After 3 hours of running through the Talladega National Forest, Alabama I come across a pimp and giant banana standing at the side of the trail. The pimp looks at me and says with a deep southern drawl “Boy, with a smile like that – you could make Daddy some money”. I high-five the giant banana and run off deeper into the woods. Somewhere in the distance, I’m sure I can hear the unmistakable opening notes from “Duelling Banjos”. It could only happen at the Pinhoti 100-Mile Endurance Run.
Several months ago I was looking for a USA race to do in the Autumn and came across Pinhoti 100 which I’d never heard of and knew nothing about. I had a quick look at the website, elevation profile and logistics of getting to the race from the UK. I’d never been to Alabama or the Deep South USA so decided that I could incorporate it into a road trip so I was in, paid my entry fee, booked flights, hotels and car hire and promptly forgot all about it.
Finally November rolled around and I flew into Orlando doing my final bit of research on the plane – watching Deliverance! OK, so it’s supposed to be set in Georgia but for me, it’s in the woods, in the Deep South and that’s close enough. Burt Reynolds had a bow and arrow, my best defence was a little pair of nail scissors – I resolved to practice my pig squealing on the drive up to Alabama!
The drive up from Orlando was a pretty uneventful 500 miles mainly on boring interstate highways to Sylacauga, Alabama. I was booked into the official race hotel about 3 miles from the race HQ and it was obvious that the ultra runners were taking over the place. The car park started to fill with cars and trucks with custom licence plates from across the USA, several were also plastered with ultra-running stickers and badges from previous races and affiliated trail running clubs etc…
Race registration, bib and packet, (goodie bag) pickup was on Friday afternoon and located at the race HQ, this was also where we’d be picked up to be taken to the start on Saturday and across the road from the finish line at Sylacauga High School. After picking up my bib I popped into a promising looking local bar for a huge burger, fries and beer before heading back to the hotel for an early night.
The weather was hot and humid but the forecast had been predicting a massive change on Saturday – race day. It was supposed to rain all day, with thunderstorms and get colder, a lot colder. Due to this the course had been amended slightly and some Aid Stations had been made water only due to the difficulty of getting volunteers and food to those locations. But hey, I’m from Wales – we invented wet, cold and muddy weather.
As the race is a point-to-point, we had to be bussed-out to the start line nearly 100 miles away, this meant an 03:00 alarm call to ensure I was on the 04:30 bus. I’d offered a lift to anyone staying at the hotel and Andrew took me up on my offer so met me in the car park for the journey. Three classic American school buses loaded us up and took us to the start line, getting there just before 06:00 as it was getting light. It reminded me of another point-to-point race where a friend said the journey was “like an evil school trip, where the teachers drive you into the middle of nowhere and make you run home”
I had my Union Jack buff wrapped around my wrist as I waited at the start and bumped into a lad with a Union Jack sewn onto his shorts, “are you from the UK?” he asked in the first British accent I’d heard in a while. Dan – while British lives in Florida so I hadn’t seen him on the entry list, we had a bit of banter about being the first Brit home and whether there would be any proper tea at any of the Aid Stations.
As 07:00 got closer it started to rain, heavily… I got chatting to a few people about races in Europe, especially Dragon’s Back which a lot of people are interested in. I hung around the back of the pack and then, bang on 07:00 with the usual whoops and cheers that accompany the start of a US 100-miler we were off.
Like I said at the start, I’d not done much research – with hindsight that was a mistake. The elevation profile looks pretty flat for the first 40 miles – but actually it’s not! The profile is distorted by the big climbs later on, in actual fact the trail is constantly going up and down. So that was the first problem…
The second problem was that there were over 200 runners on a singletrack trail which was barely wide enough for a single person. The obligatory “conga line” formed which I hate as I don’t like running close behind someone or having someone breathing down my neck so I spent a lot of time stepping to the side of the trail to let people past.
In addition to the ups-and-down and singletrack, I’d underestimated how technical the trail was. It was covered in wet leaves which hid roots, rocks, holes and drop-offs – this meant you really had to concentrate on the trail to ensure you didn’t slip, trip or otherwise wipe-out and plummet down the side of a hill.
Anyway – this combination of oversights, coupled with the heat and humidity didn’t do anything for my mood. I wanted to quit after 10 minutes – it was going to be a long, long day and things weren’t going to plan. I spent the first 90 minutes trying to work out why I shouldn’t quit and came up with a list:
1). I’d spent around £2,000 on the race and getting to it
2). It’s a Western States 100 qualifier and my last chance for a 2016 qualifier
3). I really, really want that buckle
4). I’ve got no way of getting back to the hotel, (I’m sure I could have found a ride)
But the biggest reason I came up with was simply that I had no reason to quit. I was not injured, able to run, had nothing else planned for the day. I tried doing some visualisation, imagining crossing the finish line and getting that buckle, and also the reverse – quitting and being sat in my hotel on Sunday morning wishing that I’d carried on and was holding the same buckle.
After about 4 miles the lead runners started passing us on their way back, as the first pack went past an English voice shouted “God Save The Queen” – it was Dan, he was a good 20 minutes ahead of me after 4 miles – it didn’t look like I was going to be first Brit home today. As I approached the first Aid Station, (AS1) at the turnaround more and more runners were coming in the other direction which made progress tricky on the singletrack trail. It was obvious I was towards the back of the field at this point.
I wasn’t going to quit at the turnaround, so I resolved to get through the next 90 minutes back to where we started and AS2. I started thinking about a little story I’ve recently discovered called “Who Moved My Cheese” which is all about change and how we deal with it. The Cheese story, coupled with my list of reasons to continue got me back to AS2 and I decided to keep moving to the first big milestone at 40.9 miles at least so headed out to do battle with the next 28 miles, and that’s where I saw the pimp and giant banana!
The pack had thinned-out by now and I was able to run much more at my own pace, slowly my mood lightened and my attitude changed. I stopped looking at the day as a race, but as a supported adventure in the woods. It didn’t matter what my time or position was, if I let people overtake me or I overtook people. I was going to enjoy this day and be “in the moment”. So, I slowed it down a bit, lifted my head and started to enjoy my surroundings – I took my camera out and started taking some photos now and then.
The trail changed, though still going through forestry passed some stunning waterfalls and several stream crossings. There was no option than to go through the streams, time and time again I was wading through deep, fast-flowing water – some of which were nearly strong enough to sweep me off my feet. Thankfully I managed to stay upright.
Slowly and steadily I progressed through the Aid Stations and the day and soon it was time to do the climb up to the big AS at Bald Rock – mile 40.9. It was now getting dark and as the climb progressed the mist and fog descended and it started raining – but I was loving it now, a complete turnaround from earlier in the day. The climb was pretty easy and getting to the top and rocks that were, so I was told by a volunteer “As slippery as a Republican” it was a short jog across a boardwalk to the AS and a fantastic reception from the supporters and volunteers.
There was no way I was quitting here so I grabbed my waterproof jacket from my drop bag, picked up my handheld torch and headlamp and got ready to suck it up for the next 15-20 hours. What else was I going to do tonight? I was going to have that buckle by lunchtime tomorrow.
Apparently I was now at the highest point in Alabama, not that I could see anything in the fog and mist – but the next section is ominously called “Blue Hell” and is a rocky, technical descent. It was interesting! Not as gnarly or technical as some stuff I’ve done, but in wet, dark and foggy conditions coming down near-vertical rocks and muddy slopes was quite challenging but fun.
It was properly dark now and going to stay that way for a good 12-13 hours which suited me as I love night running. While the trail is very pretty – I was over the fall colours and trees by now so the darkness and constant surprise of what’s coming next was welcome.
One of the best things about Pinhoti 100 is that there’s 18 Aid Stations, so it was only ever 60-90 minutes between each one. After the big 40-mile AS they just got better and better. Some of the treats on offer included quesadillas, egg sandwiches, pizza, bacon, meatballs and grilled cheese, (my personal favourite)
I ran through the whole night on my own, slowly and steadily moving through the field, being efficient at the Aid Stations. Somewhere early-on as I was jogging through a flattish section my flashlight lit up a snake on the trail right in front of me, I must have shrieked like a girl and somehow managed to avoid it and carry on. Later on I mentioned this to another runner and they said someone else had seen a “Copperhead” out there so I googled one – yeah, that’s what I saw and I’m glad I didn’t stop to take a selfie with it!
The weather got nastier through the night, the rain was heavy and persistent and I was glad I had my decent waterproof jacket with me. Even with that and two base layers I was still getting cold on the more exposed and windy sections on the higher ridges – coming into the Aid Stations it was obvious that other people were struggling as well.
Finally it got light at around 06:00 after 23 hours and the rain stopped. We’d been told that the AS at 85 miles was a bit of a watershed landmark as it was all easy running from there and downhill. I arrived almost exactly 24 hours after starting so had 6 hours to do 15 miles, that’s an average of 2.5 miles/hour.
Towards the end of the night the usual little hallucinations had kept me amused, I’m fairly used to these but now it was light and I don’t normally have them once the sun comes up. I’d met up with another runner, (Geoff) for this final section and we were chatting as we jogged down the trail when I saw a pack of labrador puppies at the side of the trail. This was no little trick of the light, it was a full-on multicolour vision. I blinked a couple of times and the puppies turned into a fallen tree with dark brown, dead leaves – woah…
Anyway – that was wierd, I decided to let Geoff jog-on ahead as I tried to regain some composure after a yellow-and-black barrier turned into a giant wasp, fortunately that was the end of the hallucinations, (I think) who needs drugs?
Back to the race – so, that final 15 miles is flat is it? No – it’s not… I jogged a bit, walked a bit and swore a lot as everything started to hurt more and more. There were Aid Stations every 5 miles so it was easy to break down – the volunteers at the final AS recognised me from my Facebook posts and offered me pizza and tea, I wasn’t ready for tea but had some pizza and set off on the final 5 miles
Eventually the trail ended and the final couple of miles on the road arrived to take me to the finish line on the track at Sylacauga High School. And then it was there, I jogged around the track and finished in 27:40, got my buckle and had my photo taken under the finish line. Job done.
It was tough, a massive lesson in perseverance and not quitting. I’d massively underestimated the course, thinking I could just rock-up and wing it – I’ve said many times that “you can’t wing a 100-miler”, well you can – but it takes a special level of determination, one that I didn’t know I had in me.
This was my 4th USA race, the previous ones having been over on the West coast and I have to say it equals, if not betters anything that I’ve seen before. It might not have the elevation and mountains of California and Utah, but it more than makes up for it with the challenging terrain and hospitality. Thank you Alabama, I found Deliverance in your beautiful state.