Pinhoti Trail: Day 3 - By Eric

Posted by posted by Eric Charette

Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run Day 3

Waking up to the sound of rain at the America's Best Value Inn located in Heflin, Alabama might as well have been foreshadowing of the events that would soon unfold. It had rained most of the night and it continued steadily as we packed our last minute gear into each crew vehicle. We were fortunate enough to have a very short drive to the trail head at I-20, which meant that we were able to get a little extra sleep on this morning. That was welcome, as we had quite the contingent of people hanging out in our room the night prior while we watched 'Talladega Nights' and ate Mellow Mushroom Pizza. I was starting to run into sleep debt as I was now coming off of my third night of restless sleep not totaling more than a dozen hours since waking up Friday morning. For the record, it was now Monday, May 3rd.

In the first 37 hours since our start on Saturday morning we had covered 101 miles, marking my first 100 mile event completion. I was letting this accomplishment fuel some positive thinking as I sat in the back of Josh's (Kennedy) Xterra and listened to Matthew (Kennedy) talk to himself about the hotel not being much of a value without a pool or breakfast. He did have a point, but it was the best that Heflin had to offer.

In a small convoy we drove to the trailhead and after putting on our rain gear, Rob (Youngren) and I along with pacers David (Riddle) and Blake (Thompson) took to the first trail section. The sections of trail between road crossings where we would meet our crew were all relatively short during the morning and at less than 3 miles, the first jaunt in the woods was no exception. I lead the way with Rob and gang following closely. I realized very quickly that unlike the first two days where we were able to maintain dry feet all day, that the low lying areas and water sheds of this day were going to be different. The continued rain had the streams full and within minutes my shoes were saturated with water. Normally this would have been fine, but with my now fully developed blisters on each forefoot, running with wet feet all day was just going to exacerbate the problem.

It was not long after this that I also came to the realization that I was holding up Rob with my slow pace and walking of the downhills. As with the end of day 2 I was able to climb fine, but the forefoot pressure felt on the downslopes was intense. After crossing a barren section where a tornado had rolled through in the recent past, we came to the road crossing where we met our crew. I used this opportunity to take two Tylenol in hopes of numbing the pain. It was a quick stop as we just had another 3 miles to go before the next stop.

The terrain changed when we crossed the road as it turned into a lush rain forest with green foliage and more water crossings. Rob was now setting the pace and despite David wanting to run behind me (to keep me with the group) I asked him to run ahead as I was hurting and I was starting to alternate running with walking which did not hurt nearly as bad. As we approached the 6 mile mark, we had a long downhill with a short powerline crossing that lead down to the crew vehicles. Kathy, Sarah and Blake were planning on heading back into Heflin to get breakfast sandwiches from Hardees and I was looking forward to some solid food as I was too nervous at the start of the day with the rain to eat. As we popped out of the woods, the rain began to subside so we could stand and eat with the gang without having to huddle up under the back hatch of the Xterra. The food really hit the spot and helped to calm my nerves.

I was ready to roll before the others were and I started to walk down the hill hoping to get back into the grove before the others caught up. I was doing my best to manage my pain but it was starting to exceed the threshold of what I could tolerate for any period of time. Within a few minutes we were together as a group and jogging along. We approached a section where there was a downhill that I could not attack with the same intensity as Rob was prepared for, and I stepped aside to let them run through. Of course not feeling as strong as Rob this early in the day was a little emotionally tough, but I tried to stay head strong. I kept up as well as I could for the next few miles but the constant flexing of my forefoot with every step was aggravating my blisters to the point where I knew that I needed to take immediate action. I decided on the approach to one of the hill climbs that I would sprint ahead and have Josh work on my feet in hopes that we could perform some miracles quickly and I would be able to minimize the impact on Rob.

So I locked in a very fast pace for the next mile, powering up the hills climbs and flying on the downhills, fighting through the pain of each foot fall. David caught up with me toward the latter half of the mile as we came to the road where Josh waited. I immediately grabbed the folding chair and sat down so he could inspect the problem. I had him focus on my right foot, which was much worse than the left, being a right side dominate runner. He drained the blister and did some other informal medical work as I bit down on my hat to avoid screaming out like a little girl. I had never experienced anything like this before in my limited distance ultra-running endeavors before. Josh did not seem to be in a hurry and I could tell that Rob was getting a little frustrated as we had a very long day ahead of us with the last 18 miles up and over Dugger Mountain. He bandaged me up and I put my shoes back on after about 10 minutes.

I gave it my very best effort to keep up the pace but before too long it was David and I walking together as Rob and Blake slowly pulled away. This would be the last time I would see Rob all day.  David seemed to know precisely what I needed; to walk in silence.  He knew that I was agonizing in pain and that I was going on pure guts at that point as I refused to give up.  He asked once about the pain and I said that it was in every step that I took, but that walking was not as painful.  I thanked him for sticking with me and we talked for a little while.  I really appreciated his company as without him I probably would have sat down on the side of the trail and quit all together.

After quite some time, we popped out at the trail head.  Josh, Blake, Kathy and Sarah were all there.  Josh immediately advised David to go out and get Rob; he had left just minutes prior.

Rob and I had this painful discussion a week prior where we talked about the inevitable; what would we do if either runner started to fall back.  We decided that our immediate protocol would be to slow down for a few miles and see if the other would recover.  After that, it was to move on and separate, hoping that by the end of the day, the other runner would make up the distance so we could start together again on the following day.

So as I got to the crew vehicle I immediately went for my phone.  I needed some advice from my wife Laura, who I knew would speak from her heart.  This was in no way a sign of weakness or of a meltdown; the others around me could see what was happening and I needed an unbiased opinion from Laura.  I have never called her on anything like this before, but at this critical point in the adventure I thought it was very appropriate.  I explained my current situation and the pain that I was under.  I shared with her the facts and what I was feeling.  She said that I could quit for the day and just join back in later.  I explained to her that if I quit now, the adventure was over for me.  It was an end-to-end thru-hike not a jump in the car anytime it hurts run.  To be honest I am not sure how the rest of the conversation went, but she instilled the notion in my head that I would deeply regret it later if I stopped now.

So on that note, I refilled my bottles and with Blake in-tow, I headed out on the next section with a refusal to quit.  I just needed a reality check and someone from home to talk to me.

The next 4 and a half miles were probably the best 4 and a half miles of the entire week in regard to scenery.  The course was rolling terrain with easy footing and with the best stream and river crossings I have ever seen.  Several times we were nearly waist deep and it felt so good on my feet and aching joints.  Blake made a few attempts at small talk and tried to get me to run, but it wasn't working and I was honest with him that I appreciated his trials but I just needed the company to keep me moving.  As we approached the far end, we came across Sarah and Kathy who were waiting for us.

This was the most pivotal point of the entire run for me.  I was utterly convinced that my adventure was over.  I had my mind made up.  I sat down on the ground and took my shoes off.  I was done.

It is hard to tell from these pictures, but the blister on the bottom of my right forefoot caused my gait to change which gave me a large blister on the back of my left heel.

Kathy then started a conversation with me that I will never forget.  She said that she had talked to Dink (Taylor) and to (David) Horton.  I am not sure who said what, but here are the phrases she told me...

"What did you expect?" (As in, did you think it was going to be easy?)
"It almost always never gets any worse" (As in, it has to get better)

I kept telling Kathy that I was thinking clearly and that I had been contemplating the decision to quit for the last four hours.  I told her that I was completely fine with my choice.  She responded with:

"Pull your head out of your ass and get going" (As in, harden the fuck up douche bag)

And with that, I changed my shoes and socks and got going.  I will never forget her helping me to get my head on straight and suck it up.

So for the next 3 miles or so, I was paced my Sarah Bowden.  Sarah had a much different approach to pacing than Blake or David.  She refused to stay quiet or let me wallow in my own self-pity.  She sang for awhile, talked about non-running things, asked me questions about my favorite color, etc.  It was very entertaining and helped to keep my mind off of the pain.  In no time at all, we had covered the section from FS 531 to FSR 500.

I was entertained mightily here by David Riddle sporting his McKay Hollow trucker cap which clearly did not fit his head.  I thought it looked ridiculous which was probably the look he was going for to keep my spirits up.  I took some time at this aid stop to sit down and rest.  I stayed there for about 5 minutes in heat of the mid-day sun before getting my act together and preparing for the next section.  Kathy offered to go with me but I was ready to tackle a few sections alone, so I set off sans pacer this time.

The next few sections walking alone were a combination of a pity-party along with some true soul searching.  At times I would stop and lay on a bridge for a few minutes trying to get some time off my feet and at times I would attempt to shuffle briskly and make up the time I spent vertical on the bridge.  Yet all in all, I was moving forward.

On each section, the crew would jump ahead and then hike back in to find me.  Before Choccolocco Creek Lake, Blake hiked back in along with David and carried my into the crew spot.  When we got there, Kathy and Sarah were lying out on the "beach" trying to catch some rays.  Apparently the beer drinking had already started; I was jealous that I could not partake.

After Kathy put out my inflatable sleep pad, I proceeded to lie down and rest for a few more minutes.  This excessive time at each stop was going to severely limit the distance that I would log for the day but at this point I was just thinking about making forward progress.  Finally I decided it was time to move on and as I slammed my Boost and ate my string cheese, I decided that it was time for me to enlist the help of my new Black Diamond Spire Elliptical Trekking Poles.  I picked these up a few weeks before the adventure, though I had not used them yet.  They are the same model that Karl Meltzer uses.

As soon as I left the crew, I immediately encounter a section of trail that was totally under water.  Wanting to keep my feet dry after they had been re-bandaged, I hiked upstream until I could find a place to cross.  it took a considerable amount of time, but keeping my feet dry was the number one priority.  The poles proved to be helpful right away as I used them to stabilize my jump across the stream and then hike up the hill. 

Toward the end of the section I came across yet another stream crossing.  I decided this time to take off my shoes and socks and ford it barefoot.  There was a shelter (Laurel?) on the other side with a picnic table.  After crossing the water, I sat on the picnic table and sent out a Spot Messenger message and snapped this picture with my cell phone.  This image truly captures how I was feeling; a picture says a 1000 words.  I was dazed, spaced, out of it, etc.  I just knew that I had to keep on pushing forward, one foot in front of the other.  Toward the end, Kathy and Sarah had hiked back in to find me.  Luckily I was not lying on a bridge when they got there, but actually moving fairly quickly with aid of my new best friends - my trekking poles.

Finally I could see that the crew was now expanded to include Eric Fritz.  He was coming off of an impressive performance at Strolling Jim two days earlier where he shaved nearly an hour off of his best time.  Eric would be crew for the next two days and then be running with us toward the end of the week. 

I took the opportunity to adjust my poles by tightening the lower portion so I could place more weight on them pushing down without them collapsing.  These two pictures show me with the screw driver then consuming more Boost and string cheese.

It was just a very short section from there and it was aided by my next newest best friend which was my iPod.  I fiddled with it for a few minutes at the trail head as I walked away, trying to cue up something inspirational.  I settled on a little Hannah Montana with "The Climb"; a song that I would continue to listen to for the next couple of hours. 

The struggles I'm facing
The chances I'm taking
Sometimes might knock me down
But no, I'm not breaking
I may not know it
But these are the moments that
I'm gonna remember most, yeah
Just gotta keep going

And I, I got to be strong
Just keep pushing on

'Cause there's always gonna be another mountain
I'm always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be a uphill battle
Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose

Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb, yeah!

At times I found myself just belting out the lyrics at the top of my lungs. I was catching my second wind and the pace was picking up.  It may sound totally corny, but it was this damn song that lifted my spirts on this day.  It turned out to be a good thing because at FSR 500, I would finally see crew chief Josh again and have to face the music on my plans for the next few days.  I decided to do most of the talking, telling him how I felt and my plans to keep going.  At this point I was still committed to trying to complete the entire 335 miles but had the 'B' goal of just making it the state line and completing the Alabama Pinhoti as a back up plan.  He slapped me on the ass (figuratively) and told me to get going.  David Riddle was leaving to head back to Huntsville so I took a quick moment to thank him for all he had done; it was well appreciated.

The next to last section was a short 1.9 mile stretch across some barren land that was wide open from a recent controlled burn.  The ground still stunk of ash and cinder.  I was jamming out to Miley and actually was in a running motion for 30 seconds at a time.  This built until I was running for 1 minute, then 2 minutes in between breaks.  I was starting to realize that I had just one more long stretch after this one and I would be done for the day, albeit 10-15 miles behind Rob.  With about a half-mile to go and facing a slight climb, I cranked up the volume and ran it all the way in.  It was a tremendous feeling to have Blake, Sarah, Eric and Kathy see me running when I got to the crew vehicle.  I ran 1.9 miles in under 36 minutes; pretty blazing fast considering my previous mile splits were in the 20 minute range.

The last section was about 10km so I got together my pack and filled it with fluids and food.  This could take 3 hours based on the terrain.  I was ready and actually looking forward to going it alone, but Blake was elected to pace with me; probably to keep me going as we neared darkness.  As with each aid stop from the rest of the day, I had asked for, and been denied to have a cigarette.  I haven't had one in years, but I kept asking for them, seriously.  I didn't really want one but I thought it was funny to be in the middle of something that required so much stamina and physical ability and want a smoke at the same time.

Blake and left out together, lightly jogging on the decent into the watershed.  There were some great waterfalls as we hiked along a river for the next three miles.  It was at the bottom of a deep valley and the notion of keeping dry feet was impossible.  It was like "slush-mile" from Mckay Hollow (Monte Sano, Huntsville) times 10.  The puddles were up to my mid shins and that was along the good parts of the trail.  Blake lead the way and we actually made pretty good time.

With about 2 miles to go, we crossed an earthen dam and that is where I stated to hit the wall again.  I had been going for 11+ hours and I was at a very low point, emotionally and physically.  Blake started to pull ahead and I started to drop back, creating some seperation.  I could tell that he was ready to be done.  On the last summit, (which turned out to be the last summit before the last summit before the last summit) I had to stop and lean up against a tree.  I was out of fluids and just ate the last of my food.  I was ready just to lie down in the middle of the trail, as I had done earlier in the day.  It was getting dark now in the woods so I knew that I had to pick it up a little to not have to use the head lamp, but my body was not responding. 

The last 2 miles would take me about 45 minutes to cover. 

Upon reaching the road, Blake told me that they were parked down at a trailhead, but that I had to hike down to get there. Here I am coming out of the woods and stopping my watch after a having "run" from 6:04:05 am for 13 hours, 6 minutes and 32 seconds until 7:10:37 pm, covering 35.1 miles at an average pace of 17:41 minute-miles.  This put my three day total at 136.1 miles.

And then proceeding to collapse.

The completion of the first day of the Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run was made possible through extensive training. Day two of PTAR was all about pain management.  Day three of PTAR was all about my pacers and the support of my crew.  I am eternally grateful to you.

Start Time: 6:04:05
End Time: 19:10:37
Total Time Running: 13 hours 6 minutes 32 seconds

Total Distance: 35.1 miles

Elevation Change: 4,043' of elevation climb and 4,190' of elevation drop for 8,233' of elevation change.
PTAR Day 2 part 1 (GPS A): 3,164' of elevation climb and 3,010 of elevation drop
PTAR Day 2 part 1 (GPS B): 879' of elevation climb and 1,180' of elevation drop