Monday, November 10, 2014

Pinhoti 100 Race Report: The "Perfect" Race

Peak bagging in Alabama! Thanks to fellow runner and five-time Pinhoti 100 finisher Perry Sebastian for snapping this photo of me around mile 40.
Last weekend, I re-learned a lesson I've already been taught many, many times, but somehow keep forgetting: the key to satisfaction is low expectations.

And, in the case of running 100 miles, also: patience, humility, and a sense of humor.

When I first signed up for Pinhoti in Alabama's Talladega National Forest, still in the wake of my slight-disappointment over how the Bear 100 went at the end of September, it was with a plan: rest completely for one week, train hard again for three weeks (favoring intensity over volume, so lots of speedwork, hill repeats and strength training), taper one week, then crush Pinhoti.

Instead, here's what happened during those five weeks: a couple yoga classes, an 8-mile hike, a few 45ish-minute easy runs and a 12-mile long run. No speedwork, no hill repeats, no strength training. In the seven days leading up to the race, I ran zero miles.

Truth be told, I just felt over it. I signed up quietly for Pinhoti within hours of publishing my Bear 100 race report, felt excited about running another 100-miler for approximately two days, and then regret sunk in. I felt like I just really didn't care anymore. I'd trained hard all year, I was tired, I felt ready to focus my energy on other pursuits for the rest of the year.

It's not an inspiring message, but it's genuinely how I felt. When Pinhoti race weekend rolled around, I no longer harbored any expectations of "crushing" it. I chose, instead, to define my goal not necessarily as nailing a perfect race, but as just what I articulated on my blog last month: "to just not fall apart ... to run hard and feel (mostly) good the whole time, or as (mostly) good as it's possible to feel during a 100-mile race." 

Because I had no crew or pacer, I wasn't worried about projecting my times or hitting any targets, other than staying ahead of the race cut-offs. I admit to not even really looking at the course profile before the race.

When the race began at dawn in a 32-degree chill on Saturday morning, I took it easy. I hung out in the back of the pack, didn't get frustrated when I got stuck in a slow conga line on singletrack for the first few miles, just relaxed and reminded myself to run slow, slow, slow.

What the Pinhoti Trail looks like on Instagram. But seriously. It's this beautiful. (I cross-posted this image to the Trail Runner Instagram page.)
As the sun came peeking through the trees, we runners spread out enough that I got into a groove. The first 40 miles of Pinhoti are smooth, runnable singletrack without any of the significant, gut-busting climbs that make up the trails on which I train at home. Not that it's flat, by any definition. Just steadily rolling, with one big push up to the top of Mount Cheaha, Alabama's highest point at 2,411 feet, around mile 40.

Several notable things about Pinhoti that set it apart from most other 100s I've run, volunteered, paced and/or crewed at (which include: IMTUF, Leadville, the Bear, Pine to Palm, Cascade Crest, Badger Mountain, Pigtails and Hardrock): 

1. The leaves.
The singletrack is lovely and carpeted with fallen leaves this time of year. I was very grateful for the toe bumpers on my shoes, which saved my feet from many a bump and bruise. I tripped over hidden rocks and roots at least a few dozen times, but only face-planted onto the ground once, after stepping on what I like to call a "leaf cornice" on the edge of a particularly narrow strip of singletrack cut into the side of a steep slope. I thought there was solid ground underneath the leaves on which I stepped; alas, there was not, and down I went. No serious injuries, though.

2. The number (and quality!) of aid stations.
Pinhoti has 18 aid stations, far more than most 100-milersand this is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because the aid stations are unbelievably amazingliberally packed with not only the usual ultra trappings, but all sorts of goodies like doughnuts, bacon, sausage, pickles, homemade cookies, Nutella wraps, fresh vegetables and hummus, whiskeybut a curse because it's easy to lose time hanging out. Because I had no crew, though, and know virtually no one in the state of Alabama (save for Ms. Brandi Garcia, whose smiling face greeted me and brightened my day at many an aid station!), I never sat down and rarely spent more than about 60 seconds at any aid station, except to swap out my shoes at mile 55, which kept me at that aid station for maybe five minutes.

3. The runnability.
Since I often train at altitudes two miles above sea level, my lungs felt like a million bucks the whole race. i.e. Colorado people should be given a serious time handicap at sea-level races, because breathing that much air felt like cheating. My legs, on the other hand, had literally never done that much concentrated running everI've averaged 40-mile training weeks all summer long, and even the majority of those training miles are hiking, not really much "running," per seso by the end of Pinhoti, my legs were definitely worked. But all that running felt damn good, too. So much gorgeous singletrack.

4. The long, long night. 
After the sun went down in blazing, red glory, we didn't see it again for a long time.
It got dark on me somewhere around mile 45ish for me, and by the time it was light again, my race was nearly over. Because Pinhoti occurred later in the year than any other 100 I've run, the daylight hours were much shorterand because I ran this one much faster than any other 100, despite its benevolent 7 a.m. start time, I finished quite early the following morning, by comparison. I love night running, but I've also always greatly looked forward to sunrise on the second morning of hundos, because it's such a natural energy boost and mood lifterso sometimes it was hard to spend such a long night out there alone, knowing that sunrise was still so many hours away, and that I'd spend almost the whole second half of the race running in the dark.

5. Bottom line: If anyone ever wants to try a pacerless/crewless race, this is the race to do it at! 
People in Alabama are nice. Here's me chatting up a storm with folks at an aid station, while simultaneously shoving copious amounts of snacks into my face.
It's also just a great beginner hundo. Beautiful fall weather all seven years it's been held (no capricious high-alpine storms to contend with), plenty of drop-bag opportunities (I used four drop bags in total), and amazing volunteers and aid-station support. I carried a small pack, mostly for extra clothing layers and some snacks, and one handheld bottle; I rarely drank more than its 20 ounces' worth of water between aid stations, so it's really possible to do this one with minimal supplies.

6. With that said, for those planning to run this in the future and trying to figure out what to pack, here was my complete gear supply list, keeping in mind that forecast was for 30 to 60 degrees, high wind but no chance of rain. My base running costume was just shorts and a PEP merino wool T-shirt (short-sleeve version of this one), but I also had with me at all times (sometimes wearing, sometimes stowed): a long-sleeve wool shirt, a lightweight windproof jacket, full-length tights, a Buff, earwarmer headband, and lightweight fleece gloves. I also carried with me the whole race my Suunto Ambit 2 (which utterly failed, dying less than 10 hours into the race after a full battery charge; strange, because it lasted all 31+ hours at the Bear on the same settings), point-and-shoot camera, Black Diamond Icon headlamp (it's heavy, but so worth the extra ounces to not struggle to see the trail at night), just-in-case spare headlamp, a bunch of spare batteries, a couple Band-Aids, a mini tub of Vaseline, and ample snacks such as squeezable packets of pureed baby-food, bars (I favor nut-based ones like KIND and Clif Mojo), dried fruit leathers, a few Vespa packets and Endurolyte sodium tabs that I took sporadically (probably 10 during the whole race).

Here are a few photos I took with my camera during the race that really capture the beauty of Alabama's trails and all the sunlight filtering through autumn foliage:

I did have some early twinges of paina dull, inexplicable ache in my right knee that started around 35 miles, and persisted until mile 50ish when it was overshadowed by a sore left Achilles for the next 5 miles or sobut I have been through enough of these things by now to know those small pains almost always pass if you are patient with them. I don't take Ibuprofen or anything like that during races, so my only defense against pain was really my own patience. So, to my mind, I'm ever grateful; the rest of my race was fairly pain free.

All smiles (almost) all the way! Photo by Brandi Garcia.
Frankly, all I tried to do was have fun. I talked a lot with fellow runners, I smiled and laughed at every available opportunity, I joked around with all the aid-station volunteers—my favorites were the women at Hubbard Creek, mile 52ish, who were tickled pink when I saw the plate of raw broccoli stalks and hummus they'd set out on their aid-station table. I exclaimed, "BROCCOLI?! I LOVE BROCCOLI!" and dug in, and they got excited, because I was the first runner to pass through who'd been stoked on the broccoli.

A mile later into the woods, as I passed another runner and his pacer, they called out after me to say they wished they could run that confidently at night. Then one of them said, "Hey, wait a minute, that's Broccoli Girl! Damn, I should have some broccoli, too, if it makes you run like that." The other said, "I just ate a bunch of bacon there, instead of the broccoli. The bacon's holding me back!" I yelled over my shoulder that I'd eaten plenty of bacon at the aid station, too, but also that yes, broccoli is awesome.

I'd had this suspicion before, that running a race sans pacer or crew would force me to stay more positive overall, to maintain my joy and my humor, and above all, to stay strong mentally rather than relying on someone else to do that for me. Steve was a wonderful pacer for me at my first two 100s, but I found myself using his presence as an excuse to complain about everything that was bothering me, to garner his sympathy, to cry on his shoulder. He was kind and reassuring and coached me through my low moments, but the point is, when you're running alone, you can't let yourself fall apart in the same way. If you want to finish, it's simply not an option.

And so, there was no falling apart this time. Not to say I didn't come close a couple times, though.

Just before the sun came up, I was beginning to get tired and loopy. I kept saying (yes, aloud) to myself, "Stay focused; you cannot lose your shit now." Despite my best warnings to myself, I was seriously loopy, so somehow managed to accidentally leave my gloves and handheld bottle in the middle of the woods after a quick break around mile 82. I just plum forgot to pick them back up when I started running, and didn't realize it until over a mile later.

To my horror, I thought I'd also dropped my rental car keys somewhere in the woods, because I couldn't find them anywhere in my pack—so I spent several miles alternately berating myself for being such a careless idiot, then telling myself to calm down, because as Scott Jurek once wrote (forever one of my favorite quotes about ultrarunning), "The ultra distance leaves you alone with your thoughts to an excruciating extent. Whatever song you have in your head better be a good one. Whatever story you are telling yourself had better be a story about going on. There is no room for negativity.  The reason most people quit has nothing to do with their body.” But even this, I managed to push onto my mind's backburner, focusing instead on the beautiful scenery and gratitude toward my body for being capable of this sort of thing. (Fortunately, after finishing, I found my car keys buried deep inside my pack.)

If I can take away just an ounce of the meditative calm and wisdom I somehow find during ultras and apply it to the rest of my life, I'll be a lucky little lady indeed.

By mile 85, I was still feeling fantastic. I could smell the barn, too, so I kicked things into high gear. I had a blast running hard for about seven miles before my body decided that was enough, and it was done. Oops. Thus, the final eight miles were quite a bit slower going, mostly walking. A good deal of those miles are on paved or gravel roads, so in theory, though, if one were to save anything in their legs for the home stretch, there's ample opportunity to run 'er in.

Morning frost on the relatively flat final miles of the Pinhoti 100 course.
I crossed the line in 25:57—a pleasantly surprising "PR" for me by a full three-and-a-half hours, but far more importantly, the most joyful and least emotionally wrecked I've ever felt at the finish line of a hundo. Pursuit-of-the-"perfect"-100 mission accomplished! I'm now content to retire from my 2014 running season and turn myself over to the gods of winter for a season of snowboarding, cross-country skiing, Swiss Bobbing and other non-running adventures!

Not a homeless person: Just a tuckered out ultrarunner. It's not the first time someone with a camera has taken a post-race snap of me. Thanks, Brandi! :)
Big thanks, as always, to everyone who supported me from afar at this race—Steve, my parents, my friends, my coworkers, my comrades in the ultra community, my Colorado running buddies Annie, Jeason, Elinor, Julie, and Jen—as well as all the spectacular folks I met or hung out with in person in Alabama last weekend, including my wonderful host Marnie, fellow runners Vanessa (three-time Pinhoti finisher) and Donna (first-time 100-mile runner and finisher), Brandi, Perry, Rich, all the volunteers (especially the purveyors of broccoli at Hubbard!), RD Todd Henderson, and the many more good folks I chatted with but whose names I didn't learn. Y'all are awesome!