27 September 2014


Hanging out with Jerry and Todd prior to their 100 Mile start.
Originally, I had planned to run the 50 miler as part of my Pinhoti 100 training. However, things changed. By luck, I was able to run a tough 100K mountain race in Poland during a business trip 3 weeks earlier, so I figured there was no need to beat up my body more than necessary in preparation for my goal race. I also found out that my wife and I had been invited to a wedding that race day afternoon, so the 35 mile distance was the only distance that would even give me a shot at making the wedding 3 hours away in Birmingham that same afternoon.

Coworker, training partner and good friend Jerry Abbott had signed up for the 100 mile distance in his quest for the Pinhoti Slam and Paul Morris, another friend of mine, was registered for the 50 mile distance. He was also kind enough to let me crash in his room the night before the race. Thankfully, a 35 mile race involves less logistical planning than distances that are even longer, so most of my packing revolved about the proper suit for the wedding:-) Jerry and I had taken off work Friday afternoon, so by 1 PM we were on the road from Huntsville, AL to Dalton, GA. I was looking forward to seeing some familiar faces, since I had completed the 100 mile distance the first two years this event was held.

Jerry and I arrived at the race hotel around 4PM local time, just in time to get our race packets and to say hello to Karen and Jeremy, the amazing Georgia Jewel RD team that is responsible for half of all of my 100 miler buckles:-) We checked in to the hotel and caught up with Todd (Pinhoti RD) and his wife Jamie as well as some other fellow runners, when Paul finally joined us as well. Turns out Todd was attempting to complete his first 100 miler...what?!? Based on how the Pinhoti 100 is run and executed, I was sure he had to be a veteran of many a 100 mile races. We ended up meeting for a nice pasta dinner later that eve, where I also met John Dove, who I'd heard a lot about in ultra running circles. What great company for a pre-race dinner! All of us were antsy to get our respective races going.

The race start for the 100 was scheduled for 5AM and 5:30AM for the 35 miler the next morning. The 50 milers would be shuttled to their race start at 5:45AM, so we all ended up at the race start and finish line around 4:30AM to see off the 100 mile runners before heading out for our own adventures. The race host hotel as kind enough to make a continental breakfast available at 3AM on race morning and I made use of it for the first time. I normally do not eat anything on race morning, but I've changed that approach over my last couple of races. Better start ahead of the game when it comes to nutrition in longer events, at least that's my current motto.

Once we arrived at the race start, the parking lot had already filled up with cars. I spotted Brad and Candy and eventually other Huntsville locals Stephen and Rebecca, who was running the 50 miler. I was extremely relaxed, which usually does not happen. I had actually gotten about 5 hours of sleep, which definitely never happens the night before any race and I didn't feel any self-imposed pressure either. I kept reminding myself that this was "just" a training run. Had I checked out my competition on ultrasignup? You bet I did. Did it help me plan my race any better? Heck no. Did it cause me to plan my race differently? Absolutely not. I had hoped to maybe place in the top three of the Male Masters division, but when I found out the night before that there was no such classification at this event, I stopped thinking about that. Instead, I reiterated my initial pacing plan and running strategy. Hold a pace of 10:15-10:30 min per mile for as long as possible and run every hill, after all, this is a training race. Yet, in the far back of my mind, I was wondering how strong my competition really was and whether there was a long shot for a top three overall finish. That thought disappeared very quickly though when the race was finally started and the top three runners were literally a quarter of a mile ahead as soon as we turned out of the parking lot.

This allowed my to just focus on my own strategy, so rather than charge up that first 3 mile climb, I took it easy, kept running, slowly, putting one foot in front of the other as I made my way up that long initial climb. I kept seeing the headlamps of the front runners a little ways ahead of me, but far enough for me not to make any stupid decisions...like chasing them down or something. I figured, maybe one of them is going out too fast. If that was the case, I would possibly catch them. Other than that, I had no intentions of chasing anyone down.

Fast forward 10 minutes, I am slowly running up a very steep dirt road that is still part of the initial climb. I notice a runner ahead of me, who was power hiking this particular section. I ended up passing him ever so slowly and continued to run my own race. I didn't see the top two runners any longer which meant that they must have pushed ahead even further. After all, it was still pitch black and I saw no bobbing headlamps ahead of me. I felt really good, so I kept moving at a steady pace and before I knew it, it must have been around mile 4 or 5, I caught up to the front runners. Around the same time, we had caught up to the tail end of the 100 mile racers, who had started 30 minutes earlier. Having been out there twice before for 34 and 32 hours respectively, I have to admit I was kinda glad it was them and not me. It really made me feel like I had it easy today. After all, I "just" had to run 35 miles and not 100.

As we continued to run along together, we introduced ourselves to each other. Mike Cosentino (Big Peach guy:-) was running in second at this point and Mike Lambert was running just ahead in first. I figured both runners were out of my league and I probably needed to slow down, but I was still running my own race, staying on pace and not feeling at all like I was pushing, so I continued to hang with them. We chatted for a while as we continued to pass some of the 100 milers until Mike C. stepped off the trail. I continued to follow just behind Mike L. and the two of us continued to chat as well. I was feeling great. He talked about his background and I talked about mine and before I knew it, it was time for me to step off the trail. I had been hydrating very well;-) When I got back on the trail Mike L. was gone.

The next few miles were passing by rather quickly and this section of the trail, lovingly referred to as the "rock garden", really never felt that difficult to me in the dark. The return leg, however, is a completely different story, regardless of the distance you're running. I topped off my bottles with water at the unmanned water drop around mile 5ish and rolled into the first manned aid station at mile 10 with a smile on my face. My good buddy Jason Rogers was there to greet me along with a couple of other fantastic volunteers. As I approached, I noticed Mike L. just about to leave the aid station ahead of my arrival. I couldn't help but shout a smart ass comment as he was leaving the aid station, but thankfully, he took it with the humor it was intended with. I also caught up with Jerry at this point and we chatted for a brief moment. Once again, I refilled my bottles and continued on. I was using my Ultimate Direction  AK vest with the new soft bottles, which has got to be my favorite gear development over the past few years. These bottles collapse to literally nothing when empty, they don't bounce and most importantly, they do not bruise your rib cage. I was also experimenting with a new fuel source, EFS. Hey, this is a training race, so the good ol' saying "Don't try anything new on race day" didn't apply to me. Turns out, it worked great for me. I took in about 100 calories per hour and after I finished the bottle, I used a couple of gels to finish out the race.

I didn't see Mike L. again until about mile 15, on a section of single track trail. I figured I'd just hang back and try to let him pull me along for a while. After all, I was on pace and not in a particular hurry to actually lead the race. I was starting to think that I might actually have a chance for a top three spot, so why burn myself out early. Just keep running your race, I thought to myself. Just hand back here for a while, unless Mike L. decides to slow down. Fat chance. Just as I was thinking that, Mike turns around, steps aside and asks me to pass. Dangit, did he read my mind? Oh well, we both smiled and I took the lead. I remembered something I'd read in Running Times or Running Journal a while back. It said that whenever you pass someone, do it with pace. Otherwise, they will overtake you again right away and there is nothing more deflating than being passed right after having overtaken that person. I took that advise to heart and decided to pick up the pace for just 5 min. I still planned to run my race, but I also did not want to get caught up in a back and forth with another runner overtaking each other at every turn. That would most definitely mess with my head and my pacing plans for the day.

I continued to keep a steady pace until the 17 mile turnaround at Snake Creek Gap, where I refilled my bottles once again, grabbed a piece of orange and a small chunk of banana and chugged a couple of cups of coke. I felt like I was in and out pretty quickly. When I left the aid station, my watch showed 2:55. Wow, I thought, if I didn't slow down, I could actually break 6 hours? No way, I'm definitely slowing down once I hit the dreaded rock garden again. After a quarter of a mile, I spotted Mike L. and just behind him, Mike C. had made up some ground as well. At this point, I was merely a half a mile ahead of them. If I were racing for the win, I would be worried. I wasn't, so I just continued to run my race.

The climb back out of Snake Gap was my immediate concern. I had wanted to run the entire race, so this was going to be a challenge. I continued to run slowly back up the hill and before I knew it, I reached the top. Wow, that actually wasn't as bad as it looked running down. OK, I thought, just keep your pace. If you keep feeling great after this climb, it's ok to try to pick up the pace just a little. Maybe sub 6 hours is not out of my grasp. Slowly but surely, my overall average pace came down, second by second and what had started as a 10:30 overall pace by the halfway point had now been reduced to a 10:15 overall pace with 10 miles or so to go. I was feeling great. My feet were getting sore, but otherwise, I was never struggling. I came in to the Stover Road aid station again for one final major refuel before the last 10 miles to the finish. I knew they would be the longest 10 miles because of the rock garden, but I was in great spirits.

I never looked over my shoulder until I reached the halfway point of my final descend to the finish line at the bottom of the Fire Service road, when I felt asphalt under my feet to indicate the final mile to the finish line. I didn't spot another runner. Now a last check of my watch. I was pretty certain I was going to beat 6 hours, but now it looked like I might be able to break 5:50, which would mean a negative split race for me. Alright, time to access the last reserves. Yes, it's a training race, but come on, it is a race after all and I do have quite a competitive nature:-) I crossed the finish line in 5 hours 48 minutes and some seconds for my very first overall win at an ultra marathon. I covered 35 miles with somewhere around 7000ft of climb and I never walked. I was an extremely happy runner.

Mike Cosentino ended up overtaking Mike Lambert for second overall and I got to chat with both of them at the finish line. I didn't get to see many other runners finish as it was time for me to hit the shower and hit the road for a friend's wedding. Biggest success story of the weekend? I made it in time:-)

All kidding aside, I want to once again thank both Karen and Jeremy Pearson for putting on such an amazing and well organized event. I have a blast every time I come here. I also want to thanks the large group of volunteers who worked tirelessly all weekend and who gave up their free time to help all of us accomplish our goals. Thanks very much! I look forward to seeing all of you on the trails...and maybe a the Georgia Jewel next year? Pinhoti 100, here I come!

Receiving my first ever first place overall award at an ultra, smiling from ear to ear.

My name at the top of the leaderboard, crazy!

I ran very hard to receive this award...then I realized every finisher received it. Still the coolest finisher award out there!

Borrowed this elevation profile from another runner since my GPS watch went loco on me again.

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