes each time. 

Photo courtesy of Scott Hodukavich
At the bottom of Blue Hell, we were rewarded by an easy three miles of rolling hills on paved road and forest road on the way to the next aid station, but I quickly became dazed to the point of collapsing when I tried to run.  I resumed my power-walk and managed to make progress faster than expected.  Lauren and I kept up fun conversations up and down the moderate hills, and, somehow, a discussion about how Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner universe was linked to his Alien movie was just what I needed to keep me moving forward.  Two of my running heroes, Joe and Kelley, soon caught up to us and, after my brief description of my condition, Kelley advised me to take two Endurolyte capsules for electrolytes to restore my energy.  Despite my earlier hesitation to take any electrolyte pills, I knew that things could not get much worse anyway with my condition, and I relented.  Lauren unzipped the top compartment of my Camelbak as I walked, found my small ziplock of Endurolytes, and handed them to me.  I bit down on the Endurolytes to break open the capsules right away, and washed them down with a big sip of water. 

I told Lauren that I regretted not being able to run during this easy section, and she replied, “I have to run right now to keep up with your walking!”  Sure enough, Lauren was running at a decent clip right behind me as I plowed forward with my deliberate walk.  I looked down at my stopwatch and was relieved to realize that Lauren and I were already down from Blue Hell and almost at the Mile 45 aid station at the same time that I had arrived at the mile 41 Bald Rock aid station during my previous Pinhoti attempt.  I was down and out from heat sickness, but I was still moving faster than I had the year before. 

When we arrived at the Mile 45 Silent Trail aid station at the end of a long dirt road, I needed to sit down at another camp chair to gather myself and keep from collapsing from sickness.  Wilson and Leslie were waiting for us, and, as per my request before the race, Leslie had instructed the aid station volunteers to give me chicken soup broth by itself instead of giving me the normal cups of chicken noodle soup.  Because of my Paleo diet over the past ten months, I was afraid that noodles or pasta would send my stomach into a tailspin.  The broth tasted great, though, and did not disturb my stomach.  Another friend, Ronnie, handed me a can of Coke.  At this point, my dizziness was at its worst, and I could only put my head in my hands as I gave weak instructions to my crew of what foods to bring me.  Leslie asked if I wanted some salted potatoes and I quickly agreed that those would probably help ease my electrolyte balance troubles.  Five minutes went by quickly, and I finally made the decision to stand up and move along, although I just wanted to stop forever.  I made one feeble attempt to stand, but sat back down when lightheadedness got the best of me.  I stood up again with tears in my eyes and cursed as I told my crew that I was taking a stupid risk by going back out on the trail in my condition. 

Lauren and I walked out of the aid station, climbed a small gradual hill, and turned into the woods, where we would spend the next ten miles on technical trail.  I had left the Silent Trail aid station in darkness last year, so I was happy to note that I probably had a good hour of daylight left. This improvement in time would empower me in two ways.  I had more time in the bank to finish the rest of the race, but I would also improve the time spread by being able to make it over some of the most technical creek crossing portions of Pinhoti 100 in the daylight this year instead of fumbling across them in the dark with my headlamp as I had last year. I now had almost 19 hours to travel 55 miles. 

As I watched the sun lowering on the horizon behind the trees along the trail in front of me, I suddenly knew for sure that I was going to earn a Finisher’s Buckle for this year’s Pinhoti 100.  I cannot explain what exactly had flipped a switch inside me at that moment, but I had abruptly crossed a line from wanting to drop out due to heat sickness and knowing for sure that I was going to complete the race.  Veteran 100-mile runners will always say that, in order to finish the distance, you have to know all along that you can do it and never doubt that you will get there.  Somewhere deep inside of me, all doubt had disappeared.

At the 2011 race, I had instructed my pacers, Jenn and Amanda, to run in front of me to spot markers and determine the best footing for the trail.  This year, I had instructed my pacers to run a few feet behind me.  If I was in front, I would move forward in a self-assured manner without feeling a need to apologize if I slowed down.  I power-walked with a focused intensity and even ran down a couple of extended trail hills until vertigo forced me to walk again.  Lauren and I soon caught up with two friends, Erica and Laura, and I stayed at their heels up and down winding trail, advising them on the Cheaha Creek and Chinnabee Creek crossings that loomed ahead.  The first creek crossing was uneventful in the daylight, and all four of us made it over without getting our feet wet.  After a short time, we made it to the second, and most treacherous, crossing.  I took the lead and jumped over a series of boulders, thanking my lucky stars that I did not tumble into the water.  With Lauren following closely behind, I took off power-walking up the steep hill that started the 3.6 miles to the next aid station. Darkness had finally overtaken us, and I turned on the Fenix headlamp and Fenix flashlight that I had picked up from my drop bag at Bald Rock.  The forward movement would be slower in the darkness, but I had saved a lot of time by making it over the two creek crossings and the surrounding boulder-strewn trails before sunset.

Photo courtesy of Scott Hodukavich
Lauren trailed me behind me and entertained me with fun stories about her experiences with the costumed fans at the recent Dragon*Con fantasy and science fiction convention here in Atlanta.  Instead of having a mental low point in these dark valleys, as I had last year, I was now laughing and power-walking over trail rocks at a speed that allowed me to pass a handful of other runners during this section.  The lights of the Mile 52 aid station appeared through the trees after a while, and I was ecstatic that I had reached this aid station in exactly 13 hours.  I had finished my first marathon in six hours and was now finishing my second marathon in seven hours, just as I had planned.  As before, I needed to sit down again to recover from my dizziness and to enjoy some nourishment.  Lauren brought me a couple of cups of chicken broth and another volunteer gave me some salted potatoes.  I took two more Endurolytes while my Camelbak was being refilled with water. 

I wasted no time standing up and heading back out onto the trail, because I was eager to make the next three miles to the Mile 55 aid station, where I would leave the single-track trail for some jeep roads.  Lauren was less experienced with running trails in the night with a headlamp, so she told me to go on if she fell behind.  Sure enough, I soon outdistanced her with my power-walking strides.  It is fairly uncommon for a 100-mile runner to leave his pacer behind, but this odd situation gave me an incredible boost of confidence.  I knew that Lauren was close behind, because I could see her headlamp, and I called out to her ever so often, but I also managed to pass a few more runners as I crossed a creek next to some tent campsites and climbed a relentlessly rocky incline where voices and music from the next aid station could be heard in the distance. 

I emerged out of the woods at the Mile 55 aid station, noting my stopwatch time of just over 14 hours.  Todd had told all of us runners at the pre-race dinner that we would have a fair idea of our finish time if we doubled the time that it took us to reach this particular aid station.  By following this logic, I guessed that my finish time would fall somewhere between 28:30:00 and 29:00:00.  Leslie and Wilson led me to a camp chair, where I downed some chicken broth and Cokes as they refilled my Camelbak and made sure that I took more Endurolytes.  I apologized to Leslie and Wilson for being so down on myself when I had last seen them at the mile 45 aid station, but we all knew that the worst would be yet to come.  The night temperatures were predicted to go down to 54 degrees, and, while this was a grand improvement over the sub-freezing temperatures of last year’s Pinhoti race, I still predicted the need for more cover from the mountaintop ridge winds, and I changed from my bright fluorescent orange short-sleeved shirt into a near-identical bright fluorescent orange long-sleeved shirt.  Never let it be said that I am not predictable.

Photo courtesy of Scott Hodukavich
Lauren and I made our way out of the aid station after five minutes or so, eager to start an easy five-mile trek along a hilly jeep road where we could simply turn our brains off and not worry about trail markings.  My fast and deliberate “Jason Voorhees walk” had enabled me to pass several runners along the last ten miles and my dizziness would kick up again whenever I ran, so I decided not to fix something that was not broken.  I continued my power-walk on the jeep roads.  Lauren and I soon caught up with a South Carolina ultrarunning friend, Andy, who kept both of us laughing at his jokes. I would move out ahead of Andy on the inclines, but he would shoot out ahead of me on the descents.  The elevation change of the jeep roads made it possible for the two of us to stay close to one another, though. 

The jeep roads seemed never to end, but a long downhill finally unveiled the lights of the Mile 60 aid station.  Leslie and Wilson waited for us, since this was the end of Lauren’s pacer shift and the beginning of Leslie’s shift.  I cursed when I found out that the aid station was out of broth and Coke, but nonetheless benefited from some orange slices that someone handed to me on a plate.  I had almost 14 and half hours to make it the next 40 miles, but I stood up and walked out of the aid station after a few minutes with Leslie following. 

Leslie is a local ultrarunning friend who also runs Ironman triathlons and who also had previous experience crewing for ultrarunners at 100-mile races in the dead of the night when runners were at their absolute low points from exhausted incoherence.  During our emails before the race, I had given Leslie no illusions about what to expect from my behavior during her pacer shift from mile 60 to mile 85, which would be the roughest stretch of the race for me by far.  I had explained to her in detail about my fits of hopelessness and sobbing during my climb up to mile 75 at last year’s race.  I had explained to her that, while I am non-confrontational to a fault with people, that I often become enraged at things, and that I was prone to curse and throw fits if I could not read a map or understand a computer application, and that exhaustion during ultramarathons often brought out that side of me.  Leslie took everything in graceful stride, and we walked quickly down a treacherously rocky forest road.  We would eventually discover strenuous trail sections that brought me into a deeper abyss of despair than I had ever been during any of my races, but, for now, our progress was fast and fun-spirited.  We talked about running friends, other races, and life in Atlanta as we turned off the forest road at mile 62 onto single-track trail, where we would remain for the next several miles.

My power-walk continued to serve me well as I climbed up and down trail hills with Leslie right behind me.  We passed other runners who were in various stages of energy deficit, but my own spirit was still unbroken.  I could do nothing but sympathize, however, when we passed a runner who was hugging a tree beside the trail in the dark and mumbling a quick stream of nonsensical words to himself.  Leslie wished him well, but the runner seemed completely oblivious to our presence and we kept moving forward away from him.  I remembered how quickly I had deteriorated from optimistic energy to incoherent listlessness during my first Pinhoti attempt, and knew that I was only hanging from a thread above being in the same state as the runner whom we had just passed.  When one has traveled on foot for over 60 miles and is keeping the blood sugar together in a fragile state, anything can happen. 

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Nash Jones
We emerged from a long trail descent and crossed a railroad track, where we were greeted by our crew and several cheering volunteers at the Mile 65 aid station.  At this aid station, as with the ones before, I was grateful that my crew had laid out the contents of my drop bags and predicted my needs almost effortlessly.   My decision to pick Lauren, Leslie, and Wilson as my crew of pacers is the most intelligent decision that I made for this race.  I ate a cup of potato soup, had my Camelbak refilled by Wilson, and stood up from the camp chair after a short time to make my way up a steep paved hill where a steeper trail climb awaited me.  Leslie kept me company and encouraged me as I power-walked with a steady pace up to the top of a mountain, where boulder outcroppings and wind greeted us.  The trail turns on this mountain were tricky, so I asked Leslie to help me call out the trail markings in case I missed any while I was taking the lead.  My mental capabilities were starting to erode, but my resolve was still steadfast as we found the right turn each time and I walked faster. 
I needed a finish at Pinhoti 100 this year. Many people my age are proud of their children, many people my age are proud of their prestigious careers, and many people are proud of their dream houses.  I am a 40 year-old civil servant who lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment and watches my world grow smaller every year during a tough economy.  As I walked quickly over loose rocks coming down from a mountain in the middle of the night and continued to fight the lightheaded weakness that had assaulted me over the past 40 miles, I remembered back to a cool morning in March of 2009, when I sat in my truck in a parking lot an hour before my first marathon, the Snickers Marathon in Albany, Georgia, and prayed that I would complete the distance.  On that morning years ago, I did not want to have a running blog with lengthy race reports, I did not want to have involvement in multiple running organizations, and I did not want large race memorabilia boxes in my closet full of finisher’s medals and race shirts.  I just wanted one single success in my life.  Since then, as my races have increased in frequency and distance, I have come to lean on running as my source of self-esteem.  I have more fun while I am running than I ever have, and I was even having fun in an offbeat way while battling sickness at mile 67 during this race, but, for me, running is also the rock that keeps me upright when I feel that I have little else to offer in life.  Pinhoti 100 is just a race, but I wanted a finish more than I had ever wanted anything before.  My DNF from last year had stung me.  I wanted to put that behind me, I wanted to get the 100-mile monkey off my back, and I wanted to accomplish the final goal that had been the basis for my Paleo diet, my weight loss, and all of my earlier races this past year.  I thought about a quote from Rocky III, where Apollo Creed is trying to motivate Rocky to get back in the ring after his loss to Clubber Lang.  “Make it right for yourself or you'll be sorry you didn't.”

Leslie and I arrived at the Mile 68 aid station to find Lauren and Wilson waiting for us with my drop bag and a camp chair.  I broke out into a grin at the sight of an unexpected presence, a local ultrarunning fanatic named Sean, who has been one of my greatest running inspirations since I entered the world of ultramarathons years ago.  While my crew handled my Camelbak replenishment and my nutrition with expert care, Sean congratulated me for making it this far, and he reminded me to have confidence in myself all the way to the finish while having fun.  I stood up after a short time, eager to make my way along the next portion of the course.  I profusely thanked Lauren and Wilson for helping me out and told them that I could not wait to see them at the next crew access point at Mile 85.  17 miles of the toughest ultrarunning of my life lay between me and that Mile 85 point, but I felt good, and I knew that Leslie would be there to motivate me through every step.  Leslie and I waved goodbye to everyone and moved quickly across a highway and into the forest on the other side.  A year ago, I had left the Mile 68 aid station with only three minutes left until cutoff.  This year, I was leaving Mile 68 with roughly two hours left until cutoff. 

Leslie and I enjoyed a fun conversation for the first three miles of rolling hills and pleasantly soft trails, but my mental game was slipping and she increasingly had to remind me to eat and drink.  I still took the gels or Sport Beans from my Camelbak every half hour while reaching into my Gummi Bear and marshmallow mixture bag in between the half hour marks, since I had kept replacement ziplock bags of this mixture at all of my drop bag locations.  The hardships of the unrelenting switchback climb to the Mile 75 aid station, the place where my race had ended behind cutoffs last year, was permanently engraved in my memory, and I just wanted to get the preliminary torture of the winding flatter trails out of the way so that I could conquer the climb at long last.  When Leslie and I did finally reach the climb, after a couple of ill-fated creek crossings where I had accidentally soaked my feet and unleashed a record number of profane curses, I decided that I should have been careful what I wished for, because it had now come true. 

The climb up to the Pinnacle aid station at Mile 75 was tough, but I was tougher this year, and I plodded up the never-ending switchbacks with determination.  I whined and cursed frequently as my sanity began to fray, but I was still coherent and strong when I finally saw the lights of the aid station and emerged from the woods with a smile on my face to meet my friends from the GUTS group once again.  I was slightly irritable with exhaustion and, when I saw a dog walking around near the camp chairs, I asked the volunteers to keep it from jumping on me.  I later felt like the world’s meanest person, and apologized profusely to the dog owner over and over after I sat down.  My friend, Aaron, was making fried eggs sandwiches for the runners and Leslie had him make a couple of stand-alone fried eggs for me with no bread.  The fried eggs were rocket fuel for me, but I still wanted a few minutes to pull myself together after the tough hill climb.  Another friend, Janette, who had been counting the runner numbers who came through, told me that I placed at 73 so far.  The volunteers cheered, and I stood up to make my way out of the aid station, joking with each of the GUTS friends as I prepared to leave.  I told them that I loved them all, but that I was not going to stay at this aid station this year.  I stepped away from the Mile 75 aid station and, from this point forward, every single step was a new distance record for me.

Photo courtesy of Vikena Gavalas Yutz
Leslie and I walked to a forest road and climbed for a quarter mile or so before returning to an extremely rocky section of single-track trail.  My dizziness was still faintly present, my blood sugar was all over the place after 75 miles, and my coherence was fading fast, but I spotted the markers and still did my best to keep up conversation with Leslie as she continued to follow.  I was pleased, because we had reached the Mile 75 aid station somewhere between the 20 and 21-hour mark and come close to my goal of finishing the third marathon distance increment in time.  At one point, Leslie told me that she had to run occasionally just to keep up with my power-walking.  I smiled and kept up the walking speed. My feet were starting to develop some painful blisters under my compression socks, though, so the smiling became more of a challenge.  Ever so often, one of my feet would slide along the top of a rock in a way that rubbed the blisters, and I would cry out in pain.  Leslie and I were up on a mountain ridge where the beautiful lights from towns below spread out over the horizon, but the rocks on the winding technical trail held my attention until we finally arrived at the next aid station just over 79 miles into the course.  I sat down in a camp chair and enjoyed two cups of chili while Leslie refilled my Camelbak and gave me two Endurolytes from the aid station table.  I reminded Leslie to eat plenty of food as well and take care of herself, since she would need a lot of energy to help me through the next torturous section. 
The next six miles were a nightmare that still gives me shudders days later.  Leslie and I left the aid station and proceeded to walk up and down an insidiously rocky jeep road that normally closed access to vehicles that were not 4-wheel-drive.  The rocks that were bad for less-equipped vehicles were bad for runners as well, and my strength was wearing thin.  Leslie reminded me that I was still making good progress, and she never seemed to run out of the right words to say when I broke down into sobs and started to doubt myself.  At one point, Leslie mentioned that Wilson had been updating my progress at each aid station on my Facebook wall and that each update had received multiple “likes” and responses.  This reminder that people were tracking my progress put a spring into my step even as I became high-strung from blood sugar woes and began repeating myself over and over with the same questions or upset tirades.  Each time we climbed a long gradual road hill only to crest the hill and see nothing but never-ending road ahead, my composure weakened.

I hit rock-bottom on the sanity scale when Leslie and I finally did turn off the rocky jeep road back onto a mile and half stretch of technical trail that twisted and wound downhill over loose rocks and low-hanging tree limbs.  I was no longer a functioning person at this point and, instead, I was merely a loose framework of tissue glued together by Gummi Bears, marshmallows, ginger chews, and gels.  All of my mental capability was devoted to putting one foot in front of the other, and I recoiled or sobbed whenever my foot blistered rubbed on a rock or whenever I rolled an ankle in a rock crevice.  When I passed under one low-hanging branch, my headlamp became caught in the branches and was pulled off my head.  I was startled to the extent that I screamed nonstop for about 30 seconds before I broke down crying.  I tripped over a rock a half mile later and curled up on the ground sobbing with my bloody knee and arm before finally standing up to walk again.  All the while, I kept worrying aloud about cutoff times, and I kept telling Leslie that I was about to get pulled behind cutoffs.   Leslie reminded me over and over, with increasing irritation, that I was still at least an hour and half ahead of cutoff times and that I had nothing to worry about.  Five minutes later, I would resume a sobbing tirade about how I was falling behind on time and that I was throwing away my race, only to have Leslie give me the same reminder all over again. 

Photo courtesy of Lauren Gray Castor
I started to piece myself together when Leslie and I heard voices from the aid station in the distance and I knew that, at long last, I was finally finished with the technical trails of Pinhoti.  For the remaining 15 miles, I would be traveling on jeep roads, soft lakeside trails, and asphalt.  We arrived at the Mile 85 aid station to find that the generator had gone out and that the station had no warm food.  I was perfectly happy to have a camp chair to sit in, though.  I profusely thanked Leslie for her patience and her amazing pacer abilities. 
I switched into a pair of road shoes for the next 15 miles and put my bulky Fenix headlamp into my drop bag in favor of the lighter headlamp in my Camelbak while Wilson and Leslie refilled my Camelbak and saw to my nutrition needs.  One of my running inspirations, a veteran ultrarunner named Josh, was running this aid station, and, when I asked him how I was doing on time, he told me that I was doing well, but that I could not afford to waste time at the next two aid stations and that I would have to move through them as fast as possible.  Wilson took over the final pacer shift and led me down the jeep road away from the cheering volunteers. 

As the sun started slowly began to rise, I worked to restore myself from my mental slump and forced a smile on my face.  I now had almost six hours to travel 15 miles, but my running ability was pretty much shot, and even the task of moving 2.5 miles per hour seemed like a stretch.  I reminded myself of what was at stake and kept walking with long strides at a fast pace.  “Make it right for yourself or you'll be sorry you didn't.”

Wilson was the perfect company for these final miles, though.  Wilson, a competitive runner with a record of placing highly at road races, triathlons, and ultramarathons, has a freshly optimistic and analytical approach to endurance sports as he has been training for his first Ironman event.  He is also one of the most fun and naturally magnetic people I have ever met.  I felt like crying as I walked with foot blisters on a surprisingly insidious jeep road full of gravel rocks, but I managed to conceal the extent of my suffering because I did not want to look like a wimp in front of Wilson.  I had chosen Lauren to pace me from 41 to 60 because of her sense of humor and conversational talents, and she had saved my race by keeping me happy despite a crippling heat sickness.  I had chosen Leslie to pace me from 60 to 85, because of her night-running experience and her natural talent for crewing and managing ultrarunners through tough night stretches, and she had saved my race once again by retrieving each fallen piece of my sanity along the harshest sections of Pinhoti and attaching these pieces back together.  Finally, I had chosen Wilson for the last 15 miles because I knew that I would need a dose of man-to-man competitiveness and drive on the home stretch. 

I would occasionally break out into a slow jog on the downhills to gain some ground, but stopped each time after 50 yards or so when I became dizzy or when the blisters in my feet exploded in agony.  Each time, Wilson cheered me on, telling me that every single short run like that brought me closer to the finish line and bought me some time.  My fast “Jason Voorhees” walk had lost some of its hard edge over the miles, but I still plowed forward at a 17 to 18-minute pace and was surprised when Wilson and I crested one hill next to a church and saw the Mile 89 aid station waiting for us.  I was pleased to see a North Carolina ultrarunning friend, Mark, running the station.  I sat down for a short time while Mark and Wilson refilled my Camelbak and grabbed some food.  After a couple of minutes, my labored power-walk resumed. 

Photo courtesy of Lauren Gray Castor
It is a vicious bit of insane torture for one to be less than ten miles from the finish of his first 100-mile ultramarathon and see nothing but one gravel road hill after the next alongside idyllic country landscapes, woods, and fields.  I realized that my decision to change into road shoes for these last 15 miles had been a strategic mistake of potentially disastrous proportions, because the road shoes were not formidable enough to withstand the assault of gravel rocks on the bottoms of my blistered feet.  Each step felt as though I were walking on a bed of saw-bladed nails.  Conventional ultrarunning wisdom states,  “If it hurts to run and it hurts to walk, then run.”  The short downhill running stretches tore the skin apart on the soles of my blistered feet, though, and I was forced to a walk after a few seconds each time. 

Relentless forward motion was the key to my experience on this Pinhoti course.  I have seen many ultrarunners drop out of races when  they are too tired to continue running and have no desire to take a “death march” to the finish line of the race.  For me, every mile of this race since the onset of my heat sickness between miles 28 and 29 had been a “death march”, but I had refused to stop moving forward.  I knew that the key to earning a 100-mile buckle was to want that buckle more than I had ever wanted anything, and I wanted a Pinhoti buckle enough to power-walk for over 70 miles of the race. 

My resolve was holding steady and I power-walked with the determination of a person who is obsessively driven toward a goal, but my tendency to verbalize my concerns in a high-strung manner soon shattered my cool exterior, and I became to worry aloud about cutoff times once again.  Wilson assured me over and over again that we were making good pace.  My high placement at 73 on the list of runners was falling fast, though, as I found myself passed on the road by a handful of veteran 100-milers who all had a better handle on long-distance pacing than I did.  At one point, though, I turned to Wilson and said, “I know that I have not been acting like it lately, but I am having the time of my life.”  I really was.  I had traveled a rugged trail that had torn me down to tattered remnants, and I had managed, with the help of great friends, to sew those torn fragments together again to a stronger whole.  Not many people can say that they did that over the weekend.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Gray Castor
Wilson and I followed the yellow trail markings off the gravel road and soon found ourselves walking across a beautiful earthen dam by a large pond.  The final aid station at Mile 95 was waiting for us over a hill.  I told Wilson that I did not want to sit down this time, and that I wanted to move quickly through the station, taking just enough time to have my Camelbak refilled.  As Wilson refilled my pack with water, I grabbed some orange slices to eat on the go.  We thanked the volunteers and left out for the final five miles of the longest distance and the greatest personal victory of my 40 years. 

It was not quite time to break out the celebration balloons yet, though.  As if to remind me, rain began to drizzle lightly down through the trees to bring a new chill to my upper body.  I continued to move forward with my steady bed-of-nails walk on blisters while cracking jokes with Wilson, but sleepiness, dizziness, and shooting pains from almost every part of my body were all lining up for one final coordinated terrorist attack on my race.  Each step brought me closer to the finish line and to that Pinhoti 100 buckle, though, so I kept taking steps.

After crossing more earthen dams and negotiating a few downhills next to fields and occasional rural houses, we turned off the forest road trail onto the final section of Pinhoti 100, a long asphalt road straightaway with distant landmarks that seemed never to come closer.  A mile on this asphalt surface seemed to take days, and a couple of runners managed to pass me during my labored walk.  One woman turned to me as she passed and congratulated me, saying that my blog reports had always inspired her.  I congratulated her in turn and trailed behind her with a slightly renewed vigor to my forced limp. 

At the final mile, Wilson and I found another one of my friends, Philip, waiting for me on the side of the road.  Philip, whom I had paced at Bartram 100 last year, was not going to put up with any of my excuses, and he told me to run, challenging me to run to the next mailbox before I could walk again.  I ran to the next mailbox and tried to run beyond, but a surge of lightheadedness hit and I struggled to maintain equilibrium for a split second.  Philip abandoned the running commands for a short while and, along with Wilson, encouraged me to move as fast as I could any way that I could.

Finally, after we made a turn by some railroad tracks, Philip told me that I had a possibility at a sub-29-hour finish time if I could run the rest of the way.  I shrugged and said that I just wanted to finish.  Philip took out his iPhone, found his song list, and told me to run as the Van Halen song, “Top of the World”, began to play from the phone speaker.  I ran and kept running, struggling to stay upright and fighting each brutal asphalt scrape on the torn skin of my feet.  Lauren and Leslie were waiting for us as we turned a curve to see the Sylacauga High School Stadium, where the finish line on the track was waiting for me.  The five of us ran into the stadium and I ran around the track, savoring the relief of the rubberized track surface on my feet.   Race Director Todd Henderson was waiting for me on the track around the turn from the finish line.  We shook hands and ran together toward the finish banner.
I crossed the finish line of the Pinhoti 100-Mile Trail Race in 28:54:18, completing 100.59 miles and placing 92 out of 108 finishers at a Western States 100 qualifying run.  I stepped over the finish, stopped, and leaned down with my hands on my knees to keep from falling on my face from the loss of equilibrium.  A volunteer friend, Jeff, handed me the buckle.  I hugged Jeff, partly out of emotion and partly to keep from falling down, then held my Pinhoti buckle as I posed for photos.  Philip took a photo of my crew of Lauren, Leslie, and Wilson standing with me under the finish line banner.  This is my favorite running photo ever.  The friendships were the true award from this race, and the buckle was icing on the cake.

Photo courtesy of Philip Sustar
The heat of the previous day had exacted a toll that left this race with just a 56% finish rate.  I was one of the fortunate finishers.  After pulling myself together at a camp chair by the track for a while, I ambled to my truck to gather street clothes, and then limped to a nearby pool building shower.  I removed my compression socks slowly and torn skin from my foot blisters came off with the socks.  I stood in the warm shower for several minutes, and then dried off on a bench as severe chills overtook me and a trickle of blood formed underneath one foot.  Dressing was no small task, but I eventually walked back across the street to attend the awards ceremony.  I sat with friends in the gym, and looked around the room at many of my running heroes, privileged and blessed to be alive and well with a race finish that had taken an emotional burden off of my shoulders.  My body felt as though I had been run over by a cargo truck, but I had never been happier.

Thanks to Race Director Todd Henderson and the Alabama community of running volunteers who make the Pinhoti 100 race a success every year.  Thanks to my outstanding crew of pacers, Lauren, Leslie, and Wilson, to whom I owe so much. 

Last year, at the end of the 2011 race, I wrote in my report that my favorite race was one where I had only completed three quarters of the distance.  Right now, I am smiling at my computer as I write that my favorite race is one where I completed the full distance and crossed that finish line to the cheers of friends.  I am not a wealthy person in my everyday life, but crossing the finish line of Pinhoti 100 was an experience that no amount of money can buy.  I am the luckiest man in the world. 

See you on the trails.



  1. I am so happy for you my friend! Congrats, you deserve this victory!!!

  2. Wow! What an amazingly inspirational account of your accomplisment. Thanks for sharing the physical and emotional detail. You are rich indeed. Congratulations!
    - Susan Rice

  3. Well done, Jason! Proud of you and congratulations on the buckle!

  4. Jason, you are Awesome! Cograts on your first of may hundos!

  5. Congratulations, Jason! There's no feeling like finishing your first 100. Well-deserved- you've worked hard for this!

  6. Amazing, just amazing! I hope your blisters are on the mend. I'm not thinking that a 100 miler is on my "to do" list, but I stand in awe of your determination and perseverance. Congratulations on the run. Great write-up as well.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experience in such an honest way. Congratulations on an amazing accomplishment!

  8. Very inspiring reports, Jason. I am, at age 42, just beginning my own foray into ultras. The hydration and nutrition aspects of your report are very helpful to me as I try to figure out what to experiment with in my own training. Thank you!