Saturday, November 9, 2013

2013 Pinhoti 100

Megan at North Country Run 50M Michigan

Meet Megan Rieger

This isn't your usual race report. Rather, this is a story about how I spent a wonderful Saturday morning/afternoon/evening running 100 miles through the woods with a friend across some of the most beautiful trails in Alabama.

I met Megan two years ago at a 50 mile race in Michigan. She definitely made the quite the first impression. I had lined up at the front of the pack at the race start figuring I had a good shot to win or at least place in the top three.

Those of you who know me, know that I like to go out fairly hard to get clear of the early crowds. So you can imagine my surprise when a young woman came flying by me and opened up a couple hundred yards lead in the first half mile. That was Megan!

After leading the race -- including all the men --for quite a few miles, she eventually slowed down. But she didn't slow down that much. She still hung on to finish 1st woman and 5th overall, just 15 minutes or so minutes behind me.

This year Megan and I both again ran the same 50 miler in Michigan. And just like last year Megan went out hard -- leading the race (including all the men) for the first 25 miles. And like last year she faded a bit, but still managed to hang on and finish 1st woman and 5th overall. And she ran about 30 minutes faster this year than last year!

50M women's and men's master's champions!
However, what impressed me the most was how fresh Megan seemed after the race. While I was barely able to hobble up to the beer tent, Megan sprinted effortlessly through the park, hurdling a parking lot fence on her way to her car to get changed. When I later asked her, "you don't even look sore" she laughed and said that her legs never get tired. It was about that time that a light bulb went off in my head and I thought, "hmm, this girl could win Western States one day with a little coaching."

I asked Megan if she had ever thought about running Western States or any other 100 miler and she said that she was definitely interested. I offered to help coach, mentor, pace, or just support her in any way that I could. It was already late August, so she chose Pinhoti, held in early November for her first 100 miler attempt. This would only give her two months to get her mileage up, but that was fine since she wasn't necessarily looking to win the thing, but rather just to finish within the allotted time and qualify for Western States.

Spoiler alert: she did end up winning the thing :)

The Game Plan

Pinhoti is a point-to-point race held in the fall in the Talladega National Forest in Alabama. It contains about 16,000 feet of elevation gain and traverses miles of rocky leaf-covered single-track with numerous river and creek crossings. While it's not the hardest 100 miler out there (as it's not run at elevation), it's not one of the easier ones either!

Originally I had offered to pace Megan which meant that I would be able to run the last 60 miles with her. But at the time, it didn't appear that she would have any crew (her boyfriend David later convinced to drive down from Cincinnati to crew her) and we weren't sure how I would even get out 40 miles into the wilderness.

To make it easier and avoid any problems with logistics, we decided that I would just register for the race and run the entire thing. That way I would be right there with her at mile 40 and be able to start pacing without having to ask a lot of questions like, "how much have you been drinking", "what have you been eating", or "how many times have you fallen". As you can probably tell from her photos with dirt and blood-stained knees and elbows, Megan has a very close relationship with the earth and tends to reacquaint herself with it from time to time during her run :)

So the plan was that neither of us would have an actual pacer. Rather we would just stick together and try to run 100 miles as a team. We were hoping that this would work well since I am strong uphill runner and Megan (coming from a track/sprinter background) has great leg turnover and can really fly on the flats and downhills. And hopefully her boyfriend David would be able to successfully navigate through the forest roads at meet us at some of the crew-accessible aid stations. I gave him my GPS system and wished him luck!

There we are... tiny specks in the way, way, way back!
The Early Easy Miles

Megan and David had missed the pre-race briefing the night before as they ended up exploring some of Alabama's less-known roads while trying to skirt rush-hour traffic. So I spent some time on the morning bus ride to the start briefing Megan about the course. While I really wanted to make sure that Megan didn't go out recklessly hard like she had done in her previous three ultras (this would only be her 4th ultra and her first 100), I was also concerned about us going out too slow and getting caught in a conga line in the early single-track miles.

Unfortunately things don't always go as planned and Megan found herself just coming out of the bathroom as the race started. What a rookie! We were officially now in last place and only had 1/4 mile to pass as many people on the open fire road before we hit the conga-line single-track where we would potentially be stuck for hours.

Luckily we were able to pass quite a few of the 265 starters and moved up somewhere in the top 40 or so. We got a bit bottled up in the narrow early single-track sections for the first 7 miles but we were able to improve our position by running straight through the occasional early river crossings while the other runners slowed down and queued up trying to keep their feet dry by rock-hopping.

Beautiful Lake Morgan
By the first checkpoint we had moved up into the top 20 and Megan was in 2nd place among the women with UROC race director Francesca Conte just behind us and an unknown first-time 100 mile female runner just a minute or so ahead. I told Megan that this was the perfect spot to be and that she should just stay calm and take it easy until at least mile 40 before even worrying about her place or time. Put it on cruise control!

As we approached the Lake Morgan aid station at mile 27.66 we saw the lead woman head out just as we approached. But we spent quite a bit of time at the aid station and Francesca came in and quickly headed back out while we were still stuffing our faces with food. I told Megan not to sweat it though as it was still very early in the race.

On top of the world (or at least Alabama)
The Middle Muddled Miles

Much to our surprise, not too long after the 50K point in the race Megan passed both Rachel (the woman who had been leading the race) and Francesca within a span of just a few minutes. Francesca seemed to be having some issues with her shoes or shoelaces, and Rachel had simply dramatically slowed down, almost inexplicably. We would later read in her blog that she had hit a bit of a mental low spot at this point (but she would eventually recover and hold on to finish 5th woman).

Around mile 38 or so we began the climb up to Bald Rock, the highest point of the race (and in fact the highest point in all of Alabama). This was really the first time we took a break from running and did some good power hiking up to the top. It felt good to switch gears and mix thing up a bit to give the muscles a little break. But unfortunately we hit the top of the hill in no time at all and had to start running again :(

Unlike this guy, we ran down Blue Hell
But wait, have I told you about "Blue Hell"? Just a mile or so after cresting the Bald Rock we found ourselves no longer able to run and instead forced to do actual scrambling down a rocky cliff. This was far more difficult than anything I had ever personally encountered in any other 100 miler (though I am sure Hardrockers would have loved it).

After escaping from Blue Hell we got into a pretty good groove sharing stories about our childhood and teenage years (note: my childhood stories were a bit more dated and Megan is probably still wondering what the heck a "VCR" is).

Eventually we started to run out of stories and sunlight and we found ourselves running in silence in the dark, appreciating the beauty of the stars under God's sky.

The Late Sucky Miles

The last twenty miles were, as you might expect, the most difficult of the race. Running at night in the dark is always challenging. And to make things worse, Megan's right knee was really starting to bother her. It had actually been bothering her all day since she tweaked a pre-existing injury very early on in the first 10 miles. She had been soldiering on through the pain, fueled on by her faith (and a fair bit of Advil). But now she was having trouble even putting weight on it, much less running.

Pretty nice hardware!
But she dug a little deeper and we pressed on. We walked the hills, but we flew down the descents! At one point, when my flashlight was almost dead and barely putting out any light, I was having trouble keeping up with Megan as she absolutely bombed one of the descents. But I didn't dare slow down or else I would have found myself running alone in the dark.

Finally we popped out of the forest and onto the paved road that would lead us to the finish at the local high school track two miles away. Everything seemed a bit surreal. I couldn't believe that Megan was not only about to finish her first hundred miler, but that she was going to win it! We joked a bit about what kind of celebration dance she was going to do when we crossed the finish line.

Megan and David at the award's ceremony!
After what seemed like 5 miles and several false sightings of the finish, we finally made it to the school. It was around 3:30 am in the morning so there wasn't much of a crowd, but Megan's boyfriend David was there cheering her on, and I am sure that was enough for her. As soon as we crossed the line the race director congratulated us and handed us our buckles. Talk about prompt service!

Megan used her high school track sprinter speed to edge me out in a photo finish with a 21:22:39 for 13th place overall while I clocked 21:22:40 for 14th place -- my second fastest 100 miler ever. More impressively, we ran pretty even splits with 10:30 for the first 50 miles and 10:52 for the second 50 miles!

To sum things up, it was a beautiful race on some of the best single-track I have ever run on. The weather was perfect. The volunteers were amazing and the food -- oh, man I could have written a whole blog post just on the food: fried egg and ham sandwiches, pigs in a blanket, potato soup, venison, meatballs, and much more. And Megan, running her first 100 miler ever, got the win showcasing her incredible talent and toughness. I can't wait to see what she does next!


Jeremy said...

That's crazy.

Lorenski said...

Well since I already go to Alabama every once in a while, count me in.

megan rieger said...

What a friend I have found in John-- he selflessly offered his time & talent to help me succeed in one of the biggest undertakings of my life to date. Without him, I would have probably either a.) have gone out way too hard and been crawling to the finish line, b.) be suffering from insufficient caloric intake or salt & ibuprofen overdoses, or c.) never actually signed up for a 100. Every aspect of the race that would have seemed insurmountable on my own (mental fatigue, running in the dark for 10 hours, knee issues, etc.) seemed incredibly lighter with such a great companion by my side for every wonderful and brutal step of the way.

Jason Flassing said...

Great race report. I was glad to run some of those "late sucky miles" with you. Hopefully we'll hook up again sometime and congrats to both of you!

Philippe Gauvin said...

Hi John, it's Phil! We met after the race. Glad I found your blog and I hope we'll cross path again in some nice trail. cheers,

tsbjf said...

What a cool story!!