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Nathan Holland on the Pinhoti 100 Trail Race

Pinhoti 100
Saturday, November 1 – Sunday, November 2, 2014

Trail Running Gear: Patagonia Air Flow Shirt, Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts, North Face Tights, Smartwool PhD Run Graduated Compression Socks, Pearl Izumi Thermal Sleeves, Marmot Trail Wind Jacket, Lululemon Gloves, Salomon Sense Pro Shoes, Suunto Ambit 2 (HR) Watch, Ultimate Direction Handheld Bottle, Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin Hydration Pack

Coming out of my first attempt at a 100-mile run, and also my first ever DNF, from Rock/Creek’s Thunder Rock 100 I was pretty determined to get back on the horse and give another 100-miler a shot. I am very thankful for all the words of encouragement I received from family, friends and complete strangers from my Thunder Rock DNF race reports, Part 1 & Part 2. Using the lessons learned from my DNF and some great advice from friends and long time trail running gurus I decided to find another 100-miler relatively close to home and Pinhoti 100 looked like the perfect option. For anyone unfamiliar with the Pinhoti Trail Series, they are a group of five (5) races with multiple distances offered at some events and range from 10k to 100-mile runs. All of these runs take place in Alabama and runners are treated to some of the most beautiful trails that the Talladega National Forest has to offer.

Organization was one area that I was lacking during my Thunder Rock attempt. So for the Pinhoti my wife found some awesome ArtBin clear plastic boxes for organizing running gear and food during these long races. I highly recommend a couple of these for your crew if you need a better way to arrange your running stuff. A big thanks to Brian and Natalie Picket for the organization ideas and another huge thanks to Katy and Mary for finding these specific bins and getting me organized.

Another area I normally spend a lot of time studying and reviewing prior to any race are course descriptions, elevation charts, old race reports, pace charts, etc. to make sure I have a good idea of what’s coming and set myself some goals times throughout the race… Well, not for this race. Since my main goal was to complete a 100-mile race in under the cutoff time, all I was focusing on was completing this run in less than 30 hours. To help my crew I spent about 10-minutes looking at the elevation profile for the race and set some arbitrary pace estimates from one aid station to the next so that they would have some idea when to expect me. It really was kind of nice to not worry about what time I needed to be at this aid station, how long I had to go until the next crew accessible stop, where I was in relation to my finish estimate… I was really looking forward to simply running by feel and enjoying the race with no predetermined goals.

My biggest issue with Pinhoti was the fact that it starts the day after Halloween and having a 2-year old and a 3.5-year old meant missing trick-or-treating was not an option. So, we made plans to head down late Friday evening following the Halloween festivities and camped at Mt. Cheaha state park. On paper we figured we were only 30 minutes from the starting area and figured we could leave early Saturday morning with plenty of time to get to the starting line. However, what we didn’t take into account was that we had quite a bit of gravel jeep road to drive to get to the starting line parking area, which was about a ½-mile up the road from the starting line.

I jumped out of the truck with less than 15 minutes to run down to the starting area and find my number, timing chip and get situated to spend a few hours in the woods. The quick run down served as a nice warm up, the volunteers got me checked in with no difficulties, I got my number and timing chips pinned on, and ran back up the road to find my Dad/crew to grab my pack… With my pack secured, my shoes tight and my gear-situated I looked at the starting clock and realized I had a little less than 2-minutes… perfect timing.

Race Details:
A cold front had blown in Friday evening and Saturday morning was pretty chilly with temps in mid-to-upper 30’s and expected highs in the 50’s. However, most of Saturday morning, evening and Sunday morning would see pretty windy conditions making it feel even colder. Battling hypothermia was an issue for me at Thunder Rock and I did not want to deal with that again so I took my Dad’s advice and decided to start the race in my tights, thermal sleeves, lightweight running jacket, and gloves. I didn’t have but a few minutes at the starting line to look for familiar faces and I definitely didn’t have time to catch up with any of my friends before the race started. So, I found my friend Brian Picket and knew that we generally run around the same pace and figured I would start out with him to get a good feel for the first little bit of the race. Brian is a great runner and very methodical about his planning and execution for a race so I knew that he would be a good person to run with and pick his brain for some insight on the rest of the day.

Well, before I knew it the starting clock was counting down with less than 10-seconds and we were off. Brian was quick to let me know that we had only a few hundred feet before we dumped onto the single track so we pushed a little to make sure we were sitting somewhere in the top 10 to make sure we didn’t get held up in the conga line funneling onto the Pinhoti. As we made our way toward Aid #1 we settled into a nice comfortable pace that took advantage of our fresh legs, easy rollers through the first ~35 miles and good conversation. I quickly lost count of the stream/creek crossings from the start over to Aid #1 (6.7mi) but thanks to the relatively dry conditions there were no crossings that required runners to get their feet wet, which was a nice relief considering the cold temps. Before we knew it we could hear the cheers from Aid #1 as we rolled into this aid station and quickly grabbed a few items from our crews.

Three of us had settled into a group just before Aid #1 and continued to enjoy each others company toward Aid #2. Brian, Kelly and myself continued on the smooth single track toward Aid #2 (13.3mi). More dry creek crossings littered this section of the course and careful footing was keeping all of us dry. Coming into Aid #2 we made our way onto a forest service road to meet our crews again for the second time. There was a train crossing here that stopped all three of us as well as two runners ahead of us for a few minutes. This may have been a good thing as it allowed me a few extra minutes with my crew and a few more minutes to grab some calories. A few pictures with some friends… thanks Cary Long, and we were off again as the end of the train pulled out of site.

The trails leading us toward Aid #3 continued just the same as the first 13+ miles of trails. They were easy rollers with a few minor creek bed crossings. Every now and then another runner would join our group and some would surge off in front of us to only be picked back up a few minutes later. Our group grew from three, to five, to six, and settled back at three as Brian, Kelly and I continued to chug along. I’m pretty routine with hitting a low around 18 miles into any run and just before Aid #3 (18.3mi) I started to feel a low coming. I knew we were close to the aid station and also knew that the best thing to do during a low was to eat and drink if I was forced to slow down and I could expect to turn the low around relatively quick. I took a few more minutes at Aid #3 since this was the last crew accessible aid station until Aid #7 (40.9mi). I’ve found that grabbing some items at an aid station and continuing to walk/eat works better than trying to stop and spend too much time at the aid station. So, with some hot soup, a variety of food and topped off drinks I continued up the road toward the trail head.

Jumping back on the trail heading to Aid #4 (22.7mi) I was battling a little low so I decided to drop my pace slightly and fall off the back of my running group. The Pinhoti trail continued with more easy rollers, minor creek crossings and some occasional pine needle trails sections which were so soft it felt like I was running on a mattress. Slowing my pace and taking a minute to eat/drink more during my low paid off quickly and by ~mile 20 I was feeling great again and settled back into a nice pace through the next few aid stations. Aid #4 came and went pretty quick and Aid #5 (27.7mi) did the same. Aid #5 had a small out-and-back section to get to the aid station beside Lake Morgan. This was kind of nice because I was able to see about 4-5 runners coming in the opposite direction as I was heading back out toward Aid #6.

Since I hadn’t done a lot of pace planning for this run and really hadn’t studied the course I couldn’t remember a lot of the details about what was coming as far as course layout, but I did remember that once I left Aid #6 (34.6mi) that I would get to see my crew/family at the top of Bald Rock Aid #7. This was all I was thinking about as I came into Aid #6 and I quickly topped off my water, grabbed a few items and took back off knowing that I was going to have the first big climb of the race to get me to the top of Cheaha State Park.

As I started up the climb toward Bald Rock I remembered that on the elevation profile this climb looked like it was going to be brutal. In February of this year I ran Mt. Cheaha 50k which runs some of the Pinhoti 100 course, in reverse, from Porter Gap, Aid #13 toward Bald Rock, Aid #7. So I had climbed to the top of Bald Rock from the opposite side which was VERY technical and steep so I was anticipating this side to be similar. Well, a few miles into the climb it really was pretty tame. It wasn’t technical and it didn’t feel all that steep. I was moving slower than I had due to the climb but overall it wasn’t nearly as bad as the elevation map makes it seem. About halfway up this climb the views really started getting pretty spectacular. Mt. Cheaha has the highest elevation in Alabama. The cool crisp temperatures made for some amazing views.

Speaking of the weather… It was still pretty cold and windy. I hadn’t really ditched many layers like I had planned. I figured that by 10, maybe 15 miles into the race I would be burning up and ready to ditch my long pants and my jacket for sure. Well, with the wind blowing pretty steady, not having much direct sunlight and not running all-out I was still pretty comfortable. With each foot of elevation gain the trail become more technical. Rocks started popping up throughout the trail and you had to start picking your path through the rocks to continue to the top. Finally at the summit everyone was treated to the most amazing views and it made the last 40 miles completely worth the effort. The trail dumped onto the wooden bridge that carried people from the Bald Rock parking area out to the bluff to enjoy God’s beautiful masterpiece. Enjoying the view as I ran down the wooden bridge toward Aid #7 I decided to make a pit stop since I figured this would be the last real facilities that I would find for the duration of the race. There to greet me at the parking lot was my beautiful wife.

She grabbed my pack and I quickly told her some things I wanted and she rushed off to get them taken care of while I made my pit stop. Finished with the facilities I decided to take another minute at this aid to change my socks and shoes so that I could take the time to put some more cream on my feet and hopefully prevent any blisters… another lesson learned from Thunder Rock. This was probably the best part of the entire race. I ran down to my wife/crew’s car and piled in the back seat were my two daughters, my niece and my sister-in-law, while my wife and step-mother helped me change socks and shoes. All of these beautiful ladies cheering me on and laughing and giggling made me feel very loved and I said a few thankful prayers for the support from my family.

Stealing some kisses from my wife and two little girls I figured I had burned through enough time and needed to get going again. I continued down the road following the signs that lead runners down toward Blue Hell. This is the trail that I mentioned earlier that Mt. Cheaha 50k runners are treated to on their climb to Bald Rock. Well, if I thought it was difficult to climb, I think it was even more difficult to descend! This trail is not for the faint of heart and can lead to some serious injuries if you’re not careful. This is what I would consider a scramble using hands, arms, legs, feet, any available body part to get yourself safely down the mountain. After a 1/2-3/4 mile decent on Blue Hell the trail gets more runnable and runners can pick their way through rocks without having to clamber down the rocks. Coming off of Blue Hell runners have another mile or so of pavement before taking a hard left onto a forest service road that runs down to Aid #8 (45.3mi).

Coming into Aid #8 I was again treated to cheers of encouragement from my crew and even a high five from my 3.5-year old as she ran out to meet me on the road. As I walked with my wife out of this aid station my friend Randy Whorton (Rock/Creek Trail Series Race Director) walked with us and asked how I was doing and offered some advice for my comments of “my legs feel a little crampy.” I mentioned that I was doing about two (2) electrolyte tabs per hour and Randy immediately insisted that I up the tabs to make sure I was getting enough electrolytes and then said to always eat more food than you think you want so that you try to stay ahead of the game. So… I grabbed a large handful of tabs and a cup of soup I wasn’t going to take and was on my way again. The trails toward Aid #9 were in and along some larger creeks than early on in the race and I was sure I would be getting wet through some of these, but to my surprise the water was low enough that with some quick assessment I was able to stay dry across all of the crossings. This section of trail was really quite beautiful and really pretty peaceful.

Somewhere through this section I got in with a group of runners, one of which is a trail friend from Chattanooga, Ryan Meulemans. This was a nice change of pace. Ryan and I talked for the next 10-miles all the way through Aid #9 (52.1mi) and Aid #10 (55.3mi). Ryan set most of the pace and really showed me that a good strong hiking pace is worth it’s weight in gold in a 100-miler… I would have to run/jog to keep up with his hiking pace! I did not want to stop running with Ryan but after burning through Aid #9 we were at Aid #10 and I knew I would get to see my family/crew again so I decided to take a minute to enjoy their company. By this time in the race I knew it would be getting dark soon and it was important to make sure I stayed warm throughout the evening. Another lesson learned from Thunder Rock was not staying warm and getting the uncontrollable shivers that is an early sign of hypothermia.

With some fresh supplies, a headlamp, neck warmer, audio book, and most importantly, some Hot Hands in my gloves I headed back out. Leaving Aid #10 was probably the most difficult station to leave of the entire race. I thought this would be the last time I would see my wife and daughters until the finish line and I knew the night was coming and colder temps would be coming with it too. This section of trail was mainly gravel forest roads and resulted in a lot of slow steady shuffling as I made my way up the climbs to then run the downs and then repeat again as I continued on toward the next aid station. As mind-numbing as forest roads can be the audio book I was listening to really helped pass the time and before I knew it I was at Aid #11 (60.3mi). I was in a nice rhythm so I grabbed a few things quickly from the aid and kept on shuffling and running.

This continued for another 4-miles or so before finally getting back onto a single/double track trail that would take me the last mile down to Aid #12 (65.4mi). The people I met, even if just for a moment, at each aid station were so enthusiastic and truly happy to see you. It really made for a memorable trail run. Coming into Aid #12 (65.4mi) I remember seeing my Dad and immediately asking if Katy, my wife, was still there… about that time I heard her cheering on runners and my spirits were lifted again. I was feeling pretty good, but having them there for another stop really made my night. Normally I only get to see my wife and girls at the beginning and end of a race. It’s very rare that I get to see them along the way and so far I had seen them four times throughout this run.

It was only about 3.5-miles from this stop to Aid #13 and I knew that my brother-in-law was going to be joining me at that aid station to run so I made sure that my wife would be at the next stop, kissed my 2-year old and took off. The trail over to Aid #13 (68.4mi) was pretty nice. This section included one steep climb and then a long descent into the aid station. As I jumped off the trail and into the Porters Gap (Aid #13) parking lot I recognized it as the starting area for the Mt. Cheaha 50k race. Spotting my family/crew I ran down to meet them by the road and grab a fresh light and other gear.

Lu and I didn’t waste any time. He was ready to go when I got to Aid #13, so I hugged and kissed my wife and told her I would see her at the finish. The next aid station was Aid #14, The Pinnacle. A few people warned me that this was a tough climb so I figured having Lu run this section with me would be ideal. Lu is the owner of the Tennessee Bouldering Authority (TBA) in Chattanooga, TN. He is a great family man, an avid rock climber, a real outdoor enthusiast, and most of all a great friend. Lu is a good runner but up until August, the furthest distance he had run was a half marathon. The sections Lu signed up to help me with were from Aid #13 to Aid #16, a total of ~17-miles. I assured him that he would be fine since I would more than likely be hiking the climbs, jogging the flats and running the downs. So, as we made our way toward The Pinnacle climb we chatted a little about the race, other runners Lu had seen, our families/crew and it really helped pass the time. Before we knew it we were climbing and we both asked ourselves if this was the climb… it wasn’t anything too steep and, even though we were hiking the climb it didn’t seem as bad as it was made out to be.

So, we continued to climb and eventually we started hearing some music and seeing some decorations scattered around the trees as we continued to climb. We knew we were getting toward the top as we started seeing more and more rocks, we reached a series of switchbacks, which Lu had been told were on The Pinnacle climb. The past 5.5-miles had flown by with the company and the nice double track trail. Again there had been beds of pine needles throughout the lower portion of the trail which made for nice soft steps and even as we approached the top the rocks weren’t even technical enough to really warrant any special lines through the trail. We were met by the most excited group of volunteers yet at Aid #14 (74.5mi)! There was a hot fire, chairs, blankets, lights, music, food, drinks, etc. I told Lu I need to check my feet as I felt I was getting some blisters and was quickly given a chair and provided all the help I could wish for by a couple of volunteers. After pulling my socks and shoes, reapplying some foot cream and lacing back up I knew we needed to go quickly because stopping for just a few minutes already had me shivering uncontrollably.

Many, many thanks for the warm potato soup, bananas, and help with my feet and we took off. Stopping hurt now. It took me a mile or so to warm up and get my legs loose. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stop anymore and sit down for fear of not getting back up. Lu and I got back into our rhythm of hike/jog/run and were making pretty good time across the top of this ridge. The trail was a mix of gravel forest roads, runnable double track and rocky/technical single track. I knew that my legs were getting tired as I had a couple of close calls through this section and almost face planted a few times. As we closed in on Aid #15 (79.5mi) we could again here music and saw some more decorations hanging on trees throughout the woods. This was really uplifting and was an awesome way for the volunteers to lift each runner’s spirits. This aid station welcomed us just as wholeheartedly as the rest and they even had steak tips! Yes, steak tips and they were delicious!

With roughly 6-miles to go to Aid #16 I was not looking forward to loosing my running partner. Lu had provided a lot of encouragement and had really helped push me more than he knew. Somewhere through this section he mentioned that he felt great and he thought he could run more. I quickly jumped on the opportunity to let him know that I wouldn’t complain at all if he wanted to keep running with me… I won’t say that I had prayed that God would give me an opening to ask Lu to keep running with me, but I won’t say that I didn’t! I couldn’t remember what total mileage this next aid station was but thought it was somewhere around 86-miles and knew that I had about a half-marathon left to finish out my first 100-miler. We could hear the music from Aid #16 (85.6mi) from a good 1-1.5mi away which was nice to give us a boost to get there as quickly as possible. This last 6-mile section had been rougher toward the top with some technical single track and then opened up into a nice runnable double track that carried us all the way down to Aid #16.

Coming in here it was great to see some Nashville running friends and great to see my original crew who had been out here supporting me throughout the entire day. Dennis (my Dad) and Mary (Stepmother) were still as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as they had been all day. The rest of my crew had long gone to go and get some sleep but I’m truly thankful for my Dad and Mary being there throughout the entire day. Without their help I wouldn’t be doing as well as I have and there’s no way I would have been as well taken care of. They quickly got on board with Lu continuing to run and would see us one last time at Aid #18 where they would take Lu and meet me at the finish line.

Lu and I grabbed some Coke and soup and took off down the forest service road toward Aid #17. After a few hundred yards of walking so I could drink some soup and chug some Coke we took off, and I mean we really took off. I’m not sure if it was the Coke, the idea that I only had about a half-marathon left or what but we had thrown our old rhythm to the wind. We were running up hills, flats and down hills. This section of the race was forest service roads and something lit a spark in us because once we started running we only stopped to take a leak. During the short facility break I asked if he knew how far it was to the next aid station and figured that we still had a little time, but little did we know that just past the next rise was Aid #17(89.6mi). I looked at my watch as we ran into this aid station and told Lu we just ran that last leg as fast I had ran any of the previous ~85 miles.

Not wanting to break our new tempo we grabbed some more Coke and took back off. The next 5-miles of forest road went almost just as fast. We only slowed once or twice to catch our breath on a few small steep climbs and then immediately got back into a quick pace. There was only one time during a walk section that I felt sleepy and I yelled out a few times, Lu looked at me and asked if I was tired… I nodded and he said “Well, let’s get it!” so there was no more walking. Lu did great! I honestly felt bad, because the first 17-miles he ran with me were pretty tame given the amount of climbing/hiking we did and the ~10 miles of extra running that Lu added were not anywhere like the first. Despite my best efforts though, Lu never fell off pace and helped get me through to the final aid station at Aid #18 (95.2mi). As we neared the aid I thanked Lu time and time again and decided that I needed nothing more than a full bottle of coke to get me through to the finish. I yelled out to my crew to fill a bottle with Coke, ran into the aid grabbed my bottle and was out immediately.

They yelled that I had roughly 2-miles of trail down to the road then 3-miles of road to the finish. This 2-mile section was wide double track and jeep road mixture with lots of runoff gullies. I said a few prayers that I wouldn’t twist or break my ankle as I was determined to get through this 5-mile section to the finish as fast as possible. The trail section had a few grassy clearings that we ran through with the Moon beaming down and the tall frosty grass on either side of the trail making for a pretty amazing section to run.

As I found my way to the road I knew that I was almost done and I started to run through things in my head and quickly realized that overall God had helped me with a very successful run. I had only really had one low that I could honestly remember, usually I have at least two during a 50-miler, the weather turned out to be terrific, I was treated to some of the most beautiful scenery, and my family/friends were there throughout the entire race to cheer me on. Lost in my thoughts I quickly realized that I could see the stadium lights and knew that I was just a few minutes from finishing. As I turned between the fencing to head toward the track I was met by my gorgeous wife who had just run over from the camper to meet me for the last 1/4-mile into the finish. I’ve never been fortunate enough to run across any finish with my wife and it worked out that on my first successful 100-mile race I would get to enjoy this with her.

20:36:02, 9th

First and foremost I want to thank God for giving me the opportunity to run and enjoy this beautiful course. I also want to congratulate everyone who ran in the 2014 Pinhoti 100, both finishers and non-finishers alike. Everyone who attempted the run should be very proud. Just by taking the chance to try is an accomplishment because the biggest risk to anyone is failing to take that chance and missing out on life’s great journey.

As always I want to give all the glory to God and thank Him for keeping me and all of the other runners safe throughout the day. It was truly a blessing to run in such a beautiful part of the country. A big thank you to my family/crew for being there to support me. Thanks to my family for being there throughout the day and lifting my spirits more than you could ever know. Lu, thank you for busting out a midnight trail marathon! I want to thank Rock/Creek for all of the great running gear and support throughout the year. Last but not least, I want to thank all of the volunteers and personnel who helped put together the 2014 Pinhoti 100. You guys did an amazing job taking care of all the runners and keeping people on course for such a long race. The trail community is lucky to have met many of you and I look forward to repaying the favor in the future and pray that I can help others as much as you helped me throughout this race.

Until the next race,
Nathan D. Holland
2014 Rock/Creek Race Team

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