Running up, over and through the cogs

Talladega Night: The 2014 Pinhoti 100 Mile Endurance Run Race Report

Pinhoti 100 map

When my running renaissance took form in early 2010, the allure of the ultra run pulled on my conscience like no other physical challenge. At the time, finishing a half marathon was enough to exhaust me, but I knew that if I just stuck with the training and applied the lessons learned during each phase of my distance development, someday, maybe I, too, would cross a 100 mile finish line.

Saturday, November 1, 2014
4:30 a.m.

It’s dark. It’s cold. I’m in the back of my car, eyes shut, huddled close to Edna for warmth. My dad is driving and my friend, Siamak, rides shotgun as the four of us make our way from Sylacauga, Alabama, where the race will eventually end, to middle-of-nowhere Heflin, quaintly dropped in the heart of the Talladega forest, where the race is to start.

It’s a 90 minute drive, which translates to 90 minutes of mental unrest. My mind is racing before my legs even get a chance, full of doubt, full of wonder.

What the hell have you gotten yourself into, Jeff?

This familiar pre-race phrase attacks at will. Each time I do my best to let it go.

This is exactly what I want to do, I remind myself. This is the adventure I’ve been looking for.

I’m right about that. The years of slow build-ups, from 5ks to half marathons to marathons to 50 milers is over. My first hundo is on the doorstep. Time to let it in.

6:00 a.m.

My half conscious battle with my own thoughts is interrupted by the intimidating shake and rattle of the gravel road beneath us. We have entered the official forest grounds, and as we slowly navigate the twists and turns of sharp climbs and descents, my stomach begins to churn.

Nerves. It’s just nerves. Chill out, man. Once this thing starts you’ll have 30 hours to wrestle with your nerves.

6:30 a.m.

Finally at our destination, parked alongside a small army of vehicles housing anxious adventurers, I open the door only to shut it again immediately. “Wow, it’s cold,” I say. “And windy!”

The wind is going to be an issue today. So is the cold. It’s Alabama. I didn’t think it got cold here.

WRONG.

The temps right now are in the 30s, with winds swirling at 20-30 mph. Luckily, I came prepared, with lots of warm clothes and an organized system for my crew to help me find things as quickly as possible.

As we make the half mile trek down to the start line, the sun begins to rise and nervous energy fills me. I look around at my crew: Edna, Dad, Siamak.

Man, am I lucky, or what?

I couldn’t ask for better group of people to help me along on this journey. With over 17 years of experience in ultras, Edna knows every up and down possible and how to handle each one. As one of the toughest and smartest guys I know, Siamak as my pacer is like having Tiger Woods as my caddy. In fact, I know all I have to do today is get to mile 55, where Siamak will start pacing, and I’ll will get that buckle I came here to get. And my Dad… well, who knows me any better than he? He’s been at all my other firsts (first 5k, first half, first full, first 50). I can’t imagine breaking my hundred mile cherry without his company.

Today, the four of us run as ONE. On my legs, of course.

We reach the start line and I embrace the adventure at hand. I give final hugs and farewells, excited to test my physical body like it’s never been tested before.

Jeff and Edna Pinhoti 100 2014

With Edna at the start line.

And then:

BAM! We’re off!

Miles 0 – 6.7

Slow, slow, slow, slow.

Today I will run slow.

I will run for a VERY VERY VERY LONG TIME, but it will be slow. This puts me at the back of the pack from the very beginning, and as we enter on to the first of what will be 80-some miles of single track, I have no problem with people flying by me as if we were out for a quick tempo run. More power to ’em, I think.

My race strategy is to run the flats and downhills at a comfortable pace and walk each and every incline, no matter how slight. With over 14,000 feet of climbing and 28,000 feet elevation change overall, there will obviously be plenty of places to walk and lower my heart rate. I suspect there will be a point where I’ll be wanting incline, so I have an excuse to slow down even more.

Here in the beginning too, I try to focus on just keeping a constant rhythm to my breath, staying connected to the present moment. Meditation has long been a key training component for me, and its importance has never been greater than it will be today. Thinking about how far I have yet to go would just kill my brain, and thus send me into negative space — a place I cannot afford to be. Focusing on the NOW, for me, is the best way to avoid such peril.

And the NOW is so full of beauty, so full of life! Just look at this goregous forest! The fall colors of red, yellow and brown fill an otherwise green backdrop that, with each breath, sends me to a happy place knowing I, too, am a part of this grandness.

How lucky am I?

SNAP! THWACK!

Ouch, shit!

These same beautifully colored leaves blanketing the ground also hide insidious roots and rocks that lie beneath. In the first 6+ miles, it is already apparent that I am not going to win the battle against them. All I can do — SHIT! OUCH! DAMN IT! — is tread lightly and keep my toes/ankles/arches together the best I — DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — can.

“HOLA, PAPI!” I hear from up the trail, followed by excited clapping. It’s Edna — my dear, sweet Edna. She is heavily wrapped in coats and blankets to ward off the cold, but the temperature hasn’t cooled off her spirit as she gleefully cheers me in to the first aid station.

I smile big, give her a hug, ditch my jacket (I’m getting warm now myself), chug some Pedialyte and try to get some calories in me. Today’s fueling plan is, like always, the see-food diet: eat whatever looks good at any given time. I also make sure to eat at every aid station and to take a little with me in a ziploc baggie that I put in my pack for the trail. I’m wearing my trusty 50 oz Salomon S-Lab 5 hydration pack that I keep filled with water and plenty of goodies in the pockets, like trail mix, Ginger Chews and Ibuprofen. My crew has Pedialyte for me at every crew-accesible aid station. I make sure to chug this as opposed to the race offered Heed.

(Off topic, but can we all just scratch our heads for a moment as to why so many ultra races offer Heed at their events? No offense to Hammer products, as I do like some of their gels, but have the makers of Heed ever tried Heed? To me, it tastes like flat, chalk-flavored drink spiked with Aspertame.)

I try not to waste too much time at the aid station, a theme I aim to carry over the whole race. A quick kiss “adios” and I’m back on the trail.

Miles 6.57 – 13.27

Energized from seeing my crew, I get back into a running groove. For the first time today I look down at my watch to see how much time has passed. An hour and forty-five minutes!?!? Wowsers!

Time DOES fly when you’re having fun! It seems like the race just started; and relatively speaking, that is a true statement, but the fact that nearly two hours have gone by without me even realizing it, is a very good sign. It proves that the meditative mind is working. I’m in the moment.

Pinhoti 100 elevation profile

In this particular moment I feel there are a lot of rolling hills early on. While I did glance at the elevation profile and aid station chart pre-race, I didn’t commit much of it to memory because doing so would only intimidate and haunt me. I know there is a big climb before mile 40 and another killer climb around mile 70, but other than that, I’m just going with the proverbial flow.

And the flow is good, because before I — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — know it, I’m approaching another trail head and hear “HOLA PAPI!” from a smiling, cheering Edna.

This melts my heart, man. Every single time. How lucky am I!?

I eat and chug Pedialyte while Siamak fills my pack with more water. The crew is attentive and supportive, careful not to ask me “How do you feel?”, a question that anyone in an ultra already knows the answer to. While it may be early enough in the race still to not yet feel like absolute shit, we are fast approaching the 15 mile mark, a point where no matter what the race, I no longer feel fresh and ache-free.

My hips have been aching a little more than usual here to start the race, but I keep it to myself, expecting the feeling will go away. Besides, I have already tripped and stubbed my toes on unsuspecting rocks about fifty times, so the throbbing in my lower extremities does well to hide any aches above the knees.

Shoal Creek Pinhoti 100 2014

Miles 13.27 – 18.27

Back out on the trail, I chat a little bit with Burt from Louisiana. He is running behind me the whole time, so I don’t get a good look at his face, but we pass the next five miles by chatting about ultras we’ve run and how hard this one is compared to the rest.

During our conversation, the first one I’ve had all day with any other participants, the ache in my hips magically disappears while — DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! FUUUUUUUUUCK — I keep stubbing my toes like it was my one and only goal. The trail gods were smart to hide their deviousness underneath the beauty of colorful leaves.

Miles 18.27 – 22.71

“HOLA PAPI!!!” I hear for the third time, each one more pleasurable than the next. I stride in to Aid Station #3 knowing this will be the last time I will see my crew until I reach the top of Bald Rock at mile 41. I chug more Pedialyte, eat and relay to the crew that all systems are go. (I don’t mention the toe stubbing and ankle rolling party to them, as they appear to be having a good time. Besides, we made a pact prior: no negativity.)

Edna fills a Ziploc baggie for me with enough trail mix to feed all the runners! I consider having her dump half of it out, but in my haste, I just shove the big bag in my pack and vow to carry on. I give everyone a big hug — all this in-the-moment-mind-body-focus is making me quite the emotional sap — and Dad snaps a quick picture of the four of us before I head back out on the trail.

Jeff and crew Pinhoti 100 2014

I quickly get myself back into a groove, something that becomes easier and easier as the race goes on. Other than those five miles with Burt, I’ve been running solo throughout; and since this is a point-to-point race I suspect there will be many more miles alone before the day is through.

Thinking about this, a group of three 20-something runners from Cleveland catch up to me. I offer them a chance to pass, but they like my pace and tuck in behind. I spend the next several miles listening to their hilarious banter, a welcome distraction from the — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — that continues to terrorize my feet.

Miles 22.71 – 27.66

Aid Station #4 has two things I’ve never seen at an aid station before: Krispy Kreme donuts and Maker’s Mark whiskey. All things in moderation, I say, but I only have enough room for one guilty pleasure today. I devour the rich, fatty donuts and watch on curiously as the 20-somethings from Cleveland gleefully shoot Maker’s like it was a handheld of Gatorade.

Downing Maker’s Mark 22 miles into a hundred mile race? Now THAT is ballsy, I think to myself.

Back out on the trail, I again lead the way while eavesdropping on the youngsters’ conversation, every now and then adding my own chuckle or DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT!

Miles 27.66 – 35.16

At Aid Station #5 I stuff my face with all kinds of food: cookies, chips, peanut butter and jelly. Like usual, I’m starving, but the trail mix in my pockets just doesn’t sound appealing right now, so I do what I can to fill up here.

In doing so, I take a little more time than I’d hoped, and the youngsters from Cleveland kick off down the trail ahead of me. I follow a few minutes later but they are too fast and I don’t have any hopes of catching them.

Running solo it is.

Just me… and this grand… grand forest and all the beauty it has within it. My senses are on uber alert.

I feel the cold air on my skin like an end-swell on my slowly deteriorating body. My eyes sharpen on the lush, vibrant, varying colors. The fresh scent of dirt, grass and breeze fill my nose. The rubbery aftertaste of water from my hydration bladder sits on my tongue. The cool, incessant wind whispers in my ears.

For 7.5 miles I take inventory of these senses and — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — give thanks to the running gods that I have the physical ability to be in a place where I can appreciate them all.

Miles 35.16 – 40.94

After such a long stretch without aid, I reach Aid Station #6 expecting to find a bounty of high calorie options to fuel what many would consider the hardest climb of the day: a 1600 foot ascent up to 2400 feet at Bald Rock, the highest point in Alabama.

Instead, what I find is a lone aid station volunteer with some water and a few packets of Hammer gels. There is nothing else.

“Isn’t there any food?” I ask, fearful of what I already expect is his answer.

“We ran out of food, I’m afraid,” he says. “I do have a couple of gels here if you want.”

“Um….”

I’m speechless. No food? It’s been 7.5 miles since the last aid station, with another 6 or so to go up a huge climb and there’s no food? What the — ???

Out of the corner of my eye I see half loaf of bread, sadly sitting idle on the ground. I grab a couple slices out of the bag and go on my way, trying not to think about how I might die of starvation trying to get up the top of this climb.

No negativity, no negativity, no negativity…

But… how does a race like this run out of food??? How can I go on with —

DING — A mental light bulb goes off.

Trail mix. Fucking trail mix. Thank the running gods that Edna gave me all that damn trail mix! YEEEEE HAAAAA!!! I got it! I got this thing! Yes!

The only thing that distracts me from my newfound excitement is the occassional SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT!, an issue that apparently isn’t going away anytime soon. I don’t even care anymore. I just want to get up to the top of this mountain and see what all the fuss is about. Having run this race himself in 2012, Siamak told me that the view at the top of Bald Rock is breathtaking, well worth the laborious effort to get there.

I focus on that while keeping my head down so I don’t have to look at how far up I have yet to go.

Up, up, up…

Up, up, up…

A few false summits… followed by some strategic trail mix breaks…

Up, up, up…

Hm…. this is going to last forever it seems… until…

“Hey, Jeff! You made it!”

It’s Siamak! I don’t know who’s happier to see whom, but we’re both wearing million dollar smiles.

“Hey, real quick, check out the view, man. This is so worth it.” He guides me to the vista I’ve been waiting for and my goodness, does it ever take my breath away!

top of bald rock pinhoti 100 2014

WOW! I climbed up here! I did this! I am doing this!

“Okay, I’m going to run up ahead and to tell Edna and your dad that you’re here. We have some great stuff for you from Panera: hot macaroni and cheese, a turkey and bacon sandwhich, a rich chocolate brownie.”

Holy shit my head is going to explode. Hearing those food items roll of his tongue makes me want to cry from immense joy. He takes off and I labor on behind him, giving chase the best I can. My run is still a respectable pace. I’ve been running smart all day. Fueling, drinking. 15 more miles and I’ll have Siamak to take me the rest of the way.

Confidence swells.

And then I hear it: “HOLA PAPI!!!!”

Oh my goodness there she is! “Ednita! Mi amor!” I yell back.

“Ven, mi amor, tenemos macaroni and cheese.”

This girl certainly knows how to make me happy.

Miles 40.94 – 45.25

We get to the aid station #7 and for the first time all day I sit down in a chair and relax a little bit while stuffing my face with HOT FOOD! MMMMMM!! YUMMMMM!

In between shivery bites (the temp is dropping and the wind is swirling up here), I relay the story of the foodless aid station to my crew and mention how that trail mix saved my life.

“Well, that explains why so many people look so bad up here then,” says my dad.

Poor Dad. He’s freezing. Sometimes crewing can be harder than the actual running. Standing around and waiting all day in poor conditions for a (sometimes) cranky runner can be hard work. I try to smile and actively refrain from cranky behavior, as much as possible. After all, I’m feeling relatively AWESOME and I’m having a fucking blast.

“This is real adventure!” I say.

Siamak hands me my headlamp and reminds me to hurry up so I can make the descent before sun down. We are losing sunlight quickly, and the next four miles are a very technical, treacherous, rocky plight down the mountain. Warmed from the hot food and the love from my crew, I grab a jacket and get on down the road.

The only thing that really hurts right now are my cheeks from smiling so much.

Of course, the smile wanes some as I begin the descent from Bald Rock. Each foot fall has to be carefully planned. There is no running here. In fact, I use my hands as much as my feet to navigate the guantlet of loose rocks and sharp drop-offs.

Ahead of me is a group of three who slowly plot a line that I follow the best I can. With so much concentration being exerted, the time passes quickly, and by the time we reach the bottom, the sun wanes with only minutes left before dropping off the horizon.

Whew! Close call! That would have been a real bitch going down in the dark! I think to myself.

Miles 45.25 – 52.07

It’s a dark night now, I flip on my headlamp, and not long after that, I reach aid station #8 where Siamak is anxiously awaiting. He asks if I need anything.

“Nope. All good here.” I quickly eat, drink, give everyone a hug, and I’m off.

I’m in a groove. Other than general accumulative soreness, the body feels good. Mind is good. All is good! I try to remember what I’ve been thinking about all day and I can’t really recall — a sign that I’ve been in the moment throughout.

This moment.

And this moment.

And this one… uh-oh.

My head lamp dims. A couple of minutes later and it dims again, barely illuminating anything in front of me.

PANIC. STRESS. FUUUUUUUUUUUCK.

I turn the lamp on and off (probably not a good idea) and my assumption is correct. Dead batteries. And I’m not carrying back-ups. I was going to ask Siamak for them at the last aid station. But I forgot. And here I am in the middle of a technical gauntlet, in pitch black, helpless against the inevitable darkness that will soon consume me.

DING DING! My back up flash light! I asked for it back at mile 18, the last time I saw my crew before the 20 mile stretch without them, just in case something happened, and now it’s going to save my life.

Whew, dodged a BIG bullet there.

I spend the next few miles cursing myself for making such a rookie mistake. I changed the headlamp’s batteries to fresh ones after I used it last (in September) and it never occurred to me that they could drain even when not in use.

Lesson learned! Of course, the lesson keeps on being taught, as this small handheld flashlight doesn’t put out much of a beam. And on this — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — tough, unforgiving trail, every ill-illuminated — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — step is a dance with potential danger. I have no choice but to slow down. I won’t see my crew for another 10 miles, so I am going to have to make due.

Adapting, on the fly, is something one learns to do fairly quickly in the ultra game. In my experience as a pacer during 100 milers, the perfect race is a sort of unicorn. It just doesn’t exist. Something is bound to go unaccording to plan, at some point. Being able to adapt is key.

Miles 52.07 – 55.34

I roll into aid station #10 and refuel more quickly than usual so I can tag onto the back of a group of three just leaving. They have some of the brightest headlamps I’ve ever seen and I don’t care what their pace, I’m sticking with them as much as I can.

There is a lot of tough climbing in this section and I’m lucky to be the caboose of this group. I just cling on, focusing on my steps and their conversation. It’s a mile or so before any of them notice enough to ask me my name.

“Jeff, from Chicago,” I say. “This is my first hundred.”

Hearing myself speak, I sound winded, anxious.

“Well, Jeff from Chicago,” says the leader, Jason, up ahead, “you get up and over Pinnacle under the cut off time and you’ll finish this race.”

He goes on about the challenges of the race, how people tend to go out too fast, how people don’t fuel properly. But he seems intent on the idea that once we get past Pinnacle, it’s easy running from there on out. The other two echo his thoughts, so I put this in the back of my mind for later.

Pinnacle is the treacherous 1600ish foot climb from approximately mile 73 to 74. It’s too far off in the future for me to think about it now.

Just follow these guys to aid station #10, get some new batteries, and let Siamak take you home.

Miles 55.34 – 65.44

I roll into station #10 and immediately see my green Sable. Edna, Dad and Siamak pop out of it, ready to wait on me, whatever I need. “HOLA PAPI!”

Ay… mi corazon.

I get new batteries and then change into a dry, skintight baselayer top. I chug my first Red Bull of the race to chase two Ibuprofens. My body is pretty achy all over, and now seems like as good a time as any to shut it up, at least for a bit.

I down some more Pedialyte, tell Edna and Dad to stay warm (they are both shivering in the dark cold) and hug them before I set back out on the trail, this time with Siamak.

“Boy am I glad to see you,” I tell him. As much as I hate race cliches, I can’t help but utter “It’s all downhill from here.”

Siamak ran this race in 2012, as his first 100 mile race, and is one of the main reasons I sought to conquer the course myself. He has told me much about the trail already, but I knew if I had him pace me through the night, he would get me to the finish. You won’t find many runners tougher than Siamak. That I know. Oh yeah, he’s also the 2014 Midwest Ultra Grand Slam Champion.

I keep good company.

He leads and I follow. We spend the next 10 miles catching up on the day’s action, talking quite a bit about everything that has happened to us thus far. Just us two Chatty Cathies, running wild through the woods, trying not to — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT!

“Oh yeah, the leaves are covering all the booby traps on the trail, so be careful,” I advise too late.

We fly through aid station 11 and continue on, still talking the night away. The Red Bull is working. The Ibuprofen is working. We are cranking on the flats and downs, hiking the ups with a purpose. The temperature is dropping quickly. We both agree we need to keep moving at a brisk pace to keep our bodies warm.

And tights. I want my tights.

Miles 65.44 – 68.78

As we approach aid station #12, we come up on the back of my Sable, the Illinois plates reflecting brightly from our headlamps. The windows are fogged from my sleeping crew. I guess we got here faster than they expected. Not bad! Siamak taps on the doors and Dad and Edna quickly jump out and spring to action.

I am lucky to have these two crewing for me. Their love and dedication is beyond words and every time I’ve seen them throughout the race they have lifted my spirits, just by being here.

“Gracias, mi amor,” I say as I sit down in the chair she provides for me. “I need my tights.”

Dad grabs them from my bag and helps me get them on over my big, clunky Hoka Rapa Nuis. “You need to change socks or anything?” he asks.

“Nope, all good.” Surprisingly, my feet haven’t been wet all day long. No blisters. No issues whatsoever, unless you call generally sore feet from running all day an issue. Most ultrarunners would just call that part of a day’s work.

With warm legs now, Siamak and I get back to work.

The conversation falls off some, but both of us remain focused. We have run together a lot the last couple of years, so there is a mutual comfort in the silence.

Work, work, work. Run, run, run.

Miles 68.78 – 74.53

We get to aid station #13 and Siamak suggests we Red Bull again in preparation for the big push up Pinnacle. I take this opportunity to down another two Ibuprofen and chase it with some bean burritos.

Siamak reminds Dad and Edna that we won’t see them for a while now, that we have a really tough section coming up, and to be ready for whatever when we see them again at mile 85.

Another round of hugs and we’re gone.

There are quite a few downhills here, with a continued bevy of ankle breaking traps springing at inopportune — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — moments.

But then, we start up. And up. And up.

Switchbacks, switchbacks, switchbacks.

Looking up ahead proves too nauseating for me. As my quads, heels and lower back scream at me for all the contracting and flexing, I can’t imagine having to do any more climbing. All I can do is keep my head down, stare at the ground, and follow in Siamak’s wake, one step at a time.

“This is it,” he eventually says after what feels like forever, “we’re at the top!”

Siamak points to a sign that says we have reached the Pinnacle aid station. It is accompanied by a menu — yes, a menu — of food items available up ahead. Siamak and I both have grilled cheese on our minds.

Miles 74.53 – 85.63

“Grilled cheese it is!” says the volunteer who greets us at the top of Pinnacle. Up here it’s a an outright party, as everyone seems to be having a gay old time. Loud music, bouts of laughter, hot food and aromas galore.

Siamak and I take an extra few minutes to gather ourselves. “Yeah, now that you made it up here,” says one volunteer, “you’re gonna finish. It’s all downhill from here.”

That cliche again.

It doesn’t take too long out of the aid station to find out it indeed is NOT all downhill from here. There are plenty of rollers to keep us occupied, but now the challenge shifts from tough climbs to tough conditions. The temperature has dropped into the 20s, both of us fight sleep deprivation and now we battle 30 mph winds on a completely exposed ridge that seems to last forever.

For the first time in the race, I start to lose my heart. Instead of SNAP! THWACK! it’s now every, single, step that hurts. The pristine feet I boasted about earlier now reveal budding hot spots, and every time I step on wobbly rock or root it sends burning pains up through my skin.

FUUUUUUUUUCK.

I start to say this a lot now. Sometimes I say it to coax myself away from falling asleep. Sometimes I say it because I hurt. Sometimes I say it just to see if I’m still alive.

Aid station #15 has bacon that I believe came from a pig who was breathing this morning. I’ve never had fresher, better tasting bacon in my life. Or maybe I just think that because my body has deteriorated into its current state of zombieness and all my basic cognitive skills are short circuiting.

Siamak is doing something. I don’t know what. I sit down for a second and try not to fall asleep.

He must have said something to me because suddenly I’m back on the trail, though I don’t know how I got here.

“This is gonna be a hard time, but the sun will be up soon,” he encourages as we take off back down the ridge, fighting a relentless wind and despicable cold.

The next 6 miles are a complete blur: running, OUCH, sleeping, NO, drinking, FUCK, following, “COME ON, JEFF, YOU LOOK GREAT”, liar, SHIT, ouch, sleep, sun? death… RUN JEFF RUN.

We continue on, but it seems like a dream. I try to talk but nothing comes out. Even my curses stick in the back of my throat, unable to follow through. It takes every ounce of listless energy I have left to move one foot in front of the other. Luckily, that’s all that’s necessary.

And then the sun comes up.

HALLELUJAH!!!

“Hey, we’re gonna see Edna and your Dad soon,” says Siamak.

Between the prospect of seeing them and the sun coming up, I can’t help but cry.

Miles 85.63 – 89.63

“HOLA PAPI!” I see her. Dad is next to her. I’m bawling like a baby. I feel weak, exhausted. All I want to do is sleep. As I hug Edna, I feel myself wanting to collapse into her arms and hide my tears.

Why am I crying? I think to myself. I have no clue. Running exposes my feelings. Crying is inevitable.

Somewhat embarrassed by my tears, I refuel some before Siamak encourages me back onto the trail, which is now mostly road. Flushed from emotion, we start picking up the pace, cranking on the downs when possible.

It feels really good to be running like this 85 miles into the race. I wanted to be running til the end. It’s happening!

Miles 89.63 – 95.21

At aid station #17, there is no crew access, but there are homemade oatmeal cookies that I want to eat for the rest of my life.

NOM NOM NOM.

Whoever made these needs a statue dedicated in his/her honor!

Full of oatmeal cookie goodness, Siamak and I put our heads down and attack the road some more. The road is awesome. The road is great. There are no sneaky, leaf covered traps for my bludgeoned feet here. I hope the rest of the race is on roads (it’s not).

Miles 95.21 – 100.59

We approach aid station #18, the final aid station, and I am welcomed with one last “HOLA PAPI!”

If my heart could melt any more it would fall right out of my chest.

We have plenty of time to finish now, over 70 minutes ahead of the cut-off, so I take the time to sit down and slip out of my tights. Now that the sun has come up, I am warmer than I’d like to be, so any little comfort will help deter my mind from focusing on the pain that throbs throughout my entire body.

I didn’t want to admit it, but miles 75-85 almost killed me, and the fallout resonates in every nerve ending.

I eat some more, drink some more. My goodness, I’ve probably eaten and drunk a bazillion calories, and I’m STILL HUNGRY!

In my delirium, I ask Edna, “Are you going to be there at the finish?”

“Of course we will be there at the finish.”

Why wouldn’t they be at the finish? I don’t know. I don’t know anything right now. Just hurt. Hurt just know I… bleh bleh bleh. What?

When I get up from the chair, I hurt even worse.

YYYYYYEEEEEOOOOOOWWWWWWW!

Pain in my medial right knee. It’s stiff. I can hardly bend it. This has to be a casualty from the umpteenth trip, stub, roll I suffered over the last 95 miles.

Oh well. With only five to go, I ain’t stoppin’ now. We’ll just wobble until we warm up and truck along to the end.

Dad hands Siamak a walkie talkie so he can alert him of our arrival at the high school track and then the two of us head back out knowing the next time we see the crew will be there at the finish.

Yes, yes… the finish. I’m going to finish. Holy shit.

Every step is a killer now. I shuffle along the best I can. We hit some more trail, some more road.

FUUUUUUUCK, SHIIIIIIIIT, DAAAAAAAAMN.

I wonder if my incessant cursing is annoying Siamak yet. If it is, he doesn’t let it show. For that I am grateful.

Head down, arms pumping, we get through some trails and pop out on a road. Not a jeep road, not a dirt road. No. This is a good old fashioned proper highway!

We’re in Sylacauga! The track is near! The hotel is even closer! A bed! WOO HOO!

It’s happening. It’s really happening. Holy moly this religious experience turned sufferfest turned religious experience is really happening!

I hurt, but I don’t hurt! I don’t hurt, but I hurt! I don’t know what’s going on! I’m floating! I’m dead!

NO, I’M ALIIIIIIIVE!

Siamak and I run on the road for what feels like forever until finally, FINALLY…

YES. FIIIIINNNNNAAAAAALLLLLYYYYYY we turn right and I see the track entrance.

Siamak says some things to me but I can’t hear him clearly because the crowd in my head is roaring out all other thoughts.

This.

Is.

It.

My feet hit the rubber track and suddenly all pains drift away. All there is is blue sky, a rush of blood to the head and 200 meters to victory.

I cross the finish line in 28 hours, 51 minutes.

Jeff Lung Pinhoti 100 Finish Line

I collapse into Edna’s arms. Tears roll down my cheek. I hug Siamak, collect my buckle from the race director and then fall into my dad’s arms before I find myself in a chair.

Finally. In a chair. And I don’t have to get up and run anywhere.

I did it. I really did it. I ran 100 miles, on my own two feet, from the town of Heflin, to the city of Sylacauga, proving that with a little hard work and dedication, nothing is impossible. Up and over the mountains, through and between the trees, this was the experience of a lifetime — one that I will think about often, in times of darkness and times of joy.

You live and die your entire life in the span of a 100 mile race.

If you’re lucky you survive to be born again.

Jeff and Crew Finish Line Pinhoti 100 2014

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17 responses

  1. Dan

    I guess of all the things to point out in this post (besides a humble, genuflected congratulations), what sticks out the most is how you treated this event like its own standout beast. You didn’t map out the course as small marathons; you didn’t reach 50k and think “ah, this is where X or Y race would have ended”; you didn’t get to 50 miles and realize you were halfway done. You just ran, intelligently, but without thinking of anything else but where you were, at that time.

    Seriously, it’d be so easy to glance at your watch and think “if this were a marathon, I’d be done” or “Ice Age would have ended by now.” But you, though fond of reflection, instead attacked Pinhoti as Pinhoti, as a 100-mile challenge, existing independently of other superhuman feats of endurance (even if you didn’t study the topography beforehand). And that’s impressive, beyond the fact that you covered all 100 miles on foot.

    Three cheers to you, Jeff, for making that long cherished dream come true, for putting in the arduous training miles, for making this race the goal when running shorter distances, for having the patience to overcome past bodily injuries in the name of that one singular, monolithic 100 mile experience, and for handpicking the best possible race crew to get you through the distance, physically and emotionally. You’re quite the role model for dedication and perseverance, and I tip my hat to you.

    Keep doing your thing.

    December 9, 2014 at 10:42

    • Thanks for kind words, Dan! Indeed, the whole year was always about just this one race, from start to finish. I find that if I approach an event as a whole, without breaking it down into smaller chunks, I do a better job. If I break a race down into small parts at all it’s simply moment by moment. Staying present and focusing on my breath/body is the cornerstone of my training, regardless of distance. It seems to be working for me! Onward and upward in 2015, amigo!

      December 10, 2014 at 14:54

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  3. Goosebumps man, goosebumps. Not only did you stay on your feet for 100 miles and emerge on the track at Legion Stadium a better man, but you actually stayed lucid enough to recount an extraordinary 28+ hours. HUGE props Jeff, “inspirational” doesn’t do justice to your journey, and the beauty of it all is that you make it sound so damn DO-able. Whereas many runners would have been immediately thrown off their game by the constant SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT!, you treated it all like a bull treats a fly buzzing around its head. Clearly there’s a reason you’re the coach and we’re the runners.

    And I laughed when I read your aside on Heed, I couldn’t agree more. I think I wrote the exact same sentiment into my Moab Half Marathon review a couple of years ago. Stuff makes me long for Nyquil… but credit to the folks at Hammer Nutrition, at least their gel packets are no longer shaped like giant unwieldy hammers.

    Oh, and we all need a crew like Dad, Edna and Siamak in our lives.

    December 10, 2014 at 20:30

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mike! Much appreciated. Indeed, having a crew like I had made the effort much more manageable. All I had to do was put my head down and keep my feet moving.

      December 21, 2014 at 10:19

  4. Adam Marshall

    Another great race report. I’ve been putting off reading this because I was looking foward to it so much. For a while I’d check your blog and see, after Pinhoti, the Double Dip marathon posts were still up. C’mon! But when it was finally up, I kept putting it off until I had some time to dedicate to reading it. Then I realized the year was almost up and I needed to start crossing things off my to-do list.

    I loved the moment-to-moment recounting. Also loved reading about your nutrition/gear/race strategy.

    Which leaves me wondering how you’re viewing the experience now almost two months out. Any more thoughts on the race, the experience. Also your gear/nutrition, anything you’d do differently?

    December 30, 2014 at 13:09

    • Thanks for the kind words, Adam! Glad you could get something positive out of my experience. Now that a couple of months have passed, the achievement just gets sweeter. It’s fermenting in my mind, forever kept in a secret, awesome place. Like previous personal best races, it’s something I can close my eyes and re-live in an instant. Knowing I DID THAT is extremely powerful. As far as gear/nutrition/race strategy, I really feel like all my pacing duties and 50 mile runs prepared me well. I already knew how to pace myself, all day long, and what gear to carry. I am in love with the Salomon pack I have. It has a 50 oz bladder and pockets galore. It doesn’t bounce, fits snug as can be, and I like having my hands free. I also trained for how I knew I would race: by eating real foods. Having an iron belly that handles the stresses of all-day exertion was really key for me. I had zero stomach/nutrition issues — something that often will derail one’s race. The other thing I did which isn’t mentioned in my report is that I had a sports massage every two weeks all year long. Being a trainer and ultrarunner, someone who is constantly involved in some exercise or another, recovery is always a priority for me. Morgan, my massage therapist, has been a lifesaver. (Thanks, Morgan!)

      December 31, 2014 at 19:12

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