Most race reports seem to start with some back ground story, I didn’t want to disappoint you. Last year I lined up at the starting line with my friends, Carrie and Lisa with our eyes focused on the finish and that coveted buckle. I could give you a long list of what went wrong from non-stop train to freezing overnight rain but in the end it was a DNF. We had a great 65 mile run but didn’t make it to the finish line. I knew for certain I wasn’t done with Pinhoti.
After the Cruel Jewel 100 miler under my belt in May (or maybe that’s on my belt), I seriously started looking towards Pinhoti. I enlisted the help of a professional coach and signed up once again for race. It wasn’t long before both Carrie and Lisa offered to help crew and pace me or do whatever I need to make it to the finish. Later, one of my favorite running buddies and pacers, Rebecca Watters, offered to help pace me as well. I knew I’d want her help to get me down Blue Hell and out to Porters Gap. Blue Hell left both Carrie and Lisa a little too black and blue from last year to want to pace that section.
Another one of my favorite running buddies from Knoxville, Stephanie Johnson decided to join me for Pinhoti, so I knew I’d have good company along my journey. David Yerden, running powerhouse and friend, asked if he could also join us. After struggling in his last few 100 milers, he thought hanging together would give him a little extra support until he got to his crew. David could help us set a good pace to meet our goals, and we could keep him from going out too fast. Stephanie would have crew and pacers at mile 41, and David would pick up his crew and pacers at mile 55, Adams Gap. I knew I had all the training, support, help and mental strength to get it done this year. I was ready for my redemption but I also sensed it wouldn’t come easy.
I sleep pretty well the night before races, because at that point there’s no reason to stress when there’s nothing else you can do. We all arrive at the race start on Saturday morning with plenty of time to greet many of our friends and use the bathrooms before go time.
Kirby, David, me and Stephanie ready to roll
As we lined up ready to start I immediately find that my Garmin watch battery is low. I took it off and handed it to my crew so they could charge it and give it back to me at one of the next aid stations. I feel so insecure without my watch, but maybe it would be good to just to just trust those I was running with and run by feel. Pinhoti always starts in a sort of cluster, with lots of runners going down a short stretch of gravel road before lining up to squeeze onto the single track trail. Most of the way through the first couple of aid stations were on and off “conga lines”. Right away, we got a nice pace rolling and were moving comfortably, not too slow but not too fast, either. We came through the 2nd AS at Shoal Creek and were 50 minutes ahead of cutoffs. My heart sank. Last year we were 45 minutes ahead of cutoffs at this point and never managed to get much more ahead the entire day. Immediately my first thoughts were how are we going to make it? Both David and Stephanie reassured me that we were doing great, we’d picked up enough time, and we would continue to build upon it. My crew had just gotten my Garmin back to me fully charged so I could start keeping up with our mileage, but I felt completely lost on our total time since my watch was off for over 13 miles.
The next few sections run smoothly for all of us. We were all very quick to get what we needed at each AS, and Stephanie and I had our crew to remind us to eat and check on us. We slowly began to pick up some time as we moved through AS 3 & 4 and then out to AS 5 at Lake Morgan. We all had drop bags at Lake Morgan, as it was our first chance to have one and we had no crew access there. I had put a cold Coke and Ginger Ale in my bag in a small soft ice cooler when I dropped my bag off the night before at the race meeting. Stephanie and I both enjoyed that nice treat. BUTS (Birmingham Ultra Trail Running Society) was running this Aid Station, so David and I got to say hello to lots of our BUTS friends. Ronnie Robertson took mine and Stephanie’s “proof of life” picture here at mile 27 and posted our status update on Facebook.
Morgan Lake AS
We had a long 7.5 mile section from Morgan Lake to Blue Mountain AS. In the past this has been just a water drop so we weren’t expecting an actual AS. I had run out of water in my pack several miles out from the AS but still had Tailwind in my water bottle in the front of my pack. This section felt endless as we were anxious to get the Blue Mtn AS and begin the climb to Bald Rock at Mt. Cheaha State Park. When we finally arrived at Blue Mtn we were surprised to find people, food, and supplies, not just bottles of water. We all filled up quickly, grabbed food and headed out. David knew lots of the runners and we climbed up the last stretch to the top with a runner he knew. It was not far from the top when David started feeling rough. He said he sort of felt low on energy, so Stephanie gave him some Vitamin B chews and we discussed what he might need to do when he got to the top of Cheaha. Stephanie and I had our crew and pacers waiting for us, and David wanted to make sure that he could continue to stay with my pacer, Rebecca, and I when we headed out.
Carrie and Lisa had some warm chicken bone broth waiting for me. I drank a good amount of that, some Ginger Ale, and ate bacon Rebecca handed me. A quick change of my shirt into something dry and I was ready to go. David was sitting in a chair and I knew he didn’t look ready to roll, but Stephanie was already ahead of us and I wanted to get started. The three of us caught up with Stephanie and her pacer on the road just before headed down the Steep Lake Trail, better known as Blue Hell. One of the things people will tell you about running Pinhoti 100 is “get down Blue Hell before dark.” This section can be so tricky, but we had gotten here with daylight to spare. Navigating this section in the dark, rain and fog last year was not fun, this year proved to be much better as Rebecca led the way for David and I.
Picked up Rebecca, one of my favorite pacers at Mt. Cheaha
Once you get down Blue Hell, it’s 1.2 miles of paved road and then a turn onto FS600-3 for another 1.3 miles to the next AS. David started to slow down while running on the paved road, where it had become dark. Rebecca got out her handheld torch light so we didn’t have to put on headlamps just yet. The handheld gave us all plenty of light to run on the smooth road, but David continued to fall back. Rebecca moved into her awesome crewing mode of trying to pull David out of his slump by giving him some food to eat. We knew he was continuing to struggle and he said he didn’t want to slow me down, so after turning onto the fire road Rebecca told me to keep going, get to the AS and we’d get me taken care of and then get David what he needed to turn him around. When we got there, I was feeling good and we waited as David sat down and my crew tried to assess what we could do for him. He didn’t look like he was feeling very well. I drank more broth and drank some Ginger Ale. I knew David had 10 miles to his crew and pacers, and I desperately wanted to see him get there. David urged me to keep going, and I suggested to Carrie and Lisa that we try and reach his pacers and have them come to this AS to help him. Leaving David after 45 miles together, not knowing how his race would end, was heartbreaking for me. The reality that your race can turn on you at a moment’s notice was hitting home for me. I was all too aware of the carnage that gets left on this course.
Rebecca led the way as we left Silent Trail AS and David behind, and onto 7 miles of very rocky technical trails. This was a very long stretch but it went pretty fast as now Rebecca and I had time to catch up with one another. She helped set a good moving pace for us, running the flats and downhill’s, hiking the climbs, trying to bank more time ahead of the cutoffs. We got into Hubbard Creek AS, mile 52 where I sat down for the first time. I had got some Coke and a chicken quesadilla and was sitting for a minute to eat while Rebecca filled my pack and grabbed some food for herself. There were lots of runners here and the aid station workers were eager to wait on us and get us what we needed. I drank another Coke and ate a lettuce wrap that was offered to me, as well. I quickly got to my feet so we could keep moving. I knew we didn’t have much time to waste and my never ending fear of timing out was kept me motivated. The next AS at Adams Gap was a short 3.2 miles away where we were updated that David’s crew and pacers had reached him and he was moving.
The section between Adams Gap and Clairmont Gap was the beginning of rough, rocky fire roads that started a beat down on my feet. This section of the course had been closed earlier in the week due to fires, and although they were under control, there was still lots of smoke. We reached Clairmont and kept going on to Chandler Springs, but still had to run a couple more miles on rough fire roads. Once we hit the single track trail again, we were able to keep moving at a good pace to get to mile 65. I felt a huge sense of relief getting to this aid station, because this was where we dropped last year. But even though I felt great and I was moving well, my angst about finishing wouldn’t go away. As I grabbed my poles for the climbs ahead, I had one last 3 mile stretch to go with Rebecca and hoped to bank a few more minutes against the cutoffs before she left me at Porters Gap AS. I drank more broth at Porters Gap, said goodbye to Rebecca, and Lisa jumped in to pace me for the climb to the Pinnacle AS and on towards Wormys Pulpit. Lisa and I both ate a little after our climb up to Pinnacle. She tried to get me to eat more, but I felt really good and while my stomach wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great, either. Looking back on it, I think my stomach was actually good but nerves and stress were getting the best of me. Lisa and I maintained a good hour plus lead on the cutoffs, but that didn’t help settle my nerves. I knew this race can take down lots of runners in the last few miles, so we kept pushing and moving. After leaving Wormys Pulpit we were on more rough fire roads, and my poor feet were feeling the pain. Just before leaving the ridgeline, the course finally got back on the trail. We ran what we could and dropped down into Bulls Gap where Lisa would jump out of pacing duty and I would pick up Carrie for the final 15 mile push.
Now I was feeling the pinch. Everyone at Bulls Gap was cheering on the runners and waiting for the last ones to come through for the last 15 miles, but I knew there was still no guarantee of finishing. Terry, who was crewing for Stephanie, assured me that I had 5 hours to go 15 miles, I had time, and I was going to finish. Carrie and I quickly left the aid station and we started down what I knew was 15 miles of almost all fire roads and then a final stretch of paved road to the finish. We started out running the initially smoother fire roads before I negotiated with her to allow me to power hike instead of run/walk. With each step, I was now struggling as my feet were in so much pain. We had all worked way too hard for me to get to this point and not find some redemption in finishing this race. Carrie helped me put my head down and get it done, while I tried not to complain, at least not too much, anyway. Once we finally got to the final few miles and the paved road, which is the most excited I have ever been to see paved road (if you know me at all, you know I hate running on roads), Carrie texted Lisa and let her know we were headed in. Lisa came out and met us, making the final mile and a half a celebration and victory lap for Team Unicorn as they guided me into the stadium towards the finish line.
This buckle took me 165 miles to get!
Team Unicorn’s Redemption, take that Pinhoti 100!
215 runners toed the start line, and 145 would cross the finish. David along with many others will be back for his buckle. Without the support of my team, Carrie, Lisa, and Rebecca, I never could have crossed the finish line. David and Stephanie got me through the first half of the course, setting a great pace for us and encouraging me along the way. Coach Sally guided me through my months of training to reach my goal. My best friend, greatest supporter, and partner in life, Ed took good care of my sweet Summer and son at home so I could go do my crazy. I couldn’t have done it without each of you. Thank you all.