My philosophy is that I’m an artist. I perform an art not with a paint brush or a camera. I perform with bodily movement. Instead of exhibiting my art in a museum or a book or on canvas, I exhibit my art in front of the multitudes. — Seb Prefontaine
There is nothing graceful about running 100 miles, however. Most of the day is spent ensuring that those bodily movements don’t bring about an untimely end to your masterpiece. There are no multitudes to demonstrate the art form to. Running 100’s is a lonely, messy, downright ugly business.
The Pinhoti 100 would be my second attempt at the distance following my earlier escapades in the neighboring state of Tennessee at the Thunder Rock 100. I had a good outing there and was eager to see if it was a fluke or not. Time to find out.
My goals in rough order of infeasibility were :
- Run everything.
- Don’t get lost.
- Break 17 hours
- Take the win.
- Set course record.
Basically, no point messing around here. Go hard or go home, as they say. The weather was favorable with a cold front hitting on the Saturday bringing frigid, windy and overcast conditions. Perfect.
We drove up from Sylacauga to the starting point a bit north of Heflin, which took an unnerving 1 hour 20 minutes. That’s a long time to be driving and an even longer return journey on foot!
We gathered around the start area, eager to get moving and start this adventure. The sun came up 30 mins before the start to unveil the autumnal surroundings that we would be spending the next day in.
Without much fuss we were thrown into the reality of the situation. The game was indeed ‘afoot’. A few brisk steps along the fire road before we disappeared into the woods onto the promised single track.
The race website touts a point-to-point run between Heflin and Sylacauga, with 80% of the course on “unmolested single track”. Now, I’m not quite sure what they mean by ‘unmolested’ or even if that’s a good thing or not, but we soon found ourselves on beautiful, thinly traveled trails through the leaf-covered autumnal hills of Alabama. As beautiful as they were, the running was slow going. With twists and turns every few meters it was hard to get in a rhythm at times. You could barely distinguish a trail for the most part but somehow you managed to pick your way along, following the slight depression in leaves that concealed what was presumably a trail underneath. Furthermore, under the leaves was buried all manner of fun surprises: rocks, rock-like monster acorns, pine cones, roots. Unmolested indeed.
The first 3 aid stations were crew accessible and it was great to see Silke, Cassie, Jessica and Rush there. Everything was going pretty smoothly so far. I had stepped onto the single track at the start in 1st place and hadn’t seen anyone since. My only company in the first mile or so was a dog that happened to follow me into the woods and was quite content in running along with me. That would pretty much be my only company until mile 68 when Silke would join me. Like I say, running 100 miles is a lonely business.
After a good solid effort over the first 26 or so miles I arrived at the Lake Morgan aid station with a decent lead and in decent shape. I had clocked about 4 hours for the marathon and was pretty comfortable with that. I headed off and promptly came onto a road crossing. I looked up the road and saw some red/orange flagging tied to a telephone pole. I headed up the road following this flagging but something didn’t feel right. The flagging was tied to odd things that didn’t seem to fit in with the previous markings I had been following. Just as I was doubting myself, I saw a marking on another pole that looked to be similar to the Pinhoti trail marker. It was a white-ish cross shaped blaze which I convinced myself was similar to the Pinhoti trail markings I had also seen earlier. As I crested the hill and headed down the other side, the markings dried up and I came across a gas station and junction. I was pretty convinced at this point I was lost.
To say I was crushed would be an understatement. I turned around and headed back putting in a 5:35 min/mile section downhill. I didn’t care. I was inconsolable and running angry. As I got back towards where I had first come onto the road I saw someone cross right over it and enter the woods almost immediately opposite the previous trail. Damn it, I thought. My lead was gone. I had just bagged myself something shy of 3 bonus miles with a decent climb and in an instant evaporated my lead. I caught up to the other runner and chatted with him briefly before passing him to re-take the lead. I was still running angry and running on the adrenaline of the situation. On the plus side, my left foot which had been bothering me significantly for the last 10 miles or so had stopped complaining. But my problems were about to get a lot worse as I entered the dreaded 30’s.
Motivation. That is the singular most important thing in any race. Stay motivated and you can overcome pretty much anything. The longer the distance the harder it becomes to stay motivated. Getting lost in a long race pretty much destroys your motivation. Without it I began to spiral downwards. I was tiring for the first time. The fast road running was a mistake and now that I was back on the trails I was struggling. I stumbled along trying to just focus on getting to mile 40 (now mile 43!) which would be the next time I would see Silke. It wasn’t so much that seeing her would boost my spirits but more that I could have someone to complain to! I was not in a great frame of mind and every acorn, pinecone, rock, leaf, and turn just pissed me off further.
Somehow, I topped out at the climb and saw Silke and Cassie waiting on the trail. This was the biggest climb of the day but wasn’t particularly steep or long compared to our usual outings here in Colorado so I didn’t particularly mind it. After a quick round of complaining to Silke and Cassie, I almost immediately felt better. Sometimes you just have to bitch a little to get it off your chest.
I immediately focused on the task at hand: start moving well again and put more time on the people behind me. I figure I had put on about 5 mins or so since regaining the lead about 12 miles previously. I decided to grind on and put the past behind me. The race started here and I was all in. I left the aid feeling recharged and ready for business. There was a technical descent which I dispatched swiftly, and for the first time in 45 miles or so (aside from my detour), I was not on single track! I relished the asphalt and then the fire roads. It felt good to just run. And run I did.
It was short lived, however, and soon enough I was back on the single track trails. Although it was beautiful and scenic and exactly what you’d hope for in a race. It was difficult to be in such a similar environment for so long. It felt monotonous, in fact, and provided a real challenge to stay engaged with the surroundings. I think the slow nature of the movement along the single track added to the difficulty. It was beautiful but punishing. I guess this is exactly what we were looking for.
As I soldiered along in the wind things were on the up. I was feeling better than earlier and making good progress. The weather proved to be difficult to contend with, however, in that I never quite felt comfortable. I oscillated back and forth between hot and cold with the whim of the wind.
After over 11 hours of running by myself I was starting to get lonely, bored and tired. Pretty much everything hurt and I just needed some company to take my mind off things and possibly someone to complain to. Silke was ready to pace the last 32 miles for me and although I had contemplated going solo so that we could have a car at the finish line, I needed company more than I cared about logistics at the finish. Just as I put my headlamp on about 70 miles after starting, I rolled into Aid station #13 and picked up Silke. Although I was feeling pretty decent at this point, I almost immediately crashed as we set off. Unfortunately for me, this was one of the trickiest sections of the course with some real slow single track. I plodded and grunted my way along, hanging on to the thought that, as in Thunder Rock 100, I had struggled in the 70’s, only to emerge into the 80’s feeling great. Silke made me pop a couple Ibuprofen as we came up towards mile 80. We took a good breather there and one of the aid station guys mentioned that we had mostly fire road sections left until the finish. This was the best news I had heard all day!
We set off on the fire roads and I immediately felt better. Of course this is all relative as I still felt generally like total crap. But less crappy than earlier — it’s all relative. There were no heroics or easy miles to come. Just a slow, persistent, stubborn grind to the end. At the mile 90 aid station I celebrated by eating a slice of pizza. It felt amazing. But 10 more miles to go felt like an insurmountable task. I plodded on regardless.
As we came into the final section on roads leading into town I thought I might be able to relax and enjoy it. Alas, I hated every step of it! I was simply ready to be done running. I had run every step of the race with no more than 1 or 2 minutes at each aid station. It was a long time to be running and I was decidedly sick of it!
I don’t typically look at my watch until the end of a race as I prefer to run by feel than to check to make sure I don’t have to bust my ass in the last mile or two in order to make some totally arbitrary goal. One of these goals coming in, was the slightly less than arbitrary goal of setting a new course record. I glanced at my watch in the final miles and was surprised to see it was just passed midnight. In other words, over 17 hours of running. My little detour earlier in the day had eliminated my chances of surging for the course record. I wasn’t too sad though, as at least it meant I could take it easy and just cruise my way along the final miles.
Crossing the finishing line at the Pinhoti 100 in 1st place after 17 hours and 19 minutes of running there were approximately 2 people there to welcome me in the darkness: the race director and his wife. There is something satisfying about finishing something so hard with so little fanfare. Of course, being British, I have a natural affinity to understatement. I was perfectly happy with a seat in front of a propane heater, a stack of pancakes and the simple pleasure of not running. Life was good.
It was great having a big Rocky Mountain Runners crew out there. Knowing that others are going through the same suffering as you is, somehow, comforting. Getting updates on everyone along the way from our crew made a real difference. And of course, having Silke, Cassie and Jessica there to crew and pace for us, was paramount to getting this done. Suffering likes company and we had plenty out there. Crewing and pacing a 100 is a thankless and difficult task. This is indeed a team sport.
I achieved two out of five of my arbitrary goals. I ran the whole thing, which is always the most important goal, in my opinion. Everything else is secondary and less important. The more you run, the faster you are done. If you can run everything then it will be a good day regardless of what else happens. I was bummed to take a wrong turn as it did cost me 25 minutes or so and a whole lot more in the morale shattering blow. I’m happy that without that detour I would have been sub-17 and maybe even had a shot at the record. Some things have to be left for another day though and I came away confident that my second 100 mile race is not just a fluke. It may actually suit me: I have a strong stomach, can run for a long time, have good aid station strategy and, most importantly, I can be miserable all day and still keep running!