The Race Directors scheduled a re-running of the 2013 double top 100 on April 13-14. I think it’s pretty awesome for them to work something like this out. If you would like more info please read my account of the Re-Run: Overcoming Self Doubt: the DT100 Rerun.
On March 2nd, I set out to complete the first race in the Pinhoti Slam 300 series: Double Top 100. The Slam consists of three 100 mile races that take place on the Pinhoti trail (which runs through Alabama and Georgia and connects the Appalachian Trail): the Double Top 100, the Georgia Jewel, and the Pinhoti 100. Double Top is an out and back race that starts at the Pavilion at Fort Mountain State Park and runs 50 miles through the Cohutta National Forrest in Northern Georgia.
To save the reader a lot of time, after only 8 hours the race was cancelled due to weather. The snow started the evening before but, as the day went on, it made the conditions on the mountain roads so treacherous for the volunteers and crew vehicles that the race organizers decided to cancel the event. I made it 36.4 miles.
About a week out, I started watching the weather – not promising. As the days crept closer the predicted temperature dropped and the likelihood of snow increased. Concerns about the cold weather and possibility of snow started Tuesday, Feb 26th, with a post on the Facebook event page. Even my Mom sent me an email, concerned whether I knew they were predicting 3 to 5 inches of snow in the mountains. I brushed them off. Rain or shine or snow, I was going to run in this race.
I arrived at Fort Mountain State park at about 5 PM on Friday with one member of my crew. There were flurries. Nothing was sticking, but it was snow and it was cold.
The race briefing took place in one of the rooms at the Race Director’s (RD) cabin. Runners and crew stuffed in to hear. Perry Sebastain, one of the two co-RDs, gave the pre-race meeting. During last year’s event, a number of runners got lost. At some point someone called search and rescue and the event was stopped. The RDs were adamant that it would not happen again. Perry and Vikena (the other co-RD) set out almost 2000 flags and added a number of amber-colored flashing lights to mark the trail. Perry emphasized that most of the runners who got lost did so in the first 10 to 15 miles of the race, where there are several spur trails. If we saw a flashing light, we needed to look around because “it means something”. In addition to the 2000 flags, and flashing lights, the organizers used dark blue colored flagging to mark trails that were not to be used. If we turned onto a trial and saw the blue flagging we were on the wrong trail. Lastly, Perry gave out his phone number with instructions that if anyone had a problem or concern they should call him first. Despite the spotty cell phone coverage in the mountain, I felt better that the RD made himself available.
Perry was not concerned about the weather. He said that there would be some snow but that “it would be just like now (still flurrying).” While all the weather reports that I had read called for at least 1 to 2 inches, I assumed that he had more recent and accurate information, based on where we were in the mountains, and let it go.
Earlier in the week, RD’s emailed that the Benton Mackaye Trail (BMT) association pushed back against the race during the permitting process. The land managers and park rangers asked the race directors to minimize his use of a section of the Pinhoti trail. Perry told us an 11 mile section, between Double Top aid station (#4) and Top of Pinhoti aid station (#6), would now take place on a Fire Service (FS) road.
In the 10.9 section Between Old Tearbritches aid station (#7) and Bear Den aid station (#8), the RD had set out two water drops that, because they had been set out the day before, were likely frozen. I was planning on wearing my hydration pack and could easily mule 70oz of water, which would be more than enough to get me through the stretch; however, some of the other runners that rely on handhelds would have a problem.
After a handful of questions, including one about hot water at the aid stations (to which the RD laughed), the meeting ended and I headed back to my cabin. It was snowing, but nothing on the ground.
3 AM: race start;
I woke at 2 AM, got dressed, ate, had some coffee and looked outside. There was about an inch of snow on the ground and it was still coming down. Weatherman 1; DoubleTop RD: 0
With about 15 minutes until gun time, I headed out to the starting line. Each of my four person crew came out to see me off. Some volunteers were chattering about a couple of runners who did not want to run in the snow and cold and abandoned the race the night before. At 2:55 we lined up in front of the cabin and at exactly 3 AM we were off.
I felt great. Every anxiety fell away. For the last three months this is where I wanted to be; just the other runners, the trail, and me. There is something naked and freeing about it. All the rest of the world falls away, and you’re left with nothing other than trust: trust in your training, trust in your crew/pacers, trust in the course and the RDs.
I settled into an easy pace and held onto the front half of the runners. The race followed the road for about a half mile before entering the trail. As we ran through the first few miles, I came across plenty of race flags and a few of the flashing amber lights. No problem. The race flags were not reflective, but there were plenty of them. The first few miles had some up, but plenty of down. This was going to be challenging on the return.
As we reached the first aid station, BearPen, at 4 miles, we were greeted by the howls and hoots of a great volunteer. It was still snowing. It was cold. It was 4 a.m. and he was working all alone, cheering everyone on. I love aid station volunteers, and this guy got me jazzed to keep going. Leaving this aid station, the course traveled down a gravel road. I could see another headlamp looking around about 50 yards ahead of me, when I saw the flags marking a turn into the woods. I called out that I had found the trail and waited for him to join me. Together we started down the trail. It wasn’t long before we reached the first of many stream crossings. Note, the only stream crossing mentioned by the RD in the pre-race was between the Top of Pinhoti and Old Tearbritches aid stations (the night before I estimated that it was around mile 32/66 and let my pacer know that his feet were going to get wet). Over the next couple of miles, we actually crossed four streams; some where you could walk on rocks others that you could not avoid getting wet.
Shortly after the steams, we started into some big up. We climbed into fog. The snow picked up and it was very difficult to see. Heading over the top of the mountain and back down to the road (jct 2/52) the fog and snow were so thick that, when we stepped out onto the road, we had no idea which way to go. We saw another head lamp up the road to our left doing the “where’s the trail” dance. We could literally see only 10 feet or so. After a minute I spotted another flag, called to the other runner, and we started off again. In less than a mile we found the Cohutta Overlook aid station (#2). My crew had arrived about 15 minutes prior and helped the volunteers set up the heater, generator, and stove. This is what I love about these type of races; everyone helps where they can. I refilled my water, grabbed a visor to keep the snow out of my eyes, and took off up the trail.
Back on the trail after the aid station I felt strong. The next section had some good climbs and I still had one other runner, Jason, to talk with on the trail. We walked the ups and were hitting the down when we had our first experience with the blue flagging. We had become accustomed to following the footprints of the other runners. On a nice wide section of downhill trail, I ducked under a downed tree only to find fresh, untouched power ahead of me. Oops. Jason quickly noticed the dark blue flagging and the side trail we missed. It was a thin bit of trail that was clearly marked. I just missed it. Back on the trail we were heading to Mulberry Gap Inn aid station (#3).
We continued to chat about other races while we ran. Babbling away, we came across flashing amber light and a number of flags on the right side of the trail. Within two or three steps our trail made a sharp right hand turn and started down. Wait a minute – there is no other trail. Would the RD really waste a flashing light just to tell us about a sharp turn? Looking around there seemed to be no other options, and there were plenty of other footprints going our way so we headed on. Within a mile or so , our trail bottomed-out on another road. Up the road to our left was another headlamp, while the flags marked the course to our right. We yelled to the runner that he was heading the wrong way and he told us that we were lost and should have turned at the flashing light. I thought he was wrong, but he convinced us that we needed to head up the road and check-in at the aid station.
Jason and I ran about a half mile up the road when we found the trail and headed up a steep section before making a turn down into Mulberry Gap Inn. As we approached the lights of the Inn another runner stopped us and said “Ok, it’s really confusing.” She told us to follow the flashing lights then “go around the cabins, go down the stairs, and then follow the sidewalk.” Following her directions we found the Mulberry Gap aid station (#4). But a lot of other people couldn’t, including my crew. We later found out that runners were supposed to step off the established trail and, as one runner called it, “bushwhack 20 or so feet off the main trail” then pick up another trail to Mulburry Gap. Jason and I headed back out. I estimated that we added an additional ¾ mile to the course by taking the wrong trail and doubling back. But at least we would not be disqualified.
We ran along a road for about a mile before heading back on the trail and upwards again. I wasn’t upset about getting lost, but felt like I needed to make up time and position. I spent the next six miles passing runners I had passed miles before.
Heading into Double Top aid station (#4), I was thrilled to see my crew. I recounted my story about getting lost and was told that other runners had missed it too. I quickly changed my socks and shirt, refilled my water and gels, and headed back out.
The elevation between Double Top aid station (#4) and Usti-Yona aid station (#5 – closed to crew) rises from 1830 feet to over 3500 in less than 3 miles. It was on this stretch that we had a spectacular view of the valley. We didn’t know it at the time, but Usti-Yona aid station (#5) turned out to be the last, fully equipped aid station. The volunteers had just gotten set-up, but jumped in and helped us with whatever we needed. We grabbed a few gels and drinks and headed back out again.
Within two miles we came across the volunteers that were supposed to man the Top of Pinhoti aid station (#6), but were unable to get their truck up the road. This turned out to be a common issue for many volunteers and crew. Two inches of snow on the ground, coupled with mountain fire roads and steep drop offs, made for some hairy driving. Rather than head back down to safety, they became a rolling aid station and offered us what they had. Doing some quick math, I realized that without any aid at the Top of Pinhoti, we would have to go another 10 miles before we reached Old Tearbritches aid station (#7). While we restocked, we were caught by a few more runners. We now had seven runners in our group as we headed out.
Running with the group, I was holding back a bit so that I had some company, but I felt as though I was working harder to break on the downhills than I normally would, and my legs were aching. I increased my pace to stretch out my legs. The trees were covered in snow and ice, and I had the opportunity to look at the world in a fresh layer of snow. To me it was a race bonus; not only did I get to spend a day on a great trail, I got to admire something that I rarely get the chance to see or appreciate.
At the Top of Pinhoti, my crew wasn’t there, but there were some other crews that had managed to make it up, though they hadn’t gotten the word that the volunteers were mobile, further down the mountain. They kindly offered us what they had. My legs hurt and I tried to stretch while the rest of the group reloaded, but I needed to get moving again.
The trail immediately headed downhill. Letting go, I began running at a faster pace and the ache in my legs subsided. Unfortunately, I pulled away from my group. I kept looking back, thinking they would catch me on the next uphill. Prior to the race, I was concerned about being alone on the trail and thought I would need some conversation or support to make it though the tough spots; but, when I found myself alone, the solitude was quite welcoming.
For the next few miles, the trail was generally filled with quick ups and downs as it followed along the Jack river. One runner from my previous group was nearby at this point. I’d see him now and again. Part of me wanted the company, but another part pushed me to run so I could keep the quiet. Either way, I figured he would catch up to me at the aid station.
I came to the Jack river at around mile 33. The RD had it right: there was no way to avoid getting wet. It was about 15 feet wide and maybe knee deep. I pulled myself together mentally, for what I assumed would be shockingly cold, and made my crossing. It was shockingly cold. I made an ungraceful, hasty exit and turned to see the other runner behind me sizing up the crossing. We made eye contact but, even if I wanted the company, I had to get moving. I was shivering.
Not long after the river, the course turned onto the “forbidden” Benton MacKaye trail and started back uphill. Taking a drink from my pack, I realized I was out of water and checked my cue sheets. Old Tearbritches aid station (#7) was within a half mile, and my crew would be waiting for me.
As I came out of the woods, I felt really strong. I had eaten a couple of gels, my legs felt good and I had plenty in the tank. The trail spilled out onto another Fire Service road. As I rounded the corner, I could see about 8 or so people standing around, and I spotted my wife handing out blankets and sleeping bags to some of the people. It seemed strange, but it was cold and snowy and every runner would be wet so I really didn’t question it. As I stopped at the aid station, a volunteer with a clip board took my number and I realized everyone was just looking at me. Smiling and feeling awkward, I found my crew and started looking for my drop bag. I asked my wife where it was…
Anne: “it’s not here.”
Me: “What do you mean it’s not here? Where is it?”
Anne: “They could not get it here. They called the race. It’s over.”
I was stunned.
The RDs could not get the people in to set up the aid stations. One of my pacers, Dave, had to push the car just to get to that point. (For the record, Dave weighs only 137 pounds. That he pushed my SUV uphill in the snow, just to see me at an aid station, speaks volumes about the size of his heart. I’ll run with him anytime.) Slowly it began to dawn on me: blankets, the people standing around, race numbers; it really was over. I looked around and saw two other runners just standing there with the sad expression that must have mean’t “we went through the same thing and the sooner you get that it’s over the easier it will be”. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK. My race was over.
All my training. All the work my wife and crew (Michael, Dave, Steffie) had put in. All the hours away from family and friends. Done. Just like that. No getting caught by the sweep. No nausea so bad that I can’t go on. No injury and no emergency. Just snow.
As the other runners came in, we all asked the same questions. Can we go on? Can we just run back? Where is a race official? The woman breaking the news was a crew member for another runner and, on receiving official word from the race organizers, had volunteered to stand-in and to try and get runners off the mountain. Looking back it seems really stupid and selfish to even ask. Once it became apparent that they would not get the aid stations in place, the RDs could not guarantee the safety of the runners. Their only effort from that point on must have been to get everyone back. We put 3 runners and myself into the car to begin the hour and forty five minute ride back to the start/finish.
During the car ride back, it seemed really easy to bash the race directors. Hindsight will almost always point out flaws. But sometimes things just go sideways and you just have to do the next right thing. I sincerely doubt that the co- Race Directors wanted to cancel the race, knowing that getting runners and volunteers off the course would be a logistical nightmare.
For the record I never saw a race official or RD where the runners were told to stop. Once I made it to back to Fort Mountain State Park, I saw the co-director, Vikena, pull in with three runners that had made it past Old Tearbritches before anyone could tell them the race was over. When she saw me, without missing a beat, she asked for my race number in a way that conveyed stress and concern all at once. Then, she immediately hopped back in her car and left again – probably headed back up the mountain.
That’s the last we saw or heard from any race organizers until after the weekend. A few days later, Vikena (Kena) posted a great thank you note on Facebook. Part of me wants to sort out all the details. The rest of me just wants to accept that this is the way it goes and to thank those who tried to make it work. I’m grateful for the effort spent organizing this race and, while I know my disappointment is shared by many, I know I don’t have the whole picture. It was a beautiful course and my crew and I learned a lot.