Crewing Pinhoti for Prince Whatley

By Vanessa Stroud

Warning – This is not a typical race report. It’s a bit lengthy since I wanted to capture as many memories as possible. And as Rick and Bubba say, “I can’t write this kind of comedy, I just report it.” No alcohol was consumed during the making of this adventure…….Really. Enjoy!

11:48 PM 1/8/2010

The Pinhoti 100 was once again held in North East Alabama the first weekend in November. This monster of a trail ultra is young; this was only the second running, but wow what a race. I can’t say enough about the organization of the event itself. The aid stations (AS) were very hospitable and well stocked and the trails were well marked. A good amount of trail maintenance had been completed over the past year to improve the conditions, especially over Mount Cheaha; or so I heard. This being my first pace/crew trail ultra experience, I had to rely on the word of veterans for this comparison. Also new to ultra crewing was Tom, Denise and Charles.

Crew A consisted of my hubby, Tom Stroud – Statistician/Fortune Teller/Chauffer; Denise Michard – Bag Lady/Witch Doctor; Jim Bonds – Crew Chief/Pacer; and me – Grasshopper/Pacer –all titles conjured up by the runner himself. Just considering these pre-assigned titles, it appeared that this was going to be an interesting time.

What a gorgeous weekend we had. The weather could not have been more perfect. Well, OK, according to the runners, it could have been 10 degrees cooler. At least it wasn’t storming. Saturday morning almost started out with a bang as a half-asleep local (probably texting no less) pulled out in front of us on highway 281 without so much as a smidge of acknowledgment that she darn near almost royally quagged up everyone’s day. Great defensive driving on Tom’s part as we went off-roading there for what seemed an eternity while Denise and I, typical moms that we are, grabbed hands and held on for dear life. Of course the other driver proceeded to ‘farm’ and drive about 25 mph. Tom remedied that situation quickly and we slid into the first aid station, Horseblock, fearing we’d missed Prince. Come to find out we had about 30 minutes to spare.

Knowing Prince is a speedster, we all figured he’d be into the AS pretty quickly. We could see about 50 yards into the woods and each time a runner approached we’d strain to see if it was him. We’d start hooting and hollering “Go Prince! Hoo Hooooooo!” Denise snapping pictures and so on…it wouldn’t be him. Well, this went on for about 10 runners or so. At first I believe most bystanders thought we were calling all the runners “prince” as an odd form of encouragement. Odd bunch we are, but not that odd. It got to be hilarious – for the crew that is. Evidently we all need to visit our nearest Ophthalmologist – and I mean now. Look, we were just happy to be there. (Sidebar – Jim Bonds is the most free and easy laugher I’ve come across in quite some time. His laughter has a golden sound.) There was a fair amount of conversation about how fit these athletes are; legs as ropey as steel cables. No fat to be found. Check out that form. Is he pigeon toed? That last one was about Karl Meltzer, invited elite, who of course won the race. More on him later. Finally Prince arrived and they realized this dude really does go by “Prince.” Then, they thought Prince was a bit odd. I don’t think they were far off on that assumption.

He was looking really good and relaxed having strolled a half marathon through the fall foliage of our fair Alabama forest. Ah, but the wise one was holding back, conserving energy, letting some of the young guns burn themselves up early on. We hung around a few minutes to scope out the competition before hopping back in the car and heading to the next AS. So we finally get to the next stop and Denise again sets to work laying out all the supplies our runner might need. Prince pulls in and asks for ice so Jim takes off to the food table to see about some. “Hey, we have a cooler full of ice right here man.” “Oh, yeah.” So, between the three of us (Tom was busy stataticianing over on the side) we get him fueled up and on the way. The next stop, same routine, different patch of dirt. Except this time he wants his bottle packed with ice. There’s still some juice left in there so Denise pours it out and packs it with ice. Just before Prince heads out he attempts to squirt some in his mouth and nothing comes out. He looks at us quizzically. “Well, you said pack it with ice.” Runner 1, Crew 0 Maybe we didn’t hold him up too long. Roll up the sideshow and on to the next AS.

Sidebar – I will just say that the AS directions were a pain as they all started with “Travel on I20E to Exit 191, Hwy431/ Hwy78 (Talladega Scenic Byway). Go up ramp to stop sign. Blah blah blah” Coupled with unmarked roads, a ticking race clock, and the unknown of trail conditions and terrain on that specific course segment thereby making runner arrival estimates shaky, it made for interesting travel. Between a Tom Tom, a Garmin, an I phone, and an old fashioned paper map, somehow we made it each time. Go Tom the chauffer, Denise the navigator, and Jim the cheerleader! Albeit twice it was with only two minutes to spare and well, just read on…

A couple of AS later… I’m guessing we have about a hour and a half to get to the next AS, since we have to figure out where to go from I-20, what do you say we stop by Chick-Fil-A and grab a bag of grub? Great. Now where is this next AS? Wow – check out that beautiful tree. Denise, you should take a picture of that. We discussed our latest performances at various marathons with Denise proudly quoting a time for a newbie runner friend of hers, “she did a 10 ‘til 6”. Ten ‘til 6? Don’t cha mean a 5:50? The car erupts in golden laughter. Thirty minutes and four laps later…Shoot, we have driven this same stretch of road looking for that turn off at least four times. Denise, there’s that tree – again. Ya better get a picture. So at 50 mph (in a 35 zone), she literally flings her very expensive camera out the window, and with only one hand and no visual, snaps a most fabulous fall foliage shot. You go girl. But I digress. Hey, there’s a cop writing up someone up there. Let’s ask him. “Is this CC road?” “Yup, somebody knocked down the sign over thar ‘bout a year ago.” Thanks a heap. (Sidebar – OK – might need to fix that.) We take off like a conservative bat out of you know where. We surely don’t want a ticket. That would eat up some precious time.

The second of those near misses, we found the parking area and knew we had to hike .4 mile to the AS. After looking around a minute and not being able to identify a trailhead, we took a chance that the correct direction was what looked to be a motor cross course. It started out with about 6-8 berms which were flooded and muddy, but then smoothed out to a single lane dirt road. A runner’s wife, with toddler and infant in tow, were trying to decide whether to chance it or not. Well, Jim, Denise, and I head off – nothing to lose. Of course, we arrived at a fork. Summon up that Cherokee DNA and check out the leaf patterns. “The one on the right doesn’t look very disturbed, Jim. What do ya say we take the left and make it spiffy?” Denise was bringing up the rear with drinks and her camera while Jim toted Prince’s magic bag o’ goods. Fortunately a mountain biker approached at which time we hailed him with “Is there an aid station up ahead?” We must have looked odd but not too dangerous, because he slammed on the brakes and cocked his head to the side questioningly. “You know, a folding table full of carbs and cooler with a few crazy folks standing around at a trail head.” Confirmation – yahoo! Indian trackers 1, trail 0.

So we take off at a really fast walking pace and pull up questioning if Prince had been thru. Again a funny look. “#5.” “No he’s not checked in yet.” Whew. But here comes a runner now – uhhhhhh not him. Good. Yikes – here he comes. Where’s Denise with the drinks? Oh man – she’s just turned the corner about 100 yards away. “Run Denise!” I think that’s the first time she’s ever run faster than Prince Whatley. “Got any ice?” he says. AS has no ice and we didn’t bring the cooler – because it was heavy and we had to go .4 mile to get there. How pathetic is that? Darn it, I think to myself. Runner 2, crew 0. “Got a V8?” AS has no V8’s either. “We’ll get you some for the next AS.” Ah, a chance to gain that point back. Now, I have never seen anyone chug down two cans of warm Coke that fast. Looks like Prince acquired a skill in college that’s really paying off. And not even a belch – incredible. After the AS lady curtsied and declared she was a princess (complete with British accent), he was out of there looking ever so slightly annoyed. Of course we all got a good chuckle about that on the way back to the car. We gave a positive AS ID to the lady with the kids and hopped in the car. On to Bald Rock AS.

Multi-task and change into running gear in a very cramped back seat while the guys navigate up front. OK, we have crossed I-20 for the 3rd time – on this segment that is – and turned left and right on 78 and back tracked to 431 twice. We are SOL. Hey, that’s my phone. Can’t believe we are getting any reception out here. Oh thank God. Tony (Crew B who was scheduled to show up at the race about that time) says they have just made it to Bald Rock and “where are we?” Heck if I know. He attempts to give us directions coming in from another part of the park. “Hey – here comes Prince now” – click. Uhghh – no V8 for him. Darn it. Runner-4 (1 for not having the V8 and 1 for pacer no show), Crew – 0. Good thing Crew B has two pacers as I was supposed to pace that segment. Maybe he’ll slack us a point. Crew B consisted of Tony Fiore-Vice Crew Chief/Pacer, Charles McCalley-Pacer/Night Watch, and Tony’s 14 year old son, Rome.

A few minutes pass and we still can’t find the entrance to Cheaha State Park. Tony rings back up. “Charles is pacing.” Whew. Teamwork at its best! “Let me tell you how to get to Silent Trail AS.” After at least five dropped calls and riding the same stretch of 281, with no outstanding fall foliage ops – sorry Denise, we finally get a good cell and Tony brings us in. (Sidebar -By the way, red foam plates make great directional signs.) We all decided it was shorter to run the Pinhoti 100 than to drive from AS to AS. Our mileage must have totaled at least 250 give 100 or so. We drop off Jim and pick up Charles, who has been trying to keep up with the Alabama game through static while scaling a mountain. Brave man he is considering Prince is an Auburn fan. There are lots of places to hide a body in Cheaha State Park.

There’s no crew access at the next AS, so we follow Tony to Adam’s Gap AS. We play the waiting game and watch a few front runners come in and the sun sink below the horizon. About four college football games were being decided along with blaring AC/DC and Black Sabbath. Throw in the fire pit and you have the perfect mid-race fall trail running AS. People-watching is a fun diversion. I casually observe as a crew member wrings her hands at the fact her runner and pacer are late and they had unwisely declined her offer of headlamps at the last AS. They were quite delayed to say the least; I don’t think we saw them come in before we left. It was a good feeling knowing we didn’t have to worry about our runner dropping out and not showing up. We had the opposite problem – trying to keep up with his pace and beat him to the next AS.

Since Tom and I had taken a little hike up the trail to visit Mother Nature’s out house, I knew this section was technical; narrow and comprised of leaf covered boulders and a vicious low hanging limb thrown in for good measure. Watch your head, Jim! I had a front row seat to a most spectacular fall a few months ago. Night trail running at Ruffner Mountain and a dogwood reached out and smacked him clean off his feet – in slow motion like an action movie. Thank goodness he was still conscious and not too banged up. Took awhile for that mark to disappear from his forehead, though.

About this time, Tony and Tom decide to chat up the RD as he was making a visit. They walk back over to us smiling like Cheshire cats, neon orange paper in hand. “We have the secret handshake. The RD gave us a copy of AS to AS directions. Last copy.” I flip open ‘The Book’. The sacred book of all things Pinhoti 100, carefully compiled so we could have our crap together on this maiden voyage. (You see, I am very much a type A kind of girl for the simple reason that I hate hassles and I find it a most satisfying challenge to come thru a complicated process with all things shiny and intact with no one the wiser about the spontaneous adjustments and Jerry-rigging that has gone on behind the scenes. But I digress – again.) In The Book, right there after the three page checked off supply list and before the dog-eared pages of runner’s course directions, was the very same document Tony so proudly held in his hands. I give the guys a ‘Well now, isn’t that special’ smirk and begin snickering. Tom’s smile fades. (You see, he doesn’t find it as humorous as he feels this whole adventure is work. He is into MMA (mixed martial arts); not traipsing around the Alabama wilds with no decent directions nor hope for sleep in the next 20 hours. He’s only doing this for Prince since he’s coached me through two marathons and to a handful of 2nd place masters finishes at local 5 and 10K’s. That – and I have decided to run Pinhoti in the next year or so. So, he figures he’d better understand this crewing thing in order to be the most help to me whenever that momentous occasion occurs. Thanks Babes – you’re the bestest of the best.) Then Tony comments with absolutely no inflection in his voice, “Yeh, but your copy isn’t orange.” We burst out laughing. Oh, if only golden laugher Jim were here. He’d roll.

Since I had missed my first assigned pacing segment (thanks for filling in spontaneously Charles!), and having several close misses before that, I decided to get ready well in advance. And, I was a bit antsy as this was my first foray into pacing. Most times it takes all I can do to keep up with Prince on a trail – even if he’s already run 75 miles that week and I’ve got fresh legs. The crew had agreed that I would run the next two segments (about 10 miles) to get us back on track with the pacing assignments. I go through my routine of eating a Luna bar about an hour out, sipping on some Gatorade. and doing a bit of walking and light stretching. And, I get some first aid supplies from the “all things medical” backpack because Jim may need stitches when he arrives. “Hoo Hooooooo” we hear Jim’s familiar call. And look – how convenient! His head’s still intact! Must have glanced up to dodge that low hanging limb after all.

Prince peruses his refueling/wardrobe options, so well displayed by Denise, the visual staging expert, and changes shoes since they’ve run through a stream. Runner 4, Crew 1 – finally. This is the one and only time we see the man sit down in this event before crossing the finish line. Amazing. I notice as he’s eating and working on those shoes, he swats at his right butt cheek. Just a quick movement – maybe a bug is biting or he’s got a burr in his butt. Then he moves from a swat to a grab a couple more times, but not a flinch crosses his face. A slight concern flits through my mind. I lean over to Tom. “Did you see that? Has he got a muscle cinching up?” Seems like that would have the possibility of being a time-goal killer. Then hopping up with a “thanks guys” and a wave he scoots out of the AS with me on his heels. Must not have been too bad as he never mentions it, no limping, no nothing. On with the show.

This jeep road has quite a bit of uphill climb and the reflector course markers are spaced out pretty far. However, I keep telling myself that we don’t turn anywhere on this stretch – it’s all road – and a dark one at that. And add some sporadic mud bogs as well. So, I catch Prince up on the real story of how we missed him at Bald Rock. Who knows what Charles has told him. Even though his bag of tricks wasn’t there and he had to wait another five miles for his V8, I think he was humored. A well stocked AS and the fact Crew B had arrived just in time saved the day. Thanks Tony and Charles!

We come up on a runner, well at this point he was a stumbler, and discover its none other than Dwayne Satterfield of Vol State Run ‘09 winner fame. For those readers not familiar with that race, check it out online. It’s a killer 315 mile event held each June. Evidently, the warmer temps earlier in the day had wreaked havoc on his digestive system and he was feeling it. Come to find out, quite a few runners were feeling it. After we got out of earshot I quipped, “Hey, that’s one for the journal.” “No kidding,” he agreed. Earlier that afternoon, after Prince had a couple of bites of peanut butter sandwich that then tried to go south, he had immediately, and wisely, backed off the solid food until the heat let up.

At this point in the race, 55 miles had been ticked off and in typical Prince fashion, he was still chatty Cathy. We discussed the finer points of high school dramatic arts; his daughter was acting in a play that weekend, and the nuances of politics and theater at liberal arts schools. Well about that time we come to a fork in the road with no marker in sight. No leaves to study either. Hmmm. I flash my light around in a wide arc and spot a tiny white dot about 20 yards ahead. Just one dot, white, and up kind of high. Can’t be a critter, must be the trail marker. Whew. Onward we push.

After a few miles, we hear a couple of folks up ahead and discover a clan of locals who are as drunk as Cooter Brown. Run faster! Is that banjo music I hear? – Hold up. We’re in Alabama, not Georgia. (Sorry GA residents, I couldn’t resist. Remember, I’m a GA girl by birth – Go GA Southern Eagles!) They evidently are highly entertained with the novelty of watching folks knock themselves out running mega miles through the woods at night. I can’t fault them too much though, what am I myself doing? We cross a concrete bridge and Prince picks up the pace and hauls butt into Clairmont Springs AS with me – again – on his heels trying to look like I am casually strolling in because Denise is snapping away with that darn camera.

I shove a cookie in my mouth and shed my vest; spraying crumbs as I toss a “thanks guys” over my shoulder, out the door we go. This segment has more single track trail than road which provides a good change of scenery – for me at least. The trail felt soft and springy underfoot; really nice. I can’t imagine how much better it felt for the runner’s tired dogs. After Prince’s many accounts of the previous year’s Pinhoti, I must say, the course markings were greatly improved. Between the blue paint marks, white diamonds, white nickel sized reflectors, red flags with reflectors, and glow sticks, we didn’t miss a beat. I enjoyed slicing through this section at a quicker pace. Prince actually allowed me to lead for a lengthy portion, which I took as a compliment seeing as I have been running for all of 18 months and he was up against a challenging time goal.

We spot a headlamp bobbing pretty fast about 50 yards behind us as we are headed downhill. Since we are clipping along pretty quickly, we don’t speed up to make up the distance he’s gaining on us. By the time the runner catches up with us we are approaching a little stream so we allow him to pass. While negotiating the stream, Prince asks him four times, in various ways, who he is and he finally mumbles “Ken Wiggins”. Prince and I exchange looks and decide Ken’s a bit delirious which is quickly confirmed by the fact that now that Ken is in the lead he has absolutely no idea where to go even though the trail is right there in front of him. We move on by him and in a few steps he picks up the caboose and we become his cruise control.

Eventually, because he has wasted so much fuel chasing us down – again confirmation he’s delirious and not running smart, Ken drops back into the dark oblivion. We discuss the various runners and their positions in the race thus far and how the heat may have affected each one and what the advantage is for Prince. We do our best to determine whether he is in 9th or 10th since we have passed Dwayne and Mr. Loopy fell off the train back in the last mile. We decide the temp is falling when we feel the cool air around our calves as we descend into a hollow and back up again.

Before we know it, we see the dim flicker of a bon fire and hear the comforting blare of classic southern rock coming from Chandler Springs. A minute’s flurry of activity and blinding flashes of the camera and Prince is off with his next pacer, Tony. They are in for a long five hour jaunt up and over Mt. Cheaha. The temp is dropping, not a cloud in the sky, so the stars are spectacular and even though the moon isn’t full, there’s plenty of light and shadows in those woods. I take a few minutes to pet a really sweet, beautiful Siberian husky who’s decided I’m friend, not foe. He belongs to the Norwegian runner’s entourage and has been guarding the AS for a few hours. (Just a sidebar comment from a cat person’s perspective – all the dogs at the varying AS were well behaved – more so than their humans in some cases. It was fun to see who had what kind of dog and the little Yorkie named Spike was a hoot.) Chatter was going around that a runner was lost off course somewhere and he’s four hours late to an AS. Hope he finds his way back or sits it out ‘til dawn. Since it’s 9:15 PM and we haven’t’ had dinner, the crew heads into the bustling town of Ashland for a warm meal.

At this point, I must comment on the amazing talent Denise Michard has cultivated. No, not photography – she’s a natural pro at that already. That woman can go eons without using the facilities – that is if no man-made facilities are readily available. She will absolutely not, under any circumstances, get that close to nature. She is fully aware, though, that if she is to promote from Bag Lady/Witch Doctor to Ultra Running Mama as she fully intends to do, she must shake off this quirk. Unless she signs up for road ultras, the chances of finding a porta potty at one of these trail events is slim to none.

We pull in to Ashland’s town square after passing the obligatory 1st Methodist, 1st Baptist, AME Mt. Zion, and Presbyterian churches and are met with the sound of crickets and darkened store fronts. But hark! Diagonally across the town square Tom sees an OPEN neon sign. It’s a mom and pop place called The Pizza Shak. Not a customer in sight – we have the place to ourselves, which is good because we are a noisy bunch. Remember, we’ve picked up Jim the free and easy golden laugher a few AS back. We confirm the place is open until 10 and proceed to order up a couple of pies. Conversation touches on the fact that one of the crew overhead a comment at the last AS about how “that runner is the only one with crew at every AS”. Little do they know that we are just on the fringes of this thing and Prince doesn’t really need us. We are like that brother-in-law that you invite along because you have to and you assign him tasks to keep him busy and just try to hold it down to a dull roar.

As we are scarfing down the pies, the lovely lady there decided she had overcooked one of the pizzas and came out with a third one on the house. Sweet. I don’t think we had a crumb to spare. We all agreed it was most righteous tasting pizza. After paying the bill (less than $30 for 3 pizzas of this quality? Sweet.), we gassed up the cars and headed to Porter’s Gap to get a few hours shut eye.

The estimate was that Prince and Tony would be arriving around 2:30AM, so alarms were set for 2 and all windows were shuttered to muffle the menagerie of tunes blaring from the AS up the hill. (I must say, sleeping in a car is bogus. But, I digress again.) After finally getting somewhat comfortable and drifting off, I was rudely awakened by Tom, who accidently activated the interior lights while exiting to answer the nature’s call. After that, REM was pointless and I slipped just barely beneath the surface of consciousness.

What tha?!? My eyes pop open. What was that? I glance at the phone. 1:17AM. They can’t be coming in yet. But I could have sworn I heard that signature “Hoo Hoooooo”. I sit there and try to remember the 24-hour pace chart and last year’s splits at each AS as compared to the splits thus far. I know Prince is trying to make up time on this segment in order to come in under 24 hours, but could he make up an hour and some change? No. Ken’s rubbing off on me. I’m just delirious. Surely he can’t make it over that mountain that fast after this amount mileage……..but…… he is Prince.

I quietly slip out and head up to the AS and find the lead volunteer. I barrage him with questions. No, #5 hasn’t checked in. How many runners thus far? Seven. How is everyone doing on this segment? We did a lot of clearing last month and marked the course better. But it’s such rough terrain, only those runners shooting for sub-24 are coming in in less than five hours. Uggghhh. “Prince is shooting for sub-24 and he will make it.” The guy squints at me trying to decide if I have a psychic connection or if I truly am delirious.

I head back to the car and gently tap on Tom’s window. He groggily cracks open the door and asks if I can’t sleep. “He’s coming in early.” I confidently state. “Huh?” After whispering back and forth for a few minutes, we decide to get the bag and cooler out and head back up just in case my premonition comes to pass. I go ahead and put on my headlamp and have my flashlight handy, just in case – type A remember? After sitting by the fire for 20 minutes or so, admiring the clear night sky, and getting to know some other crews, we hear “Runners!” The young son of one of the volunteers springs into action and runs up the hill to find out who it was. “5 with pacer!”

I hop up. “I told you, Tom! Help Prince (as if he needs it) and I’ll wake everyone up.” I sprinted to the cars and beat on the windows. “Runner’s here! Get up guys! Prince and Tony made up time and are coming in early!” It took them a few seconds to realize what was going on and all of a sudden they started bailing out. Can we say Keystone Cops? I cut out and run back up the hill stripping off outer wear mid-stride knowing Prince doesn’t tarry, Tony’s probably tired, and that I may have to pace this segment. Charles pulls up right behind me as I am falling down yanking off my warm up pants which were hung on the tread of my shoe. “Charles, what cha need?” hollers Tom. “Nothing! Catch my shirt!” he hollers back. And by the time Prince hit the trail on the other side of the AS, Charles had caught up to him as the rest of the crew came straggling up. “What was that?” I heard someone say. It was exactly 2:00 AM. (Kudos to Charles for going from a dead sleep to 60 mph in 60 seconds. This was the 2nd time of the day he had to employ flexibility and speed work. Well done, my man.)

After regaining some semblance of composure, we pile back into the cars and head off into the night. This is a short segment, so we only have 45 minutes max to find the next AS, but it’s a straight shot up the road, so surely it’s crew proof and we won’t get lost. We passed Prince and Charles giving them the news that Dwayne had officially dropped. I don’t think they were surprised given the circumstances. And the good news for us was we actually didn’t get lost on this one and we pulled into Rocky Mtn AS with 35 minutes to spare.

Once again I get ready for pacing duties and warm up by yet another fire. Tony’s grabbing a few winks as he is bushed, no pun intended, by that 17 mile trek up the mountain. (Yahoo to Tony for keeping the runner’s feet lit. I can’t imagine covering that mountainous terrain in that short amount of time (making up 30 minutes) with my head down the whole time. Need a good chiropractor?) We find out the lost runner has been accounted for – ditched the race, crew picked him up and didn’t notify anyone. We find out Karl crossed the finish line around 11:30 PM, winning but no PR. At this point in the game, we have reached a new plateau of goofiness, and that’s an understatement. Someone hollers “Runner’s coming!” and we all look up to see a headlamp bobbing our way. Jim gets to whooping and hollering and we’re standing up clapping….it was one of the volunteers bringing more wood for the fire. More golden laughter and a flashback to Horseblock where all the madness started.

Finally he comes in and we head back out again. This time it’s mainly road for a few miles with some trail sprinkled in. I have not seen Prince tired, ever, but he was beginning to show a bit of fatigue. It was mile 90 after all. Still in good spirits as usual but more pre-occupied with calculating distance and pace and what’s the worst case scenario but still making sub-24? It was somewhat humorous – for me that is. He’s as bad at math on mile 90 as I am on any given day with plenty of rest. Scary but true. He walk/runs for about a mile. Yes, walk/runs, not run/walks. We discuss pace–is this a 15 minute or 16 minute mile. I set us at 15 minute with the disclaimer that the treadmill always seems slower than outside. He starts talking about his walk training and doing a 12.5 minute mile around the lake to which I comment that my legs aren’t that much shorter than his and how is that possible as I can just manage a 15. (Come to find out, I can walk faster than a 15. Tried it this morning on ol’ Milly and did a 12.5 – for all of a quarter mile.) To further lighten the moment I throw out a quote from one of the AS guys. “Karl Meltzer’s take on the race: ‘You can’t run Mt. Cheaha.’” “That’s right.” Prince grins as if to add “Well duh, Karl.”

Just about that time I see a bog up ahead. And about the time I mention it and start heading to the shoulder of the road, I’m up to my ankles. I quote a line from Blazing Saddles where Charlie is realizing their hand pump rail car is sinking in quick sand, something about “I may be wrong. But is the earth risin’, or are we sinkin’?” I comment that the movie couldn’t be shown anywhere nowadays. I then fast forward to the scene where The Kid and The Sheriff are scoping out Headley Lamar’s paid posse recruitment line and are signing up disguised as KKK dudes. The Mexicans have just declined badges. “Badges, we don’t need no stinking badges.” I actually remembered most of the lines from that scene. We have a short, tired laugh. I try to come up with some others, but my movie repertoire is pretty thin – and to think I had been trying to hone up on 80’s and 90’s comedies, too. I guess I still need to work on my material.

By this time, his legs are like concrete and are thinking about cramping up. When he switches from running to walking and back again, it’s difficult to have any speed and his legs want to really slow down. “Come on, man. Keep your eyes on that spot of light right there in front of you. When we get to the next AS, you can get a banana or S cap.” “Hey” he says. “Do we have someone catching up to us?” “Nah, man. I got your back. You just keep looking at that spot of light there.” We formulate a plan for me to run ahead when we get close to the AS and ask Jim to have an S cap ready to hand him as he is not stopping for anything under any circumstance. He’s going to walk it in and still make that sub-24. He has found a bandwidth in there where his legs are not screaming – as loudly – and he doesn’t want to drop below or go above but stay hovered right there within it.

Again he starts with the calculations. “Do you think this is a 16 or 17 minute pace? 21 hours times 18 minutes is…no, eight miles left times 18 minutes…no, we have to go at least…yeh, this is the pace. What tha…there’s someone coming up on us. Man they are making up some time. Let’s see who it is.” The stealth runners are William Ansick and his pacer silently sliding through the cool night air. Floating apparitions. Almost making it look disgustingly effortless. Prince fills me in on this promising young man (23) and how he seems to have a maturity about him to be conservative early in the race and not burn out like his peers. Before they are too long out of sight here comes another one. Roch Horton (50), experienced ultra runner who at last sight looked as if he was about to drop. Back from the dead he was; but silent because words require too much energy where he was living just then. Prince starts muttering about how they are going too fast for him to consider chasing down so now he’s back at #11 where he finished last year. “Yes, but remember your goal. Not placement, but sub-24. This year has a whole different field with Karl thrown in. You’re competing with yourself – remember your goal.” (Wonder where I got that? I suspiciously sound like him, don’t I? I bet he’ll guard his advice from now on as it may come back to haunt him later.) However, in my head I was thinking Runner-5, Pacer- zero. Darn…it.

Sidebar – I have heard that you can get the human body to do amazing things if you just ask it nicely. My perception is that Prince Whatley asks his on a weekly basis and he must really be a sweet talker because he never comes close to a DNF of DFL in anything he does. Or, at least he never shows it. –Oh, and Prince, please don’t guard your advice. I need all the help I can get!

A few minutes silently tick by. He must be in better spirits because he begins reciting a long multi-facetted joke about some old married couple with the wife trying to confirm in a very roundabout way that her husband’s having an affair. He actually remembered the punch line and had fairly good delivery, so I figure he’s doing OK now. And as an unexpected plus, we are heading into a refreshingly cool, bucolic meadow with a light fog settling in at the bottom that, I bet, is as pretty by day as it was enchanting by night. He mentions that last year when he hit this meadow, the sun was rising. I think “Ha! It’s still a couple of hours until dawn. He’s got this sub-24 in the bag. Yeh.” We dive back onto a trail and take it very gingerly. It changes back to jeep road and he changes the subject to religion and the differences between Christian denominations. Now here’s a subject I can banter about for quite awhile being brought up interdenominational myself. Murphy’s Law – of course that’s just when we see the flicker of lights and hear the hum of a generator up ahead.

“Do you think that’s it? It doesn’t seem like we have been out here long enough.” Oh yes it does, I think to myself. Just hang tight as it has disappeared. Just a mirage maybe? After another 10 minutes we see it again. “That’s it”, I say. We hear someone shout “Runners! Two of ‘em!” We hear claps and Hoo Hoooooo’s and someone shout “150 yards ahead!” We go a bit further and I ask Prince if there’s anything else he wants to have ready like a Frappachino, Coke, soup, etc. He declines, just an S cap. I said “see ya in a few” and take off down the road.

As I top the hill and start down the mud slide into Water Shed AS everyone is shouting and clapping and creating a ruckus, which I really would have enjoyed earlier but I have a runner to take care of. “I’m not Prince.” I loudly announce. Alright already. It took them a few seconds to realize he wasn’t with me. “He’s walking it in and not stopping. Denise, put the camera down and get one S cap. Give it to Jim.” Denise had ceased displaying the refuel options a few AS back since Prince had been his typical low maintenance self, so she’s up to her elbow digging in the bottomless pit of the bag. I turn around and Jim has taken off up the trail to find Prince. “Jim come back and get this S cap – he’s not going to stop.” There he is people. More cheering and general hoohahing until they fade out of sight. Sigh, this pacer’s job is done.

That’s when I stopped to look around. Hawaiian Disco? OoooooKay. Grass trimmed tent complete with Saturday Night Fever tunes and rotating mirror ball. And don’t forget the afro wigs. There was even a cardboard standup hula girl and surfer dude with the face holes cut out ready for candid camera shots. That has to be for crew. I mean, come on. What self-respecting, dog tired ultra runner would risk crashing at this late point in the race by stopping for a tacky tourist picture? The runner’s body probably looks more ripped than the scribbled abs on that cardboard standup anyway. All that being said, it was very funny and I award Trak Shak the prize for the most creative AS décor.

I accept some hot chicken noodle soup, which was divine by the way, and we carefully slog up the mud slide and through waist high grass to the cars. Mud bogging is especially fun at 4:00 AM. We had a time getting out of there, but made it to the Sylacauga High Stadium with plenty of minutes to spare. After some debate on whether we should hang around at the finish line or run him in, we decide on the latter. Of course, I consult ‘The Book’ to be sure we won’t inadvertently disqualify the man. How horrific would that be? The Goobe Squad ripping the bling right from their runner’s hands at mile 98.9? The ‘family and friends joining in’ point was one mile out, so to be on the safe side we decided to meet Prince and Jim at .7. We passed by William and his pacer as well as Roch and of course cheered them on. I’m sure the slumbering residents appreciated our ruckus on that otherwise very quiet Sunday morning.

Shortly we see our guys approaching and start up the noise again. He’s looking good and walk/running again. The closer we get to the stadium, the longer the running becomes until there is no walking. We head through the gate, across the bridge, and suddenly it’s like somebody dropped the hammer. Prince takes off in a sprint and the only crew member that could keep up was Rome, whom I heard is coming into his own as a high school cross-country star. It was amazing to watch.

23:40.21

Or 20 ‘til 24 in Denise-ese. She’s snapping away. Major props to her. I wager a bet that no other runner has as fine a documentation of their event than Prince Whatley. Can’t wait to see these pictures; especially the one at the finish with the sunrise in the background.

A most outstanding finish, brother. Congratulations. Thank you for inviting us to your all night party and putting up with our shenanigans. In spite of us, you made your goal and represented the Darkside well.

Prince Whatley – 23:40:21

Pinhoti 100 – 11/07-08/09