Last fall I had shoulder surgery, forcing me to take a month off from running and bail on three races: Blue Ridge Relay, Army Ten Miler, and NYC Marathon. I was totally bummed and vowed to get back in shape in time to run the Pilot Mountain Payback trail marathon the following year.
My first week of post-surgery running was a monumental 12 miles. In October I put in 80. November, 110. 129 in December. In January, February, and March I ran between 40 and 55 miles a week. Shorter runs averaged 312′ of elevation gain at 7:35 pace while longer, weekend runs averaged 1,100′ of elevation gain at 8:18 pace. My thinking was, if most of my runs were going to be flat then I’d run a lot of miles as fast as I could so I’d be ready to run Pilot’s elevation profile of 3,588′ gain and 3,584′ loss over the course of 5 hours or so.
My buddy, John, and I pulled up to the start line and quickly realized we were in a different location than years prior. John talked to the race director who said the park officials wouldn’t let him start the race where it had started the previous four years.
The director went on to say that the change in location meant the race route would lose 3 creek crossings and the 200′ elevation climb at the start, and gain a steep 3/4 mile hill at the beginning and end. FTR, running a hill at the end of a mountain trail marathon is considered cruel and unusual under the 8th Amendment. Had I not paid for this experience I might have a case.
John and I took the news back to his truck where we remained with the heat on high. Having gotten used to temps in the 60s and 70s in the weeks leading up to the race, the morning’s 32°F temp (21°F wind chill) took some getting used to. And by that I mean, I didn’t want to get used to the cold temps.
Eventually, I put my big boy pants on (and gloves and hat and compression shirt) and headed to the start line with John where he and I shivered with the other runners while the race director gave us the pre-race chat. Blah blah blah. Good luck. I’m going to IHOP. See you in while.
John and I took off down Horne Creek Farm and hung a left on Hauser Road. We’re running along when John noticed Mary Beth, one of our former Blue Ridge Relay teammates.
He said hello and she replied as if John was a stranger. After a moment she realized that John was John and not a bearded sociopath, and the conversation continued. The lot of us talked for a bit more before she eventually looked at me and said:
MARY BETH: Hi, I’m Mary Beth.
ME: Hey Mary Beth!
JOHN: Uh, Mary Beth, that’s Chris.
MARY BETH: Oh my God! What’s with the beards you guys?
JOHN: I’m using it as motivation for a 100 miler coming up.
ME: I’m just lazy.
The downhill on Hauser Road came to an end and we followed the line of runners onto Corridor Trail; a 6.6 mile trail with a handful of creek and road crossings extending from the Yadkin River Section to the Mountain Section of Pilot Mountain State Park.
About a mile in the three of us came to the first of many hills. John walked, I walked, and Mary Beth headed on to the half marathon turnaround. John’s ultra philosophy is simple: walk the hills. My PMPB philosophy is even simpler: annoy John. To keep things copacetic, I simply adopted his philosophy.
About an hour and 10 minutes in we crossed paths with the first half marathoner. A minute later we saw another one. A couple minutes after that we passed the first female half marathoner. Within a few minutes the half marathoner floodgates were wide open.
We passed many a half marathoner before one dude came at us with his hand out. My brain attempted to process the scenario as it unfolded. Runner with his hand out. Runner. Hand is out. Response uncertain.
ME: Is he requesting a high five?
ME: Is he really requesting a high five?
JOHN: Yes. I’m pretty sure he is.
We gave the dude a couple of high fives.
ME: Did we just give that dude high fives?
Don’t get me wrong. I give high fives all the time. Usually I provide them to my son or as encouragement to younger humans. I can’t recall a race where I gave a fellow runner hand-to-hand props. Whatever. The dude was happy. We were confused, but happy. All was well.
Anywho, on we went towards the half marathon turnaround and the prospect of a delectable aid station treat: PB&J. The more we talked about PB&J the greater the anticipation. Unable to contain our excitement, we broke into song:
Finally, I saw the Pinnacle Hotel Road aid station. I saw Abram Moore (PMPB creator and former race director) at the aid station. I saw cookies, pretzels, M&Ms, Gatorade, and water. I did not see PB&J. I repeat, I DID NOT SEE A SINGLE PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICH! A bit bummed, I refilled my bottles, snagged a couple of cookies, thanked Abram, and headed on towards the mountain part of the mountain marathon.
Back in the woods we started our ascent towards the summit. The first mile was a 30/70 mixture of walking and jogging. Another half mile up and we came across a dude (I’ll call “Old Bro”) who was running with (well actually 10 minutes ahead of) his younger brother (who I’ll call “Young Bro”). Once we got behind Old Bro our walk-to-jog ratio increased to 60/40 where it remained until we reached Ledge Springs Trail.
I’ll be honest. When we reached the aid station at Pinnacle Hotel Road and learned that there were no PB&J sandwiches I was really quite sad. But when we reached Ledge Springs Trail and saw an arrow pointing right I felt like a big sumo wrestler jumped off an Olympic diving board and bellyflopped right on top of my spirit. You see, for the past two years the turn at Ledge Springs was to the left and the trail to the left consisted of dirt covered switchbacks that lollygagged to the summit. By changing the course and turning to the right the race became a scene straight out of Batman and Robin.
It was awful. The 12″-15″ tall rocks that we had run down in previous years were now laughing at us as we painfully climbed them whilst ascending 900′ over 3/4 mile. Insult to injury, the rocks weren’t the only things laughing at us. Somewhere between “I’m tired” and “Shoot me” we came across a pack of dudes rappelling down a rock face.
JOHN: Is that a shortcut to the top?
CAPT OBVIOUS: Ha. No.
JOHN: Ha. No, seriously.
CAPT OBVIOUS: No. Seriously. You look tired.
JOHN: Yeah. Tough climb.
CAPT OBVIOUS: You know you did it to yourself, right? HAHA!
We passed two more groups of rattlin’ rappellers before reaching the start of the summit loop. Old Bro took off as the three of us lapped the knob. A minute or so later we caught back up with Old Bro as he talked to Young Bro. Greetings, salutations, and we continued on to the next aid station at the summit’s parking lot above.
That’s when my watch pointed out the time.
Heck yeah! With PB&J in my belly, I proceeded to fill my bottles. First, Gatorade. Then wa… whoa…. whoa… wait… the water… the table… GATORADE!… HOLY POOP!… SPLASH! DADGUMMIT!
In my attempt to fill my water bottle I managed to tip the table which tipped the Gatorade cooler which fell on the ground and emptied its contents. I felt like an idiot and the volunteer working the station was clearly thinking that I was the biggest uneducated donkey. I offered apologies, cleaned up my mess, and then got the h-e-double hockey sticks outta there.
John followed and we took off down the sidewalk to the overlook for our annual photo op. When we got there, I was still chowing down PB&J and John was fumbling with his camera. Then out of the blue Old Bro breezed by us. John quickly snapped a shot, I stowed the camera, and we scrambled to get going down Grindstone Trail.
Before long Old Bro put distance between us, trio became duo, and John and I headed down the steep, rocky trail to the campsites. A short while later we passed the next aid station, refilled bottles, and picked up Grassy Creek Trail. According to the trail sign we had just 1.75 miles to Pinnacle. Walk, jog, walk, jog, walk, jog, and we were back at the Pinnacle Hotel Road Aid Station; just under an hour after summiting.
ABRAM: How’re you guys doing?
ME: Hopefully not last.
ABRAM: Nah, you guys are like 15 and 16.
ME: Where’s the last guy?
ABRAM: Behind you.
JOHN: We’re not last!
We refilled our bottles, powered up with cookies, and met up with Young Bro. Yes, the younger of the Bros had finally caught up with us. Uncertain if he was the last guy Abram was referring to, we exchanged expedient howdy-dos and went on to finish the last 7.25 miles.
For the first 3 miles we managed to keep Young Bro behind us. Eventually, though, we were Young Bro’s roadkill. A little while later, we came upon a dude wearing cargo shorts. As we got closer we realized he was a half marathoner. A half marathoner.
Look, I’m not saying John and I are a couple of Flash Gordons, but this dude had covered 11 miles in the time it took us to cover 21. Clearly something was amiss. We asked him if he needed anything. He said he did not. We asked him again if he needed anything. Again, he said he did not. He said he was just getting old. That he’d been walking and sitting off and on for a while now. We wished him well and made a mental note of his bib number so we could notify the race director (and we did and they picked him up).
A mile and half later we caught up with another runner—a full marathoner. If we could just stay ahead of him we would definitely not be last!
A half mile later we popped out of the woods and back on to Hauser Road. We jogged to the base of the 3/4 mile climb up to Horne Creek Farm Road. John gave me the signal and we started walking the hill. Halfway up the hill I looked back to see the marathoner we had just passed jogging up the road.
ME: There he is.
ME: That dude we passed.
JOHN: Nuh uh.
ME: Dude, look.
ME: Dude. That’s three F bombs on the day. You owe 3 quarters to the swear jar.
JOHN: Whatever. I’ll buy you ice cream after the race.
ME: For 75 cents? Are you getting cheap on me?
We started jogging once more before we reached a road that looked like Horne Creek Farm Road, but it wasn’t.
ME: One dollar.
JOHN: Where’s the road?
ME: Up there.
JOHN: F**K! Now you have enough for any ice cream bar you want.
And on we went. Right on Horne Creek Farm Road. Straight to the finish line. Just John and me. Jogging it in. Nice and easy. But then, with less than 20 yards to go, John tried to pull a fast one. That Mother Hubbard started to kick. He actually thought he’d pick it up and pass me for the lead. Well, I sped up, crushed his dreams, and crossed in 5:22:51.253. John followed a second and a half later.
This is my third time running PMPB. I’ve run it in the cold of February, the unrelenting heat of April, and now on a cold and windy late-March morning. The course was challenging, trails were well marked, and in spite of the lack of PB&J at Pinnacle, the aid stations were well stocked. Like previous Paybacks, this year’s race was a blast. Partly because of the weather, partly because of my training, but mostly because John and I ran it without a care in the world. We showed up with a mindset to complete, rather than compete. We had a good run. And because I was able to get John to give five “F**K”s, I even got ice cream.
Got thoughts on the 2015 Pilot Mountain Payback? Share ’em below or send me an e-mail at email@example.com.