This is a great race – beautiful trails, wonderful people, amazing support. To be clear, I did not finish as I had to drop at mile 60 (although I ran 62!) due to an injury that would have prevented me from making the time cutoffs. But I learned a lot so it was a worthwhile experience.
Despite reading numerous race reports, listening to several podcasts and talking to runners who had completed Pinhoti, I could have been more prepared and want to be helpful to other runners who are planning to take this one on.
Before the race, I found that there were a lot of inconsistencies – the total elevation gain ranged from between 14k to 17k and runners used wildly divergent terms to describe the trail – everything from cakewalk to tough technical trail. The weather changed from thunderstorms and borderline cold to record high heat and humidity.
As with any race, I tried to hope for the best but expect the worst, which is the right approach for Pinhoti. Still, I have suggestions based on my experience.
The race briefing at packet pick-up was more than 45 minutes, and there may have been only one bit of important info relayed – the GPS coordinates for one of the aid stations was wrong. I didn’t see an email giving runners a heads up. I also heard that the aid stations were easy to find before the race, then heard from several folks that they had difficulty finding more than one aid station based on the directions.
The directions to the starting line were poor, we were lost for more than 30 minutes and saw several cars with ultra stickers driving around in circles as well. When we found the start, there were no volunteers directing traffic or signs pointing to where to go for the start. Give yourself ample time to deal with these challenges to reduce anxiety before you even start the race.
While I don’t know what the actual elevation gain is, you can expect a lot of climbing. Many of the hills I would have found runnable, but since this is a 100-miler I decided to walk just about every hill from the beginning.
Roller coaster trails for the first few miles make it hard to back off, but it is critical. I was surprised that the time cutoffs got more generous in later sections of the race, but setting a solid slow pace in the beginning is key. The race gets more technical and the climbs get tougher in the later stages, so saving yourself early on is key.
Bald rock was not as significant a climb as I expected, but I decided to fast walk/hustle this entire section and it made the climbing much easier (I highly recommend this approach if you have no concerns with the time cutoff). I am a slow runner and I was moving at a slow pace in the beginning (I averaged 15:30m/miles for the first 30 miles), so getting up Bald Rock by nightfall was very doable.
I would estimate that there were about 15 water crossings, and you can expect to get wet at about one-third. I knew I’d get wet so I brought numerous socks to change into, but once I got my feet wet at mile four (and then again and again over the next few miles), I figured it was pointless to change socks since I knew they’d just keep getting wet. Prepare for some blisters, and bring a blister kit and if possible, a crew that knows how to treat blisters.
Since I typically run in Virginia, I am accustomed to well-supported, well-organized races with excellent volunteers who have significant ultra running experience. Overall, the volunteers were great but it would have been helpful if someone had asked if I had a drop bag and helped me get it. At two aid stations, I neglected to get my drop bags, which affected my race.
Everyone is different, but I approach these races with equanimity and try to deal with every challenge and problem in a level-headed non-emotional way. I took a very hard fall on a rock at mile 52, I was scraped up badly but didn’t realize that I had sustained an injury until mile 55. I ran another 5 miles to see if I could move at a fast enough pace to make the time cutoffs. When I realized that my knee was immobile and I couldn’t get enough speed to make the time cutoffs, I asked to drop. The volunteer told me to suck it up and deal with it. I told him that I had a pretty bad injury, and he kept telling me to press on and the race would get easier after mile 60. I ran another mile and turned around to go back to the aid station and drop. It would have been really helpful to have someone to talk through it with and try to problem solve, although I am still certain that I made the right decision. At the time, I was really wishing I had someone to talk to who could help me think through it.
After I dropped, I started to black out from dehydration and found that my knee was in such bad shape that I couldn’t walk on it. The volunteers were going back to the finish so they offered me a ride, but my crew was at mile 68 with no cell reception. One of the volunteers agreed to take me to them, but a word of caution about dropping – the RD also said that there was one AS (I don’t remember which one) that required runners to go back to another AS to get a ride, so think ahead in case you have to drop.
One critical mistake that I made was not bringing Gatorade, which I typically use for electrolyte replacement. An experienced runner told me at AS 2 to stay on top of my electrolytes since it was in the high 70s and humid, but the AS didn’t have Gatorade. Before the race, I pulled up the list of food and drinks that they’d have at AS and Gatorade and coffee were listed. I didn’t see Gatorade until mile 52, and I never saw any coffee. My pacer said that she asked at mile 68 and they offered her instant but said that was all they had.
The RD was clear that the course was marked every 1/4 mile, which was true. But there were some sections that were pretty technical and there was some overgrowth, so it was hard to follow the markers in a few places. I lost the trail completely a couple times and waited for another runner so we could compare notes and we ultimately found our way after a few minutes of searching. I heard that there were a few runners who ran for two extra hours, lost. Pay attention and stop as soon as you realize that you are off trail. For the most part, I found that being on the trail meant that I was still on the race course, but a few sections were rough for a few feet, but the trail did pick back up so don’t wander off trail too long. There were nearly always runners in front of me and behind me (somewhat surprising for a 100-mile race, and again, I’m slow), so sticking with the pack is a good policy.
While the race organizers did not want to disclose how many runners drop, we heard a volunteer say that there were 81 drops at mile 60 based on a starting field of 253.
I would recommend this race to anyone who is prepared for a very challenging, tough trail race because the pluses by far outweighed the challenges. A 100-mile point-to-point race has major logistics, and the race organizers and volunteers were overall wonderful but it helps to go into races like this with eyes wide open aware of the potential pitfalls.
One other note, we had challenges getting around Alabama in general so choose your map app carefully, didn’t figure this one out by the time we left. The speed limits change frequently and there are police everywhere pulling drivers over, we were lucky but a heads up if you are not from Alabama.
Even though I did not finish, I am so glad that I took on this challenge and learned from the experience. Beautiful country and beautiful people in Alabama. I met so many amazing people on the trail, and helped quite a few runners who were struggling along the way who I thought would never be able to get to the next AS to drop, only to find them passing me 15 or 30 miles later, so inspiring. Several of my friends finished and I continue to be amazed by them. Good luck to everyone who takes on Pinhoti, don’t miss mruns podcasts and subscribe to the Facebook page, very helpful.