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.


  1. Wow. I know you may be disappointed, but wow! An amazing accomplishment on what looks to be a very tough course!

  2. The ultra bug bit you HARD! As you've found out, the 100 is a different animal than 50 miles or 100K. It's more about fueling than running and pig-headed determination is a good thing.

    Can't believe how well known Christian is, but you were running in his part of the world, so of course he'd be there. That elevation chart shows that one peak's a tough one!

    Congrats to Weezy and congrats on getting as far as you did as well as you did.

  3. "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."


  4. Sorry to hear you didn't make it, but you'll get it next time.

  5. Psyche, you and Charles are two of my running heroes. Both of you really pushed the envelope of this crazy point-to-point. I only did five miles of the course that night and I can't even begin to imagine what those would have felt like on tired feet. Impressive that the two of you got to Mile 65 and I wish that I had been able to say hello.

  6. Wow, epic report! Next time, you'll get the hundo. Great job!

  7. Awesome effort Psyche!!! You are definitely out of my league tackling ultras now! I bow to your badassedness! I'm not worthy!!!! I know you will rock the hundo!

  8. I need to put in an application for a BMF wallet...where do I sign up?

  9. I just got chills watching that finish. I want to run 100 miles. Samuel L. Jackson speaks through me too (BAHAHAHA-You kill me)

    TI "No Matter What" <--wooooord, I'm sure you know that one. I got the latest EMINEM on my ipod thanks to you!

  10. Sam,

    .."Ali say even the greatest gotta suffer sometime..."

    RUN 100 MILES!!! Do it!

    (And you know I just LOVE me some Eminem:)))

  11. Whenever I comment here, my computer crashes, but this is worth it. The Ultimate Chuck Norris Joke. Go to Google, type "Find Chuck Norris" and click on I'm Feeling Lucky.

  12. Running out 65 miles under the circumstances is spectacular. I'm glad that you both were safe and not stuck out in the dark battling hypothermia all night.

    This will make crossing the finish line in 2011 even sweeter.

  13. @ Steve Q: AWESOME!!! Best. One. EVAH!

    @ Jason: 2011 Pinhoti..yes, it will be sweet. But 2010 ain't over yet- I'm getting my hundo, and you're getting the FHT finish, baby. That's just the way it is.

  14. Way to get out there. No shame in a DNF, most dont even try and for those that do many dont finish. You will get it next time.

  15. You know when I first spotted your blog I began reading the Barkleys Post.. then I spotted this near the bottom as well and let me just say.. phew! Great race recap and effort towards this awesome race. I like the Ali quote form above.. simply inspiring.
    Gotta Run,