The 2013 Pinhoti 100 was my official return to racing after a prolonged injury. After 14 months, 9 months of that being actively injured and seeking correct treatment, I had more than a little trepidation about how it would go. My training was great, my paces for training runs were solid and the pain in my Achilles was a distant memory... so I stayed positive and hoped for the best.
The week of the race left me feeling like I was fighting a virus. Congestion and a sore throat most of the week. I rested extra and upped the fluids. I left mid-week to fly to Atlanta with my 2 young boys in tow to stay with my parents. After I arrived in Atlanta my symptoms got much worse, to the point the glands in my neck were visibly swollen to my mom. I woke up Thursday morning in a panic that the race was all but ruined unless I started to feel better. I don't generally like doctors and avoid medicine at all costs (the last time I took advil was after childbirth) but I decided I better get checked out. It was quickly determined I had a double ear infection. Great. And I had about 40 hours before the race started. I got started on a Z Pack and went to sleep. By a great stroke of luck I woke up on Friday feeling about 50% better. The race still had a chance!
I met up with my friend, Gene, to drive to the race on Friday. He was a champ and took great care of me. Dealing with a tapered ultra runner the day before a 100 is NOT an easy job. He took it in stride and made me feel relaxed. He even humored me and listened to my music on the drive to Alabama! I got texts from so many people on Friday it was overwhelming. So many people - friends old and new - reached out to give me support and encouragement. Every one of them made a mark on my heart and I am grateful to each one of them to this day. I'd been through a lot with my injury and feeling their support made a huge impact, both in the moment and during the race.
Race day started early with a 4am wake up. I hitched a ride to the start with my friend Jason and his crew. Gene saw me off and had the greatest thing to say to me as I went on my way. He gave me a hug and said "Aw, girl, you know what to do. Go get 'em." It was awesome. It was a chilly morning walking to the adjacent hotel to meet Jason, but I took several deep breaths and reminded myself that my worries were nothing compared to my journey to get to this starting line. I was about to spend a whole day running trails – doing what I love – it was time to smile and soak it up. Jason and I stayed in the warm car as long as possible at the start area before making the half mile walk down to the campground for the start line.
I did something at Pinhoti I’ve never done before – I went out too fast. I’d heard about the start and how it went to single track within about 200 yards and I didn’t want to get stuck running too slow for comfort. Little did I know I was getting caught up in a pace that I wouldn’t have otherwise run. I felt good (of course, I was tapered) and let myself go. The course was frustrating for me on this first section. The trail wound around these short hills where we’d make a brief 100 yard climb that slowly turned to the left, went straight for a short period and then continued left. At that point the trail went down a short descent into a ravine. Sometimes a creek awaited at the bottom, but the trail took a sharp – almost 180 degree – right turn at the bottom and started up the short incline again. The sequence seemed to repeat dozens of times. I found it very hard to get into a rhythm with the constant change in direction. That, coupled with the fact that I’d gone out too fast, zapped a lot of my energy. And I’d even been warned about these directional changes from an expert ahead of time!
Somewhere around mile 20 the wheels started coming loose. The struggle caught me slowly but by mile 25 I was feeling pretty rotten. I got passed by a few women, which was a good blow to the spirit every time. I made several bad steps, one caused me to fall down and several others pinched my left ankle in agony. It seemed that my toes were catching every rock on the trail. In short, my mojo was fading. I started thinking about how far I had yet to run and was overwhelmed with all the negative thoughts that strike during an ultra. This struggle continued for hours and many miles. I questioned my training, the virus I’d had the week of the race, the quick start… I doubted just about everything possible. Then the dreaded D word started to surface. Should I drop? This clearly didn’t seem to be my day. At some point I saw Gene along the trail (I believe this is when the picture below was taken) and I told him things weren’t going well. He gave some reassurances and told me it was early. As I headed off on the trail I could only think of how early it was and how this was going to be a LONG day.
Just before mile 40 I hit rock bottom. I’d fallen back to 8th or 9th place and felt no better. My legs had no energy and my head just wasn’t in the game. As I made the climb up Cheaha I had my “come to Jesus” moment. As I passed by the large rocks along the trail towards the top I stopped for a moment. Not because I was tired but because I was ready to give up. I stood there for, gosh, I don’t even know how long. And then it hit me. It was as if all of the people who’d wished me luck were standing with me there. I felt my brain lift from the fog it had been in. I started thinking clearly. I’m fond of quotes and one came to mind “When things are tough, you are tougher.” I flashed back to the time during my injury. The hours and hours I spent running in the pool, frustrated beyond belief at how no one could fix my ailing Achilles. How hope seemed lost for months and how I never gave up. How so many people helped me get back – not the least of which is my PT who has worked countless hours to fix my body. How so many people were supporting me from afar. I knew then that quitting was never an option. I am not a quitter. I said out loud “Jen, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to finish, you are doing this.” I saw Gene at the aid station at the top of the climb and told him this was going to be a death march kind of day but that I wasn’t giving up. He walked with me down the road and to the start of the trail again. He gave me a hug and said “hug it out.” I knew I was in for a long day but I knew what I had to do now. The drop word was gone from my head.
The descent from Cheaha is really more of a climb down. It’s a large boulder field that will rip your quads up and could cause a fall if you aren’t careful. I took my time on this section and tried to regroup. I'd finally come to embrace the day and the challenges that I faced. My mind was clear and I was focused on only the moment at hand. And you know what? It turned my whole race around.
After the boulder section the race travels along a road section - a little paved but mostly dirt. I saw several runners here and realized that I was leading the group... and catching other groups. After a few miles I saw Gene again and I said to him "I think my legs have some life again." I kept eating the potatoes and salt and tried to focus on getting to the next aid station. Darkness was approaching and I set my sights on Adams Gap, mile 55, where I'd pick up my lights. Gene talked about joining me at mile 55 if I needed him for company if I was hiking but as I rolled into Adams Gap I was confident that I could wait for his help until mile 68.
From mile 55 to mile 68 went pretty smoothly. My legs were starting to feel strong once again and I settled in for the night of running ahead. I was increasingly put off by the gels and chews that I carried with me and enjoyed the real food at the aid stations. I also had caffeine for the first time - which meant that I started chugging coke at every aid station.
Gene joined me at mile 68, Porters Gap. It was nice to finally have some company, I'd been alone on the trail basically all day. The extra light source behind me helped as well. I was starting to feel much better after the early struggle and he reminded me to keep eating and drinking. We ran and hiked several of the climbs and noticed how cold and breezy it was on top of them. I was pretty annoyed at the rocks along this section - they had been there all day, but for some reason when Gene was with me I found myself complaining about them with every step.
After the 2 climbs the course goes up a primitive jeep road. I joked that it wasn't really even suitable for a jeep, maybe a Hummer. This is where things started to feel good. The climb was steady and kept going up with short leveled sections. This is the kind of terrain that I run and run well. I was comfortable running and did so along this entire climb. My legs felt great and at some point along this section I left Gene behind me. I realized after he dropped back that he had my extra batteries so I asked at the next aid station if I could borrow some batteries. They graciously gave me some (which I later needed!) and I promised they could get them replaced by my pacer when he arrived.
I mistakenly thought once I got on this primitive jeep road that the rest of the course was on jeep or gravel road. I was quite wrong about this. There were several trail sections and many of them were not easy. There were some good gravel road sections and I was able to really run them, putting visible distance between myself and the headlamps behind me. I was so sure in my mistaken belief that I stopped looking for turns along this gravel road and missed a turn onto the trail. I was frustrated when I couldn't find the trail and ended up hooking up with several others who'd gone the wrong way to find the right trail again. After I got back on course I was sure to watch very carefully for course markings!
The last miles went very well. I was running strong and felt like I could have run much further than the finish line. When I started to feel life in my legs around mile 50, I'd hoped that I could salvage the race for at least a sub-24 effort. Crossing the finish line so far under 24 was a real joy.
I finished in 22:41, 4th place female, 23rd place overall. The ladies in front of me ran a great race and it was awesome to see that my time ranks me as the 9th fastest woman on the course to date. A testament to how fast this race was this year.
This race had tremendous sentimental value to me. It marked my official return to ultra racing since my injury. Many doubts surfaced but in the end, my strength and determination won over my body and the body did what it knew best. This race tested me in ways I did not expect and proved a mental battle unlike any other. On that Pinhoti trail, I truly found my happiness. I had to transcend the physical pain and connect my brain to my heart. I ran with my heart. I wasn't the strongest runner that day, but I truly enjoyed myself. In my heart, this was a big win.
As the saying goes, you never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have. I've learned that lesson so many times this year. It is no surprise that the Pinhoti 100 taught me another lesson in my own strength.
For all of you who supported me, fixed me, encouraged me, cared about me... this race is for you. Because you were with me every step. My heart thanks you.