Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Pinhoti 101

On November 3rd and 4th, 2012, I traveled from Philly to Alabama to attempt my first trail 100, the Pinhoti 100. My goal was to finish in 29:59:59, just under the 30 hour limit. For those of you in the back of the pack, I was the guy wearing the green Oregon shirt.

Here are 19 things I learned (one for each section of the race) in no particular order:

1. Ultras as protracted teaching moments. The more I run ultras, the more I learn from them, and the more I learn about myself. As I learn, the races get easier to manage, but there are lots of pitfalls and unexpected circumstances that keep them rich for me. I suspect that this learning is the real attraction.

2. Alabama is not Florida. First time in the Heart of Dixie, and at least the parts I saw were rugged and contoured. That makes for a challenging race. Good thing I believed the course profile!

3. Alabama is not Pennsylvania. Ask any Appalachian Trail through-hiker and they will tell you that PA is filled with rocks. Not knowing what to expect, I sought them in my training runs. While Pinhoti is blissfully mostly single-track trail, much of it (but not all!) is not so technical, and quite a bit is almost embarrassingly well-padded with pine straw. My feet were quite beaten down by the end of the race, and they wouldn't have survived much more of the late-race, rocky ridge-running.

4. Rocks can be fun. Loved, loved, loved "Blue Hell", the 800 foot rocky drop in half a mile from the race high point at Mt Cheaha. Made me feel like a kid again! Great respect for brother-in-law Brian, a good runner but not on this kind of stuff, for tagging along on this stretch as a pacer.

5. Rocks are often not so much fun. A big challenge for me was the top of Horn Mountain and the other ridges we traversed late in the game. While the course was extremely well-marked, the trail snaked through, skirted, zigzagged, and climbed rocks in these sections for what seemed like an endless stretch. In the daytime, likely a beautiful hike with amazing views. At night and alone, a different story.

6. Crews enrich. I don't need to state the importance of crews. And mine were the best! My in-laws Billy, Ellen, Mary, Mindy, Stuart, Brian, and Lisa came all the way from Atlanta and met me at every aid station they could get to. They brought everything I wanted, and they tended to everything I needed. The only minor snafu was beating my own best time estimates and getting to the last few stations before they could. I think that's about the best "problem" one could ask for in an ultra. But most of all, it was much more enjoyable having them there, and I'm so glad they enjoyed the experience. They are the greatest!

7. Pinhoti is the perfect trail race. Why go all the way to Alabama? Well, what's the perfect 100? To me, it is mostly single-track with a few dirt roads scattered in to catch your breath, ideal weather, fantastic scenery on the peak foliage weekend, an extremely well-organized race that manages to also retain its laid-back and down-home feel, and extremely dedicated volunteers who know ultras. Add in a challenging but not impossible course that is quite varied and you have a winner.

8. Food... Solid food! In training, I learned enough to find out just how much to eat beyond gels, not so much to divert blood to my stomach, but enough to smooth out the sugar spikes. When I got away from this, such as around mile 50, I suffered. Going into the mile 52 aid station, I was really bonking. A cup of soup and a few potato slices literally transformed me 2 minutes later into a running machine. It was amazing! I also struggled near the end as there wasn't as much option for the hot food, so I stupidly stuck with the gels and cookies. Big mistake. Oh, and putting cookies in a zippered pocket with a headlamp? Another teaching moment! Biggest food highlight: the homemade ham and bean stew, I think at Bald Rock? Wow!

9. Liquid... It got warm in the early afternoon, especially around mile 30, where lots of folks seemed to be struggling. In fact, it seemed like there were many who dropped later from heat-related issues such as GI distress. Love to run with a waist pack just so I know exactly how much I am drinking. Every 20 minutes, another 8-12 oz, and it worked out great as it always has for me.

10. and mineral...  I was popping the S-caps from the beginning as I noticed myself sweating even from the start, though I didn't (but should have) over-hydrate as I was doing successfully in my summer training. I got a few calf cramp twinges around Morgan Lake, but after that stretch, the trail seemed cooler and there was a nice breeze due to low humidity. Suspect that my end-of-race slowing had a bit to do with decreasing the frequency of electrolyte-popping towards the end.

11. ...equals a good race? This reinforced for me 3 essentials for my having a good race physically: food, drink, salt. But what else? As I had lots of time to think about this during the race, I started wondering about training regimens. Jeff Galloway was the first to turn me on to the idea that you likely hit the wall just about at the distance of your longest training run. I'd seen evidence of this both for shorter races and especially when coaching first-time marathoners, where it was always the last 1-2 miles of their longest run to date that they struggled with. But how far does this extend? My peak training was a 75 mile weekend 4 weeks beforehand, and I only really started to get the "okay, I'm ready for this to end" feeling at about mile 80. Coincidence?

12. There is no wildlife in Alabama.  Other than a few rustlings in the dark that couldn't have been bigger than a chipmunk and one owl hoot, I neither saw nor heard any animals except for one spider, one beetle, various pets, and then the hilariously non-caring donkeys and cows near the end. The quiet was probably a good thing. But what about the late-night coyote howls?! That was a special memory, especially on top of Horn Mountain. At one time, it sounded like a whole pack. Do coyotes even travel in packs? Was it some moonshined-up hillbillies? Luckily, they were way down in the valley, so no need to climb a tree like the runner two years ago.

13. Don't believe the race director. Lots of online and pre-race event questions about creek crossings. Not to worry, it's been a dry summer, the creeks are low, you can easily hop across rocks and not get wet. Yeah, except for the small river around mile 30. So do I risk wet shoes and dash across or carefully try to avoid with bare feet the "sharp rocks AND mud" that the runner just ahead warns me about? Why not both--take off the shoes, then dry my feet with my socks. Oh hello, WET socks. Another teaching moment! Again however, a blessed day, a few raw toes at the end, but no major blister issues. The funniest part was on the other side, when another runner who did Pinhoti last year swore that creek wasn't there. Hmm, no old bridge pilings. No evidence of a tunnel, either. Re-routed trail (no fords in sight)? New fracting-induced spring that bubbled up nearby? It's a mystery...

14. It's all in the training. I had a career day out there on the course. A lot of it was luck, and a lot was the right support given at the right time. I'm hoping that my training plan, which is almost completely arbitrary and lacked any evidence that it might work (though that apparently doesn't stop me from trying to get others to use it!), had some to do with this. Our trail group in Philly killed it in training. We found the steepest, rockiest, ugliest hills and worked them until we dropped. We ran in the heat and the humidity throughout the summer,  including at least ten weekends of 30 or more miles. Trails started becoming optional, Barkley-style! I ran all the uphills, figuring that by not doing that in the race, I'd have a mental cushion. While that's not a big deal for talented and experienced ultrarunners, for a first-timer like me that's a lot to handle, and there was definitely greater risk of injury. Probably more training than I needed, but it worked, and I think it helped mentally.

15. It's all in the training partners. Sophorn Smiley, my incomparable training partner, finished Pinhoti as her first 100 as well. I suggested to her last year that this might be a good race to try. I'm very happy that she said yes, because I likely wouldn't have endured the training without her. And I'm so proud of her for finishing. The rest of our fledgling training group also needs to share in our glory, especially Steve B., Gabby, the power twins Chrissy and Carrie, Linda, Sophorn's husband Jim, and all the other adventurers that came out with us. You all made it not only bearable, you made it fun.

16. Don't study too hard. As my running friends know, I have a great tendency to over-analyze everything. For Pinhoti, I read and re-read every website, blog, race report, and post that I could find about the race, and when I couldn't find it, I asked. My impression was that it was challenging, and likely at the fringe of my ability as a runner with moderate athletic (but thankfully, world-class stubbornness) gifts. I heard widely varying reports, from "very technical" to "smooth course"; "harder than Leadville (or, as the women's winner this year stated, 'much harder than Western States')" to "quite runnable". For me, I found the hills quite manageable. Only two of them really killed me, the impossibly steep climb out of Chandler Springs at mile 65, and the 10 foot high red clay bump up to the dam near the end of the race that I nearly crawled up. Both were unexpected; so much for studying! As people say, the Cheaha climb is pretty gradual, though the last push to the top was tough in the sun. Pinnacle at 74 was a bit steeper than I expected, but kind of anti-climactic, as I'd already heard so much about it. As I said, the rocks were not so bad though they would be hard for someone unaccustomed. I actually liked the jeep roads as they gave me a break, and the smooth dirt roads were a luxury. One thing that is true is that there is almost no level ground, and that takes its toll. Overall, about what I expected, not a course to underestimate but not impossibly hard, and very well designed with that in mind.

17. Who are these people? Met lots of really inspiring folks, too many to mention by name. So much fun running into fellow runners during the race and conversing for a while before parting again. The aid station volunteers never cease to amaze me, and I think their jobs are harder than ours in some respects, especially in the remote stations late at night. Pinhoti attracted the best, and it motivated me to do more of this myself.

18. Cell phones can be handy. There was cell phone service at quite a few spots, and it was great. I could call people, text, tweet, post, whatever I wanted to do. It was a great distraction while walking a few of the big hills. Most importantly, I could find out what was happening in the Oregon-USC game, the results of which definitely lifted my spirits.

19. How could this have happened? Simply, this happened because I have a wife and family that believes in me and sacrificed a lot to let me do this crazy thing. I owe it all to my amazing wife Lori and my precious boys.

So in the end, I got schooled quite a bit, but I eventually received a passing grade: 26:29:07. This was way beyond my wildest expectations, both in time but especially in experience. Managed to escape any real issues, and except for unprecedented soreness from over-pounding the downhills, my recovery has been short and swift.

Conclusion: I most definitely recommend taking this class to anyone who is still reading.

Happy trails!

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