Despite its obscure location in Alabama, this race attracts strong talent. A quick gander at the fastest times shows the types of athletes that have completed this point-to-point course from Helfin, Alabama to Sylacauga, Alabama via the Pinhoti trail in Talladega National Forest. Karl Melzer, the then course record holder, ran a 16:44. This is the same man who has the current record for the fastest traverse of the Appalachian Trail. Not surprisingly, this year wouldn't disappoint with the talent levels. David Riddle from Ohio was registered. This is a man who has run several sub 6 hour 50 milers and rarely loses. I suppose my one claim to fame was my win against him at the Mohican 50 earlier this year ( in fact his only non 1st place finish in 3 years). I noticed that he registered for the race after I did. In my brain I told myself he was seeking revenge. Although that was a completely different race, one will find that he and I never really had a race. He ran away with the win and an eventual course record of 16:24.
Weather for this year was the best that I had all year. Earlier I had run Zion 100 in Utah and Ouray 100 in Colorado. Although two states that are typically labeled as "sunny," I of course brought the Seattle rain. I was glad that this wasn't a repeat of those experiences. We had mid 70's for the day and upper 40's for the night. It was my first race that I had great weather! The start was as usual, very fidgety. There were over 200 runners registered for this race. Going into it, I was quite sure that there were 8-10 that could easily win it-it would depend on who had the best day.
Once we got started promptly at 7 am in Heflin, it was a sprint to single track. I was warned by my friend Jen that it turns single track early on, it just caught me off guard. I noticed that I was probably in 15th during the start. Not surprisingly, Riddle took off (and in fact I never saw him the rest of the race). I remember conversing with a guy named Anthony who had run some 50ks and 50 milers, but never a 100. He was a bit nervous but I assured him to put just one foot in front of the other. Not that I'm a super seasoned ultrarunner, but I certainly won't forget my first 100. I wanted to quit so bad. However, getting a talking to, I was quickly reminded that I registered for the torture and it was up to me to get to the end. Hopefully that advice served Anthony to some degree on his endeavor that day. I hung out with him for a few miles before I found my target.
I found Caleb. Caleb had a strong, thick Southern accent but was by no means a joke. The 24 year old had run Orcas Island in Washington earlier this year (a very mountainy 100 miler in WA State). In fact, he was good friends with the Race Director at Pinhoti and was dating his daughter. We talked about our careers and goals for the day. We ran into the first aid station together. His crew had his bottles ready so he blew right past through. I spent about a minute refilling my water bottles. I know how important it is to eat and drink early on. Both Caleb and I agreed that the race really doesn't start until mile 50. Riddle and others that took off, I was convinced that I was going to catch up to.
A different part of this race for me is that I was already we were in 4th and 5th, respectively. I think this is still the hardest challenge for me. I'm not sure if I should have gone out that aggressive or go out more steady and maintain during the day. The results of this race likely indicate that I need to run my own race. Too often I get caught up with what everyone else is doing and I lose my own rhythm. After going through the 2nd aid station, I quickly became acquainted with the ground. I remember following Caleb through this dirt section and somehow fell. There were no rocks or roots. I literally just fell down. Caleb turned around and asked if I was good. I laughed and said that I was but was a bit confused how I managed to fall on nothing. Thank to the fall, I managed to get a nice skid mark too, similar to carpet burn. It's odd how I can run courses that have boulder and root after root and manage not to fall, but then eat it on flat dirt. Regardless, I got up and continued moving.
This is when the course started to climb a little. The first 40ish miles are incredibly deceiving. There is very little climbing and tons of rolling, undulating hills. This too is a terrain that I'm figuring out if it is a strong suit of mine or not. I'm thinking that I prefer the medium length ups and downs. For this race, I was running too many hills too early on. I certainly paid for this later on. As I was following Caleb I noticed the terrain was a bit like running on ice. The course is covered in pine needles that make climbing seem like you're climbing on ice. This really wore on me as the race went on. Every step forward I took a half step back.
After about 15ish miles with Caleb, we split paths. I moved in front of him and was by myself for a while. Really I was feeling good at this point. This is eventually when I caught up with Adam Tekacs. Adam is a Canadian runner who hails from Toronto. He's had a rough year with injuries and was focusing on just a finish. Not only would Adam finish, but he would put over an hour on me. With that said, we became very well acquainted throughout the race. I'm not sure I've ever played leap frog with someone so much. We came into mile 27 together and we left that section. I remember seeing a sign that said "one marathon down, 3 to go." Those signs are in fact very demotivating to me. Mile 30ish is usually when I get my first wave of depression. It is the reality check that I'm not even a 3rd of the way there. This sign was certainly not a kind reminder of that. With that said, Adam and me were in 2nd and 3rd. The only one in front of us was Dave Riddle.
We continued for several miles together. I remember the next section we both were running out of water and wondering where the next stop was. When we came to it, we both refilled and headed back out in the woods. It was at this moment that the hip flexors were not happy. it was about mile 33 and they were already agitated. In retrospect, I think that it was caused by the running of the smaller hills and the pine needles. They were being forced to work harder on the climbs as every step we fell back a tad. Unfortunately for me, this is a problem that persisted for the other 77 miles. Certainly there were some moments better and worse than others but mentally it was already freaking me out. I entered this race wanting to finish top 5 but always have higher expectations, despite not being mentioned (perhaps superstitious thing?).
It was here that we were climbing up Mt. Cheaha, the highest point in the State of Alabama. I remember the climb not being as bad as others that were about to come. This certainly had tons of boulders. As Adam and I were summitting, we saw tons of tourists enjoying the 70 degree day. They were all waving. They knew that we were running from Heflin to Sylacauga and still had a LONG ways to go. Shortly after was the aid station. I quickly got what I needed and headed out. I think what my hip flexors lacked in the day, my efficiency at the aid station gave me a consistent lead over Adam throughout the day. My one minute that I spent was being compared to his 5-10 minutes at the aid stations. The next section was perhaps my favorite. After Cheaha, we headed down the largest boulder field of the course and then all roads. I remember making tremendous progress here. This is also when gastro problems started to arise. My timing for this was impeccable. There was a porta pot on the road. I quickly stopped and moved on.
After checking in this aid station, I remember the next being the 2nd worst section. It was back in the woods but on a really long section. I believe this was the 8 mile section. The problem is that Adam stayed at the previous aid station longer and I didn't have anyone near me. Consequently, I became very lazy. My hiking was getting worse and the hip flexors were wanting nothing to do with climbing anymore. This was a very sad reality, not only that I train in Seattle, but that there was much more climbing in the second half of the race. After finally getting to this aid station, I collected my gear and finished the short 3 mile section that was next. It was here that I collected my headlamp for the night section. It was about mile 55. Many roads were to come. After about 10 minutes on this section, I saw Adam coming up from behind. He was looking really strong. When it came to the roads, I didn't have a chance. I'll just accredit this to Adam's training in Toronto and probably having tons of exposure to roads. It was here too that I learned that he is actually part of the Canadian 100k world team that is competing next month. After he caught up we ran a little bit and then he took off. This is basically when I never saw him again.
He took off and shortly thereafter, it was time for the headlamps. It was a depressing concept that we would need headlamps for practically half of the race...night sections are not my favorite and this course was tough with all of the pine needles and leaves covering the boulders. Shortly after turning the headlamp on I quickly ate it again. There were a couple of choice words released and then I felt better. Basically the only part I remember from this section was that I eventually got to a sign that said "hill ahead :)" Something told me that I won't be smiling here soon...typically the climbing is a strong point, but not this race and not this day. My hip flexors were convulsing and refusing to cooperate. I could hear music from the aid station which was located at the top of the hill, but all I remember is a tons of switchbacks that seemed to go on forever. However, after probably the 20th switchback, I was at the top.
I drank some coke and other salty foods. My diet for the day had been power bars, similar to gummy bears. My stomach was getting a tad sick of all of the sugars and demanded foods that were a bit more real. From this section I remember that we continued climbing. This was another low moment for me. I wasn't climbing a ton but I couldn't run. It was covered in tons of boulders and leaves. Then there were the hip flexors. Every step was a reminder that I couldn't move quickly. After practically walking this entire section I made it to mile 79. I'll call this Liar Aid Station. The adults told me that it was all down hill. In fact, they promised me that. Very quickly a teenager of probably 15 years quickly informed me that I would be going uphill on more roads. The adults quickly shut him up. Too bad for these adults, I know how aid station people work sometimes. The teenager was absolutely right. It wasn't downhill, it was more uphill on a gravel road.
After laughing to myself about the aid station workers I know that they were just wanting to be helpful. It was back on single track. It was at this point that I saw two headlamps behind me. My initial thought was that there were 2 people going to pass me. Although true, it was only one racer with their pacer. The person happened to be the eventual women's winner, Jacqueline Merritt. I was about to get served a huge dose of humble pie. I have no qualms losing to women, but it certainly isn't a morality boost. I've been "chicked" 3 times in 100's. The first was in my first 100 (doesn't count, right?), the second was to the Amy Sproston, the women's 100k world champion, and now to Jacqueline. With that said, Jacqueline is a solid runner. So solid in fact, she crushed the women's record by 20 minutes. Needless to say it looked like she had just started. She passed and was like "you feeling ok?" I actually thought that I was moving somewhat ok but it looked like Jacqueline had just woken up and started running. I never would have guessed she had 85 miles under her belt.
After letting her by, it was about another 15 minutes until the next aid station. The next section was the worst of the entire course. The temps dropped by about 20 degrees in this section and it was all on road. It sounds really pleasant, however, the hip flexors were again just giving up. Not to mention it is about 8 miles all by yourself on this road. There is a water drop about halfway. Not sure why, but the song "Running with the Devil" came into my brain. This was probably because this was the longest road section ever and I started to get incredibly drowsy. So drowsy in fact that I couldn't walk in a straight line. I was wobbling side to side on this road. I was in desperate need of some caffeine. Not sure why, but I get tired very easily. It was about 1 am at this point. I finally made it to the the last aid station and they informed that it was only 5 miles to the end. I got some updates and moved on.
This was another section that seemed to take a while. It takes you past this swamp and then dumps you on this road for 4 miles. The race ends at Sylacauga High School but getting to the high school felt like an eternity too. The last two miles I got "attacked" by about 3 dogs. The first was the worst. His teeth were showing and you could tell that he wanted nothing to do with a person at 2:45 in the morning. Go figure, I finish 98 miles and then get pulverized by a huge dog. Thankfully, with my dog charming skills he just growled and barked. There were two other dogs that did the same but they were thankfully not as bad as the first. As laziness fully kicked in, I was walking tons of this section, being sure to look back for lights in case another racer were to come. However, I was in the clear. I could see the lights of the track stadium and knew that my suffering was over. I pressed forward and was greeted by the race director and others at the finish. They congratulated me for my 4th overall finish and 3rd overall male. I was very happy that this one was over. Official finish was 20:04:00.
In retrospect, I learned a lot from this race. First, it is important to keep my own pace. Second, I think I underestimated the course. The boulders, pine needles, and the leaves made this course incredibly challenging. I'm also beginning to conclude that I do better on courses that have a bit longer climbs. Although there was nothing I could do about the hip flexors, I do question if I should have trained a bit more. I have been taking 2 days off a week and only getting about 50-80 miles a week. Some of my best results in 100's have been in 6 days of training. This certainly is something I will continue to experiment in. The good news with Pinhoti is that I managed a top 5 finish and successfully completed my 8th 100 miler in 8 states. Just 42 to go....!
Lastly, just want to give a huge thanks to Orange Mud and their VP2. Once again, it served me well and provided all of the hydration needs that I needed. Congrats to Jacqeline on her course record and Dave Riddle on his. Also, thanks to Shawn and Jen Merchant for figuring the logistics out and Ellen for the ride to the start. Finally, I want to thank everyone who continue to read about these adventures. Hopefully these continue to be enjoyable.