Saturday, November 8, 2014

Pinhoti 100 - A Race Report

By: Brian Kenah, Bib # 122

Nov 1-2, 2014: Pinhoti Trail Series

Pacer/Support Crew:

  • Jason Sobczak – Led the Support crew and pacer from miles 41-45 and 86-100; Co-owner CFEC, 4-time Pinhoti finisher; U.S. Army, Long-range Surveillance Team Leader
  • Scott Semrau – Pacer from miles 45-68; new to both crossfit and trail running and ran 23 miles … in the dark
  • Beau Durham – Pacer from miles 68-85; 2 time Pinhoti finisher; original CFEC member in 2009
  • Toby Futral – Support crew; U.S. Army, Medic
  • Honorable mentions
    • Kate Brun – Support crew through mile 41; CFEC coach, running guru, trained with me for all my long runs; Umstead 100 finisher; Grand Canyon R2R2R finisher; 
    • Chris Sims – Co-owner CFEC; Pinhoti finisher; helped train me for past year; U.S. Army, Special Forces Engineer 
    • Coach Cletus – Zombie-baby and official CFEC mascot

Sat, Nov 1
3:50-5 a.m.
Alarm goes off.  Jason and I had decided to stay in Atlanta and drive over to Alabama the morning of the race since staying closer to the race probably wouldn't have saved too much time.  As I got out of bed and started putting my race clothes on, I could hear the wind howling outside.  A weather system had rolled in overnight and they called for record lows that morning (high 20's) and the next morning along with some high winds (20-30 mph).  It was going to be cold …

Before I got into my car, I walked around outside for a little bit.  It was definitely colder with a little bite in the air, but not freezing.  Suddenly, there was a gust of wind that blew right through my clothes into my body.  My breath was taken away.  I shivered a little and then laughed to myself, “This is certainly going to be an adventure”.

I got over to Jason's house around 4:45 a.m.  While there, I loaded up some final items.  I had on a winter hat, short sleeve/long sleeve/over shirt on the top and compression shorts/regular shorts/sweat pants on the bottom and I was still freezing.  I quickly had to mentally block this first aspect out of my head thinking about how I warm up quickly after running a half mile. 

We departed shortly after 5 a.m.

5-7 a.m.
We have arrived!  Me, Coach Cletus, Jason
The drive over was uneventful.  I remember trying to close my eyes a little to try and nap on the way over, but pre-race anxiety had me all wound up and I knew there would be no sleep.  Besides, Jason was amped up and probably more excited than anyone else for this and wouldn’t let me sleep.

We arrived at the campground where the start line was at about 6:40 a.m.  I got my number, stretched a little and said hey to a couple of fellow runners that I knew.  Kate was going to be pacing another runner, but was at the start and wished us all good luck.

Me, Kate, Jason at the start
We all toed the line and like every other trail race, without much fanfare, it was ready, set, go and we were off!

Miles 1-6.7
By the time the race had started, it didn’t feel as cold, but the wind was still strong.  I had ditched the sweats, but still had on everything else.  I warmed up quickly enough not to have my toes and fingers numb, but it was still biting.

I had gotten into position toward the front and while I didn’t want to block the people who could actually run this thing, I also didn’t want to be toward the back.  You quickly hit single-track trails and once that happens with 200 people, it becomes a traffic jam/conga-line.  I’d say I was out in the first 1/3 of the racers, which was good.  We were setting a fairly decent pace – not too fast, but running most of the time.

Suddenly, my toe caught, and I was flying in the air.  I instinctively got my hands out and rolled it out, but I still fell off the side of the trail.  I looked down at my watch – 1.4 miles in.  I already was eating dirt 1.4 miles in.  Well, I got that one out early and hoped it wasn't a preview of coming attractions. The rest of this section was fairly uneventful - pretty single track, rolling up and down, a couple of steep climbs, but nothing too bad. 

Miles 6.7-18.27
Mile 18 - Eat quick! Keep moving!
I rolled into the first aid station where Jason and Kate were waiting.  I quickly refilled my water and was sent on my way.  The one thing about a support crew is that they do not let you linger at the aid stations – especially the early ones (side note on some quick aid station math: if I stayed at every aid station for ~10 minutes, that would 180 minutes spent over the course of the race.  3 hours is a lot of time that doesn't need to be wasted – so the crew makes sure that you rest when you need to, but you get moving when you can). I don’t remember much about running in between #1-#3.  Again, there was some fairly easy trails.  I noticed that I was getting a little gassed, so I had started walking the uphills all the time (I was still running a few previously) and paying attention to my gait.  I noticed I was getting lazy and hitting everything with my heels – something that could end up hurting later on.

Miles 18.27-40.9 (Bald Rock/Mt. Cheaha)
Aid station #3 was the last time that I would see my crew until Bald Rock (Mt. Cheaha) at mile 41.  That meant that I needed to stock up on whatever I needed from them at that point.  I grabbed a sandwich I had packed, stuffed a banana and cookie in my pocket and started eating/walking.  Whenever possible, you want to be eating “on-the-go” in these races (see note above on time management).  I could tell that my energy levels were low, so the food was good.  It was about 11 a.m. and I was making decent time with about a 13 mile/min pace. 

Here is where things start to get a little blurry and I can’t recall the exact succession of events.  I would be going about 6 hours with no crew access.  While there were aid stations along the way, there weren’t many runners, so it made for a very lonely 23 miles.  And I didn’t have my music with me.  And the damned wind wouldn’t stop blowing …

Event #1 – I'm running with 3 other guys.  We come around a bend and off in the distance is this really tall mountain.  Now, when I say off in the distance, I’m not talking about that first set of purple hills you see, not even the dark hills that might be beyond that.  No, this was the faint, light grey hills you see beyond that.  One of the guys says, “Hey, see that mountain way off in the distance – that’s Mt Cheaha”.  Sweet - so I still have to run 25 miles all over hell and back just to get that mountain that I can barely discern … and it’s only 41 miles into the race??!!  That type of realization will break your spirit a little.  The view, however, was gorgeous.  Even though the wind wouldn’t stop blowing …

Event #2 – I'm running behind another guy.  We have a 10'-15' drop off to our right – not a cliff necessarily, but a drop off nonetheless.  The guy in front of me clips his toe on a root, does the old “hands-out-and-roll” maneuver, except this takes him right off the side of the trail.  I watched him literally go down head first, his feet then flip over his head and the he lands right on his feet to slide down the last few feet.  I was amazed and stunned simultaneously.  “Holy shit, dude! Are you OK?” I asked.  He does a quick scan of his vitals (i.e. ankles not broken, nothing sticking out of his thighs, knee caps pointing in the right direction).  “Yeah. I think so”, he replies.  He scrambles back up the hill and I give him a hand back up and over.  Once he's back on flat ground he looks down at his waist and says, “Crap, one of my water bottles is down there”.  We just looked at each other and laughed.  He climbed back down and got back up no problem.  I think both of us were thinking about how bad that little tumble could have been and kept it in the back of our mind as we shoved off (with the wind blowing …).

Event #3 – My stomach had not been feeling good since about mile 20.  I had had this feeling before and I knew where it was leading – nausea, cramps, etc.  Usually this was a sign that I was dehydrated, but that couldn't have been the reason today.  Regardless, I wasn’t doing well and knew that if it kept up or got worse, I wasn’t finishing this thing.  I mentioned it to one of the runners and she replied “Everything in a 100 ebbs and flows.  Give it some time. It will go away.”  Sure enough, 30 minutes later, my stomach returned back to normal and I was feeling great.  I still get surprised at how the body acts on these events and thought that was interesting.  Warming up a bit, but wind still blowing …

Event #4 – I'm trying to strike up conversation with one of the other female runners.
Me: “Hey, is this your first 100?”
Girl: “No. I had run Western States earlier in the year, but DNF’d.  I’m running this race to try and qualify again for next year” (side note: Western States is like the Boston Marathon of trail running and DNF stands for Did Not Finish – usually pulled for time reason or injury)
Me: “Oh, that’s cool that you were at Western States.  Sucks about the DNF.  Where you from?”
Girl: “Chicago.”
Me: “Oh, no kidding, so what brings you to this race?”
Girl stops looks back at me with a “seriously, idiot?” look: “To.  Qualify.  For.  Western.  States.”
Conversation over. No more running together.  Wind still blowing …

By this time, the rolling hills were turning into some steep up and downs. And then Mt. Cheaha hit … This is a stretch of the course that rises somewhere up around 1600’ over 5 miles to the highest point in Alabama.  First, there is no running this.  Second, this sucks the life out of you.  It is steep and it is long.  It probably took me 2 hours to go those 5 miles.  And the wind was whipping so damned hard at this point, I thought I was going to get blown off the mountain.  I’d like to say that the sights were pretty, but the only thing I cared about was keeping my head down, trying to stay warm and getting to the next aid station where my crew would be waiting for me.  My hands were frozen and I didn't have gloves.  The hiking helped keep you warm, but stopping for just one second to catch your breath was tough.

The view from the top of Mt Cheaha was gorgeous 
Suddenly, I noticed there were non-runner people hanging out around a rock and walkway leading from the rock.  I heard someone yell, “Come around the rock to the walkway and head up just a few feet to the aid station. They have warm soup and your crew should be waiting for you.”  I felt like crying – it was just what I needed to hear at the right time.  Turning around the rock was the most beautiful vista, too.  I probably could see half the state of Alabama in full fall foliage.  I took a mental snapshot and moved on. I had warm dry clothes and hot food waiting for me!

Warm soup and sandwich? Check.
Time to change and put on some warm clothes
Miles 41-45
Seeing my crew at that aid station was the best thing ever.  It was the first turnaround point for me.  I got to change into dry clothes (and socks), put on wind pants, changed my hat and got a pair of gloves.  I got some Ramen noodles and hot potato soup from one of the aid stations and used the facilities there.

I was a little behind time-wise from where I wanted to be, but I wasn't in jeopardy yet.  I was tired from the previous 41 miles, but the legs were still moving OK.  I was just doing a crappy job at keeping my calories up – especially carbs.

It was around 5 p.m. at this point and since we were on the eastern side of the central timezone, that meant the sun set earlier.  We finally shoved off to go down Blue Hell probably close to 5:30 p.m. (this is the backside of Mt. Cheaha and requires a hand-over-feet climb up or down).  This was also the point where runners could pick up a pacer.  Nothing sounded better than having someone to chat with and help set a pace for me.  Jason picked up the first leg.

We bounded down Blue Hell easily, passing by a few other folks on the way down.  We made good time on the flat and downhills and power walked the uphills.  I was feeling a lot better.  Not great, but able to run when necessary and not a ton of stomach issues.

Miles 45-55
Mile 55 - not sure what I'm looking at ...
nor why I'm smiling
At the next aid station, Scott took over.  It was dark out, so we were in full headlamp mode at this point.  Once it’s dark, the race slows down considerably.  I used this opportunity to go at a slower pace and I think that set me back a good bit.  We ended up taking almost 3 and a half hours to go the 10 mile distance which is slower than a 20 minute mile.  I wasn't running at all and even the speed walking was not very fast.

By the time we had gotten to the mile 55 aid station, Jason was trying to figure out where the hell we had been.  Things were falling behind at this point in the race where you can’t fall behind.

Miles 55-68
Things were still slow going.  A lot of the runners were starting to get gimped up – blown hamstring here, nausea/throwing up there, one guy had a twisted ankle.  It was looking bad out on the course.  I can’t say that I was necessarily that bad off, but my stomach was not reacting well to anything I was putting into it.  It simply wasn’t metabolizing the food, so most of everything was just sitting there – that’s never good.  One of the lasting memories of this part of the race, however, was looking up at the stars.  It was incredible how many you can see when you’re out in The Middle of Nowhere, AL on a crisp, clear fall night.  It was truly beautiful and something I’ll cherish.

Here is where a couple of the aid stations need to be called out.  I’m not a seasoned Pinhoti veteran, yet, so I can’t remember all the names and I was beyond remembering what mile marker they were. 
The first was the Xmas aid station.  They had strung a bunch of lights in the form of a Xmas tree and were blasting Bing Crosby and Jingle Bells.  This place had every type of food – eggs, cheese, ham, sausage and a huge platter of bacon.  I tried to muscle down as much as I could, but it wasn’t easy.  I thought to myself that this would be a fun aid station to volunteer at.

The second aid station is one that you pass by 4 different times.  You come over a hill and you can see the lights and hear the music blaring and even the people yelling.  It’s about a quarter mile away as the crow flies and you start moving on the trail toward it when suddenly the trail goes off to the right or left for a half mile.  Then you start moving back toward the aid stations and it veers back off and away.  It went back and forth like that four different times.  I had heard about this before I had gotten into this race, but it still messes with you regardless.

At the aid station at mile 65, it had to be close to midnight.  It was a crew accessible aid station, but mine was nowhere to be found.  When I climbed up the hill away from the aid station, I found them nestled all snug in the car with the heat on and blankets over them.  I pounded on the window and yelled something.  I don’t remember what I said because I was hopped up on 5-hr energy at this point, but I’m sure it came out real quickly.
Beau takes over pacing at mile 68 before Pinnacle.
I'm zombie-fied, but still smiling - that's about to change ...

Miles 68-85 (Pinnacle)
I’ve read a few books on ultra running and plenty of articles and race reports from people who run ultras and every one of them speaks to some of the lows, yet I've never really experienced it.  Sure, I’ve gotten dehydrated and the race didn’t go very well.  I’ve been cramped and had bad race times.  I’ve even hit the wall early and had poor end of races.  However, where I was during these miles can only be described as a very dark place.  Describing it as a runner's low doesn't do it justice.  I hadn't just "hit a wall" or just "felt nauseous".  My entire being and soul felt like it was being dragged down to the ground and there was this weight on top of it that was preventing me from moving. It was a lot like one of those dreams you have where you’re trying to scream, but you can’t. I couldn't understand why my legs continued to move while my head was reeling in the thoughts of the comfort of stopping.  I was no longer in control of my body and the only thing I could do was to keep my mind distracted from trying to stop. 

I’ll try to describe the situation a little:
It was around 3 a.m. on Sunday morning (yes, that is 21 hours of straight running … well, time on my feet). Beau was now pacing me.  Since I was quickly falling behind on my times, he had me moving forward at a good clip – always speed walking at no less than 15 min/mi and shuffling when we could.  My stomach was turning on itself and I was struggling to keep down food.  We were travelling to the second highest peak on the course – the aid station called The Pinnacle – which is a 1000’ vertical climb in less than 2 miles.  It is constant switch backs going straight up.  Oh yeah, and it starts at mile 72.  Oh yeah, and it was 29 degrees out.  Oh yeah, and the wind was still coming in at 20 mph.  I can’t really describe the cold other than it felt one of those shivers going down your spine (the kind where your whole body convulses) for about 90 minutes straight. This part of the race had absolutely nothing to do with physical prowess.  No training regimen or diet plan can prepare someone for this.  Maybe if my race earlier in the day had gone differently or if the weather was different, it may have made it easier, but this was by far and away the toughest mental anguish I've ever endured.  I simultaneously wanted the race to be over, while still wanting to finish. My entire body felt like shutting down, yet somehow I was moving forward. Beau was a great pacer, however, encouraging me the whole way, keeping me moving and generally distracting me from myself.  I think he went through the entire Auburn game score-by-score. I would not have made it to the top without him.

Once we got to the top, I must have looked like death warmed over.  People were talking to me and asking me questions and I’m pretty sure I was staring straight through them and not responding.  I’m not sure if I was trying to catch my breath or if my brain was simply not processing the questions.  One of the aid station volunteers at Pinnacle yanked me aside and began to slowly and methodically walk me through the remaining 26 miles.  He described what I was going to do in between that aid station and the next.  What the terrain was like and where I might still be able to get some shuffling in.  He was speaking slowly and in short sentences to the point that I began to understand.  It started to sink in and I began nodding my head.  “Yep, I get it – 4 miles with a little uphill and some downhill on a forest service road”.  “OK, sure. I understand 5.5 miles of all dirt road”.  “Oh, yeah 5 miles of trail.”  Once those little light bulbs started firing, a little breath of hope was lit.  I might still be able to do this.

After leaving Pinnacle, Beau turned to me and said, "Hey, you realize that you just finished 3 marathons?"  That accomplishment in and of itself was a nice feeling, however I still had another one to go and we had to make up some time.  We needed to be at the aid station at mile 85 (11 miles away) by 8:30 and we only had about 3 hours to do so (for those of you keeping score at home it took us about 2 hours to go from mi 68-74).  That meant we had to get in a solid 4 miles/hour which would entail running as often as possible.  I wasn’t sure how much running I had left in me after the Bataan Death march, but it wasn’t impossible. 

Coach Cletus, Scott and Toby early Sunday morning
The cutoff for the aid station at mi 80 was quickly approaching as we got near and we made it in with about 5 minutes to spare.  As we were coming into the aid station at mile 85, Jason had sent a couple of scouts up the trail to see if we were moving.  Once they caught up with us (about a mile out), we started running – Beau practically pushing me from behind and the two “scouts” leading in front.  I think I bobble-headed my way through the entire mile.

One side note: I haven’t been awake for a sunset through sunrise in a long time, but we were moving from aid station at mi 80 to 85 when the sun was coming up and the sky went from grey to purple to crimson and it felt like as soon as we crested over a hill with a nice clearing, the sun began to rise.  There is a lot of power and rejuvenation one gets from the sun coming up.  And it felt like I was rising along with it – truly glorious.

Beau passing the baton to Jason at mile 86
(I'm sure he's giving me words of encouragement)
Miles 85-95
I got into the aid station at mile 85 at 8:29 a.m. – 1 minute shy of the cutoff (I doubt I would have been pulled, but that was still close). I changed almost all my clothing.  I got as much food as possible in me (or least that I could stomach) and shoved off.  Jason was my pacer at this point.  I was on track to finish in under 30 hours, but it was going to be cutting it close.  I would have to maintain 4 miles/hour to get in with a little buffer.

Jason had me take my sandwich with me down the road and eat some candy bars and cookies too.  I was only able to eat half the sandwich.  About twenty minutes later, he handed the other half of the sandwich back to me to finish.  I’m not sure what happened, but I coughed on something when eating the sandwich and it was lights out.  Anything that was in my stomach was all over the road somewhere around mile 88.  Truth be told, I felt 10 times better after throwing up, but I also had about 3 hours left of “running” and couldn't just coast in on fumes.  I needed to get calories back in my system quickly, so I munched on whatever I had in my bag.
Jog-hobbling the final miles

Jason was out in front setting a good pace, making sure I was keeping up and shuffling when I could.  It was starting to get warm and I still had on some winter clothes (wind pants, sweatshirt, etc.).  Additionally, I was chafed in places that one simply does not want to be chafed. 

Essentially, I was a beaten man at this point.  I had given up physically about 6 hours previous on top of the North Pole, but now everything else was shutting down – stomach, mind, etc.  I needed more caffeine but I taking 5-hour energy to stay awake was tearing up my stomach.  I was 12 miles out and I was beginning to self-doubt if this was going to be successful.

Miles 95-100.6
We finally rolled into the aid station at mile 95 with only a few minutes of buffer time.  My beaten body slumped down in a tailgate chair and one of the aid station volunteers gasped and ran over.  She started mumbling, “you ARE going to finish this” and “you are NOT going to quit”.  She shoved a ginger chew in my mouth (great for the stomach, BTW), ripped my wind pants and long sleeve shirt off, force fed me some Ramen noodles, literally picked me up out of the chair and shoved me in the direction of the trail – all in about 67 seconds flat.  She yelled, “Go finish this!” and I started running down the trail.  I had ditched Jason and simply went.  I don’t remember ever talking to my crew, but this lady – this NASCAR pit crew savior – had somehow found that last little bit of whatever it is that’s in very bottom of an ultra runner's belly and was able to get my ass moving along back on the trail for the last 5 miles.  And, I have to admit I was moving at a good clip.  I probably covered 1.5/2 miles solo before Jason caught up.  At this point, we had a little buffer.  It looked like as long as I didn't get eaten by a mountain lion, I was going to finish this under the 30-hour cutoff.  It was the first time since about mile 41 that I was able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Suddenly, it hit me.  Holy shit!  I’m about to finish a 100 mile endurance race.  Holy shit!  I’m about to finish Pinhoti.  Holy shit!  I cannot believe how much my body is aching right now (seriously, every step was a little agonizing).  But I was going to finish!

20 feet to go with the kiddos
We turned on to the first pavement and civilization with about 2 miles to go.  You look down the road and it seems to go on forever.  It’s probably only about 1.5/2 miles and every one of the runners could do that distance in their sleep.  However, when the goal is so close and you've wanted to stop for the past 6 hours, you just want it to end.  So, I did what makes sense … I ran as much as I could as fast as I could.

Coming into the stadium and running around the last ¼ mile, I was filled with a mix of emotions. The realization of what I had just accomplished began to wash over me. I was about to finish a 100 mile race (on my first try) and that put me into one of the most elite of clubs.  It’s a 1% of 1% of 1% type of club … that's exclusive.  What was more important to me at this point, however, was to see my family and have my kiddos run the last few feet with me.  As I turned around the last quarter mile, there they were running toward me.  It was extremely gratifying.  We held hands and they led me across the finish line. I had done it!  As I was handed my buckle, I realized that I had just accomplished the achievement of a lifetime … and I had NO idea how I’m going to be able to describe it to anyone.


I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from "And Then the Vulture Eats You".  I think it accentuates the difference between “I can't” and “I'm not willing to try”:

“Then I realized the idea of self-consciousness is simply another aspect of the thought/action dichotomy. Reflections on oneself, if it is constant second-guessing, can be paralyzing. Thought has to make way for action. Even to reach out to a friend requires the stilling of the whirling computer. Just do it.”

At the finish with the Family - Gayle, me, Daily, Tolman

"The Crew" - Toby, Jason, me, Beau,
Coach Cletus (not pictured - Scott)

Some post-race notes:

  • This description may sound like it was a brutal race and why the hell would anyone volutarily subject themselves to it.  The response is - it was a brutal race for me.  Very tough mentally, physically and emotionally. However, the satisfaction of knowing that I completed a 100 mile endurance race is beyond measure.  I wouldn't trade that feeling in for anything.
  • Will I do it again?  We shall see.  However, I will say this - I will be back at the Pinhoti next year.  If for nothing other than to either volunteer or support/pace ... but, maybe to race :)
  • I can't begin to describe how thankful I am to my support crew and pacers.  I do not cross that finish line without them.  Those guys were absolutely awesome.
  • I also can't thank aid station volunteers enough.  They were up all night in freezing temps, encouraging us and taping us up and feeding us.  Thank you to each and every one of you.  It's that spirit that keeps me coming back to these races.
  • A few people have asked about Coach Cletus - the zombie-baby CFEC mascot.  He's been at every Pinhoti since 2011 and now has his own Facebook page.  For more info, visit here.  
  • I explained a little of how I got here (e.g. training, etc.) in a previous Facebook post.  Visit here for more info. 
  • I finished in 29:30 (30 minutes under the cutoff).   Of the 201 starters, only 117 finished which puts the dropout rate at around 43% (that’s really high).  I finished 115 out of those 117 finishers, however my buckle is just as shiny as the first place finisher!

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