Monday, December 27, 2010

RACE REPORT: Lookout Mountain 50 Mile Trail Race

Wherein I fall in love with Chattanooga, TN (and Lookout Mountain in particular) and experience one mutha of an HTFU run.

The Lookout Mountain 50 Mile Trail Race came and went, leaving in its wake one sore, beat down runner who is better off for having had the experience.

The race. Originating from the Lookout 100K, this 50 miler is run on the easily accessible, yet remote trails of Lookout Mountain and features such classic sites such as Cravens House, Scoca Springs, Lula Lake, the Covenant College cross country course, and the historical Civil War Lookout.

The Course: The run starts at the top of Lookout Mountain at Covenant College. Runners are sent along two exposed bluff lines for approximately 6 miles with fantastic views (some in the park and some in the land trust). On one section of trail, it's possible to see 5 states on a clear day. The trail continues along Lookout Creek and later Rock Creek. The terrain is technical and very steep in some parts, yet very runnable in other parts. The views are expansive and very rewarding. At one point, the climb is so steep you find yourself hoisting yourself up the side of the mountain with a rope that has been provided. It's a difficult course.

Covenant College (seriously, who gets to go to school here?)

Here's how it all unfolded: Just one week post-Bartram 100, I met up with Charles in Chattanooga at the mandatory pre-race meeting and packet pick-up. (The race packet goodies were excellent: Patagonia tech tee and North Face arm warmers). Our plan for this race was to simply view this course and get some miles on tired legs. Honestly, I was not sure I would be able to run at all, as I was still feeling the effects of Bartram's parting twin gifts of achilles and peroneal tendon pain. I decided to wait until the morning of the race to decide what to do. I also took several ibuprofen, which I had failed to take all week, hoping my body would handle the inflammation on its own.

Funny story. Very early race morning, I awoke with dry, irritated, red eyes. I went in to the bathroom to take my contacts out, only to realize I'd forgotten to bring my contact carrier. Half asleep, I placed my contacts in a plastic cup with a little water in it. A few hours later, I found myself laughing as I looked in to an empty cup! My first thought was that Charles had "drank" my contacts, but it turned out he had glanced at the water, intending to take a drink, but not knowing how long the water had been sitting there, he had dumped it down the sink. (Yes- we tried to fish the contacts out of the drain catch. No go).

Pre Race. As we headed out to Covenant College for the 7:30 start, I noticed the ibuprofen seemed to be doing its work and my ankle was feeling a lot better. I thought if I nursed it along nice and easy, I would be able to at least cover the distance and see this beautiful course. Against all better judgement, I was willing to give it a try.

Psyche's ready to edit some contracts run this mutha.

In white, father and son team, Bob Sr. and Bob Jr. (who we would later mistake as sweeps)

And, they're off. For the first 6 or 7 miles we folowed this amazing bluff with an incredible view of Chattanooga down below and large rock formations jutting upwards about 80 feet above us. We cruised along with everyone for awhile, making small talk, and joking around. I had tagged the guy I was talking to as "Clemson" because he went to school there, but luckily he told me his name was Carl before leaving me in the dust. I also chatted with a lady named Joy as we cruised down the bluff, going below the Lookout Mountain tourist overlook and then making our way down to a gravel service road as we neared the first aid station. This was Joy's first attempt at he 50 mile distance.

Thanks to the runner who offered to take this pic

I was feeling OK at this point, but all the signs of that soon changing were there. Every slanted bit of trail was a strain on the tendon of my outside ankle. I was favoring one side, which compounded the whole situation. I would soon have an assortment of other aches and pains that had to be dealth with. Taking off from the first aid station, Joy was in and out of our sights as we continued to travel down until we ran along a creek for a distance. Eventually we eventually hit aid station #2 around mile 15. My new AS friend, the banana man, gave me encouragement and we both remarked at how someone really ought to bring a foam roller to these events.

Elevation chart courtesy of Javi

As we left AS #2, we began to climb straight up, cutting through a power line section and then through more of the woods, eventually hitting a series of switch backs. Up and up we went, with the ridge line getting closer and closer. Climbing actually lessened the pain of some things, but worsened the groin and quad pain. By this time, I was most definitely struggling, and limping as well. The achilles and peroneal tendon pain had found some new friends named IT band pain and hip flexor pain. Now it was a party. At this point, I just had my sights set on finishing. As we came out of the tree line, we came into a clearing, crossed the road, and found ourselves back at the start/finish area.

After getting some soup, stretching, and begging the trail gods for mercy, we left the start/finish area and headed down the trail on the southside of Lookout Mountain. This trail would wind down towards a creek, come out into a muddy powerline section and then go back into the woods for a long, descent to the Lula Lake aid station at mile 28.

Another funny story. We were aware that the race was enforcing cut off times, and since we had slowed down tremendously we were on the lookout for the sweepers. We had mistakenly identified a father and son team from Florida as "sweeps" because they had on white shirts and one of the shirts said, "Volunteer" on the back. They followed us for a few miles, invoking paranoia, before it dawned on us that they were just racers. My first tip off was hearing Bob Sr. say 1) he had run out of water and 2) that they had not prepared well for the hills.

The next six miles was a virtual rollercoaster with several changes in terrain. The trail followed a creek for a while, then a woodsy, rolling section, then along what look like some kind of bird sanctuary area that spit you out at Lula Falls. We stopped here to take in the fantastic view of the gorge. Lula Falls is beautiful and even with the icicles on the edges of the falls, the water was rushing down into the gorge below.

Beatiful Lula Falls

Base of Lula Falls

Shadow people, get ready to climb!

Leaving the falls behind, we soon came to a short but very steep section that some one had laid out ropes for us to use. Getting up this hill was nothing short of tortuous pain on my ankle. I'm still waiting for that protective mechanism of the mind to kick in, you know, the one that makes the most painful memories fade away.
Just past the climb, we came out on to a ridge with great views. We followed this ridgeline for a couple of miles until we then had to descend again. This brought us down by a creek and the trail wound its way along it. I believe this is where :
1) I thought the trail would simply never end
2) I ran out of curse words to describe the wicked slant of this trail
2) We picked up the "true" sweeper, a sweetheart, named Leigh

Soon, we started to see the front runners* heading back our way. We saw the leader, Troy Shelhamer, who looked really good and fresh. It wasn't hard to guess that he would hold onto to his lead. We exchanged words of encouragement and it would be a while before we saw the second place runner. After a bit, we saw someone we recognized - Byron Backer! He stopped and said hello, and he was looking very strong- we were very happy for him.

Not soon enough, we finally came to the aid station at mile 34.5. Even though I was hurting beyond belief at this point, I was still disappointed to hear we had missed the cut off by more than 10 minutes and we were being pulled.

Looking back, Lookout Mountain was a great experience even though we didn't make it past the 34.5 cut off . The experience reminds me that learning to race badly is just as important as learning to race well. (The road to great races and PR's being paved with all those crappy runs, and all that). Besides, the car ride back itself was worth all the pain ---We answered the penultimate question: How many ultrarunners can you stuff into a subcompact at one time?

With 2010 coming to a close I want to take a moment to thank everyone who bothered to peruse any of my 92 blog entries during the past 52 weeks. I consider it a privilege to graze in your presence with such meager credentials, and I only hope that you found a paragraph (or two) useful or amusing.

Over time this blog has become quite the compost of all things trail running, complete with incriminating evidence and race reports that, when revisited, read more like a midlife crisis than anectdotal dispatch from the field. This year, I've I've had the supreme pleasure of being humbled and liberated by both trail and trail runner, all while deliberately putting myself in harm’s way on the insistence of my ego and for the pure lack of better judgment. No doubt, 2011 will see more of the same as I fully immerse myself in my midlife crisis. Rock on.

I wish everyone a safe and happy new years and thank you all for making my 2010 the best year ever. I am a very lucky girl.
* Congrats to Sarah Woerner for ripping it up wit an 8:51 new course record.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

RACE REPORT: The Bartram Forest 100 Mile Trail Race

The "Bartram 100s" is a 100 Mile and 100K race run simultaneously on some amazingly well-manicured trails in Milledgeville, GA. After dropping at mile 65 at Pinhoti last month, Charles and I were viewing this inaugural race as a "last chance" attempt at completing the 100-mile distance this year.

A little about the Bartram Forest course. Awesome RD Mike Howdell and Chris (last name?) set up a 5.56 mile loop that you had to run 18 times. The course was well marked and, compared to a lot of trail races, had minimal elevation (about 200-300 feet per loop).

There was a lot of variation in terrain, and you never felt like you were running in circles. However, there was a section or two that I knew I was going to really get a hate-on for when I encountered them on the first loop. One of these was a long hill at the beginning of mile 3. After you finally crested this beast, you had to run on this flat grassy stretch of flatland that had terrible footing. There were spiny ridges and pot holes with overgrown grass covering them everywhere you stepped. Did I mention it was flat and grassy with terrible footing?

Each loop started & finished at a pavilion where there was a fully stocked aid station. When I say fully stocked, I am not kidding. This was an AS to make Scott Hodukavich proud. It seemed the food choices changed each time I came through. During the morning there were donuts and pastries. At lunch, an assortment of sandwiches, and at night there were cheeseburgers, soups, cocoa, and coffee. At one point, I think they had pizza delivered. The volunteers were great and the AS had a really nice, family feeling.
Photo courtesy of Perry Sebastion

Pre-Race Break Down...Break Through

The week going in to this race was tough, and by Friday I was really looking forward to leaving my cares behind. However, as I hit the road Friday I was feeling the effects of not sleeping well on Thursday. Taking the 441 south was a little tricky, and I think I wasted some time taking the "business loop" here. By the time I arrived in Milledgeville to meet Charles, it was nearing dusk and I was feelingpretty stressed. Since we were losing the light, we headed over to the campground first to set the tents up for the next day. On the way there, we were treated to a very awesome sunset:

On the way to the Bartram Forest camp ground.

We were rewarded with beautiful sunsets Friday and Saturday

It was nearly dark as we pulled in to the camp ground to set up the tents and pick up our race packets. I was tired and hungry, and I just felt generally overwhelmed, which was quickly distressing me. I was resisting feeling any of these "negative" things because I really wanted to make the most out of the little time Charles and I get to spend together under the current circumstances.

I didn't have my headlamp handy, and setting up the tent started to completely overwhelm me. I actually had a little meltdown, and ended up just standing there crying and feeling enraged with myself for allowing things to get to that point. Charles lovingly comforted me, reminding me that it's OK to cry and that anything that could ever happen would be OK if we could handle it together from a place of love.

So, we finished up and went and got some food. Back at the room, I got some much-needed sleep for a couple of hours while Charles worked. This whole incident would not have even be worth mentioning if it weren't such a perfect foreshadowing of what was in store for me in the race.

The Race
Recounting this race will be somewhat difficult because so much can (and does) happen in a race in which one is lapped by the sun. I will tell you that it is somewhat intimidating putting on running clothes at 5 AM and knowing that those clothes won't come off for a day and a half.

At around 5:45 AM Charles and I headed down to the free breakfast buffet for a good prerace breakfast, which was in turn followed by a short ride over to the camp ground about 6:00 AM. Immediately upon pulling in, we were greeted by Beth McCurdy (who would go on to take 2nd female in the 100K), Jason Sullivan (Big Easy), and Thomas Armbruster. Thomas was our pacer at Pinhoti, and he was coming out to pace us once again. This time he would actually get to see some miles! I was looking forward to it.

We hung out with friends and made our final preparations as we waited for the 8:00AM start.

Big Easy is chillaxin' before the race

Would Thomas srill be smiling if he knew what was in store for him? I think he would be.

Chris gives the racers some final instructions.

The pavillion, pre-race.

I love this last-minute goofy pic Thomas took right before we were off and running

And we're off....

The First 4 Loops - 22 miles

The first loops were uneventful, and were basically about getting to know the course. We were running a pretty decent pace, which I knew would slow way down later. We completed the first loop in just under an hour, got a quick bite & got right back out on trail. By design, this course had an unattended AS about halfway through the loop- a little water & mini clif bar stop. Throughout the day, at about a 1/2 mile before the AS, we would see Thomas at the end of a downhill in a chair, cheering us on and offering all the runners encouragement.

Running towards Thomas who was parked in a chair at the bottom of the hill

I hadn't run in a week and a half, and my legs felt fresh in that sense. However, right off the bat I was having some pain in my right achilles and both hip flexors felt tight and over-worked. It dawned on me that both of these issues could be the result of the Seven Sisters run I did 10 days earlier. That trail's huge ascents and descents really wore me out.

Loops 5 & 6 - 33 miles

As fast as the achilles pain had started, it suddenly disappeared going in to loop #5. This kind of thing always amazes me. I was able to find somewhat of a groove here, and we were running strong, even though our loop times had slowed. I think it was about this time we heard that Big Easy (Jason sullivan) had dropped a little before 30 miles in because he was sick. We were both greatly saddened by this news.

Loops 7 thru 10 - 56 Miles

We passed the 50 mile point in a little over 11 hours. Our numbers were staying somewhat consistent, but we were a little off pace for our hopes of a sub-24 hour finish. At about the 50 mile point, it began to be very clear that Charles was getting stronger while I was steadily declining. At this point, I wasn't too worried about it because I knew things could still change a lot. We were still moving strong, but my achilles pain was back, and the hip flexor issue was steadily worsening. I was doing whatever little thing I could to get some relief when I could.

Loops 11 & 12 - 67 Miles

It was now a suffer fest with my hip flexor. All the muscles surrounding it were tightening up in an effort to immobilize it. The pain was changing my gait and really forcing me to slow down. I was still able to hold on to 4 mile per hour pace here, but it was just a matter of time before the wheels fell completely off. At this point, I began to feel bad because I knew Charles was feeling really good, and he would want to take off if he were able to. I was looking forward to Thomas joining us so Charles could get moving.

I think it was the last 1.5 miles of Loop #11 that Charles and I fell into a really good talk, and we chose to just walk the rest of the way in just so we could continue talking comfortably. This stretch of trail at night was one of the best memories of the race, and totally worth any time we lost.

Loop 13 - 72.3 Miles

Thomas went out with us beginning at Loop 13, and I was glad to see Charles take off. Later, I learned he ran that loop and Loop 17 in about 81 minutes. He was really feeling strong. Thomas and I motored along at a slightly faster pace than I was doing on the previous loop, and I was encouraged. It was great to have Thomas' company! He made the time fly as he entertained me with stories...I felt like our friendship was deepening as we covered the miles, even though I was not participating in the conversation all that much. We finished the loop in 93 minutes and I was looking forward to the next.

Loop 14 - 78 Miles

I felt much worse starting Loop 14, and halfway through loop the snow flurries started. We were coming up on Lane Vogel and his pacer and Lane yelled back that he would rather have snow than rain and we agreed. Not longer after that the "snow" switched to rain. It was light and not too bad to deal with except suddenly my body would just not cooperate with running anymore. All I could get from it was a power walk. My hip flexor was screaming, and any attempt to bring my right knee up was painful. I was slowed to a straight-legged walk. So, we power walked and it brought us down to 17 minute pace. As much pain as I was in, my spirits were still good and I still hoped this would pass. I even imagined it could still get completely better, like at Pinhoti when I suddenly started feeling good at mile 60.

All hell broke lose around mile 4 of that loop (mile 76). The rain turned freezing and began to pummel us. We were in an open section with nothing to break the 20 mph winds. I really needed to get out of that cold rain. Thomas took the lead and was such a hero here. He may not have known it, but he did the exact thing that worked for me. He just took charge and kept a continual diatribe of encouraging statements like, "you're doing great", "just pick it up a little through here", "we're almost there", etc. I just focused on following Thomas's foot steps and listening to his voice and staying completely in the moment. I knew I was dead if I had even one thought about how much further we had, or how much longer I could hold out. We pushed as fast as we could to cover the last mile and a half, one step at a time.

Finally we pulled into the AS and Thomas led me to the fire so I could warm up. I was shaking so hard I thought I would never stop. I just sat there with tears streaming down my face, my head down, trying to get warm. Thomas brought me my bag so I could get dry clothes and sent me to get changed.

Trying to change my clothes in the bathroom is a scene that will forever be etched into my brain. I went in to the big stall and dumped all my clothes on the ground. It was easy to get out of my wet shirt, but there was no way I could wrestle with a wet sports bra in my condition. As I reached for my dry shirt(s), I realized I was in a world of trouble. I couldn't bend down to get my clothes. I let out a scream as I tried to lower myself down on to the toilet in order to get to my clothes, and I was making all kinds of weird noises because my body was still shaking violently. The first shirt I tried to put on became all twisted when I tried to put my arms and head through. I had to start over, which made me begin to cry. I was completely out of my head, and this was becoming such an ordeal! I was seriously melting down. Finally, I was dressed, but I could not bend down to scoop up all the wet clothes. I simply could not take it any longer. I decided to yell for Thomas to come and help me. He was awesome, but I think just seeing him sent me over the edge somehow. I swear, we exchanged a look in that bathroom that said we both knew I was seconds away from completely losing my shit. About then, I also caught a glance of myself in the mirror. It was so strange, because I'm always surprised that when I feel so bad, I never actually look that bad. Tonight, I looked as bad as I felt. I had dark circles under red, wild eyes. The full embodiment of, "Drinking binge in Tijuana... or Ultra Runner?"

Almost an hour had passed since we had come in, and after much soup & fire, I started to come around. I told Thomas, "I'm feeling much better, I'm ready to go back out." But as we headed out I realized that I couldn't even walk. Every step I took made me wince in unbelievable pain. My hip flexor was just locked solidly up. It felt more like an injury than just normal pain, but I couldn't relaly be sure. I couldn't really be sure of anything, which seriously messed with my head. After talking it over we agreed to go back to camp and rest, see if we could work it out, and Thomas said we had a lot of time on our side.

Charles had finished another loop and ran into us on our way back. I told Charles I was thinking I had to drop, but even as I said it , it was so unreal. It seemed like I went from a state of absolute conviction of finishing to knowing I was going to quit in a matter of seconds. I didn't know how to evaluate whether I was truly injured or if it would change, and so I decided to drop. I know I could have pushed through the last 22 miles, but I didn't even know if I would make the cut off , and the bottom line was I didn't know if I was actually injured or not. Continuing on would have turned an injury into a serious injury with a huge layoff.

I told Thomas he should go run Charles in and I went back to the fire. I eventually went to the tent and slept some. I was awake when I saw Thomas coming running in ahead to make sure I was awake to see Charles finish. I heard about how Thomas had picked up Charles with about 30 minutes of daylight left with two loops to go. At 22 hours in to the race, out of nowhere, Charles started running, running like the devil himself was behind him with a cattle prod. Not just on the downhills, the uphills too! 88 miles in and he was trying to drop his pacer! They knocked out 9's for about 2 miles and then Charles finally slowed down. They ran when they could and hiked the hills. Lap 17 done in 81 minutes.

I heard the last lap was tough, but Charles pulled through like a champ. 26 hours and 17 minutes after it began, Charles crossed the finish line, completing a 100 mile trail race for the 1st time.

Finishing time: 26:17

Post Race Thoughts
Over the last couple of days, I've had a hard time trusting that I made the right decision to drop. I mean, it came at mile 78 where lots of people have told me that right around there is really nasty and you just have to push through. The thing is, I COULD have pushed through. I know that I could have, but I decided not to.

I later read Christian's report about Ashley, and I know that I gave up an experience similar to what Ashley went through. It would have been brutally bad to continue, and I would have suffered, but I believe I would have done it. I will always wonder what I would have faced out there...what my new limit would have become. What I would have learned. So on one level I feel disappointment because a part of me is always looking for the experience of the Abyss.

On another level, and I think this one is a little more "correct", this race seems to be a perfect reflection of my life right now. It's hard for me to let others see the more vulnerable part of myself- to let them in when I'm feeling something really emotionally difficult.

So, in terms of that, this race was huge. I spent a lot of miles in a lot of pain with my good friend Thomas. Then, he was witness to me very nearly completely losing my shit. And nothing horrible happened. He didn't say he didn't want to be my friend anymore. No look of horror. We had a good laugh about it, actually, which is just amazing!!! That dude saw me just.completely. freak.out!!

THEN, right after that is when I decided to drop. Just as I realized I was going to drop, and it was REAL to me it was over, I started to go into this mode of not allowing myself to feel the disappointment. I was about to intellectualize it and deal with it that way, when suddenly Charles was right there, just finishing his loop. He hugged me as we talked, and in that moment I really felt the full depth of my disappointment and was able to share it with him. And it was OK.

So...yeah, I could have gone on. But now I can see how it's totally perfect that I didn't. My experience was perfect. I've been to the Abyss before and I'll be there again when the time is right.

I feel like the universe brought me the perfect situation in which to grow. I learned that I only hold my own growth at bay if I'm unwilling to fully experience and share whatever comes into my life. The easy way out is to just analyze it with your mind and not filter it through your heart. As my good friend Big Easy says, "Let's just keep trying to be honest with ourselves and I think everything else will work out one way or another."

Friday, December 10, 2010

CREW REPORT: Pine Mtn. 40-Mile Race

The annual Pine Mountain 40-Miler is put on by GUTS. This year's race was held on December 5, where I was lucky enough to experience this much-beloved race from the perspective of "crew mate".

First, a little about Pine Mountain and the Trail: Back in the 40's, Franklin D. Roosevelt made Warm Springs, GA and neighboring Pine Mountain his home away from home. He would first come here to treat his polio, but soon fell in love with the beautiful scenery of the Appalachian foothills. When visiting, it's not hard to understand why FDR loved it so much. Even in the late stages of autumn, the area boasts a certain mystique and beauty.

FDR visited the overlook below no less than 41 times.

The Pine Mountain Trail begins in FDR Park and extends 23 miles mostly along a ridge. The trail boasts 29,000 feet in elevation change and is known for its diverse terrain, crossing creeks, and climbs up and over ridge tops and traversing past oak, hickory, pine and maple trees. Many sections of the trail are also known for the degree of technical difficulty. The trail is littered with protruding rocks made even more difficult in the fall by the leaves covering the trail.

That sounds beautiful doesn't it? Much better than how Jason Rogers describes it (although I bet every runner on Sunday is taking sides with Jason).

"How can I describe the Pine Mountain trail? Rocks. Lots of rocks hidden by leaves. Lots of rocks that presented a constant danger of trips, bloody falls, hidden "toe catchers" to trip me up, countless small boulders for me to bang my toes on. A few creek crossings that I managed to complete without getting my trail shoes wet."

Photos courtesy of Jason Rogers
After spending the night in Pine Mountain, we headed out early the next day to the Pine Mountain group shelter, where we enjoyed hanging out with several friends. I just have to say that I'm always amazed at the level of camaraderie that exists among runners, but especially trail runners. It seems to be cemmented by a mutual love (and borderline obsession) for something non-runners deem crazy (you’ve heard the “you’re crazy” subtext in your non-runner friends’ comments before).

I feel like this camaraderie is strengthened in some situations (like when you’re running a race that might possibly kill you).

Camaraderie of the crazies - party of 3

As 7:00 approached, we all walked up to the road where the race would start. It was a chilly 28 degrees and barely dusk as we stood there listening to last minute instructions. Then, they were off.

RD extraordinnaire Srah Tynes says, "Sock Monkey not happy with headlamp placement."

How many of these people are going to get "Schicked" today??

The runners headed down a brief stretch of pavement before hitting single track trail.

Leopold and I had made a bunch of signs earlier in the week and I was anxious to get to the first sighting of the runners to get Charles' reaction. I headed over to Buzzard's Roost, which is not an Aid Station but a road crossing about 2 miles in.

Charles came through looking very strong here.

Later, he told me that the guys he was running with said, "Your OUR hero, Charles! How'd you get her to come out here and cheer for you?"

After Buzzard's Roost, I was off to Fox Den Cove, the first official Aid Station, at Mile 5.9. Charles came through in :56 minutes, which is about 9:30 pace. I was alittle worried he was too fast, but he looked very strong and comfortable at this point.

Charles is looking strong at Buzzard's Roost

Next stop: Mollyhugger Hill, which served as mile marker 10.8 and 31.54. This Aid Station was a lot of fun, but I was getting a taste of how cold this day was actually going to be.

Yeah, it was that cold.

My favorite sign

Charles continued to look strong and keep a fairly consistent pace. Whenever he dropped off it was because of a particularly difficult stretch.

As I spent the day wandering from Aid Statin to Aid Station, I enjoyed the sights quite a bit. Here are some of my favorite things from the race:

Favorite costumed volunteer dudes.

Favorite grilled cheese.

Favorite HTFU dude.

Favorite HTFU guys number- which should serve as the marketing photo for next year's race.

All in all, I had a fantastic adventure. I am so proud of Charles! Covering 40 miles in 9:16:02 (average pace of 13:54), he is the true defintion of an Ultrarunner. Recently, fellow trail runner and blogger Jon Harrison wrote something that pretty much sums up what I was thinking and feeling as I watched Charles charge in to the finish:

Being in nature, one is left with no choice but to marvel at creation. Be it vast flatlands, rugged mountain tops, or a simple stream snaking its way down a mountain, it is sure to inspire awe in even the hardest of hearts. Despite this, I truly believe that the finest of all God's creations lies in the mind of man. One can shatter a rock with the proper hammer, dam any river with enough concrete, burn any forest in conducive conditions, but the will of man is something far harder to shake.

Thank you Sarah Tyne for putting on such a great race, and a big thanks to Woody for the awesome post race meal! See you next year.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

RACE REPORT: Pinhoti 100 Mile Endurance Run

November 6 and 7 found Charles and I rocking one of our greatest adventures to date: The 3rd Annual Pinhoti 100 Mile Endurance Run.

A Little About The Race
This 100 miler is unusual in that it is the only "point-to-point” course I know of. The trail consists of 81 miles of single-track, mostly gnarly trails, 14 miles of dirt Jeep roads, and five miles of paved roads. It winds through the Talladega National Forest along the Pinhoti Trail, and sections named "Blue Hell" and "Pinnacle", Pinhoti is a sonofabitch to run true wilderness trail. With rocks and holes all covered by fallen leaves, tons of narrow, rooty, and cambered single track trail, and dozens of downed trees to boot, this trail in the dark is just plain rough.

The Pinhoti Trail actually begins in Georgia, where it connects to the Appalachian Trail, and runs all the way to Sylacauga, AL. According to the race website, the course had 16,180 feet of total ascent and 16,580 feet of descent. (The chart above is a little off. The Mt. Cheaha peak should be at Mile 41, not at Mile 36 as shown.)

100 Miles? Say WHAT?
So, how does it even happen that I ran my first Ultra in May and in November, just 6 months later, I'm lining up at a hundo?

a) Mid life crisis on crack
b) No one said I couldn't do it
c) I have "the gene"
d) Its not about running, it's about the experience
e) All of the above

You would be right if you picked any of these. A year ago this month I put "running an ultra marathon" on my list of things to accomplish in 2010. However, running an ultra may never have come to pass, if not for Georgia Snail. At the time, I was feverishly chasing the ever illusive BQ. If it didn't align with qualifying for Boston, I wasn't interested.

The Snail began blogging about an upcoming 50K race called SweetH20 50K that he'd signed up for. After he ran it, I read his race report, and had this to say:

"I feel like I've had my eyes opened as to what kind of pain is actually out there to be had. And I am excited, in a totally sick way:)."
As evidenced by my response, there must have always been a Bad-Ass Ultra Runner deep inside of me desperately tryingto get out (she was probably just lost). After reading Thomas' report, I just had to try an ultra race- and sooner rather than later. So, in search of a race I went, and after getting fellow blogger Jason Sullivan's two thumbs up, I chose the Enoree Passage 40 Mile as my first ultra. This is where I first met Terri Hayes, Jason, Sam, and Charles - and many others who have since become good friends.

Through many adventures with these fine folks, I've learned that ultra running is not so much about the running as the journey of self discovery that happens when you put yourself in a semi-comatose state of pure running and suffering. It forces you to shed yourself of all limits and focus on just simply taking the next step forward. Imagine entering this state at a time when your sense of the moment is more alive then ever, and you will begin to gain insight into what drives me to seek bigger and bigger challenges and longer and longer races....

So, from Thomas Armbruster (Georgia Snail), to Jason Sullivan, to Charles Raffensperger. Long story short (you wish!) that's (ultimately) how I came to find myself fully embracing my inner midlife crisis at the starting line of the Pinhoti 100 Mile Endurance Run. It was nothing short of perfection itself for Jason to also be running, and for Thomas and Holly to be crewing for Charles and I. Long live "Team Run Like Ya Stole Sumthin' From Georgia Snail"!!

Training Lead Up
The crash training of the previous six months has included 30-mile night runs, the Laurel valley Ultra, and two separate attempts (1 successful) at the entire 80-mile Foothills Trail. Always trying to sneak in just one more adventure, the weekend preceding Pinhoti found me running 50 miles of the Pitchell 100K , and Charles pulling off a 44-minute Pumpkin Butt 50K PR.

In other words, we both came into this race completely rested and worrying if we had put in enough miles. That's why I didn't give it a second thought when Charles rolled into town at 1:00 a.m. for a 2:40 wake up call. Certainly all that rest he'd been getting lately would offset any night-before-the-race sleeplessness.

Pre-Race Prep
It's hard to imagine how much preparation it takes to run 100 miles point to point. It seems like there's just so much to consider- we'd be running in the dark for the first 40 minutes or so, and would need a spare headlamp. Some Aid Stations had crew access, while others did not, so there was some thought put in to what we needed to carry ourselves vs. what we could give Thomas and Holly.

It seemed an insurmountable task to put together the various drop bags we'd need. I ended up spending a LOT of time on the drop bag issue, only to get it completely and utterly wrong.

You practically have to be an engineer to figure this stuff out, man

A virtual rainbow of drop bags

Don't ask!

I ended up being cold for most of the race because I put the warmer and warmer clothes in drop bags coinciding with darkness, not temperature, and the day really warmed up.

PreRace Carbo Dinner and Packet Pick Up
I arrived at the Sylacauga Rec Center at 5:30 to pick up our bib numbers, drop off our drop bags and enjoy the pre-race carbo dinner. I ran into Jason and Weezy first, and Jason and I noted how strange it was to see each other at an event that did not include th Foothills Trail.

I finally had the pleasure of meeting Christian Griffith in person. He was hanging out with Lane Vogel, who I learned has run this race each year. It was nice to be in such lofty company for sure.

Upon checking in I was told there had been a mix up in the race numbers, and both of our numbers had been changed. Not only that, but they did not have a race number for me (say WHAT???). I would need to wait until minutes before the start of the race to get my number.

Once I finished having a heart attack re-marking all of drop bags with our new numbers, I went tover and collected some very cool race schwag (see picture below- courtesy of Ultra Kraut). They gave out Pinhoti 100 socks, a tech shirt, a t-shirt, Moeben sleeves for every runner and even more giveaways after the dinner. I have to say, top notch stuff that by itself was worth every penny of the already low entry fee.

Great race schwag!

Big Easy and Little Weezy

Christian and Lane were rockin' the belt buckles

Richard and Martin (fellow blogger Ultra Kraut)

The Big Day

Buy the ticket, take the ride: With the race being a point to point format, a long bus ride to the start was in order unless you had made arrangements to move your car. Which we hadn't.

We were running a bit late for the 4:00 am bus departure time, so we decided to skip the hotel's checkout process at the front desk. It was only on the road to the Rec Center that I realized my mistake. I had planned on getting coffee and breakfast at the hotel, and now I had none.

Oh, well, with 18 aid stations along the way, surely there would be plenty of time time to eat.

The Start

Miles 0 - 7 Aid Station 1
It was cold at the start! I don’t know what the actual temperature was, but I was very glad I had brought an extra sweatshirt. Even so, I was still shivering as we waited for the start.

At about 6:05, we were off and running. With about 113 starters funneled into a narrow single track right off, it was single file walking for about a half mile for the runners in the back. It was a rocky and rooty section, so I didn't mind the walking. The trail remained narrow but everyone was able to find their own spacing by the 1st aid station.

Somewhere during this first 6 miles, lack of food (but especially coffee) caught up with me. By the time I reached the first aid station I was a mess. I was grumpy, cold, and very nearly in tears for feeling as bad as I did 6 miles into a 100 mile run. Not being able to get my gloves off of my hands sent me over the deep end. By the time Charles came over to help me, I was a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

As is often the case in times of great distress, I find comfort in the wise words of Samuel L. Jackson. Today, I could practically hear him say, "You better chill that bitch out. Tell that bitch to be cool!" To Charles: "Say, bitch, be cool! Say, bitch, be cool!" Bettah get yo shit togetha, woman. 94 miles to go. After eating, I felt much better, apologized to Charles, and Samuel Jackson made his exit.

Miles 7 - 13 Aid Station 2
Whoever designed the Pinhoti Trail seemed to have a priority in mind: no trails along the top of any ridge! This was clearly evident thruout the entire course (of what I completed). All the trails went along the sides of hills with occasional sections along the bottom & only rare crossings of the top of any hill. That's my way of saying these miles were pretty uneventful and I don't really remember Aid Station #2.

Miles 13 - 18 Aid Station 3
After the 2nd aid station, we made our way past a section that was heavily damaged by a tornado. This was mostly uphill & everyone was able to witness the incredible destruction along side the road. It looked like a clear-cut logging operation, and it was pretty cool.

After several miles of this, we finally got back onto single track. The fallen trees were not limited to that one area though. There were countless trees across the trail from start to finish on this course that you either jumped, climbed, crawled under or went around. They were momentum killers for sure.

As we came in to AS #3, it was simply awesome to see Holly and Thomas waiting for us! I cannot tell you how much it helps to see a friendly face. Immediately, they went about setting the bar high for all future crews. I mean, look at the other crew guy looking at Holly as if to say, "Are you serious? Is my guy gonna expect that kind of service???"

Holly is desperately trying to dig the knots out of my caffeine craving shoulders!

Miles 18 - 23 Miles Aid Station 4
Surprise!! It's Len, James, Mark and Kirsten from GUTS! And they're manning an Aid Station! This totally rocked to come in to this Aid Station unexpectedly. One of the few GOOD surprises of the day, for sure.

I'm like a running ninja...with a pink cap. And a big white dude.

You guys ROCK!!!!

Miles 23 - 34.5 Aid Station 6
Other than the detour, the course had been a single track lover's delight up to this point. Unfortunately, I no longer considered myself a single track lover. In fact, by this pont, if I never saw a narrow, slanted, rocky section of single track again it would be too soon. It was really starting to wear on me, plus something was going on that was affecting our perceptions- it seemed like there was no way the distances people were telling us were what we actually ran. Sometimes it seemed much shorter, but mostly it seemed much, much longer between aid stations.

As we came up to Aid Station 6, and were greeted by Christian. I was surprised, but then after learning about the ordeal he'd been through, I was glad he was safe and sound..

Feeling like crap still, but trying to fake it 'til I make it.

Charles - looking so fresh you just want to slap him.

Christian told us what to expect on our way to Mt. Cheaha, that we had 6 miles to the next Aid Station, and sent us on our way. I was still not feeling great but Charles was doing fantastic. He had been pulling me along the whole time, and was really, really strong through this section.

Miles 34.5 - 41 Aid Station 7 Bald Rock
This was mostly an uphill section that turned rocky coming up to the highest point in Alabama, Mt. Cheaha. As we neared the top, I started feeling really dizzy. At one point I was so light headed I was worried I was going to faint. Charles gave me a Roctane, which seemed to help and we carried on.

The best view on the mountain was at Bald Rock; it was crowded with visitors, and we stood with them for a while to enjoy the view -- it was GREAT! We thought we had to summit the mountain here then climb down to the Aid Station. That's why is was so freaking weird when we heard Thomas' voice shouting out, "There's my runners!!!"

Steep climb up to Bald Rock

The surprise 'fros were indeed motivational, Team Snail!!!

Crews put on a serious party at this rockin' Aid Station

Miles 41 - 52 Aid Station 9
After changing shirts and eating, Charles and I were off to Blue Hell and beyond. (This steep, rocky trail coming off Mt. Cheaha is run uphill in the Mt. Cheaha 50K). Blue Hell is a pretty crazy section. It's not even a trail, it’s just rock hopping and more than once you're going down 3 or more feet at time. If I understand it correctly, Blue Hell drops you around a 1000 feet in ½ a mile. I would say it was called "blue" as there were blue blazes painted on the rocks. It was steep, but not as tough as I expected -- but it would have been had it been dark or I had to climb up this hill.

Miles 52 to 55 Aid Station 10
From the aid station, it was slow going as the trail became pretty technical. The highly reflective tacks and tags on the flagging were excellent night-time markers. This may have been the section where we picked up Adam and a couple of other runners for a short time. By this point, the Aid Stations were blurring together somewhat, as was what was happening in between them.

As we approached AS #10, they had a rocking party happening. Everyone’s crew was there waiting, they had a huge PA system going blasting some Rock ‘n Roll, a good fire, and everyone was in good spirits. This was really the beginning of the hard night. We had some hot soup & other goodies & started off to the next aid station slowly.

Miles 55 to 60 Aid Station 11
I began to think Steve Jobs was the greatest person in the world for inventing the iPod through this section. I started calculating the amount of time I had left to get under 30 hours and figured I had to do 20 minute miles the last 45 miles. Charles was still fantastically strong and his strength pulled me through. I was feeling pretty bad about letting him down, and if he continued to look as good as he was now, I wanted him to continue on without me.

Miles 60 to 65 Aid Station 12
An interesting thing happened over the course of these 5 miles: I began to feel much, muchbetter and Charles began to feel much, much worse. we barely dragged ourselves into AS 12, and we were both thinking that after the next aid station or two, the trail really took off from any roads or civilization & if we decided to stop then, there were no provisions for the volunteers to get us out of there. This weighed heavily on our decision to stop- better safe than sorry, so we made the decision to stop at 65 miles.

Final Thoughts
First, I'd like to thank RD Todd Henderson for putting on such an excellent event and being the great host that he was.

A huge, huge THANX to Georgia Snail and the lovely Holly. You guys made this a fantastic experience and we're forever grateful to you for showing such selflessness and making us have so much fun. We're ready to return the favor- just say the word.

As I reflect back on this race, I'm disappointed with not finishing but happy that we took on the challenge, and happy to have learned so much on this first attempt. For us, the low point came at a very unfortunate time, given the weather and course. Given that we had (almost??) made the cutoff, in other circumstances we would have continued on, knowing that there are always going to be ups and downs in an ultra race so you just need to be strong through the downs until you come back around. If you keep stepping one foot in front of the other, you WILL reach the finish line.

I have to say that my favorite part of this race was returning to watch all the finishers after getting some sleep back at the hotel. Weezy was the face of Pinhoti this year, as he finished his first Hundred Miler. GO WEEZY!!!!

Dan B. and Weezy sharing a great moment

And a heart felt congratulations to all of us who ran Pinhoti this year, whether we finished or not.