Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Great Experience for Ultrarunners

I did something a little different a couple of weeks ago.  I helped with the Pinhoti 100.  Todd Henderson, RD of the Pinhoti was an invaluable help with the Run for Kids Challenge last year and I told him I would be available to fill in where ever and for as long I was needed.  He took me up on the offer.

Over the two weekends before the race I helped with trail marking which is a formidable task on a 100 mile long course like Pinhoti.  The course has about 75 miles of single track trails in some very remote sections of the Talladega National Forest in North East Alabama.  I had run the race in 2008 and the Mt. Cheaha 50K in 2010, which runs on some of the same course in the opposite direction, so I was pretty familiar with some of the more difficult sections to follow.  I still got lost a couple of times.

The race started at 6:00 AM Saturday, November 5th.  I arrived at aid station 4 about 9:30 to pick up the trailer with all the supplies for aid stations through 16, including water.  The trailer was a bit heavy for my little Lexus SUV but it managed. By the time I arrived at AS #4 Karl Meltzer had already gone through the aid station on his way to a new course record, 16:42:20.  I hooked up the trailer, which eliminated the rear suspension on my truck, and hauled the load up to the top of Mt Cheaha to the aid station at Bald Rock, mile 40.9.  I unloaded drop bags, water jugs and aid station supplies.  Fortunately, that make the trailer a little lighter and I shifted some of the weight to the back of trailer before heading down the other side of Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama.  (Did I mention I had no hookup for trailer lights.)

The first stop after Cheaha was aid station 8 at the Silent Trail, then to Hubbard Creek at mile 52 (about 4 miles up a winding, fairly rugged and very narrow gravel road.)  Next was Adams Gap at mile 55.34.  Here I had to wait a while because no one was there to start setting up the aid station.  From there I drove over another narrow gravel and rock road called the Talladega Skyway, down the ridgeline of the Talladega Range to Clairmont Gap at mile 60.  Next was Chandler Springs, Porters Gap (the start of the Cheaha 50K) at mile 68.8.  I skipped the next two aid stations and went to # 16, Bulls Gap at mile 85.63.

The trailer was now empty so I headed back to Adams Gap.  I got back about 6:30 PM and settled in to wait for the aid station to close at 11:00.  This is the "happening" aid station of the race.  They play very loud music that runners can hear long before the reach Adams Gap.  This is a drop bag AS and Adams Gap is manned by a bunch of very enthusiastic volunteers.  They have a lot of lights, hot food and a large fire going and a satellite TV set up to watch the Alabama-LSU Game.  This is also the aid station where runners are past the hardest sections of the race.  Unfortunately, it was very windy and cold on top of the "gap." (In the South, they are Gaps.  In the West, it would be a Saddles.  In Europe and Asia it is a Col.)

As aid stations closed they brought their leftover supplies to Adams Gap and I loaded them into the trailer.  Finally about 11:30 the last runners were through and I loaded all the drop bags and supplies from Adams Gap.  Four runners had dropped at Adams Gap that needed a way back to the start so 2 runners rode with me and two more followed in the car belonging to the "sweep" and we headed back over the road to aid station 11.  There we gathered up more supplies and two more runners and we were off to Sylacauga and the finish.

This plan would have been great except I did not know how to find Sylacauga.  I retraced the roads I had driven earlier while making deliveries to AS16.  Todd had drawn me a map of how to get to each aid station but I still made three wrong turns and had to make a "U" turn after driving a short distance and realizing I was not going the right way.  Every time I turned around the the guys following me in the sweeps car looked at me with a bit of concern.  I think they had some doubt they were ever going to get back to Sylacauga.  I did to!

Finally, we reached the road to aid station 16 and passed a sign, Sylacauga 12 miles.  We made it back.  I dropped off the runners and took the trailer over to the high school stadium (finish line) and unhitched it.  I also removed my headlamp from the back of the trailer.  Since I had no trailer light connections on my car I had taped an orange trail marking flag over the lens of my headlamp and tied the headlamp to the back of the trailer.  I was glad the car was following me.

I got back to the start/finish line about 1:30AM.  Todd had gone back out to remark some of the trail where someone had pulled up the flagging at a road intersection and a couple of runners missed a turn.  I headed back to aid station 13, Porters Gap to wait for it to close at 2:30 and pick up supplies.  I stopped at # 12 on the way to check on a friend Dan, running the Chandler Springs AS but he had packed up and gone by then.  I found out later that he had no help and ran the aid station all night by himself.  If I had  known this, I could have gone back and helped instead of standing around freezing at Adams Gap.

I waited at Porters gap until the sweep runner reached the AS about 3:00, picked up a couple of more runners that had dropped and headed back to Sylacauga.  One of these runners had lost his running partner who had dropped earlier and I made a trip out to the hotel and waited while he tried to find his friend.  We then went back to the start/finish where I left him and went to get the trailer and haul it over to the Rec' Department to unload the drop bags.  The drop bags were loaded in large garbage bags so Me and another guy carried them into the rec center and unloaded the them in an organized piles by aid station.

The cook was making breakfast and I was really hungry and sleepy so I decided to try to sleep a few minutes while waiting for breakfast.  I sat down for a few minutes and gave up on sleep so I got some coffee and checked on breakfast.  It was about 6:15 AM and there was no sign of breakfast being served so I gave up and headed back to Birmingham, about 45 minutes away.  I stopped by McDonald's and got an Egg McMuiffin, hash browns and orange juice and headed home.  I got home a little after 7:00 and did manage to sleep 3 hours, but I hate to waste a day so I got up and got busy.

Although I was exhausted and it took a few days to recover, it was a blast.  I met a lot of great people and had a lot of fun.  Now I have a problem.  I really want to run the race next year, but I want to help too.  I guess I will wait to see how things unfold next year.  If you haven't done so, volunteer for a major ultra trail race.  See what it is like to work you butt off all night long while freezing in the middle of nowhere to help other runners achieve their dreams.  It is truly a rewarding experience.

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