Sunday, May 16, 2010

Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run: Day Two : It All Gets Real

Porters Gap to I-20 crossing, 48.7 miles, ~14 ¼ h

    Bright and early, Eric and I were back at it.  Just before we were about to leave our friend John Nevels arrived.  John was going to join us for the bulk of our mileage on this day, but first he and Josh and to shuttle his vehicle further on down the route.  So after some quick greetings, were off.  Leaving Porters Gap we re-entered the woods and quickly ascended Talladega Mountain and were back down the other side before we knew it.  The skies were still overcast and threatening rain, much like the previous day, but still no rain to speak of.  As we crossed the train tracks and bridge across Talladega Creek, Josh pulled up with John in tow, they’d had just enough time to shuttle John’s truck to Adams Gap (some 12 miles or so away by trail) and make it back to meet us before we went into the woods again.

    So, with John now in tow, we continued on towards Adams Gap, our next milestone.  I won’t lie, I was really struggling on this 12 mile stretch.  The trail generally climbs to Adams Gap with a few short down hills to mix things up; but the bulk certainly felt like it was uphill and often on some pretty rough, rocky trail.  As if the trail wasn’t difficult enough, it was very hot and muggy out, even though it was still early in the day.  I was already quite soaked through with sweat and pretty miserable as I just couldn’t get into a rhythm, couldn’t get cool; the air stagnant and threatening.  We finally arrived at Adams Gap (after seeing our crew briefly at Clairmont Gap along the way) some 4 hours later and I was still feeling pretty ragged.  I was keeping my composure, but I was letting the heat and the enormity of what still lay ahead dominate me.  Now it was time to don our packs again as we had a long 12 mile section ahead of us without any crew access. 
Refueled and reloaded we made our way into the Cheaha Wilderness Area.  Next up was the infamous “Stairway to Heaven”; a very steep, boulder climbing ascent to the top of Talladega Mountain (yes, once again).  This section climbs nearly 600 feet in less than 3/10 of a mile; and did I mention it was hot?  By the time we reached the top of the ridge we all needed a short break.  Luckily there were several slabs of rock available for us to sit or collapse onto.  I started to perk up a bit at this point, I think I just needed a lot more calories and I’d just really crammed a bunch down at Adams Gap and they were starting to kick in.  Plus there was a cool breeze coming over the ridge that just felt magnificent!  After a five minute break we continued on, northward, along the ridgeline of Talladega Mountain heading deeper into the Cheaha Wilderness Area.  These were some fun miles as, for the most part, it was much more runnable than the section from Porters Gap to Adams Gap.  We made pretty good time, chatting and swapping stories until we emerged into a little break in the woods to see a large boulder with a bronze placard.  This was the Pinhoti Trail dedication monument, signifying the official opening of the Pinhoti trail in 2008.  It was pretty cool to see something like this several miles into the woods and still quite far from any road.  Amazing.  We took several photos and were on our way.  With just a couple of miles to go before crossing US-281 (our next crew location) Eric rediscovered a large heart shaped rock he’d found on a previous run this year.  (Eric has a hobby of collecting heart shaped rocks to give to his wife Laura)  This rock (read boulder) must have weighed at least 10 pounds or more!  It was huge!  All of a sudden he was running down and up the trail with this huge rock in his hands and I was doing all I could do just to keep up!  Eric was on fire!  John and I just exchanged dumbfounded glances and tried to keep up!  At last we could see signs that indicated we were close to the road now, i.e. more trail litter, the sound of traffic, etc… And all at once we rounded a bend and there was my wife Kathy, Blake Thompson, Sara Tei and David Riddle standing in the trail before us.  It was so great to see them, such a boost!  We kept going, the whole gang in tow until a short distance later where the trail split.  The crew descended the trail to the right that led to a parking area while we continued on the main Pinhoti Trail to where it crossed the main road as we didn’t want any extra mileage by dropping down to the parking lot and coming back up to this very point (adding about half a mile at least).  I still don’t understand why the Pinhoti is routed like this, it would make better sense to take us through the large parking area and then cut back up to rejoin the rest of the route? Instead, where the actual trail crosses the road, the shoulders are very narrow and steeply slanted.  Oh well.
Just a short time later we pop out onto the road and a short time after that Josh arrived followed immediately by Kathy and the rest of the gang.  The sun is really baring down on us now, it is hot and we’re at pretty high elevation for Alabama (almost 2,500 feet, yeah, yeah don’t laugh too hard now!).  I sit in a camp chair while Kathy pours a jug of water over my head; glorious!  It had taken us over 8 hours to cover the previous 27 miles and we still had another 21 miles planned for the day!  No question, we had to get moving and pick up our pace.  Most likely we’d be finishing in headlamps tonight! Doh! We refilled our packs and stock up again as it’s another 12 mile+ section to the next crew access.  Luckily this time the miles should be easier (based on my prior experience with this entire day’s running route (ran this route in April of ’05)).  Leaving Cheaha State Park we added another trail companion as David, an elite runner in his own right, having won the 2009 Rocket City Marathon in 2:26:23, Mountain Mist 50km in 3:58:30 and other countless 5 and 10km races throughout the south-east.  Suffice it say it was a honor and a privilege to share some miles with David though I’m sure it was a real challenge for him to have to travel so slow compared to the pace he’s used to!  At any rate, we were soon beginning the nice, gradual descent off of Talladega Mountain and out of Cheaha State Park on some pretty awesome, winding switchback trail.  This was some of the best trail we’d seen in two days; narrow, mostly rock free and pine needle covered.  Simply superb.  I was really starting to feel my oats in this section.  The sun was less intense, there was a nice breeze and we were mostly running downhill.  I decided to open up my stride a bit in this stretch and soon we were moving fairly quick down the trail.  All downhills come to an end and sadly so did this section.  Still the overall terrain wasn’t too bad and we continued to make pretty good time.  Soon we arrived at Hillabee Creek, a rather deep creek crossing.  We took the opportunity to get a five minute soak in the creek before continuing on.  Very refreshing.  The next several miles took us from one watershed to the next along a rather narrow canyon.  The pace was swift as I was finally feeling good.  I was trying to push the pace because I knew now that we’d be finishing in the dark and so I wanted to limit the extent we went into the night.  Our mileage quota had us getting to the I-20 crossing for 48.7 tough miles today and we still had more than 12 miles to go and it was getting to be late afternoon!  I just kept my head down and pressed and soon we emerged onto Cleburn County Road 24 where Josh and the rest of the gang were waiting for us.
 I shoveled down some more calories, restocked my pack and sped off back into the woods ahead of the rest.  I was making the point that we needed to hustle, the time for messing around was over; we had some work to do still just to make our minimum quota for the day.  It wasn’t long before David caught up to me (no problem for him!) and soon I could hear John and Eric behind as well.  I wasn’t intended to break contact so it was good everybody had caught up once again.  Again I set the pace, probably a bit aggressive, but the sun was getting low and it was getting a bit dark in the woods.  I’m pretty sure we were doing 9 minute miles (if not faster) on some of the easier, old 4x4 road we ran on in pieces.  Whew!  It was tough to keep a steady pace however as there were several short but very steep uphill sections to slow the whole train down.  Still, the aggressive approach paid off because we popped out near US-431 with less than 5 miles to go for the day.  It was here that John called it a day, so we thanked him and bade him farewell as we headed out to and across the highway, reloaded and refueled for the last time of the day.  Headlamps donned (but turned off), we sped along the trail trying to eke out the last rays of sunlight on the trail.  It’s amazing how far you can get into the twilight without a light if you just let your eyes naturally adapt to the dark.  Running up front I suddenly jerked to a stop, the others nearly crashing into me, lying across the trail a few feet in front of me was a huge rat snake.  No big deal, I grabbed a stick and carefully scooted him off the trail and we continued on.  Ok, time to turn on the headlamps I guess!  Much better now!  The remaining miles were a bit slower as we had to carefully pick our way along the trail, ever cognizant of finding the trail blazes in the dark (no mean feat I might add).  With many trail splits and false trails, navigation became more of a challenge than in daylight.  Still it wasn’t long before we started hearing the roar of traffic on the interstate and then we were out of the woods and running down a short bit of AL-281 as it crosses I-20; the glow of our awaiting crew vehicle a beacon in the night drawing us to the end of Day Two.

To be continued…

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