What is or was your "A" training goal? What doubts have you overcome to get there, or what do you know you need to conquer to achieve it?
Do you have any tricks when your thinking takes a turn for the negative? How do you get out of that funk?
What physical feat might make you say "I have surpassed everything I thought I could ever do"?
Now - on to the story....
“WHAT?! We’re how far from the start?!”
This was the panicked cry I sent out into the dim early morning air as my husband informed me that we were 4.5 miles from the starting line of the Pinhoti 100 mile race.
That started at 7:00AM.
It was 6:50.
Once we got all of those details ironed out, all of that useless stress started to give way to anxious anticipation after we picked up our packets in Sylacauga and headed back to Oxford, Alabama. We settled in at Mellow Mushroom with a large group of other Georgia runners. It felt like a class reunion, as so many friends were there either running, pacing, or crewing. I had picked this race because I knew it had great aid stations and support, and that I would have familiar faces at nearly every turn. Their jokes, stories, pizza and beer eased my tensions from the week and helped get me in the mindset of getting this thing done.
Saturday morning my husband pokes me to ask if my alarm had gone off. It hadn’t. Thank goodness I had encouraged him to set his the night before as well, as I discovered I had turned on my “Friday” alarm. My heart immediately starts to race as I think about what I would have done if I had overslept. But I quickly tell myself there’s no time for anxiety – that it’s wasted energy here – and to get my things together. We load up into the car and I force myself to eat a banana, one baby bite as a time, as my nerves were already turned my stomach rock-hard.
The night before, I had (I thought) read the turn-by-turn directions diligently and created a pin on my Google map for where to park based on the crew instructions. A couple cars were already at the intersection our directions had brought us to and the instructions explicitly stated to NOT drive all the way to the campground where the starting line is. So we park and start walking. And walking. And walking. The deadline for race check-in was drawing dangerously close when my husband opens up his GPS again and goes, “Uuuhhhh……”
He decides to run back to our car and instructs my friend and I to start running in the direction of the start and hitch a ride if we can. We see the shuttles that brought runners in from Sylacauga headed up the road toward us and we stop them to ask how much further we have to go. “It’s… a bit.” One driver tells us. Then she informs us she’s not from the area and wasn’t really sure just how many miles away we were. So we run on until finally a truck comes barreling down the gravel going in our direction. I beg the driver to let us hop in the bed of his truck in a way that basically said, “I’m jumping in your truck.” I mean, he was dressed for hunting, so I figured he knew these back roads… AND I was sparing a deer’s life for at least another 15 minutes. He graciously allowed us to hitch hike and got us to the start, followed by a caravan of other runners who had misread the directions the same as we did. We run into the campground, already sweating and wild-eyed wondering what to do next when the families and crews of the rest of the runners tell us that the race director decided to forgo check-in, so just start running. They point us in the direction of the trail and we were off at 7:07AM.
Now I already know well enough not to go out too fast, but having already gone through a near emotional meltdown, I had to work really hard to force myself to take it easy for the first few miles. “You’ll catch up with the conga line,” I told myself. And when I did, boy what a relief. “There she is!” some friends called out as I passed. I shared our mishap about getting to the start and someone quipped back “Well now you get to see everyone!” This did put a smile on my face and helped me get in the right mindset to tick off some steady, confident early miles.
The trail here is gorgeous single track which, on a solo run, would be pure bliss. But as I caught up to the next conga line that was probably 30-40 people deep things got tricky. There was nowhere for people to move as I announced my desire to pass, and I stupidly kept twisting my right ankle. Over. And over. It really started to bug me after the 4th or 5th turn which had me inadvertently bumping elbows with other runners. I promise, if you were one of those individuals, I was not trying to turn this in to a full-contact sport.
After some time, I settled into a slightly smaller group, but I was really looking forward to the second aid station at mile 13 to start to break up the line. I was finally able to shift my focus to race strategy- something I had not really given much thought to as adrenaline had clouded my thoughts for the first couple hours of the day. I made the decision here that my hydration pack would be my insurance against bonking – always topping off the bottles with Tailwind and never letting my water bladder get below half a liter – so that I could drink constantly without worrying about running out of fluids. Solid food is where I have always struggled in the past, so I focused on keeping my heart rate low enough that eating solid food would not upset my stomach. The plan, from here, was to drink drink drink, and take small bites of solid food just about every hour, on the hour.
The third aid station came at mile 18, where my husband tried to make me eat a hotdog. I wasn’t ready to go that far with my push to take in calories so I stuck with my Hüma gels, Stinger chews, and bites of mini Stroopwaffle cookies (I got a bag of these at Trader Joe’s). My ankle was still a bit cranky but I did not mention it to my crew. I took just long enough to top off my bottles and grab the food items they were holding out to me and off I went. The course went about 400 meters up the road and then turned right back on to the trail.
What happened next almost ruined my day and had the potential to end my race right then and there, as my biggest nightmare nearly came to fruition. I was careless with my footing coming off the road. I don’t even think I hit a rock or root or anything other obstruction. Maybe the ground was soft, maybe my ankle was already too weak to stay straight when otherwise it would have. Whatever the reason, I rolled it again, HARD. I felt the pop. I felt the pain. I went down to the ground.
“FUUUUUUUUCK!!!! MOTHER FUCKER!!!! AAAAAHHHH!!!” I cried out, in a voice that can only be described as the guttural yell of an angry feral cat.
Keith… dear, sweet Keith. He was the light of so many people's lives as he hooted and hollered for eight hours at the Hot to Trot endurance run in July. I had recognized him from that race as I passed him just moments before The Big Pop. So he was right behind me as I sat on the ground, dumbfounded that here, at mile 18 out of 100, my race might be over.
“You want Advil?! Here. Take Advil!” And like a magician, presented me with two pills, seemingly out of thin air. I took them immediately, prayed my husband hadn’t heard me wailing, and got up to move forward. A couple hundred meters of hobbling gave way to a tentative jog and finally, back to almost a legitimate run. I was wearing gaitors and thank goodness, could not see the damage I had done. I had TWENTY-TWO miles before I’d see my crew again so I had to make this work. With any luck, I’d get there before the Advil had completely worn off. Luckily, by the next big aid station, around mile 27 I was moving pretty well, and everything else was actually feeling great. My hydration was on point, it felt good to eat, and I was probably one of the lucky few who was not really effected by the rising temperatures. Still, this aid station was in full sun and while they had popsicles, I would not linger long.
Coming up was a long stretch - close to 8 miles – before the next aid station, which would mark the beginning of the first major climb up to Bald Rock on Cheaha Mountain. For the first time of the day I felt like despite all of my earlier stress and setbacks, I was finding my “groove”. I felt confident that I would work through my ankle injury, and decided now was the time for some music. I was on target for my goal of getting to Bald Rock by 4:00PM (this was, by all means, a completely arbitrary goal as I’d never run 100 miles before, let alone over 20 miles on a purple ankle). The climb up was tough, for sure, but I was banking on my races earlier in the year to leave me feeling prepared to tackle every incline. And I most definitely was. I am not the fastest uphill, but I am a strong hiker. And I plotted on steadily, and happily, to the top. As I reached the overlook, I took my one and only picture of the entire race.
Bald Rock Aid Station was my first real taste of how aid stations go all out for 100-mile races. This was one of the easier places for crews and spectators to access so it was packed! I could barely squeeze between camping chairs and strollers to get to the table, where someone started calling out a long list of food items I HAD to try. But as I was bumping shoulders just to get a cup of Coke, I just quickly grabbed half of a banana and went in search of my people. I sure would have loved to linger longer over a sandwich or cup of chili but it was finally time to deal with my ankle situation. I searched through the crowd to find them urgently jogging in my direction. “You’re here!” they call out, half-shocked. I thought I was well within the time frame of when to expect me, but apparently I was a bit ahead of 24-hour pace. I ask them to pull out a chair so I can change in to compression socks and deal with my ballooning extremity.
Eyes grew large at the sight of my cankle. “It’s fine, it doesn’t hurt that bad… but do we have Advil?” I say. I reassure them a couple times that it feels fine to put weight on, which it does. My only fear, which I kept to myself, is that one more ankle roll would put me out of the game. But it hadn’t happened again up to that point, and I think the swelling was protecting the joint from any more unintended hyper mobility. Plus, I was moving a bit slower anyway, starting to conserve for the night time miles. Overall, I feel really good. Shockingly good. Like, what the hell is wrong with me good. A refill of fluids and restock of calories and I’m off.
As I shuffle down the road, I realize I left my headlamp behind. I still have plenty of light so after a quick phone call back to the husband and some reassurance from him that it would definitely still be light when I saw them again in 5 miles, I head back on to the trail. The next portion is what I would later learn is called “Blue Hell”. It’s a steep, rocky decent down Cheaha that for someone in my state was most definitely not runnable. This was mildly frustrating, as I’d anticipated clipping off some easy downhill miles, but the trail opened up soon enough and I’m able to cruise to the aid station at mile 45. I pick up my head lamp and a fresh hat, but opt out of any wardrobe change as I still feel very comfortable. Next up was 10 miles on my own, as there was no crew access at the next aid station. I have built myself a very comfortable time cushion, and since I knew one more twist of the ankle would most certainly bring the dreaded DNF, I slowed to a far more cautious pace. The aid station between me and my crew was fully loaded (including a bar) and I had a chicken lettuce wrap and boiled potato while trying not to get distracted by the multiple televisions they had going. Or the tequila.
Mile 55 – what a great reception! I could hear them for quite some time, blasting music into the thick woods. As I get close enough to recognize tunes and lyrics, I start singing along to “Hold My Hand,” and come in with a big stupid grin on my face. What can I say, I love me some Hootie. Originally I had planned on picking up a pacer at 65, but I was grateful my good friend Avinash insisted on starting with me here. We had some gnarly, smoky fire road ahead and I was glad to not have to spend any more time running alone in the dark.
In the week leading up to the event, wildfires had started breaking out around the southeast due to our drought. Fires had threatened a stretch of the Pinhoti course, but thankfully – for residents and racers alike – the blaze had been contained. Still, embers smoldered and there were a few areas where the smoke was thick enough that I had to pull my shirt up over my nose and mouth. I certainly counted my blessings that not only was I still moving relatively well, but that we were all safe from the blazes that were growing in our corner of the country. The smoke stuck with us for a few miles but as we broke away from the fire road and back onto the single track, the air cleared.
At this point in the race, I have shifted in to “turtle mode” with walk/shuffle intervals that make the continued forward progress a little less daunting. My feet are cranky, my ankle is throbbing, my ass is shaking (which sounds so much more fun than it was), and my quads are becoming more and more obstinate with every downhill. But… I feel OK. I still feel, dare I say it, good. Nothing that is going on inside my body right now is at all surprising or worrisome because my biggest unknown – whether I could take in adequate calories throughout the day – has not been an issue at all. We take little time at the next couple aid stations (one of which was just a water stop, anyway), and make our way to mile 68. Our “party train”, as I had lovingly named us, picked up a couple people along the way and we leap-frogged back and forth for several miles. We learned about where everyone was from, what drew them to Pinhoti, and enjoyed some laughs at the expense of our bodies (FUCK YOU, ROCKS).
Mile 68 is the last time I’d see my crew, now joined by my sister, for 17 miles. This makes it very tempting to hang around the aid station for longer than necessary, if only to make sure that my sister isn’t disappointed that she drove two hours to see me for two minutes and get one sweaty hug. But I also knew as of 28 miles ago that I should not sit down or stop for more than a few minutes if I was going to finish this thing. So I stick to the routine: Refill, refuel, restock, and go.
Okay, so now, not only am I tired of trying to compose this race report like I’m actually a writer, but miles are starting to blur together. We have a ways to go to the next aid station around mile 75, which is near the top of our second biggest climb of the race. The Shuffle game is strong at this point. Luckily, as the next dose of Advil starts to kick in, I can stop thinking about my ankle and focus more on what song is being blared through the speakers aimed down the mountain. The insider info I was given during dinner the night before let me know that I would hear the next aid station – Pinnacle – way, way, way before we would reach them. Sometimes, I like not knowing things before a race. This was a time I was grateful to have been armed with this bit of information, lest I drive my pacer crazy asking “ARE WE THERE YET?!”
We do finally get there, and it is glorious. They have a MENU written on poster board pinned to a tree. I opt for a quarter of a quesadilla, some orange slices, and of course, Coke. I'm so pleased with my strategy at this point, because so far have I not been dying for calories, or feeling like I ate too much. My approach to fueling is really paying off, which at mile 75 has me thinking for the briefest moment about my next 100*.
(*crazy – crā zee – (a): a word to describe that idiot who starts thinking about another 100-mile race while still running her first 100-mile race)
A couple weeks before this stupid endeavor, I watched Ginger Runner Live as they interviewed Kaci Lickteig about her incredible performances at Western States and Bear 100. I had been lucky enough to have them read my question to her in the post-show: Any advice for my first 100? The thing she emphasized most was having a positive attitude. Sure enough, remembering this advice came into play in the later miles as complaints started to slip out before I could stop them at the door. But eventually, I was able to tell myself “Enough. OK. It’s hard. Deal with it.” The second piece of advice, which she had shared in a response to another question, was “eat to win.” So I knew it would be of the utmost importance to maintain a constant intake of calories. It was hugely satisfying to realize that this plan would ensure that my first 100 wouldn’t ruin running for me forever.
Mile 75 was, theoretically, supposed to be near the top of that last big climb. But fatigue was creeping in and every bump thereafter felt like another giant hill. On the low grade inclines I still manage a decent shuffle but at this point my walk/jog approach has me averaging about a 15:00/mile pace. Forward progress is forward progress, however, and even as I lose the sub-24-hour pace I’d managed for most of the day, I know that I am so well ahead of cutoffs that I can relax for the last quarter of the race.
Mile 80 was my last stop with Avinash where we were met with some vibrant characters with the wonderful news that it was “all downhill from here.” HA! Maybe this is the lie they tell to keep people from dropping here. If I had to pick one low point, I’d say it probably happened between miles 80 and 85, as my feet are just on fire from the rocky, hard-packed fire roads, I am losing my ability to even shuffle up hill, and my gait makes me look and feel like a toddler that’s two steps away from crashing in to something. But one cool thing is that after this point our “party train” had come back together for a little while, and we joked about how Avinash had become the group pacer. A couple guys slowly pull ahead and a couple others fall back as we spread back out, but I really enjoyed for that brief moment that it felt like we were all together on this ridiculously long group run.
Now don’t tell my husband this, but I was really (really) looking forward to seeing him and having him pace me at mile 85. I don’t want him to think I like him that much- it’ll go straight to his head.
I don’t remember exactly what time we left the aid station, but I did know that while making 7:00AM was achievable (again, a useless goal I had only kind of sort of set for myself), I’d have to give a heck of a lot more than I thought I had left. So I played it super-conservative, not allowing my heart rate to creep too high and walking whenever it did. The chill of the early AM hours was finally cutting through my layers, causing waves of exhaustion to wash over me as I daydreamed about curling up under a giant down comforter. Wouldn’t that be nice…
I shake my head, rather violently, to wake myself up and ask Zac for some jelly beans. Time for some straight sugar! We shuffle past the last unmanned water stop on our way to the final aid station around mile 95. I am really wrestling with my mind at this point to stop my thoughts from looping: I want to be done. When will I be done? I’m so tired of running. I can’t wait to be done. These thoughts are of no use to me, but resiliency is fading. Luckily, we reach the aid station just as daylight is breaking. A literal light at the end of the dark tunnel I had been fighting so hard not to slip in to. My mood immediately lifts when they hand me a cup of hot noodle soup. We had caught up with Red Hot Chile Pepper and Rainbow Dash, a runner and his pacer (If you’re reading this, these are the names I gave you based on your outfits), who we I had been back and forth with throughout the day. Rainbow Dash said he’d give me his Rainbow Dash (an actual stuffed animal he was carrying) when I mentioned it was my daughter’s favorite My Little Pony. If I see him again at another race I’ll hold him to that.
The last five miles feel like an eternity. They were certainly easier than the previous ten, but my pace has slowed to the point that I know it will take me well over an hour to get to the finish. But as neither Zac nor I was running with GPS, there was no use in fussing over what the actual distance was between the last aid station and the finish line. What I did know, thanks again to the insider info I had received from another runner, was that we would pass another school before we got to the high school where we would be finishing. This helped keep my heart from sinking on the Forever Road, as I lovingly called it, when stadium lights came into view that I knew did not belong to our final destination. I was nearly drained of every shred of positivity I had left, trying to at least be happy that my feet were on pavement and I did not have to run staring at the ground. After what I could swear was a LITERAL eternity, a person came in to view who was standing in the road to direct us toward the finish line. “Oh sweet Jesus," I call out.
Another runner and his pacer had been creeping up slowly on us on the Forever Road but as we hit the track, for reasons beyond my capability of understanding or explaining, I decide I need to kick to hold my place. By “kick” I mean pick up to maybe a 10- or 9-minute-mile pace. Regardless, I wanted to look good crossing that finish line, damnit! The rubber track feels like heaven under my feet and I am able to open my legs up to a respectable stride. As I pass under the Pinhoti banner, I throw my hands up in praise to The Powers That Be that I actually did it.
Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta (v 2.0)
Some cheap running shorts I probably got at Marshall’s years ago.
Tailwind Tech Tee followed by my Yeti Tech Tee.
Champion sports bra.
Salomon SensePro Citytrails – They stopped making this shoe, and I shredded my previous pair at the Barkley Fall Classic but luckily I found probably the last pair in my size on the internet. I only had time to break them in walking around the gym and my neighborhood. This race was my first run in them.
Injini socks until The Great Cankle Incident when I switched to my CEP compression socks.
Dirty Girl Gaitors
NO BODY GLIDE – What?! – I totally forgot and THANK GOD it was a dry day but I actually had NO chafing!
Semi-concentrated Tailwind in my bottles – I made a super-concentrated mix I could dilute down, as well as had many pre-measured 200-cal baggies stashed in my drop bags. I also drank Coke at any and every opportunity.
Solid food – Without any major dietary concerns, I allowed myself to eat what I was in the mood for in small portions: Orange slices, banana, potato, a chicken and lettuce wrap, some chips, noodle soup, a popsicle, mini Stroopwaffle cookies, Stinger Chews, Hüma gels, a quarter of a quesadilla, and a few bites of a Lära bar and Clif bar. I never experienced any stomach distress!
Zac and Avinash - you guys really were the best pacing team. I really could not have gotten to the finish without you! To Amanda - thank you for staying up all night and driving an unfamiliar vehicle on backcountry roads to safely transport Avinash and greet us at the finish. You know how to step up and Mom for me and I can't Mom for myself anymore. To my in-laws - thanks as always for taking care of the Munchkin and our animals while I'm busy wrecking my body.
Thank you Trena and Carrie for letting me hitch a ride out so that my family could handle child and animal care without me having to worry about missing packet pick up! Trena I’m so glad you got your revenge on Pinhoti after last year’s awful conditions! Thank you David for your helpful insight on what to be prepared for on the course. And of course, Keith, thanks for your drugs!
Thank you to my clients who showed genuine care and support and were willing to be flexible with their training schedules in case I couldn’t walk afterwards.
And to everyone who shared well wishes and congratulations – thank you!! I know that at the end of the day, I am doing this for me, but it’s so nice to feel the love and support from all of you.
On December 3rd Western States organizers will be holding the lottery drawing for their 2017 race. Fingers are crossed that my next race report will take place in California!