July 12th, 2020
Saturday November 6th, 2010
Running: some do it for fun, some for exercise, and some for a much deeper meaning. But I’m a little different. Running has always been secondary, just a vehicle, throughout this journey.I’m not a great runner, probably not even a good runner. I run to escape, I run to feel pain, I run to feel free, and this time, I ran for a purpose.
I have been asked by several runners to do a “race report” about my experience in the Pinhoti 100. This is my story.
The night before the race I met my best friend/roommate from college in Oxford, Al on Friday night. He was to drop me off at the race start and pace me from miles 60-100. He drove in from Greenville, SC and stepped up the the plate more than anyone could ever ask for.
As I arrived at the 6:00 a.m. start in the darkness and extreme cold. Mentally I felt like I had been preparing my whole life for this race. Three things have always been constants in my life: 1)proving the doubters wrong 2) to achieve true greatness/happiness one must have the very real risk of failure 3) we all need a purpose in life. While my physical training in miles (25-30 miles a week) was far from ideal, I mentally felt locked in. The best advice I have received about running this 100 miles was from Mike (aka DirtDawg) from Detroit: “If you toe the starting line with the undeniable belief that you will finish the 100 miles, then you will succeed.” That thought echoed through my head as the veteran ultra runners greeted each other in the dark. I had a strange calm over me knowing that 30 hours later no matter what happened this journey would be over. I figured that I would either be a success or a failure so I might as well leave it “all on the field” for 30 hours.
Right before the race started I heard the race director yelling something. My music played in my ears, but I swore I heard my name. Sure enough I did. The whole race was delayed a few minutes because they changed my race number and they had to attach the new bibb number to me. I figured people weren’t exactly thrilled because they were ready to run. The four minutes seemed like an hour.
The gun sounded and everyone headed off. The single track trail emerged a few hundred yards after the start. Thus, trying to control the pace was really dictated where you jumped in line. I had a small light source that was terrible. It glowed like a stick that an air traffic controller would use. I had to follow close to people so I could sponge of their light source.
About 45 minutes in the sun came up.The rolling single track trails would continue until the first aid station around mile 7. I felt good physically and mentally I felt strong. In pre-race preparations I knew I would be pushing the 30 hour cut off time and that, as many ultra runners, was my only goal. I also understood that I would have to get in and out the 17 aid stations on the course. If I even spent an average of 3 minutes per aid station that would be 51 non-running minutes. I filled up my Camelbak at the first aid station and got out pretty quickly. I ran into Steve Pointe at the first aid station who I met at 50k a few months before.
The next 7-8 miles were pretty uneventful. The rolling hills of the single track trail was really something I had never experienced before.
I ran with different packs of people and struck up a few conversations with people on the trails. The ultra running community has always been very friendly and open. I don’t consider myself part of this or any other running group. I train alone, but it was nice to have people to speak with while on this common goal of 100 miles. I lump this stretch of miles together because again they were uneventful other than the constant climbs in them.
Mile 35-40 Climb to the top of Mt Cheaha
I knew one crucial part of surviving this race was the climb to the top of Mt Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama. I had been told this was a brutal climb. The Mile 35 Aid Station was a welcome sight. However, there was absolutely nothing to drink there. I couldn’t believe it didn’t have any water right before this climb. A couple of other runners got there about the same time. They were in disbelief too. I remained calm and figured it was just a small bump (plus I was listening to Richard Pryor live at that time). There were rocks that overran the trail and I slugged my way up. Then something strange happened: I saw a bunch of tourist. I thought to myself surely this cant be the top because I felt pretty good and the climb didn’t take nearly as long as I thought. But there it was: a sign that read “Welcome to Highest Point in Alabama” (or something to that effect). I know many runners stopped to take a picture of this beautiful sight, but I knew I didn’t have the time to waste. I hit a boardwalk wondering how far the aid station was. After running a few hundred yards, I looked up and I was there. Unreal. I was at Mile 40, conquered a big climb, and feeling really good. I often joked a 100 miles couldn’t be that hard and at that moment I started to believe it a little (alright I really didn’t believe that, but it sounded good).
I met my pacer Leah Fuller, got some chicken noodle soup, and off we went. Mile 40 was the backside of what was known as “Blue Hell.” These rocks were of blue tint and it was more like a decline over boulders than it was running a trail. Leah can be described as “peppy” which was good at that point. I let her do most of the talking and the sun would soon be setting. I read on prior year race reports that it was important to get down Blue Hell before dark. Leah did a great job of pushing the pace early on to achieve this.
Around Mile 41 Nathan Chandler entered my life for the first time. This is the beauty of running this type of race. Nathan was from Nebraska taking his first stab at a 100 miler. Our paths crossed by accident, but he would be a big part of this race and in turn my life. Nathan didn’t have a pacer and asked if he could run with Leah and I which we happily agreed to do. I distinctly remember asking Nathan (who looks like a true ultra runner) how much he trained. He responded about 90-100 miles. I stupidly asked, “a month” and he said, “no a week.” I told him I did about 25 miles a week and you could visibly notice the surprised look on his face. This was the first time during the race that I thought maybe I should stuck with the traditional training of 75-80 miles a week. But I figured too late now, so I might as well laugh about it to myself.
Night came upon us and the headlamps came on. I had only trained once at night with the headlamp so I really didn’t know what expect. Surprisingly, it felt pretty natural.
I got past Mile 50 so I was in uncharted territory for me. We arrived at the Mile 52 Aid Station in about 14 hours. I was really excited because I had 16 hours to go 48 miles. Physically, I was pretty fresh.
The weather forecast was in the low 20′s a near record low. At Mile 55 I added some IceBreaker longjohns. I can not rave enough about how great IceBreaker material. It is light weight, but yet it kept me so warm. I never felt one moment discomfort because of the weather and I am someone who despises the cold. At Mile 55 disaster almost struck. I misplaced my right glove. Without it I was sure that I would encounter big problems. However, Leah, as a great pacer, found it in a few minutes next to the aid station table.
Off we went into the night with me feeling pretty warm. I started to get a little tired, but Leah did a good job of keeping the pace up. At Mile 60 I knew I would meet Chad to take me through the night.
The best description of the cold is: it caused my left contact to almost instantly dry up and fold in my eyes. If you wear contacts you know how bothersome this could be. Add the fact that the single track trails had 20 foot drops off at points. The trails were so narrow that we had to run single file.
I met Chad at approximately 10 p.m. I was still about an hour ahead of the cut off. I brought a couple of extra contacts in my CamelBak. I tried repeatedly to put the left contact in and finally after several tries, jammed it in. Leah gave me a Diet Dr. Pepper that she had in her car at Mile 60. The caffeine gave me a great boost for a while. After the race I learned Mile 60 is where a lot of runners dropped out (overall 34% of the runners who started didn’t finish). I heard the cold really got to people at this point in the night.
Chad and I joked that we had done some stupid things in our life, but this may top the list. It took us a little while to get into a good pacing rhythm. He had earlier text me when I was at Mile 20 that he was at the Waffle House tearing up some greasy food (which sounded really good at the time). Chad and I met in 1990 as freshman at The Citadel. We became roommates and lifelong friends. We have traveled the world together and have had endless good times in our life. I felt good that he would be able to motivate me and not hold anything back to get me across the finish line.
About Mile 63 my left contact again folded up and it was gone. Thus, I could only see further than 3 feet out of my right eye. But no need to worry because at Mile 65 my right contact instantly dried and it was gone. Thus, I knew I couldn’t literally see 3 feet in front of my face for the next 35 miles. Anyone who knows me well knows I am directionally illiterate. The course was marked as well as it could I suppose. There were some blue paint on trees and an occasional lag on the ground. That was another reason I was glad to have Chad because he once navigated us back to our hotel in Italy from no where land. So I knew he was a human GPS.
Each Aid Station had a certain cut off time that must be met or race officials would pull you off of the course. I had been well head of the cut offs until I got to Mile 74 at 4:13 a.m. I inquired about what the cut off was and I was informed right then. All of that time I had “built up” was gone. A little panic set in, but I had to just keep pushing forward.
Mile 79-80 The Breakdown
Mile 79 is the most difficult of the Pinhoi 100. It is a 900 foot incline in a mile. There were also brutal “switchbacks” meaning that you would zig zag as you climbed. It mentally came into play because you could hear the Mile 80 Aid Station and you think you are heading that way and then you “switchback” the opposite direction. This occurred over and over and over.
Near Mile 80 I was really in bad shape. I was punch drunk slogging up the mountain. I’m sure I was moving at a snails pace. Nathan was still running right behind me. I vaguely remember telling him that he need to go past us because we were going to make the cutoff at that pace. He said he appreciated it, but he couldn’t move any faster.
Then that is when it happened: I saw lights in the sky that really weren’t there. I asked Chad if he saw them which he didn’t. I felt like I was in a dream going in slow motion. In hindsight, my race wasn’t the only thing in jeopardy, my health was too.
We finally arrived at Mile 80 Aid Station. I was behind the cut offs, but no one had seen the “sweepers” (who are race officials that yank runners off the course when the sweepers get ahead.)
Chad had that conversation with me that I am sure he dreaded: he told me it was time for me to quit. He explained that I had no chance of making the cut-off based on my pace and the shape I was in. In his eyes, my health wasn’t worth the risk. Of course he knew what my response would be. He knew I would never voluntarily quit. He knew I would be too dumb, too stubborn, and too prideful to do so. So he did what any best friend would do and to make the hard call that he knew I may never forgive him for: he went to race officials to convince them to pull me out of the race. I remember him demanding that I stay in one spot while he went to speak with race officials.
He then marched about a 100 yards up the trail to explain the situation. I stood there alone beaten, battered, and “out on my feet.” However, when it became obvious to me that he wasn’t going to let me harm myself, something clicked in my head. I had flash backs to being a kid chasing a baseball for endless hours that my brother would hit and breaking bones chasing the ball. I remembered all the doubters. I also thought of all of those who had faith in me in this quest and all of those across the country who had supported me without ever meeting me.
And there was one final thought: I knew Emily and my daughter, Isabella, would be waiting at the finish line to run the last .2 miles with me. I couldn’t let them down and I couldn’t let myself down.
So I began to trot back down the trail without Chad. I assumed he glanced down to where I was supposed to be and he knew exactly what happened. A couple of minutes later he appeared next to my side with a few choice words. I mumbled a few words back and off as we continued down the path. About twenty minutes later I felt mentally back in the game and my body followed suit. I was actually running. I had a lot of time to make up to have a miraculous chance of making the 30 hour cut off time.
Then another pivotal moment occurred: the sun came up. I had read, and quite frankly thought was silly, that when the sun comes up during the 100 miler your body is energized. Sure enough my body responded to the sun and we were soon rolling.
Mile 85 “You are done”
About a quarter of a mile before hitting the Mile 85 Aid Station I heard the words I had dreaded. A girl waited on her boyfriend and said, “you have missed the cut off. They have already packed up the aid station.” My heart sunk to my stomach, but I kept pushing.
We soon arrived at the aid station and sure enough a race official with a clip board and radio told me, “you’re done. You have missed the cut off by twenty minutes.” I declared I felt great and I would soon get ahead of the cut off time. No dice. I then told of Run4Emily trying to tap into his compassionate side. No dice. Then on auto pilot I guess the attorney kicked in. I stated that the sweepers had violated race policies and they were no where to be found. He looked puzzled so I insisted more passionately on this point. He asked another race official who said she didn’t know. He finally relented and said, “[F]ine. Go on, but you better hurry.” (By the way, I completely made up the whole thing about them violating their policies. Shhhh, don’t tell). I exhaled with a sense of relief because the thought of my race ending that way made me sick. However, the Aid Station had been packed up so I couldn’t get any food, only water.
Then another miracle was needed: I had to run the fastest four miles of the entire race to have a shot at the final cut-off. The body is a funny thing. I can’t describe how beaten my body was at Mile 85. But when the body and the mind join forces, it can do amazing things. And from Mile 85-89 I ran faster than I had through the entire race. In hindsight, I don’t I could ever duplicate that again in my life. Chad did a great job of pushing me and when I couldn’t go any more, pushing me again. Interestingly enough, there was very few miles of jeep trail where a car could travel. Someone in a car followed me for a couple of miles. I was convinced they wanted to see if I actually would be able to run a pace that gave me a chance to make the final cut-off.
About Mile 86 we went right pace the sweeper. She looked at me like what are you doing and I said, “[D]on’t worry I’m good.” She smiled and let me go on.
Mile 90 “Water, Water”
When we got to Mile 90 I was elated. Chad and I fist bumped because we knew (or so we thought) we had pulled this thing off. We had 10 miles to go and about three hours to do it. That seems like an eternity if you are calculating marathon pacing, but trust me it isn’t that way in a 100 miler. We still felt confident that we would make it.
I gave my Camelbak to the Aid Station workers to fill up. By this time, I could barely take the pack off my back and I certainly couldn’t unscrew the cap. He filled it up and off we went.
I’m not an outwardly emotional guy. However, I must admit I got a little teary eyed around Mile 90 because I knew I had survived the break down and this dream was going to become a reality. I wondered out loud if I would cry at the finish line. Quite frankly, I probably became a little over confident.
Then about Mile 91 I realized that the aid station worker barely put any water in my Camelbak. These folks kindly volunteer their time and are life savers on the course. I don’t fault him for the water snafu because my CamelBak can sometime can be tricky.
Around Mile 92 I became dehydrated. I asked Chad if I told him something he wouldn’t panic or tell race officials. He responded, “I don’t care what you tell me you are finishing this $##% race.” I was seeing spots everywhere. I didn’t know whether this was fatigue or dehydration. The cut off time again appeared to be in doubt. These spots would remain with me the rest of the race.
I read that once you hit actual road pavement (other 98 miles are trails) you are only 2 miles from the Sylacauga High School football stadium for the finish. I told Chad that the race was actually 100.6 miles and how unreal that the .6 miles may come into play. We finally hit the pavement and again we felt home free. However, the road was the longest straight away with no signs of the stadium. I asked Chad to look up for the stadium lights (remember I had no contacts and couldn’t see far) and he didn’t see them. About Mile 98.5 another runner and his pacer passed me. We asked if they knew where the finish was and they didn’t.
Panic set in and I again began to push as hard as I could (which I’m sure wasn’t very fast). I finally made it to the end of the road and Chad told me to turn left. He then saw the sign that had a bridge that connected to the stadium.
Chad told me several times (and despite me trying to convince him otherwise) that he was going to let me enter the stadium by myself as my “glory moment.” Not only is Chad the best friend a person could have, but he is pure class.
As I crossed the bridge, I saw the silhouette of what I had dreamed about, saw as I trained, and heard in my mind: Emily and Isabella. I heard Isabella yell out, “there is my daddy.” (tears inside my body as I write this). The entire Knerr family was out there cheering their heads off. My wife, Brandi was there screaming for me.
Isabella and Emily joined me for that final .2 miles around the track. There are limited memories that can be embedded in your mind and you can picture it at any time you want. This is one of the moments for me. No matter how long I live, I will always remember this moment like it happened yesterday.
I crossed the finish line in 29 hours 37 minutes 42 seconds. I was numb and emotionally drained. Tears did not outwardly flow, but inside I was a complete mess.
I have always had the unwavering belief that I would survive this race. During training, I had envisioned “The Breakdown: because I knew it would happen. I’m convinced that is how I survived it. Mentally I had been through that in my head so many times. The other vision I constantly had was seeing Emily and Isabella at that stadium and it was better than I could ever have dreamed.
Without Leah and Chad helping me I had no way of making it. By the way, Nathan made it nine minutes ahead of me. Thanks for all the support out there. Good night and thank you.
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