“If you can’t fly then run,
if you can’t run then walk,
if you can’t walk then crawl,
but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
~ Martin Luther King Jr.
As the pain from the Pinhoti 100 faded away, I wondered how one managed to finish such a huge race in extreme weather conditions like we had during the weekend of November 1st, 2014. Often, I get asked: “What motivated you to run a 100 miles race? Was it the challenge? Or was it an attempt to find internal willpower?” It could be a mix of many things. Even with pain, suffering, and being on the verge of not meeting the cut-off time, I still managed to move forward to the finish. Nothing was going to stop me till I got to the finish line. I started my 100 mile journey as a top 20 runner, but I finished at the bottom 20. Regardless, I did finish. I defied all odds against me and crossed the line 53 minutes before the 30 hours cut off time. In the end, my only motivation for this race was to complete it and hold that beautiful Pinhoti buckle.
Summary of Race
The Pinhoti 100 has a reputation of being one of the best and hardest 100 mile races in Alabama. It is a qualifying race for the Western State 100 and few more. It goes from Heflin to Sylacauga, Alabama – a point to point foot race. A lot of the race goes through single track trails, including the highest point of Alabama, the Cheaha Mountain. The course continues up and down with two large climbs. Luckily, there are 18 aid stations and plenty of volunteers to help you through day and night. Most aid stations are rocking like a big party in the middle of the woods, even at midnight or early morning hours. One aid station had college football going for those football junkies to catch the score and watch few minutes of a game while refueling. You can even hear some aid stations from miles ahead. Even with the climb and single track technical trails, there are a lot of runnable parts. Save yourself for after mile 80. There are many more runnable areas where you can make-up your time. Still, the race elevation charts do not tell the whole story. You have to run the race to find out how the course is unless you train or live around the area. The best thing to do to finish this race or any 100 mile race is to “keep moving forward”, one step at a time. Every step gets you that much closer to the finish. There are a lot of ups and downs you go through as the day progresses. Do not look at the DNF list; with proper training, race day planning and self-determination, this race is doable. There is nothing like crossing the finishing line and still making the cut-off time. When you hold that beautiful Pinhoti buckle in your hand with a lifetime of memories, you know that it was all worth your time and effort.
Unless you live in the Himalayas, most of us trained during the heat of the summer to get ready for the Pinhoti. Everyone trained for the 100 miles differently. There was one thing for sure: no one ran 80 to 90 miles in one run to train. You build to 100. My training for Pinhoti included a 60 mile “Run for Kids Challenge” race in May, summer races by Southeastern Trail Series, the Coldwater Mt. 50k, the Autumn Equinox and, for sure, the Birmingham Stage Race. I feel that the Stage Race helped me go faster on tired legs. I ran all kinds of hills and different trails. If you live in the Birmingham area, Oak Mt. State Park has a lot of hill options for you.
Crews and Pacers
If you have ever run a 100 mile race, you know how important it is to have pacers and crews to get you out of tough moments and also help you along the way to make your journey successful.
Even though I ran my first 100 miler, the Lake Martin 100 (LM100), without crews and pacers and with no proper planning, I was told that it is better to get a pacer/crew for a better Pinhoti experience – especially the first time around. I asked a few of my long time running friends, Bill, Ed, Jeff, and Mike, to see if they were interested to join me for one night of fun on the trails of Pinhoti. They were more than happy to be a part of the journey.
I had two rules for my crew and pacers:
1) Do not let me quit – unless it is medical.
2) Do not get me lost.
Each of them had a section that they needed to pace from mile 45 till the finish with 17 miles being the longest leg.
Since the LM100 in March 2014, I have not truly run nights. In the future, I need to do some night runs. Night runs are different on trails. They are much slower-paced. Besides looking down, one needs to be sure that they did not miss any turns. You can hear things, but you cannot see where they are coming from. I feel that night runs are much more focused than day runs. As you move forward, you do not feel as intimated by nightfall. Through the night, you can see runners ahead and runners behind moving with headlamps. Overall, it is a nice experience that I want to do more often. Having a good headlamp and plenty of back-up batteries are important as well. If you can, carry an extra headlamp from the start or at least put on your drop bag. Once night starts, you should always have an extra headlamp as well. They do not weigh a lot. They are an essential tool for the success of your 100 miler. I was suggested by David, the Race Director for the LM100, that you should always replace your current headlamp batteries before you start a 100 miles race.
Dealing with Extreme race day weather.
Ultra running is a very long running experience. If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that you cannot change the weather no matter how unpleasant it is. You have to face Mother Nature the way it is. You cannot win there.
Due to the colder November weather, all the runners were thrown off a bit. When I ran the 2014 Mt. Mist, I almost got frostbite. Because of this, I’ve learned my lesson. I promised myself that I would not play around with the weather for future ultra-distance races. I actually bought a light jacket in February 2014 for the sole propose of using it for cold and/or windy ultra-distance races. I was well covered and prepared for the challenge of the weather ahead with extra layers of jackets and clothing.
First Part of the Race
My race started normally, just like any other race. I was surrounded by friends and was eager to run, and I started at a good pace. As I’d learned from my previous 100 mile race, I started walking on hills earlier in the race. I flew by a few aid stations quickly. My goal was to cover the race course as much as possible during daylight without killing myself. I kept it calm and moved forward. From the very beginning, Martin, Shawn, and I ran comfortably as a pack. As we zipped through aid stations, we felt that we were getting in a good rhythm with our pace. Even though I am not used to running with others on trial races, it was fun. I did not know how long I hanged on with our pack, but all of us had the same goal of covering as much distance as we could before nightfall. As I was running, I kept getting bumped and saw Martin fall twice. It was then I realized that I might be slowing down the group. Around mile 20, I went back of the pack. That was the last time I saw Martin and Shawn. I started to hold back a bit, but before Aid station #5, I started to get muscle cramps. I did not realize this was the start of a long day.
Getting to Bald Rock
After many early struggles, I arrived at the top of the Cheaha Mt. – Bald Rock at mile 40+, at about 4:15 PM. It took me a bit longer than I expected to get there. Regardless, I was there before sundown. I was told by others that this is the make and breakpoint for many Pinhoti racers. The top of the Mt. was rocking like a big party! This was the point at which pacers were allowed to join the runners. After a lonely day, I really enjoyed being around familiar faces. It gave me some uplift/life to see so many people. After not finding my crew at Bald Rock, my friend and trail running buddy, Sonia, was kind enough to take care of me while she was waiting on pacing Donna. However, as I was getting comfortable with the warm food and friendly faces around me, Sonia said “Suman, you got to go now.” There I went. I started to feel discomfort on my right knee as I was going downhill. I was not sure what was going on. The only thing I knew was that I need to keep moving forward. The day was still young, and I had much more to cover. Coming down off Cheaha Mt. on Blue Hell- the nickname given to it by those who run Cheaha 50k- was not easy. Yes, even going down was a difficult experience. As I ran down the road towards the next aid station, my running buddy, Raymond, passed me and told me: “No matter what, do not quit Suman.” I told him: “I will not. See you at the finish. Go on.”
First Time Crew siting
When I saw Mike, who was running towards me at the Silent Trail Aid Station at Mile 45.25, I was so happy. I knew my crews/pacers had made it to the Aid station. I saw the rest of the crew waiting on me. They told me that they saw me flying through first few aid stations, and that they were worried that I was going to pass them at Bald Rock. They did not realize that I had slowed down a lot during the day time. Regardless, I was happy to see them. As night was going to start soon, I grabbed my headlamp, put on an extra layer of clothing, and moved on with Mike.
Getting to Adams Gap
As nightfall started, it took me a while to get adjusted to my headlamp and the darkness. As the pain settled in, it was hard for me to go downhill. I was trying to adjust my stride and pace. Mike, who was pacing at that time, ran ahead of me and told me if the section was runnable. As I ran, walked and power hiked through the woods, I arrived at the famous “Christmas Tree” aid-station at mile 52+, a little more than halfway through. There, I actually got to watch college football. I enjoyed hot food and loved the hospitality.
After moving forward, at 9:15 PM, I arrived at Adams Gap, mile 55. I finally changed my shoes and clothes and put on warmer clothing. I ate some curry food that my wife sent me with my friends. I was happy to eat homemade food in the middle of the woods.
By this time, for several reasons, I was slowing down further. As Jeff took over his section of pacing, I briefed him on what was going on with me. Even with a long runnable area, I was not able to run as fast as I would like. Still, I kept moving forward even at crawling speed.
Ports Gap to Pinnacle
It was a struggle, but at 2:15 AM I arrived at Ports Gap, mile 68. Other than the last mile or so, this section was my slowest section of the race. I knew then that I would be chasing the cut off time. I was at least an hour behind the time I wanted to arrive at. However, I was still 1 hour and 15 minutes ahead of the cut off time. I knew what was ahead of me: one of hardest parts of the race was just about to start. At that point, our goal was to get to top of the Pinnacle – infamous due to its steep climb and miles we were at.
Bill was pacing the next 17 mile section. He’d had to wake up from his deep sleep and get ready quickly. As we were running through, the night Bill noticed that my headlamp was going dim on me. If I was by myself, I would have gone a few more miles with those dim lights. Instead, Bill stopped me and made me use my other headlamp that I’d been carrying since the start. I was back with a much brighter light – I could see the trail again! Even small extra lights on dark trails can make a world of difference.
Climbing the hills was not hard as I thought it would be, but there was a lot of effort needed to get to the top. Finally, we got to the top of the Pinnacle around 4:15 AM. This was the true making and breaking point for me. When I arrived, there was another BUTS aid station. A lot of familiar faces and trail running/racing buddies from Birmingham area were there. I enjoyed the love I got. I sat a few minutes in front of a bonfire while Olivia fixed me food. I told my friends that “No matter what, I will be at the finish. See you all there!” By then I had been physically defeated, but mentally I was fresh and determined to finish. I could easily have sat there till daylight, but I decided to move on as my friends were ready to push me out of the aid station as well. As I was leaving my friend Jimmy said: “Suman, you only need to run a marathon distance, and you still have around 8 hours!” I looked and considered that I had gone a marathon distance 48 times before this race, but not in the condition I was facing. I had no doubt I would finish it. The question was, how long it would take me?
Awakening moment – a turning point
As I had been struggling all day and night with the determination to finish, I was still moving forward. I started to get worried about not meeting the cut off time. Still, I could not do anything else. I moved as fast I could move, but I felt like it wasn’t fast enough. I was passed by other runners through the day/night, though it had no effect on me. Nothing was moving inside me.
Little more than a mile or so from aid station #15, Wormys Pulpit, with more than 20 miles to go, something suddenly woke up inside of me. As I was calculating the speed that I was running (2.5 miles per hour) and evaluating my condition, something inside me said: “At this speed, you are not going to make it.” I told Bill, who had been patiently running and pacing, “It is go time.” Bill said “Let’s go.” I was sure he’d been waiting for this moment just like me. With that, my body started to move faster. I started to run faster than at Adams Gap, almost 12 hours before. I did not know how long this feeling was going to last, but I was willing to try it. As we passed the Wormys Pulpit aid station at 6 AM with only 43 minutes to spare, the day was getting started. I stopped just long enough to fill up my water. As we started to run and power hike, things start to come together again. For the first time all day/night since the early miles, I started to pass people- and no one was passing me! I had a running rhythm going. Bill told me that whatever I was doing, it was working. He asked me to keep it up. As we arrived at the top of Bulls Gap, Bill called the next pacer, Ed, to get ready.
Last Fastest 10 Miles
As I passed Aid Station #16, Bulls Gap, at mile 79.53, I only had 37 minutes. I did not even stop. I only checked in and left. Ed, who was supposed to pace me in that section, was ready for it. This section of course was very fast and runnable. Despite this, in my condition, I was not sure how fast I could move. We started to pass more people. We arrived to the next aid station within an hour. We’d gone through a lot of ground already. Ed kept on pushing me forward.
When we arrived at Aid Station #18, Watershed, the last aid station before the finish, there were 2 hours and 35 minutes before the cut off and 5 more miles to go. As simple as the aid station was, I was sure every fellow Pinhoti racer who arrives here on time finds relief and assurance that they are going to make it. With 5 miles to go, I knew I was no longer chasing the cut off time.
Getting to finishing line
As soon as I saw a long stretch of road, I was so happy to be off the trail and onto the road. Even though the stretch wasn’t long, it was a good distance with the condition that I was in and at the speed I was running. Finally, I made the last turn to the finish. Then I saw the stadium.
After 29+hrs, finally at finishing line.Bill, who paced me these last 5 miles, shouted at me “Go, Suman, go!” I wasn’t sure what came over me, but it was then that I started to push hard through the last half lap around the track. As I crossed the finish line, Todd Henderson, the race director, handed me the Pinhoti Buckle and congratulated me. I was so emotional and relived that after 29 hours, seven minutes, two sunrises, and one sunset, with all the cold, wind, pain, suffering, uphills, downhills and so much more, I could say “I am a proud Pinhoti 100 finisher!!!!”
I was surrounded by my crews, pacers, friends and volunteers. We’d all made a lot of memories that we will remember for a long time. My biggest thanks goes to them. They pulled me through some of the hardest moments of my running life- at least, so far.
After the race, Bill asked what motivated me to go faster towards the end. There were many possible answers: fear of defeat, not making the cut off time, disappointing my pacers and crews, etc… but the biggest motivation of all was the ability to hold that Pinhoti buckle.
With the correct planning, training, and determination, one can finish any race. A 100 mile race is no exception. I have much more respect for those of you who tough-it-out and get to the finish line no matter what – even the last person.
Lastly, I would like to thank all the volunteers, race organizers, my family, friends, and everyone who helped make this race memorable for me, as well as all those who participated. Special thanks go to Jamie and Todd Henderson for another great year of Pinhoti 100. One thing for sure, this will not be the last time I will run this race; I will line up again soon.
A Few Lessons from Pinhoti 100:
- Good training with a mix of uphill and downhill trail/road training is important.
- If you can, try to run part of the race course once, especially sections that you may have to run during the night.
- Do not play with Mother Nature. She will always win. Keep mindful and prepare ahead of time for the race day weather.
- When you think something is going bad, most likely it is. Slow down and apply different strategies as you go along. 100 mile races are long and many things can go wrong. Just keep your cool and calm.
- Keep moving forward even when the voice inside you may say you should stop or drop out.
- If you can, get crews and pacers who know you well. If not, spend time with them prior to the race so that they can help to push you through some hard moments.
- Have the big goal of finishing the race, and have the small goal of getting from aid station to aid station before the cut off time.
- Have proper race planning long before the race week – food, clothing, drop bags, etc.
- Pack a flashlight, at least 2 headlamps and extra batteries – these do not cost a lot and make a world of difference during late night. Always carry a backup headlamp with you.
- Learn to eat on the run. Planning is important prior to the race, and is equally important during the race.
- Enjoy the race. It is not often we get to be in the woods for a 30 hour run.
- Plan for after the race. It will be a while before you start to walk like normal.
- Do not worry about others passing you. Just run your race. It is a long race. You can pass them along the way.
- Do not forget to thank the volunteers and race staff. Some of them will be out there just as long as you are, or even longer.
If you got this far, thanks for reading my story. Till next time, #HappyRunning #HappyTrail