Pinellas Trail Challenge, 46 mile race on one of the hottest days of the year. Warning, long race report.
This was my second ever ultra back in 2015 and one I’ve wanted to win ever since. It’s my favorite race, right behind the 6 hour Durty Beer Run, due to the generosity of all the volunteers, the course, and most of all the challenge, this is such a grueling race. Every year since 2015 apart from 2017 when I was injured, I’ve toed the line with a belief, probably more desire, that I could win this race, but usually cramping comes into play and my pace falls off. This year was no different but I think I had more confidence, I told more people that I was going to win this year, this was going to be my year. However there was a little doubt in the back of my mind, before my 60K Bryce Canyon race at the end of May my hip, which I had replaced almost 11 years ago, has been bothering me and at the end of the race it was screaming with me from the climbing, descent and soft sand. It was okay for the Lake Baldwin race in July which I finished second after cramping at mile 20, but once again screamed at me after the 6 Hour Durty Beer Run in August just 3 weeks earlier. In fact doing an easy training run the Thursday after I pulled up after 3 miles as my hip was getting worse and the pain travelling down my leg and I had to walk 1.5 miles back to my car. I didn’t run again for 8 days and instead took to the pool and swam 1.5 miles each day, which is something I don’t do. I had a couple of runs the week leading up to the race but the last run on Wednesday also had my hip reminding me of the challenge ahead. But with all of that I somehow felt confident and told the Clever Training Run group I was going to win, I told everyone at work about the race and I was going to win, and I told my wife the same, although she may have heard that line before. I also told Luis that this was going to be my year and Jeff and I talked about either of us winning this race.
I had my usual pre race dinner of ribeye steak and sweet potato, with mushrooms the night before the race, something my training friend Brian was also experimenting with. Race week rather than carbing up I actually carb down, having no more than 50 calories of carbs each day and also don’t drink any alcohol for the week. I try to drop 3 or 4 pounds to 147 for race day, not that it’s a magic number but it’s the maximum break you can score in snooker which is something my dad played all his life and almost turned professional at it in England, this would have been his 99th birthday this weekend. Race morning I have a cup of tea and a Granola bar about 90 minutes before the race, just so I have some calories in my body, but for most of my training runs I go out fasted and often don’t have any water. I try to train my body to be ready for anything and hope when it comes to race day if I add nutrition I’m going to feel more benefit than someone who trains with it every day. I made the mistake in Lake Baldwin not having anything but 20 ounces of water for the first 12 miles and I couldn’t recover and started cramping by mile 20. Race pace is different than training and I needed to take something, so I adjusted my nutrition for the 6 hour race and also decided to take on more for this race, packing 7 Science in Sports gels when I would normally plan on 4. The other 3 years I had run the Summer Slam Series I had won both Lake Baldwin and the 6 hour race, but this year Michael Stork beat me at the first and I won the second, so I knew whoever finished ahead would win the Slam award. Luis was crewing me this year on his bike and I told him to alternate every 30 minutes between a gel and salt cap, with an occasional pickle thrown in if the aid station had it. I had 2 hand holds filled with Tailwind and a plastic bag with Re-Lyte electrolyte powder in it, zero calories but with sodium, chloride, potassium and magnesium in it.
Last year I had an 18 minute PR and finished 4th with a time of 6 hours and 57 minutes, 1 second, and this year I felt like I could knock about 10 minutes of that time as my last 10 miles last year I didn’t have the energy and my pace slowed a little. So I went into this race with an A-Goal of 6 hours 45 minutes, a couple more than I thought I had but that’s why we set goals. Jeff asked me as we lined up at the start of the race what pace I was going out at and I told him around 8:30 as I didn’t want to burn up and pay the price at the end. We went off in the last wave reserved for the faster runners in a group of around 50 runners. I knew of about 5 runners that had the potential to win the race, but like any year there are so many new faces you never know. Patrick Gallagher took off fast with another runner just behind him, with Jeff and Walt just ahead of me and Michael tucked in just behind. After a few miles we couldn’t see the lead 2 and Walt, Jeff and I ran with each other and Michael just behind. Jeff usually starts of a little slower and finishes faster but I know he’s been running strong recently and had Darius, who finished second last year, pacing him the last 20 miles so I knew he was feeling confident. I was surprised to see Walt running strong and asked Jeff is he was pacing him, expecting him to maybe run the first 20 miles as he surprised me running in the lead pack but Jeff said no he was running the entire race. Michael usually takes of fast and then slows down, similar to me, but this year he was tucked in about 5 yards behind me. I knew his strategy was to just keep me in sight and hopefully pass me in the last few miles. It was kind of neat running in this chase pack, chatting when we wanted to and it made the miles tick of easily. Luis would ride ahead and press the lights and made sure we could all clear the road safely, each of us except Walt had a bike crew for support but Jeff had his crew help him. Michael would eventually join us and around mile 10 we caught up with Scott Hoover whom had gone out a little faster than planned trying to keep pace with Patrick. This race format of the slower runners going out in the earlier waves was nice as it gave us chance to see the entire race field and cheer on friends and others as we passed them.
We maintained a consistent pace between 8:15 and 8:30 up to around mile 19 and everyone in the chase pack was feeling good, breathing easy and enjoying the race. At this point I decided I had to kick it up a notch and try to spread the pack or at least make them hurt with the hope that they would drop off more than I would in the closing stages. The next 5 miles I increased the pace to between 8:09 to 8:17 but I didn’t break them and we were still together. We ran through Clearwater together and up to Dunedin, by this time Walt and Scott had dropped of but Michael and Jeff were still right there. Last year at mile 26 I started to fade but this time I was still feeling strong and decided to try to maintain this pace through mile 30. Now my focus had shifted from finishing ahead of Michael to win the Slam Series to chasing down Patrick, his lead was now 5 minutes having been 6 minutes from mile 13 so I knew he was starting to fade. I pushed hard again throwing in several more miles around an 8:15 pace trying to maintain a balance so I didn’t start to cramp. Luis had done a fantastic job of keeping me on my nutrition plan, alternating between gels and a salt cap and an occasional pickle and keeping my hand holds full so I still felt strong. There was some confusion as to whether there were 2 runners ahead or just 1, I knew from our wave there was only Patrick ahead but someone said there was also a young guy up there as well. We never saw him as apparently he was in a port-a-john as we ran passed him and he heard us fly by. I was still knocking out 8:20’s up to mile 30 and now Patrick’s lead was just 4 minutes. Luis started wrapping ice in a cloth and I put it down my pants on my right hip as my quad had started to get a little tight, then he got a plastic bag of ice that I put over my left hip, a process he would repeat at each aid station and I think it really helped. I didn’t have any water to pour on my head so when the ice in the bag melted I would pour that over my head. I know Jeff and his crew has all of that down pat and has frequent ice water poured on his head for the last 10 miles or more and with Darius pacing him I expected I would be seeing him chasing me down at some stage.
As I ran into the Altra aid station at mile 33 I saw Patrick stood off to the side as I ran through. I shouted to Steven Kellett I was rocking my Altra’s, I had switched to racing in these a couple of years earlier after losing several toe nails in other Ultra’s. I used to race in On’s but they’re a little tight in the toe area and my feet always felt cramped as the race went on. I looked for wider running shoes and found Altra’s had a natural foot shape and I was hooked and bought road and trail shoes. I was in my new Escalante’s which I wore for the first time at the 6 hour race as my other shoes had quite a few miles on them. I lot of runners with hip replacement race in Hoka’s but I find the stack to high and I roll in them and they give me hot spots, I prefer to have better feedback from the road as I have to listen to my body more due to my hip. I actually try to switch my training shoes every day, running in Newtons, On’s, Adidas, Salming and Merrill shoes so I’m not dependent on any particular shoe and I think they help to strengthen my bones a little differently in each brand. I had never been in the lead by myself in this race and now I wanted it more than ever, I told myself I had to keep this pace to the turn around at mile 36 to have a chance at winning this race and kept going. Luis grabbed me a couple of ice popsicles which felt great with the ice helping to cool my inners.
At the turnaround I grabbed a small cup of coke as they didn’t have ginger ale which has helped me recover from cramping in other races, I downed it quickly and set off. I would say no more than a quarter mile down the road I passed Jeff and Patrick was right behind him. How could they be so close, I was pushing it as hard as I could and was sure I would be much further ahead. I didn’t panic and kept with my strategy, last year at a similar point I saw Jennie and pushed my pace more than my body wanted and paid the price later as I ran out of gas and straddled the line to avoid cramping. But I knew I couldn’t let off the pace too much but was determined to try to finish the race with every mile in the 8’s. The next few miles I maintained low 8:30 – 8:45 pace as I kept asking Luis if they were in sight, but no they weren’t. I’m not sure if I was drinking more between aid stations now or if Luis wasn’t filling the bottles as much in the rush to keep me going and I started running out of fluids. Now when the bag of ice melted, rather than pouring it over my head he filled my water bottle with it and I drank it, even though it had been down my shorts it was still clean.
We passed the aid station at mile 40 and the Altra station at 43 where I briefly stopped for a small cup of ginger ale. I remember telling myself I didn’t come this far to finish second and reminded myself this was the year I was going to win. Normally during an ultra you have lows where you ask yourself why are you doing this, I’m never going to do this again, I’m too old, but today I never once had a negative thought. I was focused, I was in the zone, I came here to win and I was leading, all I had to do was maintain this pace and the race was mine. I had no idea what the time was, I had no time goal at this point, I was purely focused on winning, Luis said I had a chance of finishing sub 6:50, he either mis-calculated or I misheard but it didn’t matter, I wasn’t chasing a time I was worried about a surge from Jeff or Patrick. Every quarter mile I kept asking Luis if he could see them but every time he replied no. With 2 miles to go I dug a little deeper and picked up the pace to 8:25, I wasn’t going to let anyone catch me and I knew I had enough in reserve if anyone did show I was prepared to kick it up further and sprint it in if I had to. About ½ mile before the finish line Janae handed me the biggest popsicle I’ve ever seen but it was a welcome sight as again I had ran out of fluids. The Clever Training crew had ridden up from their aid station and rode the last ½ mile with me and I loved that, they’ve been such a big part of my success and motivation over the years. I saw the Dunedin Ladies Run Group cheering as I approached Weaver Park and ran in and crossed the finish line inflatable and quickly stopped my watch. To my amazement it read 6 hours, 29 minutes and 33 seconds, never in my wildest dreams had I ever thought about a sub 6:30 finish. Last years 6:57 was almost a 20 minute PR and today was almost a 28 minute PR on top of that. At the age of 61, 10 plus years into a hip replacement, somehow I keep getting faster.
I think this is the pinnacle of my racing career, I say career as at times it almost feels like a full time job. Training 10 plus hours each week, running bridge repeats 2 or 3 times a week, running for 4 hours every Saturday and Sunday in the heat. Watching what I eat, what I drink, listening to my body, adjusting to how it feels. Last year between each of the slam races I was still running 50 to 60 miles, this year my body told me I couldn’t do that and was running half that distance and took a week off. What works one year may not work another year, you have to continually change and adapt, earlier this year I switched from running 7 days a week and no cross training to running 5 days a week, riding my stand-up ElliptiGo bike 3 days a week and taking a day off doing nothing. I also incorporated walking 4 miles every week day into my training program, and doing 60 squats and 30 Bulgarian split squats on each leg with a 20 pound kettle ball each weekday. Very rarely do I do any speed work, I may throw in an odd mile or 2 here or there but I almost never go out with a plan to do speed work, somehow I can still find it on race day. I’ve worked so hard over the years to try to win this race and finally everything came together in what was a perfect race day for me. Not only did I win but I’m the first Pinellas resident to win the race. It’s so well organized that it attracts top runners from all over the state and even out of state, some comparing the toughness of the race to that of the Keys 100.
This year I was fortunate to see what goes on to planning this race, coordinating the aid station volunteers, organizing the race start area and finish line, race course marshals, food, covid protocols, bibs, shirts, the list is endless. I would say the number of volunteers that go into making this race such a huge success and executed so well is probably close, if not over 100 people. Aid stations not only volunteering their time but also their own money purchasing ice, fruits, drinks, cookies, you name it they probably have it. It’s unbelievable that this is a free race and probably better organized than a lot of paid races that would charge over $200 for this. All they ask is that you support the Suncoast Animal League with whatever donation you can afford. Thank you to Michael and Sarah Stork for starting this tradition and to Luis and Kelly Hewett for carrying it forward. Thank you for the amazing sponsors, many of whom have supported this event for years and ask nothing in return except to think of them the next time you want to buy a pair of shoes, go for a beer, go to the gym or whatever, without them none of this would be possible on such a grueling course.
Luis mentioned to me this morning when we met to have a post race celebration drink at Frenchy’s that out of the 6 hours 29 minutes and 33 seconds, I only had 12 seconds where I wasn’t moving, I think probably about 4 seconds at 2 aid stations where I had the coke and ginger ale and another 4 seconds waiting to dodge the cars at one of the busy intersections up in Palm Harbor. Somehow I managed to maintain an average pace of 8 minutes 25 seconds per mile over 46.2 miles at the age of 61. I also have to congratulate Jeff finishing just over 4 minutes behind me, without him pushing me I would have backed off and slowed down. Also to Patrick for pushing the pace and giving me the drive and ambition to chase him down. To Michael for taking the Lake Baldwin win and pushing me to make sure I finished ahead of him. Also a huge THANK YOU to all of you supporting me along the way, it means so much to me. As much as I inspire them, they inspire me to dig deeper than I think possible, to continue running when your body and mind tells you to rest, I run this and every race as much for them as I do for me. And lastly I want to thank all the oldies and everyone with a hip replacement for giving me the belief that I can do this at my age and with this procedure, I go out and train this hard to support you all in your goals. We may not all be as fortunate as I am in my ability, but I’m still so proud of you all. Okay, now lastly, a HUGE shout out to everyone that is slow, yes you are amazing everyone of you, for me I have it easy, I’m out in the heat less than 7 hours, some of you are out there for over 12 hours, suffering way more than me. These races wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for everyone of you, it’s not just about the leaders, it’s about everyone that does the training and turns up on race day with a goal to finish. Not everyone does, it’s a tough race, but you should all be super proud of the journey and your determination and desire to do this.