Friends and family always ask me why I want to run 100 miles, and I never have a response that seems to answer the question. After running my second 100 mile trail race, the DoubleTop 100 in Georgia, it’s becoming more clear to me that the miles aren’t the only accomplishment. It’s having also faced the internal challenges, and coming out the other side, that lures me back onto the trails.
View from the trail after the final climb
The official DoubleTop 100 race, run in March, was cut short this year due to severe weather (read more). Email conversations led to an invitation by the DoubleTop and Pinhoti Slam Race Directors (RDs) to organize a group re-run in April. Anyone who participated in the original Double Top 100 mile event was welcome to join. Finishers would be awarded the official Double Top 100 Buckle, but it would not count as an “official” finish. Twenty runners signed on. The DoubleTop RDs, Perry and Kena, volunteered to organize the aid stations & volunteers, run support, and be the overall glue that held the event together.
Heading into the event, I had the usual doubts about whether I was ready, especially since I would be running without a team or crew. This would be my first race without anyone from the group that got me interested in running ultras. We had trained and raced together. We supported each other throughout the 2012 race season, offering advice and encouragement, and I contemplated the wisdom of running 100 miles without dedicated support. I had never gone more than about 35 miles alone, not to mention all day and all night. I worried about getting lost, dropping from the race, getting sick, or physically and mentally breaking down. There would be no one, NO ONE to pick me up. But, being the only one with DoubleTop on my radar, I entered the group re-run as a solo runner.
My plan was to stick with the group, even if it meant running slower or faster than I wanted to. Keeping with others, and getting to know them, would help distract me from my internal naysayer and keep me from getting lost.
Perry gave a brief pre-race meeting, mostly to let us know that there would be fewer flags. The March race had over 2000 flags marking the trail. This time, they put out 700 flags and some reflective tacks, and I was grateful for every one of them. This race would require some diligence – no zoning out for me.
Within the first couple miles of the race, everyone was in good spirits, but apparently no one was paying attention because we missed a turn, adding one bonus mile. Two miles later we made another wrong turn and, <BAM>, two bonus miles. Not even at the first aid station yet and I had managed to go off course twice; however, the world did not fall apart. Maybe I could handle it.
The Climb out of the valley.
We checked-in at the first Aid Station (A/S), Bear Pen (mile 4.7), and continued on the next stretch, which had multiple water crossings, as the trail stretches out along a stream. My shoes and feet were soaked, but the water was more refreshing than it was in March.
We took a short break at at A/S #2, Cohutta Overlook (mile 11.1), and headed out on one of my favorite sections of the course. The trail headed downhill and wrapped itself along a runnable, but tight section of steep switchback turns. Quick stop at AS #3, Three Forks (mile 14.8) , which was manned by one of the runner’s dads, and back out the trail.
My wife knows me. She knows where my demons would come up. Despite the fact that she could not crew this time, she was there for me. Over the first few hours of the race, we sent text messages back and forth. I’d send her photos and she would send a words of encouragement. It gave me a connection that I could carry with me on the trail.
A/S #4, Double Top (mile 20.5) was a drop-bag point. I picked up a bunch of gels, salt caps, and a dry pair of socks and headed out. This next stretch was new to the course.
A/S at Double Top
For the official race in March, the RDs weren’t able to get a permit to use this 10-11 mile section of the Pinhoti trail. Instead the runners ran the same distance over forest service roads. Because this was a small group run and not an official race, we could stay on the Pinhoti Trail.
The RDs seemed a little too excited about this section, I thought perhaps because it added another layer of cruelty to an already challenging course. My cynicism could not have been more misguided. It starts like the other trails, winding up and down, but within a few miles the trail takes a dramatic turn downhill and begins with the first few tributary crossings. At the bottom of the hill, the trail turns sharply to the left and follows a fast moving stream.
This section is possibly the most ideal piece of trail of any race in the South East. Several waterfall views, thick flora and multiple knee deep water crossings make this one of the most interesting and beautiful bits of trail I’ve ever run. Should the RDs get permission to use it for the official race, it will jump to the “must do” category for ultras.
The trail gradually gains elevation over the next few miles, making it runable for the most part. We caught up with some other runners, one of them being the organizer for the Pinhoti Slam, Dan, who was eating an apple. I can’t describe how much I wanted an apple. I had visions of that cartoon from my childhood, where two guys are stuck in a lifeboat and see each other as food. Or maybe I was Gollum, Dan was Frodo, and the apple was the Ring. The only problem was that I was pretty sure he could take me.
After a brief refuel at A/S #5, Top of Pinhoti (mile 31.5), we headed back out on the trail which, for the first mile or so, goes downhill on a Forest Service road. It descends, then runs flat for a while before crossing the Jack River. Once across, we only had a little more than a mile or so to the aid station. Dan and I had run this stretch together but at the foot of the climb, he let me know that he was going to wait for another runner to catch up. He bid me farewell, and I was on my own.
Considering that I didn’t know the terrain or the course, and that I had already strayed off the trail twice, it seemed like a good idea to stick with some folks; yet, with one mile to the aid station, here I was, walking uphill, alone. I kept looking back, hoping someone would catch up, but it didn’t happen. I reached A/S #6, Old Tearbritches (mile 36.7), in 4th place. I reloaded the water and gels, ditched some gear, grabbed a headlamp, and changed my socks and shoes. I did everything a little more slowly, as I waited for the rest of the group to catch up, which they did, and we headed out.
Everything after Old TearBritches was new to me, since the original race was called off at this point. From here to the next A/S, roughly 11 miles, the trail rises over Flat Top mountain then meanders along the ridge. Heading out, everything was uphill. Dan gave me some instructions on the trail, asserting that I could not get lost, which gave me the permission that I needed to move at my own pace. I slowly pulled away and, by the time I crested Flat Top Mountain, I was alone again.
There were a few more small water crossings, but the highlight of this section was the unmanned A/S Perry and Dan had carried in: food, water, and confirmation that I wasn’t lost!
I hit some low points around mile 45. I could not shake the sense of loneliness. Maybe it was low blood sugar or some other physical cause, but my cell phone was almost completely dead, and the awareness that I had left my wife and kids was beating me down. Compounding these feelings, I knew I would have to traverse this, and another 11 mile section, alone and at night. Facing this particular mental challenge would be my biggest hurdle. As the miles wore on and I grew more tired, I thought seriously about dropping out of the race. Like Luke entering the cave in the Empire Strikes Back, I was facing my own dark self. With no signal, I used the last of my phone’s charge to record a video for my kids. Blinking back tears, I shut if off and focused on what I needed to do, instead of what I didn’t have. I took in some gels, turned on some tunes just kept moving forward.
After a bit, I came across a turn where most of the marker flags had been knocked down, though I couldn’t figure out why. I replaced the flags and headed out. Upon reaching A/S #7, Bear Den (mile 47.6), I recounted my store to Kena. “Oh yeah,” she said “it was probably a pig”.
A PIG? Visions of Hogzilla crossed my mind. I knew what to do if I encountered a bear or a coyote, but a pig? She should have kept that one to herself.
It was then that I noticed someone sitting in a car. It was the race leader. He dropped for personal reasons. I was now in third.
The three miles from the A/S to the turn-around point was all downhill. I pondered the meaning of “personal reasons”. Family issue? Torn ACL? Did he see hogzilla? Not that I needed to know, but the more I thought about it, the more it shook me. The same thing happened at Pinhoti when, at the mile 30 aid station, two people turned in their race numbers right in front of me. It messed with my head. I had run through 11 miles of the most isolated section of this course, with monster pigs, and was still around to tell the tale. It became apparent that my biggest obstacle was sitting on top of my neck.
Shortly before the turnaround at A/S #8, Walosi (mile 50.9), the runners in first and second passed me, having checked in at the turn-around and started back. I estimated that they were probably between 1.5 – 2 miles ahead of me. I wasn’t in a hurry, but it was nice to know that the front of field wasn’t too far. I checked-in , drank what I could, and headed back out, hoping some other runners were close behind. I saw the guys behind me about 1 or 2 miles after I left the aid station. Assuming that they weren’t in a hurry either, I figured my best chance for company was to catch the guy in second.
The last 15 miles had almost beaten me, and I didn’t want to face those same miles alone and at night. To keep my head out of the gunk, I focused on closing the gap between me and the runner in second place. He was, by my estimate, 2 miles ahead. In reality, I doubted that I could catch him, but it was a goal I could hook into for the rest of the race. I turned on my iPod and focused on catching up.
I was in and out of the Bear Den A/S (mile 54.1) and headed into the night. The last bit of the sun set over the mountains, letting darkness fall. Headlamp on, I got comfortable with the thought that I would not see another person for almost 3 hours. For the most part, I hiked the hills. I gathered some makeshift walking sticks and powered up the inclines, as much as I could, then ran the flat and downhill sections. The miles wore on, but it was not nearly as soul-sucking as I had imagined. The food and gels, along with a series of podcasts, helped fill the void. I set a goal to arrive at Old Tearbritches by 11 PM.
Before I knew it, I had fallen into a routine. Hiking the hills, running where I could and listening to “Wait Wait Don’t tell Me” on my Ipod, I was able to manage my psyche. Anytime I started to circle the drain I focused on just making it to the next aid station. That’s it. Wanna Quit? Still gotta make it to the aid station. Want to sit down? It will take longer to get to the aid station. No matter what garbage my doubts gave me, the answer was the same — get to the next aid station.
I can’t describe the feeling of seeing the lights at Old Tearbritches (mile 65.1). I yelled and cheered. I wanted fans screaming my name, or fireworks. I wanted something to mark this moment. Then I saw the guy in second place exit the woods just in front of me. I never really thought that I would catch up to him. At some point over the last section, he fell and smacked his knee. By the time he had reached the aid station it had swelled and he couldn’t run. The words “I gotta drop” passed his lips as he sank into a chair. I tried to encourage him to try and make it to the next A/S but, as hard as it was for me to go on alone, I recognized that the decision to drop out of a race after 65 miles, while in second place, after weeks of planning and months of training, was much harder.
Before I headed back out, an Aid Station volunteer handed me his phone to call my wife, which was a huge mental boost. Within a few minutes, I was revved up and ready to go. I reloaded my pack, grabbed my portable charger & cables (see this article on the portable charger), spare batteries and headed out on the trail again.
I was getting comfortable with the night. During the day there is a lot to look at, and you can gauge the terrain ahead. With a headlamp, you see only what’s illuminated, drastically reducing visual and mental wanderings. Since my range was about 80 feet, that’s what I focused on. The section is pretty wide and straight-forward. Nowhere to really wander: a few creek crossings, then the trail starts uphill and it doesn’t stop for about a mile or two.
I stopped briefly at the Top of Pinhoti A/S (mile 70.2), refilling my water and changing out batteries for the next 11 mile stretch. The volunteers had strung some christmas lights around the A/S for some added cheer. Back on the new section of the Pinhoti trail, the elevation drops for about a half mile then levels off for one of the only flat sections on the course. The nagging loneliness had abated and I felt pretty good. Other than a couple of stretches of tricky footing, I ran most of the first five or six miles. In fact, over all, there was a net elevation loss over this section. But when it went up, it was steep.
I played the game of allowing myself to think the next A/S was just around the next corner or over the next hill, when I knew that neither was right. When I finally did see it I gave a couple of hoots and howls to let them know I was coming. The RD, Perry, was manning the Double Top A/S (mile 81.2). “What do you need?” he asked. “Just sit down and talk with me for a while” I responded. It was nice to have some company while I dug through my drop bag. With 80 miles behind me, I can run the last 20. I recall telling myself (probably out loud) that I could “do 20 miles in my sleep”. At just about 4:30 AM, I stepped back out on the course.
I was surprised to be in second place, and more surprised that I felt as positive as I did. I didn’t want to run alone, yet I had covered almost half the race solo. I was worried about finding my way at night, but I managed through the hardest part without getting lost. I even managed to change the headlamp batteries, in the dark, several miles from civilization, without incident.
The sun came up as I left Cuhotta Overlook (mile 90.7). The last 10 miles were a beat down. Maybe I was just getting tired or was just ready for this to be over, but I walked a lot – ran when I could, but walked a lot. Heading up to the last A/S at mile 95, I was thrilled to be almost home.
Then comes the RD’s joke: the aid station sits at the bottom of the valley, at about 1700 feet above sea level. Over the next two miles, the trail ascends to 2850 feet, about a 1150 foot gain in elevation. That’s a heck of a climb at any point, but positively brutal to stash it in the last five miles! On the plus side, I did see my first bear. For the record, he saw me before I saw him and started to run away before I even registered what it was.
I bounded over the trail back in to Fort Mountain State Park. With only two miles left to go, I ran with everything I had. Once I hit pavement, I didn’t want to stop. I hit the finish in front of Cabin #4 at 27:50:39. 100 miles accomplished. Doubt abated. Demons caged. Still don’t have an explanation for why I do what I do, but I can say that I did what I didn’t think I could.
Buckle and Beer
First Race of the Pinhoti Slam: Done. Next up Georgia Jewel 100 on Sept 22 & 23.