Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pine Mountain 40 Miler Trail Race

Ok, so this is way late (more than a month after the race), but I still have the scars on my right leg so I figure it is fair game and I have a big race coming up this Saturday (Weymouth Woods 100K), so I better write this now or never. Otherwise, I will be TWO race reports behind.

I was considering Table Rock 50 miler as a December training race, but from what I heard, it is mostly gravel and paved road and that did not particularly appeal to me. I thought the pounding would be hard on the legs for 50 miles. Pine Mountain 40 miler is a rugged, all single track race on the Pine Mountain Trail system of FDR State Park in Pine Mountain, Georgia put on by GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society). My friend and "ultra mentor", Rhonda Hampton, was running it for the 3rd year in a row and invited me to tag along. Plus, I had only raced within a couple of hours of Raleigh in NC and VA, so I thought why not take the opportunity to add a new state? We left Raleigh about 5:00 AM on Saturday, Dec. 3rd since we had about an 8 hour drive. This was the farthest I have traveled to run a race as all the others I have done have been within about a 2 hour drive. We were lucky enough to be able to stay with Rhonda's cousins about 45 minutes from the start instead of having to stay in a hotel room, so we had a nice meal out at Long Horn Steakhouse and then got a decent night's sleep though my legs did feel crampy and I did toss and turn a bit with the normal anxiety of "Will my alarm go off? Did I remember everything? etc."

We left very early Sunday morning and drove the remaining 45 minutes to an hour to the start through what I could tell must be some pretty country despite the dark. We arrived in plenty of time, parked, and picked up our race packet. There was a nice gray fleece hat with "Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Race" on it included in the packet. The finishers prizes - attractive fleece pullovers in dark blue for the men or perriwinkle for the ladies were on display. It was well known that the fleeces would only be given to finishers, so this supplied me some extra motivation to make sure I crossed the finish line. I was not going home without that fleece! I spent 8 hours in the car to get there after all.
Approach to climb the stairs to the dam start.
The race started on top of the lake dam at 7:00 AM, just as the sky was beginning to lighten. The lake was all misty and gray and it was perhaps the most beautiful setting for a race start that I have experienced so far. My pictures of the lake did not come out though. It was not too cold at the start, about 45 degrees, perfect running weather!

The race director, Sarah Tynes, said a few words and then we were off, running across the dam and into the woods. I carried a small flashlight with a strap to use for the first few miles since the visibility was still questionable and I wanted to make sure I did not hurt myself so early in the race, knowing I had to make it through 40 miles.

This was Rhonda's 3rd time running Pine Mountain and she had told me that it would be a challenging course. The race website advertises that the course "will test your endurance and your ankles over rocky single-track trails." The website also advises that the trails will be leaf covered and that you should expect to fall. My goal was to finish within the allowed time and not to break anything as it was most important that I be able to continue training for and be able to run Umstead 100 coming up on March 31st, 2012. When it came down to it, Pine Mountain was a training run for Umstead and I had to keep my ultimate goal in mind. The time limit was 10 hours 30 minutes and there were cut offs at 5 of the aid stations/check points beginning at 22.8 miles at the "TV Tower". The course was runnable for the first couple of miles, which was good since it was still dark, but it soon became more difficult. Rhonda and I ran together for while and I even asked her to take a picture of me at a nice overlook within the first few miles. This section was rocky and dropped off to our right, where there was a nice view of the valley below whenever there was a break in the scrubby trees. Rhonda did not want to stop to take a picture and did not let me take her picture, though she did humor me and take mine.

Rhonda takes my picture and loses a minute or two
 Later that day, I would better understand why she did not want to waste the minute or two it took to take my picture. When we started running again, it became apparent that we were stuck in a huge group of about 20 runners and the ones in front were going slower than we would have liked to have gone.
Just before the first aid station at about mile 5, I turned my right ankle and had to pause to catch my breath and walk through the pain. I had turned the same ankle the weekend before during a training run at Pilot Mountain. I was able to keep moving forward and knew the strain would not end my race, but I lost Rhonda and did not catch up to her at the aid station part way up a hill. Having years of ultra experience, Rhonda was efficient and quickly got what she needed and moved on while I was stuck in the midst of this huge group of runners and struggled to get to the table and coolers. I grabbed some potato chips and drank a cup of gatorade and then continued power walking up the hill, feeling frustrated that I was in the group and that I had already hurt my ankle so early in the day.

Here I must confess that "I was winging it" as far as electrolytes go. I had water only in my Nathan hydration vest and I planned to take GU gels every so often, drink a cup of Gatorade at each aid station, and eat whatever was offered that was salty. Not a good plan, I know, but I don't like to put mix in my hydration pack and S caps had not agreed with me in the past and I had not found another alternative. Yadda, yadda yadda...
Anyway, so I started not feeling so well shortly after leaving the first aid station. I felt a bit weak and slightly dizzy and just not right, especially for so early on. Two other competitors, a guy and a girl that were running together in matching outfits, passed me and I mentioned that I did not feel well and they gave me a couple of endurolyte tabs, which did seem to help me feel normal again. Gotta love the kindness of strangers!
I paced myself pretty well for the next few miles running carefully whenever it was downhill or flat and power hiking the uphills. I tripped at some point and sprained my left ankle. Then I did it again! And again! So now I had twisted my right ankle once and my left three times. In hindsight, I should have run whenever I could see the trail instead of my usual run the downhills and flats and walk the uphills since so much of the trail was leaf covered with rocks hidden underneath.
Tornado Damage Looking Across the Valley

Tornado Damage - Trail View
I think it was at about mile 13 or so that we came to a long section damaged by the April 2010 tornadoes - the same ones that caused so much damage here in NC.  The tornado that came through must have been huge because there was so much damage that it stretched across the valley and the trail was completely exposed to the sun. It ended up being quite warm on the way back later. I had taken a few pictures and just commented to another runner about how extensive the damage was and started running along again. The next thing I know, I was on my back off the side of the trail with my head downhill and my feet up hill. It was steep enough that I actually was having trouble getting back on my feet and back on the trail again when the same pair of runners that gave me the endurolytes earlier stopped and gave me a hand - literally - and pulled me back up on my feet. I had sprained my left ankle for the fourth time and banged my right shin pretty well and blood was dripping down it from 3 or 4 spots. I was starting to tear up with the pain and frustration at falling yet again and the girl put her hand on me and asked me my name. I told her and she proceeded to say a prayer to God for him to give me strength and help me not be frustrated, to help me be more surefooted and have a good run for the rest of the day. Now I am not religious at all, and normally I would have found this prayer for me offensive and annoying, but I realized that this was her way of supporting me as a runner and helping me move forward, so I was actually okay with it. I appreciated that she was kind enough to do what she thought was helpful for me.

At some point I caught up to Rhonda and passed her.
Cascade and Falls Section
When I reached the Rocky Point aid station at about mile 18, one of the volunteers told me that the next section of trail would be more runnable. And it was! It felt so good to be able to pick up the pace for a few miles and stretch out my legs after the hours of slow going. It was at about mile 21 that I entered a very pretty but technical section with small falls and pools and many stream crossings. Fortunately, I was able to navigate all the crossings without getting my feet wet. I say fortunately because I didn't really want to find out how my feet would do for 20 miles once wet. There were short stretches where I could carefully run, but much of the trail only allowed for power walking. Though this cascade section was beautiful, I was happy when I got through it and finally reached the TV Tower aid station/first cut off point at 22.8 miles. I was well ahead of the cut off of 5:59 and perked up a bit now that I was more than half way and on my way back. From mile 23 to about mile 33, I ultra-slogged along, covering mile by mile and getting closer to the finish, but starting to feel pretty tired. Somewhere along the way I followed the trail downhill and noticed the leaves were thicker than I remembered. Suddenly, I heard another runner calling to me from above on the ridge saying that I had taken a wrong turn. I was grateful that she had seen me and been kind enough to call out to me. If she had not, who knows how long I would have continued in the wrong direction, farther and farther from the finish. It was lucky timing that another runner was on the trail at that time as I did run by myself with no one in sight for a significant amount of time that day. I climbed back up the hill I had just come down. I estimated that I went about .3 miles extra out of the way.
I fell once more and this time, I twisted my right ankle (again) and scraped my right hand where I tried to catch myself. Twist Tally: Right ankle 2, Left ankle 4!

Shortly after this, I reached the last manned aid station at mile 34.2. My right hand still bleeding, I was in tears again and the volunteers offered to put a band aid on my hand and shin, but I declined as I just wanted to get out of there before I completely broke down. As I ran downhill leaving the aid station, I heard two guys behind me saying something about me like "I don't think we're gonna catch her, she's taking off now" or something like that. It turned out to be a guy named Rob Apple who has completed countless ultras and his friend (can't recall his name). Don't pull up Rob's results on Ultra Sign Up unless you a have several minutes to spare. Rob and his friend were moving well and we ran together just long enough for them to share some encouraging words and cheer me on. They also let me know that the last 3 miles were apparently mostly downhill and much more runnable than the majority of the course. Though they soon pulled ahead of me and I could not stay with them, I latched onto this idea that the last 3 miles were going to be easier and my goal became to make it to the last aid station (2.9 miles before the finish). In this section between the aid stations, I met a couple who was hiking and listening to Pandora on their IPhone. Their blue-grassy music wafted over to me and lifted my spirits a little more. They asked if there was a race and when I told them about it, they wished me luck and offered to take my picture.
Getting close to the finish! 

Soon after this I reached the last aid station (unmanned) and then began the last 3 miles, mostly downhill and runnable as promised. I was able to pick up the pace a lot and ran all of it without walking. I would guess I was running about a 9:30 min/mile at this point. I was tired, but I kept on pushing because I knew I was close to being done. Finally, I could hear the finish and then see the clearing. I ran across the line in 9:54:55, one very tired, beat up, and happy runner!
After I collected my fleece (YES!) and changed into dry clothes, I started watching for Rhonda to come into sight. I was starting to become a little nervous but then I saw her enter the clearing and cross the finish in 10:20:55 with just a little over 9 minutes to spare. We joked later that I would have felt really bad if she had missed the allowed time by the two minutes it took to take my picture in the beginning.

Rhonda and I at the finish. I earned my fleece!

Pine Mountain 40 was definitely a challenging race. The 10 hours I spent on my feet there was good training for the big race in March. Luckily, I did not break any bones! These trails were the toughest I have ever run and I would say compared to 50 miles on Umstead bridle trails as far as the effort required to complete the distance. The event was well run, had nice swag and I would recommend it to any runner who enjoys adventure, loves single track, and wants to push their limits a bit....and doesn't mind a little trail love.

Trail Love!


  1. Wow! Ouch. Well done!

  2. Anything for free swag! Sounds like a really great race. Congratulations! You are going to do so well at Umstead!

  3. I learned more about your Pine Mtn experience here than during all of our training runs since then. You have peaked my interest and this sounds like a race for me to consider in the future Lauren. Thanks for sharing it so well. U100 is right around the corner.

  4. I read of your falls and twisted ankles, and think to myself, "hmmm, this sounds like fun". We really are a weird bunch.

    Great write up, thanks for sharing, and congrats on getting it done. :)