Ten years ago at the inaugural running of the Pinhoti 100, I DNF’d (Did Not Finish – runner lingo) around mile 75. I spent the last 10 years wondering if I would, could or should ever attempt running it again.
-Picture from start of inaugural attempt.
Writing about this attempt at a hundred miles has taken me quite some time. It has been hard to write about, not from emotion, but from the lack of them. Each time I start to write about this run I find myself on quite reflection somehow knowing that this time, this event was life changing. Going into the run I went with the idea that the distance may not change me but the way I met myself at the start would. I think that has also transpired into my writing as well.
I thought that after this run writing about it would just flow. This time it has not just come out, it has taken work. If it was not for trying to write a part of my story at the same time I wonder if this would ever have ever been finished. I have changed my life’s story so much by accomplishing many things I had only dream of completing. This has created an interesting soul searching/reflection for me. Through this time I have begun to welcome myself to each search as I learned to at the start of each run.
I hope that you enjoy a little part of my journey that took the form of running ultras. I hope that whatever you see in the post, you see that each one of us can create their own story one word or step at a time. Here is me…
At one time I had run out of anger. This anger came from what I perceived as events happening to me. I ran determined to prove people wrong. Ten years ago In this race I found my self at mile 75 with no anger from witch to run from.
-Picture from inaugural attempt
I have heard that you can’t run from your problems. While I believe that to be true, in this situation I out ran the issue and found I had a much tougher struggle ahead. At mile 75 I simply sat down with no more reason to run. There was no anger to keep me going, there was nothing. There I sat defeated, getting a ride back to the start.
In the military and after my suicide attempts I used my anger to prove others wrong. I’m not too sure I did that very well. These days if I do anything I usually do them to prove things to myself. However, then I ran from anger. After running from that place for a few years, it took me quite a while to find a new way to run.
In 2017 my running had picked up quite a bit. I had found myself and reconnected with a child hood I had buried. I was then running for the joy the trail brought me. I would often, and still do look down at myself as a young child running alongside with me. For some reason it made and makes the miles flow by.
After graduating with a master’s degree in 2017, the next day I set out to run a 50 miler. That and having gone to Geoff Roes’s camp in Alaska gave me the courage to sign up for another 100 miler that year. I timed out on that one and I was fairly hard on myself with this disappointing finish. However instead of letting my dreams run away I signed up for Pinhoti with the hope that ten years would bring the change I needed to make it.
I had watched a Billy Yang film that year about a runner returning to Western States 100. They had been DQ’d as they stumbled across the line. They also almost gave up on running and yet somehow after 10 years they went back and finished. It gave me the idea that turned into the hope to run Pinhoti again in search of redemption.
Training for Pinhoti was not good. I had to work for each mile. In fact I had many injuries this past year. From back issues to IT band stuff. From pulled muscles in my calf, hip flexor and sciatic nerve pain I was hurt. Looking back at my mileage log I was about 500 miles short and a few months absent from where I wanted to be for running Pinhoti.
Not only did I have training and injury issues. I had issues with what life brought me this year. I have not been as stressed out in years as I have been stressed this year. Could it have gotten any worse?
This year one thing was different though. Where at one time I would have thought things were happening to me I now considered that they may be happening for me. As time got closer I relied heavily on the encouragement from my friend Rob.
I think here I have to take a moment to thank the people who have helped me to get to Pinhoti. I would like to thank Rob and CJ for your commitment to my race. CJ and Nisel for pacing me the last 55 miles. Liza Howard for helping to develop a plan. Joe Grant and Geoff Roes for the coaching and teaching me to make things intentional. The list could go on as many people have been an inspiration and or offered support or help. My biggest lesson was just running from a place where I embraced my self, injured and healthy.
So I found myself at the start line, right behind the guy who won Hard Rock 100. I was a mix of emotions and feelings, yet somehow I put it all on hold and as the wired siren sounded we were off. The route narrowed fast with only a quarter mile till we bunched. Going into the single track I was about number 24 I think.
I remember running the first few miles and only being passed by a few people. I slowly slowed down to more consistent pace and dropped back to about 70, but I was feeling good. Most things were uneventful for the first 13 miles or so. Soon I heard the aid station up ahead and here I met my crew at Aid Station 2, mile 13.27. I was feeling great and moving well.
The focus was on nutrition for this race. I used Tailwind to make up about 120 calories and bar or gel for another 80 calories. I made it a point to get any fruit I could from each aid station to bump the calories up a bit more. I seemed that my crew was making me eat all they could when I would see them. It seemed to work as I didn’t have any issues till much later.
I was feeling great. I don’t know what pace I was holding as my watch was set to low GPS accuracy. So I just ran feeling it out. If it started to increase my heart rate to much then I would slow down. If it was a hill I walked and when I walked I walked fast. I had practiced walking and hiking a bit before the race and I felt really comfortable holding a 15.5 pace while hiking.
I saw my crew again at aid station 3 around mile 18.27. I believe I came into this station at 4:02 hrs. It was an impressive pace for not having much training. I certainly was impressing myself and my crew. Here I filled up and topped off everything that was available. Seeing my crew wasn’t going to happen till mile 45 so I needed to be ready. So far the only problem was that my bladder in my hydration vest had gotten stuck. Now this did create an interesting issue. I think the bag almost busted from all of us pulling and tugging on it. Eventually the chafing jell came in handy on keeping the bag unstuck, Rob’s idea.
Leaving the aid station I was trying to remain focused on calories and taking it easy. My first issue was that somehow my Tailwind mix was a little light. Somehow I had told my crew to mix it a bit lighter then what I was used to. My fix was to pick up my eating and use some salt tablets. The only issue with this was that I used up almost all my calories I had.
This shortage made the stops at aid stations 5 and 6 longer than I cared for. At each station I stopped to cram as much food down as possible in just minutes. At station 6, I stopped a bit too long. I had a friend who had come in behind me and he was not doing well. I was in a very happy place and I remember wanting to cheer people up. My buddy encouraged me to hurry up and go to save my time for when I needed it. Since time was my issue today I took off, thanks Jack.
Leaving the aid station I started the climb up to bald rock. Cheaha mountain is said to be the tallest point in Alabama at around 2,500 ft. I was using my poles here and passed several people up the climb. I have heard talk about not needing poles at this race. I agree you don’t have to have poles, but if that saves your legs and allows you to recover while climbing why not use them.
I was in a very happy place when I reached the top and ran down the board walk to the large aid station. I remember getting and giving hugs coming into the aid station. It was one of those great moments in the race. I started eating some ramen noodles and a cheese quesadilla and packed a few more snacks to hold me over to mile 45.
For me the miles from 41 to maybe 51 are miles that I am the most knowledgeable about. Years ago I participated in Mt Cheaha 50k and this ten miles section I had run numerous times. After leaving the aid station I had about a mile jog to the decent of the mountain. The climb up that took about 3 miles now took 3/4 of a mile to go down on the opposite side of the mountain. It was jump from rock to rock, avoid a few roots grab a tree and slingshot yourself down the trail.
-Picture from a previous Cheehaw 50k.
I remember this section with a smile on my face, poles in one hand and bouncing off boulder size rocks down to the bottom. At the bottom I started moving around the lake and up the road. For next few miles I knew the trail followed the road and a Jeep trail. It was time to make up some time. I was speed walking, then running. As I ran down the Jeep trail the light was low and I ran right into my crew at mile 45!
I think I will add in here that this report has been significantly harder than I planned on for writing. This September has been difficult to say the least. I have been experiencing levels of depression and anxiety that I have not had to deal with for many years. While it still visits me time to time, it has not been this demanding for several years. I guess that is why finishing Pinhoti was so important to me, as well as finishing this post.
While I usually enjoy writing, this report about my most important race to date has been forced. Like stated at the beginning writing this piece has required a lot of thought and personal exploration. Going back to mile 45 some of my crew came down the road to meet me. It was so cool running into them. They were not expecting me just yet and then getting to run with them into the aid station was great.
Here I fueled up with soup and coke! I got some extra Tailwind put in my pack and set off with my pacer CJ. We headed out of the aid station now on single track trail that was moderately technical. After about a mile we passed several campers having a good time around a fire. The same thing has happened ten years ago and I was talking this as a good omen.
Time and the paced went quickly for me. CJ kept me focused and I remember having a great conversation for most of the next 30 miles. Many of these miles seemed to blur into each other. Aid stations came and went. I ate a lot of soup and drank a lot of coke. I remember it was just getting colder and colder. My crew asked if I wanted to sit by the fire and I was determined to not be anywhere close to even seeing a fire. I remembered that ten years ago getting warm by the fire was one thing that took me out of the race. I knew I could stay warm if I kept moving and if I got cold sitting down then I knew it was time to get moving.
Move we did I think was ahead of what my crew had thought I would be and I was hoping for maybe a 27 hour finish. Most everything went by just fine until about mile 70. For some reason Mile 70 just seems to creep up on me and in the past has taken me out. I thought it was going to again…
Somewhere around mile 70 I got so sleepy that I started to walk/stumble around with my eyes closed. I wanted to keep going so bad, but I could keep my eyes open. I remember placing my eyes on my poles and crying. In that moment I was so heartbroken because every time before this issue had taken me out of the race.
My pacer was so great, she stopped and said “Phil we knew that this was going to happen”. She explained it to me like this: “the governor comes to us all during these races to shut us down, to tell us it’s not possible”. “It just wants us to give in and relax”. “We knew he was going to show up so what do we do”? “Do you have anything that has caffeine in it”? I looked down and there staring back up at me was a caffeinated gel.
I have no idea how the gel got there. It was a Gu gel and not the type I usually use. I got it down and thought about my pacers explanation. I think I said out loud that I knew what she said was true, I just couldn’t think it at the time. I was just shocked that I couldn’t remember what to do. So I knew I needed to eat. I got a few things down me and then I got some caffeinated jelly beans down and here was the mountain that had defeated me 10 years ago.
I was now walking with my poles. My pace improved and I gradually got faster. We had a runner and her pacer who I labeled as socks (he had some interesting socks) passed us going up the mountain running. I was still having a few issues but I was warming up!
I remember that this time on the trail was hard for a few miles. I don’t remember it all but I do remember getting out my phone and listening to some motivational speakers, one of them being Less Brown. Soon with the caffeine and my phone blaring motivation my pace began to quicken.
I was back to walking at a pace that others were having to run with to keep up. My pacer did a wonderful thing and started talking about not being able to keep up with my walking. She said she was having to run just a bit while we were climbing the mountain. She mentioned something about getting dropped and something lit a fire inside me.
I took off walking up the mountain going faster and faster. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep it up, but I could hear the aid station up ahead and knew I had a couple miles of climbing and then I would be ready to start the real race. I noticed that we were now gaining on the female runner and her pacer with the socks. We kept on getting closer and finally we burst past them.
As we passed socks and his runner, my pacer later told me that I passed her so fast walking while she was trying to run that it completely blew her mind and she stared in disbelief. I know I passed several people while I was walking and they were running. Many of them made some comments about the pace and some even asked how I was able to walk so fast. I was in a grove and I wasn’t interested in much talking. My pacer however, stated many times that you just needed to spend 13 years in the military and then you would be able to walk this fast.
I don’t know that I said much. I just was so focused on moving forward that I really didn’t care for small talk. I was out for redemption and there was just a few miles and one last mountain in my way. After passing socks and his runner I found it a bit hard to keep the pace. I didn’t have any one to real in just yet but I sure wasn’t going to let them catch up. Again my pacer mentioned being dropped and it sure helped to stoke my fire.
I was nearing the top of the mountain and mile 75 when up from below a small group of runners were slowly catching up to me. I tried to keep moving unsure if I could keep the pace. We were now in the section with all the switchbacks. I could stride it out on the long stretch between the switchbacks but on each turn I saw that the runners were catching up to me.
Finally they were right behind me. One started to go around and I quickened my pace. They slowed and asked if I was listening to Les Brown. I said yes, they slowed agian and I took off running up the rest of the mountain. I’m not sure that was the greatest idea, because soon I was just off the trail enough for me to have to bust through a couple of bushes and stumble into the aid station.
It was at this aid station that I had dropped from the race ten years prior. For me I was quite proud of myself for I was feeling great and was quite sure at that point I was unstoppable. Here I refueled and stayed clear of the fire and it’s run ending warmth. I chose to sit far away and was focusing on what was next.
I still stayed at this station longer they I should have. On the way out I picked up my next pacer Nisel. They say that if you’re feeling good in an ultra, just wait because that feeling will pass soon. So, yep that unstoppable feeling came and went.
I don’t really remember much about this part of the race. I do remember zagging back and forth passing then getting passed, zoning in and out. This leg of the race seemed to take forever. Then we stumbled on to the aid station. The wind was blowing hard now. Much of the food was blown around and with just one person manning the station there wasn’t much help for me here. I left before eating much or even enough.
Here we got out on a service road. I took the time to recover and I started walking. It took me a while to get back to my brisk walk, but soon I was reeling people in. Off to my left the sun began to climb and as it woke up the world I began to improve on the pace down the road. It seemed that this road went on and on in the weird and beautiful delusional morning but soon we took a right and were back on single track.
Getting back on the trail was just enough that it took a minute to get used to running and picking up the feet again. Here I remember the trail being fairly flat and some rollers. Most of the trouble here was the rocks and roots that had come back. It seemed that the trail would wind around and a much faster straight trail would have been more appropriate.
It took a bit to get running again on the single track and I am glad we got going again. I’m not sure how long it took me to move through miles 75 to 85, but I lost a good deal of time. Running down into the aid station at 85 my crew hurried me through and got me out on the service road. As we went up the road my crew started texting me to speed it up. I found out later that when I left 85 I had only 15 minutes to cut-off.
The last thing my crew told me was that the rest was downhill from here. I guess looking at the elevation profile it does appear to look like it’s downhill. It however was anything but down. It was just rolling service road hills until the last aid station. I remember moving well at this point and meeting Rob about 3/4 of a mile before the last aid station.
Rob and I ran into the aid station. We ran fast and I forgot until we got in about his sore ankle. Sorry Rob. I do remember Rob’s smile. In fact every time I saw Rob at an aid station he was smiling. Every time I came in he was encouraging me and commenting on how well I was doing at each point. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated Rob and CJ for giving up there weekend to help me run this comeback race.
I found out later that Rob was really concerned about me and he just kept going farther down the trail in the hopes he would find me. When he did and I guess I surprised him as I had picked up a good 45 minutes on the cut-off from my previous 15 minutes. Thanks Rob!
Here we picked up another Band of Runners mentor. It was another little boost and we took off on the last stretch. I think the next 4 or 5 miles were a combination of single track and old service/Jeep roads. It was mostly in the cover of pine trees or cushy grass. My only problem here was that the sun was out, it was warm and I was having issues with drinking enough liquids.
I used most Tailwind and that worked well. It in fact worked better for me than anything else I’ve tried in the past. I also had been using Nuun Tabs in a little water bottle. I liked the little carbonation that it gave. It however dried out my mouth so much it was hard getting anything but water and Tailwind down. This started having a toll right about the time we came out of the trail and had the last 3 miles through town.
The last few miles were really the worst. It was just a 5k through the backside of town and into the football stadium. It was in full sun now and completely on blacktop. Here I was running on the hardball or when a car came by in the ditch. I was so focused on the change in the running surface and the problems that were arising that I was quickly becoming irritable.
It was a tuff run through those last couple miles. About the time I noticed my mindset needed to change was about the moment I saw the stadium. I noticed how even in my depleted state seeing the stadium help to change my mindset from frustration to the curiosity of exploring. As the stadium came into view so did the question of how do I get there?
Having a question with no expectation connected to it also permitted me to pick up the pace. Then there was a gate in the fence surrounding the stadium. Thinking about running through that gate still brings strong feelings to mind as I retrace my steps for this post. I think that’s is where I had my breakthrough, at the fence instead of the finish line.
Crossing that field and then running over the bridge and taking the hard right hand turn onto the track seemed to float by. I remember there being a want to pick up and push the pace. I was moving quickly again and I was probably leaving stuff from the last ten years behind me on that track.
Looking at the pictures of my run on the track my face was focused and looks a bit twisted from my pain cave experience of those last few miles. I don’t remember concentrating that hard, but I do remember the determination to finish. Crossing the finish line was surreal. It was a finish and then that was that. Another chapter over, another to start.
It took a while to write about this journey. The time allowed me more refection. It also gave room to develop the story. Every one has a story to tell and we all get to be the hero of that story. In it, what has happened to us is not as important as what is now available for us. Our responsibility is not to be the victim of blame and shame. It is our responsibility to take responsibility and take steps towards a solution.
Many times the fault of who dun it gets in the way of taking responsibility. Taking responsibilities not for what happened, but for what will happen is of utmost importance. This alone gives us the space needed to find opportunities and options for change. In this space you take control back from the situation.
For most of humanity it is not the suffering that produces the feeling of helplessness/hopelessness. It is the lack of perceived control that triggers the thoughts then feelings of it. Humans can both learn helplessness and how to be their own hero they would write about. Running and writing are just two of the ways I use to write my story of heroism.
Happy Holidays, and may your story be long with everything the trails can bring. Maybe go off and forge your own trails. Run lightly, run free and run with your heart, run unbridled.