Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More Explorations of the Alabama Pinhoti Trail (Feb 2010)

Continuing report in a series as I explore various section of the Alabama Pinhoti Trail...

Indian Mountain Tract across into Georgia, 15 Feb 2010

Woke 0500, made some breakfast, headed out 0530. Drive went a little slower due to icy roads and winter weather, heading across Sand Mtn was particularly icy and slow. But made it through Piedmont uneventfully and to the High Point Trailhead on US-278 about 0750. Got my gear prepped and leaded north on the Pinhoti Trail 0810. Sun was out, cold and breezy weather all day, starting about 30-35deg windchill.

I made the climb to Davis Mtn Shelter with no problems, stopped there to take a picture and strip off the light pullover jacket, starting to sweat into the layers, which is not good in this weather. Made steady progress over some great trail to Hurricane Creek and the bridge over it, and up into Hawkins Hollow and the swimming hole there. The trail actually has a 10ft ladder to let you down the bank of the hollow before picking up the path again and climbing up the creek bed.

From there the trail makes a steady climb up to the 1700ft overlook and finally up and over Flagpole Mtn. The upper reaches had a thin blanket of 3-4” of snow, but not too bad, nothing a pair of smartwool socks could not need off. What was worse was the 2mi long rock field across and down the ridge that made running difficult, hard to find a rhythm on it. Great views to the south and east into Georgia though. Never could located the Dr. Tom McGhee Memorial marked on the map, but crossed the state line going the ridge, made a phone call to Kirsten for an update, and kept moving since the wind was quite cold.

Ran another 2.4mi into Georgia before coming out onto Jackson Chapel Rd where the first of the road-walks begins. Bloody rolled my right ankle just before the turn-around, took me about 15-20min of walking for the blood to get flowing. Changed socks at the turns, down a pair of GU packets, grabbed another flask of Perpetuem, and began the trip back. Took me 3hr50min to go outbound, about 3hr30min to return.

The climb back up past the state line and onto Flagpole Mtn was a bit rough with the ankle not fully cooperating, but made it well enough. About half of the snow had melted off the summit, but still plenty crisp and breezy on top. Steadily made my way back past 1700ft Overlook and the shallow descents towards Hawkins Hollow. Was frankly starting to get a little tired and bored with it after about 6hrs on the move, and the grinding, power-walk climb out of Hurricane Creek didn’t help any. But got out of that fine and headed for Davis Mtn Shelter. I was very glad to see the shelter, for it meant a mere 2mi left to go to the trailhead. Last portions were fine, ran back through an area known as The Pitts, which is pretty cool, before popping out on the road and 300m down the pavement to the trailhead at 3:30pm.

I had planned to fully rinse off and change clothes, but I wasn’t that wet and too cold outside to be stripping down and scrubbing down with cold water poured into a towel. So just cleaned up my upper body and head, changed into a clean t-shirt, cleaned off my legs, but kept the shoes on for now. Headed out 3:45pm, driving back through Centre, AL for a change of scenery. More snow flurries started as I crossed Sand Mountain, and was a full-on storm as I passed through Guntersville and back up US-431 towards home. Driving was slow as I crossed over icy bridges on the Paint Rock and Flint Rivers. But got in safe and sound around 6:15pm to a warm, cozy house where Kirsten was making waffles for dinner and the request of the boys. Twist my arm! We got the call about 7:30pm that all schools closed tomorrow. So the boys got to play a little longer....

Talladega Mtns Ridgeline and Cheaha Wilderness, 26 Feb 2010

This was Day 1 in back-to-back training session, with the following day being the Mt Cheaha 50k. I woke 0615 with the boys and got everyone off to school. Then headed out myself, on 2.5hr drive to Mt Cheaha State Park. I parked the XTerra at Bald Rock Lodge and got to running about 1030.

Heading out of the park resort area, I stopped to chat with some other folks at the camp store about the race tomorrow, and then headed south on AL-281 (Talladega Skyway), down the road to Adams Gap Trailhead by 11:45 or so. Took a few minutes to jawbone with another fellow hiking from Adams Gap, then turned left and headed up into the Cheaha Wilderness and the Pinhoti Trail.

And this approximately 13.5mi of trail northward toward Blue Mtn is some rough, nasty, gorgeous, scenic and ultimately rewarding running (or hiking). The first mile is a nice climb to get you halfway up the Talladega Mtn ridge and follows the contours for a while before turning into the Stairway to Heaven and a right tough climb into what is called Heaven. This spot is a tree-shrouded boulder formation on top that marks where the trail get on top of the ridge line (well, at least mostly on the ridge, the trail eschews it for a cant 50m down the slope to the left most of the way!). It was pretty cool to keep checking my watch altimeter and see it constantly staying in a band between 2100-2200’ most of the way as I moved northward along the trail for the next two hours. And I was treated to some great views to the north on a sunny, cool day.

The trail on top is fairly rough and challenging, with plenty of rocks and loose footing, lots of leftward cant, tree roots. Ain’t nothing fast about running up there for us mid-packers! I swung past the small bog on Little Caney Head Mtn, took a photo at the intersection of the Cave Creek Trail, and headed for MacDill Point overlook. There I took the 1/4mi detour down to the overlook for a great view to the south along the ridgeline I had been running along. From there I climbed up to Hernandez Peak, saw the trail memorial marker, and then made the descent down towards Hwy 281. But not before I darn near screwed myself. Once you come off Hernandez Peak, the Pinhoti markers have you make a very sharp left-hand turn, which I completely missed and was sucked down another unmarked trail going downhill. About 200m and 100’ elevation down, I realized something wasn’t right. I should be heading mostly north right at Mt Cheaha, but that was on my left and I was going away from it. So turned on my digital watch compass, and sho’ nuf, this decoy trail I had entered was going downhill due east! So realizing my near-mistake, hiked my ass back out there to the top, saw where I had missed the Pinhoti markers, and proceeded to get back on track.

The descent to AL-281 was nice, crossing over the highway about 300m up from the trailhead parking lot. I had the option here of just turning left a and making a short back up to the state park. But I was still feeling decent, and wanted to continue exploring, so went across and was promptly rewarded with 2mi of some damn tough trail on the way to the Blue Mtn shelter. 3-4 slippery spring and streak crossings later, with several short but high-angle climbs/descents, finally made the left turn and began the climb back towards Bald Rock. This is where the Pinhoti 100 course splits off from the actual Pinhoti Trail, so all-too-familiar with this section. It’s a tough, steady climb up to Bald Rock, where I was again rewarded with a great view to the north down into the valley on a clear/sunny day. Ran the last 1/4mi up the boardwalk trail and back into the truck, about 5½ hours on the move and 25mi of running.

While at Bald Rock, hopped inside the lodge and picked up my race packet. Chatted with Todd and Jamie Henderson for a bit, then headed down into Oxford. Checked into my hotel, got some dinner (IHOP, big steak omelet and some nut/grain pancakes). Went back up at the lodge about 6:30pm for the race brief. Sitting with the Huntsville crowd, enjoyed the company very much after a day on the trails solo.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Delano 12-Hour, March 2010

Seeking an alternate recipe for good-times ultrarunning that doesn't involve gnarly mountain trails, rocks, and carrying 10lbs of gear between aid stations, but still is well-supported with lots of good folks? Then one way to go is the annual Delano 12-Hr in Decatur, AL. Race Directors Eric Schotz and Jon Elmore put on an outstanding event, accurately-timed, varying aid station menus all day long, combined with a certified 1.00-mile loop and and options for a 50mi event and relay teams. All proceeds from the event go to the Centers for Developmentally Disabled - North Central Alabama (CDD NCA).

Many local runners put in outstanding performances despite the mentally-tough conditions. Eric Charette went 2d OA in the 50mi race, enroute to a full weekend of training prep for the upcoming Pinhoti FKT adventure. Eric Fritz cranked out 67mi enroute to winning the Masters division (he's probably freaking out a little bit just to realize he's actually in that category now!). Marcus Farris, former Grissom HS standout and current Auburn student and ROTC cadet, goes 3d OA and sets an age-group state record for 50miles while he's at it. Watching that young man smoothly crank out miles through the midday was both maddening and inspiring! Several other from the Fleet Fleet Huntsville Racing team had solid days, plus relay teams. But perhaps the story of the weekend was crazy John Nevels in his 24 Hours of Delano, starting at 6pm on Friday evening, and running for pledges in support of National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases where he raised about $1000 for the group. John put down 62mi (100km) overnight before the official race start in the morning, finishing with an even 100mi in 19hr40min (a personal best for him).

The weather here is always interesting (2009 was torrential rains all morning, 2008 started in a snow storm), and this year did not disappoint. It drizzled and rained in steady 15-20min increments throughout the morning, clearing off and kicking up the wind for a 1/2 hour and promising hope, only to bring more showers (even hail) just about the time you were drying out!

We got going at 6am, armed with chip timing to ease the hassle of counting laps. The was water on the dirt/gravel/cinder path most of the day, creating some slushy and mushy spots along the route. I ran many of the early miles with Blake, Eric Fritz, and Joey Butler, getting lapped with Eric Charette more than I care to admit! Despite the loop course where I thought I would go nuts, I actually began to enjoy the rhythm and the no-guessing aspect of understanding how to deal with every curve, corner, climb/descent (such as they were), etc. I cranked through the first 50k in around 5hr30min, faster than I wanted but OK.

My general goal for the 12-hr event was to move steady all day, ran as well in the afternoon as the morning, then save some juice to crank it up in the final hour. I only sat down twice all day, and that was 5min each at 10am and 2pm to change my socks. Big lesson learned from all my previous ultra and 100s is to never lose momentum in the chair; I sat on a bench to change socks!

The middle of the day was a tough period for me, from the 50k point until about 3pm. We would go from dry and cool to wet-cold as rain storms passed through, a little maddening to watch the black clouds roll in and know what was about to happen. But that is a great aspect of this event, as it provides another opportunity for mental toughness, both in dealing with the weather as well as the seeming-monotony of the loop course; you cannot let your mind wander about too much, but rather force yourself to concentrate and keep rolling, keep drinking, keep fueling, and keep concentrating on your body and what it is telling you.

Blake had a resurgence in the afternoon, which I was glad to see. He's still hurting a bit after a great run at the recent Rocky Raccoon 100 in Texas, and he was not looking real keen through the morning. But we cranked some miles starting around 1:30pm, remarking we were due for one more wave of rain soon. And since Mother Nature probably laughed at our half-assed weather prognosticating skills, she promptly sent a darn hail storm on us around 2:15pm! Yes, that sucked, so I had to take a deep breath, force a smile, and keep moving steadily through it.

Around 4pm the daylight began to wane under the cloud cover, but the course was also drying out in places. By 5pm the Cafe Latte Perpetuem from Hammer Nutrition was kicking in (same stuff that fueled my final hours at the AT100), and I cranked up the pace some. Doing the course math in my head, I figured I could squeeze in 4mi in the final hour to make an even 60mi for the day. But as the adrenaline started to flow and the end of the day came into view, I was able to take mile times down from ~13min (including the forced walk breaks) down to 9min (no walk breaks). So the plan worked as I pushed hard through the last hours, actually conserving enough time to crank out a 61st mile. I crossed the timing mats on final time at 11hr54min and called it day from there; no way I was going to make another loop. Hand shakes and congrats all around with the die-hards who had stuck it out all day long.

I got over to the XTerra and poured a jug of water over my legs to wash the mud off (there was plenty), and started to shiver pretty bad despite still riding high on an adrenaline surge. Then my teeth started to clatter as I dried off and tried to get a jacket on; holy cow that was an interesting few minutes. We had a very nice post-race meal at the nearby Westminster Presbyterian Church and watched the awards ceremony. I made my way home by 8pm, took a shower, and read books with the boys for a while (Dr. Seuss never fails). Then it was time for minor surgery on the nasty blisters that had developed on both pinky toes; I'll spare you the photos of that!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Mt Cheaha 50K - Feb 2010

Another date with likely the toughest trail race in Alabama, along with with the toughest little climb in the state (aka BLUE HELL). And you couldn't ask for a much better race, good folks to race with, and good weather to race in! Todd Henderson and his lovely wife Jamie put on a stellar event, replete with a well-marked course, great aid stations, smiling volunteers, and enough rocks on the trail to make a saint curse!

So this year's Cheaha 50k was actually day #2 of trail running weekend for me, having put in 25mi exploring the Pinhoti Trail in the Cheaha Wilderness the day before...but that little adventure is for another blog post. The day started at 0530from the Hampton Inn in nearby Oxford. Got my gear together, ate some breakfast, caught a ride with the Nevels clan to the starting line. Morning was cold (~30deg) and a little humid, but not bad overall. Weather turned into sunny skies by late morning with winds from north, which made for some great views though some chills as the breeze whipped through cold clothes.

The race started on time 0730 to the playing of "Sweet Home Alabama" as usual. We headed up and over the first section no problems, my legs and knees/ankles feeling surprisingly OK considering yesterday’s mileage. No issues as I went through A/S #1 at Chandler Springs. Tough running in and out of the hollows heading for A/S #2 at Clairmont Gap, but a section on the motorway eased the course a bit.

At A/S #2 I held a minute or two for Eric Fritz and Joey Butler, and ended up running the next 20mi with the good Mr. Fritz. Some challenging, but mostly fun, trail miles as we ground it out to Adams Gap and beyond. Eric was great, keep me move steadier and stronger than I would have done alone, right on my tail nearly the whole way. Caught up with Steve Carter out of Adams Gap, splashed through the first creek crossing together (that sucker was cold!) and pressed ourselves to A/S #4 and then down into the Chinnabee Lake aid station. Another relatively shallow crossing there before A/S #5 and turning for the Silent Trail.

We were dragging a bit in the next 3.5mi, taking a few more walk breaks during the climbs and wading through another creek crossing before popping out on FS Road 600-3. Don’t know why it was there, but we slowed right back to a walk for the next ½ mile after pressing steadily for 25+ on the trails. Finally got to running again, turned right on Cheaha Rd and headed for the final A/S at Cheaha Lake. Given the sunny day and clear skies, we got a whopper view of the Cheaha Massif just a mile away (but a 1000’ climb above us). Going upstairs baby!

We got through the last aid station (one runner downed a bottle of MGD while there!) and got a slow run going before the climb set in. Alas, Eric was having none of it, but I gotta let these thunder-quads of mine earn their keep, so up I went in earnest. Love that climb; he/she who has got the stones can really make some time there, and I managed to roll past 5 other runners on the way up. After emerging onto Bunker Hill Loop Rd on top, got a slow run going again and began to grind out the climb past the observation tower and down onto the last mile of trail.

By now we’ve got a full-on, sun-shiny day, the PA system is cranking some good tunes that can be heard all over the mountain top, so I am actually enjoying these last hurtful miles somewhat. Rounded the corner for the Bald Rock Lodge and cruised into the finish chute around ~6:24 or something like that. Eric Charette (long-since finished and showered) snaps a photo, grabbed my finisher shirt, jabbered with Christian Griffith for a bit (who himself had a stellar day on the course).

The Huntsville/Decatur racing crew had a darn good showing, with DeWayne Satterfield going #2, Eric and Dink also among the top finishers. John Nevels and Marcus Farris turned in some great times as well. I eventually managed to mooch a shower from Fritz/Charette’s lodge room, ate a lot of pizza and jaw-boned in the lodge for another hour or two. Finally caught a ride with the Nevels clan back into Oxford around 1700, got a big cup of Starbucks in Oxford, and made the 2hr drive home to Huntsville. Made a couple of phone calls organizing my 20-year high school class reunion on the way, always enjoyable talking to some of those folks. And sho’ enough, tired or no, my boys were all revved up when I walked through the door so wrestled with them a while and fought off the cramps that were threatening my legs! Good to be a Dad…