Last June, I went on a weekend adventure with Jim Street and Kirsten Pieper. Along the way, they got me excited about a race they co-direct: the Evergreen Lake Ultra Series. When planning out my 100 mile race training, I made sure to put their event on the schedule.
It would not disappoint.
Pre-Race, Sunday, September 14, 2014
Of course it’s 2:15 in the morning and of course I’m awake.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Only crazy people get excited about losing sleep and comfort to the task of running 50+ miles in the woods.
I am certified crazy, man.
Edna is crazy too, which is probably why we get along so well. Either way, we’re both up and getting ourselves ready for what will surely be a long day. It’s 38 degrees outside, with an expected high in the upper 60s, so we both pack layers along with our Red Bulls and Starbucks Double Shots.
After a 20-minute drive from our hotel in Minonk, we arrive at Evergreen Lake (about 14 miles from Bloomington) and the groggy bustle of the start/finish line. We check in, get our bibs and say hello to Kirsten, who is busy greeting chilly runners and directing us towards the food.
“I’m only here for the food anyway,” I remind Kirsten.
She laughs as Edna and I dig in to the smorgasbord of breakfast items — several different quiches, potato wedges, and of course: BACON.
Nom nom nom nom…
As Edna already knows, the fastest way to my heart is through bacon, and there is so much bacon here I think I will love this race forever, and it hasn’t even started yet.
We finish eating and then go through our regular pre-race routines, which unglamorously include bathroom breaks and lots of lubricants.
Ready to go, we runners gather around for Jim’s pre-race speech. It’s cold. I can see my own breath and this pre-autumn chill only reminds me of the awful winter we had and what more awfulness might be on the way in 2015.
Brrrr! I have on a skull cap, long sleeve pull-over and gloves. All wrapped up, Edna looks like she’s about to embark on an Aleutian whaling expedition.
“Good luck, babe!” I tell her with a quick kiss.
There is a countdown… and then…
LOOP ONE — WINTER
Miles 1 – 17
There is a surge of eager runners that tightly pack in front of me. I let them go. I will be going slow today — locking in that 100-mile pace.
I laugh out loud at the idea of my “100-mile pace”.
You say it as if it’s sooo fast, I tell myself.
Nah, it ain’t, I reply. But eventually, it will hurt just the same.
I know that. Anyone who runs ultras knows that. Pain is part of the game. It’s part of what draws me in, keeps me engaged. By feeling my body’s reaction to the stress I put on it, I remain present and in a constant conversation with myself.
I’m not a masochist. I don’t like to hurt. But I do like to feel alive, and nothing makes me feel more alive than putting my body to the ultimate test and relaxing in the happy wasted comfort of accomplishment that comes after.
It’s a magical, transcending experience.
Can’t wait to get there today!
One thing is for sure: that end will be a long time coming. We have 13 hours to finish, and I plan to take as much time as I need. This race is 51 miles and consists of three loops of 17 miles each. I hope to keep an even pace — something on par with what I’ll experience at Pinhoti in November — and log each loop somewhere in between 3.5 to 4 hours.
Just a few miles in, and I am all by myself. The forest is quiet and dark. My new Black Diamond headlamp (thanks, Edna!) shines a brilliant beam, lighting my path ahead. Occasionally I look at the vast blackness above, in complete awe of the billions and billions of stars that exist, up there, way beyond my comprehension.
We don’t get this kind of view in the city. What a beautiful sight.
My awe and tranquility is interrupted every 10 minutes with the sudden urge to pee — another unglamorous staple of my ultrarunning career. There is something about running in the woods for hours and hours that causes me to urinate often, exemplifying my oft said japish quip of “The world is my toilet.”
I say that out of respect, Mother Nature. Please do not strike me down with a bolt of lightning.
She does not. Instead, she gives me an aid station.
I quickly take some peanut butter and jelly, and before I can say “my hands are clean, no really” I’m off on my merry, dark way.
Not long after, I find myself at a creek crossing. I stop, take a quick look around for any object that might make crossing this body of water a bit easier (and drier).
Nope. No help for you, Mother Nature surely chides.
Meh. Just as well. My feet are already wet from the dewy grass. Might as well get dirty too.
I plunge through the cold creek, water up to my knees, with a loud and boisterous “YEEEEEE HAAAAAW!”
The chill of the water complements the chill in the air.
How is it so cold? We never even got a summer! Thanks, Obama!
I pick up the pace to generate more warmth, and immediately my mind goes to a warmer place… like… um… here, later today, where it will be in the upper 60s. Soon.
I can make it that long, I think as I zip through the halfway mark of the loop, met by enthusiastic volunteers and a rising sun. I put away my head lamp and find comfort in being able to see everything around me. I was running cautious in the dark, trying hard not to trip. Naturally, an hour or so into sunlight I take my first head dive off an ornery root. I can’t help but laugh at myself.
That’s another reason why I keep coming back to these races, I think to myself. I always end up laughing at myself.
It’s hard to take things too seriously when my biggest concerns often revolve around something as simple as picking up my own two feet, one after the other; or whether or not I used enough Vaseline on my butt crack to keep from chafing halfway through the race. Such are the silly demands of an all-day runner.
I plop through another knee-high creek — this one just as cold — and shriek just the same as before. Not long after passing through though, and I start to feel the warmth of the sun penetrate my winter layers, telling me it’s time for a costume change.
Change hats, ditch gloves, change shirts, eat. This is my mantra before I reach the start/finish line aid station. I often repeat such phrases so that I don’t show up to the aid station and waste time not knowing what the hell to do (as is often the case if I don’t have a plan).
Change hats, ditch gloves, change shirts, eat, I repeat again as I FINALLY come up on other people on the trail. I’ve run almost the entirety of this 17-mile loop without seeing any other people.
“Hey, you’re moving too fast,” one of the female runners I pass hollers, “this is the no passing zone!”
We all have a good chuckle as I continue on.
I’m still chuckling as I approach what looks just like any other bridge, except that when I step on this particular bridge, I almost fall off as it bounces awkwardly, daring to toss me in the water it spans below. Once I recover my wits and realize I didn’t actually break any bones trying to get across, I think back to my youth and the bouncy bridges that used to be popular at the playgrounds in my hometown. I used to get such a kick out of scaring my sisters on those things.
Before I can answer, I start to see signs of civilization: generators, tents, camp fire smoke. At this point I pick up the pace and notice I’m sweating. Uncomfortable.
Change hats, ditch gloves, change shirts, eat.
EAT! It’s time. I’ve been munching on whatever looks good at the aid stations thus far — mostly peanut butter and jelly and some fruit — but I’m ready for some real food. The start/finish line aid station has it.
Potato wedges, more fruit and… rice balls? Yes! Rice balls! With some sort of tomato-something… shit, I don’t know, but they are delicious. So I grab a cup and stuff a bunch of them in there for the road.
I change my shirt (short sleeves now), ditch my gloves (too hot for them) and change hats (ball cap rather than skully). Feeling fresh and refreshed, I fill up my Salomon hydration vest with another 50 ounces of water and strap it on.
Before I head out, I see Jim and say hello. “I guess you know how much I loved creek crossings,” I tell him.
“You mean you couldn’t jump those creeks?” he laughs back.
“Well, I’m still smiling, so all is well,” I respond, heading back out onto the trail.
(Loop One Time: 3 hours, 42 minutes)
LOOP TWO — SPRING
Miles 17 – 34
I am still smiling. 17 miles in and yeah, my legs are starting to ache, but keeping a smile on my face keeps me from dwelling on any discomforts I have. For now.
The peacefulness of this trail — this outdoor wonderland — is also distracting me from any creeping aches and pains. In fact, this time around the loop seems like the first time, at least for the first half, since when I came around earlier it was pitch black.
My breath keeps getting taken away, not by the labors of my body, but by the beauty of the trail. The views are dramatic and pristine. Nature at its finest. My eyes wander on scenes reminiscent of a Bob Ross painting.
There’s a happy little tree next to a happy little lake. And, oh look, there’s his friend, Mr. Rock, all nestled into the happy little grass.
Fucking beautiful, man. I could stay out here all day.
Ha! Guess what, YOU ARE!
Oh yeah. I am. I AM!
Damn it, I’m just overwhelmed with happiness right now.
Don’t start crying, silly. You’re not even halfway through the race yet. Can’t get so emotional so early.
Yet sometimes the trail calls for it. For me, running is communing with nature. Running is meditation. Running is pure joy. When it is all those things together at the same time, sometimes I can’t help but get pretty emotional about it.
Ah fuck it, no one cares. If anyone asks, just tell them you got some dirt in your eye.
No one is around anyway. I’m all by myself. Just me, the happy little trees and… GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE.
Yeah, as much as I would like to think I’m all alone out here in this forest, the constant turkey gobbling coming from deep within the woods reminds me I’m not. This is the first time I’ve knowingly shared the wilderness with turkeys, so that’ s kinda cool.
Just us turkeys out here!
I wonder what the turkeys think of this weather. It’s spring now. In the shade I’m too cold, in the sun I’m too hot. I guess the turkeys probably don’t think about that too much. They will just be happy to be alive come November.
Past the halfway mark of the loop now, my legs are really starting to slow down, so I welcome the clockwork necessity to stop and pee every 20 minutes. It feels good knowing I’m more than halfway through the course, right on my targeted goal per loop, but it would also feel really good to be sitting on a couch watching football right now.
My mind wanders from Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall to Alshon Jeffery.
I bet they couldn’t do what I’m doing right now, I think. Then again, I don’t think I could do what they do either, so I guess it’s a wash.
While debating what possibly hurts more: being tackled by 300 lb defensive linemen or running ultramarathons through he woods, I trudge through the creek crossing again.
WOOOOOO HOOOOOOOO! BRRRRRRR!!!
I wonder if anyone can hear me? Other than the aid station volunteers — whom are ALL AWESOME BEYOND AWESOME by the way — I haven’t seen a single soul on this loop yet. I’m all alone… with my thoughts…
And now my mantra is water, Ibuprofen, Red Bull.
That early morning wake-up is catching up with me now as I slumber my way through the back half of the course. The cold creek crossings do well to snap me out of my zombie-like state; and I keep running as much as I can despite the slow pace. But for the last 17 miles I’m going to want a pick-me-up.
And it’s getting hot.
Water, Ibuprofen, Red Bull… water, Ibuprofen, Red Bull…
I hear footsteps. About a mile from the end of the loop now and I hear hard, fast footsteps. What the –
I turn around and see a young man blazing toward me. It’s Zach Pligge, a talented runner I met at Potawatomi earlier this year. I recall he had a fast finishing time in the hundred miler at that race, so he must be on his last loop of this one.
“Finishing up?” I ask.
“Yep! You think we’re going to hit that bridge soon?” he replies.
The bouncy bridge. The scary bridge. The bridge that almost sent me home in pieces.
“I hope so,” I reply. I want to stick on Zach’s heels so I can see how a super fast runner with 50 miles in his legs handles that bridge monstrosity, but he’s too fast and I’m too hot (and slow) to chase. He takes off as I congratulate him on a great race.
Wow. So the only person I see on this whole 17-mile loop is the guy who laps me on his way to an overall win. Now that’s not something that happens every day.
Civilization creeps back into view, and I know I’ve only got one more loop to go. With a little help from my friends (Ibuprofen and Red Bull to be exact), I’m looking forward to getting done.
Back at the start/finish line aid station, Kirsten greets me asking, “Are you done?!”
“Um…. no. No way. I have one more loop to go.”
“Oh, okay, well be careful at the aid station. We are having a little bit of a bee problem.”
When I get to the food table, I see what she means: there are bees EVERYWHERE! Yikes! And they really seem to dig watermelon as they are all over that. Luckily, they’re not into those rice balls, so I take as many as I can, fill up my hydration vest, chug a Red Bull and swallow 400 mg of Ibuprofen. In about 15 minutes I expect I’ll feel like a new man!
(Loop Two Time: 3 hours, 49 minutes)
LOOP THREE — SUMMER
Miles 34 – 51
The sun is hot.
Duh. It’s only about 10 billion degrees Fahrenheit. And even at 92.9 million miles away from the earth, it’s pretty impressive that I’m not fried up and dead right now, because 10 billion degrees is really hot.
In moments of extreme fatigue, my mind spends a lot of time on the obvious.
Oh, look over there is a tree. And there’s another. And another…
Having chowed down on rice balls and Red Bull… I shuffle-cruise my way through the first couple of miles of this last loop. Still all alone. Still stopping to pee every 20 minutes.
I bet I could shave a good half hour of my finish time today if I didn’t have to pee so damn much, I tell myself.
Yeah, but you have to keep drinking. You have the bladder of a pregnant woman. Nothing you can do about that. Better to drink and pee than to dehydrate and suffer.
Good point, self. Good point.
I shuffle along wondering when the Ibuprofen will kick in when, all of the sudden. It kicks in.
BAM! Off to the races!
At this point, pace is relative. I know I’m probably moving along around an 11 or 12 minute mile pace (at best), but I feel like friggin’ Killian Jornet out here. Zooming down this hill, bending around that corner, power hiking up that climb.
How much of it is caffeine versus NSAIDS versus mental toughness, I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t care either. I’m feeling good and I’m lettin’ ‘er rip!
Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai?
I don’t know what I’m humming to myself exactly, but it’s a catchy hook to a song from Stromae, an artist a friend of mine introduced me to on my recent trip to Mexico, and I can’t get it out of my head.
Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai?
Now I’m singing it out loud. Why not!? Other than me and the turkeys, this forest is as still as can be.
Which begs the question: if an ultrarunner flies through the woods and no one is there to see him, does he really ever fly through the woods?
Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai?
I get to the halfway point aid station and chug another Red Bull from my drop bag. I notice in the bag that there’s another half consumed can, which means Edna is on the jolt now too. YAAAAAY EDNA! I hope she’s doing well. I love that girl.
“Thank you, volunteers! I love you all!” I shout as I head back on down the trail.
I’m getting finish-line syndrome — the phenomenon of central governor override that seems to happen the closer one gets to the finish line. Some people just call it “wanting to be done”.
I want to be done, no doubt. My feet and heels are aching, my butt is sore and all this running is making me a little too hot for comfort; but at the same time I don’t ever want to stop, don’t ever want to leave. I just want to be in the forest with my thoughts, surrounded by nature, consumed by beauty — perpetually in the moment.
This is the life! YES!!!
Oh my goodness! People!
I must be slowing down as there are people behind me. Two ladies. I look behind and they greet me: “Hi, are you in the 51 miler?” one asks.
“No, we’re in the 34 miler. You’re my hero though!”
Wow, that’s kinda cool. Who knew you only had to be stupid enough to want to run in the woods all day to be someone’s hero. I’ll take it!
“You’re too kind,” I holler back as I pick up the speed. “Enjoy your finish! Congrats!”
I rev up the engine. ZOOM!
YEEEEE HAAAAAW! through the creek crossings again, focused on reaching civilization, my mind wanders to the task of running 100 miles come November.
What an adventure that’s going to be, I remind myself. And what pain is in store!
“Running is a vehicle for self discovery.” Scott Jurek said that. It’s a quote I think about often, one that I live by.
Look at the person you have become, the self you have discovered, all because you decided to go run in the woods!
Indeed, this is the life.
I reach the wonky bridge, tip-toe over it, saving myself from any potential embarrassment while charging on towards the finish line. As I approach civilization again and am greeted by the friendly cheers of volunteers, spectators and fellow runners, I long to stay out here — to find out more about myself and what I’m made of.
There will be plenty of time for that, I remind myself.
The finish line is in sight, I charge forward to applause, throw my hands in the air and think that crazy thought I never thought I’d think: 5o miles doesn’t seem that long.
(Loop Two Time: 3 hours, 52 minutes)
TOTAL RACE TIME: 11 hours, 23 minutes
Not only is there a killer post-race spread of delicious recovery foods (roast beef, potatoes, drunken berries and sweets galore) but lots of folks stick around to cheer on finishers. I hang out, patiently waiting for Edna to come through, and enjoy some conversation with Jim. I also talk to several other runners, eager to hear their stories from the day. Many of them centered around the cold creek crossings and the wonky bridge. While I only had one face plant, some had several.
We are alike in that we all find humor in ourselves.
It still boggles my mind that I spent nearly all of those 11+ hours alone, by myself, on the trail.
Still, having done so gives me the confidence I need going into the hundred miler, especially knowing I will have a pacer to keep me company on the last half.
Edna comes through about an hour after me, all smiles as usual. She too has some stories to tell, and I can’t wait to hear them. We share an embrace — the kind that only comes from an entire day’s worth of exhaustive exercise — and collect our walking sticks (a unique, kick-ass finisher’s prize that has immediate worth I might add) before heading back to the hotel.
- – -
If you’re looking for a beautiful run in the woods next September, go run Evergreen Lake! They have three distances to choose from (17 miles, 34 miles, 51 miles) and the support is top-notch. The food was great, the volunteers spectacular and the views serene! Also, the trail was impeccably marked, a detail that can never be overstated.
More importantly, with running being that vehicle to self discovery, you’re bound to discover something new about yourself. And having the Shady Hollow Trail Runners’ love and warmth as the background for such introspection is a certain recipe for success.
A few months ago, the good folks at NBC Chicago offered me space on their “Stride” blog to write about running. Naturally, my particular focus is on the pseudo-crazy phenomenon of ultrarunning. I have received a good response from my posts thus far and encourage my Run Factory readers to check out some of my work over there. I am not cross-posting, so the content will be new.
I have published four posts thus far and will have another by the end of the month. Here’s a current list with links:
- Why I Run Beyond the Marathon
- Lisle to Unveil Inaugural “Christmas in July” Race (My CiJ 2014 Preview)
- Eating on the Ultra Run
- How to Train Your Brain for Ultra Distances
I will post more links as they come and will also include a link on the side bar.
My posts on “Stride” are directed more towards the new and/or curious runner, while my work here on The Run Factory will continue to dive deep within the recesses of my relentlessly forward progressing body (and brain), with first person play-by-play, of course.
As the days pass, so too does my 100 mile training progress. To say I am “excited” and “terrified” is a huge understatement, but there is no doubt in my mind that I am as eager as I’ve ever been to go on this grand adventure.
Next up, another 50+ mile training run as I head south for the Evergreen Lake Ultra and a Half race. I hear they have great food at the aid stations. I plan on working up an appetite.
In the days since my dizzying yet mind opening 24-hour jaunt around Lisle Community Park, my body has recovered in full, responding to the training bell better than I ever imagined. I can’t emphasize enough just how awesome it feels to be running at full strength again. After all the nagging injuries from last year, I wasn’t really sure how my body would respond to the big mileage races, but everything feels strong and solid right now, and that is a huge motivator.
The key, at least for now, seems to be pace.
When I run fast — and for me, anything under an 8-minute mile is something I consider “fast” — both of my Achilles flare up, stopping me for several days. I have tried different shoes, different strengthening exercises, different forms. All speed seems to lead to the same thing currently: stiff, bum, calcaneous flare ups that SUCK. So I’m just shelving fast miles for now.
Long, slow, FUN runs.
Everything I run now is to prepare for the grueling test of the Pinhoti Trail 100. I will explore speed another day. Ain’t no need for a sub 10-minute anything in a hundred miler anyway. Looking at the elevation profile only confirms that.
Long, slow, fun it is.
Being one of the most anal retentive slaves to organization one could ever meet, the following faux pas of mine is extremely embarrassing to confess; but this blog is just as much about failure as it is success (otherwise success would be sooooooo boooooooring!) so here it is:
Um… so that half marathon I am supposed to run in Mexico City next weekend… um… yeah… it was IN JULY.
I don’t know how I (nor my buddy who has been training diligently for it) missed that small detail, but I did. We did. I originally wanted to run the marathon, and bummed that it was sold out, quickly obliged to the website’s tempting me to run the half instead. Assuming that it would be on the same day — because that’s how it usually works, the full and the half are held on the same day, simultaneously — I gladly signed up. To my credit, as far as I can remember, there was NO MENTION of the actual date of the race during the sign-up nor the confirmation process. I double checked the confirmation email to make sure.
Then, last month, as a follower of the race’s Facebook page, I was quite curious as to why there was another half marathon, under the same race name, a month earlier than the one I signed up for. Still, I never did conclude that the half marathon pictures I was seeing were from a race I was supposed to be running. It just didn’t make sense. My Mexico City Half Marathon was going to be on August 31.
Except it’s not.
It was only after recently checking packet pick-up details that the mistake was realized.
Oh well. There’s not much I can do about it now. While I’m a little sad I missed out on my first international race, I am still excited about visiting La Ciudad and exploring whatever roads and trails it has to offer. Maybe my friend and I will run our own half marathon.
THE WHY NOT
While I’m at it, I might as well run the Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon in Batavia this weekend. For the fourth year in a row. I won’t be running a personal best this year. In fact, I will probably have to work hard just to break two hours; but, in my opinion, this is one of the most fun, most charming races in all of Chicagoland: a scenic, challenging 13.1 miles through a quaint river town with all-you-can-eat pizza and all-you-can-drink Sam Adams beer at the finish line.
What’s not to love?!
And while I’m at the long, slow, fun running, I might as well enjoy twice the marathon action during the second weekend of October. At least, that’s what I was thinking when I recently signed up for the Prairie State Marathon. It’s the day before the Chicago Marathon, and should serve as a suitable warm-up to my favorite Sunday 26.2. Three weeks out from my first hundred miler, I figure back-t0-back marathons should be a nice way to start my taper.
As if ultrarunners actually taper.
Bran thought about it. “Can a man be brave if he’s afraid?”
“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.
George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
Thursday, July 17, 2014
I can’t sleep — tossing, turning, terrified.
What have I gotten myself into?
Just last week, I suffered through 6 hours and 24 minutes of a tough trail 50k, body throbbing with fatigue, thinking I don’t want to run another step as I crossed the finish line. Now, on the eve of the longest race of my life, a 24 Hour event on a .97 mile asphalt loop, the thought of quadrupling that pain is overwhelming.
Breathe, Jeff. Relax. Focus on your breath.
This mantra gets me to sleep, eventually. Yet, I still wake several times, jolted from slumber by dreams that I’d missed the start, trapped in a port-a-john, or that I wimped out completely, unwilling to test my body.
Breathe, Jeff. Relax. Focus on your breath.
Friday, July 18, 2014
I’m up at 5:30 a.m. for work, and for the next 7 hours I don’t really think too much about what’s going to happen later tonight. Some of my clients ask me about the race: What’s your strategy? Do you think you can last the whole 24? What will you eat?
I’m not really sure. But I keep smiling, agreeing that this may be the craziest thing I’ve done up to this point.
At one o’clock I eat a big lunch of rice and beans and then head straight home. I close the blinds, wrap a t-shirt over my head to block out the light and lie down in bed — heart rate higher than I’d like, mind beginning to wander.
Breathe, Jeff. Relax. Focus on your breath.
Deep inhale. Deep exhale. Repeat.
My alarm goes off and I wake up feeling refreshed, strong, ready for insanity.
I gather my things, load the car and join rush hour traffic on I-55 South. The plan is to go to Edna’s house first, have dinner with her, and let her drive me to the race in Lisle.
Traffic is heavy, but expected. I listen to the news to distract myself.
Edna and I are at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants. Steak tacos with more beans and rice. I’m careful to eat until I’m full, but not to stuff myself. Our conversation is light and focuses on our respective days thus far and not so much about the race. Being an ultra veteran, Edna knows the types of thoughts going through my head — How much will it hurt? Will I be able to endure? What if I fail? — and she does her best to shift my focus to more positive thoughts.
The drive to Lisle on Route 53 is spent listening to classic Ricky Martin tunes (La Bomba, Así Es la Vida, Perdido Sin Ti) interspersed with last-minute, calming words of caution from Edna. I try to not read too much into the subliminal messages of the song titles, which translate to: The Bomb, That’s Life, Lost Without You.
“Run your own race, mi amor. Don’t run anybody else’s race,” says Edna.
She sings along with Ricky for a bit.
“You have to run on your own. You have to know you can do these distances on your own,” she continues.
Perdido sin ti…
“But the most important thing?” she continues, taking a moment to look me dead in the eye, “Enjoy the pain.”
Breathe, Jeff. Relax. Focus on your breath.
At Lisle Community Park now, we head towards the packet pick-up table where I check in, get my bib (#3) and exchange greetings with the first of many friends and familiar faces I will see over the next day. The sun is down, the temperature is in the mid 60s and I quickly become a feast for a hungry swarm of mosquitos.
“Didn’t think I would need this today,” I say grabbing the can of OFF! sitting on the check-in table. I douse myself in chemicals and know that I will be nothing but a progressively filthy mess from here on out.
Comfortably guarded against the mosquito invasion, Edna and I walk to the Start/Finish line. I drop off my drop bags and begin my normal preparations of bladder draining, lubricating, mental focussing. The process is occasionally broken up by the buzz of adrenaline and a constant stream of greetings from friends. Like at most ultras, there’s a lot of hugging and high-fiving going on, with strategic pre-race selfies thrown in when possible.
I spend a few minutes chatting with each race director individually: Brian Gaines, Ed Kelly and Terry Madl. Each one of them offers me unwavering encouragement, making me feel confident. I look all around at the awesome Christmas in July atmosphere they have created with lights, trees and gigantic nutcrackers; I feel like I’m in good place. I feel like I’m about to embark upon something special.
I am so glad I am here.
Just minutes from the start, I give Edna a big hug and kiss and line up with the rest of the 24 hour runners. There is a pre-race speech over a megaphone. I can hardly hear it over my elevated heart rate and anxious thoughts.
Focus on the breath, I tell myself.
As I do, I can hear Edna’s parting advice bouncing off the space in my mind.
Enjoy the pain, she said, her beautiful smile stealing away any juxtaposing thoughts.
We do enjoy the pain, don’t we? I ask myself.
Before I can delve into that thought further, the race begins and I’m taking my first steps of an event that won’t end for another TWENTY. FOUR. HOURS.
Hours 1 – 7 (10 p.m. – 5 a.m.)
Run easy, run relaxed, figure out the course.
This is my mission for the first few loops. Other than lasting the entire 24 hours of the race, my only real goal is to see if I can log 80 miles or more. Eighty miles would be a 29-mile distance personal record, and I know that in order to conserve energy and maintain enough endurance to get there, I’m going to need to mix in a good deal of walking.
I like consistency. I like routine. The looped course suits me well so I will take advantage of it.
As we pass the stage where a band plays live Christmas music, we head up the first (and only significant) hill — one that I will power hike every, single, time. As we walk, I hear the usual ornery exclamations of “almost there”, “looking good” and “only a little more to go” from runners and spectators alike.
At the top of the hill is a magnificently huge inflatable snowman, brilliantly lit up against a cool, black night. We make a hard right turn and go up another short incline before we hit a long, smooth downhill. The path is paved (sorry, knees) and there isn’t a need for head lamps because the course is lit with luminaries on either side.
At the bottom of the hill is a short bridge which leads us past another bright snowman, this one alone by a creek. We cross the bridge and hang a winding right that reaches a fork marked with a “Merry Christmas” sign, having us turn right along a course that will take us back to Short Street, the road we came in on off 53. We pass another inflatable, festive treat — this time Santa, a reindeer and a polar bear, chilling in what looks like a hot tub? — before we reach the end of the path, marked with two port-a-johns (port-a-johns I will get to know intimately, of course). At the end of the path we turn right onto a sidewalk that takes us past a fantastically large inflatable Santa Claus monitoring the course, near packet pick-up. This sidewalk leads us all the way to the Lisle High School parking lot where we take a right and run about 200 meters back to the Start/Finish.
Boom. That’s it. That’s the course.
One loop, two loops, three…
By the fourth, I already have my pattern set and will not waver for the duration of the event:
Walk through the aid station. Continue walking while eating and drinking as we approach the base of the hill. Powerhike the hill. Run the straightaway towards the sharp right turn. Walk the sharp right turn and power hike the short incline to the beginning of the downhill. Run the downhill (bomb when I can). Walk over the bridge. Run from the bridge to the “Merry Christmas” sign marking the fork. Walk to Santa/reindeer/polar bear hot tub. Run to the port-a-johns. Walk to the sidewalk. Run from gigantic Santa to the 20 mph hour road sign (don’t want to get a ticket for speeding after all). Walk to the parking lot. Run it in to the Start/Finish.
Edna is there for the first couple of hours. She cheers for me every time I come through, putting a big smile on my face. Around midnight she gives me a final hug and kiss before she goes home for the night. I won’t see her until the end, tomorrow evening sometime.
Enjoy the pain, I hear her say in my head.
Running, walking, running, walking, running…
It doesn’t take long before I’m in a real good groove. For the first few hours I’m hitting 10-12 minute miles consistently. When I walk, I make sure I walk with a purpose. I pump my arms, move my hips.
I drink every loop. Every, single, loop. Since the course is so short, I can conserve energy by not carrying a bottle, but this means I need to take in fluids every time around. I drink water mostly, with the occasional Gatorade. I eat something every other loop.
The aid station is stocked! All the usual fare is here: chips, cookies, fruit, salty items, candies. I practice my “see food” diet by taking a look around and just grabbing a bite or two of whatever looks good at that particular time. Pizza arrives after a while and that looks particularly awesome. I chow down.
Eating and running is something I have gotten really good at through my ultra training the last couple of years. I try to stay away from sugary stuff, unless my body calls for it, and I make sure I don’t run too hard in the few minutes immediately after eating any significant amount of something. Being in tune with my body is something I take a lot of pride in. I listen to it and react on the fly. In my opinion, this is an essential skill for running super long distances.
Shit is going to happen. Be prepared and be flexible.
Right now, in these dark hours, I feel ready for anything. It gets a little chilly so I switch to a shirt with sleeves and tick off the miles without really much thought. The 12-hour and 6-hour runners, who started at 11 p.m. and 12 a.m. respectively, share the course with us and make me feel slightly slow as they dart by at a pace I wish I could run.
Run your own race, mi amor, I hear Edna say in my mind. Don’t run anyone else’s race.
Shan Riggs, local elite and winner of the 2014 Indiana Trail 100, flies by me too many times to count. I marvel at his abilities, but know I can’t chase. He’s the favorite to win the 24 hours. I hope he does.
A guy in blue flies by me a bunch of times too running a pace that makes me think he’s a 6 or 12-hour runner. Or maybe he just likes to suffer. We all do. Right?
Why ARE you doing this? I ask myself.
To see what I’m capable of. To discover something new about myself. To enhance my experience of life.
At the five-hour mark, very comfortable and still feeling fresh, I check in with the timer to see how many miles I have. He reports I have logged 23+ miles, a number I feel pretty good about. Doing the math in my head, 80 miles seems like a lock, if I can just stick with this plan. I grab some pizza to celebrate this little victory and chomp on it a bit before I remind myself that I have a loooooong way to go.
No need to get excited about anything yet, I tell myself. Focus on the now. Feel every step. Live every breath.
“Way to go, runner! Yay! WOO HOO!” cheers Cynthia, a girl perfectly positioned at the base of the big hill — the spot where I always feel like the hill is getting bigger. Cynthia is a trooper. A champion spectator. She has been here since the very first loop and she doesn’t leave until sometime after sunrise.
Seven plus hours of non-stop cheering.
Cynthia, wherever you are, you are my hero.
Hours 7 – 10 (5 a.m. – 8 a.m.)
The sun comes up and, for the first time, I can see the whole course from the top of the hill. My fellow runners dart around the loopty loop path, working hard, working steady, ant-like, off in the distance.
I’ve been working right along with them, focusing on the now, one moment at a time. surprisingly, when I try to think about what I’ve been thinking about the last 7 hours, I can’t really remember anything. I’m stuck in the moment — each one, as it comes, moving meditation.
Running, walking, eating, drinking, thinking NOW, NOW, NOW, running, walking, eating, drinking, thinking NOW, NOW, NOW…
And peeing. I’m peeing. A lot. Every two miles. It’s kind of annoying.
“Is it normal to pee this much?” I ask Cindy, one of the aid station volunteers whom you will likely see at any ultra race in the area. Her husband is an ultra vet and I suspect she’s seen it all.
“Yes, it means your kidneys are doing their job. As long as you’re drinking, that’s a good thing.”
Run, walk, eat, drink, PEE, think NOW NOW NOW… groove. Smile. Enjoy!
The 6-hour runners finish at 6 a.m., freeing up the course a bit. There were times where it was a little crowded, but nothing I couldn’t weave in and out of. When I circle back to the Start/Finish I find out that my friend, Todd Brown, won his 6-hour.
“Awesome!” I tell him with a fist-bump. “You looked awesome out there!”
He did. He lapped me a bunch. I use his positive outcome as fuel for a series of harder effort loops. The sun will be baking me soon, so I need to take advantage of these last couple of cool hours. I crank it up a bit on the run sections.
Starting to feel it. Tired. Heavy.
It has been a slow, steady disintegration from what I was doing in the first few hours. This was expected, of course, yet I always seem to be surprised by just how much I feel it.
And I’ve been running all this way on pavement. Pavement. What were you thinking, Jeff?
I smile back at my brief negativity.
I like pavement, I tell myself. I can run faster.
You mean COULD run faster. Right now ain’t so fast.
Yeah. So? Maybe I’m enjoying the pain.
My inner monologue is interrupted along the back straightaway heading towards Short Street when I see my friends Tony and Hersh, both ultrarunners themselves, flanked on either side of the path.
“Hey, Jeff!” says Hersh. “How do you feel?”
I tilt my head to the side, invite a smile and say, “Why are we so stupid?”
They share a hearty laugh as I continue on with my
run slow torture.
I am running still, but like I noted earlier, my run isn’t very quick. I don’t really know my exact pace, but I know I’m slowing down. My legs are dragging a bit and I am starting to feel… blisters.
Ah, yes. Blisters.
I knew this might happen.
DAMN YOU, HOKAS!
Up until recently, blisters have been a non-issue in my running career. A proud follower of routine, I found out early on that by keeping my callusses filed while using 2Toms Blistershield, Injinji socks, Nike Vomeros (road) and Salomon Speed Cross (trail), I would not have to deal with blisters. Every great once in a while a teeny one would show up, but very rarely. I am happy to say I have been nearly blister free since I became a runner.
However, with Achilles issues that have kept me from feeling my absolute best lingering the last year or so, I decided to try different shoes. Hokas, with their big, pillowy, comfy ride, seemed like a good choice. Lots of ultrarunners love them, including Edna, so I bought the Bondi 3s a few months ago and have been training in them regularly.
For the bottoms of my feet, and especially for my Achilles, they are awesome. The support is phenomenal and I don’t feel the hard ground/rocks/roots underneath me when I run. They work great for both road and trail.
Except they sometimes give me blisters.
They give me blisters on both heels and on both pinky toes. I have dealt with this before. They blistered me at Mohican. They blistered me at Dances with Dirt. Yet sometimes they don’t blister me at all, and with the smooth pavement in lieu of rugged terrain, I was hoping today would be one of those days.
Left heel is getting rubbed pretty badly. Both pinky toes are feeling it too.
It’s about 8 a.m. I’m feeling sluggish. The sun is beating down. Time to assess some damage.
For the first time in 10 hours, I sit down next to my drop bag and take off my shoes.
“Ahhh, shit,” I can’t help but say. “Damn it.”
It’s my left heel. Big blister. Welled up pretty good. “That one’s gonna have to pop,” I say as I dig out my first aid kit and start prepping my mind for fixing gnarly feet, what I like to call “surgery”.
Everywhere I go running I take my gear bag — a $30 tackle box from Target with lots of pockets, containers and compartments. The first aid section, stocked with needles, scissors, tape, antibiotics, moleskin and more, has come in handy only a couple of times so far, but those have always been desperate times. Facing 14 more hours of running, it’s better to fix things now, while I still have a chance.
I pop the big blister — yikes this thing is big! — on the back of the left heel and let it drain. I do the same with the one on the pinky toe. They both sting. After they’re drained I put on some Neosporin and wrap the pinky toe with a couple of band aids. I’m wearing toe socks, so the band aids should stay. For the heel blister I cut out a large moleskin square and try to adhere it over the blister. Unfortunately, I’m very sweaty, and the moleskin is not sticking.
I grab my roll of duct tape and rip off a large section. The ripping sound causes heads to turn and I hear someone say “Uh oh, getting serious now that the duct tape is out”.
It ain’t pretty, but I manage to keep the moleskin in place with a thorough wrapping. I put on some clean socks and massage my feet a bit before I put my shoes back on and stand up, slowly.
“Doesn’t feel too bad,” I say out loud. I take a step and immediately feel the salty stinginess in my open wounds. “Ouch!”
Well, you didn’t think it was going to be all roses, did ya?
Before I can dwell too much on my feet, I take off my shirt and busy myself with applying sunscreen. The sun is getting higher and hotter and the course offers scarcely any shade. I don’t want to become a lobster, so I rub it on thick.
This stop has taken too long, I think to myself as I check my watch. You need to get going.
It’s been 10 hours now, so I check in with the timer to find I’ve logged a little over 44 miles total. Pretty even with my first 5 hours. What’s 14 more hours? I joke to myself.
My other self is not amused.
Hours 10 – 15 (8 a.m. – 1 p.m.)
With each loop I complete I feel the sun beat down stronger, hotter, burning into my skin, through my muscles and into bone. This distracts me from my blistery feet, so much that I don’t notice them anymore. I try to see the positive in this as I focus on maintaining my run/walk rhythm, but it’s evident that mother nature is trying put me down for the count.
So… slug…gish… now…
I still see the same faces on the course, but much of the high energy is gone. It looks like I’m not the only runner dying in the sun. I make sure I stay hydrated at the aid station every time I pass through; and since I’m still peeing every two miles or so, I know I’m doing a good job. Still, I can’t seem to run much more than an old man shuffle.
The 12-hour runners finish at 11 a.m., leaving the course quite empty now as we surviving 24-hour runners try to hold on and avoid thinking about having ELEVEN MORE HOURS to go. There is carnage all around, especially at the Start/Finish line where some 24-hour runners have already tapped out, or are thinking about it. I HAVE ELEVEN MORE HOURS TO GO. Feet up, shoes off. Some of these people look happy with their decisions but I can’t let myself think about such a thing and besides there are ELEVEN MORE HOURS.
Food helps me get back on track. There is bacon now and if I can run for anything I can run for bacon.
Pancakes and hash browns are served too but BACON is really all I want. All told I have about 10 pieces in an hour’s time. Its rich, fat juiciness takes me to a happy place — Baconland, where you run mad in circles under the sun and suffer senselessly for the reward of tasting bacon’s flavorful fattiness with each successful loop.
Welcome to Baconland, Sir. Enjoy your pain!
Why thank you! And oh, look, they have Santa Claus in Baconland! And a gigantic snowman atop the hill. And a hot tub with Santa, a reindeer and a polar bear.
Bacon is good, no doubt, but my legs ache, my feet hurt, I’m fried and falling asleep. Even though my mind is telling me to run, I can’t seem to remember how. Toasty and sleepy, I zombie walk an entire loop, talking to myself. I am all alone and estoy sufriendo.
I am… suffering. Edna?
Enjoy your pain…
This is haaaaaarrrrrd. Es muy dificil, mi amor. Estoy sufriendo. Mucho. Mucho, mucho, mucho.
Enjoy your pain.
She always enjoys her pain. Her smile never ceases, even in her hardest of trials. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
I can do this, I remind myself. Just keep moving. Get to the aid station.
I am on the sidewalk parallel to Short Street now, baking, frying, bacon? No. Water? Yes. Sleep? No. RUN! I can’t. WALK! I am. FASTER! Shut up!
I hit the blacktop parking lot and try to run. Always run the homestretch, I tell myself. But I can’t. I really can’t.
I stumble into the drop bag area like a defeated fighter after 12 rounds. Where’s my stool?
“Are you okay?” asks my friend, Melissa. Melissa is crewing today and she’s been helpful throughout, aiding and cheering runners since the beginning of the race.
“Not really.” I say, eyes glazed.
“You’re really hot,” she says placing a hand on my forehead. “You need to cool down.”
“And wake up. I’m falling asleep.”
“You need to cool down. That will help you wake up.”
I grab my buff and a Red Bull from my bag. Melissa pours the Red Bull in a cup with ice. I drink it and the cold on my tongue feels like an alarm clock for my brain, the caffeine a dance party.
“Whoa.” I say.
“You need to cool down,” she says, taking my arm and leading me over to a kiddie pool next to the aid station. “Bend down and dunk your head in this water. It will feel really good.”
Trusting her, I kneel down (SLOWLY), and do as she says.
“Wow! That is COLD!” I say, more awake than I can remember being.
She pours more cold water on my neck, each handful washing away the fatigue that had hobbled me so.
“Wow, yes, that’s what I needed.”
“You have to keep cool,” she reminds me as I soak my buff in the water and put ice in it before wrapping it around my neck.
I chug the rest of my Red Bull, thank her for her help, and head back out for another loop.
Determined. Back to life. Running!
It’s amazing what some ice cold water and caffeine can do.
I run/walk the loop as before, now at a steady, lively pace. Man, I was really losing it there for a second, I think.
It comes in waves, I recall someone said to me once, when you feel bad just hold on. It will go away, eventually.
Perhaps, but now that I’m awake, I do feel my feet more. The blisters. The rubbing. The aching.
I run a bit with Raul, another ultra guerrero, and after hearing my complaints, he suggests a shoe change. “Did wonders for me,” he said. He too had on Hokas at first. After some uncomfortable rubbing from them, he switched back to his old shoes and was feeling better.
“Couldn’t hurt,” I say, noticing the irony of my words. Oh, yes, it could. It COULD hurt. It WILL hurt.
My right IT band starts to hurt. Right hip flexor too. Before they get too cranky, I whip out the RumbleRoller and dig in like hell, causing heads to turn at my seemingly masochistic ground acrobatics.
“It hurts so good,” I say to the bystanders.
“Jeff, you look so much better now,” says Melissa.
“Thanks. Yeah, I feel way better. No doubt. You saved me.”
Seems like I am in need of a lot of saving. The RumbleRoller wins the prize this round. I stand up and feel like I have new legs (but the same tired feet).
“Let’s go for a run!” I shout as I take off with a smile.
Run… walk… run… walk… eat, drink, pee…
All is well. I’m awake. I’m taking care of my body and not getting too hot.
Yet my feet…
You have to change your shoes, I tell myself. Just do it. You can’t keep going like this.
My pace is slowing. I’m suffering again. What the hell am I doing here?
Hours 15 – 21 (1 p.m. – 7 p.m.)
Enjoying the pain? I’m still smiling. Are you smiling because you’re happy or are you smiling because you want to be happy?
I’m smiling because I’m ALIVE. And with every sensation throbbing tenfold, I feel really fucking alive right now, man.
After changing out of the Hokas and into the Nike Vomeros, I feel even MORE alive. Achey, creaky and slow, but alive.
Why didn’t I do that earlier? I ask myself. Who cares, just run!
I run. I run to my walking point, walk to my running point, eating and drinking all the while. Everything is done with focus, with purpose. Keep moving. Keep going. Don’t quit.
I follow this pattern until I’m slowed, once again, to walk an entire loop. This time my friends Brandt and Jerret are around and they ask if they can walk a loop with me. I welcome the company. I try not to talk too much about what hurts (everything) but I can’t help it. I feel weak.
Knowing that I’m around 70ish miles now, Brandt reminds me that every step is a new distance PR — a thought that does a lot for my confidence. “Yeah, you’re right,” I say. “Every single step!”
The walk and the camraderie gives me a boost and I start to think more positively. Still aching from my physical pain, I take 400 mg of Ibuprofen, wash it down with another Red Bull and vow to get serious.
Time to crank, Jeffery. Time to crank.
The sun is still beating down, but I’m regulating well with lots of ice in my cap and in my buff. I dunk my head every once in a while too. I get back into a groove with my run/walk, but I’m still feeling quite fatigued. I keep fighting. Head down. Focused on my task: TO MOVE! I labor on for several more loops.
Then, as I start to shuffle down the big hill heading towards the wooden bridge, I notice that with each step I’m feeling less and less aches. What the — ?
Am I dreaming?
I bomb down the hill to make sure, and just as I’d thought: no pain.
No pain? NO PAIN!
And suddenly I am a different man. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I’ve been moving my ass for 17 hours straight, suffering all sorts of fatigue, aches and pains, and now, NOW the race begins.
I am a hawk and there’s blood on my feathers. But time is still turning and soon they’ll be dry. And all those who see me, and all those who believe in me, share in the freedom I feel when I fly.
–The Eagle and the Hawk, John Denver
Blowing by everyone now. Zoom… zoom…. zoom. Feels awesome. But it could end at any moment, so I don’t let myself get cocky.
“Just riding a good wave,” I tell the runners I pass, “gotta take advantage while I can.”
Is this enjoying the pain? Or is this just the Ibuprofen talking?
Probably just the Ibuprofen talking. And the Red Bull screaming. Who cares? You feel good. Enjoy that, for once.
I do. For THREE HOURS.
And then I crash.
By the time I crash it’s 6 p.m.
Just four more hours! I can do this! This pain ain’t nothin’. This fatigue ain’t a thing.
I hit the 75 mile mark at 5 p.m., so I have to be close to 80 miles now, after all that cranking. With four hours left, knowing I will hit my mileage goal, a smile creeps in, washing my entire body with warm and fuzzy joy.
Back to the grind: eat, drink and the slow run/walk shuffle.
Hours 21 – 24 (7 p.m. – 10 p.m.)
It’s 7 o’clock and considerably cooler. Edna is here and she’s ready to run. We didn’t plan on having any pacing, because I thought the race was against that. However, lots of folks seem to be using pacers, so why not?
I warn her of my slow pace and bring her up to speed on my run/walk pattern.
“I’ve been running this loop the exact same way, all day long.” I tell her. She smiles, like always, and then remains silent as I gush on about all my aches and pains, my blisters, the sun, my IT band, bla bla bla whaa whaa whaa.
You’re being a Debbie Downer, I tell myself. You should shut up.
And take 200 mg more of Ibuprofen.
And drink your last Red Bull.
Half an hour later, and the magic is back. Let it fly, baby!
For the next two hours, Edna and I crank! I feel like I’m running really fast again, though I can’t tell if it’s a relative feeling or if I actually am moving fast. Regardless, we are zooming by everyone, including Shan, the race leader, who is still probably 15 laps or so ahead of me.
Still, with this newfound energy I’m also feeling ornery, so every time I gain a lap back on him I say: “I’m comin’ for ya, Shan!”
Around and round and round we go. As long as I’ve been running this loop, I can honestly say I am not sick of it. I actually love it. I love the scenery, the decorations, the familiar signposts.
Hell, right now, I love everyone and every thing and every place. I love you and you… and you! I am just running and running and feeling like a superhuman with an enlightened mind. The hours tick by and I know we’re getting close.
The 10k runners come from the opposite direction, offering more love and support.
The Ibuprofen is starting to wear off. I’m coming back down to earth, back to my normal, tired, sluggish, beat up body.
With 35 minutes left, feeling suddenly slow with very little left in the tank, I tell Edna: “We can get two more miles. Two more.”
We plug away.
“Enjoy your pain,” I say to her. “That’s what you told me. That’s been with me all day. All day long I’ve been thinking about it. Enjoying it.”
She smiles back while never breaking stride.
“I get it now,” I continue, between labored breaths. “Knowing this… this feeling, this pain, this fatigue…. knowing it so intimately… it makes everything else… the joys, the success… makes it feel so sweet, so much better.”
“I’m proud of you, Jeff,” she says as we make our final turn onto the sidewalk parallel to Short Street. “You can do anything now.”
I can do anything.
“Let’s run it in,” I say as we turn back onto the parking lot and head towards the finish. “Gotta look good for the end.”
I cross the line, completely exhausted, at 23 hours, 51 minutes and 33 seconds, seventh place overall with a total of 94.09 miles in my legs.
Edna and I embrace and I want to cry but I don’t have the energy. Instead we just smile a bunch and hug our friends at the finish.
“Aw, come on, Jeff, you can run a 9 minute mile!” jokes one of those friends, Karen, pointing towards the time left on the clock.
“Not right now I can’t. I. Am. Done.”
Sweeter words may never have been said.
The hours shortly after the race gave me a good idea of what it will be like to be 90 years old. On the ride home, I fell asleep mid-conversation, mouth agape, snoring loudly. We made a stop at Jewel, which I don’t remember. I needed Edna’s help to get out of the car, walk in the house, and climb up the stairs. After a hot shower, I got nauseous from the steam. Once I recovered from that, I crawled into bed and shivered uncontrolably for about five minutes before she brought me some soup to warm me up. After an entire day of eating pizza, chips, cookies, oranges, bread, pasta, bacon, pancakes, watermelon, licorice, crackers, grapes, pretzels, peanut butter and jelly, chocolate, hash browns, and much more, soup and ONLY SOUP, sounded pretty good.
I slept like a rock.
The next day?
To be honest, I have felt much worse after running road marathons.
I think I could get used to doing these. Sure it hurt out there — pounding pavement and baking under the sun — but it hurt so good to dig in deep and crawl around inside my head. It hurt so good to feel so alive!
So much so that I’m already thinking about next year’s race…
And ONE HUNDRED miles.
We did it.
He (Siamak, pictured above on the right, brandishing an epic finisher’s buckle) did it. He finished the Mohican Trail 100 mile race.
And I’m now a perfect 7 for 7 in getting my runner to the finish line of a hundo.
It feels good. No doubt.
I have been thinking about it often, just as I often think about his successful Western States run from a year ago. I think of the pain. I think of the suffering. I think of the pure joy. In completing a task as enormous and as impressive as running 100 miles on one’s own two feet, it is very easy to forget how much discomfort is involved. It’s also easy to forget the reason one would ever put himself in a position to endure such torment: it feels good to be done, to know you have done it, to know you CAN do it. The power associated with such an immense accomplishment is unmatched in the real world.
When you know you can run from Chicago to Milwaukee, suddenly waiting in line at the post office doesn’t seem so bad.
That’s what I want. That’s what I’m aiming for in my own training and my own quest to run 100 miles.
I have had the pleasure of pacing a persistent, successful string of runners, each following his/her own unique path to the finish. The knowledge I’ve accumulated from running with them over the last two years is as vast as it is priceless.
I know mine is a challenge more mental than physical, a quest of quiet introspection that will lead to great accomplishments far off the trail, for as long as my memory remains.
Confident focus, mindfulness and lots of long, slow runs is the recipe.
The rest is just execution.
The left Achilles strain that forced me to DNS at Ice Age was a stubborn little bugger. Stubborn injuries for stubborn people. I suppose that’s what the running gods had in mind.
But I knew better than to sulk and feel sorry for myself. Nothing good could come of that. So I remained patient, stayed active in my recovery, and hoped for a long, healthy summer of solid training.
Four and a half weeks and several short walk-jogs later, I finally had full range of motion back in my left Achilles. I could run without pain. I could get back in the game.
And my health came just in time to pace my friend and client, Nate Pualengco, at the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run. His first 58 miles were smooth as could be, but when he came into the 63 mile Nordic aid station, he was limping from debilitating quad cramps. His crew and I attended to him with massage, ice and fuel, but I could see in his eyes that he was having doubts.
Before he could think about them much more we hurried him up and whisked him away, back into the relentless roller coaster that is the Kettle Moraine forest. I ran with him for the next 38 miles, where we encounted quite a few ups and downs: more quad cramping, sleep deprivation and general fatigue. But all of that suffering set the stage for one of the most impressive final 7-mile strikes I’ve ever seen in a 100 mile race.
Smelling the finish line, Nate turned off all pain sensors and started running hard. Passing people right and left, he pushed even harder. Two and a half miles from the finish, he slammed on the accelerator and it was an absolute thing of beauty, even if I saw most of it from about 50 meters back.
I had to dig deep myself just to keep him in my sights.
But when we got to the finish line it was all worth it. What a glorious scene it was to see him overcome the mental demons and physical pains that are so much apart of completing 100 miles on one’s own two feet. The fact that he finished it with a new personal best time of 27 hours 30 minutes for the distance was just the perfect ending.
For me, it was just the beginning of what I hope will be a long summer of training in preparation for my very first 100 mile race this coming November at the Pinhoti 100. Next up, I’ll be pacing my friend Siamak again, this time at the Mohican 100 on June 21. The first time I paced Siamak to a hundred mile finish was at the iconic Western States 100 last year. His performance on that weekend was nothing short of brilliant, so I expect more of the same. This will also be my second time pacing the Mohican 100, as I had the honor of getting Supergirl to the finish there in 2012 in what was my very first pacing experience.
It’s two years later, and I’m now a perfect 6 for 6 in getting my runner to the finish line of a 100 mile race (no pressure, Siamak). Since Kettle, I have been stewing in anticipation to tackle the last 50 miles of the ominous Mohican forest. Mohican is hard. Extremely hard. But in training and in life, it’s the hard that makes the easy so sweet.
Let’s get it on.
For over a year I dreamed about what it would feel like to run in the 118th edition of the Boston Marathon. Like many others, I felt compelled to be there no matter what it took. I was inspired to stand up as part of the running community, to help New England heal, to show my compassion and my support by doing what I love to do most: run long.
The whole world would be watching.
This is my story:
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Sitting in the airport terminal, donned in a bright orange and blue Boston Marathon jacket, I see I am not alone. The head nods and thumbs ups from complete strangers come from runners and non-runners alike, but the runners are easily identified by their Boston Athletic Association gear. Hats, tech tees and of course, the iconic marathon jacket, like the one I am wearing, bring a sense of togetherness for what would otherwise be just another boring plane ride.
Once on the plane, the captain makes his welcome speech. He ends it with the following:
“And for all of our marathoners onboard today, we wish you the best of luck and hope you have a fantastic run.”
The cabin erupts with applause.
*Chills up and down my body*
Wow. This ain’t just your everyday marathon, I think to myself.
- – -
In Boston, having checked in to my hotel, I enjoy a pleasant walk along Charles Street, scoping out the perfect spot for a bowl of clam chowder. Along the way I am greeted by many a passerby and random shouts of “Good luck on Monday!”, “Hope ya have a great run!”, “Thanks for being hee-ya!”.
The street is dotted with other marathoners, coming and going along Boston’s iconic Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the sentiment throughout remains equally enthusiastic for all.
It’s not every day that strangers go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I experienced it here last year, so I’m not surprised at all. I’m relishing the moment. Bostonians love their marathon and what it does for the city. I love them for it.
Full of clam chowder and ready for more walking, I make my way to the Hynes Center for the marathon expo. The closer I get to Boylston Street, the more powerful the city’s buzz and when I finally find myself standing at the finish line I notice its reverence is like that of a Greek temple. I too pay my respects.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
I arrived in Boston on Saturday specifically so I could have all day Sunday to sit around and do nothing. For the last year or so, I have been working a lot of 13 hour days, so this break is exactly what I need. I start the day off with a nice 2-mile shake out jog along the Charles River and then spend the rest of the morning and afternoon with my feet up, napping, reading and munching on overpriced hotel fare.
In the evening, I head over to the Government Center to meet my friends Mike and Rita for the official pasta dinner. They are also from Chicagoland. In fact, Rita finished the 2013 marathon just minutes before the bombs went off, giving all of us Chicago folk quite a scare until we knew she was okay.
Now it’s a year later, and I don’t think any of us can wait much longer to toe the line for this 2014 Boston Marathon. There is a deep sense of urgency felt throughout the running community to get this race off and going, to make it the best marathon ever run. The chorus of smile accompanied chatter here at the pasta dinner serves as a grand prologue.
But to make sure this prologue is just grand enough, Mike, Rita and I find ourselves randomly sitting at a table with Lisa and Jeff, a couple from Winona, MN. This choice meeting is grand because Rita met Lisa at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota several months ago while on a college tour with her daughter. To make things even more coincidental, after some conversation we discovered that Jeff knows Rita’s brother from the mountain biking community.
In a sea of 36,000 runners, from all around the globe, we randomly sit down next to familiar ones. In gleeful unison, we stuff ourselves with pasta.
After dinner I head back to the hotel and count down the minutes before Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 3. For a solid hour I abandon all thoughts of marathoning for the dramatic tribulations of Westeros. Fiercely satisfied, with an acute obsession for the mother of dragons, I close my eyes and find myself fast asleep.
Monday, April 21, 2014
**BEEP BEEP BEEP**
Here we go!
I shoot out of bed, hit the power button on the coffee machine and eagerly flip on the news to check the weather. Reporting live from Hopkinton, the weather man confirms what I already know from countless weather app checks over the last 24 hours: low 40 degree temps at the start with highs reaching the mid to upper 60s by the time I hit the half marathon mark.
Could I be any more excited for this race? For this day? For this moment?!?
I eat my regular breakfast (bagel, banana, Clif Bar) and go through my regular pre-race preparations, which this time includes as much sunscreen as it does Bodyglide. A quick mental and physical check-in combined with some gentle foam rolling reveals an all-systems-go status.
But when it comes to another familiar routine, that of strapping on my watch, I hesitate.
Can I really do this? I ask myself. Can I really run without a watch?
You’re going to, I answer myself. You’re going to today. And you’re going to love it.
Sometimes I’m not sure if I believe myself. Today I choose to believe.
It’s been no secret that this training cycle has been one of my worst. I know that I don’t have the legs right now to run my best race. I have long made peace with this. But as much as I declare myself acceptant of my current condition, I know that if I run with my watch I will be checking it obsessively. And if I do that, I’m quite sure my competitive self, the one who often shows up to these sorts of events regardless of physical condition, won’t like what he sees.
Leave the watch at home, I tell myself. Run by feel. Give whatever you got today, but most importantly, enjoy the moment. Be present in it. Today doesn’t have to be about you or your performance. Let it be about people, about compassion, peace.
I leave my hotel room before I can change my mind.
In the elevator, I run into another, equally giddy runner.
His name is Steve and he’s from Pennsylvania. This is his first Boston Marathon and he plans to break three hours today. We split a cab to the Boston Commons and I give him the lowdown on the course: be conservative early on; don’t let the first 10k of downhill seduce you into blowing out your quads; kiss the girls at Wellesley; be ready to suck it up in Newton; when you hit the 21 mile mark let ‘er loose; when you see the Citgo sign you’re almost there.
He’s probably heard all of this already but I still lay it out there like it’s the most important speech he’ll ever hear. He thanks me for the advice and the conversation and before we know it we’re packed into a bus on the way to Hopkinton.
I close my eyes. I sleep a little. I turn off my mind.
When it comes back on we’re at the Athlete’s Village, deboarding the bus. The sweet chill in the air is invigoratin, the adrenaline in my blood plenty. This will be my 8th marathon. I have had butterflies before. I have been nervous. But today I feel none of that. Only adrenaline.
I feel pure adrenaline.
I look down where my watch should be to see how many hours I have to wait until the start.
Oh yeah, I forgot. No watch. No time.
No worry, no obsessing.
The Athlete’s Village is at Hopkinton High School. I head towards the baseball diamond, camp out next to the backstop and, now lying prostrate with a poncho as my mattress, I calm myself back into a deep, meditative state. The noise all around slowly fades and soon all I hear is the metronome of my breath.
- – -
I wake and find that I am now surrounded by a field of runners. The one almost uncomfortably close to me says, “Hey, mate. You were sleeping mighty well right then.”
His name is Robert. He’s a ginger. And he’s from London. This is his first Boston Marathon, and he too plans to run sub-3 hours.
If only I were in shape for a sub-3 hour race… struth gov’nr, cor blimey!
Robert and I chat, helping tick away the time that I can’t keep.
After a thorough comparison of races past and bucket lists to come, he finally notices, “You forget your watch?”
“Yeah, on purpose.”
“Wow, that would be hard for me.”
“Might be hard for me too.”
Nature calls Robert away while the PA announcer calls me and the rest of Wave 1 to our corrals.
Here we go…
With 15,000 more participants this year, I feel like a tuna fish tightly packed inside his school. During this long march from the Athelete’s Village out to the corrals I am hit by a cacophony of smells — from Icy Hot to Starbucks to b.o. — it’s a mixture specifically attune to running culture.
Once in line for my corral, I follow the leader even further down a long road towards Main Street (Route 135) in Hopkinton. It is here that I shed my warm-up clothing and feel that first skipping heart beat — nothing a short series of concentrated deep breaths can’t fix.
Here the crowds are already deep in support. On one lawn in particular stands a man with a sign yelling “Free Donuts, Cigarettes and Beer!” Like everyone else, I enjoy a laugh, but immediately after, the mood grows somber, reflective.
As we draw closer and closer to Main Street, the crowd of runners grows eerily quiet. This is the direct opposite of what I experienced last year. This is the group mind understanding the implications of this moment, the group mind preparing itself for an epic day.
- – -
Packed deep inside my corral now, squeezing elbow to elbow with my fellow tuna runners, I bump into Robert again.
“Hey, mate. Have a good run.”
“You too,” I say as the National Anthem begins.
Hat in my hand, hand on my heart, every hair on my body stands on end.
A massive cheer is followed by a Blackhawk helicopter flyover and finally…
Miles 1 – 6
I cross the first timing mat and instinctively try to start the timer on the watch that isn’t there. Whoops. Laughing at myself and feeling somewhat liberated as I go watchless, I begin the long descent out of Hopkinton. Already the crowd is loud, boisterous and Boston strong.
The adrenaline runs thick so I remind myself to not let my emotions dictate a fast pace. From experience, I already know that it is here, in these first 10 kilometers, where most people ruin their Boston Marathon. For we go down, down, down, banging our quadriceps in the opposite way mother nature designed them. If one goes too hard early on and blows out his quads, when he reaches Newton and really needs them to get up the longer climbs, he is going to feel a lot of pain and suffering.
Knowing this and having the good sense to reel myself in, last year I managed to run my one and only negative split marathon. Maybe today will yield similar results.
Still, it’s pretty demoralizing to have so many people pass by me — correction: FLY BY ME — so early on in the race. To avoid getting stomped to death, I straddle the center line of the narrow roadway and let everyone fight to go around me.
I step over the first 5k timing mat and think about all my friends and loved ones who are receiving a text message as a result. Technology is pretty sweet. I look down at my wrist to check my split but oh wait, yeah, never mind.
Look around you, I remind myself. You will never live this moment again. Soak it in!
Oh, man. I apologize for my rough language here, but How fucking cool is this?!?! I repeat to myself. This is just so fucking cool: the deep, cheering crowds; the speedsters; the gentle downhill making me feel like I’m floating on air.
And BAM, just like that, I’m over the 10k timing mat, texting my mom and dad again.
I finally break my habit of looking at my invisible watch.
Miles 6 – 12
After the initial 10k of quad thrashing, I do a full mind-body scan to take inventory. I feel great. My breathing is consistent and calculated. I’m running on feel, adjusting pace and cadence based on the course. My smile is about as big as it can get. If anything, my cheeks are beginning to hurt.
But most importantly, my quadriceps are perfectly fine. And they should be. I spent a lot of time over the last 18 weeks working and building my quads, just for this moment. Since I was confined to a treadmill for 90% of my training runs this winter, one of my favorite workouts was warming up for 10 minutes followed by 5 minutes at 6:30/mile pace, followed by 1 minute of air squats, 1 minute of lunges and a 1 minute wall-sit before going back to 5 minutes at 6:30/pace. I would repeat the 8 minute segment 3-8 times, depending on where I was in my training cycle. I typically like to think of myself as a pretty humble guy, but I can’t stop myself from saying I have big ass horse legs right now as a result of all the hard work.
They are coming in handy now.
As my mind drifts from those treadmill workouts to right this second to what kind of beer I’m going to drink after this, I try to always come back to right now. This moment. This little bit of history. This awesomeness.
I pass Team Hoyt and I give them a “WAY TO GO, TEAM HOYT!” while marveling at all those two have accomplished. Just thinking about how many people they’ve inspired the last 30 years makes me feel extremely appreciative to share the road with them. The crowd reacts to their presence appropriately and I am happy to be along for the ride.
Despite the roaring support, there are a couple of quiet spots in between Framingham and Natick. Just before mile 11 now, we hit another brief quiet spot before Wellesley when I feel a man approaching fast on my left side. As he sails by me I take one look at him from behind and immediately yell: “DEAN!”
It’s Dean Karnazes. No one has a body composition like that besides Dean. He’s also ridiculously tan, wearing his famous North Face singlet and visor.
“Hey, bro,” he replies looking back but not slowing down one bit, “how’s it going?”
“Wow! Going great!” I say, suddenly finding the energy and the turnover to keep up with him. I park myself on his right and match him stride for stride. “This is awesome, Dean,” I gush. “I gotta tell you, my name is Jeff and you’re the reason I run ultras! “
“Cool, that means a lot to me to hear that. I’m glad to see you’re still running marathons too.”
“Yes, sir. In fact, I was training for my first marathon a few years ago when I wondered if people were crazy enough to ever run more than 26.2.”
“So I Googled it and up came your book, Ultramarathon Man. I bought it, read it in one day and about halfway through the book I said to myself ‘I’m doin’ that.’”
“That’s a great story,” he says, smiling almost as big as me. “Thanks for sharing that with me.”
We chat on about upcoming ultras and about how awesome this Boston Marathon is. But just as I start to hear the screaming women of Wellesley off in the distance, I realize there’s no way I can keep up this pace much longer without crashing hard. So I tell Dean as much and wish him an awesome second half of the race.
“Thanks, Jeff. You too, man. Take it all in. Today is special.”
Indeed, today is special. I just ran with one of my running idols in one of the biggest races of my life!
And now I’m in Wellesley, where hoards of women are screaming, asking me to kiss them! Woo hoo!
Admittedly, I don’t spend as much time with the Wellesley women as I did last year. It’s tradition here to kiss the girls, but I am in a happy relationship now and don’t need the attention nor the flattery. What I do need is the boost of energy their voracious cheering provides, so I tuck in close to the guard rail and sail on the power of their collective voices.
Miles 12 – 17
In the town of Wellesley I am greeted by “Sweeeeeeeeet Caroline…. BAH BAH BAHHHH!”
Oh boy the chill I get when that song comes on is a great boost to my psyche. And now that I cross the halfway mark (thus texting my friends and family again) I know I am going to need it. It’s getting warm, the sun is bright and high in the sky and yes, I’m starting to get a little tired.
I know the infamous Newton Hills are coming. Thinking about them, my mind begins to drift towards thoughts of suffering.
Now, Jeff! Stay in the now! Stay in the now!
That’s right. Stay in the now. After all, my love affair with running long is deeply rooted in being able to stay in the now for as long as I’m in motion.
Don’t think about mile 18 or 25 or the finish, just think about RIGHT NOW… then RIGHT NOW… then RIGHT NOW.
I do. I stay right here, right in this magical moment at the center of the world. I hug the left side of the road and high five as many hands as I can, riding on the cheers of countless strangers intent on making right now as special as it can be.
The more I begin to suffer, the more I hear my name. “Go Lung!” “You can do it, Lung!” “Pump those arms, Lung!”
My last name is prominently displayed across my chest specifically for tough times like these as I enter the town of Newton. Each time I hear my name I’m able to focus on the now, eschewing thoughts of discomfort.
Miles 17 – 21
As I embark on arguably the toughest part of the race, I fight back a brief bout of nausea. For some reason, I feel like I am going to throw up a the top of the first big Newton climb, but I remind myself that it’s just a phase and I’ll feel better soon.
I take water and Gatorade at every aid station, just as I have been doing all throughout the race, and after a half mile or so I feel much better. Dumping cold water on my head every chance I get helps. The sun is really shining on me now. I’m getting burned but there’s not much else I can do about it.
My heels are stiff and sore too, but running by some blade runners reminds me how lucky I am to be able-bodied, so I tell myself to suck it up and focus on the glory all around me.
“Go Lung! Get up that hill, Lung! You can do it!”
Good god these people are awesome!
While all day long the crowd has featured an array of wicked smaht signs, one seemingly boring one grabs my attention now. It reads: HAVE FUN. MEB WON.
WHAAAAAT???? MEB WON????
“Did Meb really win?” I yell back, corkscrewing my body into an awkward position not meant for marathoning.
“Yes!” the gentleman holding the sign says. “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
Wow, that is really cool. Meb Keflezighi won the marathon. This declaration provides me with even more untapped energy — enough to take me all the way up to Heartbreak Hill.
This spot, famous for its place in Boston Marathon lore, is also one where the crowds really provide a boost. Though my body is aching, I am happy knowing it’s simply fatigue and nothing else. My pace has slowed considerably, but I have not stopped running. I will NOT stop running, especially now. I will conquer this hill on the shoulders of this animated and positive crowd. While I shorten my stride to get to the top, I high-five little kids and blow kisses to those cheering me on.
At the top, finally, I think to myself, now that wasn’t so bad.
Miles 21 – 25.6
My reward for cresting the last of the Newton Hills is a nice, long downhill. Recovered and feeling the excitement of almost being done, I decide to let ‘er rip down this one.
In Brookline now and I am simply amazed at how the crowd just grows more and more intense the closer I get to the finish. My ears are ringing!
Do these people lover their marathon or what?!?!
My constant mind-body feedback loop yields the familiar aches and pains associated with three hours of continuous running but it’s all masked by the enormous amount of love I feel radiating through my every cell. My emotions are starting to come out. It’s a good thing I’m wearing sunglasses.
I have run in a lot of marathons, including three Chicago Marathons where I thought the crowds simply couldn’t be beat. I am being proved wrong. This moment, right here, in Hopkinton-Ashland-Framingham-Natick-Wellesley-Newton-Brookline and now BOSTON, MASSACHUSSETS is the most alive I’ve ever felt. This is history! Like 36,000 of my brothers and sisters, I am an integral part of this celebration of life, this festival of compassion, this party of love.
The Citgo sign greets me and I know I’m almost done.
My god, what am I going to do when I get to the finish line, I ask myself. Am I going to cry like a baby? Am I going to pass out?
STAY IN THE NOW, JEFF, IN THE NOW.
In the now. High-fiving this kid. In the now. Blowing kisses to that crowd. In the now. Being uplifted by the sound of my own name “GO LUNG GO!”
Miles 25.6 – 26.2
I turn right on Hereford, left on Boylston and there it is: the finish line. In all its glory, in all its majesty, there stands the finish line, drawing me near. It’s only 600 meters from here to the finish — one and a half times around the track.
This is where I usually sprint my heart out, pumping my arms and my legs to the beat of the fastest drummer I can summon.
But not today. Today I’m taking my sweet ass time. I’m soaking this in — this love, this peace. I’m right in the middle of it all and I’m not going to miss a second of it.
I let the wave of warmth and emotion flow over and through me. I know that this is one of the most special moments of my life.
I am in the now. I did it. I am right here, right here in Boston where I’m supposed to be.
I cross the finish line in 3 hours 38 minutes on the dot and can’t hold back the tears of joy any longer.
1968 Boston Marathon champion and longtime Runner’s World fixture Amby Burfoot described the 118th Boston Marathon as “the best day in running history”. I really can’t argue with that.
For me, it goes even further. The 2014 Boston Marathon was a celebration in motion, an honest tour of compassion and a testament to the love deep down inside us all. Whether we ran, we cheered or we watched via text messages at home, we were all together as one, running through the center of the world.