Pinhoti 100: digging deep
What happens when you might NOT finish? How deep can you truly dig? Can some pain actually be ignored? What if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew?
2020 has been a bitch of a year, to put it bluntly. There had been so many stressors, worries, disappointments and letdowns. Our nation’s collective emotions were worn thin, and my own personal “finding awesome” mantra was getting difficult to realize. I had signed up for Pinhoti 100 as soon as Zion 100 (and everything else in Spring/Summer) was cancelled. My trail buddy Chris and I saw this as a chance to run together, somewhere cool, to avenge our respective cancelled Spring races, and qualify to enter the 2022 Western States lottery with a finish. Add in Brad and Bryan who wanted to join too and it would clearly be a trail party! “Click” on Ultrasignup and the deal is done… but the pandemic raged on… and the reality was that even THIS race far off in November might get the axe! Fingers crossed we trained onward.
The Pinhoti 100 Trail Endurance race runs from Heflin to Sylacauga Alabama. Per their description: “The Pinhoti 100 is a point-to-point trail run starting in Heflin, Alabama on the unmolested Pinhoti single-track trail. Runners will make their way over the highest point in Alabama while navigating over rocks, through creeks and across beautiful ridge lines of the Talladega National Forest.” Approximately 85 miles of the course is single-track and it's mostly just the latter half has some jeep roads mixed intermittently with more single track. The website lists “just over 14,000 feet of climb and descent with a total of 28,000 ft of elevation change”
Training continued through the summer months. Heat and humidity were a challenge, and along the way I had 3 of the worst training “bonks” I’ve experienced primarily due to inadequate fueling and hydration strategies. These little suck-fests turned out to be the most important training I would have… perhaps setting me up for the difference between surviving Pinhoti and a DNF (did not finish). As Fall rolled around, the training continued, the pandemic continued, but races started happening again and there was hope we’d make it to the start line.
Chris and I had a plan. We have very similar paces and our goals were the same. We’d try our best to run together the whole race. We didn’t really have a confirmed crew and no pacers. We weren’t sure Bryan and Brad would run the same speed as us… so we were gonna be each other’s support. We planned logistics, we texted and had a zoom call all 4 of us. I had charts and time schedules made up. Drop bags were planned and details were discussed in (probably far too much) depth. Then… 3 days before we were supposed to leave Chris’ wife got exposed to Covid 19 at work, and he and his wife tested positive. Noooooooooooooooo!!!! I was crestfallen! Mostly I was upset for Chris who had put such effort into training since January, and who would have been going for his first buckle. To be honest though, I was also upset for me. Gone was my “plan” for mutual pacing and a “buddy” to pull me through and for me to do the same when one of us was in a low spot. I had 3 days to reframe my resolve and suck it up. I had planned to do Zion on my own, so why not Pinhoti? Bryan and Brad would still be there, and there was Brad’s Dad crewing him who would at least be able to give us a ride to the start.
At the same time, Hurricane Zeta travelled through Alabama all the way along the Pinhoti Trail and Talladega National Forest. Tropical Force winds knocked down thousands of trees and caused estimated 494,000 power outages across the state. The course was a mess. Race directors posted their concerns and updated us with progress on trail clearing but unbeknownst to us there was serious consideration to cancel the race just TWO days before it was set to run due to the impassibility of many sections. If it were not for the generous and vigorous efforts of volunteers with chainsaws, the race would’ve been snatched away from us like yet another crushed dream of 2020.
An 8 hour drive, hotel stay in Sylacauga and pre-race pizza, and before we knew it we were driving through the early hours to the Pine Glen Campground in Heflin. Through all the trials and tribulations, pandemic, storms, training, planning, unexpected hurdles and roadblocks… we were finally standing at the STARTING LINE! I even voiced out loud that it seemed like the “hardest part was just getting to this point”... It turns out I still had some “hard parts” to go for sure.
The race starts out in a pretty remote campground outside of town at 7am. We all wore face coverings and spread out to do our best to mitigate Covid while 207 of us were all grouped together. The 3 of us positioned somewhere towards the middle/back hoping to hit the average 27hr finish crowd. Within 100 yards we bottlenecked into a single-track that would be our home for the foreseeable future. The “conga line” was formed and off we went into the Talladega National Forest with hoots and hollers and laughter. We were so excited and happy to be DOING IT!
My plan was as follows: Steady pace as much as possible. Keep my poles stowed until AS #5 at 27.66 miles (partially as a “carrot” but also to avoid using them until we all got more spread out). Hike the uphills, run the flats and downs. Take in calories every 35 minutes and finish at least one fluid flask every hour. I had calculated the times and distances between drop bags and supplies and I was fully stocked with goodies (see the gear/supply list at the end).
I went through AS #1, #2 & #3 in great shape. My pace was easy and measured, my plan was working and the conga line wasn’t bad. Grabbed food from Aid Stations and smiled and cheered the volunteers. I began to drop slightly behind Bryan and Brad but I wasn’t worried about it. Crossing a creek I got stung by a yellow jacket and then the guy behind me got stung twice and yelled “RUN” and there we were scampering up a hill 25 miles into a hundred giggling and cursing. Thankfully the pain was only temporary and was a good distraction. I was disappointed a couple times to not have the electrolyte drink I was expecting at the aid stations, but I made do and kept the water going down regardless. By the time I got to my drop bag at AS#5 I had passed Bryan who seemed to be slowing quite a bit due to a bum foot, and Brad was stretching out his lead on the two of us, looking strong. After scrambling up a little waterfall crossing to the aid station I grabbed a new shirt, supplies and snack and I was good to go from Morgan Lake. I had an extra bottle now as there was to be 8 miles till the next AS.
Here’s where the first “low” hit. I was on my own now… the conga line had spread out, and there were still folks passing or being passed, but with far less regularity. The temp had picked up a bit into at least the upper 60s but the humidity was up too. It was misting and then raining, but other times it just felt sticky. I found myself struggling to keep a consistent rhythm. I wasn’t running all of every flat or downhill, and I knew my time was slowing. Nonetheless I felt ok about it… after all I had been slightly below 27hr estimated times so far, so I’d be ok, right? What I hadn’t calculated correctly was the daylight. You see, when I put together the spreadsheet for pacing estimates it was daylight savings time still. PLUS previous races had started at 6am, so the gorgeous photos I saw of folks rounding the rocky outcropping at Bald Rock made me assume I’d be there around sunset. Needless to say… at around 4:30 I’d noticed a dimming of the light. There was cloud cover and the sunlight was already muted. I passed Blue Mtn AS (35.66mi) with the sobering knowledge that I'd be climbing a difficult, technical trail up Cheaha Mtn to Bald Rock and then navigating an extremely technical boulder field straight down the backside to Cheaha Lake IN THE PITCH DARK and THICK FOG. I had put a “backup headlamp” in my pack from the start. If I hadn’t… well I’d be done writing this report right here. The rock star waist light I expected to use at night was waiting for me in my drop bag at Cheaha Lake AS #7!
Interestingly this is the point where my mood elevated! Suddenly I had adrenaline and focus. The going was still slow, but I had to be laser-focused on the trail and navigating under/over/around blow-downs on the rocky, boulder-strewn terrain. Fellow runner Olivia was behind me a bit and together we managed to avoid getting lost until quite suddenly I was skirting a wet and extremely sketchy feeling Bald Rock outcropping with inky black darkness at it’s threatening edge. Visibility was very low at the top and thankfully Olivia knew this part of the course having volunteered and paced it before. Suddenly we were descending what could best be described as a dry waterfall, not really a trail. “Blue Hell” as it’s called, is only about a mile long, but is quite steep and made up almost entirely of large boulders and giant step-offs, now dark and slick from the wet fog. NOW I was having FUN! It was super challenging and I definitely ended up on my ass more than once. Coming finally into AS #7 I was still right around 27 hr pace and NOW I had my good light, new supplies, fresh shirt and clear head. I felt great! I called my girls and got Audrey on the phone while I briefly had reception. I gave an update on my pace, and found out the election result (It had been the last thing on my mind but it made me so happy to hear how excited she was). Things were looking good.
Silent Trail AS is only 2.4 miles away and it’s either paved or jeep trail to get there. This was easy running. Taking strategic walk breaks, and even turning off my lights to see the gazillion stars out now that we were down out of the fog. The Chinnabee Silent Trail was constructed in 1977 by Boy Scout Troop 29 from the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega. It’s 6.8 miles rated as “moderate to difficult” and its single-track runs along creeks and waterfalls. I imagine during the day it is gorgeous. At night however, and 45 miles into this race, it was a major challenge. At first I found some easy runnable spots. Soon however I found myself hiking more than not. The trail was tight in spots, made worse sometimes by blowdowns and the constant interminable whacking and smacking of my legs by the stiff little brushy trailside plants trying to take back over this trail. Poles were snagged and hard to use at times, Visibility harder because of the overgrowth. The time stretched on and on. I had looked forward to Hubbard Gap AS #9 as it had been labeled one of the “most dangerous aid stations” for it’s extreme hospitality and warm fire. By the time I got there though, I knew I had lost a lot of time and pushed on with only a quick fluid refill and cup of broth. Only 3+ miles from there to Adams Gap where I eagerly awaited new shoes and socks and fresh supplies! I had been thinking about those shoes for the past 15 miles! But there was still 3+ miles of relatively technical little trails that allowed now rhythm or quick progress. I rolled into mile 55 now only 45 minutes ahead of the 30 hr cutoff!
At this point it’s important to point something out. I had been a little arrogant perhaps, plenty of self confidence and “can-do” had me thinking I would be able to do this thing solo. I had thought that I could “pace myself” reasonably towards a 27ish hr finish time, giving me a nice buffer for when the wheels would inevitably come off around mile 75-80. I knew this from my previous 100 mile effort at Umstead. I knew that when it got tough I’d NEVER quit, but I would just keep plugging forward. However, this plan was predicated on the concept of the time buffer late in the race. Suddenly it was no longer there.
Enter my friends.
Bryan’s foot/ankle went south by 35 miles and sadly he was done. He was able to get a ride (amazingly from an NC guy he knew who just happened to be crewing someone else!) ahead to catch up with Brad’s Dad and new-entry-to-John’s-list-of-trial-family Thomas. Thomas had been visiting family in Alabama and had offered to pace Bryan through the night, but was now available to ME! Here was smiling and encouraging Bryan with a chair, food, my drop bag, my shoes/socks AND a legit pacer when I needed it more than EVER.
We started off down a loooong jeep road. I had fresh Speedgoats and dry socks and feet began to rebound. My head was in a good space knowing I had company even though we’d never actually met in person before. It was nearly 5 miles of runnable parts and hiking the uphills on this road until we finally dropped back onto singletrack. I was worried about the time, but felt a little better having been able to run a lot more than the previous several hours. We had some fun trying to run downhill in the dark and my waist light battery finally died. I stayed with my headlight as long as possible before switching out the battery. At one point we caught up to a younger runner who was struggling up the long jeep trial and he latched on to us. Thomas got us BOTH running downhill with more energy than I thought I’d have at 60+miles in! We made it past Chandler Springs AS #12 still uncomfortably close to the cutoff time and started a series of climbs towards Porter’s Gap where Bryan would see us again. Once again, only 3.3 miles but lots of effort climbing. Thankfully I was really starting to get into a rhythm with my poles and found myself distancing others behind us on the climbs. It was now the middle of the night, but I was wired and focused. I had this nagging fear in my gut… what if I can’t keep this up for another 35 miles? How close are we to the cutoff? When we got to Porter’s Gap (mile 68.87) we were still close. Bryan had heard that the course sweeper had just left the previous aid station and he hustled us out like a Nascar Pit Crew.
From Porter’s Gap is a section lower in some valleys, single-track and with off/on running opportunities. We knew what was coming though. At about mile 72-73 starts the climb to Pinnacle Aid Station. This climb is notorious not only for the elevation (about 1000’ over 2-3 miles) but also the switchbacks. The race reports warned of the enticing sounds coming from the hard-partying Pinnacle Aid station that you’d hear from seemingly miles away, and yet keep switching back-and-forth even when you can see the lights through the trees. I had been warned… I warned Thomas. My plan was to be “entertained” by this phenomenon, and not let it frustrate me. I kept the “snick-snick-snick” rhythm of my poles going, and kept reminding myself of the Sally McRae mantra “Keep your HEART up!”. Needless to say we were both relieved to FINALLY be on a trail that actually angled into what looked like a discotheque in the ‘Bama woods. I would have liked to stop...shoot some video and pictures, sample some of the myriad of goodies and take it all in… but remember?... that clock was ticking, and it wasn't my friend. The guy there told us we were good though! “Mostly flat and downhill from here guys!”. Nope.
The sun began to rise up on those ridges. At first it was just a blush against the deep blue/black over my left shoulder. I ran with just my waist light so I could see it better. We were still climbing. There were more trees to go under/over/around/through. We ran straight through a campground (sorry folks… I’m guessing you got no sleep all night). The sun came up. I think it was around that point that Thomas shared this with me: “Well Johnny, I’ve been running the numbers…”. He told me we were at a point that based on the number of miles to go we’d likely have to average about a 15 minute mile from here on out to safely make it. This was especially concerning in that the terrain ahead was unknown to both of us, and the course had already shown that there were sections that our BEST pace was still closer to 18-20 min miles! We made it to Wormy’s Pulpit AS #15 (79.62 miles) to witness the light beginning to hit the fall leaves and wake the land. It was beautiful up there… shame I had to hustle onward. Worse, was that there were still plenty of uphills before we finally (and painfully) had a long descent into Bull’s Gap AS #16 (85.72 mi).
Bryan was waiting, and he was all business. We were still uncomfortably close. I can’t remember for sure but I think at this point we only had a 20 minute buffer… and this after PUSHING so hard all through the night till morning! How could this be happening?! I had a fresh shirt. Bottles filled, supplies exchanged and even some timely lube in the jiggly bits, and was out of that AS in less than 5 minutes.
Here’s where the space-time continuum gets a little weird.
According to the published aid station/cutoff charts we had 9.7 miles to get to the final AS by the 11:36am cutoff. We had about 3 hours of running but somehow we were convinced that we had to maintain an average of 15 min/mile in order to get me to the final cutoff by 11:30. In theory then this would give me 90 minutes to cover 5 miles to the finish in under 30 hours. Thankfully at this point the course converts back to jeep road, so running was possible on the flat/downhill sections… but… I’m now 85.72 miles in and have been running for 25 hours straight. My body says “Hey John, we're kinda done now… uhh… lots of stuff hurts and the legs and shoulders are asking for a break. I know there hasn’t been any actual injury, but whaddaya say? Can we do like usual and just kinda slow down at the end?”. Thomas and I were not 100 % sure of the numbers, but he ran them again and again and we did the only thing we could… we RAN.
It turns out that when your body is really really tired, and your muscles and feet really really ache and hurt… it DOESN'T actually mean you can’t just GO FASTER. Like really! I found another gear. I stopped smiling… I wasn’t jovial… I wasn’t looking around at the pretty leaves… I was serious… I was running for my life… I was pushing hard every flat and down until an uphill sapped my strength, and then I power-hiked with purpose. I was absolutely determined to NOT let this finish line slip from my grasp, not NOW, not just after all these miles, but after ALL these months… ALL these trials and struggles and work and stress. “John, you’re not smiling anymore… you good?” says Thomas huffing and puffing along with me. “No, I am not fucking smiling… yes.. I am GOOD”. I had the briefest thought that this effort might break me… that the wheels might come completely off, that I might start vomiting, or even that I’d lose control of my heart rate… but there was no way I’d know unless I gave it everything I had. I had to leave it ALL out there on the trail if I was gonna cross that line in time. We turned several back-to-back sub 15s, and even some sub 14s and one absolutely weightless sub 13 mile amazingly after over 95 miles of effort.
Suddenly we saw a hand scrawled sign… “1 Mile” to the next aid station. No way! We were farther ahead than we thought! We didn’t want to trust it, couldn’t slow our pace… until we saw another “½ mile” and then there it was… the final aid station #17. But wait!... it was only 10:45!!! I had PLENTY of time now! I was GONNA make it! Nothing could stop me now! Adrenaline was still coursing through my fatigue addled brain… I was having a hard time believing it. The AS volunteers confirmed the time, and that there was only 5 miles to go to the finish line. “And…” they said, “would you guys like a shot of cinnamon whiskey?”... Thomas laughed… until I said “YES! Two please!”. We toasted to our awesomeness and idiocy, and effort and brotherhood. But I couldn’t linger… I still felt the pull… the desire I’d been carrying all night and morning as I shoved the fear of failure down and pushed harder than I ever thought I was capable. I told Thomas I was gonna start on, assuming he’d catch up… but Thomas was done. He knew he’d gotten me where I could do it on my own and he’d called Bryan to come pick him up so he could meet me at the finish. I ran… at first with the same urgency, but quite soon with less, and then I was walking again. I looked back a few times, but I’d realized he sent me on to finish as I started… on my own.
The longest 5 miles of this race is the end. The course was changed this year to finish on the beautiful winding groomed Sylaward mountain bike paths that take you to the lakefront finish. But now my adrenaline was gone… my motivation was no longer to beat the clock, but instead to just get off my feet. I still ran where I could, but I walked a bunch too… the poles were stowed… I’d nearly run out of fluids and I didn't feel like eating anything anymore. The trail wound around and back and around again. Finally… I could hear the finish. I stopped for a moment alone on the trail and bent over to stretch. So much amazing pain and stiffness beginning already to creep into my entire body. My feet screaming at each step and showing clear evidence of forming blisters. For the last time, I RAN.
I finished in 28 hours, 48 minutes and 52 seconds. I finished in 87th place out of 106 finishers. 101 people that started with me DNF’d for dozens of different reasons. Brad had an amazing race finishing in 26:39:48. It was his first 100 miler. His Dad was a joy to have as part of our goofy crew. Bryan had to drop, but his incredible and timely support was an amazing gift to me I’ll hope to repay someday. Thomas will forever be my trail brother. He planned to “just pace through the night” but stuck with me for 40 miles and was absolutely critical in my success at avoiding those looming cutoff times and finishing. I can’t thank him enough, and I’m glad to be his friend. Chris missed this, and has had to deal with all the shittyness that is Covid, but he was with ALL of us over and over throughout the weekend. I channeled his uphill hiking power and positive attitude over and over. He is my brotha from anotha motha, and if he wants to run this damn race next year, well I’ll just have to come help him do it.
I got choked up a few times in the late hours thinking about my kiddos, home following online and sending me encouraging texts and messages. I’m the luckiest Dada ever. My family back in California and my Dad here in NC all pulling for me was like fuel for my soul. The grit, guts and determination it took to push harder and get “comfortable being uncomfortable” comes from them. My coach and his prescribed hill-repeats, hip workouts and custom tailored plan allowed this training to fit my crazy busy life, and left me well prepared. All my trail friends, camp friends, run club friends, running store friends, work buddies, ex-girlfriends, all buoyed me through the night and hard morning hours. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
I walked pretty funny for two days. I have a couple blisters and I’ll lose at least one toenail. I have no major pain or injury. I did not die. I have a shiny buckle, and a sweet t-shirt. I learned a lot about myself. I reached deepest yet, and I found what I needed. I’m gonna take a few days off from running now to recover… but I’ll be itching to get out in Umstead soon enough.
Mr Running Pains- Aaron Saft
Shorts: PATH Projects Sykes AT
Liners: PATH Projects Torch FX
Shirts: (Several but included my House of Hops Run Club too!)
Hat: PATH Projects Trucker Cap
Bandanna: PATH projects and one given to me by the Yellowrunner herself
Socks: Xoskins toes
Shoes: (1st 55 mi) Topo Ultraventure
(2nd 45 mi) Hoka Speedgoat
Vest: Ultraspire 4.0
Headlight: Black Diamond Spot (the “backup light”)
Waistlight: Ultraspire Lumen 600
Watch: Coros Apex
Poles: Leki Carbon Flash
Gaiters: Dirty Girl
Squirrel Nut Butter Lube
Spring Energy Gels and Electroride drink mix
Skratch Energy gummys
Tailwind powder (and recovery mix)
Nathan’s Almond Butter packets
Payday fun size bars
One Wipe Charlies
Colgate Wisp toothbrushes
Pickle Juice (in urine specimen cups)
Oofos sandals (so great for recovery… I don’t care if they look like an old man!)
Surgical blue towels (rescued from work)
Main “ear worm” songs in my head during the race:
(I carried headphones the entire time but never used them… the plan was to pass them time in the final miles but I was way too focused!)
Wood Brothers: Luckiest Man (just have to listen to the first line to see how perfect this song is!)
Eddie Vedder: Just Breathe
Eddie Vedder: Rise
Argent: Hold Your Head Up (yeah pretty much just the chorus)
Elton John: Don’t go breakin’ my heart (yes… I don’t know how it got there but I actually had to sing it out loud to get it out of there!)