Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run 12/2/12 (Race Report)

On December 2, 2012, I completed my third Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run with a finish time of 9:42:44 and improved on my previous course record by almost 20 minutes.

Photo courtesy of Liza AuYeung
Less than one month before this race, I had enjoyed the adventure of a lifetime by finishing my first 100-mile ultramarathon at Pinhoti 100 in Alabama.  When I first ventured into the ultrarunning world years ago, I had joked with friends that, if I ever completed a 100-mile race, I would mention it in every conversation that I have for the rest of my entire life.

"Jason, it's a beautiful day, isn't it?"
"Yes, this is almost as beautiful as the day that I finished that 100-mile race."

"Jason, that was a terrible movie, wasn't it?"
"Yes, watching that movie was almost as painful as Mile 74 of that 100-mile race that I finished."

"Jason, what did you think about the Presidential Election?"
"Well, the President certainly has some challenges in store for him during his next term, just as I had many challenges during that 100-mile race that I finished."

In reality, I enjoyed a week of complete rest and basked in the thrill of the accomplishment, but I eventually put my Pinhoti 100 belt buckle back into its protective bubble wrap and placed it in the race memorabilia box with all my other medals, race bibs, and assorted running awards from recent years.  The race memorabilia box, a nondescript large Rubbermaid storage container that sits on the floor of the bedroom closet in my apartment, is the resting place for my race artifacts while I move on with my life and shift my focus to the next race on my calendar.  My Pinhoti 100 finish had been the pinnacle event of my running career to date, and a result of constant training and weight loss over the past year, but I wanted an encore for 2012.  Since there is nothing like another rugged ultramarathon on the calendar to prevent post-race depression, holiday weight gain, and lapses into lazy complacency, I decided to end my best year of ultrarunning by coming back, full circle, to the Pine Mountain 40 Trail Run, where I had completed my very first ultramarathon back in 2009.

Photo courtesy of Liza AuYeung
One of my many memories from that 2009 race was the sight of a runner 11 miles into the course who had stood off to the side of the trail with a smile before walking back to the next aid station.  I later found out that this runner had finished Pinhoti 100 less than a month before and decided to drop out of this race upon realizing that 40 miles on the Pine Mountain trails were too much of a task for still-recovering legs.  This annual December event is a race that restores humility to recent Pinhoti finishers in the form of twisting trails of pointed rocks and tree roots that are hidden by several inches of fall leaves. 

Even for well-rested runners with fresh legs, the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run is a beatdown.  To use a familiar ultrarunning comparison, running this particular race is like being pecked to death by baby ducks.  The Pine Mountain course takes place on mild-elevation rolling hill terrain that does not feature any major notable obstacles, and runners do not face any steep mountain climbs, treacherous river crossings, or drastic temperatures.   Instead, the 40 miles of this course are home to countless minor aggravations that gradually accumulate to the point where motivation and fortitude are reduced to a frazzled exhaustion.  It is the little things that kill, and any small rock that catches the toe of a trail shoe, any tree root that is hidden underneath a pile of leaves, or any unstable slick stepping stone on a short creek crossing might be the final straw that causes a smiling runner to throw his or her hands up in exasperation and explode into profanity.

Photo courtesy of Lynne Haase Evans
Fortunately, one of my favorite running slogans, “It does not have to be fun to be fun.”, is an apt phrase for this ultramarathon.  Despite the multiple insidious hazards of the terrain, the Pine Mountain Trail at F.D. Roosevelt State Park in middle Georgia is a beautiful trek in early December.  Each valley houses a variety of hardwood trees, marshy ferns, or even waterfalls, while each hill crest reveals an open view of leaf colors and distant farmhouses.  As I climbed a hill from the park shelter that would serve at the finish line of this out-and-back course, and lined up at the start line on a short stretch of paved road while Race Director Thomas Armbruster Jr. gave instructions to the runners, I knew that I was in for a tough day, but I also realized that there was nowhere else I would rather be on a sunny fall day. 

I enjoyed fun conversation with other runners as we turned on the paved road, crossed a field in front of the shelter, and entered a flat single-track trail on the other side of a wooden bridge.  The first two miles of the Pine Mountain course meanders pleasantly alongside a creek and belies the technical rocky challenges that lay ahead, but an unexpected difficulty soon appeared.  From my place in the back of a long chain of runners, I saw people ahead who had stopped in their tracks as they waved their arms in the air, screaming because they had just encountered a nest of yellow jackets.  I took the initiative to yell at the crowd in a loud drill instructor manner, “Keep moving!  Go!  Don’t just stand there screaming!  Keep running and get away from the nest!  Go!  Go!  Go!  Keep moving!

Everyone complied and took off running down the trail.  I felt a sting on my right forearm, and, seconds later, suffered another sting on the back of my right leg.  The only way to run away from a yellow jacket nest is to run away from a yellow jacket nest, though, and the danger was soon behind us.  I apologized to those around me for my rudeness, but I think that we were all just happy to have that particular peril of nature behind us.  Seconds later, we all returned to our conversations and enjoyed an easy pace on the flat trail while nursing our stings.  It does not have to be fun to be fun. 

Photo courtesy of Liza AuYeung
I heard some familiar voices behind me as we climbed the first hill, crossed a road, and ran along a scenic cliff ledge.  Some friends from the Sweet H2O 50K race several months ago had recognized me and were now running behind me, telling me that they knew my pace would get them to the finish.  I appreciated the compliments and enjoyed encouraging these friends, but I inwardly hoped that their confidence in me would not be misplaced.  As I ran for long nonstop intervals on the ledge, a dull ache that I had expected all along began to reverberate in my right knee.

Recovery from a 100-mile race is not to be taken lightly.  After my Pinhoti finish, I had rested for an entire week before attempting my first run, a hilly five-mile course around my neighborhood.  A sharp pain in my right knee, presumably from a tight iliotibial band, had reduced me to a limp for the rest of that day after the five-mile run.  I enjoyed light workouts for another week and half before running the Atlanta Half Marathon on Thanksgiving Day as a Pace Team volunteer and carrying the flag for the 2:30:00 pace runners.  The knee injury caused me to run the final two miles of that half marathon with a slight limp, but the symptoms improved two days later, when I was able to complete relatively pain-free 10-mile run with my Saturday training group the week before this Pine Mountain race.  I knew that I was being somewhat reckless by going into a 40-mile ultramarathon with a still-recovering IT band so soon after my 100-miler, so I promised myself to pace easily and not push for any dramatic new speed records at this event. 

The first 11 miles of the Pine Mountain 40 course are deceptively easy as they roll up and over mild hills on a trail stretch that present rare challenges with boulders and rocks.  I always pace too quickly on this first quarter of this race by enjoying the carefree bounce of my feet on moderate terrain, and, despite the early knee ache, this time was no exception.  I continued to talk with friends, eat my Sport Beans packs every half hour by my stopwatch, and jog with ease on the descents after power-walking with a fast speed up the hills and even running many of the lesser hills nonstop.  My friends and I reached the Mile 10.8 aid station in just over two hours. 

Photo courtesy of Liza AuYeung
Soon after we passed that aid station, I submitted my entry for the most embarrassing injury of the year by hitting the right side of my head on a tree that leaned onto the trail path.  My wandering lazy eye in my right eye occasionally affects my distance perception to that side, since I always use my left eye for normal sight, and this particular tree mishap was one such incident.  If you ever want to duplicate my trail running experiences, then run on the nearest trail while wearing an eye patch over your right eye.  I taught myself to compensate for this phenomenon long ago, but this was not my day when it comes to trees that lean over the trail in the line of my right side peripheral vision.  This was an extremely painful accident that took the wind out of my sails for several seconds, but I soldiered on and kept moving.  Two days later, as I write this report, I have a noticeable blood bruise on the right side of my head above my ear. 

A few minutes after my encounter with the tree, my friends and I emerged from the woods into a vast open area of devastation from a 2011 tornado that had wreaked havoc on F.D. Roosevelt State Park in the spring of 2011.  These trails under the sun were free of leaf cover, so we ran nonstop over many of the sections while I marveled at the extent of the damage and inwardly mourned that the Pine Mountain course that I had enjoyed when I had run the race in 2009 and 2010 would never be the same again in my lifetime.  The novelty of the experience, however, gave me an energy surge, and, when I arrived at the next aid station three and half miles later, I was surprised at my speed. 

Photo courtesy of Liza AuYeung
I was now on the most dangerously rocky section of the Pine Mountain course, so I slowed to a deliberate power-walk as I negotiated rock outcroppings along a ledge, crossed a creek, and climbed to the top of a tall hill where I was rewarded with a long flat trail through the mostly leafless trees.  The temperatures were creeping up to unseasonal levels around 72 degrees, so I took caution with my speed and nutrition, remembering my harsh experience with heat sickness during the Pinhoti race.  My caution was ultimately rewarded, because I suffered no ill effects from the heat during this event. 

Self-doubt and negativity clouded my mind when I found myself running alone for longer periods of time.  This was not my first rodeo, though, and I knew from past ultramarathon experience that I would eventually cheer up and feel better as I exercised relentless forward motion and kept moving.  My previous finishes at this particular race had taught me that I tend to hit low points along a loop that begins at Mile 17.8 and ends at Mile 24.5.  I reached the aid station that signaled the beginning of this loop, grabbed a handful of oranges, and walked with a limp across a road.  When a crowd of onlookers expressed concern, I told them that I was trying to work through some IT band problems with my knee. 

Once I finished eating the orange slices, I ran nonstop down several luxuriously flat trail straightaways until the terrain became more technical around the halfway point of the race.  One of the toughest sections of the course, a seemingly never-ending stretch where the trail doubles back and forth several times across a creek by way of slick stepping stones and wooden bridges along marshy flats, ferns, and inclines that rise up and over cliff drops, seemed almost like a welcome mat to me this time around, since the nonstop running on the easy trail before had taxed my ailing knee and I was in need of a good long walk break.  I power-walked quickly through the creek crossing section and even managed to pass a couple of runners along the way. 

Photo courtesy of Lynne Haase Evans
At Mile 22.8, my spirits rose when I reached the TV Tower aid station and was greeted by one of the many fun-loving groups of volunteers that is characteristic of this race that is organized by the Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS).  Three running friends, Aaron, Frank, and Janette, heckled and motivated me at the same time as I downed two cups of Coke and continued down the trail.  I had reached this Mile 22.8 aid station in five hours and 10 minutes.  My knee pain was worsening, but I was reassured that I reached this aid station faster than ever before in the past, and that I had time banked for a slower return to the finish.

I ran nonstop for almost a mile until mild shooting pains in my knee sent the crystal clear message that my running career was pretty much finished for the rest of the day.  Fortunately, I could still employ my fast-paced “Jason Voorhees walk” that had served me well during the Georgia Jewel 50 Mile and during Pinhoti 100.  I plowed forward with this deliberate power-walk and soon found myself leapfrogging a runner who complimented me on my walking pace.  I reached the end of the lollipop loop at Mile 24.5, and started my way back along the Pine Mountain Trail to the finish shelter. 

Photo courtesy of Liza AuYeung
I knew that my knee pain was going to be a problem, but my energy levels were surprisingly high as I approached the marathon distance along the trails.  For a couple of weeks after Pinhoti 100, I had felt a constant tired listlessness indicative of core muscles and an endocrine system that needed rest and recovery.  I had expected this exhaustion to hit me like a brick during this 40-mile race so soon after the 100, but all systems were still a go as far as my energy and motivation were concerned.  I took this as a good sign that my body was adapting to ultramarathon distances in a positive way.  My aching right knee was the only thing holding me back from running for long nonstop intervals even this late in the race. 

The knee pain gradually worsened, though, and I noticeably winced when climbing down rocky steps or stepping over occasional fallen trees.  To my discredit, I allowed the increasing pain to affect my temper, and I soon eschewed all social skills by erupting into profane yells whenever I stepped on a pointed rock or tripped a toe that resulted in another shooting pain in my knee.  I was encountering the same runners over and over again on a frequent basis during the final 15 miles as my power-walk pace allowed me to pass them on the hill climbs until they passed me in turn on the descents.  Whenever one of them expressed concern and asked me if my knee was still hurting, I would smile weakly and reply, “Yes, but I’m still moving!  We’ll get there soon.”

For the first time during an ultramarathon, I started eagerly anticipating the hill climbs, because my knee felt better on the climbs than it did on the descents.  Through it all, I plowed forward with my relentless forward motion hike, refueled with Gatorade and Coke at aid stations, and thanked aid station volunteers for their help.  My hands were starting to swell slightly from my increased hydration in the heat, so I became more careful drinking from my CamelBak.  I would also occasionally raise my hands into the air and shake them to stimulate blood flow and reduce the swelling, as advised by other ultrarunners.  At no point during this painful trek did I doubt my ability to finish this race.  I had enjoyed an unexpectedly blessed year of ultrarunning, and I was not going to end the year on a sour note with a DNF (Did Not Finish) at this one last ultramarathon.  The only question was whether or not my final “one for the road” ultramarathon of 2012 would prove to be one too many. 

Photo courtesy of Frank Conti
I eventually arrived at the final manned aid station at Mile 34.2.  As the volunteers refilled my pack with water, I told them about my knee pain from the IT band tightness.  A GUTS friend, Len, offered a helpful tip.  “You know the best way to make your knee feel better, don’t you, Jason?   Finish the race.” 

I can always count on my GUTS friends for tough love.  I limped out of the aid station and winced with each step on a rock-covered descent, but I was now smiling.  I looked at my stopwatch and realized that I even had a chance to beat my previous course record, 10:01:50, from the 2010 Pine Mountain race.  I ran for short distances, then resumed power-walking when the knee pain intensified.  The final long hill climb of the race did not faze me as I passed a couple of other runners and enthusiastically congratulated one of them when she told me that this was her first ultramarathon. 

The final two miles of the race along flat terrain were my reward for punishing my knee on a final extended descent, so I took advantage by jogging when my knee allowed and pushing my power-walk into overdrive when I could only walk.  Miraculously, I somehow passed four runners during this two-mile stretch with my walk pace.  I reached the edge of the woods next to the park shelter and started to run to the finish line.  Several volunteers who had apparently spotted my bright orange shirt from behind the trees yelled out my name just before I ran into the clearing.  I crossed the finish line of the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run in 9:42:44, and placed 85 out of 118 finishers. 

Photo courtesy of Liza AuYeung
I would like to have placed higher for this race after my running improvements over the past year, but my recovering knee had made other plans.  More than anything, though, I was overjoyed at my ability to pull a 40-mile ultramarathon finish out of my hat less than a month after my first 100-mile race.  When friends approached me at the finish area and advised me to take some well-earned rest and recovery to get my knee back into shape, I graciously assured them that I would be resting for the remainder of the year. 

It does not have to be fun to be fun.  The leaf-hidden rocks had their fun with me for the third time at Pine Mountain, but I had my own fun by spending time with great friends, enjoying some beautiful fall scenery, and finishing another rugged race to close out 2012.  I woke up the morning after this race and was surprised to have no soreness to speak of.  Aside from the slight knee pain, I barely even felt as though I had run the day before.  My decision to power-walk most of the last half of the race probably saved my knee.  My body is adapting well, and I will reward it by allowing the knee to recover with some rest and some IT band exercises.  Thanks to Thomas Armbruster Jr. and the GUTS crowd for another brilliantly organized Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run, where it was a privilege to return to the scene of my very first ultramarathon.  I enjoyed the experience, and pushed myself through many challenges--just as I did during that 100-mile race that I finished.

See you on the trails.



  1. Nice report! Congrats on this run that 100-mile race that you finished :)

  2. great recaIp! Congrats! I read your previous recaps on the race. I attempted it for the first time this year. Wow, it was tough. It was not my day and made it to 28 miles and was pulled for missing the time cut off. I just was not my day! I gave it what I had. Love your description of the trail...hope you don't mind if I reference you in the my blog post:)

  3. Cool man, it was great meeting you out there! Glad you pulled through those last few miles. They were really tough. I actually enjoyed the top of the lollipop the most, I think. That grilled cheese sandwich was a goal i was chasing.

    I wore my finishers fleece to work today.