MAY 22, 2018
This was my third attempt at this distance – the good news is that I ran more miles than I have ever run before on the hardest race course that I’ve ever tackled… the bad news is that I didn’t finish. So, please keep that in mind before reading on.
I ran 93 miles and was having a great race, then everything fell apart at once. I am a slower-paced runner (fastest pace is sub-8 min miles, average moderately challenging trail pace is 12:30 min miles on a very good day and not in the Massanutten mountains!), and I have completed dozens of ultras (mostly 50 milers), and more than a dozen marathons. In the 20 years that I’ve been running, I’ve acquired a lot of knowledge through reading, listening to podcasts and coaching. This is all background so if you have a somewhat similar experience level, hopefully my advice will be helpful to you.
For additional context, I trained for about 18 months to race 100 miles, about four months for this particular race. Since January, I ran more than 850 miles with a healthy mix of speed training, hill climbing, back-to-back long runs; comparable racing; strength training and cross training (swimming and biking). I also did yoga nearly everyday, including meditation, pranayama/breathing, restorative, yin and vinyasa.
I read every race report that I could find, and some I read twice. I ran just about every section of the course in the months leading up to the race, I became very familiar with the aid stations and cutoffs, and I asked for advice from my runners who have finished it in the past.
So, about MMT… The race organizers and support at this race are amazing. You don’t have to be a Virginia trail runner for them to welcome you with open arms and do everything that they can to help you get to that finish line. The organization from beginning to end was incredible. The training runs that they organize were extremely helpful, I highly recommend them if you are able to join.
One note of caution though, don’t get too caught up in preparing for the race by knowing the course. It’s only one element. I was stressing about the climbs and rocks, and my biggest challenge on race day was the flooding on the course after several days of rain.
While this was an unusually challenging year, I have heard from others that weather can affect this race as this time of year can be unpredictable in Virginia and these are serious mountains (although nothing like the mountains out west, and the elevation is not nearly as significant).
The rocks never bothered me, not even a little bit, on race day… yet, they overwhelmed me and challenged me during each of the training runs. Go figure. The climbs seemed to not be as significant on race day through about 70 miles of the race (can’t even explain why) and then they were suddenly daunting. Not sure how to explain that, or how I would have prepared differently, but again – go figure. I don’t think it was a lack of hill repeats, but rather exhaustion, dehydration and other issues that compounded the situation.
The main problem that I’ve experienced in my 100-mile attempts is trying to make the time cutoffs. Early in the race, I focus on my strategy to save time wherever I can – cruising through aid stations, taking advantage of the flat easy miles, and being consistent from mile to mile.
At MMT, I was coming in 90 min or so ahead of the cutoffs in the early miles, but because of the wet conditions we had to change my shoes and treat my feet four times, which ate up a lot of the time. At mile 78, one of the race organizers lanced and treated several of my blisters, which was mandatory because my feet were macerated. But I lost about 20 minutes, and then found myself struggling to make the time cutoffs. Late in the race, this pressure to make time cutoffs can be overwhelming to say the least.
Then there was a chain of events that led to me dropping at mile 93. Hydration hadn’t seemed like it was an issue, but the sun came up and it was suddenly humid. I was pounding water and electrolytes, but was already a bit depleted so was having a hard time compensating. Then I realized that I probably had not been taking in enough high-calorie foods since I was eating healthy and my stomach wasn’t giving me problems. But being calorie deplete with the other challenging factors thrown in was not a good combination.
Then I realized that my hydration pack was way too heavy based on all these other factors that I was struggling with so I asked a friend to make sure I wasn’t carrying extra weight. He said that he checked and I was mainly carrying water, which is clearly heavy.
When I got home, I realized that I had about four bags of food, a bag of first aid, lubricant, and a few bars that I could have dropped and saved myself a lot of unnecessary weight. So, lesson learned, check it yourself unless it’s your own crew.
There is a runner who always runs at the back of the pack and he’s known for consistently finishing just before the cutoff, so my goal was to try to keep up with him. My pacer was keeping me focused on trying my best not to lose sight of him, but the harder I tried to keep up with him, the further he slipped away. Lesson learned, run your own race and if it’s a truly desperate situation, let go of the time cutoff. If they let you finish past the cutoff, just focus on finishing and avoid the stress.
All of this led to me mentally snapping. I knew that this was normal in late stages of a race like this, but I had no idea how difficult it would be to pull myself out of it. I turned into a toddler, inconsolable and overwhelmed. I felt like my brain was having a spasm and didn’t know how to make it stop. I pulled myself back from the brink about four times, then had to have a rest. That’s when my shin locked up and became excruciatingly painful, I couldn’t put any weight on it or even move it. A sweeper had a couple ibuprofen and we waited for about two hours until it kicked in and I was able to stand and get myself off the trail. The sweeper even made me a crutch that he cut off from a tree branch and wrapped with a tee, it was amazing. As my pacer talked me through one of the darkest moments that I’ve ever experienced.
After my pacer was able to connect with folks (reception can be an issue in the area), I had six people help me make my way to the trail head, including one of the race organizers that I figured had about a million other things to do. So when I say this race is well-supported, believe it.
While the course seemed to be consistently challenging from beginning to end, those challenges are amplified late in the race because of many other factors (blisters, fatigue, dehydration, exhaustion, etc). Be prepared to accept that the trail changes throughout the entire course, but there is really no easy section that lasts for very long. It’s just a healthy mix of climbs, down hills, rocks, a few flats, winding/twisting trails, beautiful ridgelines and some sections that I don’t even have words to describe. You truly experience everything out there and this is part of the reason why it is so magical.
Everyone’s race is different, that’s part of what makes ultra running so special. You really never know what you are going to get out there. But it’s important to roll with the punches and run your own race.
It’s easy to fall in love with this race, and necessary in order to find the determination to persevere through so many miles.
Since VHTRC provides ample information and support, crew and pacers have everything they need to focus on their runner and chase them around all weekend. And the support of crew and pacers is immeasurable. Choosing your team based on what you know you will need is critical, and then communicating with them about everything and working together is all part of finding ways to endure. They pushed me through many rough moments and we problem solved together.
So many lessons available at this race, and so many ways to find your way to a victorious finish at MMT. While this wasn’t my year to finish, it was my year to run a great race that showed me that it will be possible for me to finish this distance in the future. It would not have been possible to do something this big without my crew, my pacers, my VHTRC trail family. Good luck and happy trails!
November 7, 2017
This is a great race – beautiful trails, wonderful people, amazing support. To be clear, I did not finish as I had to drop at mile 60 (although I ran 62!) due to an injury that would have prevented me from making the time cutoffs. But I learned a lot so it was a worthwhile experience.
Despite reading numerous race reports, listening to several podcasts and talking to runners who had completed Pinhoti, I could have been more prepared and want to be helpful to other runners who are planning to take this one on.
Before the race, I found that there were a lot of inconsistencies – the total elevation gain ranged from between 14k to 17k and runners used wildly divergent terms to describe the trail – everything from cakewalk to tough technical trail. The weather changed from thunderstorms and borderline cold to record high heat and humidity.
As with any race, I tried to hope for the best but expect the worst, which is the right approach for Pinhoti. Still, I have suggestions based on my experience.
The race briefing at packet pick-up was more than 45 minutes, and there may have been only one bit of important info relayed – the GPS coordinates for one of the aid stations was wrong. I didn’t see an email giving runners a heads up. I also heard that the aid stations were easy to find before the race, then heard from several folks that they had difficulty finding more than one aid station based on the directions.
The directions to the starting line were poor, we were lost for more than 30 minutes and saw several cars with ultra stickers driving around in circles as well. When we found the start, there were no volunteers directing traffic or signs pointing to where to go for the start. Give yourself ample time to deal with these challenges to reduce anxiety before you even start the race.
While I don’t know what the actual elevation gain is, you can expect a lot of climbing. Many of the hills I would have found runnable, but since this is a 100-miler I decided to walk just about every hill from the beginning.
Roller coaster trails for the first few miles make it hard to back off, but it is critical. I was surprised that the time cutoffs got more generous in later sections of the race, but setting a solid slow pace in the beginning is key. The race gets more technical and the climbs get tougher in the later stages, so saving yourself early on is key.
Bald rock was not as significant a climb as I expected, but I decided to fast walk/hustle this entire section and it made the climbing much easier (I highly recommend this approach if you have no concerns with the time cutoff). I am a slow runner and I was moving at a slow pace in the beginning (I averaged 15:30m/miles for the first 30 miles), so getting up Bald Rock by nightfall was very doable.
I would estimate that there were about 15 water crossings, and you can expect to get wet at about one-third. I knew I’d get wet so I brought numerous socks to change into, but once I got my feet wet at mile four (and then again and again over the next few miles), I figured it was pointless to change socks since I knew they’d just keep getting wet. Prepare for some blisters, and bring a blister kit and if possible, a crew that knows how to treat blisters.
Since I typically run in Virginia, I am accustomed to well-supported, well-organized races with excellent volunteers who have significant ultra running experience. Overall, the volunteers were great but it would have been helpful if someone had asked if I had a drop bag and helped me get it. At two aid stations, I neglected to get my drop bags, which affected my race.
Everyone is different, but I approach these races with equanimity and try to deal with every challenge and problem in a level-headed non-emotional way (I do not always succeed!). I took a very hard fall on a rock at mile 52, I was scraped up badly but didn’t realize that I had sustained an injury until mile 55. I ran another 5 miles to see if I could move at a fast enough pace to make the time cutoffs. When I realized that my knee was immobile and I couldn’t get enough speed to make the time cutoffs, I asked to drop. The volunteer told me to suck it up and deal with it. I told him that I had a pretty bad injury, and he kept telling me to press on and the race would get easier after mile 60. I ran another mile and turned around to go back to the aid station and drop. It would have been really helpful to have someone to talk through it with and try to problem solve, although I am still certain that I made the right decision. At the time, I was really wishing I had someone to talk to who could help me think through it.
After I dropped, I started to black out from dehydration and found that my knee was in such bad shape that I couldn’t walk on it. The volunteers were going back to the finish so they offered me a ride, but my crew was at mile 68 with no cell reception. One of the volunteers agreed to take me to them, but a word of caution about dropping – the RD also said that there was one AS (I don’t remember which one) that required runners to go back to another AS to get a ride, so think ahead in case you have to drop.
One critical mistake that I made was not bringing Gatorade, which I typically use for electrolyte replacement. An experienced runner told me at AS 2 to stay on top of my electrolytes since it was in the high 70s and humid, but the AS didn’t have Gatorade.
Before the race, I pulled up the list of food and drinks that they’d have at AS and Gatorade and coffee were listed. I didn’t see Gatorade until mile 52, and I never saw any coffee. My pacer said that she asked at mile 68 and they offered her instant but said that was all they had.
The RD was clear that the course was marked every 1/4 mile, which was true. But there were some sections that were pretty technical and there was some overgrowth, so it was hard to follow the markers in a few places. I lost the trail completely a couple times and waited for another runner so we could compare notes and we ultimately found our way after a few minutes of searching. I heard that there were a few runners who ran for two extra hours, lost. Pay attention and stop as soon as you realize that you are off trail. For the most part, I found that being on the trail meant that I was still on the race course, but a few sections were rough for a few feet, but the trail did pick back up so don’t wander off trail too long. There were nearly always runners in front of me and behind me (somewhat surprising for a 100-mile race, and again, I’m slow), so sticking with the pack is a good policy.
While the race organizers did not want to disclose how many runners drop, we heard a volunteer say that there were 81 drops at mile 60 based on a starting field of 253.
I would recommend this race to anyone who is prepared for a very challenging, tough trail race because the pluses by far outweighed the challenges. A 100-mile point-to-point race has major logistics, and the race organizers and volunteers were overall wonderful but it helps to go into races like this with eyes wide open aware of the potential pitfalls.
One other note, we had challenges getting around Alabama in general so choose your map app carefully, didn’t figure this one out by the time we left. The speed limits change frequently and there are police everywhere pulling drivers over, we were lucky but a heads up if you are not from Alabama.
Even though I did not finish, I am so glad that I took on this challenge and learned from the experience. Beautiful country and beautiful people in Alabama. I met so many amazing people on the trail, and helped quite a few runners who were struggling along the way who I thought would never be able to get to the next AS to drop, only to find them passing me 15 or 30 miles later, so inspiring. Several of my friends finished and I continue to be amazed by them. Good luck to everyone who takes on Pinhoti, don’t miss mruns podcasts and subscribe to the Facebook page, very helpful.
Devil Dog 100k
December 29, 2016
This was one big fat adventure of a race. Taking off pre-dawn to stand in a long line waiting to march across the ‘death bridge’ – a wooden bridge covered in thick ice. And the fun did not stop there; ice sheets and patches covered the majority of the trail on the first 23-mile loop. In effect, there were no easy giveaway miles to tick off, as-is typical of most ultra races.
But here’s the thing – I was not alone. Not then, not now, not ever.
I ran into old friends, good friends, new friends. We are all family on the trail. My quiet moments were quickly replaced by new opportunities to connect and expand my world.
I met (let’s-just-call-him-Sam): a former drug addict turned ultra trail runner with so many sex partners it made my head spin just hearing about his extracurricular activities. I met Joe: who was running his first 100-miler, we shared a strong conviction for our mutual race strategy of focusing on what is going right and problem solving to ameliorate what is going wrong and letting go of the rest. I met TJ: who had not really trained, but decided to go after 100k when his girlfriend signed him up for the race a month previously and called to tell him as he lounged on the couch. I met a trail angel from New Jersey who was scrapping his 100-mile attempt after the second loop (about 42 miles in) and let me share his headlamp to get me to the next aid station.
I met Mike: a runner who has been popping up in my races and training runs over the past few months and who inspires me, especially on this day as he fell down a steep embankment and stopped his fall with his trekking pole just before he fell into the water then bounced up as though he had just landed an impressive gymnastics routine. I met Ajani: who I connected with on Facebook after crossing paths with him during another race in which I was terribly lost and way off course, and we shared a few entertaining moments crawling across an ice-covered road on our hands and knees.
I met Kevin, my support crew who got me cleaned up and back on the trail in short order; and Daisy, my amazing pacer who kept me on track, made me giggle and pulled me the last 19.5 miles; my Wolfpack family and friends who inspired me with their 100-mile finishes and supported me and fist-bumped me throughout the day; Alex, who wasn’t the RD this time but always makes me feel as though I am coming home to the trail out at PWFP; and Bob Gaylord who was responsible for getting me home the next day, without him it would have been ugly; and my family for supporting me no matter how crazy the dream or how absurd the motivation.
But the greatest person I met on the trail was waiting for me at the end. As I approached the finish line in the darkest of nights a tiny voice called out, ‘Mommy,’ and I knew I was home.