In the days leading up to my first 100 mile trail race, I would think about what I was getting ready to attempt and experience a range of emotions from excitement to anxiety to downright fear. I had talked to several people who had done this race as well as a number of other 100s and took in every bit of advice they offered. Nevertheless, I really had no idea what to expect or how my body would respond to runnig for 24+ hours. That being said, I could not wait to head down to Alabama on Friday for the race with Dreama, Sal, and my dad. Mark and Lucky would be driving down on Saturday for their pacing duties. We arrived in Heflin, the starting point and checked in to the hotel before driving to the finish in Sylacauga to pick up our packets and hear any pre-race information. Afterwards, Sal, my dad, and I went to dinner and headed back to the hotel. I was very thankful that we were able to stay at the start rather than the finish. Pinhoti is a point to point course, so unless runners have a ride back, you have to catch a bus from the finish to the start at 4am on race morning. My dad, however, would be crewing for me and was therefore able to drive me to the start at a much more reasonable time of morning.
Start to Aid Station 1-6.7 miles
Before I knew it, the alarm was going off at 4:30 on Saturday morning. After eating some breakfast, we headed to Pine Glen campground where the race begins. It started at 6am, meaning runners had to wear a headlamp for the first hour or so. When we arrived, I went to check in and was informed that many of the race numbers had the wrong runner name on the back and I happened to be one of the lucky people who this applied to. There was supposed to be a live webcast, so if a number and name didn't match up, results would be wrong. After much confusion and chaos, I was issued a new number. As 6 o'clock quickly approach, runners assembled behind a chalk line drawn in the gravel by race director Todd Henderson about 5 minutes prior to the start. He said a few words while we all shivered in the freezing temps. I waited as long as possible to take off my jacket but eventually had to hand it off to my dad right before Todd yelled "Go" and runners slowly made their way onto the trail.
There was maybe 100 yards of gravel road at the start before we all turned on to single track. This made the first bit pretty slow going as runners were very congested, not to mention the fact that it's a 100 mile race, so you don't exactly take off at a full sprint. I just tried to stay relaxed in the beginning and not get caught up in how slow or fast we were going or how many people were ahead or behind me. The first few miles went by pretty fast, and I ran in a group of around 10 runners. We spread out a bit after 3 or so miles but it was still a very moderate pace that I felt comfortable with. I was feeling good as the sun began to rise and was happy to start thawing out. Before I knew it, I arrived at the first aid station, which was very crowded with runners and crew. I quickly spotted my dad who topped off my bottle with gatorade since the official race drink was HEED which gives me serious stomach issues. For some reason, I also decided to take off my windbreaker, hat, and pants because I though it had warmed up enough. However, this would soon prove to be a mistake.
Highrock to Shoal Creek- Mile 13.27
Shortly after heading back out on the trail, my arms got really cold. The sun had not been up for long and it was pretty shaded, so it had not warmed up much. Also, there was a fairly strong breeze at times which made things even more frigid. I thought about how dumb it was to shed so many layers that early. I should have only given up my pants and kept the jacked and hat, but there was nothing I could do about it at this point, so I tried to keep my mind off it and planned on picking it back up at the next aid station. Thankfully, runners continued to spread out a bit on this section which was very runnable. At some point, I met up with Dan Hartley and chatted with him for a bit. It was his first hundred as well, and we were both excited about the experience. The fall leaves were gorgeous, and I tried to look around at everything as much as I could without tripping. It had rained a decent amount the day before, so the creek crossings did have some water in them, and at one I managed to soak on foot. I really didn't want to start the race with wet feet but again, nothing I could do about it. I was happy to be feeling fresh and ran at what felt like a conservative but not too slow pace to the 2nd aid station at mile 13ish. My faithful crew man (dad) was waiting for me to fill up my bottle again and I got a long sleeve shirt to put on as well as my hat. Getting warm again really lifted my spirits as I headed back out on the trail.
Shoal Creek to Horseblock- Mile 18.27
As far as I remember, this section was similar to the last two-very runnable with some rolling hills. This early in the race, the miles seemed to fly by. When I got to aid station 3, my dad told me he was afraid I was going out too fast. This concerned me a little but I didn't feel like I was pushing the pace by any means. I told myself that I should intentionally slow down some because I had a LONG day ahead and the last thing I needed to do was expend too much energy on the front end. It is so easy to get caught up and run to hard at the beginning of a long race and not have anything left for the end.
Horseblock to Hwy 431-Mile 22.71
I think this is when the trail takes runners through a section hit by tornadoes last year. I is very open and totally different terrain than the pine covered single track we had been on. I ran for a few miles with several people I had never met, including a guy named Chris from Florida who was my age and also attempting his first 100. He looked really strong and ran ahead of the little group that had formed. This aid station was not accessible for crew, so I didn't see my dad, but I think it's where Mark Elson, a very nice guy from Georgia and GUTS runner, was working. It is so cool to see people you know at aid stations and can really keep your spirits up. I topped off my handheld with water and set off onto the trail once again.
Hwy 431 to Lake Morgan- Mile 27.66
To be honest, I don't really remember much about this section specifically other than it being some gorgeous single track that rolled along. There seemed to be a ton of pine trees on the Pinhoti trail, and when the needles fall it makes for some of the best running conditions one could ask for. The needles cushion the trail so it feels like you are running on a super soft surface and greatly reduces impact. When I got to the aid station, my dad and Trey helped me refill my bottle and sent me on my way.
Lake Morgan to Blue Mtn Rd- Mile 34.56
Just before leaving the Lake Morgan Rd aid station, I asked my dad how far it was to the next stop. He said it was about 7 miles which is not bad, especially given the cool temps, but there was no crew access. This meant I would have to wait until the next station before hopefully meeting up with him again. I was a good thing I didn't know what actually lay in store over the next 15 miles regarding crew. I tried to stay positive despite the slight downer it was to know that I would have to go a while without seeing familiar faces. It may sound silly, but I just can't say enough about how much of a mental boost it is to have someone waiting on you at aid stations. Nevertheless, I tried not to think about it and just relax, run comfortably, and enjoy the day. It had finally gotten sunny, so I was able to run in just short sleeves and arm warmers with shorts. This sections was one of the longest stretches in the race for me. I wasn't sure if it was mostly mental or if it was due to the terrain. I think it was a bit of both. I knew we had a big climb around mile 40, and I knew that I was not that far along, but I had no idea what mile I was at. In reality, there is a gradual ascent during this section of trail that makes it deceptively hard. After what seemed like forever, I popped out on a little jeep road where a few cheerful volunteers were waiting at the aid station. My only comment was that I thought I would never get here. They just laughed and asked if I needed anything. I topped off with water, got some food, and prepared for the next segment, thinking I would see my dad there.
Blue Mtn Rd to Bald Rock-Mile 40.94
During long races, I do better to not think about how far I have gone or how far I still have to go. It helps me to just run from aid station to aid station so the race is broken up into a bunch of little pieces. This means that a lot of times I have no idea what mile I'm at or what the next bit of trail is like. Perhaps not knowing that the first of the two big climbs of the race was just ahead. I was in pretty good spirits as I set off, and it wasn't long before the trail started climbing noticeably. This made me suspect that I was approaching the climb to Bald Rock, the top of Mt. Cheaha which is the highest point in Alabama. The Cheaha 50k finishes here but runners go up the opposite side of the mountain, infamously called "Blue Hell." My suspicions were confirmed when I saw a trail sign indicating that Bald Rock was ahead. The climb is probably two miles but the last .5 mile to a mile are by far the worst. Its super steep and rocky. I couldn't have run this part if my life depended on it, so I just settled into a power walk. I could see what I thought was the top WAY up the trail and tried not to think about how far I still had to go. At the top, a bunch of tourists were at the overlook, and I can only imagine what they must have thought about all the runners climbing up. We ran along a wooden boardwalk for maybe a 1/4 mile before hitting the aid station. As I was running up to it, I just assumed that my dad was waiting there, so I yelled ahead, "Dad I want my ipod." This must have sounded comical to all the volunteers as I was yelling out orders to my crew. However, it is even more ridiculous because when I got to the station, my dad was nowhere in sight. The only thing I could figure was that he was not able to get to me in time between shuttling cars and picking up Mark who would be pacing me later. This could have been a big let down but just then I saw Sean Oh, a GUTS runner, who was really encouraging and offered to help me get whatever I needed. I went over to the food and saw these amazing looking brownies and some other dessert bar. I grabbed some of both and headed off down the pavement, happy to be at the top of the first climb and knowing that I had a nice descent ahead. The brownies turned out to be better than expected as they had espresso beans in them for an added boost of caffeine.
Bald Rock to Silent Trail-Mile 45.25
Shortly after heading out on the road, I met up with a couple guys, one runner and his pacer. They were really nice and chatting with them helped pass the time. After maybe a mile on the road, we turned onto the trail going down Blue Hell. This part of the trail got its name due to the fact that it consists of all rock, very steep, so the only way to navigate is by the blue blazes painted on the rocks. I remembered how tough it had been to come up this part at mile 29 of the Cheaha 50k, and going down it at mile 41ish wasn't much easier. It is fairly short, probably around a mile, and then you run a gradual descent on trail out to the park at the bottom. Runners continue on the road and essentially run down the mountain. This road seemed to go on forever after reaching the bottom. For some reason, time goes by so much slower when I'm running on roads than on the trail. I really couldn't complain though because it was mostly flat, and I knew I had to be close to the next aid station where I thought my dad would surely be waiting on me. The road turned off to a gravel jeep road that again seemed endless but eventually brought me to the aid station where my dad and Trey were waiting. This time I got my ipod! I also changed from my inov 8 trail shoes into some Nike road shoes because the trail shoes were starting to hurt my toes and I didn't want to have to deal with foot pain for 55 more miles. Seeing my crew, refilling with gatorade instead of water, and getting some food all helped raise my spirits considerably, not to mention the fact that I now had some music to listen to. In general, I don't use my ipod while running trails, but for races that are this long it can be a good "pick me up" and help pass the time.
Silent Trail to Hubbard Creek-Mile 52.07
This part is all a blur to me. I do know that it was a longer segment and there was no crew access but I can't remember much else. I was thankful to still be feeling pretty decent and able to run fairly consistently. This was a mental confidence boost because I wasn't sure how my body would feel after 50 miles, and knowing that I still had 50 more to go was intimidating to say the least.
Hubbard Creek to Adams Gap-Mile 55.34
This segment went by pretty fast because it was only about 3 miles. I do remember getting very hungry because I had not eaten much at the last aid station. It was around 6pm I think when I got to the Adams Gap aid station. They were blaring music so loud I could heare it from way off which gave me false hope of being closer than I was. My dad and Mark were waiting for me there. I put my windbreaker back on because it was starting to cool off quite a bit and also picked up my hat and headlamp as the sun was going down. This aid station had Mcdonalds hamburgers. I have not had a hamburger in at least 5 years but let me just say that burger hit the spot. I could have eaten 2 or 3 if I had stayed there any longer, so it was probably a good thing that I didn't hang around.
Adams Gap to Clairmont Gap-Mile 60.29
Shortly after leaving Adams Gap, the sun started setting, and I had to turn my head lamp on. There was not a cloud in the sky, but the moon was also not visible, so it didn't provide any light. The stars were gorgeous, and I took a minute to just look up at the sky. I was starting to really feel the miles at this point and was definitely not moving as fast as I had been. However, I knew that I needed to keep up a good pace to stay warm in the cold night air. I did the best I could to navigate the trail in the dark without tripping over the numerous rocks and roots hiding under the fallen leaves. Mark and my dad were again waiting for me at the aid station. I was afraid of getting really cold overnight, so I put on my pants and a long sleeve top under my windbreaker. Looking back, I am very glad I did this because it got extremely cold, especially along the bluff where an icy breeze was blowing almost constantly.
Clairmont Gap to Chandler Springs-Mile 65.44
When I got to Chandler Springs, Mark was dressed and ready to pace me through mile 85. I was already exhausted and lonely, so seeing him and knowing I would have some company was a huge lift. I gave him a big hug and we set out into the cold night. Lucky was also here waiting to pace Dreama and I was glad to hear that both she and Sal still looked and felt good which was more than I could say about myself.
Chandler Springs to Porter's Gap-Mile 68.78
Mark and I talked a lot at first about the race thus far and the conversation was nice to have since I had been running alone for most of the race. When we first set off I told him that I was not moving fast. This became clear when he started out slightly in front of me and pulled way ahead in about two minutes. It was not his fault as it is really hard to gauge how fast to go when pacing someone, especially in the beginning. I said "You're leaving me" and he looked back and we both just laughed. From there on, we figured that it was best for us to run side by side if possible or have him run a little behind me so his light could help me see the trail better. Before I knew it, the three miles to Porter's Gap passed and we arrived at the aid station.
Porter's Gap to The Pinnacle-Mile 74.53
My dad told us at Porter's Gap that this segment included the second of the two big climbs. I knew it would be tough based on what other runners had said. People who had done the race before all agreed that the climb up to Pinnacle was much harder than Bald Rock. I wasn't really dreading it because I knew that I would just have to power walk and there was no point in dwelling on how hard it would be as this would just lower my spirits. Me and Mark once again set out. The trail rolled along until mile 72 or so where we began the climb. It's not bad at first, but then it gets pretty steep, and the switchbacks keep coming and coming. Every time I thought I was near the top, I would round the corner only to see another set of swithcbacks. I was starting to feel a little bonky at this point and could not have been happier to see the lights of the aid station which was run by the GUTS crew. Mark Elson was at this aid station as well as Jason Rogers and some other familiar faces. They were cooking up fried egg and cheese sandwiches. I normally hate eggs in any form, fried, scrambled, boiled, etc. but for some reason that sandwich looked really good, so I tried it, and it tasted so good that I inhaled it in less than a minute. Jason told us that we would continue on a jeep road for a short period before turning back on to single track and climbing some more. "What?' I said, "You mean we're not done climbing?" I could not see how we could possibly go up anymore, but I was oh so wrong.
Pinnacle to Powerline-Mile 79.53
Jason's information proved to be very accurate when Mark and I hit the single track and climbed yet again. It wasn't very long but seemed worse than it probably was. I managed a slow jog on the flats and downhills and power walked the uphills until we reached the powerline aid station. By now it was downright frigid, so the chicken noodle soup the volunteers gave us hit the spot. There was a fire as well but I knew that if I stopped or sat down I would not want to get back up, so I got moving as quickly as possible. Even though we were only at the aid station a couple minutes, I could tell that I cooled off a lot, and it took several minutes for me to warm back up. This aid station was not accessible to crew, so I didn't get to see my dad here and would have to wait until mile 85 before meeting up with him.
Powerline to Bull's Gap-Mile 85.63
If I remember correctly, most of this section was on jeep roads. It was actually kind of nice to be able to run without constantly focusing on the ground to keep from tripping. The road also allowed me to run a bit faster and make up some time. It was pretty rolling but no major hills so I slow jogged most of it. When we rolled into Bull's Gap my dad was there but I soon noticed that he was in the middle of changing a flat tire on his car! I went over to the aid station to get some food and headed out to avoid getting too cold again. My dad was supposed to have relieved Mark of his pacing duties here and run with me to the finish. However, he said it would be a while before he finished changing the tire, so I headed off alone, hoping he could join me at the next aid station.
Bull's Gap to Rocky Mt. Church-Mile 89.63
Not 3 minutes after I set off, I heard a runner come up behind me and looked back to see Mark. He said he wasn't going to leave me alone out there cause it would mess with my mind :). I was so thankful that he was willing to pace me for this next portion of the race even though he was dealing with some lingering injuries. By this point, it was all I could do to shuffle jog the flats and downhills. I like to call it a "wog" because it is somewhere in between a walk and a jog. We ran a mix of jeep road and single track for this part. The single track was pretty technical and rocky, making it difficult to move at a steady pace. My coordination was shot, so it was all I could do to keep my balance. Mark and I eventually popped out of the trail onto yet another gravel road where the aid station was located and my dad was dressed and ready to run with me to the finish.
Rocky Mt. Church to Watershed- Mile 95.21
I don't know if it was just me but it seemed to have gotten considerably colder over the previous hour. Before leaving the aid station, I put on my big furry mountain hardware winter coat. Yeah, I was that cold. My dad, meanwhile was in shorts with a few layers on top and no gloves. I honestly don't know how he stood it. We started off down a jeep road that was not marked near as frequently as most of the others. Towards the end of a race when I'm real tired, I get extra paranoid about being off course, so this was not helpful. My dad ran ahead a bit and saw a flag which eased my mind a ton. We talked a lot at first about how I was feeling and how his day had gone. He had been up as long as all of us running and had been working tirelessly to cater to me, Sal, and Dreama's every need. I am so grateful for all he did, and now he was out in the cold running with me! I "wogged" when possible and power walked when I needed a break. This worked well and we were making decent time until maybe mile 93ish when I all of a sudden had this incredible urge to just lay down and take a nap! Up until this point, I hadn't felt sleepy at all. I've heard lots of stories about people falling asleep on the trail and wondered if I would struggle with it. I didn't really think it would be a problem since I had made it this far, and it was about 4am. However, I was now literally falling asleep on my feet and swerving all over the trail. I don't know how close I came to asking my dad if I could just lay down for a few minutes. We hadn't spoken in a few minutes and he noticed me swerving and asked if I was ok. I told him it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. Its kind of like when you are driving and get really sleepy and can't focus. I remembered that I had an espresso gu in my handheld which had caffeine in it, so I took that hoping it would help. I also told my dad that he was gonna have to tell me a story or talk to me so I would wake up. Thankfully, the combination of caffeine and conversation did the trick and I felt a lot more perky after a few minutes. We reached the next aid station which was very small. The two volunteers were super nice and told us it was 5 miles to the finish. I knew that at least 3 of these miles were on gravel road or pavement, so that helped to break it up a bit. At last, I could see the finish getting close and realized that I might actually make it.
Watershed to finish at Sylacauga Stadium-Mile 100.59
The first part of this last section took us through a grassy area and across two dams. My dad commented on how he bet it would be a really pretty view in the daytime but seeing as how it was still pitch black dark, I wouldn't know. There was a good bit of frost on the ground which indicated just how cold it really was. After crossing the dams, I think we entered some single track for a short time before coming out onto a jeep road. This road gradually got more smooth and looked like it was pretty well traveled, meaning we were getting closer to civilization. I saw several fences and farmhouses which made me start to anticipate hitting the pavement. This might not have been a good thing though because it made the time go by really slow. However, we did finally pop out onto pavement. A police officer was at the intersection directing us to take a left and continue down the road. At first I though she said it was 4.5 miles to the stadium which terrified me. I looked at her and said in shock "It's 4.5 miles away?" Thankfully I had misheard her and she replied that it was only 2.5 miles away. You may think that by this point 2 miles wouldn't seem like much, but it was huge in my mind and I think I would have cried if it really had been 4.5 miles. I got a temporary surge of adrenaline and starting jogging better than I had been. My dad told me that I was moving faster and that he could no longer power walk and keep up with my attempt at a run-so encouraging :). Unfortunately, my temporary surge faded pretty quick, especially since the road was a gradual uphill that you could see forever. It felt like we were on that road way more than 2.5 miles. I kept looking for stadium lights off in the distance. Eventually, I could make them out and this gave me one final boost. I started jogging a little faster and came up on the final turn. We made a left and went for a short way until entering the school property beside the football field. Runners make their way across a little wooden bridge which had frost all over it, making it slicker than snot, and then hit the track. You run half a lap to the finish line. Hitting that track was the greatest feeling. I got really emotional and was almost crying with joy as I rounded the corner and ran the straight away to the finish where Jeff Bryan was waiting to meet me with the belt buckle for finishing. I gave hime a huge hug and stepped off into the grass to greet my dad who had cut across the infield. I honestly can't describe the feeling at that point other than an overwhelming sense of relief and joy. I thank God for giving me the opportunity to do this race and the support of family and friends to help get me through it.
After having a few days to reflect on the experience, it still has not really sunk in but I can think of a few things that I learned or that really helped me during the race:
1. I am so blessed to have had this opportunity and I thank God for getting me through it. There were so many times out there when I was feeling pretty low and saying a prayer or just reminding myself of how He had given me the ability to even be out here was really helpful.
2. Having a crew is a huge help. My dad, Mark, and Trey did an awesome job of getting me whatever I needed, anticipating what I might need, encouraging me, and making sure I was doing ok. It saved me a lot of time at aid stations by not having to get in drop bags, wait to fill up with fluids, etc.
3. When the temps are cold, it is best to always carry an extra layer, even if you don't think you need it because I got cold really fast on several occasions and wanted more clothes.
4. Approaching the race with the perspective of running aid station to aid station really helped me as well. It makes the idea of running 100 miles much more doable. I never let myself think about how much farther it was to the finish, only how far until the next aid station.
5. Having a pacer is a huge emotional lift, and I was so glad to get to run with Mark or my dad from mile 65 on. Looking back I think these miles are exactly when I needed someone. The combination of the dark, cold, and fatigue was hard to deal with but having somebody with you makes it doable.
6. Volunteers really make a race great. They put forth so much effort, work crazy long hours, and are always positive, encouraging, and uplifting.
7. There will come a time in the race, at least for me, when I can't move that fast anymore, so I think that running how you feel early on, even if it means a little fast, is ok as long as it is within reason. This helps to bank some time for the later parts of the race.
8. I had a bunch of times where I was really hurting, tired, and just sure about what I had gotten myself into, but it is imperative that you don't dwell on these thoughts/feelings. No matter how tired you think you are, you can always do more than you think you can.
9. Thanks to all the more experienced runners who gave me such great advice and words of encouragement leading up to the race-Kris, Randy, Susan, Rob, and a bunch more I'm forgetting.
10. I am forever in debt to all the family and friends who have supported me in my love of running and worked tirelessly during the race. This was truly an awesome experience.