Sometimes I like to test new things when it comes to my running and the Pinhoti 100 was an experiment that fortunately went well a few weeks ago.
I was interested to see how I would perform in my 3rd 100 mile race in 12 months and 2nd in 12 weeks. While I have friends who run ultra-marathons rather frequently, I believe one or two major races a year allow me to perform at my best. However, I am not sure what the right balance is at this point and wanted to test it out with the ultra distance.
My best year of running occurred in 2010 when I raced often. It started in September of 2009 when I had signed up for the Boston Marathon the following year. However I was encouraged to skip Boston and run the Virginia Beach Marathon instead. This was based on the fact that I didn’t break 3 hours at NYC in November of 2009. It was my 6th attempt and I missed my goal of going sub-3 hours by as little as 50 seconds. I was told I needed to break this mental barrier on the flatter and faster Virginia course. It was good advice and I finally achieved this milestone in March 2010.
Boston was only 4 weeks later and I had already paid to run it. I decided that I would to head north to run this iconic race with Bobby Goat and enjoy this great city with both our families. Little did I know it would be one of the most memorable races that resulted in another PR by over 2 minutes with 2:57. 2010 involved many races where I set other personal records and ultimately finished the year in NYC with a 2:55.
So Much For Training
Following the Leadville 100 this past August, I entered one of the busiest times of my professional career. I quickly noticed that my running was suffering without a goal on the horizon. I thought if I signed up for a race this year, it would force me to be more disciplined about my physical health and mental well-being. Based on my experience in 2010, I wanted to see how I would do if I ran another 100 mile race so close to my last one.
The Pinhoti 100 is a point to point race that starts in Heflin, Alabama and goes to Sylacauga. It was a beautiful course during the fall with rolling hills, streams, and so much more. There was an amazing array of colorful leaves that blanketed the landscape and perfect temperatures for the run.
Like most ultras, we waited in the cold dark morning for the 6am start (Video of the start). Within a few minutes after we took off, I found myself being funneled onto a single track trail that makes up most of the course. It created a lot of congestion early on but forced me to go out easy.
I promised myself that I would be patient until the sun up to give myself time to get ready for the long day and night that lay ahead. It was a good strategy but flawed in that I should have been prepared long before the race started. Normally, I like to plan well in advance: learn about the course, visualize my race on training runs, and find trails that may replicate the type of course I will be running. Unfortunately I had done little in terms of mental preparation but hoped for the best.
I was glad that I didn’t have to deal with altitude as I did in Leadville but there was still plenty of elevation change, many more water crossings, and even a little road to keep things interesting. The most intimidating and steepest climb, according to the elevation map, began around mile 35. You climb to the top of Mt. Cheaha which is the highest point in the state of Alabama. Fortunately the elevation map was deceiving and it was fairly runnable going up. However, the way down was slow as you climbed down boulders and had to watch each step. Overall it was a well-marked and I enjoyed my time in these southern woods.
Gotta Love the Aid Stations and Volunteers!
The volunteers at these events are truly what make these races so special. Unlike my previous 100’s, I went to Alabama planning to run completely unsupported, relying on the aid stations as I never had before. The aid stations were a reasonable distance apart (~6 miles) which made this plan manageable.
I stuck to my normal regimen of water, gels, PB&J, bananas, and chicken noodle soup. The volunteers at Pinhoti tempted me to go off my nutrition plan many times with bacon, quesadillas, egg sandwiches and so much more but I declined. All in all they were a huge part to my success and I can’t thank them enough.
Some Company Along The Way
Around mile 45, my friend David from Alabama joined to pace me from miles 45-60. David is more of a mountain biker than runner but offered to help out anyway he could. While my main request was a ride from the finish back to the start, I wasn’t about to turn down his offer to run with me. It was great timing as I had begun to struggle a little before then.
Early on in the race I begun to fight off the voice asking myself ”Why am I doing this?” and “Why so soon after Leadville?”. While the doubts are normal, they seemed to enter my consciousness much earlier than I would have liked. I began to slow down at various points but continued to move forward in the face of the negativity and some sporadic stomach issues. Based on these issues, David’s presence was appreciated and I enjoyed his company on the trails.
FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING
David stayed with me until just before it got dark. This was probably the furthest he had ever run and he did a great job lifting my spirits. Once he left, I knew I’d better pull it together as I entered uncharted territory, covering the darkness alone.
By around 10pm (approximately mile 70) I decided to try music once again. At my first 100 (Chimera), I found music to be annoying but did listen to some classic rock for a little while before throwing the iTouch in my bag. While running Leadville, music seemed to help me descend more quickly but I kept turning it on and off. However, I had pacers during the night for both these races and found the music (everything from Led Zeppelin to Third Day) was all the company I needed for these last 30 miles at Pinhoti.
I struggled mentally many times during the day but came to a realization later in the race that made me appreciate my performance at Leadville. In Leadville I finished in just over 24 hours despite having difficulty breathing, struggling on the inclines, bonking on Hope(less) Pass, and walking a majority of the last 13 miles. Now I was running at sea level and struggling to finish in 24 hours.
At the Bulls Gap Aid Station (mile 85) I was at least 12 minutes off pace to finish in 24 hours. I almost gave up on that goal and left there feeling deflated and frustrated. My body wasn’t falling apart but my mind was drifting and I couldn’t focus.
I walked out of the aid station and did the math in my head. If I could pick up my pace by 1 to 2 minutes over the last 15 miles, I might have a shot. I knew the course was more forgiving at the end and hoped to have another strong finish.
The restart after I left the Bulls Gap was brutal but I kept moving. While the first couple of miles were slower than I had hoped, I began to pick it up once I realized I had less than half a marathon left. I was shaving 2-3 minutes off each mile and was flying at nearly a 10 minute mile for the last 2 on the road. As I finished on the high school track in Sylacauga AL, I knew I had done more than just break 24 hours.
Lessons Learned – Don’t Discount Mental Preparation
There were many lessons I took away from this race. A small one was that Coke, while great when your stomach is giving you trouble, shouldn’t replace water when things are going well. Maybe it was the carbonation but it definitely didn’t help when running fast.
The most important lesson and realization was the importance of mental training and focus. While running 100 miles is challenging on the body, I do believe my training over 2013 did carry over to this race. I never felt the same degree of pain as I had previously experienced on races and even recovered rather quickly.
Unfortunately it was the psychological barriers that were most difficult to overcome in Alabama. My hectic work schedule, helping my wife with our 4 kids (when I was home), refinancing our home, and other challenges all impacted my race in a way that I had not fully anticipated. Some may say that it was all in my head…. and they would be right!
His Amazing Creation in the Day and Night
While I prayed often during this race, it would be more appropriate to describe my prayers as many one-way conversations with the Lord. I asked Him for help, guidance, and the strength to continue on and finish. I was surrounded by His beautiful creation all day and felt His presence with me as daylight was replaced by darkness.
In the middle of the night I looked up into the sky and saw one of the most amazing views. It felt like I was in a planetarium with the sky so black and the stars shining so clearly. It didn’t seem real and I wish I would have stopped longer to take it all in. Unfortunately I was still worried about my time and despite my brief moment appreciating His masterpiece, I continued to run by the clock rather than stopping for longer.
First I must thank the Lord for all of the blessings in my life and for making His presence known to me during this race.
To my loving and supportive wife Alison who takes care of our wonderful children while I continue to travel for work and run across the country.
To Bobby Goat and Mikey Cosentino who are so supportive and planted the seed for me to run Pinhoti almost 2 years ago on our MDFR.
I want to thank David Young for his help at the race as well as to his family who allowed him to come out there with me.
I’d like to thank all my fellow Pinhoti runners with a special thanks to Jeff and his Auburn buddy for a ride to the start line.
Finally I’d like to thank my entire family and friends for all their support as well as members of my church, the Doylestown Christian Runners, and the team at Mission Pharmacal for all your prayers and encouragement.