Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pinhoti 100 Race Report

Thanks to Gregg Gelmis and WeRunRacePhotos for most the pictures in this post.

Well, it's been nearly 2 years since I last wrote a blog update or race report. I was injured throughout 2014, and although I was running some in 2015, I wasn't healthy enough to race yet. Of course, instant updates via social media also seemed to have replaced blogs as the preferred race report medium over that time as well. But Pinhoti 100 deserves more than a few words. It was a significant race focus for me, a sign that I am completely healthy again, and my best race performance in 2.5 years.

Just to catch everyone up, I began having groin pain in the summer of 2013. After continuing to race for months, the injury was finally diagnosed in March of 2014 as a severe stress fracture in my pelvis. I was warned that it could take months to heal, and there was really no treatment aside from no running. With the diagnosis, I ended my 7 year daily running streak. Even with no running, the dull ache in my groin persisted for months. The bone seemed to have healed by early 2015, but I had compensated for the injury for so long, the collateral damage was extensive. I started to train through tendonitis for most of 2015, before finally backing off enough in the fall to let it heal. I wasn't running pain-free until early this year.

My build-up back into racing the first half of this year was gradual. Trail half marathon, trail marathon, road marathon (2:33), trail 50k and then Mohican 50mi in June. I really focused my training on the Flying Pig Marathon this past spring and let Thunderbunny 50k and Mohican fall out. I was able to fake my way through the 50k, but imploded the last 20 miles at Mohican. I finished 2nd in that race to Nicholas Kopp, the eventual 4th place finisher at Pinhoti.

After taking a few weeks off this summer, my training was solid and laser focused on Pinhoti. My wife and I welcomed our first child in August, but thanks to generous paternity leave, my training was largely unaffected. When I returned to work in September, I overloaded my mileage to the weekends, which is great for 100 mile training. I used Georgia Jewel 50mi as a training race and was pleased with my fitness, especially in unseasonably warm conditions. In my last long run before Pinhoti, I cruised to a win at Stones Steps 50k. I was confident in my fitness, but I was extremely nervous in those last couple weeks. It has been years since I put this much pressure on myself to race well.

It was good to see many of my old Alabama running friends as the morning dawned at the starting line. But the reunion was much too short as we were onto the single track just a few minutes after I could finally make out everyone's face. I hit the trail in 2nd place and chatted with the eventual second place finisher for the first mile or so. But I quickly settled into my own pace and was alone in just a few minutes. I pondered the fact that, if everything went to plan, I would be running alone for the next 16 hours. That was a little depressing to think about, but any other outcome would mean I didn't have a good race. At the same time, I felt an incredible peace, because no one was pushing or pulling me.  I was running exactly the pace I wanted run.

Very early in the race. The only company I had all day.

I cruised through those first several hours uneventfully. The weather was nearly perfect in the morning, and the trail conditions were extremely dry. It was so dry that it was difficult to run uphill without slipping on the pine straw covered trail, so even though there were no significant climbs the first 35 miles, I started power hiking the numerous short, but steep, rollers early in the race.

I saw my parents who were crewing for me at the first 3 aid stations. After the 3rd aid station at mile 18, there was a big gap with no crew access until mile 40 at the highest point on the course. I was trading bottles of Sword and my high-calorie sweet tea mix when I saw my crew. I took one gel in those early miles, and that was the only gel I took the entire race. Honestly, my energy levels felt great. And the climb to Bald Rock felt surprisingly short. I started feeling really confident when I saw my split on top of Mt Cheaha.

Ask me later.

Enjoying the boardwalk after just climbing up Mt Cheaha to Bald Rock.

Getting some aid from my dad.

The descent off Cheaha down "Blue Hell" was rapid ... glad I wasn't going up that beast. I flew down a few miles of roads and after another aid station, I was back onto the single track and cruising.  I started counting down to half way with everything still feeling really good. But a few miles later I started having my first low point. I got some calories just in time to get my strength back, but my stomach soon made a turn for the worst. By mile 60, I was feeling nauseated and got ginger chews and Tums from the aid station to help settle my stomach. This is was also when I began to realize that I was running so far ahead of schedule, but aid stations weren't set up and ready for me to arrive.

I pressed on to the next aid station, but my stomach was not getting much better. I quit drinking my Sword in hopes the belching and dry heaves would subside. I got some ginger ale from my crew around mile 65 which tasted great, but I was reduced to walking the next 400ft climb for fear of losing the few precious calories I had just consumed. I sent a text message ahead to the next aid station at mile 69 requesting some soup thinking I needed some different calories other than just sugar. And I knew soup wouldn't be ready unless I specifically asked ahead of time.

I drank some Ramen noodle broth, but it wasn't the remedy I had hoped. I puked it up a few miles later. By now, it was dark and the hardest climb of the race was staring me in the face. You could hear the music blaring from the aid station but it felt like miles before I arrived. I was forced to walk almost the entire climb to keep the stomach under control. When I finally made it to the top, I sat down on the ground totally dejected. The Pinnacle at mile 75 was my lowest point in the race.

Luckily they had ginger ale because that was the only thing that tasted good at that point. I sat for a couple minutes, but started feeling better, and I knew it was pointless just to sit there, so I started walking out of the aid station. Soon I got bored of walking and felt good enough to run again. The flat gravel road helped as I can shuffle at 9 minute pace with almost no effort. I slowly made my way to the next aid station which I remember being lit up and well-manned. They were very helpful offering me soup, boiled potatoes, and coke. But the soup was too hot, and the potato was instantly unappetizing, and the coke wasn't ginger ale, but it worked well enough.

By this point I had accepted where my stomach was at and knew I could keep moving. I also knew I would soon be descending off the mountain and seeing my crew at the upcoming mile 85 aid station. This was a long stretch, but I was certain I could finish if I made it. Plus, I was still hanging on to course record pace. The Bull's Gap aid station was run by volunteers from the Huntsville Track Club (thanks friends!), so I knew many of them, but most everything was a blur by this point. I refueled on ginger ale, refilled my bottle with plain water, and set off down the hill.

It was only 4 miles to the next aid station, but it was water only ... not a good situation for someone surviving off soda at the aid stations. Luckily it was mostly downhill on a gravel road, so I made relatively good time shuffling the descents and walking moderate uphills at about 9:30 pace. Somehow my energy levels remained even and I never felt like I went into bonk mode. My stomach had settled down as well, but mostly because it was empty. I could have pushed the pace a little harder, but I knew I was still on course record pace and worried I would risk a complete blow up if I altered my strategy.

I was surprised how quickly I arrived at the last aid station where my crew was waiting. More ginger ale and they said I only had 5 miles to go. It didn't make sense, but things get a little foggy after 15 hours of running. I figured it out after I left the aid station though. Some last minute changes to the positions of the last 3 aid stations changed the distances. I ended up have 6.4 miles to go from the last aid. Luckily I figured this out because an unexpected 1.4 miles feels like an eternity when you've run 99 already. There was also a surprise (to me) return to single track in the last section before hitting the paved road which led to the track.

Finally I could see my crew guiding me into the track. I ran half a lap and finished in a very anti-climatic fashion at 11:24pm, breaking Karl Meltzer's previous course record of 16:42 by 18 minutes. The only folks at the finish beside my crew were the race director Todd Henderson, and my favorite photographer, Gregg Gelmis. After a few minutes sitting on the infield, I headed to my uncle's RV and got a shower. I tried to sleep, but my legs ached too much and I only got a couple hours of restless shuteye before the sun came up.

This race report is long enough, so I'll close by saying thanks again to all the volunteers at Pinhoti. You were great. And looking back now, I'll say that I'm happy with my race. I accomplished by "B" goal and know I could go faster if I can get my stomach/nutrition figured out. Next up, I'll be running The North Face 50 mile Championships in San Francisco on Dec. 3. I won't be in perfect form since Pinhoti was my goal race this fall, but hopefully I can have a respectable showing among the 68!!! men on the elite entry list. Wish me luck!

Thanks to my parents and uncle (not pictured) for their tireless crew support.