Back in the 40's, Franklin D. Roosevelt made Warm Springs, GA and neighboring Pine Mountain his home away from home. He would first come here to treat his polio, but soon fell in love with the beautiful scenery of the Appalachian foothills. Today this area is maintained by the state and called FDR State Park. When visiting, it's not hard to understand why FDR loved it so much. Even in the late stages of autumn, the area boasts a certain mystique and beauty.
The Pine Mountain Trail begins in FDR Park and extends 23 miles mostly along a ridge. The trail is known for its diverse terrain, crossing creeks, climbing up and over ridge tops and traversing past oak, hickory, pine and maple trees. Many sections of the trail are also known for the degree of technical difficulty. The trail is littered with protruding rocks made even more difficult in the fall by the leaves covering the trail.
The annual Pine Mountain 40-miler put on by GUTS uses almost the entire trail and adds some adjoining ones. This year's race was held on Sunday, December 6th.
I arrived at Kelly's house at 4:00am and we quickly hit the road. Even after having taken the wrong interstate and making a small detour, we still managed to arrive at the park around 6:00am. We picked up our race packets and waited in the car with the heat on. It was a chilly 28 degrees. Other runners were also arriving and beginning to gather. At 6:50am, we got out of the car, met up with everyone and soon walked up to the road where the race would start. It was barely dusk as we stood there listening to last minute instructions. Something in the instructions stuck in my head, "You road runners are probably going to hate this course, but all you trail runners, you are going to love it!" That's all the motivation I needed to hear. I was ready to roll and soon we were off!
We ran a short segment of asphalt before we hit the single track trail going through the woods. Another running buddy, Robin, ran along with me and a few others. Robin was just off of winning the Pinhoti 100 miler a few weeks prior. It was good to run with her although it wouldn't be long before she ran up ahead and left me behind.
The initial part of the race takes you up onto a ridge by the FDR Overlook. The sun was peaking over the horizon and the views were already spectacular, but there was no time for sightseeing. I hooked up with a small group of three other runners. The guy leading the "train" had a heavy accent and was a cross between Ernest ("Now what I mean, Vern?") and that mumbling guy on King of the Hill. Anyway, they were setting a pretty good pace and every once in a while they would pull ahead and then I would catch up. We kept up this rubber banding action through the first aid station at Fox Den Cove (5.9 miles) and through the next aid station at Mollyhugger Hill (10.8 miles). We came down a long decline off a ridge and were about to cross a road in the park, when I saw Robin. She apparently had decided that she wasn't up for the full course and was turning around. We encouraged each other as I ran by.
After seeing Robin, we began a long ascent. The trail here was increasingly rocky and the guys ahead of me started hesitating more and more with the terrain. I thought they were being just a tad too cautious and I decided to make my move. I found a spot along the trail and passed them. I was actually surprised how quickly I pulled away, but was glad to be on my own and set my own pace.
I was also glad to see the Dowdell Knob aid station (13.5 miles.) I took advantage and scarfed half a turkey and cheese sandwich while washing it down with a Coke. You haven’t tried a Coke until you’ve tried it in the middle of an ultra race. Amazing! As I left the aid station, the guys I left behind were making their way in. That would be the last I would see of them. Heading down the trail with sandwich still in hand, I saw another friend, Beth and she said, “Go Javi, you’re looking good!” I replied, “Tell me that on the way back.” There was more than half the race still left to run.
I somehow managed to get into no man’s land. It’s a weird part of an ultra race where you don’t see any runners ahead of you or behind you. It was just me and the trail. Also, I was amused to see signs occasionally on the trees that read, “Safety Zone, No Hunting”. It made me wonder if I should have brought my orange running vest.
Soon I came up on the aid station at Rocky Point (17.82 miles), appropriately named I might add. My spirits were high and I was feeling pretty good. I grabbed a PB&J, downed some Powerade, thanked the volunteers and continued down the trail. The next section of trail would change considerably from everything I’d seen so far. It soon came into a creek bed that I would have to cross several times. The vegetation was different too. I managed to keep my feet dry and just kept on pushing. I was excited to get to the next station since it would be after the midway point. However, it seemed like it took forever to get there. I guess I was starting to feel the miles.
After some time, I finally saw the tip of the TV tower that marked where the next aid station would be. I picked up my pace and was glad to see my buddy Tom greeting me at the station. I was looking through the items on the table. Cookies, pretzels, potato chips all in abundance, but nothing sounded good. When all of a sudden an aluminum tray filled with grilled cheese sandwiches was put in front of my face. Nirvana! Maybe it was the miles on the trails, but that was the best tasting grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever had. Onward!
It was only a couple more miles to the next aid station and mostly down hill, so I had a good pace going. Once at Rocky Point aid station, I topped off my water bottle and continued down the trail going back the way we came earlier in the day. The next few miles were uneventful and I eventually came into the aid station at Dowdell Knob. I was just about to leave the station when I turned around and there was Kelly. I was surprised to see her. We left the aid station together and I would soon realize that I was going to have a hard time riding her coat tails. She was running strong and steady, even on the climbs. I hung with her for about three miles and then saw her quickly leave me behind. It was fun to run with her while it lasted. I wouldn’t see her again until the finish.
Once again I was by myself. After the next aid station, I was sent down a different trail we hadn’t yet traveled. This was to be the toughest portion of the race for me. This white blazed trail was extra treacherous with even more leaves covering the trail and the rocks beneath. Plus it was very undulating, so I couldn’t keep a good pace. It was only 2.5 miles to the next aid station, but I thought I would never get there. Of course I did, but it seemed like an eternity.
Once there, I refueled and chatted with the volunteers. I realized that I only had six or so miles left to go. All of a sudden, my melancholy mood from the last few miles changed to a much more positive one. I thanked the volunteers and headed out like a horse to the barn. My feet were sore from the rocky terrain, but I was pushing ahead and making good progress. There was one more hefty climb to tackle and I was soon at its initial slopes. I chugged ahead, walking up the hill and putting one foot in front of the other. As I made my way up, I was slowly coming back onto the ridge we were on that morning, this time under the full light of day. Great views!
At the top I came upon the last aid station. This one was unmanned, but water is all I really needed, so no problem. I crossed another road and enjoyed the long descent down the other side of the ridge. This was it, I could feel the end was near! My pace picked up when I realized that I could still make it under eight hours. Down the trail I went. Beth, who I ran into earlier at an aid station, was waiting on the trail for her husband. It was good to see her and she told me that the finish was just minutes ahead. That pushed me even more. A few more turns on the trail and then I could just make out the camp area through the trees. Next thing you know, I was crossing a foot bridge and running across an open field straight for the finish. As I stomped on the orange spray painted line, I saw the clock which read, 7:56:16. Sweet, I was done and made it under eight hours!
Kelly was there to greet me and so were some of the other runners. It was good to be finished and I was soon enjoying some chili and a beer. Why else would you do an ultra, but for the food at the finish? I’m sure FDR would approve.
I borrowed a couple of pictures taken by Beth Blackwell and Amanda Tichacek, I hope they don't mind.
Other Pine Mtn 40 reports: