Pinhoti 100 - a Pacer's view.
November 6-7, 2010
My family has tolerated my running and triathlons and have been pretty good sports about their weekends and camping in strange locales. But when I mention 100 mile trail runs, my wife's eyes definitely narrow and her smile fades, just that slight amount.
Last year, I got to meet Todd Henderson and run with him for a distance (he was having a bad day, otherwise I would have never seen him) at Pine Mountain 40 miler. Todd is the race director for the Pinhoti 100. I had heard of the Pinhoti 100 (it had just had the second running a few weeks before) and I had many questions. Todd was a good sport and helped me wrap my head around the concept of running 100 miles, in the woods, through the night, all in one go.
The Pinhoti 100 is a point-to-point trail run that starts in Heflin, Alabama and ends up in Sylacauga, Alabama. The race starts at 6:00 am on a Saturday and you must be finished by noon on Sunday. Your challenge is to finish in 30 hours. The race follows the Pinhoti trail which travels through parts of Alabama and on into Georgia (but not for this event) ending on the Benton MacKaye trail.
I am new to the long distance trail run concept and Pine Mountain 40 miler is my longest race to date. Making the leap from 40 to 100 miles is a different as working an eight-hour shift is to pulling an all nighter at work. I knew that there was a real experience to be had and that I was not ready to run my own 100 miler. I resolved to help at an aid station or in some other way. I wanted to see the race and see the runners who had put it out there to challenge 100 miles of trails.
So I sign on with Sean Oh and company. They are crewing and pacing Christian Griffith and Wayne Downey. Christian has run and finished a few 100 mile runs. He has shared his experiences at run100miles.com. Christian knows the value of a crew, having finished a 100 miler with none. Christian ran and finished this very race last year and has completed a loop at Barkley. For Wayne, he has moved steadily up in distances and this is his first 100 mile race. Wayne is an everyday guy. He goes to work everyday. Like me, he balances work, family and training. Wayne is eager to finish this race, but knows that this is an awesome challenge.
So I get to Sean's house and Sean's friends, Haley and Charlotte and I pile into his SUV. We are in Atlanta and heading to meet up with the runners at mile 40. This is the earliest in the race that the runners are allowed to have a pacer and it just happens to be the top of Mt. Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama at 2407 feet.
The concept of time was very fluid in this race. Why do I say that? Well, first off, I live in Georgia, which was on Eastern Daylight Saving Time at the beginning of the race. The race is held in Alabama, which is on Central Daylight Savings Time at the beginning of the race (an hour earlier than Georgia). Then right smack dab of the middle of my sleep-deprived weekend, the time changed back to Central Standard Time. I am not suggesting that as an added cruelty that Todd scheduled the race on the day we turn the clocks back, but yes it did make for complete confusion for me. So If I mention a time, it is probably Central time and it is probably the time with a nod to the time change. Bear with me.
At some point Sean got a text from Wayne's wife that Christian had dropped out of the race. She had no details, but it looked like Christian had been injured or had a medical issue. We scrambled for more information, but had no luck getting any. Two additional support guys showed up at this time. Victor and Phil drove up in Christian's SUV. Both had completed 100 mile races and were helping to crew Christian. We talked about the race and the way the night would play out.
Then all of a sudden, Wayne called Sean. Our intrepid trail runner was reaching out with the cell phone. Wayne had found a sign that he was ½ mile from the summit. The last aid station was out of water and Wayne had none left in his hand-held. We sprang into action. Sean had me dig out water and he ran down the trail to meet Wayne. I followed with two 20 oz water bottles in hand. When I reached Wayne, he and another runner were just making the nice boardwalk that reaches out from the parking lot to the summit. I dumped one 20 oz bottle into each runner's hand-held water bottle. Wayne was really disappointed having to make the climb low on water. He had also turned an ankle and it was bugging him. We asked him about Christian and Wayne explained that Christian was having heart palpitations and had laid down on the trail in an effort to calm everything down. Another runner had taken Christian back to the aid station and he got help there. Wayne was not in a great frame of mind. The aid station at the base of the climb not having water was a recurring theme, most of all. All I could think was, how are we going to perk him up?
Sean jumped in and said, “Wayne, Christian is out of this thing. We are here for you, man. We are going to get you some food and liquids and make sure you finish this race!” We walked onto the parking lot and sat Wayne down and suddenly Christian drives up. We put Wayne in a chair and got him in dry socks and filled his water bottle and got Wayne some food. Out of nowhere Wayne asks: “Who is going to pace me?” I jump in and say: “Wayne, I am ready to go!” There was talk of whether Wayne needed a jacket or this or that and suddenly Victor says, “Wayne, you are good to go with what you've got. You need to leave right now, no messing around. You want to cross Blue Hell before it gets dark.” Blue Hell is the next section of the trail, right after the aid station. Is is not a section to run, it is a climbing, hands and feet section and Victor (of course) was right. I grabbed my water and Wayne and I head out.
Wayne is still fighting the demons of the dried up aid station and the rolled ankle as we headed out of the parking lot. I talked to Wayne the entire time; “Wayne, you gotta do this thing,” ”Wayne, we are all here for you,” “Wayne you are kicking ass,” (which was true, he just needed to hear it). Victor had been correct. Blue Hell would have been just that in the dark. We picked our way through and it wasn't terribly long until we hit the trail at the bottom. Not long after we hit gravel road and the light faded pretty quickly.
We go to the aid station at mile 45 and saw more folks we knew from other races. Haley asked if I wanted a grilled cheese sandwich. When I said yes, she handed me a fresh one, nestled in foil and ready to go! I suddenly understood how great a crew could be! We left the aid station in solid dark.
I paced Wayne to mile 55. It took us a few hours to run fifteen miles and I felt the effort. Wayne was in much better spirits as he felt the full effect of the support of the crew plus food and hydration. I also think that Wayne started to make this his own challenge during this section as he made it more personal for him and make it less about Christian.
When we entered the aid station at 55, we were met by hooping and hollering. Music was played loudly. We came out to a gravel road and cars were pulled off on both sides. Sean was ready to take Wayne on the next leg of the run and I have to admit that it felt good to have the responsibility shifted away from me. Again, Haley asked if I was hungry, and she and Charlotte gave me food and drink.
Haley drove Sean's SUV to the next aid station. We followed Phil and Victor who had Christian and Sully. Sully had been in his first 100 miler as well. He got lost on the trails and when he finally found his way back, he met up with the sweeps, or the sweepers. Sweepers are the official people who clear the course. If they catch up to you, you are too slow and your race is over. Sully was less upset than I would have been, but what do I know...
We pulled into the aid station at mile 60, but it was cramped and there was not much to it. We talked amongst ourselves and decided that we would be more help to Wayne at the next aid station. It was not far. We piled into the trucks and headed out. Mile 65 aid station was next to a rail road track. If there had been any doubt that there was a track there, the trains came by not once but twice. It really is something to stand next to a freight train hauling ass in the dark. What is more remarkable is that there was a house about 100 yards away. These people must be deaf. We tried to heat up some soup and be ready for Wayne and Sean, but it felt like we only did “ok” at this aid station.
At this aid station I saw another runner that I had seen at other races. This was not his race. He was angry and complaining to the aid station folks. The stress of the race was hitting him hard. It was dark and cold and I was reminded that this distance was an awesome challenge...even for a young, fit runner like this guy.
We drove to mile 68 and prepared for Wayne and Sean. I had suited up in dry clothes and fresh shoes and socks. I had fresh batteries in my light. Water bottle was full...all set. This aid station was more laid out and I counted three generators running. There was a warm, friendly fire and someone had even brought a grill. Victor wanted to grill steaks, this was not standard aid-station fare. For some reason, the lady at the aid station was not on-board with grilling steaks. Victor and Phil tried to sweet talk her and cajole her, but finally I think they just moved stuff until there was enough space and grilled their steaks. Haley and Charlotte made grilled cheese on Sean's camp stove and that was what my belly wanted. I also dabbled in the double-shots...caffeine seems to work for me. As I waited, I noticed the drop bags set off to the side. I noticed some had names, Kena Yutz, Perry Sebastian, Charles Raffenberger, Psyche Wimberly, and many others. The bags had the thinest coating of frost starting to appear.
Suddenly, Sean and Wayne were here with us! Victor gave them a little steak. Somebody topped off Wayne's camelbak. Wayne put on some fresh socks. Victor and Phil talked to Wayne and I about strategy. Next thing I know, Victor is pointing to the trail and telling me to get Wayne moving. Wayne and I started shuffling to the trail head, dropping the extra stuff we were carrying and starting to pickup speed. I looked at my watch and it was 1:50 am. The cutoff at the aid station we were leaving was 2:30 am. We were cool, time-wise, but could not dilly-dally.
From mile 68 to 75, Wayne and I knew we were approaching the Pinnacle. We knew this to be the last big climb and the reward at the top was an aid station that our own running club (GUTS) was stocking! So, big climb and then familiar faces with warm food. Victor and Phil had coached us not to overdo it on the climb because there was plenty of race left. One of the other runners had told Wayne to get to the Pinnacle before 3 am and that he could walk the marathon distance (give or take) to the finish. Wayne repeated this guy's comment more than once. All I could think about was, big climb and then downhill to aid stations 80 and 85 and then I could take a nap.
Well, it was not what we expected. First off, the trail leading to the climb was probably three or four miles, but Wayne and I were so sure that it was around the next bend that we power-walked almost all of it. To do it over again, we should have ran a little more. We just did not know any better. Then as we finally started to climb, it seemed pretty gradual...maybe we were just too cautious...or maybe I am just warm and well-rested as I write this...either way, just a little different that what I expected. Then, and others have written about this, you are climbing this trail in the dark (and it is really dark) and you come around a bend and you can see the lights of the aid station! Hey look! There it is! But the trail continues on and points away from the obvious destination...and then comes to another ridge and you turn back to the aid station. Wayne knew about this crazy layout and so was not disheartened...but until he told me, I was not a happy camper!
So we start whooping towards the lights and our Georgia Ultramarathon and Trailrunning Society (GUTS) comrades start whooping back. “Wayne?” “John?” “Is that you?” How cool is that...to be in the dark, in the woods in the wee hours and you are expected? We walk into an over-bright aid station and are immediately handed warm, fresh, fried egg sandwiches. The table is an ultra runner's delight...peanut butter sandwiches, pretzels, m&m's and everything else, high-energy and easy to digest. Kim Pike, Kim Fuller, Mark Elson, James Taylor and aid station commander Len Thompson all were there. They were tired but they took great care of us. Wayne and I had agreed not to mess around and we were looking forward to the descent to mile 80. We started to leave...the watch said 3:50 am. The cut off at mile 75 was 4:15 am. We were 25 minutes ahead. Still ok and heading downhill.
Well, it would be downhill after we topped the first ridge. No, just around this bend...Well, when we get past this ridge. Perhaps it is just a little further. The fact was that there is no real downhill from mile 75 to 80. Wayne and I thought we'd been flim-flammed. We kept moving, running a little and walking a lot. We were moving forward and were holding back at the same time. Ready to kick it into high gear, but waiting for the right moment...
And that moment just never showed up.
We started to see little glow sticks hung in the pine trees and realized a little suddenly that we had made it to mile 80. The mood was somber, no music. The fire burned low. I remember grabbing some m&m's and I think we just kept going. Jason Rogers had escorted an injured runner here from the Pinnacle aid station and we did talk to him briefly. Jason is a great guy and helping this runner out and putting himself out in the process just bears out his selflessness. The stay was brief and I did not check my watch as we left.
The trail out of this aid station was gravel road. Flagging had been tied to the trees and we stayed on the road for a long time. Wayne and I started to wonder if we missed a turn, because the road just kept going. Just when we really started to sweat it, there would be more flagging in the tree to reassure us. The road followed the ridge line and there were little downhills. The feel was that we were losing just that little bit of elevation, but we would still climb just that little bit. Wayne was resolved to run the downs and walk the uphills. It was the right strategy. We would run and just as the road started to climb, we would power walk once again. The road required less attention than single-track and I started to think about the aid station at 85. The plan had been for Sean Oh to to pace Wayne from mile 85 to the finish and I was looking forward to letting him take over. But I had a sudden thought, what if Sean could not pace Wayne? What if he had limped into the aid station, not telling Wayne? What if he had turned an ankle and needed to pass on the last fifteen miles? I resolved then and there, that I would press on if Sean could not. I just had to mentally be ready, because had I obsessed all the way to mile 85, it would have been tough to switch plans.
The old saying tells us that it is darkest before the dawn. All through pacing I tried to keep things upbeat and positive. Wayne and I had talked about family and kids and, to me, keeping Wayne talking was as big a part of my pacer job as any running. I had to keep both our hearts in this thing. Neither one of us could afford to be sour or down. But, the truth is that we were out in the cold dark night, each thinking about our houses and warm beds and the trail was not all that inviting in the wee hours. The sky started to lighten and we were still on the top of the ridge. Out of no where, I looked left and there was a line of pink on the horizon. I remember telling Wayne to look left. As the light got stronger, I could feel it lift my spirit. It was not something tangible and I could not look at it continuously since we were moving on the trail and we did not want to stop. The pink line grew into the blue morning and I have to say that I have never welcomed a dawn such as this. Almost by magic, the course turned off the gravel road and onto single track. At first the single track was regular old trail with roots and rocks, but then, as the sky brightened, the trail dropped from the top of the ridge and was covered in pillow-like pine straw. It was a wonder. I kept picking up speed and then looking back and putting on the brakes to keep Wayne in sight. I did not know how far to the aid station, but it had to be close...it just felt close. The trail turned and twisted, but was always moving down the ridge. The woods was pretty open here, like there had been a burn. Wayne and I had passed a few runners on the road, but there had stuck with us and were with us now. Some of them hooted and whooped and all of our moods lightened in the morning light. We happened upon Dan Burstein, who was peeing by the trail. He watched us pass and wished us good morning. He let the entire group of us pass and fell in behind. Sure enough the aid station was the one or two turns away. We dropped off the trail and onto a road. From relative seclusion to cars and tents and people milling around, each waiting for their runner.
Well, of course, Sean Oh had not been beset by any mystery injury and he was ready to go. The crew immediately surrounded Wayne and were giving him food, instruction and changing his socks. I was suddenly not very important. I backed up a little to get out of the way, just in time to see Dan Burstein drop onto the road off of the trail. Dan, it turns out, was running this alone. He had a drop bag at this aid station and intended to get out of some of the wet clothes and keep moving. With Wayne in good hands, I offered to help Dan. Dan was happy to get some help, as would anyone trying to get out of wet clothes. He got changed, put water in his hand-held and moved on down the road. Wayne had a handful of food, someone was handing him his filled hand-held and Sean was pulling him out of the aid station as well. I yelled to all of them and watched them head out. Victor looked at his watch and gave me, what appeared to be, a very sincere thumbs up. Haley and Charlotte gave me some food and we talked about how the trail had been. We jumped into the vehicles and I could not help but to relax into the seat of Sean's SUV and think about taking a nap.
Haley followed Victor again and they sped down the hill and we were suddenly in a town. I figured out later that this was downtown Sylacauga. The Burger King was closed and we ended up at McDonald's. Haley and Charlotte offered to let me relax and would I like anything from inside? I sheepishly asked for a cup of black coffee and apple dippers. They were so nice to offer, but I really felt like a bum sitting there. I thought about it for a minute but I really did not want to go inside either. They were gone for a minute, and another minute and then they are back in the car asking me if I had dozed off...? Crazy question....
We drove over to the local High School and pulled up to the stadium. The race finishes on the track at the High School. The morning chill was just wearing off and you could tell it was going to be a beautiful fall day. Suddenly a runner, who I did not know, was on the track. Everyone at the finish had been talking but now turned their attention to this newly-found runner. People started clapping and yelling. Someone called out a name. The runner did not speed up, but did lean forward, ever slow slightly. Clearly, this person was tired but was pushing to reach that final, dare I say it, achievable mark. The cheers grew louder and the runner kept moving forward. Finally, the runner crossed the line and people came to meet and congratulate on the special moment.
I suddenly had to be out of my comfy seat and out by that finish line. I had seen a piece of what that finisher had ran. I knew what that dark had been like, even if I only dealt with a small chunk of the race. I wanted to cheer those runners in who were coming in next.
I watched so many different reactions. One woman cried and swore “this will never happen again!?” So many smiles, so many tired people who were just glad to be done. I saw families run out to meet Dad or Mom as they finished. I saw two guys come in with Mom, Dad, girlfriends (in t-shirts that spelled out their names) plus Grandma and Grandpa cheer them in. They celebrated, and hugged and took pictures and had a little party, all their own. Of course, I got to see many friends from GUTS finish too: Scott Stetson (fresh from Afghanistan), Kena Yutz, Perry Sebastian, Dan Burstein,
I hit up Christian and suggested we go walk the course back until we saw Wayne. I am not much good at waiting and figured we could bring him home. Christian was game and we started walking. A few runners past us as we walked and we yelled encouraging things and cheered them on. We finally reached a corner and crossed a somewhat busy street. I looked up and there is Wayne! With Sean Oh! Sean is barking orders at Wayne to keep him on task and Christian and I start yelling and hollering: “Wayne! You did it!!” Wayne sees us both and just shakes his head. Christian and I are both telling Wayne it's right here, just a little farther! We cross the busy street and we are next to the stadium and suddenly Wayne is on the track and I am sprinting across the infield because I don't think I will be at the finish fast enough. Everyone is cheering for Wayne at the finish. He is motoring the last part and he crosses the finish. Unbelievable! Todd Henderson hands Wayne his finisher's belt buckle and smiles. Wayne holds it up for everyone to see. We all mob around Wayne and pictures are being snapped and smiles and handshakes all around...what a moment!
Haley and Charlotte (picture is from a different event)
Phil, Me, Sean, Victor, Christian hoisting Wayne, Sully
Me, Wayne and Sean