Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pinhoti 100

The short version: I went until I couldn’t go any farther, and then I went a little farther.

The long version (Warning: Long, boring, tale of silly jogging/bushwacking that probably has subliminal messages if you play it backwards):

Summer training went fantastically. I probably ran more miles this past summer than I have ever run in any 3-month span before. But that was the summer. Between classes, research, and personal stuff, the last couple of months have been somewhat lacking as far as mileage is concerned that could be considered appropriate for 100-mile training. Sometimes life seems to get in the way, but we push on and hope for the best; thusly I toed the line for the Pinhoti 100.

The morning started at 2:55 when I woke up 5 minutes before my alarm and the wakeup call we had ordered from the hotel front desk. With the wakeup call, my dad and brother got up, we all got dressed, and we headed to Huddle House for a quick breakfast before driving to the starting area an hour and a half away. While riding shotgun through the wee hours of the morning, the thought that hit me last year at that point crept back into my mind. I was riding at 55-70 mph for an hour and a half, and I had to run back.

"The people that I have met are not foolish; they are aware of how tired and cold and hungry and frightened and hurting and discouraged and disoriented and how possibly injured they will become. They know they will face great physical, mental, emotional, and possibly spiritual challenges as they make their way to the finish. This is what they are racing against. This is their challenge. This is what I admire." - Carolyn Erdman

The race got started at about 6:15 with about half of the runners hollering at the top of their lungs and the other half silently contemplating the task at hand. I managed to get out in the second pack, figuring that I both wanted to let the lead guys get out ahead to run fast (including pro Karl Meltzer, previous winner John Teeples, and various stud runners such as DeWayne Satterfield, Roch Horton, John Dove, and a slew of other fast guys), while also staying in front of the inevitable conga line that would form for the first 5 or so miles on the single track trails as everyone tried to find that elusive “sustainable” pace. What a laughable concept – sustainable pace…

I managed to get positioned right where I was aiming, with a pack of guys I already knew, ahead of the bottleneck, and behind the fast guys. True to form, my one and only fall of the race came in the first few miles of the race, when I slipped on some wet leaves; the relatively small cut that was created bled like a champ, prompting aid station workers for the entirety of the race to ask if I needed one of them to clean it. I just figured that I’d rub some dirt on it and move along.

My race plan was to run the first 50 miles in around 10 hours, allowing 14 hours for the second 50 miles to stay under 24 for the full 100. This seemed like a reasonable strategy, given the impending nocturnal slowdown. I quickly learned that the rest of the pack had adopted similar plans, and that being the case, our little group set about plugging away at the miles. The first few aid stations came and went relatively uneventfully, and we managed to stay on pace while enjoying quite a bit of random conversation. I got into the rhythm of running, anticipating the next aid station, meeting my crew, and repeating. It’s good to be able to go through the motions for a while almost on autopilot.

"If you start to feel good during an ultra, don't worry - you'll get over it." – Gene Thibeault

As the day progressed each of us that began the day running together had minor ebbs and flows; we’d drop off the pace, then catch back up with the group after a few miles and fall back into step. Then we started approaching Mt. Cheaha. I’m well aware that when compared to mountains such as those in the Rockies, Mt. Cheaha is merely a foothill, but it is the highest point in the state of Alabama, and when you have to climb the bulk of it within a mile, it can sure be a pace-killer, among other things. I had started falling off the pace pretty badly somewhere around mile 35, and the next aid station was at the top of Cheaha, just shy of mile 41. I was hitting my first bonk, and it was messing with my head pretty badly. My mind began formulating those ideas and questions that you can’t afford to let it create: “It was too early to be feeling this bad. If I couldn’t hold the pace a mere 40 miles, how was I even going to keep moving for another 60? The heat is already killing my insides; I can’t keep pushing for another 16 hours if I can’t regulate something as easy as fluids in a little warm weather. What am I doing here? I’m undertrained. I’m scared. Maybe I should just qui…”

And then I got to the top. The view was fantastic, and even more than seeing the sprawling landscape laid out in front of the overlook, I was thrilled to see my crew, who had by this time figured out that I was running a little behind schedule and was ready and waiting to see what they could do to get me back on my game. I made use of the one bathroom on the course (for the tourists at the “Top of Alabama”) to take care of some pressing business, and I think the shear act of sitting down for a couple of minutes revitalized my legs. While I took care of that, my dad filled up my water bottle, my brother Peter got ready to come in as my first pacer, and before I knew it, Peter and I were back out on the trail.

We made our way back down Cheaha and resumed the continuing task of chipping away at the miles. It was getting late in the day, so around mile 50, we picked up an extra upper body layer and headlamps for both of us, and as the dark of night relentlessly approached, I remembered more and more vividly just how dark things can get.

At mile 55, Peter’s first pacing shift was over, and Fred Trouse, a friend from Auburn who had paced for me last year, began his first pacing shift. Having two veteran pacers is an asset whose virtue I cannot begin to describe, and having these two particular pacers made for, shall we say, an amusing and effective motivational system.

Fred and I made our way through the dark woods for quite a while with Kip Chasse’, one of the guys with whom I had started the day before we all began falling off the pace. He had begun flagging before I had, but he had found a seemingly abundant reserve of energy and was bouncing along, thoroughly enjoying himself, and incessantly chattering about increasingly odd and off-kilter topics. Whereas this might have been somewhat annoying at other times, it was a great way to keep our minds on things other than running for several hours, and we all chatted and laughed our way from aid station to aid station before Kip’s tide of energy swept him on ahead of me for the rest of the race.

When Fred and I got to the mile 65 aid station (the one where I utterly crashed and burned last year, spending an hour trying to convince myself that I was still alive), I grabbed some hot soup, warmed up by the fire, and encountered the first person I had seen of the day deciding to officially drop. He looked fit, but had apparently fallen apart in the last few miles, saying that the previous five miles had taken him two and a half hours to complete. From my own previous experience, I understood his predicament, and I almost let myself begin to think about how good it would feel to….

Nope. Just when I could see that my brain was heading in that direction, I got up, bid the wonderful aid station workers adieu (complete with a bow to the self-proclaimed hostess), and marched out toward the next aid station. I couldn’t afford those kinds of thoughts.

At mile 68, a decision must be made. Fred was finishing up his first pacing shift, while Peter was gearing up to come back in for the infamous Pinnacle ascent. The problem with leaving the aid station at mile 68 is that you know that you won’t see your crew for the next 18 miles, and that those 18 miles are arguably the most difficult of the course, so it amounts to a solid 5-7 hours cutoff from the outside world. And darn my bullheadedness, I made the decision to march out, head high, into the blackness, hoping that I could trick myself into pressing on for a few more hours.

The next couple of miles went by a bit slowly. Fred had aptly described my running at that point as a “good old man shuffle,” and Peter confirmed the sentiment, but it was a good laughing point. As we made our way along the trail, I found myself more and more sleepy, hardly able to even keep my eyes open. A couple of times I would even catch myself walking a couple of steps with my eyes closed, so as we began the switchback ascent of Horn Mountain toward the Pinnacle aid station, Peter and I did what any sane people would do in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, half asleep, and 70 miles into a run. We sang.

Peter began singing, knowing it would lift me up a little, I joined in, and we sang quite an eclectic assortment of music. From Sinatra to Pink Floyd to the Beatles to Disney, we belted out the lyrics at the top of our lungs, hoping that the aid station workers at the top could hear and were wondering who had escaped the asylum below…

Finally, we made it to the top and the notorious Pinnacle aid station, manned by ultrarunners who knew just what we would want and need at that point in the race. The trademark of the aid station last year had been their fried egg sandwiches, which I had opted to avoid, given how upset my stomach was at the time, but this year was different. I had waited a year for one of those sandwiches, so when they asked, I ordered up a fried egg sandwich with cheese and bacon and a cup of coffee, both of which were promptly served up. I ate and drank while warming up by the fire and realized just how good this particular aid station was, because in addition to fun food, they were offering chocolate covered espresso beans, toothbrushes, and diaper rash cream – the kinds of things most people would not think to bring to an aid station…

"Your biggest challenge isn't someone else. It's the ache in your lungs and the burning in your legs, and the voice inside you that yells 'CAN'T", but you don't listen. You just push harder. And then you hear the voice whisper 'can'. And you discover that the person you thought you were is no match for the one you really are." - Unknown

The mark of a truly good aid station is that the volunteers show a genuine concern for your task at hand over your immediate comfort, which in an ultramarathon aid station means that if you look good enough to run/walk/crawl, they kick you out of the aid station to just keep you moving toward the finish. That being the case, Peter and I were promptly discharged from the aid station back along the ridge on top of Horn Mountain working toward the next aid station. At this point, at least in my head, I knew that the absolute worst of the race was over. The last big climb was done; now I just had to keep up the relentless forward motion to the finish and I would be done. We made our way to the next aid station five miles away (felt like 10, but I’ll pretend they measure the course correctly at 5…), didn’t spend too much time there before departing toward another much-anticipated aid station at mile 86.

We made a slow descent over the next 6 miles to the aid station at mile 86, manned by a bunch of friends of mine from Huntsville, representing the Huntsville Track Club and Fleet Feet Sports. When Peter and I came into view (after hearing the music from their speakers for a mile or so), they all started hooting and hollering to see me; it was a real motivational boost. I think those guys, and especially my dad, were a bit relieved to see me come out of the woods. A minute or so later, when I got into the aid station, they immediately got me the food I wanted, took the clothes I didn’t need any more, and got me moving again, as I was within a half hour of the cutoff time for that aid station. Peter’s pacing shift was over, and as Fred began his second pacing leg, Peter drove off to take a well-earned nap.

Peter and me coming into the mile 86 aid station

I'm happy to be here. Really. I promise...

Fred (left), anxious to get his second round of pacing under way helps expedite the stripping process along with Rob (back) and Kathy Youngren (right). I guess it takes true friends to help you rip your pants off...

From left to right: Fred (ready to get moving), Rob Youngren (realizing that me sitting down to take care of that might not be the best thing...), Kathy Youngren (keeping me balanced while offering a veritable buffet), Blake Thompson (happy it's me and not him), and someone else, Josh Kennedy, perhaps? (what can I say, I'm a popular guy...)

I mean, I don't really enjoy resting, anyway...

Newly rejuvenated, I took off down the gravel road that would constitute most of the next 10 miles, Fred in tow. About a week earlier, I had told him that for that last section, from 86 to 100, if I didn’t have a bone poking out, I wanted to be running, and that I’d like him to be as firm as he needed to in order to keep me from walking even the uphill portions. That being the case, I was probably running around 9:30 miles for the next 5 or 7 miles, only spending around 30 seconds at the next aid station before getting the heck out of there. I was trying to make up some lost time. Given that Fred had told me that the most recent runner to pass through the mile 86 aid station was 15 or 20 minute ahead of me, I was pleased when I passed him somewhere between mile 90 and 95. At the FINAL aid station at mile 95, I shed the remainder of my warm clothes and was back down to shorts and a t-shirt to finish out the race.

The next couple of miles were spent getting back out to the road that would take us into town to the finish line. I began to feel the previous few fast miles and slowed for a couple of miles until I could “smell the barn.” At that point, I began picking up the pace yet again. The finish was about 200 yards around a high school track, and as soon as we got inside the stadium, I felt light as a feather, and, true to form from my last couple of races, I spread my arms out and airplaned around the track, to the shouts of some friends waiting at the finish. At the line, as I had planned to do if my legs still had anything left, I jumped up and clicked my heels to cross.

100 miles: 27:38:57

The race director, Todd Henderson, handed me my new belt buckle, a couple of pictures were taken, and that was that. Meltzer had won in an amazing 17:12, blowing away the old course record by over 3.5 hours. Of the sixty-something starters, 38 ended up finishing.

The race was another testament to how much of a factor my crew was for me. Having Peter and Fred out there with me during those tough hours late in the race was critical, and having my dad, the crew chief, behind the scenes, working out logistics and making sure I always had whatever I needed kept me from making stupid mistakes and probably saved my race. My gratitude to these three simply is not quantifiable.

Well, that’s my story. I warned you it was long. I hope you enjoyed it.

"Is this level of athletic competition the ultimate distraction from real life? Or is it a form of prayer?" - Norah Vincent