Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pinhoti 100 Mile Endurance Run - The Reckoning

The 4th Annual 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. The course will consist of 80.62 miles of single-track trail, 16.98 miles of jeep road and 4.52 miles of pavement and will finish on the rubberized track in the Sylacauga High School Football Stadium.

I showed up to run & finish this race in 2010, but was forced to end my run at mile 35 because I was caught by the sweepers.  I had taken a wrong turn, went way off course and missed the cutoff time at one of the aid stations.  I was able to see lots of my friends finish which was awesome, but it left a bitter taste in my running heart.  It hurts to dream big and fail, but sometimes that is the only way that you will ever get what you want.

I sat at the finish line watching runner after runner finish their dream race.  I was mad at myself for not making it.  I didn't just want revenge, I wanted the reckoning in 2011.

Actually, the 2010 DNF crushed me and I went into a downward spin of depression leading to another DNF "Did Not Finish" at The Bartram 100 miler a month later in December.   I then turned to food for comfort and had my blood pressure get out of control which caused even more setbacks.  I passed out at work one day and had to be taken into the doctor for evaluation. 

So I had to pray, relax, and start over in 2011.  I made a promise to myself that I would go back to Pinhoti and finish.  All of my training in 2011 would be about running the 100.60 miles in Alabama which started in Heflin and finished at the Sylacauga High School Stadium Track in the middle of town.

I began my 2011 training with my first 2011 ultra finish at Sweetwater H20 50K in April.  I used eight more ultras between then and November to help me train for Pinhoti.  I was also introduced to Janice (GUTS President) who is a very accomplished runner and she agreed to coach me beginning in September.

She warned me that we really didn't have enough time to properly train for my best Pinhoti finish and I assured her that finishing alone would be enough.  I became a hypnotized zombie with her training plan.  No matter how tired I was I always followed the plan for the day.  100 push ups, 100 sit ups, lunges, speed work, back to back long runs on the weekend.  It didn't matter, I found the time and made it work.  I never once cheated myself out of the opportunity to get better.  Some of the long weekend runs went on forever and they were very tough on me.  I just kept thinking about how great it was going to feel going around that high school track and getting my buckle for finishing the race in November. 

My family and lots of my friends stood behind me as I trained.  They assured me that this was my year and I believed it.  There were some that didn't think I would make it.  And I would like to thank them too because I was thinking of you at mile 85 when my whole world started falling apart.  You kept me going, cause' I'm not a quitter.

"It's not revenge that I was after, it was the reckoning!"  Hollywood movies often make us think of other parts of our "real" lives.  One that Beth and I have always enjoyed is "Tombstone" featuring Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday.  So Holiday and Wyatt Earp have the famous gun battle with the bad guys (the cowboys) at the OK Corral.   The cowboys shoot them up good at the OK Corral and now Doc & Earp are looking to hunt them down and finish them off.

I felt just like Wyatt Earp walking out into that river looking for "The Reckoning" at Pinhoti.  Gravely focused on the finish, nothing would stop me!

Ok, now we fast forward to race weekend. Joe Fejes and I decided to split hotel room cost on Friday night and drive down together from Atlanta. Joe has several 100 mile finishes, including two at Pinhoti so I picked him apart with lots of helpful details and strategies. We attended the pasta pre-race dinner on Friday evening and were sleeping before 9:00 PM.  As always, it was great to see so many old and new friends at the meeting.

I was excited to meet up with Charles & Psyche just before we headed in to the hotel Friday night and they agreed to let us ride to the start of the race with them at 4:00 AM on Saturday morning. This was great news because we were going to have to ride on a cold bus with about 30 other runners, if not for them helping us out.

The alarm clock went off at 3:00 AM, but I was already awake.  I had a dream around 2:30 AM that we had slept in and missed the race.  I didn't mind because I felt very rested, even that early in the morning.  Joe and I quickly got are race stuff ready and drove Dan Hartley over to the bus staging area.  Dan had to ride the bus, but we jumped in the SUV with Charles and Psyche for the 100 mile ride to the start of the race.

The race was a little late starting at 6:12 AM:

So about 140 of us were off and running into the cold / dark Alabama night. Sunrise was about 45 minutes away so footing would be tricky to begin the race. I wore a short sleeve & long sleeve tech shirt, gloves, cap, headlamp, and of course my basketball shorts. I also chose to began the race with my comfortable Asics road shoes. It felt awesome to have this shot again! Today was going to be MY day!  Well..actually tomorrow would be my day...

This race has 18 aid stations spaced out about 5 miles apart from each other.  My goal was to just make it to the next aid station ahead of the cutoff times.  I needed to average at least a 17:50 min/mile pace to stay ahead and I was planning on doing a 15:00 min/mile pace for the first 41 miles.

The sun came up and it turned out to be a beautiful Alabama fall day.  60 degrees with a light wind.  Clear crisp blue skies broken up by falling leaves of various autumn colors.  I quickly dropped my cool running gear and was thankful to have Mark E. at one of the aid stations to hand it off to.

I stayed steady through the day jogging the downhills/flats and power hiking the up-hill sections.  I was surprised to find that I was having problems getting my pace average down to a 15:00 min/mile.  It stayed around 15:40 most of the day, but I didn't even worry about it.  Just keep moving and live in the moment.

The first 41 miles of this race requires you to run without a pacer.  Another goal I had was to just make it to mile 41 (Bald Rock State Park - the top of Alabama) where my crew and pacers would be waiting to help me.  This was not an easy 41 miles at all.  No major climbing but it nickles & dimes you to death.  Lots of 30 foot ups and downs with tons of twists & turns.  If you ever get into a running rhythm it rarely last more than a few minutes.

These tough little sections were often broke up with some good laughs with David Ray, Jason Rogers, Dean, and some other friends.

I wore my Garmin GPS watch for the first 41 miles to help me keep pace up to meet my crew:

If you ever run this race, be careful between miles 27 and 41.  Many runners including myself had mental & physical low points through here.  In addition, this is where I went off trail and DNF'd last year.  You are over a marathon into this run and still have about three more tough ones to go so it's very easy to slump through here.  I can't tell you how good it felt to run past the area I was pulled!  That gave me a huge surge.

The climb up to Bald Rock State Park looks rough on this profile map, but it was really not too bad of a climb at all.  It's the first big / tall one below:

It felt incredible to summit Bald Rock State Park just after 4:00 PM!  There were several familiar faces at the top waiting on runners and Phillip was encouraging me to run down the boardwalk on top of the mountain to meet up with my crew.  This walkway goes across the top of the mountain allowing you a magnificent view out to the west.

Now to introduce my world class crew.  These fellas made me feel like the top dog for the rest of the race!

Victor - Crew Chief
Victor is a take charge type of crew guy.  He flew up from Florida to help me finish this thing and never takes no for an answer.  He was essential in me finishing this race.

Sean - Pacer of Pain
Sean doesn't play on the trail.  If you give this guy a time goal you better be ready to meet it or die trying.  Sean would pace me for miles 55-68 and then again from 85-100.

Wayne "Weezy" Pacer Who Pulls
Weezy and I have ran a lot together down some dark & technical trails.  We already click together and he knows what kind of pace I can hold on any type of terrain.  He paced me through miles 41-55 and 68-85.  68-85 were my darkest hours and he kept my mind off of the pain.

Back to the Boardwalk at mile 41 and Weezy runs out to bring me in with the crew.

Of course, the fellas were full of jokes when they saw me come rolling in with my yellow basketball shorts on!  Thats OK though, they had a horse on the track and their mission was to keep me moving forward.  Victor immediately had my Camelbak hydration pack on me, hot food in my hand, headlamps on ready for the night and sent Weezy and I down the other side of the mountain called "Blue Hell".  This was a mile section of boulders and rock hoping fun.  It felt awesome to be running this with Weezy!

I said hello to lots of familar GUTS runners like Amanda, Jenn, Tat, Kim, Tom, and several others as we made our way down the road towards the other side of the mountain.

We had a nice stretch of fire roads & pavement to run on into the next aid station where I killed some food!  Hot soup, cookies, Gels, a sandwich, and we were back onto the trail heading towards mile 55 aid station - Adams Gap.  I remembered this being a big party from the previous year and I couldn't wait to experience it for myself as a runner.  I took horrible fall during this section that knocked the wind out of me briefly.  I jumped right back up and kept going.  I felt horrible, but NOTHING was going to de-rail me this time.

Weezy and I spent this time catching up and we put our lights to work about 3 miles into the Silent trail which was probably around mile 50.  I hit a low point near the end of this section and got very hungry.  I felt like I was going to pass out as I staggered into the aid station.

Once again, my crew was anxiously waiting to take care of my every need.  I didn't even have to talk.  They just handed me things.  I drank Ensure, a Starbucks Double Shot, some coffee and Sean had cooked some killer hot dog things that really hit the spot.

Within a few minutes they had me back on my feet and Sean was pacing me into mile 56.  He had ran these same sections before and knew exactly what to expect.  We shared some stories together on the trail and I enjoyed getting to know him better as we made our way through the dark Alabama night.  It was during this time that Sean taught me the art of running uphill when you are fatigued.  I couldn't believe how easy he made it feel and it was working so well.  I took another nasty fall through here, but no real damage was done.  Before I knew it he had me at mile 68 where Weezy and Victor were waiting for me again.

My mental capacity was gone as we ran into mile 68 around 11 PM.  I was fading in and out of reality.  It was a stupor of ultra running that I would learn to embrace for the next 32 miles.  You either embrace it and go further into the Abyss or you quit and go home.

I told Weezy that I was in a bad mental spot and he hooked me up with a 5 Hr. energy.  This made my mind speed up in a weird kind of way.  It felt better, but I still could not really focus on what was happening around me.  I think I walked up and took some lip balm out of a ladies hand at this aid station, used it, then handed it back to her.  Wooops.

We were now heading up the beast of trail known as "The Pinnacle".  If you look at the profile map above, the picture just doesn't do this climb justice.  It felt at least 10 times worse than the climb up to Bald Rock.  Weezy was asking me about all kinds of stuff.  What year I bought my car?  Where I went to college?  Anything to try and bring me back to reality.  We climbed and climbed.  I wanted to tell him how bad I was feeling but I was afraid to talk about it.  It felt like letting it out of my mouth may allow it to over take me.

I knew that quitting and getting into that warm vehicle would feel 100 times worse than suffering and continuing to battle this climb.  I called it out before the race, "If I don't finish Pinhoti, I'm never running another ultra."  Keep moving.

Up and up and it got colder and the wind gust grew the higher we went.  Before long the wind was completely howling and I was shivering.  It began to sound like I was being swept below an ocean of cold trees trying to reach down and sweep me off the mountain.  I was scared.  Scared of quitting and having to face this struggle for now what was 26 more miles.  If Wayne wasn't there I may have dropped at The Pinnacle aid station - mile 75. 

We finally reach the aid station after 10-15 steep switchbacks.  I see Aaron from GUTS standing beside the tent and I just smile at him, didn't really know how to communicate with a human at that point.  Camera flashes go off and I don't even really know where I am.

Weezy sat me down beside the fire for a minute and Kim from GUTS came and sat with us.  It was nice to see a friend, but I couldn't say anything to her either.  The aid station was cooking up hot egg & cheese sandwiches despite the high winds.  I ate one, maybe two, maybe three.  Not sure, but I grabbed a whole bag of sour gummy worms and ate them too.  Then got a hand full of cookies, chips, and M&Ms and choked them down.  WHAM!  Instant energy & drive came back into my body.  I remember saying "Thank you Lord." when that good feeling came on.

Weezy filled up my water and grabbed me some Gels for the trail and we were back into the night.  This is where our friendship really shines.  I totally trust the little guy to get me through this.  Victor has flown in from Florida, Sean has taken this weekend off for me, and Wayne left his warm house to help me get up and over this mountain to get that buckle.  Weezy never lied to me - he told me exactly what was coming next, even if it wasn't good.  I don't like any more surprises out here than I have to endure.  The warm food and calories lasted a few miles and my mind began to quickly wash away again.

We had 10 very dark and cold miles to run before getting off the trail and into the final 15 miles of fire roads that would lead us into the finish.  Weezy said that we will break this section up into two 5 milers so it is more manageable.  It worked, but this section took FOREVER to get through.  There were loose rocks and tricky footing around every turn.  The wind would howl and I would transition from sweating to shivering every few minutes.  I was scared again and I prayed for strength.  Lord, please keep us on the trail.  Give me strength.

At one point through here we saw a runner tucked under a rock.  I think he may have been crying.  Wayne checked on him and he told me not to look at him and keep moving.  My mind had become a complete bowl of mush.  The only thought I could focus on was one foot in front of the other.  Everything was numb and I didn't really mind it at this point.

I hit my lowest mental point around mile 84 just before we exited the trail at Bull Gap where Sean would begin pacing me the final 15 miles.  I slowed to a crawl and just couldn't focus.  I was sick of the trail, roots, and especially the rocks.  About seven runners past us through here, but I just kept moving forward.

We finally pop out at mile 85 aid station just as the sun is coming up.  Never has the sun looked so good.  Before I know it Victor has me sitting down and is taking my shoes off.  I have had the same Asics Gel road shoes on for the past 85 miles along with my Injinji toe socks.  I have 4-5 blisters that have formed / popped then re-formed during the course of this struggle.  Victor starts lancing them and it felt great to have that pressure relieved.  I asked for my Asics trail runners for the remainder of the gravel fire roads.  Various people were running around the aid station doing things for me as I sat there.  Victor finally asked how long I had been there and someone said 10 minutes.  I literally felt like it had been about 30 seconds.  Once again, Victor has me up and running down the road with Sean towards mile 86.  Sean looks back and me and says, "these final 15 miles are gonna hurt, get ready."

I thought he was going to kill me.  SERIOUSLY.  Sean explained that we were going to start running some of these hills.  He told me that I was a trained up 100 mile runner and had no excuse not to run.  So he began the torment:

"Run 30 seconds, then we will walk 10 seconds."
"Run to that limb overhanging the road, then walk to the plastic bag in the road."
"Run down this entire hill, it's too runnable and we are passing people now."
"You're a zombie killer Sully, look we are about to pass another one, look at him wobbling all over the road."
"Run 45 seconds then walk for 30."
"I'm not going to hurt you, just do it."

This became my world for the next two hours.  I tried to think about other things, anything other than running.  These fire roads were so boring and there were killing me.  We would go around one hill, just to find the exact same one waiting after it.

We finally came to the final aid station at mile 95.  The sign on it said 5 miles to go, but I didn't believe it.  I figured we had about nine and I began to get mad, but it made me run harder.  Sean saw some of our running friends Kena and Perry ahead and he encouraged me that we would catch them if we kept running at least some of the hills.  I just kept doing what he asked of me.

We finally went off the fire roads around mile 97 onto this weird earthen dam across a reservoir.  I remember Sean saying that it would be a perfect picture and I took a mental one of it.  Problem is, now I can't get it developed.

Sean saw some more of our friends Tony and Tatyana ahead of us and he pushed me to try and catch them as Kena and Perry had already went around them.  He told me that if I ran hard I could break 28 hours.  I didn't believe him, thinking we still had at least 8 miles to go.

I began to feel myself stagger from side to side.  It was getting tougher to run in a straight line.  Sean expected all running for this final 3 mile stretch and I gave it all that I had.  We finally exited the forest and were on the blacktop road heading into the stadium!

My eyes began to swell up with tears because I knew that it was coming to an end.  A sick, dark part of me wanted it to keep going.  To keep the fight alive.  To see how far I really could go.  The other 99.99999% of me wanted to finish.  To get that buckle and lay down on that sweet track in Alabama.  To hold it in my hand and know that I had finally earned it.  A year had gone by so quickly.  Miles and miles of training runs at 4:00 AM.  Sprinting around a track with my lungs burning.  Sit ups burning my core.

I had to snap back to reality.  I was now on a residential road heading into town with some traffic.  Cars were passing and cheering me on.  Sean continued in front of me urging me to keep moving faster as I shuffled along.  I tried to start running fast and I threw up on myself a little bit.  It didn't matter.

Weezy and Victor drove up beside us and cheered me on pushing me to finish.  One of the town locals yelled out, "honey, you look like you need some advil.".   Just smiled and kept going.  Was she even really there?

Sean ran ahead as we crossed some railroad tracks and there it was!  I was at 100 miles with about .60 to go!  I wanted to cry but my body couldn't do it.  I was in total bliss.

We entered the back of the stadium before the track and Sean jumped on one of the football tackling sleds and told me to hit it!  I thought he was joking, but he insisted.  I ran into it and it nearly flung me all the way back to the start line!  We both laughed as he led me into the stadium.

There it was.  I was about to shove the sword into the beast that had haunted me all year.

Yelling out a big WOOOOOOHOOOOO!!!!

Getting that buckle from race director Todd Henderson at the finish!

And that is how I made it right at Pinhoti in 2011.

Special thanks to Todd Henderson and all of his race volunteers.  Also to GUTS and the many members who helped me achieve my goal.  Photo credits to:  Amanda, Kim, Sean, Psyche, and probably some others.

I had a world class crew and will be forever grateful for their hard work to get me across the finish line.


  1. Yes! It really did make my day to see you cross that finish line, Jason. I had the time of my life this weekend, but I want more. This race report strengthens my resolve to get the buckle in 2012.

  2. again, Congratulations! I guess this means you're meant to run, hm? :)

  3. What a GREAT race report! I honestly had tears in my eyes as I finished! Congratulations on your awesome achievement. One day I'll have the same feelings!

  4. Very inspirational, Jason. I'm very happy for you! Great job!


  5. Excellent Report! Congrats on a well deserved finish. Amazing effort.... Well done

  6. Jason, you looked at Pinhoti and said, "I'm your huckleberry." Your report passes the test, too. It ain't good unless you cry.

    You're my hero and I'm honored to call you friend. ROCK ON!

  7. That's the way it's done. Very beastly running. Congrats on the reckoning.

    Way to call down the thunder.

  8. Awesome Job! You sure did earn it! "The Reckoning", love it!

  9. This is an amazing story real life time inspirational stuff Bro. I know you worked so hard for this and it really gets you choked up reading it. Thank you for giving us this look into your world.

  10. A couple of words come to mind, "simply awesome". Great write up of a magnificent achievement, congratulations.

  11. Great job & great report! Lip balm incident made me smile.