I wrote what I considered my best race article when I covered Pinhoti 100 last November. I submitted it to Ultrarunning Magazine, who, so they could publish another person’s Pinhoti Race report, cut mine to the bone. What remains embarrasses me.
Here is the full thing, for which I am quite proud, even if it never sees the light of day.
In the early morning of Sunday November 5 a lone runner sits before the fire at Wormey’s aid station at mile 80 of the Pinhoti 100. He’s exhausted and depleted. Unseasonably warm temperatures the day before wrought havoc on the field, causing up to 40% of the entrants of the Pinhoti 100 to drop or miss cutoffs. But here, more than 24 hours after the race began sat Jason. He had missed a cutoff and wouldn’t finish. He was slowly coming to terms with running so far for a dream only to see it die a slow and irreversible death. Taking a sip of coffee, he looked up at the person sitting across the fire and said “I had a good 80 miles,” and cracked a faint smile. He returned his gaze to the fire. No regrets. No anger. Only quiet acceptance of a good day in the woods.
A few hours earlier at the Adams Gap aid station at mile 55 a runner stumbles out of the woods to a smattering of applause. He lies down on the road. Within a minute he is sound asleep. The folks around him wonder if this is it for him or just a power nap to get him through the last half of the race. He, too, slogged through a hot Alabama November Saturday and expended too much energy, lost too much sweat, and had little left. After ten minutes he stands and faces a decision. Can he, should he, push on? Or does he surrender to the pitfalls and challenge of the 100 mile distance? He reaches for the latches on his hydration pack. In that moment the decision becomes clear. The pack loosens on his shoulder and slips off. He sits back down. Too tired for emotion. Too exhausted to speak. Simple resignation. An acceptance of the end of a dream and the beginning of the mental gymnastics that all ultra runners go through when their race ends short of the finish line. In the background, stereo speakers at the aid station play Billy Joel’s classic hit “Only the Good Die Young.”
For every story of disappointment or failure at Pinhoti there is one of triumph. The next morning dozens of runners will cross the finish line. For some this is their first buckle. They cry and smile and then fall asleep in the car on the way home only to be awakened by the incredible hunger that comes a few hours after a 100 mile race. The veterans smile too as they get their buckle that will join their collection. Whether the first or the tenth 100 miler, the feeling is the same: equal portions of pride, disbelief, relief, and exhaustion.
Welcome to northeast Alabama and the Pinhoti 100. In its tenth year Pinhoti 100 has lured runners from all over the U.S, and many foreign nations to the Pinhoti Trail for a point-to-point 100 mile race from Heflin, Alabama to the track of the football stadium in Sylacauga, Alabama, where Race Director Todd Henderson lives and where he dreamed up the race a decade ago to give Alabama trail runners a home-race along some of the most beautiful trail and scenic vistas in the state. The race takes runners to the top of Alabama, its highest point at Bald Rock on top of Mt Cheaha and back down again across the undulating trails that make up the Pinhoti trail system that runs through Alabama and Georgia.
Pinhoti 100 attracts elite runners and those seeking their first buckle. Karl Metzler has run and won three times. Yassine Diboun ran it a few years ago. Regional elites swarm to the race. It’s attraction, aside from beautiful vistas and trails, is that it is a qualifying race for Western States. More than a few people have earned their WS100 lottery ticket along the Pinhoti.
Pinhoti is Creek for “turkey home” (the trail marker is a blue blaze and a turkey footprint) and runners often see rafters of wild turkey along the trail, which 335 miles runs from its southern terminus at Flagg Mountain just southeast of Birmingham, Alabama to its northern terminus in Georgia where it meets the Benton-McKay trail at Springer Mountain.
Henderson started the race, in fact a whole series of Pinhoti races, in 2006 noting the lack of any signature trail events in the area. He wanted to be able to see his friends compete without having to travel. And he wanted to showcase the beauty, and difficulty, of the Pinhoti. He knew that local runners wold not only run the race, but crew and pace for it as well. In fact, with so many drops this year there were almost a dozen pacers who had lost their runners early in the race from drops, that they were driving around looking to help anyone who needed it. That kind of running spirit is what makes Todd and Jamie Henderson proud of this trail family they’ve created and what attracts runners from all over the country.