November 5-6, 2016
Finish 19:04 | 1st Female | 3rd OA | 20 min. women’s CR | 2:36 PR
Pinhoti has been my focus race of the year and I was excited to step out of my element and take another stab at the 100-mile distance. I have run two 100’s before (Grindstone and Oil Creek) and while neither one was a complete disaster, I never really felt like I had “nailed” the distance like I have other ultra distances. Pinhoti, a point-to-point race with rolling hills (~16,000’ of climbing) and 80% single track close to our new home in Atlanta, sounded perfect.
Things seemed to line up quite well going into the race. Overall, I felt very excellent about my training and its consistency leading up to the race. I had been averaging about 90 mile weeks in the couple months leading up to the race, and hit 120mpw at my peak week 3-4 weeks out. Success in a few training races late summer and early fall boosted my confidence level heading into the race, though I remained “cautiously confident.” Jeff and my brother-in-law Kevin, who had flown in from NYC, were my pace and crew team of the day.
I had broken the race down into 3 sections:
1.) I would spend all day running controlled and relatively comfortably and get to mile 65 aid station just after dark, between 12-13 hours.
2.) From there, Kevin would run with me for the next 20 miles and we would tackle the climbs before arriving at mile 85.
3.) At mile 85, we would see where we were with timing and re-evaluate goal times. Jeff would pace me in the final 15 miles which would primarily be fire road.
The woman’s course record at Pinhoti is four years old and pretty solid – a 19:24 set by Denise Bourassa. Since that time, only one woman has come even within an hour of it. Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to be even close to that and was thinking that coming in at a low 21 hours would be a big PR and a great day for me if things went well.
Race morning I woke up at 5am for the 7am start, downed some oatmeal, banana, almond butter and a cup of black coffee and husband Jeff Merritt and I were on our way from the cheap motel to the race start. The day seemed to bring the perfect temps at about 50 degrees, but things would heat up quickly over the course of the day.
The race took off from the start pretty quickly. I shot up ahead a little bit to try to beat the bottle neck at the start of the trail that I had been warned about. I didn’t really have any issues there and I was grateful that I did this. I started out running with Kat, Sean and Deano, friends Jeff and I had met while training out in the North GA mountains. The pace felt comfortable and, as advised by coach AJW, I took full advantage of the nice downhill single track and let myself open up a bit. But a few miles in we hit some short but steeper climbs, and I held back a bit here, making the decision to hike early and let the others go ahead. I ran by myself for the next couple miles and came into the first Aid station solo.
Several miles breezed by quickly and comfortably and I kept up my strategy. I was drinking lots of Tailwind from my pack and eating Larabars early and had already consumed three of them plus over 2L of Tailwind by the time I got to the mile 18.3 aid station. Gotta eat to live through a 100-mile race! I switched out my hydration pack and headed out for a long 22 mile bout before I would see them again.
I finally started feeling warmed up around that last aid station and had passed Kat coming out of it, putting me in the lead of the women’s field and 14th overall. I enjoyed the next sections of gentle rolling hills and leafy pine needle-covered single track, ran with and then passed a few men along the way to the Bald Rock climb. On the elevation profile this looks like a massive climb and technically it’s the biggest climb of the day, but surprisingly it wasn’t that bad. I actually ran up more sections than I thought I would. At the next aid station, I quickly changed to a lighter pack knowing I would see Jeff and Kevin again in just five miles. At this point I was about 18 minutes ahead of the woman’s CR, which was a very ambitious pace for me. This was a little scary to hear so early in the race, but I figured I was not as far ahead as it seemed because I still had most of the hills of the day to come
After the “Blue Hell” rocky section, the next five miles were overall pretty fast with a good amount of road. It was kind of nice to relax a little and negotiate the very technical decent there on blue hell before hitting the pavement for a couple miles going into the next aid. I downed a couple of “avocado tacos” (avocados with lime juice in a corn tortilla…maybe the most boring taco ever?) and a cup of Coke, not wasting too much time there. I had run the next section before on a training run and it was nice to know what was coming. Again, smooth rolling single track for the next 10 miles, although the leaf cover was very thick in sections and sometimes my foot would even sink down until the leaves were above my ankles. It was a very loud and crunchy run.
I hit the mile 55 aid station feeling very good for just having run 55 miles. I scarfed down some more tacos and Coke and rolled out with my flashlight and headlamp. Dusk was just setting in and I would see the crew again in about 10 miles where Kevin would start pacing. The next section had 3 miles of straight fire road before getting back on the trail. This part was rather boring but at least I knew the miles were ticking by quickly. I passed a couple of guys on this section that were looking less than fresh but who were very encouraging as I passed.
I waited as long as I possibly could before turning on the headlamp (and actually, probably waited a bit too long because I almost ate it on a rock.) I am not a great night runner and I had not done much night running during training and definitely not night trail running, with the exception of the Yeti Snakebite 50K. I was a little nervous for the darkness to come but thinking of that Yeti race took me back to a happy place. Soon I was back on some sweet downhill single track and I didn’t let the darkness slow me down as I flew down the descent into the mile 65 aid station, where my crew was set and Kevin was ready to roll. At this point, my lead on the CR pace had dwindled to 5 minutes and I knew I was not going to be making up any time on the tough upcoming sections.
After we hiked up the first climb heading out of the aid station I took off again on the fun downhill on the backside of that mountain. I knew I had to capitalize on the descents with all the upcoming climbing. These next 20 miles would be the longest distance Kevin had ever traveled on foot and probably his first trail run through the woods at night too. And he would certainly keep things entertaining. Every couple of miles, while in the middle of an exciting tale about NYC living, I would hear him catch his foot, crash and roll into a pile of leaves. Definitely some laughable moments as I kept running and listened for him to catch back up.
Then at mile 73 and just before 10pm we hit the last big climb of the race, leading up to the Pinnacle. The climb was long and grueling and for the first time all day I started feeling less than great. For most of the climb I had my head down and kept up a vigorous hike. When we finally heard the music of the aid station, I started running up sections. Still, the climb continued for what felt like half an hour before we actually reached the top and when we arrived there my stomach was not happy.
This aid station might have been worth the wait though because it was a raging party full of excitement and blaring 80’s rock music on top of the mountain under a moonlit sky. Of course my pacer was thrilled to see that they had bourbon there in the buffet line. While I gulped down a cup of Coke in attempt to ameliorate the stomach problems he was ordering shots of Wild Turkey. I knew we couldn’t linger for too long before things got ugly…for him J
The Coke didn’t seem to help much and for the next few miles the bout of nausea lingered. I was forced to slow the pace and I started to feel discouraged. I began slowly chomping on some potent Trader Joe’s ginger chews. After a long gradual fire road climb out of the next aid station (of which I walked more than I would have liked) and four ginger chews later, things finally started to settle. By mile 83 we were barreling down the single track on the last big descent into the next aid station where we would meet Jeff.
I had not been looking at my watch, but I knew that I was behind CR right now. Still, things were largely improved and I tried to stay positive. Every time a negative thought would creep into my mind I just stuffed food or calories into my mouth (advice that I took from Gary Robbins from a podcast). I was thinking too much and not eating enough. The strategy seemed to work and my mind would soon get back on the right track. The “last half” of 100 milers is the last 20 miles. In my mind, the real race was about to begin.
When the single track dumped out on the fire road at the mile 85.6 aid station where Jeff was waiting for us, I was 15 minutes behind CR pace. It was approaching midnight. I was tired. My legs ached. My stomach was still a bit flippy. I knew that making up that time was going to take a tremendous effort if even possible at this point. This was the part of the race when I had to ask myself an honest question…How badly do you want this? I gulped down some soup and Coke, switched my pack and pacer and Jeff and I were off into the night again.
I had no idea how fast I was running. It felt fast, but everything feels “fast” after 85 miles. For a while I pressed Jeff with persistent questions about our pace; if we were making up enough time, how many miles did we have to go. Most of the rest of the race was on fire road, so pace and splits seemed much more objective and meaningful. It was definitely for the best that I was not wearing a GPS watch for this. Eventually I realized that I was probably expending too much energy asking question than I was running and that I had to trust my body and Jeff’s guidance to get me through these final 2-3 hours.
I dug deep. I became confident that we were making up time but felt like I was going to be cutting it down to the wire, maybe even with seconds of the CR. I would do regular “checks” where I would ask myself if I was giving it everything I had. And each time I would push just a little bit harder.
We breezed by the unmanned water station at mile 89.6 and soon enough arrived at mile 94 where Kevin was waiting with my handheld water bottle. I ditched my hydration pack and grabbed the bottle, not stopping to spare even a few seconds here.
Those final 6.5 miles were painfully glorious. I was confident and more determined than I had been all day. And it felt so good to be unweighted from my hydration pack and running freely. We turned off the fire road onto some amazing downhill single track and just started bombing down. At one moment Jeff got in front of me and I had to ask him to please pick up the pace. Nothing was slowing me down from getting to that high school track and the finish line…
Except maybe a pack of vicious dogs?! The trail dumped out to a desolate and dimly lit back country asphalt road and we were less than 3 miles from the finish line. We were off on a hard and steady pace towards the finish line when, at every other house along the road we were met by angry barks and growls of neighborhood dogs charging out to the road ahead…with no fence! I was more afraid that they were going to slow me down than hurt me. Jeff assured me that if any attacked he would stay back and fight them while I ran on. I didn’t argue with that.
We managed to get by all the angry watch dogs unscathed and finally saw the stadium lights, the high school and the track. It was almost unreal to turn onto that track and take in the final 200 meters that I had thought about every single day in training. I crossed the finish line just after 2am in 19:04, let my paranoid self validate with the RD that I had in fact come in under the previous course record, lay down on the track and took it all in.
Apparently I had put more time on that woman’s course record than I had thought. Jeff knew the whole time too! The men’s CR was also broken with a time of 16:24 by first place guy and stellar athlete David Riddle, who I never saw after the first quarter mile! Fun fact though… I ran faster than him on the last section of the course :-O
Next up for me is a period of R&R, Thanksgiving, and Christmas cookies! Then I suppose it will be time to start training for the Georgia Death Race in April…gulp.
And before I go…
I am so grateful for everyone who has believed in me even when, at times, I don’t believe in myself. Pinhoti 100 was one of the best races that I have run in years and I have also not written a race report in almost two years, so this is the part where I will attempt to make up for it by writing some overdue thank-you’s…
- To my team at Milestone Sports, who took a risk and brought me on as their first brand athlete, despite coming off of a spring 2016 of dissertation writing and racing hiatus. And for working so hard to develop a wearable tech device (the Milestone Pod) that has kept me strong and injury-free for this entire training bout. Consistency in training without any weeks off or missing key workouts due to injury was really critical to my success at Pinhoti and every other race I have run these past few months.
- To my coach AJW, who challenged me every week to step outside my comfort zone, try something new and for disseminating his valuable knowledge from his years of ultrarunning and racing experience.
- To my husband, Jeff Merritt, who has been telling me for the entirety of our relationship that I have what it takes, and pushing me to test the limits in both running and in life.
- To Kevin K Merritt, who will be awarded the BIL of the year award and a handle of Wild Turkey after that one.
- To my patients and research participants, past and current, who have movement-related neurologic disabilities and who face challenges comparable to an ultramarathon every time they attempt to leave their home and cross a street. Spending time with these individuals has enabled me to consider the real issues in life and not take myself too seriously.
- To my mom, dad and Auntie Ann, for their unrelenting and unwavering support in the crazy stuff I attempt to do whether they are local or afar, and for being always being proud regardless of the outcome.
- To all my friends and family for their continuous motivation and encouragement via messages and social media. It really means a lot to feel the support of hundreds of people from all over the country and the world who have your back.
Bonus #1: my gear list!
- Saucony Peregrine 6
- MilestonePod [you are here!]
- Lululemon Cool Racerback II
- Oiselle Flyte shorts
- Nike Pro Classic Sports Bra
- Swiftwick Performance socks
- Buff headwear reflective
- Trail Toes Antifriction
- Ultimate Direction Jenny Vesta pack + Nathan pack
- Standard Timex watch. No GPS. I like racing by effort and rarely use GPS.
- Tailwind Nutrition (Naked and Green Tea Buzz flavors). Not really gear but I drank a lot of this stuff and it’s pretty awesome
Bonus #2: my data!
As promised, for all you data geeks, biomechanical data! No gels and no GPS for this run! The Pod was clipped to my shoe (Saucony Perigrine 6) and collected data for the entire race and I never even noticed it was there.
You can see the points when I was really hammering down with steep hills and then at the end when my tired legs hit the final road section (and I was being chased by dogs!). Using ROI data in training leading up to Pinhoti was invaluable to staying healthy with high mileage weeks. You can also see when I was running fastest and most efficiently by my high leg swing and probably match it closely with the elevation profile of the course. The Pod’s calculated duration and pace is net time – the time I spent “running” (as defined by cadence over 100 steps per minute). The rest of the time was spent hiking or pausing at aid stations to fuel/hydrate/switch or fill packs.
Until next time ~ Jackie