We started up a brief incline on a jeep road about a hundred yards. I knew that we would be joining the singletrack on the Pinhoti trail, so I decided to quicken my step a bit to give myself position on the trail. I hit the trail head in about tenth place, and immediately the trail began to warn of impending danger. It was still dark out, and dodging the rocks and roots meant you had to be very quick on your feet. There was a layer of dew/frost on top of a layer of leaves, leaving little to no traction on the trail. There were already a handful of fallen trees just in the first few miles. And the trail was constantly going up and down -- nothing serious, mind you, but enough to knock you off a consistent stride. We were heading uphill over the first stretch. And my mind was racing. Really, 100 miles of this? Oh, boy.
I hit the first mile in just under 13 minutes, about two minutes slower than I had expected. Running in Colorado on trails, I had calculated that I could run 11-minute miles on a moderately hilly trail and keep my heart rate below 130 for the first 10 miles and below 140 for the second ten (if this were a marathon, my pace would be well under 7 minute miles). So around 11-minute miles early was my goal pace. Unfortunately, with the rocks, roots, and undulations of the Pinhoti, my pace was much slower. I knew that sub-21, my dream goal, was totally unrealistic. Even 24 hours would be ambitious if it was going to be like this the whole time. Oh, well. I re-set my expectations and focused my energy on running a pace I could sustain all day. No point in worrying about anything else.
About two miles in, I slipped and fell for the first time, and a handful of folks passed by me. This was the first of about a dozen falls in the first 15 miles. I had envisioned a smooth trail covered by leaves, and so had decided to wear a pair of marathon road racing flats, the Adizero Adios. This was a terrible choice. The trail constantly ducked in and out of river beds and on the sides of hills where the only thing separating you from a 30-foot ledge was the two feet of trail. I needed grip and I wasn't getting it. More frustration.
Meanwhile, runners were blowing past me in packs. I felt that most of them were going out too hard, but it was still tough to see myself slipping back in position so far. By the time I hit the second aid station at mile 13, where I would meet Monica for the first time, I'd estimate I got passed by 40-50 runners. Half the frickin' field was ahead of me. Ugh!
I was concerned, but I tried to maintain a good head. I probably ate 1200-1500 calories in the first three hours, and I knew that I was pacing myself better than most. I'd see most of them again, or so I hoped.
We crossed some road after mile 13, and headed back onto the Pinhoti. I changed shoes into some Montrail Rogue Racers, and they felt a little better. I slipped and fell one last time, and then took a little detour. I have a tendency to get lost (thus, the title of the blog), and so this was a little concerning. Oh, well. I figured since I was off the trail, it might not be a bad time to pinch a grumpy in the woods. I did that, felt much better. And then retraced my steps. Sure enough, about 300 yards back, there were flags pointing up a hill that I'd missed. Classic.
I settled into a cruisey pace, began to chat with some nice fellow from Knoxville, Tennessee, and just decided to enjoy the beautiful day. I ran a couple of easy miles with the guy from Tennessee, and I noticed that my Heart Rate was below where I wanted to be. And so I picked up the pace a little. This was the point where people stopped passing me, and I started passing everyone else. Between this point and mile 40, I probably passed 2/3 of the people who had passed me earlier. I wasn't going any faster, but I was maintaining a constant pace. It definitely gave me an energy boost to see I was picking people up. Things were looking up.
The Problem Begins
Anyone who's ever run with me (or spent more than two hours around me) knows that I have some clumsy tendencies. My nickname freshman and sophomore year of high school was "fence" because of an unfortunate incident with some wind pants and a ten-foot tall chain-link fence. In trail running, this means that I frequently kick rocks and I often take diggers. Saturday was no exception.
In the first 35 miles, I stumbled and fell a bunch of times, but they were innocuous. I got some scrapes and mud, but nothing that would impact my day. Then, at 35, while running up Mt. Cheaha, I kicked the living shit out of a big rock with my left toe. I let loose the first of many, many screams. It hurt like a sonofabitch. But I figured there wasn't much I could do but walk for a bit and let it go numb. A few minutes later I was running again and feeling good. I crested the top of Mt. Cheaha, met up with my crew, and I was in good spirits. I was still well under pace to hit my second goal of sub-24. I might salvage a decent time out of the day after all.
Another pit stop and then down the "Blue Hell," a half mile stretch of trail that descends 1000 feet down to Cheaha lake. My left toe wanted nothing to do with it. I was hugging trees and crawling down using my hands the whole way. I could barely walk. I had decided to leave the hand held for a nathan pack on that stretch, and it might have been the only thing that got me through. I needed free hands to keep the pressures off my left foot.
Eventually, I got the bottom, and made my way around the lake. We ran around the lake on a local road, and I threw in my first sub-10 minute mile of the day. I was feeling great. Maybe these 100 milers aren't so bad after all?
Hit the next aid at 45 and back onto the trail, and here's when it started to get bad. I realized I could no longer run downhill on the technical stretches because my toe was too swollen and painful. You need your toes to break, and my toe felt, well, broken. So I started running downhills in kind of an awkward, sideways motion. At first this worked great, but after a few miles, I noticed that the sides of my feet were blistering up (I never, ever get blisters). By now, my form was all over the place, and the frequency of rock kicks started to increase. Each time I kicked a rock with my left foot it was sheer agony, growing exponentially worse with each subsequent kick. Soon the right foot joined in the pain party. If someone had a swear jar next to me during this stretch, I could have bought a subway franchise with the proceeds. I made it through 50 miles in under 11 hours, but the situation with my feet was deteriorating rapidly.
And that's about the time they turned out the lights.