Saturday, May 15, 2010

Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run: Day One : The Long Journey Begins

Flagg Mountain to Porters Gap, 52.3 miles, 12h 48m

 With butterflies in my stomach, Eric Charette and I began our journey northward on the Pinhoti trail and precisely 6:00 a.m. (central time) on Josh Kennedy’s watch from the top of Flagg Mountain.  The pre-dawn morning got off to an inauspicious start when, on the drive to the start, we witnessed a drunk driver veer off the highway (at a very low speed!) and into the gas pump protector guard rail at a gas station.  I just so happens that this was very close to where we’d be running just a couple of hours from now!  More on that later…

    Heading down Flagg Mountain I felt like I was running down Madkin Mountain on Redstone Arsenal (one of my favorite training runs) as the gravel road wound its way, cork-screw like, down the mountain and eventually we popped out onto the start of long pavement section that would take us to the foot of Rebecca Mountain some 20 miles hence.  

    At least for now the highway was largely vacant, except for two fools running down the road and some crazy guy in a Nissan Xterra shooting back and forth down the road yelling at us from time to time, often stopping to share some liquids and foods with us.  Oh wait, that was us and our crew!  Anyhow this road section was largely uneventful as we passed through the tiny community of Weogufka where they were about to celebrate Mule Day that day (there were signs everywhere).  Sure enough we started to see large trucks pulling trailers of mules into town; never saw anybody actually riding a mule into town, though I’m sure somebody must have…  Remember that drunk driver?  Well we’d just cleared a long bend in the road and were now very close to where we’d seen the drunk driver earlier that morning when we saw a large commotion in the road ahead.  Fire trucks and police cars were on the scene along with several power company utility trucks.  Lots of flashing lights.  When we got closer we could see that a utility pole had been knocked over into the road and the lines were everywhere!  Eric, explained that the group of lines across the road did not include a power line, just phone and cable lines. Whew!  We gingerly stepped over the cables under the watchful eye of several police and fireman and continued on.  Josh gathered from the police officers, and told us later, that the same drunk driver we’d seen had sped out of gas station and run into that utility pole!  They were okay but had passed out in the ditch when police had arrived (apparently people had already phoned the police about the drunk driver even before we’d first seen them!).  Crazy!

    After many more road miles, the later dozen a bit more pleasant as we were onto less frequently travelled roads, we finally set foot on gravel again as we neared the base of Rebecca Mountain.  We quickly changed into trail shoes and after a briefing from Josh (who had just recently checked out this very new section of the Pinhoti Trail) set off into the woods for the first time! Yeah!  The current (at this time) route description had us staying on roads another 12 miles to Bulls Gap, however we’d learned that this new trail section was recently signed and blazed (though some of the actual trail still needed to be cut in and established) so it was a no brainer to take the trail over the roads; even if the new route was still a bit “rough.”  Rough is right.  Just starting out in the woods the route was difficult to follow as no foot path had formally been cut, however it was well marked with blue blazes so we just ran blaze to blaze like we were following an orienteering route.  A few miles later we popped out of the woods after crisscrossing several ancient 4x4 roads and some more established forest service roads to find Josh and his son Matt offering us orange slices and water.  As we pressed on Eric commented that Josh was now our soccer team Mom! Ha!  Now we began to climb in earnest, the previous cross-country like bushwhacking around the contours of Rebecca Mountain were replaces by a steady climb on a well constructed trail.  A few switch backs later we gained the ridgeline of the mountain and pressed northward on a bit rougher, overgrown double track “road.”  Soon we passed by the first of two communication towers; and dropped down a steep concrete road off the back side.  By now it was getting pretty hot and muggy out.  While the threat for heavy rain seemed imminent, not a drop was felt thus far.  Truth be told I wouldn’t have minded a few short deluges as it would have cooled things off immensely!  After the first tower it was some more beautiful ridgeline running until we finally arrived, after what seemed like too long, at the second communication tower.  This time we had to climb UP a concrete service road to the tower.  This is perhaps the steepest road I’ve ever climbed!  We were both pretty gassed by the time we reached the top so we took five and sat on the ground to take a break.  Break time was up all too quickly and we continued northward on the Pinhoti trail.  We were now close to leaving Rebecca Mountain to drop down toward the distance “V” that marked the location of our next crew location at Bulls Gap (about 34 miles in).  We came across several rock cairns that directed us off the ridgeline and soon were flying down the trail toward the gap.  Josh was there waiting as we strolled up to the Xterra.  This next section was going to be a long one; potentially 18 miles without any aid.  There was a chance that Josh could meet us somewhere along the way, but we had to plan for the worst and so we loaded up our packs with all we could carry and set off back into the woods to begin our ascent of Horn Mountain.

    Immediately I regretted packing so much weight.  I felt sluggish and slow; much more like a backpacker and less like a runner.  Though I’d trained with a pack, this felt like a bit too much, so a few miles in I took a gamble that we’d see Josh sometime before the end of this 18 mile section and dumped out one of my two water bottles.  Perhaps psychosomatic, but I felt instantly lighter.  My real mistake was that I packed the bottles instead of taking the carrying straps and just carrying them in my hands. Oh well, lesson learned.  For anybody who’s been on Horn Mountain, they know how aggravating this section of trail (at least until you get to the Pinnacles) can be.  You’re up on this wide ridgeline and the trail continuously snakes back and forth as you go; to the west side sometimes and to the east side later, back and forth and the footing is not very conducive to running.  The trail is often off camber and rubble strewn or has numerous up and down blips that are just enough to force to walk.  Worst of all is that there is a perfectly nice 4x4 road that parallels this trail along the whole way!  You see it from time to time and cross it a few times; very tempting to just break out of the woods and run on the easy road rather than go back into the woods for some more insanity!  Don’t get me wrong, I love technical trail running, but it was getting late in the day and I was getting tired and I just felt so slow!  After a while of meandering along Horn Mountain, we popped over a minor hilltop and suddenly heard some load rock music just ahead.  What was going on?  Sure enough as we got closer we discovered the Pinhoti trail ran very close to the 4x4 road (yet again) and right there was Josh! Yes!   We were perhaps half way through this section when we cut out of the woods to the crew vehicle.  Josh was surprised to see us as head just arrived! Talk about timing!  We quickly refueled as he explained that he could see us in another 3 miles or so and from there it would be an easier 6 miles (mostly down) to the day’s finish at Porters Gap.  That meant we could ditch our packs and just two bottle it from there.  Eric and I both absent mindedly started to head away from the crew vehicle on our road when Josh yelled at us to reverse our route back onto the trail from whence we’d original come.  We both groaned and cursed him (light heartedly of course) and back tracked to where we’d come out of the woods. Doh!  So much easier running now, still I was feeling a bit gassed and so tried to put some more calories in.  The trail began to circle around the end of the ridge and often it seemed like we were running back the way we’d just come.  At one point we emerged onto an old 4x4 road and while chatting walked right by some pretty obvious blazes taking us back into the woods.  We ended up at a dead end in the road as it curved away back to the South (or first indication that we’d gone wrong), we retraced our steps and soon found the trail again.  This next bit was somewhat downhill and we made good time for when we again emerged onto a 4x4 road at the Pinnacles we approached the crew vehicle with no crew present!  We yelled and soon Josh came barreling down a hill and out of the woods; he and Matt had been up on the cap stoned ridgeline (hence the name Pinnacles) exploring.  He wasn’t expecting us quite that soon, but no matter, we quickly refilled our bottles and began a long, switch backing downhill off of Horn Mountain.  It had been a long day and after a brief discussion, Eric and I decided that we’d call it a day at Porters Gap.  A highlight for the day was a brief dip in a creek near Scott Lake (a couple of miles out of Porters Gap).  This was a very beautiful place, a sandy bottomed creek with a nice cascade beyond.  Alas the break was all too short as we re-donned our shoes and gear and ran the remaining miles to the day’s end.  According to my original schedule Porters Gap was the quota for the first day and anything else was simply bonus. (Looking back now, I do regret not pushing that 3.4 more miles to Chandler Springs.  However I promised myself, a priori, to just get the quota the first day as it would be too easy on fresh legs to overdo it and leave yourself wasted on the subsequent day.  Still this would be one of the shorter days time wise of the whole epic, but we did have a fair drive back to Sylacauga so in the end I believe it was the correct call)  So soon we arrived at Porters Gap as the sun slowly sank in the West. Our shadows were very long as we popped out of the woods for the final time this day to cross a highway to the final crew stop of the day.  We quickly changed clothes and headed for town, with visions of pizza, ice baths and comfy beds dancing in our heads!

To be continued…

For more information about the Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run click here.