I could frame the outcome of Pinhoti one of two ways. Option one- I went sub 24 in my second 100 miler, shattered my preconceived notions of what I was capable of, and had a great race. Option two- I had a disappointing race in that I felt amazing for the first 69 miles but then slowly faded from 7th place to 19th place over the last 31 miles. I like to think of myself as a positive person and will look back on Pinhoti from the perspective of option one.
I made it to the start line in excellent shape, no injuries, and most importantly, freaking pumped to spend a long time in the woods. If you aren’t excited to run 100 miles, then it’s not going to be very fun! I’ve been down to Pinhoti twice to crew, and the familiarity with the race helped to ease pre-race nerves. Todd and Jamie Henderson have put this race on for the past 11 years, and their organization and support from the community makes this a special race.
In making times goals for a race, I will typically find a runner’s Strava file that is similar to me in terms of ability and make splits based off of that. I’m not sure why I started this habit. I guess it gave me something to do in the last two weeks of tapering. I’ve noticed an unhealthy attachment to these time goals and splits over my last few races. I would determine the success of the day based on my finish time, rather than being grateful for the opportunity to forget about all of life’s distractions and relishing the challenge of getting myself to the finish line as quickly as possible.
The goals I created for Pinhoti focused more on the process rather than the outcome. Those goals were; be patient, be grateful, eat 300 calories an hour, and find my limits. I told my crew that I didn’t want to know my place or what I was on pace for. My watch would only be telling me the overall chrono and mileage to the next aid station. I eliminated all possible scenarios in which I could get distracted by the outcome and deviate from my process goals.
My crew consisted of Marcelle, Kyle, Beth, and Dany. Kyle would be running with me from 69 to 85 and Beth would pace the last 15 miles to the finish. The weather was absolutely perfect for the weekend. Lows in the 30s and highs in the 60s with sunshine and blue skies. The leaves had just started to change and the kaleidoscope of red, orange, and yellow leaves punctuated with the stands of green pines and clear blue skies made for an absolutely gorgeous day.
I ran the first 18 miles with Brandon Sullivan and a few other runners which served as a good check on keeping the early pace easy. I exchanged bottles at mile 18 with my crew, took my music, and was running solo for the next 22 miles. My barometer for effort was that if I couldn’t easily eat 300 calories an hour, then I was going too fast. Like clockwork, I was able to eat a Spring gel every 20 minutes and graze on potato chips and fruit at aid stations. I had zero issues with my stomach and no problems with getting food down all day. The consistent dose of calories made my energy levels extremely stable and allowed me to cruise at a steady effort.
My right calf started feeling tight around mile 20. I would stop to briefly massage it or alter my gait to alleviate the tightness. This would help momentarily, but I was mildly concerned as my calf had never given me any issues in that spot before.
I arrived at Mt. Cheaha, mile 40, to my crew who was surprised to see me. They had just arrived and were in the process of getting everything set up. I had passed 15 people in the last 22 miles and was feeling amazing. I told them I didn’t want to know my current pace or place, and they hesitated for a moment in responding. I knew I was moving well, and they wanted to share just how great I was doing but they kept mum. I drank some coffee, reloaded on Spring gels, and continued to press on. I regret not putting on calf sleeves here or taking extra time to massage my calves. The tightness had been coming and going, but I knew it was an issue that needed to be addressed. I wanted to keep moving and told myself I would take the time to problem solve at mile 55 when I would see my crew again.
I continued to move with relative ease and still had no trouble consuming 300 calories an hour. I got a little lonely on this section, but a string of Missy Elliot songs helped to lift my spirits. I made it to my crew at mile 55 and took my time to situate my pack with clothes for the cold night, eat a quesadilla, and tape my calf. The tape helped my calf but the pain gradually started to radiate up into the hamstring tendon.
I caught up with a runner leaving this aid station and we played cat and mouse over the next 15 miles. We would briefly run flat sections together, he would pass me on the ups, and I would pass him on the downs. It’s always interesting how the camaraderie plays out late in an ultra. I think we were both being competitive with one another but also enjoying each other’s company.
The frequent change in terrain was good for my calf and was not bothering me to the point where I was actively thinking about it. I arrived to my crew at mile 69 still feeling great. I predicted low spots would become frequent as night drew near and that there would be a noticeable drop in my ability to continue moving at the same level. But honestly, I still felt great and was moving well. It was a revelatory experience to feel so good for so long. Unfortunately, this is where the wheels started to fall off.
Kyle jumped in here to pace for the next 16 miles to 85. The next six miles included the infamous climb up to Pinnacle and even more famous Pinnacle aid station. Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS) always has music blasting from their perch on top of the mountain. Kyle and I could start to hear music three miles below from the aid station! The climb was a doozy, and I think the continuous uphill gait aggravated my calf to the point of no return. The terrain for the next 10 miles was a mix of runnable jeep roads and rolling single track. It was challenging to run any flat or uphill section without compensating, but I could still move okay on any downhills.
We would hit one more aid station, Wormy’s Pulpit (I don’t know how it got its name), at mile 79, before arriving to crew at mile 85, Bull’s Gap. The section from Wormy’s to Bull’s Gap felt like it took forever. The aid station mileage provided by the race had been mostly accurate all day with some sections only being off by a few tenths of a mile. Wormy’s to Bull’s Gap was supposed to be 6.1 miles but my watch had the section at 6.9. That extra .8 felt like an eternity. It was getting to the point in the race where a trivial matter like the aid station being further than expected felt like an abomination.
Kyle and I finally made it to mile 85 after what felt like forever. I was definitely hurting and took my time to sit down and gracefully vent (at least that’s how I remember it) about how much that last section sucked. I knew Jenny Baker might be at this aid station and was praying that she wouldn’t be. She is a stickler for stern love and I had a feeling she would try to get me in and out of the aid station as quickly as possible. Her stories of crewing for her husband Franklin are only funny if you are not her husband.
Sure enough, Jenny was there and she responded to my proclamation to sit down, “Okay, but not for long.” I was no longer in race mode, and taking the time to converse with Marcelle, Beth, Jenny, and Kyle was a welcome interaction with someone other than myself after such a long day of solitude. Feeling better after the short break and some coffee, Kyle swapped pacing duties with Beth. Only 15 miles to go!
I paced Beth on this same section when she did Pinhoti in 2015. She was able to knock out 12-minute miles, and I was hoping I could mirror her strong finish. But no dice. The tightness from my calf was now mainly isolated to my hamstring tendon and was severely altering my gait. It was hard to generate and sustain any momentum. Beth was merciful in that when I tried to “run” she would hop up and down enough to where it seemed like she was actually running too. I got passed by several people that I had passed earlier in the day. I was so happy for them that they could still move well, but also slightly jealous that they were passing me at what felt like the speed of light.
I made it to mile 93 where Franklin and Jenny had just met their runner at the last crew spot. I wanted another break to sit down. Jenny started rubbing my leg and Beth delivered me a plate of potatoes and salt. Only in ultrarunning do you get two good looking ladies to provide such service at 3 AM in the backwoods of Alabama.
Staying there was only prolonging the inevitable, so Beth and I finally set off for the last 7 miles to Sylacauga, the Marble City. In the race swag bag, there were a few advertisements from the city of Sylacauga, and they were very proud of their marble city. This became a joke throughout the weekend. I thought I finally had spotted this famous marble on the jeep road and pointed it out to Beth. It turned out to be a plastic grocery bag. While pacing Beth on this same section in 2015, she thought we ran past a dead baby turtle. It was a leaf. Judgment is not to be trusted after 90 miles.
It was a slow and painful 7 miles to the finish. I was dreaming up scenarios for Marcelle to come pick us up and take us back to the hotel. It felt like we were averaging 30-minute miles, and the thought of being out for another three and a half hours was heartbreaking. I finally asked Beth how far we had gone as my watch died right before the last aid station. It felt like we hadn’t even made it two miles. She responded that we had gone three and a half. That was a welcome surprise and momentarily lifted my spirits.
The slog continued and we finally hit the last two miles of pavement. Barking dogs cheered, or possibly jeered, us along as we neared the stadium. Marcelle, somewhat scarily, emerged from the shadows to walk the last few minutes with us.
I hobbled across the finish line in 21:39. Good for 19th place. I was grateful to be done, and even more grateful to Marcelle, Beth, and Kyle for all their help.
I made it to mile 69 in 7th place with an average pace of 11:08. The last 31 miles were covered in a blazing 16:49 pace. Being so close (does being 31 miles from a perfect race count as close?) to having a perfect race has only left me wanting to get back to the 100-mile distance. It’s an enormous test that requires months of preparation and challenges us to buck up when everything is telling us to slow down or stop. In a world where life is pretty cushy (I am very grateful I can say this as I know people all over the world cannot), it’s nice to experience some discomfort and see how we respond.
I’m still not sure what caused my calf issue but will be proactive in getting it healed up and stronger for the next time.
Thanks again to my all-star crew. Y’all were perfect in having everything ready for me and always telling me what I needed to hear. Thank you, Spring Energy, for the support. I had close to 50 various gels throughout the day and was able to continuously eat them with steady energy and zero stomach issues. Thank you, Nashville Running Company, for the gear and shoes. I love representing a store that has built such a strong community of runners in Nashville.