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Pine Mountain Trail Race 2020 - Ultramarathon Race Report

  • Thursday, January 07 2021 @ 07:00 PM UTC
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Running and Fitness

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According to the UltraSignup page, Pine Mountain Trail Race (PMTR) celebrated 40 years this year and is the oldest ultra marathon in the state of Georgia, having first run in 1980. PMTR is a Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society (GUTS) event with Jen Raby as the RD (Race Director).

I feel like my training went well this year... 2020 was good for my running. With most races cancelled due to COVID-19, I had a long steady gradual multi-month fitness buildup. I had many weeks over 50 miles, four weeks over 60 miles, and one 70 mile week. I was lucky and able to work remotely for my job during the pandemic and this gave me extra time each day to get my run in or just to sleep longer for recovery. At some point I asked myself what I was going to do with all of this fitness? So I started looking for trail races and found that the PMTR was going to be held this year with pandemic protocols in-place.

The first time I considered (but did not run) the PMTR was when I was 40 years old, and I think at that time the race was actually 40 miles (give or take). Things didn't work out when I was 40, but now I am 46 years old and the race is now 46 miles long. This seemed very fateful. I have been to F. D. Roosevelt State Park a few times and did some trail running on the Pine Mountain Trail before, so I felt pretty good about knowing the type of trail and some parts of the course. I knew how chunky and rocky it is! This was helpful in figuring out where to train and what kind of shoes to wear.

To train I spent time on the Conquistador trail in San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park near my home in Florida. I also took a special vacation training trip to Tennessee and north Georgia a few weeks before the race, spending time at Frozen Head State Park and on Lookout Mountain. I wore all of the clothing and shoes and tested my planned nutrition during these long trail runs. I generally run in the morning without any breakfast, but for training I practiced eating before and during these runs. I even experienced one "bad" training day where I had to walk a lot and decide whether to quit and head back to the car or just keep moving. This turned out to be good practice and helped solidify my confidence that no matter what happened I would be able to finish an Ultra, even if I had to walk it in.

For the race, I camped at the state park, which meant I could walk over to pickup my packet the afternoon before the race, and just jog over to the starting line on the day of the race. It was quite cold! Low temperatures were in the 30s so my tent was a bit chilly! I did have an electric heater with me which definitely helped. One thing that didn't work out according to plan is that I had trouble getting my campfire started. Frustration and lots of squatting and blowing later, I eventually was able to cook my dinner... a nice big steak! I think the firewood I bought at the camp store must have still been wet or something (the green moss was a hint) and spending so much time on dinner prep meant I got to bed a little later than I had planned and was chilled longer than expected. When I finally got into my tent for the night, I laid out all of my clothes so I could throw everything on quickly in the morning. The race day weather forecast made clothing choice a challenge. It was very cold in the morning but I definitely didn't want to get hot during the day and the temperature was supposed to get up in to the mid-to-high 50s and maybe be sunny.

One thing I didn't expect was the sound of Christmas carols in the distance playing well into the evening. I think the music must have been coming from nearby Callaway Gardens. I didn't have much trouble falling asleep though, and didn't have any pre-race jitters keeping me awake.

I managed a good solid chunk of sleep until around 2:30am. Then I woke up (maybe I was cold?) and just dozed until my alarm went off at 4:45am. I got up and heated some water on my camp stove to make coffee and oatmeal. I also ate a banana.

I put my Garmin Instinct into GPS Ultratrac mode to make sure the battery would last thru the race. I put my phone in airplane mode so I wouldn't have any distractions but could still access all of the images of maps I had stored locally on it. I wore shorts, an underjacket, and a lightweight shell on top. I wore Injinji socks to help prevent blisters on my toes and a compression undershirt to reduce chafing around my arms and from my vest. I added Skin Strong Slather on my toes, inside thighs, private parts, nipples, and anywhere else that might chafe. (Tip: Slather does not solidify in the cold like some products) For gear and hydration I used my Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra Set paired with a Nathan Peak hydration belt. This combo keeps both my hands free and helps prevent the fatigue in my shoulders that develops if I carry a handheld. I planned to wear hat and gloves at the start and change to a cap after getting to my drop bag. And finally, I chose the Topo Terraventure 2 shoes because I wanted some protection from all those chunky rocks. For a headlamp I used a Black Diamond Iota, which was one of the smallest, lightest, and cheapest usb-rechargeable lights I could find (it worked great).

My drop bag contained lots of water (I brought a bunch of "local" water with me to reduce chance of stomach distress), hat, sunglasses, dry socks, calories of various sorts, and an extra set of Salomon soft flasks filled with water.

I jogged my drop bag over to the picnic shelter, huddled by one of the heaters for a little bit, and jogged back to use the bathroom one last time. Pretty soon it was time to start! I jogged back to the dam road where the runners were gathering. After a few words from the RD, we were off!

I now realize I have zero pictures of myself from the race or even just a picture of my Ultra kit! Not even a selfie. Oh well!

Having read some race reports from previous years, I want to comment on the course markings. The PMTR course was very well marked in 2020, there were signs at every intersection, with orange and reflective flags every little bit and especially at intersections, and many intersections had volunteers present directing runners. In the dark it was not hard at all to stay on course. Kudos to the RD for providing a well-marked course.

I have five most memorable moments from the PMTR.

The first was during the first few miles in the dark. It was a bit surreal with headlamps on and seeing other runners in the distance. Sometimes I saw a bright light ahead coming towards me turned out to be just one of those marker flags. Sometimes the lights were ahead of me and climbing higher, as expected. At one point I saw 2 lights off to the right and below me going all different directions and I was a bit bewildered. And then I turned to the right and started heading downward into a series of switchbacks. After a short time I saw lights up above me and below me.

My second memory is the first glimpse of sunrise as I crossed highway GA 190 at Mile 0, which is the western end of the Pine Mountain Trail. A thin pink and orange line was forming at the horizon. I didn't want to stop for a picture until I had a clear view. When I did finally find an opening thru the trees it was probably just a minute too late to capture the best colors. That sunrise is burned into my memory forever. This is the only picture I took during the race:

My third memory is during the easternmost section of trail with lots of waterfalls leading up to the TV tower. This was a section of trail I had never been on before, but was very cool and I would like to come back to see again some day. The many little waterfalls and cascades and foot bridges make it a unique part of the Pine Mountain Trail. This section was doubly memorable because of one particular tree. I wonder if anyone else besides me hit their head on that one low tree near the waterfalls. With my hat on and looking at my footing on a wooden footbridge I missed seeing it completely. BAM!

My fourth memory was when I was a bit grumpy from the head bump as I rolled into TV Tower aid station. One of the volunteers tried to have a conversation with me, asking me about things that had nothing to do with the race I was running. Luckily I was able to just tune him out. Everyone else at this aid station were great, focused on the needs of the people running this Ultramarathon right then and there. I probably should have accepted the grilled cheese I was offered.

My fifth memory is the salty potatoes. I don't remember which aid station (Mollyhugger I think), but those guys were having a good time and cooking some great food. If I hadn't had steak for dinner the night before I might have hung out to wait for the steak to finish. But I also smelled the frying potatoes. The potatoes called to me and they were super salty and delicious.

Those are the big memories. The rest of the race involved a whole lot of running and walking. To talk about my race, I have to say that I did some smart things, and I did some dumb things.

Smart thing #1:

Preparation. Maps and pictures of maps and text descriptions and screenshots of key intersections were in my phone and locally available without cell signal. Food and water. Training. All that preparation meant I didn't have anything to worry about the night before and I had a pretty good night sleep because of it.

Smart Thing #2:

I put a list of things to do in my Drop Bag to make sure I wouldn't forget anything.

Smart thing #3:

The previous two smart things were technically not during the race itself. I did actually do something smart once the race started... Hurray! At the very beginning of the race the leader took off like he was running a 5k, I started a little quick but then slowed down, but was still moving pretty good when we got into the first set of woods. With headlamps and shadows and lots of roots, I quickly determined there was no reason to push the pace through this first section so I stepped aside to let the next group of runners go past, and then eased through the first few miles just making sure to stay on trail and not have any mishaps, and to make sure I wasn't running hard so early in the race. This was 100% the perfect strategy for me.

Smart thing #4

Going slow during those pre-dawn hours paid off because I caught up to the next two runners at the first aid station. They saw me coming and decided to get going. This brings me to the next smart thing, which is planning and preparation to move quickly thru the aid stations. In this case I didn't need anything from the aid station, so I showed the workers my bib number and kept going right on thru. For most of the day I used this strategy, rarely stopping for more than a water refill or grabbing one food item. I came into the aid station in 5th place and catching those two runners put me in the hunt for 3rd place! Which leads me to Dumb thing #1.

Dumb thing #1:

Being overly-competitive.
I could have just joined up with the #4 or #3 runner and stayed with them. My competitive instinct got the better of me and I used a tactic much more suited to a shorter race. I passed them definitively and then kept on going to make sure there was a gap. At that point I should have eased back and got right back into my slow long distance pace. But now I could feel the unseen pressure of runners behind me, relentlessly trying to catch me... so I kept pushing harder than I should have.

Sitting in 3rd place meant there was a chance I could catch the 2nd place runner. So I kept pushing.

My hamstring cramps started at mile 17. What? Why? I was on top of fluids and nutrition so this was frustrating... I can use mental toughness to get through all sorts of pain but a cramp is a cramp so I had to slow down to avoid the muscle seizing up. I was kind of shocked and continued trying to move, still feeling the unseen pressure of the runners behind me.

Dumb thing #2:

Drop bags were available at Dowdell's Knob, which is at mile 20 and 34. After Dumb Thing #1, I was tired and out of breath and my brain and hands were moving slowly. I came into the aid station in 3rd place but the two runners I had so definitively passed earlier breezed through this aid station while I was still huffing and puffing, trying to swap my gear, and catch my breath. Maybe my drop bag "TODO" list was a little too long?

I finally rolled out of the aid station. Now back in 5th place and with the cramping issues I changed focus back to my real goal of just finishing this Ultra. I ran when I could, which was mostly on flat or downhill. Uphill tended to trigger cramping so I tried it but backed off as soon as a cramp started. This was most of the middle of the race so I just kept telling myself to keep moving.

When I found myself back at Dowdell's Knob and my drop bag I had to decide whether to grab my warm jacket again or not. It was heading into late afternoon and I knew the temperature would start to drop once the sun started going down. I decided to keep on with what I was wearing (no extra jacket), refill my water, and press onward.

I ended up getting a little cold during the next section because it clouded over and got breezy and I was walking a lot and still in shorts. That jacket would have been helpful.

At about mile 36 I started feeling some chafing from my shorts! Oh no! I had Squirrel's Nut Butter in my drop bag but didn't think to re-apply at the aid station. Well, I wasn't going back for it. After adjusting my shorts a bit the chafing didn't get any worse thankfully.

The next few miles were more of the same. Walk the uphills to avoid the cramping. Run the downhills and flats and ignore the pain in my quads.

I tried eating some things at the aid stations... Fried potatoes. Dill pickles. Banana. Coke.

The final few miles included a long downhill, back thru some of the section we had run in the morning darkness. This went pretty quickly for me because I was still able to run downhill ok.

I crossed the finish line having managed to maintain my 5th place position. The RD gave me my finishing award and pointed me towards the food table. I saw the Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie and dove right in (I have fond memories of my grandparents and Little Debbies). Because of COVID there was no after-race gathering / party.

I walked back (slowly!) to my campsite, found my way to the shower house to take a hot shower (ahhhhh), and started working on another campfire. I had less trouble with the firewood from the second bag I bought at the camp store. I spent the rest of the evening enjoying a cold one, roasting some hot dogs, and listening (again) to the sound of Christmas music in the distance.

I am quite happy with my 5th overall finish. This was my second Ultramarathon and 46 miles is the longest I have ever run.



In the end, the hamstring cramping is still a bit of a mystery. I never had this trouble during my training runs, and experimenting with electrolytes during my training showed that they seem to prevent cramping post-run as well, and I took plenty of electrolytes during the race. Perhaps it was the cold whether that had me shivering around the campsite at times, or the hour of squatting down by the campfire trying to get it to start so i could cook my steak. Or maybe I was under-fueled because of traveling the day before I just didn't eat very much, and certainly not any "extra" to build up my fuel stores. Maybe my legs were cold and I should have worn tights instead of shorts. Maybe it was due to the "dumb" thing I did with running too hard early in the race. There are many factors, could be one or all of them combined.

In summary, the Pine Mountain Trail Race is a challenging Ultra with a well-marked course and fantastic aid stations.

Edit 2/6/2021: Minor changes to the "grumpy" section.
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