The Ultrasignup Click
I signed up for the Pinhoti 100 mile race on a whim. I usually can't run a race on the first weekend of November because that is the date of the State Cross Country Championships. This year, though, I knew my young team would not be ready for state. So an impulse click later, I was registered.
Post-click remorse set in immediately. Running 100 miles on trail would be a true test of the knee. I had run 93 miles on it on the one year anniversary of the ACL surgery, but that was on a flat, crushed gravel course. Pinhoti was only two months later. Maybe I needed more time, more training, more strength before I attempted that. If I tried and failed because of my knee, that would be a major mental setback.
So, I put in some tough miles in October and felt relatively hopeful that the knee would hold up. What I became very unsure of, though, was if I could make the cutoffs. I'm still rebuilding. I am slower and much more cautious on downhills and technical terrain. Because of these doubts, I felt no excitement about the upcoming race, just a sense of foreboding. I procrastinated on planning and spent no time reading anything about the race other than what was necessary. I decided I would just show up and run.
The course is point-to-point from Heflin, Alabama to Sylacauga in the Talladega National Forest. It is eighty miles of single track, with some twenty miles of jeep road and pavement thrown in.
The race starts in Pine Glen Campground at 6 a.m., which means you run the first 40 minutes or so in the dark. It also immediately goes to single track, so you have to be careful where you put yourself so you aren't stuck in the line of a couple hundred people going too fast or too slow. I opted to take the too slow option so I didn't wear myself out at the start and was pleasantly surprised that we were running a perfect pace until the sun came up. Then someone up front put the brakes on and we started doing a lot of walking. It was really hard to pass because of the terrain, but I eventually got frustrated and just did it. I spent a little while in solitude, caught between the faster group and slower group, grateful that I wasn't breathing a bunch of dust and happy to run my own pace.
It didn't take too long for the process of passing and being passed started. As the sun rose higher, a combination of the heat, the dust aggravating my asthma, and the incessantly rolling terrain began to take a toll on me. I was now being passed on a regular basis. I tried to keep up, but couldn't comfortably move any faster and I had to keep reminding myself to be patient and do my own thing. It really wore down my morale, though, since I already had major doubts about my competence. I couldn't tell if I was moving too slowly or if I was doing okay.
The terrain of the first thirty miles or so was tough for me. I'm used to big climbs and descents, but at Pinhoti, it's very rolling, with lots of 50-100 yard climbs and descents. I eventually started walking the little hills, not because I needed to, but because the terrain wasn't providing any natural walk breaks. And I continued to be passed and my morale continued to drop. Then my calf and shins on my "bad" leg started to hurt pretty badly and my right quad felt trashed from compensating. I was not having fun. After a mere thirteen miles, I began to wonder how I could continue to do this for another 87 miles?
Finally, I stopped and loosened my shoe and the shin splints went away. The crowds had thinned out on the trail and I was running my own pace without worrying about being too slow. When I met Tony at an aid station and told him I wanted to quit but he couldn't let me, he told me I was better in the last 50 miles and it would get better. I was still being hard on myself at the aid station at mile 34 as I realized how much I was slowing down. Then the long, steep climb up Bald Rock started. And that's when things began to get a lot better.
This is More Like It
That climb was more like what I was used to and my legs seemed to recognize it. My energy spiked and I began alternating between power walking hard and running, passing people along the way. This feeling lasted for the next 40 miles. I wasn't burning up the trail, but I felt good at a point when a lot of people were feeling bad. From about 3 in the afternoon to 2 in the morning, the only person who passed me out on the trail (although some may have got out of aid stations faster) was Jason Sullivan, who had also experienced a resurgence. My mind got right again and I felt stronger and stronger as I passed people. I didn't know if the feeling would last a few minutes or a few hours, so I just went with it. I used what I had when I had it.
The heat took its toll on a lot of people, but somehow (despite running in the snow earlier in the week), I adjusted to it. (The race had a 56% finishing rate). Instead of doing everything on schedule, this time I just listened to my body. Whenever a muscle started to hurt, I popped another s-cap. When I started to feel a little pang of hunger or a drop in energy, I ate even if I had just eaten 15 minutes before. I didn't push water just because I though I ought to. As a result, despite the heat and the climbs, I felt okay.
Back to the Course
That long climb up Bald Rock felt so much more like home and the view from the rooftop of Alabama was beautiful. What was even more beautiful was seeing Tony up top holding a Chick Fillet bag. One spicy chicken sandwich and change of clothes later, I was heading down Blue Hell, a super steep rocky, slippery, leaf covered descent. I had changed out of sweaty tops, but I think I sweat more in that one section just trying to work my way down it than I had in the heat of the day. Once I hit the bottom, I came into an area with brilliant maples glowing in the late afternoon sun, a really nice pick me up. The leaves were beautiful throughout the course, but the backlighting here made them even more special
The next section had some pavement and gravel roads. A lot of people were walking, but I wanted to make some time, so I ran most of it. The aid station came quickly and would be the last one in the daylight. On to thirteen hours of darkness. And speaking of aid stations,the aid station volunteers throughout the course were outstanding. They filled my bottle, offered me food, helped me find the trail and were always so encouraging. I was a little disappointed to find that several aid stations were out of things like coke and sandwiches when I came through and I wasn't even at the back of the pack. I've learned not to depend on aid stations too much,though, and I carry what I need.
Back to the Course Again
As the miles wore on, a lot of the trail became pretty monotonous and I'm sure the 13 hours of darkness contributed to that. It seemed like you were just constantly doing little ups and downs and switchbacks in the woods. There were some old jeep roads, which broke things up, but for the most part it all looked the same. There was one more big climb, preceded by a couple miles of the aforesaid monotony, and it was there that some people started passing me. I saw their headlamps behind me at every switchback and as the climb started, they gained on me and passed me, once again dropping my morale back down. Then the rocky terrain up top should have been my strong point, but I found myself being very cautious, picking my footing carefully because my legs were so fatigued.
The last 15 miles were horrible. It was predominantly gravel road and all I could think about was the pace I was moving at and how long it would take me to finish. The aid station workers assured me that I had plenty of time to finish, but they didn't know how I felt at that point. Fifteen minute miles should have been easy, but they weren't. The road was rolling, but there were not many long descents to help with momentum. My legs were dead and hurt badly, something that hadn't happened to that degree before. I have always been able to still do some running at the end, but I walked a lot of those 15 miles. And the last miles were the worst. Perfectly straight pavement . You could see tiny dots of people far up the road, giving you a visual reminder of just how far you had left. Only one person in sight at that point was doing any running and although I tried a little shuffle now and then, I resigned myself to join the death march.
At several points along those last fifteen miles I really wanted to quit. I kept hearing Tony say what he said when he paced me at my first 100, "What are you going to do, sit down in the middle of the trail and cry?" Yes, actually, that would be nice. But that would just prolong how long I was out there and I was more than ready to be done. And I had something to prove to myself. I know that I may never be 100%. My knee will still give me some problems. But fourteen months after surgery, if it could undergo a hundred mile pounding and twisting on rough terrain, I would be able to quit worrying about it and get on with my running.
Finally. A turn off the road, a hundred meters or so on the track at Sylacauga and done. Tony there, making me smile as always. A pretty new buckle to add to the Virginian ones. 192 starters. 108 finishers. 85th overall. 28:42. Much more than I expected.
This race was a huge mental challenge. I recognized all along what my negativity was doing to me but was powerless to stop the thoughts from coming. What finally helped was distracting myself by singing along to my iPod (and I apologize to anyone within hearing distance). Ironically, both "Stronger" and "If I Die Young" came up frequently. And having some short conversations with other runners was also a good distraction. One of the best parts of ultrarunning is meeting other people who help you along, whether or not they realize it.
Thanks to Scott Hodukavich, Vikena Yutz, pinhoit100.com and Tony for the pics. And thanks to my surgeon and physical therapist for making this possible again. : )