I can’t say that running my first 100 miler was exactly what I thought it would be. In many ways, I was more than prepared physically, but it definitely took my mind and concentration to a new level. You read books about it, listen to podcasts, watch movies, and scour the internet in hopes of finding out exactly what you're in for but you won't find the perfect answer until you actually do it.
The Monday morning the Pinhoti 100, I woke up in Asheville, NC. I had driven in from Greensboro
Sunday and found myself driving head on into a heck of a winter storm, sideways snow and all. I had run a 30+ mile week, about half of my typical mileage. I thought to myself that one last run before the race would be nice. This time of year, the changing colors of the trees in Pisgah National Forest is surreal and it's hard to just sit around and do nothing. 5.5 miles round trip up to Looking Glass Rock left me satisfied. That was it – the next time I lace up these shoes and go for a run, I’ll be on the Pinhoti in Heflin.
Jason, my sole crew member and pacer, touched down in Atlanta on Thursday night and drove on out in a rental car to join me for a beer in Anniston before checking into the hotel. I get a veggie hummus sandwich, he gets a loaded burger with bacon, and we start coming up with a game plan for the following days.
Friday morning, I set off for Birmingham to pass off my dog to a friend of mine who was going to dog sit for me all weekend. I headed towards Sylacauga afterward in hopes of avoiding any line for packet pickup. I walk in, and within 60 seconds, I have my packet, bib number, and t-shirt I’m wearing as I type this up. I shuffle back to the van and start sorting out all my gear and preparing drop bags. Each drop bag consisted of some sort of real food – such as a burrito or sandwich – a beer or Topo Chico, and a few nutritional items to restock should I need it.
Everything is coming together. I have a bag for Jason to bring in the car that contains a duplicate set of clothes in case I need to change things out. It also contains a dry bag full of Clif Bars, Gels, and Skratch Labs so that I can top off my pack as needed. Unfortunately, the shorts I planned to race had disappeared somewhere in my van and I have yet to find them, so I had to default to my next best pair, which was a slight bummer and later problem. Shoes were set, pack was full, and I was nearly ready. As I filled up my hydration pack, I found a missing pair of new socks I had left in there from a long run a few weeks back. I had brought them along on the Art Loeb trail in case I needed to change out socks, but never had to and now their first run was going to be on race day.
Friday night we planned which aid stations I wanted Jason to be at and at what point he should plan to hop on and run with me. Rather than overcomplicating everything, we kept it extremely simple. He would be at the start line and the first couple of aid stations following since they were easy to access. After that, I would be on my own to mile 45 where my first drop bag was at anyway. From there, he would follow me to all crew accessible aid stations and then run from mile 69 to the finish.
I wake up around 4:30 feeling rested. I got at least a solid 7 hours of sleep despite my impending doom. I get my shorts and shirt on, double check that I have everything, and we head out. First stop was the gas station across the street where I picked up an iced coffee to milk over the 45-minute drive. Google’s first set of directions led us into a bit of a problem – a parked train. It didn’t look to be moving anytime soon and there was only 1 other route I could make out so we tried it. There are now several cars behind us and even a few others coming at us from the opposite direction which worried us. We all seemed to be a bit confused. The second route led us onto a dirt road a little sooner and we inched our way down it. A small, barely marked, turn to the right, and we were basically there. We parked on the side of the road grabbed everything we needed and realized we had the better half of a mile to walk to the race start.
One quick trip over to the outhouse and I’m ready. Of all the races I’ve ever done, there’s only one other time where I’ve been this calm at the start line. The other was at a race in Idaho that I DNF’d on my first year, but came back for redemption, which I got. A calming song by Tyler Childers hits my ears through my headphones as I stand there and look around at the runners and their crew. I would guess there were 400+ people there in the campground. There was a little bit of confusion as we didn’t have a race day check in and the race director didn’t make any announcement until just a few minutes before. He announced that the first aid station would serve as check in and in the following minutes, he gave the countdown to 7am.
The start was a bit anticlimactic. The elites and faster runners split off the front and the group I was in didn’t even begin to move until 20 seconds later. Finally. We’re jogging down the road and we take a turn. Here, we drop into the Pinhoti and begin the 100 mile trek to Sylacauga, right after we all form a single file line and actually get on the trail. The packs were so tight that the first few miles took over an hour and there was little to no chance to pass anyone. Wherever you found yourself in line was where you were staying. It seemed that I had unintentionally split up a group of female runners who were hoping to pace together as long as they could, and a couple of the ones behind me were aggressive about passing and gaining the 3 positions at mile 5 so that they could be with their friends. To put it in perspective though, only 7 females finished ahead of me, and one of them I met mid race and got a picture with. The other 6 likely maintained a lead ahead of me the entire day and I never saw them. At first, I was hopeful for them finishing strong, but ultimately, I would guess that most pushed too hard on the first 50 and ended up dealing with fatigue later in the night.
We roll up to the aid station at mile 18, a trailhead that I am very familiar with from my travels. The group that I found myself stuck in had split up into several smaller fractions and hopping onto the road gave us another chance to shuffle up the pack. Jason runs up to me to see how I’m feeling and we start making our way over to the drop bag on the north side of the railroad tracks. As I reach down, we all hear the rumble of an approaching train and can now see the front of it. Instinctively, I grabbed the dry bag I had packed with food and gels and yelled for Jason to follow as we ran across the tracks as the last 2 to safely get across. As we laugh about how close that was and how I could be stuck behind a 5-minute train, I refilled my pack with a couple of extra bars and gels and said my goodbyes. Down the road a couple of miles and we were back on the trail.
Around mile 20 I had started pairing up with different runners hold a similar pace and Anthony and Andrew had already done the same. I had crossed paths with them earlier in the day, but now all 3 of us were there together and there wasn’t any reason to split up since we’d likely catch each other later anyway. Over the next couple of hours we got to know each other a little bit and were discussing game plans for later in the race. He had a pacer hopping on at mile 45, but Jason wasn’t hopping on until mile 69 since he was my only pacer and crew. We reach another aid station, this one with drop bags. I forgot that I chose not to pack the first drop bag since it was a little earlier and I’d have Jason around so I was a little bummed when I didn’t have a burrito waiting for me. We look at each other as we’re grabbing handfuls of ice to try to cool ourselves off: “yee-haw” – and we were moving again. 3 miles to the river one guy said. Bull****. We followed several smaller streams and traversed through some rolling terrain for a while before we got to “the river”, which was significantly further than he had said. Now the main climb on course begins. From 600’ up to 2500’ over a few winding miles. The pitches were steep but alternated with more mellow traverses where we could catch our breath. He was pushing me up the climbs faster than I would have done if I were by myself, but at a pace that wasn’t taxing. It was about perfect. The last mile steepens up considerably as we round the final corner around the boardwalk and onto Bald Rock, a panoramic view looking north along the countryside. We both snag a picture and pace our way up the boardwalk to the busiest and most accessible aid station.
The approach into the aid station feels like you’re approaching the finish line to a race. People and crews everywhere, and innocent by standards who came out to enjoy the state park for the weekend and stumbled across a bunch of idiots running 100 miles. Jason is there front and center ready to pull me to the side. I pass off my pack to a volunteer so that he could top off the bladder. I’m eating some potatoes, part of a burrito I made, and washing them down with soda and water. I’m feeling great at this point. I’m 45 miles into the race and it feels like I’m just now getting into a good groove. The guy next to me is throwing up from dehydration and I had lost sight of Anthony and guessed that he had probably taken off. I took a few extra minutes to switch socks and shoes and to attend to some forming blisters. This far into a race I’m normally dealing with some serious blistering, but a change of shoes and very specific choice of socks had kept my feet feeling great. I begin my way down the road and I’m feeling great. I don’t recognize any of the runners around me so I either spent more – or less – time than those I was running with prior to Bald Rock. There’s an aid station 5 miles ahead and I can check the times to see when/if Anthony rolled in. I get a couple of miles down the road and begin the steepest descent on course. On any other day, this would be my expertise and I’d be grinning from ear to ear as I descend it like a mountain goat. A few seconds in, I miss a step and stumble to the ground. Blood is now running down my legs from my knees, but I’m up and moving without pain. I exit that section of trail onto a road and continue for a few more miles up some dirt roads.
Unfortunately, these next few miles, were only a taste of what was to come. My stomach started feeling a little odd as if I had eaten something I shouldn’t have. I put down a gel in hopes that a familiar taste will settle it down in addition to some water. Wrong. It wasn’t unbearable, but it was uncomfortable and it was hard to wrap my mind around 50 miles in this shape. Anthony had made it through 10 minutes before me so I had some ground to make if I wanted to catch him. At this point, I started ruling out that option and just kept moving. I take a Tylenol to help with some minor pains and headache as I start moving.
The sun is down. I left the next aid station on the heels of a couple of other runners. I made it a good half hour past sundown before I flipped on the light and left it on the lowest setting. I leap frogged a few runners as I tried to concurrently focus and zone out at the same time. The headphones went back in for the first time since mile 15. The mix seemed to keep me occupied and every now and again I found a song that led me into a slightly faster pace. No major elevation change through the next aid station, but the hills definitely add up. I pass one final runner as I roll into the most dangerous aid station on the course: Hubbard Creek. I had read a post on the Facebook page earlier in the week that if you get caught there too long, it’ll be the most comfortable DNF you’ll ever have. By now, my stomach has gotten worse. I want food, but I don’t want to throw up at the same time. I found several vegan options there as well as a full bar, but a shot of Fireball didn’t sound very appealing in my current state. Eating a handful of salad with one hand while petting a volunteer’s dog with the other was all I needed.
I gained a couple of spots leaving the aid station from the runners who had chosen to stay there, but I also had at least 2 runners pass through while I was eating. I hit another aid station, and and another. Lots of dirt roads alternated with steep climbs up and over ridges on singletrack. One aid station until Jason starts pacing me. I walk in and don’t see him. I look at the parking situation and wait around for a couple of minutes and poorly assumed that he had chosen to skip this station in fear that he may not make it to the next before me. Lots of cars had been blocked in and it seemed plausible that he chose to skip it. Little did I know that he was sitting off to the side and I came throughs so quickly and quietly that he didn’t see me.
I hit the next aid station excited to finally have some company for the final 30 miles. I had now run a marathon in the dark, by myself. I get there and I don’t see him. My stomach is churning at this point and the only relief I had found was Tums. Ginger Ale tasted great, but didn’t do the trick. Scratch labs, fruit, vegies, bars – nothing did the trick. I haven’t eaten in the last 15 miles and I had ruled out any more gels after my last experience several miles before. I haven’t experienced stomach pain this hard since I was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer in college that I had then gotten medicated for.
I waited 10 minutes or so hoping Jason would roll up any second. Doing so, I realized I was standing right in front of Anthony and his new pacer who were about to take off. I had shot off a text to Jason, but signal was poor and I doubted he would get it. I decide to leave and follow Anthony, him now limping on a twisted ankle. At this point, the tunnel vision has set in and I’m a rabbit looking for a carrot to chase. We cross the ditch on the other side of the road as we enter the woods and I hear Jason yelling from the side as he jumped out of the rental car. I was unbelievably relieved. Anthony and his pacer continued as I grabbed a couple of things from my supplies and Jason geared up. The first 10 or so flew by, with nothing more than catching up on the progression of how I got where I was at. He’s trying to get me to eat, but I can’t. Several miles later I cracked open my favorite flavor of Clif Bar, but only stomached half. I’m drinking as much water as I can trying to settle things down, but to no avail.
“Just get it over with, it’ll suck for a half hour, but you’ll feel better overall”. Seconds later I lean off the side of the trail and force myself to vomit. The Clif Bar and a bunch of liquid were all that were in there. I had now gone well over 30 miles without eating anything. We continued down the trail and I realized how much better I felt. The only problem is, I eliminated the churning stomach but realized how much my right leg had started to hurt. We start climbing. I remembered there was a big climb later in the course, but it didn’t look like much on the elevation profile. We keep climbing. The music from the party that’s happening on the top of this mountain is getting closer. We can’t make out the top, but there’s one headlight way up there that we occasionally caught a glimpse of. We may have been going uphill, but my mood was going downhill. Another friggin switchback. And another. And another. At one point I belligerently and sarcastically yelled out “it’s another switchback!”. We’re close, but there’s another switchback. The climb was at least 1000’, but it was graded as an old logging road so it was long and sustained. One more turn, I said to myself as we rounded yet another turn. We roll into the aid station, some 80 miles in. There’s one heck of a party up here, but I wanted nothing more but Tums (which the last station didn’t have), and maybe a beer. I grabbed a beer from a volunteer as Jason tries to get me to eat something. All of the most neutral foods for my stomach were coincidentally the same foods that I had absolutely no craving for. Between this station and the next few, my mood was a wild roller coaster that I could do nothing about. I was merely a spectator as I physically turned into a zombie and paced with Jason down a mixture of dirt roads and mellow singletrack. Another aid station party was in the distance, but it was a good 3 miles before we actually got there. My leg and stomach have both settled out, but neither could escape my mind. This aid station was my favorite, the one where I packed a Topo Chico instead of beer. I sit down in a chair and put my head down as Jason works to take care of refilling my pack as I down the first thing, although calorie free, that my stomach has really enjoyed. I’m cursing myself for not putting a case in the car or more in my drop bag. I have trained with Topo Chico in prior months, but never realized how much of a relief one could be in the middle of a race. The lady sitting next to me looked to be the wife or girlfriend of a runner she had been patiently waiting for. I’m sitting there with my head down cussing under my breath trying to shake myself out of the funk I’m in as a look of fear fills her eyes and she moves over a chair to give me space.
Moving again. The conversation is a mix of inappropriate jokes and me telling my pacer he’s an asshole. Intermittently, I’d put my head down and put both headphones in and we’d be in silence for a couple of songs. This race was unique as I normally listen to music throughout the entire race, but in this case, I never paid attention to the music until after the sun set. We hit the dirt road and we’re on the home stretch, although still 13 more miles. I look at Jason and say, “want to go Leadville style? Lights off and pick people off one by one?” Hell yeah. One pair down, then another, then another, and another in sight. With both headphones in and light off I had zoned out. My stomach pain was now outweighed by the pain in my right shin, yet I still managed to put down a few nine minute miles somewhere in the mix. Jason didn’t seem to know where they came from, but I had told him I had another trick or two up my sleeve – turned out I only had one.
One final aid station. 2 women (a racer and her pacer) that we passed in the dark had managed to catch us, but I had a theory that if they could in fact catch us, she’d be fried. We refill at the final stop and I eat a little bit of food, which turned out to be the least enjoyable of the entire day. My stomach had settled down a little since I had taken a handful of tums for the road from one of the previous aid stations. We hit some wide doubletrack trails through fields and along a couple of lakes. I had 95 miles to imagine how easy these miles would eventually be, but they were now excruciating. I was running with a serious limp expecting a few easy miles, but there was still a considerable amount of elevation as we wound through the last few miles.
The road is in the distance. I’ve now been passed by at least 2 runners whom I hadn’t seen all day. We run when we can, but there was more time spent walking. My leg is now in excruciating pain – possibly the worst pain I’ve ever experienced – including worse than the 2nd/3rd degree burn I got in high school. My walking has slowed to a crawl. The last few miles is going to take over an hour at this pace, but Jason keeps me running for small stretches at a time to help speed things up. Run another ¼ mile, then walk for a several seconds. Run to the next intersection, then cool off. He knew what I needed and I didn’t want to fight it. I did what he said. I can see the track. I can’t tell if the tears in my eyes are from the excruciating pain in my leg or from realizing I had just run 99.9 miles. I’ve maintained a gap on the next runner behind me and the next one in front of me had already crossed the line. Cross the road, the football field, then run the final half a lap around the track of Sylacauga High School.
I’m almost hysterical crossing the line. Those last few miles had taken my mind to a whole new level as I tried to fight the pain in my leg and keep moving. Todd hands me the belt buckle that I had been thinking of that entire 100 miles. I step to the side as the photographer takes my photo and I walk over into the grass and collapse. It was only then, that out of 280 registered racers, some of which did not start, I was only the 33rd person to cross the line. I thought of all those runners who had started in front of me or who had passed me throughout the night, and only 32 of them made it to the finish already. I give Jason the key to the van to bring it over since I was parked a few buildings away. I took a few minutes to catch up with another runner I had paced with at some point in the night, but didn’t finish. I glanced over and saw a runner asleep in the fetal position: that sounds like a good idea. A couple of people had glanced over at me to see how I was faring and I laid down and used my pack as a pillow and pulled my hat over my eyes.
Talking with Jason later on about how the day went, he mentioned an article he recently read about successfully finishing a race, specifically an ultra distance one. The two main factors are always going to be desire and nutrition, the latter of which I had problems with. Although my desire to finish was strong, I learned that for me, there became an inevitable point at which I actually needed someone to remind me that I still had the desire. He told me not to be that jackass that always wears his belt buckle when there isn’t a need to, i.e. with khaki shorts or to packet pickups for other races. For a short time in the night, my only motivation to finish was to get that belt buckle so that I could piss him off and wear it with some denim shorts and old race t-shirt, something that seems absolutely ridiculous but made me keep going.
I learned a lot of things in those 26 hours. I spent countless hours running scenarios through my head of what I did wrong in terms of nutrition. The 80 degree heat and 100% humidity led me to roll into Bald Rock somewhat dehydrated and I think that the excessive amounts of food I ate in that situation led to the problems I had, which is something I’ll do better next time. I also truly learned what it’s like to have your body beg for food that you don’t want to eat.
It wasn’t until 4 that afternoon that I stomached the first real food since finishing – leftover cold waffle fries from Chick-fil-a that Jason had left in his car the night before. Somehow that was the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life.
All in all it was by far the hardest thing I’ve done to date, and possibly the hardest thing I’ll do for a long time, unless I attempt a more challenging 100 miler. I doubt I could have finished how I did without my 1 man crew and pacer, Jason, and I likely would have had a slower pace in the earlier miles if it weren’t for Anthony keeping me company. I’m not sure what’s next on the list, but following a few weeks of recovery, I’ll figure it out. 100 miles was much more of an experience than I expected. It stripped away everything else and put my mind and body in a place it’s never been before and challenged me far more than anything else I’ve ever done.