Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pinhoti 100

Photo by David Ray

As most of you know, I started this journey about a year ago with my desire to run my first 100 mile race. I had decided on the Angeles Crest 100 miler due to the fact that I had crewed some friends of mine on that race. Due to the fires in CA in August of this year, sections of the AC100 were burned and the race was cancelled. I posted my disappointment on FaceBook and was immediately directed by a number of ultrarunner friends to sign up for the Pinhoti 100 in AL.

Here is a description of the course from the website:

The 2nd Annual Pinhoti 100 is a Point to Point Trail run starting in Heflin AL on the unmolested Pinhoti single track trail. Runners will make their way over the highest point in Alabama while navigating over rocks, through creeks and across beautiful ridge lines of the Talladega National Forest. The course will consist of 80.62 miles of single track trail, 16.98 miles of jeep road and 4.52 miles of pavement and will finish on the rubberized track in the Sylacauga High School Football Stadium.

With it being so close to Atlanta, and giving me 2 more months of training, it just seemed like the logical choice. After signing up, I started doing my research on the course to see what I had gotten myself into. I started reading others reports on it that had ran it the first year. I started learning of places like “Blue Hell” and descriptions of the course being everything from sections of pine needle pillows to rock and root tripping snipers. So, I knew that I was in for a good time on this course.

Three weeks before the race I started my taper. I had been running 60+ miles a week for the previous 4-5 months, and sometimes worked some 100 miles weeks in there just to see how my body would react to that much distance. My taper was 30 miles, then 20, then the week of the race, I would only do 10 easy miles. One aspect that I had not experience is how your body gets so use to all those miles and then the antsy-ness someone can get from not running. I was given some good direction from my running coach\friend, Victor Zamudio, to use this time and rest up and take that desire and nervousness energy and let it build a fire inside for the race. I think this worked very well for me.

Race week finally gets here and Thursday night I get a nice surprise. My mother-in-law Patricia “Mimi” Nancoo flies in from FL to come support me in this crazy adventure. My first thought that I asked her was did she know what she had signed up for! I knew the forecast called for the temperature to be in the upper 30’s the night of the race and know that people from southern FL put on a jacket when it hits 70 outside! She assured me that she would be fine and was here for me.

Also, my running buddy Patrick Ackley, flew in from Seattle to run/crew me. Pat and I had run 35 miles of the AC100 together. I knew having him there with me through some of the tuff times would be helpful. I have watched him on more than one occasion be sick, vomiting, and continue putting one foot in front of the other. A true testament of the mental fortitude he and other ultra runners can have.

We head down early Friday afternoon to Sylacauga, to the finish area to stay and go to the race meeting at 5:30. I thought that it be best to stay at the finish area that way if anyone of my crew needed to sleep during the night, we would be that much closer to where I was in the race than the start. Dave Grant and I go on to the meeting, while my wife and her mother went out to get something to eat. Victor, Pat, and Vladimir (a buddy of mine from Atlanta) had decided to carpool with Lane Vogel and Christian Griffith and had come down after the meeting. After eating and sorting out my gear, Crew Boss Victor orders me off to get some sleep.

Here is a pre-race video Pat shot:

I slept the best to be expected the night before my biggest race. I think I got to sleep about 9 and woke up around 2:30. We had planned on being up at 3 a.m. to get ready and drive back up to the start. The drive took us about an hour and 40 minutes to get the Pine Glenn Campground. We show up with about 25 minutes before the start. It is pretty cool that morning in the upper 30’s I believe. It gets to be nearly 6am and we start to realize that the bus that some of the other runner took to get to the start has not arrived yet. It shows up a few minutes later and we are directed down this dirt road to the “start line,” a white line drawn across the road. I love the informal setup of some ultra races! Todd Henderson, the race director, says a few words and then we are off.

I purposely put myself in the back end of the group. I was taking the advice that Krissy Moehl had given me at the Stump Jump in October, to start off slow, slower than even I thought I should go, just a nice easy pace and to eat as much as I could handle early on in the race. I also knew that 100 yards from the start line the race enter a single track portion that would jam all of us up for a while till we thinned out over the next couple of aid stations. I had met Lane Vogel the night before and ended up near him in the back of the pack. He also seem to have the same idea of starting off very slow. Also, for all of you that thought I am crazy for running 100 miles, this was Lane’s 2nd 100 miler, the first one being the weekend before Pinhoti!!! Back to back weekends of 100 mile races, amazing!

I still had the fear or the thoughts of not really wanting to do this run, but not as bad as I had experienced at White River. I think having all my family and friends there and having some friends running with me greatly helped me out. Obviously, I had a long time to think about this during the run and believe that I discovered that I was afraid of failure. Everyone of us ask the same question, “Can I really do this,” whether it be about running or another aspect of life. But this time it was different. I had my crew and believed in their ability to push me through this race if it came to that.

I continued running with some GUTS member, Lane, Tony Gonzalez and Christian Griffith. We were chatting away so much that at one point I heard someone, Lane, I think, apologize to the other runners around us because of our talking so much. I think we talk the whole way of 6.7 miles to the first aid station. We continued on to the next aid station and then we started thinning out a bit.

From all the great advice that I had received from Mike Consentino, Jon Obst, and Spurgeon Hendrick, I knew that I need to focus on getting to Cheaha State Park, the highest point in AL, before dark so that I could descend Blue Hell in the daylight. With this in mind I had decided to keep an easier pace till aid station #3, just over 18 miles into the race. I remember coming across a section of trail that Spurgeon had spoke of in his report about Pinhoti where you can see Mount Cheaha way off in the distance and it is humbling because that is not even the half way point!

At about 20 miles into the run I can start to feel my lower back start to tighten up just a bit. I am not sure if some of you know, but I had my L4 disk rupture over 10 years ago and had to have back surgery. My lower back was one of my biggest concerned that would come into play in this distance. I have tried to learn the lesson in ultra running that you have to address issues early, if not, you can get yourself into trouble quickly. I roll into aid station #4 and ask Victor to stretch me out. This was one of the best preventive things I did during this race. I got up from him stretching me with no pain and really feeling like I hadn’t run the first 20 miles.

I continued running with Lane Vogel for good portion of this section. I really appreciate Lane being there and I used him as a gauge of sorts. I knew that if I could keep up with him I would be able to get to the top of Mount Cheaha with plenty of daylight to spare. We continue on the single track of the Pinhoti trail, weaving in and out of valleys, up and down hills. At some point we got separated and I just continued toward the goal of getting up Mount Cheaha. I got aid station #6 and must have looked at my watch wrong or something, but I got it in my head that if I didn’t push it even faster through the next section I wasn’t going to make it to Blue Hell before dust and this section is a lot of uphill due to climbing the mountain. I know I must have looked like an idiot power walking as fast as I can and giving it my all. When you get to the top of Mount Cheaha, you have to take a wooden bridge for about ¾ of a mile before you get to the aid station. I am pumped up at this point so much that when I see Pat with his video camera I just want him to put it up and we get to running. I show up at the aid station #7 and I am so pumped up I can’t stop talking! I am just this babbling goof that wants to pick up my pacer and go. I haven’t even realized that it is around 4 pm and I have another hour and half of daylight! I am told to take a seat and then instructed by my entire crew that I am not allowed to do math for the rest of the race!

After changing shirts and eating a hot dog, Pat and I are off to Blue Hell and beyond. Blue Hell is a pretty crazy section. It is not even a trail, it’s just rock hoping and more than once you are going down 3 or more feet at a time. If I understand it correctly, you drop around a 1000 feet in ½ a mile in Blue Hell. Pat did a great job of reminding me that we did not need to have handheld bottles so that your hands are free to grab onto rock, trees, or whatever you need to get through there. It is so nice to have someone there at that point to talk to and keep you going. Pat is talking to me and telling me how great I am doing. That is one thing you have to know and agree to as being someone pacer, bold face LIE to them if you have to for them to keep going! I don’t think he was lying to me per se and it seemed to really start pumping me up.

We continue to click off the miles and just work it aid station to aid station. I can’t remember what aid station is was, but Tony Gonzalez’s crew had fixed him a grilled cheese sandwich. He only wanted half of it and asked Tom Wilson to hand me the other half. I don’t know what was in it besides cheese and bread, but it was like crack to me! I started feeling good and wanted to pick up the pace with 60 miles on my legs! Wow, it was fantastic! Tony and Tom thank you so much!

Somewhere in the next aid station or so my crew had brought steaks and had cooked them up. They asked me if I wanted one. I was like HECK YEAH! I had down that thing before you know it. I wished I would have taken Pat’s idea and made me a Dorito steak sandwich! That steak just seemed to be the right thing to keep me on the up swing from the grilled cheese sandwich.

I think by the next aid station it was Pat’s time to take a rest and my buddy David Grant to pick up the pacing role. David is rookie to ultra running and had just run his first marathon and 50K this year, but I knew that he was up to the task of pacing me. From picking up Dave as pacer it all seems like a blur till we started the climb to the Pinnacle Aid station. I had heard people talk about this climb as pretty difficult, especially after having 70+ miles on your legs. It was the most uphill section of the course that I can remember. It did seem like it went on for a couple of miles. I remember Dave trying to be positive with me making a statement that all the stairs workouts that we did during training would pay off in this section. He was right. Through that whole section I didn’t stop moving forward once. We start to get close to the Pinnacle and hear welcomed sounds of David Ray hollering at us. To me it always puts a little pep in the step when you know that you are near an aid station, especially when it is manned by friends. David is down the hill waiting for runners coming up and taking their orders for sandwiches the station is making. All I heard was egg sandwich and said “YES SIR!” I know that everyone that made it to that aid station was glad to see those folks. I down the egg sandwich and hit the trail.

Through the next sections I know that it had some beautiful views. I would love to visit those sections in the daylight. Dave and I kept noticing the lights from cities in the surrounding area. No clue what city it was, but it was very nice. We start hearing music from a far distance below us. Again the pep in the step happens, but it was a little early. Ended up realizing that we were hearing the music from around a mile and half of downhill switchbacks! It was the Bulls Gap station. The volunteers were nice enough to climb up that hill and had made poster boards of 1 mile and half mile to go. I can’t say it enough, the volunteers at this race were OUTSTANDING!

If I have my thoughts straight, remember I wasn’t allow to do math the rest of the race, I got to Bulls Gap station, 85.63 miles in and I had enough time to walk the last 15 miles and finish before the cutoff. This was good feeling because short of a total unforeseen issue developing, I should be able to finish. In some ways a weight was lifted, but I also knew that I had been running pretty good for this long and really wanted to give it my all and get my best time. Victor had told me that this was the race that I had been training for and I need to lay it all out for this one, don’t hold back.

So at this point I pick up Senor Victor for my last pacer to the finish. I thought that this would be appropriate since he has been coaching/training with me for the past year. Plus, I know this former Marine wouldn’t put up with me wimping out for this last section, but honestly I didn’t want to get to a place that he would have to break bad on me. I had started getting a whiff of “the barn.” A term that some ultra runners have picked up describing the sense of knowing the finish line is coming closer and the desire to finish up the race. Those last aid stations couldn’t get there fast enough!

This last section ended up being mostly dirt road. From Bulls Gap station to Rocky Mt Church station, the only way for your crew to get there is to drive the same road the runner is on. I had already left Bulls Gap with Victor and next thing I know we hear cars coming and it is my crew. They pull up beside us someone yells out of the car “run faster!” I could not have asked for a better crew for this race. They were never, ever negative with me at all and took care of me completely.

Vic and I finally get to the last aid station. For some reason one of the volunteers decided to bring in a little Crown Royal and Coke. In true form, Vic is the first person to take them up on the alcoholic beverage. I just wanted some more water, a few potato chips and I am out of there. Shortly after leaving that last aid station we come up on a runner running alone. It is Dan Brenden, 58, from AZ. From what I am understanding, finishing the Pinhoti 100 was Dan’s 15th 100 miler FOR 2009! WOW! Also, when Dan crosses the finish line, for the last 50 or so feet, he carries his wife over the finish line in his arms! Dan, you are the MAN!

So Vic and I speak to Dan briefly, but I can fully smell the barn now and just want to finish this thing. Well, if the course hadn’t been tough enough, the last 4 or so miles are on asphalt! Todd Henderson, the race director, is one sick joker! At least I had known about it and when I had picked up Vic I had changed into some basically new street shoe to try to have the added cushion on my feet. Vic had informed me that my wonderful wife, Rhonda, had arranged for everyone of the crew and even my 8 yrs old daughter to be there. Her uncle Eric had gotten up that morning about 5 am and had driven her down to the finish line from ATL. That road seemed like it would never end and I even had some false hope of being done, but it was the football field of the junior high school.

I keep going down through there the best I can, running when I could, walking when I had to. I keep following the trail markers and come around a corner and see the stadium of the high school. I cannot describe that feeling. It is almost overwhelming, to say the least. I enter the one side of the stadium and greeted with “DADDY!!!” Grace was in the football field waiting on me to get there. I motioned her over and ask her to help me get to the finish line. Even as I am writing this, I relive the moment and it is indescribable. 26 Hours, 14 Minutes. This event was truly a gift from God for me.

My most energetic pacer!

I have purposely taken a few days to try to process the whole event before writing this report. One question that seems to been asked of me this past week, “what did you learn from this event?”

Below is part of what I learned:

1. You have to eat all the time in a hundo. Pat was nice enough to let me borrow a watch that beeped at me every 30 minutes. Believe me, I got to a point of hating that thing earlier in the race, but it turned into a true help and I do attribute some of my success in this race to that 30 minute eating schedule.

2. Your crew is very vital to your success. I do know that some of the runners of this race ran without pacers the whole time, and my hats off to them. In my mind, anytime a race allows you a pacer, I am going to have one. Also, your crew has to be positive with you all the time. They have to keep you going, even if you want to give up, because giving up at some point most likely will cross your mind.

3. Victor had taught me that in a hundo you are going to suffer, how you suffer and how much is up to you. You can train well and suffer a little at a time during the training and prepare yourself or you can train less and depending on your pain tolerance just hopefully push through it. I am the type of person that prefers to be more than ready if at all possible. I think that I trained hard and it paid off for me in this race.

4. Visualization: During my taper Pat was gracious enough to put up with my nervous phone calls about the race. He told me to think about the race. See myself running down the trail, relaxed, in good form, and full of energy. I did do that to the best of my ability and was surprised that I found myself feeling that way at different times in the race. The body will follow where the mind takes it.

I can’t thank everyone enough. Todd Henderson, all the Pinhoti volunteers, and all my GUTS peeps were just wonderful out there. I have never been so proud to be a part of such a wonderful community as the ultra world in this event.

To my crew:

Mimi: I know you didn’t have a single clue what you were getting into but you were a real trooper! Thank you so much for supporting me.

Vlad: Thank you for helping me out. I promise that I will leave all the math up to you next time, Mr. CPA! ☺

Dave: It has been amazing watching you grow as a runner. I know that I could not have done so well if it hadn’t been for all the runs at lunch where you pushed me just a little faster. Thank you little brother!

Pat: One of the toughest men I know. Brother, it was good to run with you! Thanks for all the talks, lessons, and encouragement. One of us has got to sign up for another hundo in 2010 just so we can run together!

Vic: I can’t thank you enough for all the training runs, coaching, and friendship through this whole journey. You have been a true brother through this and I will never forget it.

Rhonda and Grace: Thank you for putting up with craziness of the days spent in the woods away from you two. Thank you believing in me when I doubted myself. You guys were always there supporting me and I will always love you for it!


  1. Great race report Phil and congratulations again on your fine finish. It was an honor to be there and watch it happen.

  2. Excellent report on a great race! You really looked great when you finished. Congrats!

    Now what's next? :)

  3. Phil,

    Awesome, man! That was an incredible run! Proud of you.