Pinhoti 100 Race Report (and video)

Although it was a few weeks ago now, the Pinhoti 100 already feels like it happened ages ago. It was an amazing experience, and it confirmed to me that I can finish a 100-miler with a solid, but minimal base of fitness. It also reminded me how much I love 100-milers. 

Note about the video. I’m not a videographer and I shot this while running a race, so cut me some slack. This is not meant to be a guide or a quick synopsis of the race, but more of an abbreviated journey, and a journaling for posterity, as much for myself as for others. In the moment, a one hundred mile race seems endless, yet soon after, the power of the experience fades, until it is just another memory. Maybe this video will inspire, inform or entertain you. Maybe you’ll be bored. But I’ll get to relive the experience, so I’m convinced for that reason, it has been a worthy endeavor. 

I signed up for the Pinhoti 100 because it occurred during the last weekend to qualify for Western States and when I signed up, I didn’t have another 100-miler planned for the year. 

After a DNF on my Long Trail FKT attempt in late June, I had some time and some fitness and signed up last minute for the Vermont 100 in July. It’s a very convenient race for me as I live about four miles from the start. This year it was a grueling slog through record high temps with high humidity and no wind. Typically an 80% finish rate turned into 40% and I fought cutoffs. But I finished, and got my WS qualifier.

So, after that, a Cohos Trail FKT and a slow but fun outing at the Vermont 50, I didn’t know if I should even do the race, especially as my friend Suzanna wasn’t coming with me. We had decided to sign up for the race together, but after some unfortunate injuries, she had to bail. I was on the fence. I already had paid for my tickets, my entry fee, and I had some free hotel nights. I had been training, but life had been particularly busy.

I also was trapped in a cycle of doing something big, recovering, then not having enough time to train before tapering and resting prior to the subsequent event. My mileage was low, and it was mostly hiking, as that had been my focus for the summer. 

I was however, pretty fit, surprisingly uninjured and excited for a supported adventure. Even if it was in Alabama! My ultra buddy who likes to spend months traipsing solo around the middle east told me there’d be no way in hell he’d do a race down there. I wasn’t really too deterred (although I can’t say Deliverance never passed through my mind) and my feeling is that a beautiful journey through the southern end of the Appalachian mountain chain during foliage with like-minded individuals would be a great introduction to Alabama. And indeed it was.

Glossing over the travel I basically worked half a day on Thursday, took a three hour bus to Logan Airport, the took a plane that should have taken 2.5 hours become 4.5 hours due to storms, where I rented a car in Atlanta and drove to a hotel and grabbed a very late night bite. The next day I drove to Sylacauga, Alabama 2.5 hours away, went to registration where I dropped off my drop bags, listened to the race director at the meeting noting this year’s race would be three miles longer due to a detour and then met up with Bert (the other runner from Vermont), and our mutual acquaintance Vivien who works at Dartmouth with me, who was here crewing and pacing her friend Jeff. He was currently living in Montgomery, Alabama and was accompanied by his girlfriend Gwendolen. That’s all to say I was psyched to be hanging with people I know or would know soon, and good people at that. 

We went out for a subpar dinner at a local establishment, then I headed up with everyone but Bert to a hotel not that far from the start. The other option was to take a bus from Sylacauga at 4:30 AM after sleeping in a group setting. I’m glad I chose the hotel and the 5:15 wakeup.

The next morning I ate a muffin and banana and we drove to the start. Or at least a half mile from the start which is where we had to park. Hence, we were a bit rushed, and I didn’t make it to the loo. Looked like I’d be making a stop not too far into the adventure.

It was cold, probably low thirties, and everyone was wearing hats and long-sleeved clothing. A cold front had come through the entire east coast. In fact, the previous day, when I had left Boston it was 60 degrees and when I arrived in Atlanta it was 40 degrees! I guess I’d be carrying a bit of extra gear. 

No problem. I was already carrying quite a bit extra as I was planning on trying to shoot enough footage to create a video with my GoPro Hero 8. Turning this run into a creative project changed the entire game for me. I was no longer going for time, and that freed me up mentally to really enjoy the ride. That’s not to say it wasn’t taxing. I shot 70 clips and carried an extra pound of gear so I’m sure it slowed me down, but I was totally cool with that.

You know what also slows you down? Conga Lines. Pinhoti was notorious for going into single track almost immediately. With 240 runners, it’s a real crapshoot where you want to be. Elites and fast runners, say the top 10%, may line up near the front and be willing to run fast from the gun. Additionally, people who just want to finish and often fight cutoffs may be very content to start at the back of the pack. But for about two thirds of us, we have to just guess where to go and it’s hard to know where one will end up. You don’t want to start off too fast, but also don’t want to be stuck in a line for twenty miles.

I’d say I ended up okay where I did. Probably in the back half but not too far back. It was slow in the beginning, but that was probably a good thing, as my splits stayed very consistent throughout the race and never I overexerted myself.

I had never been there, wasn’t familiar with the geography or even knew much about the course, I just decided to go with the flow. So if you’re looking for aid station names, and spots along the course at specific miles, I don’t really have that, but here’s the general flow.

The beginning miles were single-track conga line, through a mixed forest of maple, oak and lots of pine which created soft footing along a very runnable trail with constant elevation change but nothing very steep or for very long. I warmed up quickly and at the first aid station about 6.5 miles in, Vivien took my long sleeve shirt and I stuck with my short sleeve and a windshirt. Although I didn’t have a crew or pacer, Vivien kindly offered to help crew me at any aid stations where she was waiting for Jeff. That ended up being the first half of the race, and it was a big help, both logistically and psychologically. Thanks Viv!

I continued on. Runners puffed clouds of water vapor into the chill air as the sun poked between the trees above the horizon, creating a mesmerizing glow of semi-synchronous breathing. Shafts of golden light hit the sides of the valleys and illuminated single trees while we wound our way snakelike from one valley to the next. 

My body felt good, although an older hip injury was nagging me. I was sipping on water and tailwind, and occasionally ate a honey stinger waffle, snickers bar or sour gummy bear. Eventually we crossed a train track and hit an aid station and fairly soon after, a bridge over a major highway, I-20 I believe, before heading back into the woods.

By the time I got to my first drop bag at mile 27, I was completely loose and feeling good.  I had had some short rough spots but most of the time I was just enjoying the journey. This included passing by about a dozen signs, along a stretch of trail before the aid station which depicted in cartoon drawings, the multiple ways to poop in the woods. The music was blaring, the sun was out and I was very comfortable in a t-shirt and shorts with temps in the mid 50’s. It was pretty much a perfect day for running.

Finally the crowds were thinning out and usually I could just run or hike at whatever pace I’d chose. The trail was very smooth and could legitimately be called rolling, very rarely flat, but never ascending or descending for more than a few minutes at a time. My hip pain had disappeared, and I was running on all the flats, descents and gentle climbs, albeit very slowly.

Nearing mile forty I knew the biggest climb of the race would occur, the climb up Cheaha Mountain. Used to climbing Mt. Ascutney at home, which averages 1000 ft/mi of gain (on the Bicenntennial Trail) this 1,500 foot climb over five miles was a piece of cake. I’m a slow runner, but as soon as we get into hiking mode, I start flying by people and it lifted my spirits to see I was doing okay, at least relative to my competition.

Now many people get into running for the social aspect. 100 milers can be team efforts, and meeting and talking to people along the way can be a big part of what makes these journeys rewarding and enjoyable. Yet sometimes you just want to get into the zone, space out and let your body carry you along. This race was much like that for me, and in the end I didn’t really end up talking to too many people. But to everyone that I did meet along the way, including Patrick, Kevin, that thru-hiker kid, and many others, thank you for the brief moments of distraction. Conversation can definitely be one of the most effective forms of pain relief. And if you can talk, you must not be doing that bad, right?!

After the brief climb, we reached Bald Rock, which was the highest point along the course. There, many people who had driven up, like hundreds of tourists, were swarming the area. It was a gorgeous view, but I was slightly disappointed we didn’t make the journey to the actual peak, which is just west of Bald Rock and is the highest point in the state. Nonetheless I got my photo taken by Greg (thanks!) and ran along a boardwalk to a road, where I believe traditionally had been the location of the Bald Rock aid station. This year it was moved two miles farther, to Cheaha Lake. After a short road descent, we came down a steep rocky section, that I’d say was the only really technical section on the course. It reminded me of home and I loved it.

Bald Rock, right around mile 40. Photo by Greg from We Run Race Photos.

 At Cheaha Lake, Vivien met up with me and gave me my drop bag and helped me out. One of my soft flasks had a leak and was drenching my shirt. She found an empty plastic iced tea bottle and I used that for the remainder of the race. I heard that Jeff was doing okay and Bert was flying. 

From there I slowly jogged along a paved and then dirt road, and chatted with this young guy (forgot his name) who had done the AT and the PCT. It was right around then, mile forty-six or so that darkness fell quickly and the night portion began.

I moved through the woods slowly but steadily, across some streams with some gentle ups and downs until I got to a short climb up to Adams Gap at mile 55, where I saw Vivien and Gwendolen and someone who was a friend of Jeff’s waiting to pace him. I grabbed a long sleeve shirt and sat by the fire for a few minutes then began a fairly long section on a road. At least according to maps, it looks like the Pinhoti trail parallels the road, but the race follows the road and I was okay with that. I was moving pretty slow at this point and even though the terrain was easy I was alternating running and walking.

After some more single-track, I got to an aid station which I think was Chandler Springs, but I could be mistaken. There I got my fill of bacon, and had a tour of the facilities which included a full bar and separate tent with large screen television and headed back into the woods. By this point I was starting to get cold. I was wearing a long sleeve shirt, a thin wind-shirt and had a hat and gloves along with rain paints. As long as I was moving I seemed to be okay, I just couldn’t stop for long.

My third drop bag was at Porter’s gap, around 68 miles in. As I came through I recognized a very distinctive voice and laugh. I had never met Andy Jones Wilkins, but had heard him many times on multiple podcasts and admired him greatly. I was kind of a fanboy and went over and introduced myself. I wished I could have chatted but I was cooling off quickly and needed to get moving.

And here is where I made my one major, and almost fatal mistake. I had put a light down jacket in this drop bag, but decided against taking it, figuring I’d move to stay warm. It was the middle of the night so I knew I’d have at least four or five hours of increasing cold before the sun came out. I don’t know why I didn’t grab it, but less than a half mile after leaving the aid station I started getting very cold and couldn’t warm up. I contemplated going back but instead began to run faster and faster in an effort to generate heat, and invariably got sweaty, which only made me colder.

I had heard that you can hear the music of Pinnacle aid station for a long time before reaching it. Well I guess I was so focused on getting there so I could get to the fire and warm up and dry my clothing, that it came up almost out of nowhere.

I ran to the fire and immediately stripped off my shirt and wind-shirt and spend the next twenty minutes drying everything and warming up. I was probably the only shirtless person that night, but next to the fire I was warmer without my shirt on than with it. Apparently a few embers did find their way to my wind shirt, but it was worth it. I had some grilled cheese sandwiches and headed out with a new lease on life.

It didn’t last long though as I began to cool off. Oh well, nothing to it but to keep on moving and by this point I knew I could suffer a few more hours in the cold. It was windy and below freezing, so I just put my head down and kept putting one foot in front of the other. I had been using my music/podcasts/audiobooks on an off through the night, but during this stretch I had them on almost constantly, trying to trick my mind into thinking about anything other than the fact that I was cold.

I ended up following a runner and his pacer, who was wearing a full length dinosaur outfit. And before you ask, no I wasn’t hallucinating. At least I’m pretty sure! A nice mellow descent took me to Bulls Gap aid station at mile 85, just as the first glow of morning allowed me to finally see the outlines of the trees against the indigo sky. 

On a normal year, this would have meant that I’d have fifteen miles left, but due to a bridge project, the course had a reroute which added on three extra miles. I sat there and gathered my thoughts next to a gas heater. This was the second to last aid station and I knew I could make it. From here there were a bunch of dirt road miles, and I enjoyed watching the colors of dawn emerge. I passed fields of grass that glittered as the frost had coated everything in a layer of fairy dust. But I was cold, and when the sun finally hit my body, it felt like a jolt of energy.

Eventually we were back on trail, and after traveling alone for many miles, it seemed a bunch of us converged around mile 92 or 93 as we walked past a steaming lake and in and out of southern pine forests. At the final aid station, I was given a hot breakfast burrito and that hit the spot.

I was so close, and yet had hours remaining. By this point, I was alternating walking and running, but my running speed was very slow. By virtue of the final section being so flat, people who could run were generally passing me while I was passing people who were walking. Some dirt roads led to asphalt, and all of a sudden I felt every mile on the soles of my feet.

I put on the headphones and moved forward. I could see people way in front of me and folks well behind me. To unknowing drivers, I imagine it appeared that we were a bunch of staggering soldiers coming out from battle, but dressed in synthetic athletic clothing wearing silly vests.  

It was our first brush with real civilization and I realized how much I liked this course, precisely because it stayed mostly in the forested hills, mainly inside the Talledega National Forest. These are old mountains, whittled to the core, and I felt humbled to have experienced a journey so far from where I had ever been, yet so close to what I know.

Rounding the corner across the athletics field and onto the track, I had to literally choke back tears. It gets me every time. I traveled 103 miles, about 15,000 vertical feet of climbing in 28 hours and one minute.  (BTW, there was a bit of confusion by runners after the race as daylight savings time ended during the race, and phone clocks changed but the race clock did not.)  

Apparently it was a slow year, with the extra three miles and cold temperatures, only 17 out of 235 starters finished under 24 hours and a third of the runners either dropped or hit cutoffs. When I lay down on the Astroturf field I asked a guy next to me how many people were left on the course, he said “most of them” and I was floored. The whole time I thought I was pulling up the rear, with maybe 30-40 runners behind me. I finished 62nd. Not that it matters, but it showed me that with careful pacing, I can be successful even if I’m not fast and focused on the video.

And to be quite honest, that was probably the hardest part of the race for me. First, I’m a photographer, not a videographer. Second, and more importantly, when things get tough, it’s also difficult to then think about focusing on getting footage. I messed up a lot, missed some good things and had difficulty shooting at night. But it was fun to challenge myself in new ways.

I hung out for a few hours eating, drinking and roasting in the sun, eventually reconnecting with Vivien, Gwendolen and Bert, who had killed it and finished in 25thplace. Jeff came in about two hours later, with a lot of screaming and leaping. He was known as the hat guy as he wore one of those pointy Asian shade hats the entire race.

When the race ended, I slowly worked my way to the car and drove to the hotel, where I checked in, lay down and napped for a few hours, before somehow getting up, driving myself to Chinese food, buying way too much, coming back and gorging, falling asleep, waking up to eat the rest of everything and then passing out until 6am, when I had to get up to make the journey home. I did squeeze a shower in there somewhere!

That Monday journey was not quite recovery, with a multi-hour drive, dealing with rental car, the huge Atlanta airport, then a flight to Boston and followed by a bus to Hanover and finally the drive home. Not until I walked into the house did I feel the journey was truly over. But it was good to be home. With my family. And my pints of Ben and Jerry’s. 

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this successful outing including my family (Julia, Ani, and Lev) for supporting me, my friends for encouraging me, my coach for keeping me fit, and Vivien, Bert, Jeff and Gwendolen for sharing the adventure. 


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