2012 Pinhoti 100

In some ways, the 2012 Pinhoti 100 was one of Debbie’s “worst” races, and in some ways, it was one of her “best” races. In more than 40 ultras, she has never felt as bad as she did this past weekend. For a period of time, about 12 hours into the race, her body completely failed her, but her mental fortitude was never stronger. I want to make sure she has a chance to provide a race report in her own words, so I’ll merely share a bit of my perspective and then follow-up after her story is told.

It took a lot of visualization (mind games) and perseverance to get to the finish line after what she went through. I crewed for her from the start in Heflin through Aid Station 12, and then paced her for the final 35 miles and six aid stations until we reached the finish on the track at Sylacauga High School. I was very proud of her…very proud of her.

Apparently, this 100.59 mile fifth year classic was hard on a lot of runners. There were 192 starters and only 107 finishers. That is a high attrition rate, even by 100 mile standards. There is nothing easy about going that distance, and it was Debbie’s fourth 100 mile finish, and second this year, following July’s Vermont 100.

There were a lot of challenges thrown the runners’ way. It was a warm day (low-80’s Fahrenheit), with a cool start and cool night (low-50’s Fahrenheit). There was more than 16,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. The trail was technical, though not by New England standards. Still, it was hard enough.

Debbie was pumped up for this Montrail Cup event. As a Western States Endurance Run qualifier, it attracted a strong field of runners. It was her first time in Alabama, and the point to point course was billed as technical, challenging, and mostly singletrack. She enjoyed the course, but despite her troubles, she felt it wasn’t as hard as billed, which means it was “too easy” for her liking.

That may sound weird considering that she didn’t have a great race, but she really does do better when it is rocky, rooty, technical, and undulating with short by steep climbs. The footing on most of the Pinhoti Trail was good, which means it was relatively smooth. The hills were tough, with the climb of the Horn having 25+ switchbacks. There were a lot of pine needles on the trail, which made uphills slippery and downhills cushy. There seemed to be less singletrack and more dirt road than advertised. These dirt roads were very dusty, which was a significant annoyance for the runners and contributed to some respiratory challenges.

Mercifully, the extra dirt roads came late in the race, which combined with the three-mile asphalt finishing stretch, was a major factor in her recovery from her earlier issues. The race saw some monster performances, particularly from the women. Denise Bourassa crushed the course record with her 19:24:48 finish. She was fifth overall and spent much of the race in fourth place. 6th and 7th overall went to the second and third place women: Megan Hall in 20:16:19, and Melanie Fryar in 20:25:56. Bourassa was already a WS100 qualifier, so the two slots went to Hall and Fryar.

They outran some very talented men. Speaking of talented men, Jeremy Humphrey ran nearly 90 miles out front before ceding the lead and victory to Neal Gorman. Gorman finished in 17:06:53 after catching Humphrey late in the game. Humphrey still ran a fine 17:41:34. Third went to Yassine Diboun in 18:02:13. Gorman too, was already a qualifier for WS100, so the slots went to Humphrey and Diboun.

Debbie’s time was 23:25:10, good for fourth place woman and 20th overall. She didn’t think it would take that long. Last year’s Grindstone 100, a tougher course, was only 95 minutes longer for her. She was aiming for a time between 21 and 22 hours, and was on pace for 60 miles before she suffered her meltdown triggered by severe nausea and fatigue. When she left Clairmont Gap at 60.29 miles, after changing her socks, she was looking good and moving well. When I saw her five miles and nearly three hours later at Chandler Springs, the “wheels had come off.”

I had parked the rental car at the aid station and the plan was to run the final 35 miles with her. She was way late at arriving and many of the guys that she was leading passed her and arrived before her. I finally asked a pair of runners if they had seen her on the trail. They replied that she was “way back” and was “wandering.” I recall one runner gesturing with his hands to show the “not so straight” direction of her movements. That didn’t sound good. It sounded like she blew up and that it was going to be a long night.

I had been joined all day long by Sean Andrish, a fine ultrarunner from the Washington D.C. area. He has many top results and more than 100 ultras on his palmares. He was crewing/pacing for our friend, Kelly Wilson. Kelly was the sixth woman and had her own struggles but showed her own strength by gutting out a finish and earning a coveted belt buckle. Sean rode shotgun with me and pitched in while cheering on all of the runners that he knew, which were many.

At Chandler Springs, after waiting too long for Debbie to arrive, he and I went backwards on the course for a ways before he returned to the aid station. About a mile later, I intercepted Debbie, who was feeling miserable. Her stomach was not good, and she hadn’t been eating much, but we made it to the aid station.

Sean and I tried to get some food in her, but she couldn’t eat much. She was able to nibble on some raw ginger and ingest some ginger ale. We wrapped some bananas and oranges in foil, which I carried in my hands, and headed back onto the trail. Almost immediately, after trying to ingest an electrolyte capsule, her stomach went sour and the vomiting began. Her discomfort lasted for hours and reached its zenith at The Pinnacle following the longest climb on the course. It seemed like she wouldn’t be able to continue, but stopping never crossed her mind, nor did it enter my mind.

We have enough experience with these races to know that no matter how bad you feel, you almost always can forge ahead. I offered her as much support as possible, but this was new territory. We tried several food combinations but she didn’t want to put anything in her stomach. It was terribly upset. We were upset. It was an emotional situation. She was able to suck some salt off a pretzel stick, eat some potato, drink some cola, and chew gummy bears. The small amount of calories and some time permitted her to improve after about five hours of intense suffering at a very slow pace.

It took the two of us more than nine hours to cover 35 miles (as shown by my GPS data), though the final four were much better than the first five. Like I said, there was less trail and more road in the last part of the race, so she was able to lift her pace nicely and rally to the finish. I was sad that she experienced such a rough patch between mile 60 and mile 85, but I was ecstatic that she was able to remain focused and power her way to the finish. Her meltdown was reminiscent of my own colossal collapse during our 2011 one day White Mountain Hut Traverse. On that day, she helped me get to the finish. She says I was in worse shape than she was this past weekend. Ouch, she can be competitive, even within our family!

We had a gorgeous night and despite how she felt, she really enjoyed the time outside. It was crystal clear and the stars were spectacular. Our wildlife encounters were sort of fun. There were thousands and thousands of spiders in the woods. Our headlights shown on their glinting eyes. It was sp0oky but cool. I was dive bombed by an owl, we saw many bats, and heard the occasional coyote in the distance.

The aid station volunteers were very nice and very helpful. I regretted showing my impatience with some of them, but they were good spirited. Any issues were related to the available food and drink, and that wasn’t there fault. The aid station food was not vegetarian/vegan friendly at all. All of the soups had significant amounts of meat in them (ham, turkey, chicken, etc.), which limited options for some runners, including Debbie. I even struggled to get plain old hot water so that we could mix our own miso soup, which I brought along.

There was no hot water, but at least one station featured deep-fried turkey. We weren’t used to this fare. I share her disappointment in the limited options and we will offer suggestions for next year. In the end, we should have anticipated this and prepared better. There was a great vibe to this race. Sean and I had a blast cheering on the runners, taking photos, and spending time with the crews/families of the runners. The Pinhoti National Recreation Trail is a fine trail and gets a lot of love from the Pinhoti Trail Alliance.

Point to point courses are tough, but fun to crew. I did it earlier this year and last year at Laurel Highlands Ultra with our kids in tow, and it was enjoyable, but hard. I wanted to pace Debbie at Pinhoti, so our kids stayed home with their grandparents, which was nice for everyone involved. There was a fair amount of traffic along the course, particularly at the early aid stations. This made the dust situation even worse. There were a lot of leaf peeping Alabamans cruising the Talladega Scenic Byway and this was very evident at Cheaha State Park where it was gridlock.

Cheaha was the site of a major aid station and also the highest point in Alabama, thus the highest point on the course. There was a lot of traffic in the park. The race production was quite different from what we are used to for major ultras. It was run with a low key flair. There were no port-o-potties at aid stations.There were no course marshals directing traffic or guarding road crossings. Volunteers were concentrated at the aid stations only.

Glancing at the results, you can see that runners came from all over the country, which is pretty cool. We connected with several guys from New England, which was cool. Anthony Parillo and Adam Stepanovic, and their crew/pacer, Alexander Hayman, really cracked us up. They were fun to hang with.

After my Javelina Jundred run with Catra Corbett two weeks ago, and this run with Debbie, I’m feeling like a “pacer to the stars.”

Race Results

Race Photos

11/13/2012 Update: Added Debbie’s race report

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