A commonly used phrase between my wife Edna and I is that “we don’t take on many easy tasks.” That’s not to say we don’t enjoy the simple life. Actually, we LOVE the simple life! But for us, extreme challenges that push us to our limits are what make the simple life so simple, so exquisite, so sweet. When you travel 100 miles through rugged terrain on your own two feet you can rest easily knowing you can overcome adversity. When you get into a boxing ring and fight someone, evading punches and trying to land some of your own, you can truly appreciate safety.
This mindset — the idea that hard work leads to maximum achievement — is what drew us together. It’s been a staple throughout our marriage, and now it is taking us to another level.
When I started my personal training business several years ago, it was done so with the dream of one day having my own studio. I didn’t want to be renting space from other gyms my whole career and when Edna and I started dating, she encouraged me to keep thinking about the bigger picture. Once we were married, the conversation between us began to build further around the idea of finding our own space — a space where we could train people while also providing the education necessary to make that training the most effective. We dreamed of a place where we could create a community around a healthy lifestyle and get others excited about living life to the fullest.
The conversation turned into brainstorming turned into action turned into hard work turned into NOW WE ARE ACTUALLY DOING IT AND WE CAN’T WAIT TO SHARE IT WITH YOU.
Edna and I’s new fitness studio is Vive Healthy Sport and Nutrition at 965 W. 18th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago and we look forward to starting operations at the end of January 2018. We will open in phases, the first of which will include primarily personal training sessions, group fitness classes and workshops as our mission is to to build a strong community through physical activity and healthy lifestyle education.
It’s been a lot of hard work to get where we are now. We know even more is coming. But just like climbing mountains and slipping punches, we are ready to keep moving forward.
And we look forward to having you be a part of our journey! Join us at Vive Healthy in 2018 and beyond!
A LONG TIME AGO…
Before I had even run a full marathon, I was a bona fide Western States aficionado. It was the summer of 2010, and having drastically changed my life (and appearance) by quitting smoking, exercising and eating right, I was training for my first half-marathon. On a run one day my mind got to thinking…
13.1 miles seems like a lot… but 26.2 miles seems like a lot more. I wonder if anyone has ever run more than a marathon. Nah… that’s crazy. No one could do that. Right?
I didn’t know. So I did what I often do in times of uncertainty: I summoned the Google oracle.
“Does anyone run more than a marathon?” I typed.
“ULTRAMARATHON MAN by DEAN KARNAZES” was the result: a book on running crazy distances just because.
BOOM. I bought it.
A few days later, I read it.
And I fell in love. I fell in love with the idea of running and running and running just to see what I might be made of. Dean went into great detail about an insane-sounding race in the Sierra Nevadas called the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. It championed self-discovery through physicality. It was described as a relentless test of the human spirit — an unprecedented ceremony of lunacy were participants run 100 miles up and over mountains and through valleys while suffering temperatures ranging from 20-110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some day… I am going to do THAT, I thought to myself.
I had no idea. It sounds silly now, mostly because I had very little experience distance running outside of the few months I had dedicated to training for a half marathon. But at the time I was desperately searching for meaning in my life. I didn’t know who I was or who I was becoming, but in reading Dean’s book I came away with the idea that the deep pains in my heart might find release if only I could somehow find a way to push past physical pain and let my feet discover worlds on their own, without limits.
FAST FORWARD TO DECEMBER 2016
Six years later and now a cagey veteran of countless ultra events (from 50ks to 50 milers to 100 milers), all of that time and dedication wandering in the woods with missing toenails finally paid off. After four years of trying with no success, the Western States running gods chose MY name out of the lottery and suddenly I am going to the big dance.
BUT WHAT IS THE WESTERN STATES 100-MILE ENDURANCE RUN?
For those who aren’t ultra nerds, think of Western States as the Super Bowl of ultrarunning — the Cadillac of 100-mile running events. It’s Christmas morning for distance junkees. Steak and lobster for gluttons for punishment.
It’s also every expensive — not just the entry fee, but also the transportation, the lodging, the rental car, the crew accommodations, the supplies, the gear the food the blah blah blaaaaaaaahhhhhhh… I knew that if I got in I’d have to run it, conquer it and be satisfied that it would most likely be my one and only shot in this life.
Back in 2013, I was lucky enough to be the pacer for a good friend of mine, Siamak Mostoufi in his mission to complete the Western States 100. I had a front row seat to magic that only kindled the fire of my dreams. Thereafter I patiently qualified, year after year, until I could finally get my opportunity at doing what most ultrarunners dream of doing.
When they called my name in the December 2016 lottery I told my wife, “We’re in!”
And we were in. No turning back.
In 100-mile races, it is quite common to have “crews”. A crew is an individual or group of individuals who help the runner (AHEM — crazy person) during the race by offering specific aid at various checkpoints throughout. Each runner/crew is unique, so their responsibilities may vary, but usually they center around providing food, drink, gear, clothing and moral support. Oftentimes a pacer is designated — someone who runs along with the runner through the second half of the race for safety reasons, pushing the runner to do his/her best when it might otherwise seem impossible.
For a trip as epic as the 2017 Western States, I had to get the band back together again. So we did!
BAM. Good lookin’ group.
For this race their duties are:
Siamak – Crew Chief/Navigator
Dad – Driver/Head Cheerleader
Edna – Pacer/Love-of-my-life
Damn, I am in good hands.
JANUARY 1 2017 TO JUNE 23 2017
Life. Oh man, life.
Good things. Bad things. In-the-middle things.
Unpredictability. Yep, that’s about right.
Training? Yes, TRAINING!
I am a personal trainer and group fitness instructor, so I always stay in shape. I run. I box. I run short races. I spar. I run long races. I fight.
I lead aerobics classes. I hold focus mitts. I jump up and down in homage to Richard Simmons and I try to get folks excited about being healthy.
It’s good all-around training.
But it ain’t no mountains, man.
Western States is tough for a number of reasons, but it’s super tough for flatlanders like me because specificity training is impossible outside of traveling to a mountain somewhere — something that definitely isn’t in my budget.
In this sport, the brain trumps all.
RACE DAY – JUNE 24, 2017 – 5 A.M.
Six months of preparation, positivism, nerves, nightmares, doubt, determination and DREAMS now come down to this: me against the Sierra Nevada, me against the canyons, me against the clock.
In our meetings last night and leading up to this I have been adamant to my crew that my only goal is to finish this race under the 30-hour time limit. I don’t care if I’m dead-fucking-last, just let me finish before they stop the clock.
This game plan seems particularly appropriate considering the conditions this year. Record snowfall in Squaw Valley has left a blanket of white on the first 15 miles of the course, something that will be difficult to navigate while either climbing or descending. Then, once we get past the high country, we will be in for heat in the mid to high 90s.
3… 2… 1…
I’m doing this… I’m running Western States… I’M REALLY RUNNING WESTERN STATES!!!!
And now I’m walking Western States.
The race starts out with a few seconds of flat… followed by four miles and 2100 feet of straight up climbing. I am walking this.
And I’m walking… and walking.
I pay little attention to the fact I am at the very back — that there’s only 7 or 8 people behind me… out of 369!
Man, come on, grandpa! You gonna go this slow the whole way? I ask myself.
Taketh what the course giveth, man.
I’m working hard just to keep this steady uphill pace. I can’t concern myself with what everyone else is doing. If I’m slow, I’m slow. It’s going to be a long day no matter what. Better to not burn out before I’ve even gotten started.
So on I labor.
It’s not long before we’re in snow. Going up. Slipping. Sliding. Climbing. Struggling.
At the top of the escarpment I take in the view, then start to navigate down. Slipping. Sliding. Struggling.
I’m mostly going downhill now, but there’s little to no running happening. Every time I try to jog down I end up on my ass. My hands are already scratched and numb from multiple falls on the crunchy snow and now I’m just trying to stay on my feet.
It’s early, but already I can feel the stress and strain in my legs.
Staying upright is tough, man!
Time is not my friend right now. I look down at my watch and know I am in trouble. ALREADY! It’s been three hours and I still haven’t made it to the first aid station.
Don’t panic. Not yet. Just keep your ass moving.
Slipping, sliding, struggling.
3 hours and 8 minutes after the gun went off, I finally arrive at Lyon Ridge, mile 10.3.
Get that? 10.3. It took me 3 hours and 8 minutes to go just 10.3 miles! I’ve run marathons faster than that! What the hell!?!?
And oh look, the cutoff of for this aid station is 10:00 a.m. The average time for a 30-hour runner to reach this station is 7:40 a.m., putting me 30 minutes behind right off the bat. I ain’t got no time to stay here. RUN, FOREST, RUN!
I fill my bottles and go. SCARED.
Running scared, running scared, running scared.
A few ups, a few downs, a few face plants, and now… MUD. Why not?
What the hell… mud… and muck and snow and mud. I keep moving the best I can. There aren’t many people behind me. I’m at the back. Every time I look behind, I see panic on peoples’ faces. Gotta stop doing that. Gotta stop doing that myself.
DON’T PANIC. NOT YET.
Okay, one foot in front of the other and we’ll get through this.
I reach a mud bog — the sort of thing that ate Artax in The Neverending Story and makes me cry every time I see it. Still.
Left foot goes in. Right foot goes in. Left foot comes out. Right foot comes out… but without a shoe.
Right foot goes back in, shoeless… and now I’m digging through the mud elbow deep looking for my shoe.
I find it, pull it out and shun the Western States gods because now it is chock full of mud and a bazillion tiny rocks, same as my shoeless foot.
How am I going to go on now?
I slip the shoe back on and feel every single stone. I hobble over to a large rock, sit my already-tired ass down and assess the situation:
Okay, my right foot and shoe are caked in mud/rocks/grit/evil. I have water. I have water in my bottle. Yes…
I rinse my foot and sock off with the water, getting rid of most of the adhered stones. I rinse out my shoe the same way, taking the insole out and squirting it down with everything I have. I get as many of the rocks out as I can, slide the insole back in, shove the shoe on my foot and GET MY ASS BACK ON THE TRAIL.
Now I’m really behind the clock.
Gotta go! Wish I could! This shit is hard!
I get to an aid station but blow through it not knowing where I am. I go a ways and get to another one. Is this the second? Or third? Where am I? The only thing I saw going through was the cut-off time I’m just barely ahead of it so move, move, move!
I’m running scared. Keep moving. I try to eat but can’t. That’s not good. Usually I can eat anything in an ultra. Right now the thought makes me nauseous. I suck down some gels I’m carrying. I can drink, so I do that.
I traipse down a long descent and finally reach the bottom. It feels different here though. I start my way up, up and up… and now… now I know what’s different: IT’S FRIGGIN’ HOT, MAN.
I climb. And climb. And CLIMB. I’m getting tired. I’ve BEEN tired.
Minutes go by. Lots of them. I forget where I am. Am I at mile 20? 25? I’m all alone. No one around me. It’s just me and this heat and this trail and these trees and I’m hot and my heart rate is soaring and I feel like I’m gonna be sick.
Throw up, man. You’ll feel better, I tell myself. But I can’t.
Some deep, steady breaths calm me some, but I’m struggling. Gotta keep moving. I do the best I can.
But now my mind wanders…
I’m not gonna make it. It’s almost 2 o’clock and I haven’t even made it to Duncan Canyon yet… right? Wait, where am I? Am I close to Robinson Flat or do I still have a ways to go? I’m confused. And tired. And sore. ALREADY.
This is too much for me. What am I going to say to my crew? To my students back home? To my wife?
And here I am: STILL climbing. Good grief. This is so dumb.
“Mi amor!!” I hear.
“Mi amor?!?” I yell back, delirious. “Mi amor, is that you?”
“Sí, Papi! Good job! Te amo, mi amor!”
It’s Edna! My wife! My beautiful Mexican wife!
If she is here then… that means I must be at… Robinson Flat! Mile 30! And it’s 1:35 p.m. so I’m not out of the race yet! I’m alive!
Good grief, I’m aliiiiiiiiiiiiiive!!
“Mi amor,” I say cresting the climb, falling into her arms… “Estoy jodido… I’m suffering. I don’t know… I’m just…”
She stops me: “What do you need? You want food? Ice?”
“Ice, yes. Food… I can’t eat. I need gels. Please. And Coke. I can drink Coke.”
She kisses me then runs off ahead to where Dad and Siamak are waiting with supplies. I can’t help but smile thinking I really won the wife lottery by getting her. I love her, man. I really do.
I stumble into the aid station and get can of Coke. They top off my bottles with ice water and as I move forward I see Dad and Siamak with my buff full of ice, ready to go.
“I’m messed up, man,” I tell Siamak delirious. “The climbing. It’s a lot. I’m shot. My feet. I can’t eat. Just fruit and water and soda really.”
“You just got out of a tough climb to get here,” he replies.
“If somehow I survive this, I mean, looking at the time, if I can keep in the race, I don’t think I’ll make it to Michigan Bluff before 8:30 p.m. See if Edna can be ready to pace by then. I will need her.”
“I got you, man. Don’t worry.” he says.
“The next part is going to be easier, mi amor,” says my wife running back towards me.
“Really?” I perk up, chugging Coke. *BELCH*
“Yeah, a little climb then some downhill to the next station,” says Siamak. “It’s going to get hotter and hotter so stay wet. Keep this buff full of ice from here on out.”
I say goodbye. It’s 1:40 p.m. and I don’t have much time. Twenty minutes before they close this station. FUUUUUCK.
Gotta move. Gotta move.
“You can do it, mi amor. You are strong. I know you can.” She stays with me for a bit, shoves gels in my pack and kisses me goodbye.
If she thinks I can do it, damnit, maybe I CAN do it. Let’s go!
What happens next is pretty wild:
I… AM… RUNNING!!!
Iced down… re-fueled… having seen my wife… I am a new man. And I start to pick up the pace, running hard on the downs, power-hiking like a champ on the ups and pumping my arms hard so my legs will follow on the rare flat.
Miller’s Defeat (mile 34.4), Dusty Corners (mile 38), Last Chance (mile 43.3). I’m rocking it now. How? Ice, maybe. Drinking Coke and eating *BELCH* watermelon? I don’t know. My wife said I could do it so I better prove her right.
I leave Last Chance and cascade down to the bottom of the hot canyon knowing that the hardest climb of the day is coming up. There’s a creek at the bottom of the descent, and when I get there it looks like Hot Tub Time Machine because there’s four people sitting in it, including me. Unlike a hot tub, this water is COLD and REFRESHING and JUST WHAT I NEED before attempting the long, arduous climb up Devil’s Thumb.
The water brings my core temperature down and numbs my beaten feet. I take off up the climb, keeping my head down, trying not to count any of the 36 switchbacks that make up Devil’s Thumb.
It’s slow. But steady. I just power through. Every once in a while I feel sick so I stop and breathe. And then get going again. It’s a bitch. But at least I’m getting through it.
Forever and a day later, I finally reach the top… and what do I find? CARNAGE.
Lots of folks here in chairs, beaten, puking, demoralized.
Not me. Can’t stay here. Gotta go. I got a date with my wife at Michigan Bluff and I gotta get there NOW.
I slam some Coke, eat some fruit and get on my way.
Down, down, down to El Dorado Creek (mile 52.9) only to go back up, up, up towards Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7).
As I get close, I hear people talking on the ridge above me and I know I’m almost to Edna so I just pump my arms like a champ to make myself move that much quicker. I take a quick assessment and know that if I have time I should try to change my socks here. Both my feet are on fire with blister hot spots and I fear the worst.
It’s Edna! And she’s ready to run! Yes!
“Mi amor! I’m so happy to see you!” I say.
“You did good, mi amor, going faster. You made good time. What do you need?”
“I need to change my socks and I need Ensure. I can’t eat anything but fruit and soda without feeling sick.”
“Okay, I will get it ready, then we will run together! Te amo, mi amor!”
Edna runs ahead and I see it’s 8:35 p.m. I’m 15 minutes ahead of 30-hour pace and an hour and ten minutes ahead of the cutoff.
Hallelujah. I might just fucking do this.
Rolling in to Michigan Bluff, I follow Edna’s voice as she leads me to Dad and Siamak where they have a camp chair ready along with a sock change and Ensure. For the first time all day long, I sit down. It feels good.
Don’t get comfortable though. Gotta keep moving.
Removing my socks I can now see that my feet are macerated and I know there’s no stopping the blisters now. We can only hope to contain them.
Gonna be a bit painful over the next 45 miles but if I finish it’ll be worth it so don’t cry over that now.
My crew has me in and out and on my way with my pacer, my love, my wife and for the first time in almost 16 hours I actually feel like I can do this.
I spend the next two hours being Chatty Cathy, telling Edna every little detail leading up to where we are now. The high country. The snow. The mud suck. The climbs. The panic. The pain. The defeat. The descents. The joy. The return. The triumph. The love.
Being here. Right now.
Now is easy. I’m with my girl. I let her set the pace and all I have to do is follow.
It’s dark. We turn on our headlamps and slow ever so much as our vision narrows. Still, before I know it, we’re at Foresthill (mile 62) and Dad and Siamak are again there waiting for us.
We say hi and grab a Red Bull (I think) but we don’t stay long. Keenly aware of the clock, Edna has me in and out the station, making me run hard down to Cal-1 (mile 65.7), Cal-2 (mile 70.7) and Cal-3 (mile 73).
I’m doing relatively well (awake, alert, semi-stable), but on the steep drops the loose rock footing of the trail starts to have a negative effect on my knees (both stiff and achy) and feet (severely blistered, everywhere).
I start to let out little screams on the descents.
“I know, mi amor. Me too. Me too. Está bien, vámanos!”
Around 3 a.m. I start to get sleepy. Yawning. Belching still occasionally and then yawning and stumbling some more. Edna splits a 5-Hour Energy with me.
Back to life, right on down to the river.
We get to Rucky Chucky (mile 78) and Dad and Siamak, once again, are waiting for us handing out Ensures, ice and lots of encouragement.
We don’t stay long. Edna is adamant about getting in and out of aid stations. She did her homework and knows all the cut-off times. She is working hard to buy time so I can stay well ahead of that 30-hour mark. She is awesome.
We say goodbye to Dad and Siamak and, like we’d just went down the ultra rabbit hole, some volunteers put glow-in-the-dark necklaces around our necks and push us towards raft boats while saying “Welcome to the River Crossing!”
This is like Disneyland, I thought to myself. Ultra Disneyland. Why not.
We begin to cross the river in a raft with an Irishman (I remember because of the accent) and a few other crazy folks who thought running 100 miles in the Sierra Nevadas might be “fun”.
Hmmm. I like ultras. Mostly when I’m done running them. And I usually enjoy the first 10-20 miles before my legs go to shit… but to be honest, I haven’t “enjoyed” much of this race. It has been mostly suffering. Then again, suffering makes non-suffering WAY better than suffering…
“We’re here!” the boat captain says.
“Vamos, mi amor!”
We go. Sorta. We climb. Up to Green Gate. It’s a long climb and my sluggish legs and labored heart are starting to revolt.
I feel sick again. My heart rate soars. I have to stop and catch my breath several times.
“You can do it, mi amor!”
Okay, okay, okay… if you say so. I try. I do the best I can. We reach the top of Green Gate (mile 79.8) well ahead of the cut-off and even though my body is throbbing with question marks in the way of blisters, knee pain, busted toenails and aches, I start to feel like this is probably going to happen for me.
NOT YET! Don’t let your mind wander. Not yet. Stay focused. Anything can happen.
Indeed. Head down. Plug away.
“The sun will bring us back to life, mi amor,” says my wife, noting the chirping birds and squeaky rays of sun bursting through the trees. I know those same rays are going to scorch me as I try to get to the finish line but I welcome them anyway. I could use some pep in my step.
We get to Auburn Lake Trails (mile 85.2) and dig some Ensure and Red Bull out of our drop bag while a man dressed as a hot, mini-skirt clad nun fills my water bottles with ice water. I’m not sure if it’s really a man or really a nun or a woman or what but I’m laughing because it’s six in the morning and I’ve been running all night through the wilderness with my hot wife and some busted blistered feet so I don’t know I just ahhhhhhh what the hell go with it.
The Ensures are keeping me alive! Yay for dietary supplements for the elderly! My wife was SUPER SMART TO BRING THEM!
ALSO…. I like fruit!
And ice is cool, man!
Are we having fun yet?
It’s getting hot. Sun is coming out. Just following my wife now. Not saying much. Thinking less. My feet hurt. Fuck. Every step is a bomb in my shoe. Ugh.
We’re at Pointed Rocks (mile 94.3) and Dad and Siamak are there feeding me Ensure again, stuffing ice in my face and neck and BUUUUUUUUUUURN.
The ice is good but since I’ve been wet basically all day long; I am chafed all over, especially down there, so now I’m aware of that as well and oh yay isn’t this some kind of awesome party with genital chafing, blisters and rocks in your shoes? I must be a VIP.
But hey, I’m okay! I’m going to finish. I think! We’re 15 minutes ahead of 30-hour time and 45 minutes ahead of the cut-off so no matter what we gotta get going!!!
“See you in Auburn!” I tell the crew as they we
fly jog plod off.
Just six miles to go!!!
It hurts but we move anyway… racing that damn clock!
I LOVE MY WIFE! SHE IS AWESOME! I LOVE NATURE! IT IS AWESOME! I LOVE ENSURES! THEY ARE AWESOME!
We reach No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8) and stop only to be doused in ice water before we get right back to running. AND WE ARE RUNNING! High turnover! Get those legs moving. I gotta finish this shit!
SLAM! BAM! RAMA LAMA DING DONG!
I stub my right toe into a rock and the toenail gets flipped up, perpendicular to my toe! What the FRANKENSTEIN?!?!
AHHHHHHH! I scream. I stop and bend down and try to fix it but Edna’s says, “No, we have to keep moving, mi amor!”
“But it hurts! It hurts bad!”
“Ya sé, pero vámanos. It’s our last chance. We have to push. We can’t stop. Vámanos!”
Damn it, she’s right. Don’t cry. Suck it up, buttercup. Just another lost toenail.
We keep running downhill and as we finally start our final big ascent up towards Robie Point I notice I have the Curt Schilling bloody sock thing going as blood soaks through to the top of my shoe. GNARLY!
Never mind, we gotta keep busting ass. Less than an hour before the finish line shuts down let’s get going!!!!
We climb up, up, up… “Welcome to Robie Point!” they say to cheers and claps and drums? And bells? And whistles?
Or is that just happening in my head?
Doesn’t matter. We’re almost done. We’re on blacktop now. Mile 98.9. People from the town of Auburn are out and cheering. They’re smiling. They’re making me feel like a million bucks.
The next several minutes are a blur until I see Siamak… he’s elated, jumping out of his skin.
“Man you kicked ass!” he says whipping out his phone, recording Edna and I as we enter the Placer High School track for the last 300 meters of this monster race.
We’re running. Floating. SOARing.
This is really happening. Now.
From a depressed, overweight smoker who decided enough is enough… to a curious newly fit young adult who wondered if people could really run more than a marathon… to a seasoned ultra vet with one last wish to run the coveted Western States 100… alongside his hot wife for that matter… and now look… dreams are coming true.
Good grief I am in heaven.
Edna and I hold hands as we cross the finish line in 29 hours, 38 minutes, 45 seconds.
I kiss her and thank her and look for a Coke.
The 2017 Western States was a doozy, no doubt. The numbers prove that. Regardless of the conditions, I pictured myself as a Golden Hour finisher, and that’s exactly what we did. The Golden Hour refers to the last hour that participants have to finish the race; and this year there were two who just skated in, one with only 8 seconds to go.
Fucking magic, man.
But wait, there’s more:
I have a great Dad who went out of his way to help me and the crew. Not being able to get around real well himself, he sacrificed his body to make sure I got what I needed when I needed it. He was also the one driving everywhere, not easy in these remote areas. He’s been there for all the big events and for that I am truly grateful. Thanks, Baba!
Also, I want you to know that my buddy, Siamak is a champ! He is so smart and quick-thinking and calming. He was a great crew leader. He also took some great photos and videos — images I will cherish forever.
And did you know? My wife is the BEST! I love you, mi amor! Edna was such a great pacer. She ran 45 miles herself and never once complained about anything. She was on her game, quick with splits, cut-offs, milestones. She was on it, shoving gels in my face and making me suck it up when everything got blurry. I wouldn’t have made it without her.
The race itself… man, what can one say? The volunteers, the management, the everything… TOP NOTCH. The aid stations were superb. Everyone there was there to help. It was a family.
I felt loved.
I also felt the pain… of the terrain, of course. My feet were hamburger. My chafing was major league. The struggle was real. It’s been a few days and I’m still limping.
People often ask me why I would subject myself to such torture and the only thing I can really think of is that I like to see what I can do on my own two feet. When I know I can run 100 miles through hell and back, suddenly life gets easier. I’m able to do much more than I ever thought I could. I try a little harder. I go a little further. I stick with things a little longer.
It makes me a better friend, husband, person.
Through it all, I find out who I am.
And for someone who spent most of his life not having a clue who he was, that’s pretty damn powerful.
*MOVIE TRAILER VOICE*
In a world… where Jeff… meets Edna… and they run… and run… and run…
Until they form…
Following the incredible experience I had at Pinhoti last year, I knew I would eventually want to run another 100 mile race. I thought about running harder courses, about traveling somewhere exotic, about running all alone with no pacer.
But 2015 has been plenty filled with challenges: the Golden Gloves, the Gobi March and 24 Hours of running in circles, alongside the daily demands of running my own business. With the calendar quickly slipping by, I turned my attention to Run Woodstock, an event in Pinckney, Michigan I have attended each of the last three years. I love Run Woodstock because it celebrates the joy of running — being free, healthy and spirited — with distances ranging from 5k all the way up to 100 miles. Having paced the 100 mile race twice before, I felt like it would be a good place to return to the distance on my own, after slaughtering myself through the Talladega Forest just a year ago.
But the more I thought about running the race on my own, sans pacer, the more I yearned to do the complete opposite and run with someone. A certain someone. Someone I love very much.
That’s when I asked Edna, my fiancee, if she would want to run with me. Step by step.
“You and I, Edna. Just the two of us. 100 miles of beautiful trail… some boring gravel road sections… and probably crappy weather.” I proposed.
“Yes! Let’s do it!” she said, without hesitation.
“Wow. That didn’t take much convincing. Okay. We’re going to do this. Together then!”
Having an ultrarunner as your partner enables one to go all out on the crazy sauce. I couldn’t wait.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Edna and I wake up in Kalamazoo, where we drove to and stayed the night before. We wanted to save ourselves a couple of hours of sleep, deciding to split the four hour drive from Chicago into two shorter trips. Feeling refreshed and well rested, I think we made the right choice.
We eat a light breakfast and marvel at the pouring rain outside our window. Through the cracked sill, there’s also a slight chill. We expect nothing less from western Michigan in September. I check the forecast for Hell Creek Ranch in Pinckney, further east on I-94, 10ish miles northwest of Ann Arbor, the site of our impending pain. Bad weather seems to have been a hallmark of my Run Woodstock experience. It almost always rains. Or it’s really hot. Or really cold. Or all of the above. Last year a massive tree branch fell on my tent that would have otherwise blown away during a storm. Today it looks like we might luck out and have perfect running weather with temps in the mid 60s to high 40s overnight.
Edna and I share some nervous energy through our conversation as we drive towards our destination, interrupted with a quick stop at Cracker Barrel to fill up on high-calorie, salt-saturated ‘Merican food, complete with grits and just-add-water gravy.
“What is greets?” Edna asks in her adorable Mexican accent.
“Um… I actually don’t know. They do taste better if you add salt. And pepper? Eat them. We’ll need all the calories we can get.”
Satisfactorily stuffed, we finish our drive to Hell Creek Ranch and find overcast skies with a slight chill, but no rain.
“Not too bad. We can run in this.” I admit.
Of course, a lot can change in the 30 hours they give us to finish the distance, but starting out knowing we won’t have to suffer through a slopfest is a bonus.
So is arriving on time. Last year, Edna and I arrived just a few minutes before the race began, leaving her scrambling to get her number and to the start line in time. Today we have a couple of hours to chill out, organize our drop bags and even take a nap!
No more sleeping! Let’s do this!
Edna and I gather our things and walk from the parking area over to the campground and start line of what will be a 16.6 mile loop course that we have to run six times. SIX. TIMES.
We place our drop bags in the proper areas (one at the Start/Finish line and one in the truck headed for the halfway point of the loop) and lose ourselves in the crowd of anxious runners. There is also a 100k race starting at the same time as ours, so there are plenty of people around. We step away from them all for a few seconds to snap this picture under the start line banner:
The Jimi Hendrix version of our National Anthem blares and the nervous energy dissipates into the calm of knowing exactly what I’ll be doing for the next 30 or so hours, hopefully less. Running 100 miles is never an easy task, but staying in the moment — each and every step of the way knowing exactly where I exist in time and space — makes it doable in pieces.
The race director gives a final countdown: 3… 2… 1…
AND WE’RE OFF!
Miles 1 – 16.6
“Let everyone go, mi amor. We have a long way to go. People always go out too fast. And they suffer later. That won’t be us today.”
I give Edna this advice as we situate ourselves comfortably at the back of the pack. Having been through the 100 mile experience many times as a pacer, crew member and once as a finisher, I know that it’s always easy to go out fast. I’ve seen it time and time again. What is not easy — but infinitely satisfying — is running strong at the back half of a hundo. It feels so damn good to be plugging along, head down, doing work when doing so seems so impossible. We want to be moving well (relatively) at the end. No zombie walking for us (we hope).
We start out easy and as soon as we hit the slightly uphill trail leading out of the campground and into the woods, I bring us to a walk while everyone else blows by.
“We walk the hills, mi amor,” I tell Edna. “All of them. From the beginning.”
Walk the hills. Run the downs, and the flats. When we have to walk we walk with a purpose. Swing those arms. Mall walk that trail! This is the game plan. This is what we’ve trained for. This is what Edna and I have agreed on.
In fact, as we jog along the conga line of runners, I’m still smiling from Edna’s words to me back when we decided to run this race together.
“I will follow you,” she said. “I won’t think about anything else. Just follow you.”
She’s giving me full control of the situation. As someone who rather favors being in control of… well, everything!… I am quite pleased about this. It puts me at ease.
I test out her sincerity a couple of times and smile as she follows my every move.
This is gonna be a kick ass day.
The first stretch of the loop is a nice lush trail. It’s not technical. It’s soft dirt, sand, grass and SHIT-OUCH-DAMNIT roots. I kick my toe into one right off, solidifying my innate ability to stub my digits on anything and everything.
This is gonna be a loooooong kick ass day.
We hit a gravel road that is as flat as it is long. “We are going to use this road a lot today, Edna,” I say, offering up what little wisdom I’ve gathered having run this course each of the last three years. “This is a part where we can make up time. It’s runnable. No roots for me to kick my toes into. It’s perfect for cranking.”
Edna smiles, like she always does, and I am totally digging this being in control thing. Makes me want to run faaaast!
And we can through here. Once we get onto the trail again there are several downhills, reminding why this course is also perfectly runnable, even late in a race. “We’ll have to take advantage of the downs too, mi amor. Let ourselves go a little bit anytime we can.”
We reach the first aid station 55 minutes into our journey and go through a routine we will do another 23 times: fill up our water bottles. Eat whatever looks good. Get our butts out of there.
On the drive over we discussed not wasting time at aid stations. It’s so easy to do. Prior to arriving, I like to say out loud what I’m going to do once I get to the aid station, so when I get there I do just those things and then get moving. Hanging around, yapping, not running… those activities can kill your race and leave you chasing cut-offs.
Not us. Not today. We grab some food and get out, power hiking up another road as we stuff our faces.
The road goes up and down gently before sending us back onto single track. I stop to pee, something I will do every 20-30 minutes for the entirety of the race, and in my haste to catch back up to Edna I turn on the burners. Vroooooom! I zoom, up over and around rocks and roots and BAM-THWACK-SHIIIIIIIT.
I fall flat on my stomach, breaking my fall with my forearms.
“Mi amor, que pasó? Are you okay?” Edna hollers back.
Laughing, humbled and only slightly embarrassed, I pick myself and rub some dirt on my knees. Nothing hurts. Yet.
“Just fell down, babe. All good here.”
She smiles as I take back the lead position. It’s times like these I can’t help but laugh at myself. I laugh because I can. Because I feel alive. And because falling down, to me, is incredibly funny (pratfalls anyone?).
An hour later and now we’re at the 8 mile aid station. A drop bag is here, but we don’t need it yet. We fill up, grab some food and get on down the road.
We cruise along. There’s a little bit of road, a little bit of trail. We’re feeling good. No, we’re feeling great! We’re jumping and skipping and feeling light on our SNAP-BOOM-THWACK-SHIIIIIIIT.
I stub my toe again.
“Mi amor,” I say, “don’t mind my potty mouth. I can’t help but scream expletives when I do things like that. It’s no reflection on you, nor our race.”
She smiles her approval. We made a pact today to stay positive and quell all realms of negativity. No complaining. No badmouthing. We came here with the goal of running 100 miles. We know the pain and suffering required. But we vowed not to give in to it.
Except in cases where I stub my toes, of course.
“Mi amor,” she says, “why don’t you pick up your feet a little bit?”
Hmmm. What a novel idea. Yeah, dummy why DON’T you pick up your feet?
While I think about it, I BOOM-FUUUUUUUUUUUUU-SHIIIIIIIT, I do it again.
Yes, I paid for this.
An hour has gone by and we’re back at the first aid station we saw at mile 4, which doubles as the mile 12 station. The volunteers are quick to give us a hand, but we don’t stay long, opting to get back down the trail.
We power hike the slow incline leaving out of the station and then pick up speed as we traverse several downs.
This course is fun. It’s not too tough. It’s very runnable. And your body gets to use a lot of different muscles as it tries to survive six full loops.
Don’t remind me.
On the back half of this last four mile section, there are a few bigger climbs. We power hike them like champs and soon find ourselves popping out of the woods and back into Hell Creek Ranch to the rancorous cheers of a bunch of hippies. Some of them are drunk. Some of them are not. All of them are awesome.
First loop done in four hours on the dot.
Miles 16.6 – 33.2
“Let’s grab our headlamps, babe,” I shout out as we find our drop bag and dig through its contents. “We made really great time. Let’s keep up the good work.”
Edna and I don’t stay long. The sunlight is disappearing and we are eager to get back on the trail before it’s completely dark. We grab some food and eat it as we power hike the first part of trail leading out of camp.
It’s quite a trip going from the loud party atmosphere of the camp back into the silence of the forest, especially now as it gets dark. Edna and I haven’t been conversing too much, making the quiet stand out even more, but that’s nothing new. We have spent many a training run trucking along in silence. Every once in a while I look back and find her smile. I smile too. Ours is an understood admiration that, while running, doesn’t need words. We are doing what we love the most: adventuring in the forest for hours and hours.
How fucking cool is that?
“Te amo!” she yells out.
“Te amo tambien, mi amor!”
On the long gravel road this time we crank up the pace again and I feel my hamstrings and calves are kind of tight. They get like this on long stretches of straightaway, but I know they’ll feel better back on the trail, so I keep digging in, trying to let my legs go.
Edna follows along perfectly in stride. Since we have spent so many weekend miles together on trails and roads, training for this race, I am pretty locked in to the range of paces she can handle and I try to push her when I can. My mind-body feedback loop is on point and try to include her body language into the equation as well so I can calculate the right pace.
We have an hour in the bank already on what we need to accomplish overall (an average of five hours per loop) so I know we can slow down and still be safe for finishing the race under the allowed 30 hours. From experience, I know the third loop will probably be our slowest as we traverse the darkness full of fatigue, but I’m not worried about that yet.
Just focus on what you’re doing. Now. NOW.
The constant reminder of the NOW. I absolutely love it. Breathe. Stride. Check-in. Smile.
I’m aliiiiiiiiiive. So aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive!!!
And I’m sharing this with the LOVE OF MY LIFE!
Pinch yourself, dude! I mean, how many times do you get to fully immerse yourself in your passion with your life partner? I’m pretty certain Joe Montana didn’t run 7-on-7 drills with his wife for 30 hours at a time. And I doubt Ozzie Smith’s spouse hit grounders for him to chase all day. This type of thing just doesn’t happen very often.
I love it! I love her! I love the WOOOOOOOORRRRRRLD.
“Un búho!” Edna screams. “An owl!”
Not just an owl, but the motherload of owls surprises me by dive bombing out of a tree, grazing my head before sputtering off into the shaded green of the forest.
“Wow,” I say, heartbeat racing, “that was a badass buzzing.”
Fueled by the fear of another owl attack, we kick it up a gear and find ourselves at the halfway point of the loop. Here I am reminded once again that I really do love this girl. We pull out our drop bag and DEVOUR a container of macaroni and cheese with bacon that she mindfully prepared prior to the race.
***FLASHBACK TO THURSDAY EVENING BEFORE LEAVING FOR MICHIGAN***
“Is that bacon I smell?” I ask walking in the door, hands full of training equipment after a long day of work.
“Sí, mi amor. I made macaroni and cheese with bacon for our drop bag in the middle of the night.”
I drop everything. “You. Are. The best. THE BEST!”
***BACK TO THE RACE***
“This mac-n-cheese with bacon is making love to my mouth right now,” I tell her. Some 24 miles in, I couldn’t have asked for a better meal.
She also pulls out a container of mashed potatoes and salted ham and mixed vegetables. “Do you want some of this too, mi amor?”
Do I? I want to shove it all into my face. Just cover myself in it. I am so happy.
Tired, but happy. I note the general fatigue as much as we head back out on to the road and eventually the trail where I BOOOM-SNAP-THWACK stub my toe. Again.
“No biggie! I’ll survive!” I say forcing a smile.
I knew the night would be full of this. I stub it a couple more times and decide “Okay, maybe I will concentrate on picking up my feet. Or slowing down. Or both.”
We plug away. Run the downs and flats, power hike the hills. Even the littlest of hills gets a power hike from us. We are all about pacing.
So far, so good, as we roll back into camp four and a half hours after we left it. This time we arrive to darkness. Silence.
Where are all the hippies?
Oh yeah, it’s 12:30 in the morning. They’re sleeping. That sounds pretty nice right now.
I’m sleepy myself. From our drop bag, Edna and I decide to crack open one of the Red Bulls we brought along. We don’t drink this stuff in real life, but in ultras, it’s our secret weapon. Edna calls it “El Diablo” because its immediate ability to “gives us wings” seems thoroughly demonic. How does it work so fast? And so well! When we combine it with small doses of Ibuprofen, it’s like someone gave us brand new legs (for a while, at least).
Vrroooooom. Hyped up on sugar, caffeine and whatever else is in that stuff, we leave camp, back on the trail for the dreaded third loop.
Saturday, September 12
Miles 33.2 – 49.8
Up and down the trail to the road, we don’t say much. We just keep our rhythm with our steps. Like we’ve been doing, we stop every 30 minutes or so to water the trees and then we get back into our routine. Every now and then I check in with a “Te amo” or “All good?” or “Great job, mi amor”. We’re getting tired, but we are kicking ass, with an hour and twenty five minutes of extra time in the bank.
These overnight hours are never easy and Edna has struggled with them mightily in other races. The 4 p.m. Friday start helps us in that we are doing the difficult section while our legs are still relatively fresh, but I expect this to be our longest loop.
I keep track as our time from aid station to aid station slips from an hour and change to an hour and fifteen minutes, hour and twenty. “It’s all good,” I remind Edna. “Let’s get through this one without killing ourselves and when the sun comes up we’ll start cranking out the miles again.”
With my constant toe stubbing and inability to see outside the view of my headlamp, our pace has no choice but to slow. We are still running the road sections pretty strong, but the downhills we were bombing earlier require more care.
It starts raining.
As my body weakens, the voice in my head gets louder.
So what? We got ponchos! You hear me, 100 miler? We came ready for this shit!
AND THERE’S PIZZA! HALLE-FRIGGIN-LUJAH THERE’S PIZZA!
At the halfway aid station we stuff ourselves with more ham, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and bacon.
This ain’t an ultra race, this is an eating contest and I am kicking ass, man! NOM NOM NOM!
We head back down the road and find ourselves back on the trail, sufficiently stuffed again as we trot along. The silence breaks with BOOM-THWACK-AIIIIIIIIIII. I turn around and see Edna sprawled out on the ground, shoulder rolled and all. My stomach drops. My heart sinks.
“Mi amor, are you okay?”
She mumbles some expletives I rarely hear out her mouth before picking herself back up and dusting off her legs. “Sí, mi amor.” She walks gingerly, allowing 60 seconds for feeling sorry for herself, and then: “Estoy bien. Vamos. Let’s go.”
I love it. Ain’t no pratfalls stopping us today! Bam! Let’s go!
THWACK-BOOM-SHIIIIIIIT. My turn. Again. Doesn’t matter. Pain isn’t real. Let’s pick up the pace!
As we near the camp to finish our third loop, I look at my clock and see that after 5 hours 5 minutes, it was our slowest yet, as expected. No biggie. Still got an hour and a half in the bank. Despite sleepiness and general fatigue, our bodies are working just fine. And best of all, I got a hot sidekick sharing the miles (and smiles) with me.
“Here comes the sun,” I tell her as we chug another diablo drink at the Start/Finish aid station. “We’re going to pick up speed again. Naturally.”
She nods confidently. “I follow you.”
Her loyalty fuels me. The Red Bull may give me wings, but her love gives me the indomitable will.
I can’t wait to cross the finish line holding her hand.
Let’s make it happen.
Miles 49.8 – 66.4
We’re making it happen.
As we walk out of the camp up the hill back to the trail, I take a bite of an Oreo cookie and make sure to gunk it up on my front teeth before giving Edna a big old Oreo cookie smile.
I crack myself up so hard I forget my legs hurt. And my feet. And my butt.
She finds it hilarious too. Of course. This whole thing is hilarious.
What are we doing? Running a 100 miles in the woods? Through the night? What a stupid idea.
Yes, what a wonderfully stupid, AWESOME idea.
“You know what my favorite part of the race is, mi amor?” I ask, back on rolling single track trail, picking up speed from the sun. “Being done. I love sitting at home, with my feet up, watching a game, drinking a beer knowing I just did something epic.”
The idea of using my own two feet to cover ubermega distances is such a turn on for life that I can’t imagine not testing my limits. Nothing makes me feel more alive.
“We always forget the pain,” she adds.
“Yep, we always forget the pain.”
Except right now the pain is very much a reality. Mine is an all-body ache throbbing from shoulders to feet. I’ve been pumping my arms so hard to get my legs to follow that upper body is taking more punishment than usual. But the feet are hanging in there.
No blisters. No injuries. Just well traveled feet with umpteen BOOOOOM-THWACK-SHIIIIIIIT-NOT-AGAIN toe stubbings.
Part of the game, I remind myself. This part will be long forgotten by the time I’m home watching the game.
When we hit that 2-mile gravel road we let it fly. We are getting good at this.
CRAAAAAAAAAAAAANK, mi amor, CRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANK.
She is awesome. Edna is so damn awesome! AWE-SOME. She is FULL of some AWE.
Back on the trail now, we meander up and over and through the woods.
Pump those arms, deep breaths, don’t quit!
Then, somewhere during this automated arm pumping, a fleet of faster feet zoom by us. First it’s just a few. Then a couple more. Then a pack. Then a horde. These are the 50 mile and 50k runners. Fresh legs. They offer up lots of “good job” and “great work” and “looking strong” but they also nearly run us off the single track. We graciously jump to the side, slugging through weeds and brush to avoid being flattened. We can use the break anyway.
The crowds eventually disperse and we continue on. We don’t say much. We are too focused on moving our asses. We do so in lock step. Our footfalls are in unison: miles and miles of perfect unison. Is it possible to be tuned in to another person’s mind? Probably not. Feels like we are though.
We are super connected! We are in love! We are alive!
Every 4 miles now require some sort of caffeine injection. We only have our diablo drinks at the two drop bag stations. In between those we rely on Mt. Dew. Its syrupy texture adheres to my teeth, where I discover with my tongue leftover bits of Oreo that still taste delicious.
Delicious. Delirious. Delicirious. Is that a word? It should be. I want it to be. It’s what I am projecting into the universe right now. Pure deliciriousness. And delightanity.
On our way back around to finish up the fourth loop, I remind Edna of such delightanity: “We ran this loop 15 minutes faster than the last one. We are kicking major ass, babe.”
“I just want to be finished,” she says.
“We will. Two more loops. Let’s just get through the fifth, then the final one will be the last time we see everything on the course. We’ll click off the miles like nothin’.”
“I follow you, mi amor,” she says.
DAMN I LOVE THIS GIRL!
Miles 66.4 – 83
Truckin’, arm swingin’, feet shufflin’…
“Just put your head down and go to work,” I say out loud to pump us up. It’s getting harder to pump the arms. It’s getting harder to keep my eyes open, to concentrate.
DO IT ANYWAY, DUDE! I hear myself inside my head. Be a LEADER! Be the best YOU you can be! Do it for you! Do it for Edna. Do it for JEDNA!
We wind downhill, skipping, hopping, floating along the trail until CRACK-THWACK-SHIIIIIIIIIT, of course.
Not my pain, I say to myself. I give it to someone else. I give it to the forest. To that owl we saw earlier! To the Oreos still stuck in my teeth!
I let go of the aches, the pains. There is no doubt. Only determination.
Together, we go hard. We are blowing my mind.
The only other thing it can focus on is going aid station to aid station. Anything more than that is too much of a chore, too disheartening. We have another loop left after this? That’s a toxic thought. We only have to run to the next aid station. That gets us where we want to to go.
Once there, we do it again. We slam Mt. Dews and Red Bulls when we can. At some point I dig back into the macaroni and cheese.
“I have an aid station baby,” I say to Edna while proudly sticking out my bloated belly, “I think I’ll name it Woodstock.”
It’s funny because everything is funny because running 100 miles is funny and being hypertuned to your body and mind is funny. Tripping over your own feet is funny. Experiencing a deep relationship with your hip flexors is funny. Eating ham and potatoes and Nutella and Oreos and pizza and licorice and watermelon and chicken noodle soup and coffee and Red Bull and Mt. Dew while staying awake for 30-some hours is really fucking funny.
“What loop you guys on? This your last one?” People ask us as we pass.
“Nah, not yet,” I say, the words achy in my mouth. “This is five. One more to go after this.”
But that’s not how we’re looking at it. Just get to the next aid station.
Then the next.
Now we’re approaching camp and Edna and I hold hands knowing the next time we come through here will be our last.
“One. More. TIME, babe! We can do it!”
Her beaming smile lifts my tired trunks again as I know we’re bound for glory.
Miles 83 – 100
“You guys have plenty of time. Just get it done,” says one of the many cheerful aid station workers. The volunteers at this race have been top notch and I want to hug and kiss them all.
Edna and I, freshly charged with diablo drinks and pancakes and sausage, head out for our sixth and final loop. We can’t stop from smiling.
“One more loop! One more loop! One more loop!” chants the entire aid station, followed by any and all within earshot of our final departure from the camp. I start thinking about it, knowing we just pulled off a five hour loop, and looking at my watch, I can’t help but get all teary eyed.
Not yet, dude! Got a long way to go! Get to work!
“Edna, we are GOING to finish,” I tell her. “That is no issue. The question is when? The faster we go, the faster we’re done.”
“I just want to be finished,” she says, forever smiling through her pain.
“Then let’s get moving,” I say. And we take off in step like Harry and Sally, Forest Gump maniacs, two cops in a buddy film, one megaultrarunning duo.
Feels good. Feels good to be this alive.
“Where would you rather be?” I scream out to no one in particular. I look back to see Edna right on my heels as we hammer the trail. Strong. Determined.
We hit the two mile road section and I put on the afterburners and go buck wild.
Not long after, I can’t hear her footsteps behind me, so I look back and see she’s dragging. I slow down to let her catch up and she says, “No puedo. I can’t. On the flats, I just can’t.”
“Yes, you can, babe. You are doing awesome.”
“But I can’t run fast on the flat. I do better on the hills and downhills.”
Sensing this could go into negativity-land pronto, I quickly assert myself: “Mi amor, you are doing a great job. Let’s run fartleks. Let’s run as hard as we can to that flag marker up there and then we’ll take a walk break.”
Her eyes are suspicious of my direction but her legs follow along just fine. We race to the marker, walk for a bit and then again take off towards the next one.
“See! You can do it!” Vroom! We gather curious looks from those we pass running the sprints, but I hoot and holler like a cowboy on my first ride. Running hard in the last miles of a hundred is an awesome feeling.
We get back on the trail and I remind Edna, “That’s the last time we run that damn road!”
Back on the trail, things feel a bit better, but we are slowing down. At the 4 mile aid station we grab some caffeine, but we’re both gunning for another Red Bull at the halfway point. “Let’s just get there, mi amor,” I tell her.
We take off and fartlek our way through another road section until we get back to the trail that will lead us to our drop bag. Through here we are off and on, with little bursts of speed keeping us awake and on point. But when we finally roll into the aid station, I can see Edna is spent. I study her hard, trying to decide what to say to pump her up. Before I can, she admits: “It hurts. It’s hard. I cannot run fast.”
“Mi amor, you’ve been running fast this whole race. Look at you! You’re not zombie walking, you’re running! Still! With only eight miles to go!”
This lightens her up a bit, as does the Red Bull she chugs. “Look, mi amor, I hurt too. But at this point, it’s going to hurt whether we walk or run, so we might as well run. We’ll be done sooner if we run.”
I grab our headlamps from our drop bag, as it’s possible we might not finish before dark. I give her a big hug and check my watch. “We’re doing good on time. Let’s just be done. Yeah? Let’s go out and finish strong!”
“That makes sense,” she says. “It will hurt no matter what.”
Vrroooom. She takes off out of the aid station, leaving me to chase.
WOOOO HOOOO! THAT’A GIRL! LET’S DO THIS!
She high-fives me as I catch up to her, both of us floating along against the pain, arms pumping. We put our heads down, digging deep, running the flats and downs again as before.
We pass more runners. A lot of runners! The plentiful downhills make this possible and now I’m ready to make a game out of it.
“We’re gonna start reelin’ ’em in, babe. Anyone we see in front of us, we are going to pass.”
She’s game. I push hard when I can and to my delight, she is right there on my heels. Goose and Maverick on the MiG attack! Seeing her run so well this late in the game makes me ecstatic! I’ve never seen her do this before! “Edna! You are kicking ass!”
“I just want to be finished,” she says.
And here we go again with a time-stop… I have been so wrapped up in my cadence and my breath and my joy that we are now a mile out from camp and like coming out of a trance I shake my head wondering how did we get here?
I look back and see Edna still right on my heels, pushing hard, swinging those arms. Her smile — that effervescent smile that never seems to wane, even in the toughest of circumstances — is still beaming. We have traveled all this way — together, as a unit — through ups and downs, pain and fatigue. Yet we keep going. We always keep going. Supported by one another, no one, no thing can break through the fortress of our bond.
We are JEDNA. We are STRONG.
It’s dark now. Our headlamps are on. I haven’t tripped or stubbed my toe at all this loop, which means, of course: THWACK-BOOM. There it is. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
As we climb the big hill out of the trail and into the camp, the faint tune of “Play That Funky Music” greets us, a musical welcome that we’ll always remember. Edna and I hold hands as we pick up our pace to make our final 100 meter run through the finish line.
We cross the line, arms raised in the air. United WE DID IT! Edna’s third in her age group. But we both finish as Champions of Grit! Champions of Heart! Champions of Love!
28 hours, 24 minutes after our journey began, we are both finally finished.
And we’re even more in love.
I have long said that the ultramarathon is the perfect metaphor for life. Sometimes it’s a breeze. Sometimes it’s a suckfest. Sometimes you float along on a cloud of endless joy, blissfully trapped in the moment without a care in the world, and sometimes your ass is chapped, your toes are bruised and your legs are shot. But it’s always a journey — always a chance to discover something new about yourself. Like no other physical challenge I’ve ever attempted, the ultramarathon continuously offers me a the opportunity to live, to be present and to focus on the things in life that really matter.
That’s why I keep coming back. I’m a sucker for feeling. And in a world that seems more and more devoid of it, I can’t help but get lost in the full spectrum of feeling that the ultra run provides.
Having a partner who shares my passion is a bonus — a bonus I’ll never take for granted.
Thanks, Edna, for being there for me and staying alongside me. It makes the forest not seem so dark.
For 24 hours.
Go big or go home… that’s the most fitting cliche for the moment. I have a feeling that in a few hours I’m going to want to go home.
But I won’t. I’m here to move. For 24 hours. Whether I log 100 miles or 50, I won’t quit… unless a bone is sticking through my flesh. Please don’t let it come to that.
Think positively. 100 miles would be nice.
Last year, at this same race, I fought my way to 94 miles, something I felt really proud of. But the idea that I was only 10k shy of a century mark has been gnawing at my conscience for a whole year now. In my mind, 100 miles is definitely doable. In my body, hmm… not so much.
While I have been running regularly since my first 100 mile conquest, my training focus was on boxing all winter and spring. My “long runs” became 8-9 easy miles or a fast 10k with weights in my hands. The result was victory for my fight game, but when I started to stretch the legs out in May, my body had a hard time reckoning just how much work it takes to build up the endurance necessary for the extra far efforts. I got in few long runs with Edna on the weekends, then we went to China. My training stalled.
I have heard it from many before in relation to training, but this was the first time I experienced it in earnest: life got in the way.
So what!? Life rocks, man!
Indeed, it does. Life rocks. And if ultrarunning has taught me anything, it’s that the only limitations in life are the ones we put on ourselves. This maxim is not an invitation to recklessness, but rather a mantra for transcendence based on hard work, dedication and basic intelligence. Having already gone the 100 mile and 24 hour distance, I knew that even with limited training my brain could take over through any rough patch.
Ultras are mostly mental. I reminded myself of this. Training or not, I think I can get 100 miles. Let’s see what reality has in store!
Hours 1 – 7 (10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.)
This feels weird. Even though I’ve done it before, starting a race at 10:00 p.m. still feels a bit strange, like putting on someone else’s shoes before running for 24 hours weird.
Nope, these are definitely my shoes. I look down and second guess my choice of year-old, 900+ mile Nike Vomeros. The tread is still intact despite a ratty affair of frayed rubber from the toes. I wore these in the second half of last year’s race after my beloved Hokas left me blistered. I love the Hokas, but my memory of maceration is hard to kill and on the roads for this long I’d rather just start with a sure thing.
The RDs announce something in a megaphone that I can’t quite understand, and to the tune of quiet lightning in the sky, we’re off!
Everyone starts fast, of course. It’s halfway decent out right now, with temperatures in the high 70s. The forecast for the daylight hours calls for intense heat and humidity, so all 67 of us starters go out with what I assume is the same mindset: bank miles now, while we can.
The course is a .97 mile loop, same as last year, only in the reverse direction. Right away I can feel that it’s a bit easier than last year’s, which had a little more uphill to its design. An easier course is not something I’m going to complain about, so I just put my head down and go into spin mode.
Bank miles, bank miles…
Trying to maintain a 6-mile an hour pace, at the lone aid station I grab water and something to eat (whatever looks good at the time) every loop or every other loop. The soft lightning in the sky offers a little entertainment and I start to wonder if it will rain. The forecast said only a 20% chance, so I’m thinking it won’t.
While I’m thinking about it, the course gets crowded as the 12-hour runners join us. Among them is my buddy, Adam.
Adam and I go way back. We met each other during orientation week of our freshman year in college (1997? DAMN!).
This is Adam’s first ultra. Having shared some training runs with him and watched his build-up for his first marathon some time ago, it’s a joy to share some miles with him now. We are in a groove, both trying to get in as many decent miles as possible before the wheels come off late, and the time is flying by.
Also sharing miles with me in this first part are Nate and Todd, both of whom I’ve known for a few years now. Our constant chatter is a good deterrent for my already tired and tight leg muscles. Already? Damn. Keep drinking water. Maybe it’ll get better.
I keep drinking water. It’s not getting better.
But oh look, now it’s raining, and that’s… something different.
Why not? Ultras are the ultimate test in chaos management. Always expect something to go wrong. Heat, rain, gastrointestinal problems… plan for the worst, hope for the best. I’m trying to find joy in the sloppy, slick conditions. The rain is nice and cool.
For a couple of hours it comes down hard, then lets up some, then comes down hard again. I just smile. Ah hell, going to be out here a long time, I think to myself. Might as well try to enjoy it.
I am. I am enjoying it. Finding out more about myself through intense, focused exercise is the cornerstone to my understanding of self. But 6 hours in and already it’s quite apparent to me that today is not going to be a day for 100 miles. My hamstrings and calves keep tightening up. I stop and roll them out with a foam roller a couple of times and do my best to stretch here and there, but the only real thing that stops them from seizing up is going slow. Or walking. And the sun is coming…
Hours 7 – 17 (5:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.)
As the sun creeps up over Lisle Community Park, the rain has stopped, and we are treated to a picturesque suburban landscape of a happy little lake surrounded by lots of green. The strung up Christmas lights decorating the course give way to the inflatable snowmen, Santas and reindeer — just more reminders of the ridiculousness of our task. Run around a circle for a day! In July! With Christmas stuff everywhere!
I can’t help but laugh. This is ridiculous! Why are we doing this again?
My feet are squishy and soft from the rain, my stomach is growling from hunger and my legs are already shot… with just 17 MORE HOURS TO GO! WOOO HOOO!
“We forget the pain,” I say to someone. “We always forget the pain. When we sign up for these things the only thing we remember is the satisfaction of crossing that finish line — of putting our feet up at the end of the day knowing we did some epic shit. But we always conveniently forget about the pain.”
I won’t forget about what I’m feeling right now. This sucks.
BUT I’M SMILING! Edna taught me that.
“Always smile,” she says. “You’ll feel better.” She’s right.
“Mi amor,” I say, “I want to be with you. Is that okay?”
She gives me that look that says: Is that okay? Of course, it’s okay. It’s awesome! Where have you been?!?!
Good, it’s settled then. We go forth together.
Maybe she thought I meant for just a while, but no, I mean, for the rest of the race. If I’m going to continue suffering, I want to be next to someone I like.
Of course… you could just…. quit, y’know. Stop running. Stop doing this. No one would care.
I would care! Sticking with Edna will help me fight back the urge to go home early too. We don’t quit. We came here to move for 24 hours. We’re moving our asses for 24 hours. The best we can.
We put our heads down and go to work. Together.
Run for a bit. Walk for a bit. Run for a bit. Walk for a bit.
At some point there is bacon. And pancakes. I lose my mind. I eat as much as I can fit in my mouth.
Heads down. Going to work. Together. Run.
Walk. Run. Walk.
I’m… falling…. a… sleeeeeeeeeeeeeppppp
Time for a Red Bull, what Edna calls “El Diablo”. *CHUG CHUG CHUG*
Run. Walk. Shuffle?
Yeah, it’s a shuffle now.
It’s hot. We’re baking. Ice. We stuff ice in our hats, shorts, faces. I want to peel my skin off and put ice in my veins.
The 6-hour runners finished a long time ago. The 12-hour runners finished at 11 a.m., Adam included. He did awesome, logging 44.77 miles! His wife and kids come to cheer him on to the finish and in doing so, give Edna and I a much needed break.
Edna and I move the best we can. Sweating. Slogging. Surviving.
I keep moving… one foot in front of the other… but my eyes… they are getting heavy… and… and…
“MI AMOR!” I hear.
The scream snaps me awake and I find myself a footstep away from walking into the lake.
“Where am I?” I ask, momentarily confused, unsure of who or where I am and what I am doing. I look at my watch. It’s 2 p.m. I’m running for 24 hours.
“This is some crazy shit,” I say to Edna.
“Mi amor, tenemos que tomar una siesta.”
She’s right. Ordinarily I wouldn’t want to take a nap during an ultra. I would do my best to push through without sleeping. But during today’s contest I have had a ton of Red Bull and I still can’t keep my eyes open. The heat and humidity keeps slamming the door shut on my consciousness. I need a nap.
At 2:15 p.m. we sink into our camp chairs, feet up, hats over our eyes. I’m out before I can even — zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Hours 17 -24 (3:00 p.m to 10:00 p.m.)
I wake up to a violent gust of wind that knocks my hat off. “What the…”
The canopy tent under which we sit is trying its hardest to fly off into the distance. Luckily, it’s anchored well and we have a little cover from the choppy sprinkles of rain that follow the strong gusts. Is it going to rain again? I wonder. That’s just what we need.
As soon as my mind recovers enough to conjure up the worst case scenarios, the rain has stopped.
“I’m hungry,” says Edna as we cautiously find our way back to our feet.
“Me too. Let’s go to the aid station and see what they have.”
Before we can, Nate circles back around to us and asks, as if sent by the gods, “Are you guys hungry?”
How did he know? Was it our sunken cheeks? Our frail disposition? The fact that we’ve been running in circles all night?
Everything moves in slow motion, like a scene out of a Scorsese flick, when you know either something awesome or something awful is going to happen in the next few seconds. Nate walks over to his cooler, lifts the lid and reveals a home cooked Filipino meal of pork sausage, flavor-packed cured beef and sticky white rice. AWESOME!
I try not to shove it all into my mouth at the same time.
Is this an eating contest or a running contest? I’d be doing better if it were the former.
“This food is delicious,” I can’t stop saying. Edna loves it too. I have to check myself to make sure I’m not making hog noises as I (ironically) devour the pork sausage. It’s the perfect combination of salt and fat and flavor and… do we have to keep running or can we just stop and eat now?
Just a few bites before immobility, I manage to put the food away and get back to my feet. Edna follows suit and we head out to finish the rest of our pain-filled voyage.
Heads down. Going to work. Together.
We talk. A lot. We figure if we can get through events like this, we can get through life together. Right? It’s hard to not love someone who is there for you, blisters, chafing and all. Plus, we keep dipping our hands in the same jar of Vaseline (IMPORTANT MEDICAL ADVICE: don’t dip your hand in our jar of Vaseline).
The heat won’t go away. It digs deep into our bodies, slowing us, daring us to quit. But our goal is relentless forward progress and in this we will succeed. You’d be hard pressed to find two people more stubborn than Edna and I and there’s no stopping us today. Our minds are made up.
Someone, a spectator, randomly hands us two ice cream sundaes. It really IS Christmas in July!!! WOW!! We SLUUUUUUUURP the ice cream so fast that our mutual embarrassment for one another cancels out. Life is beautiful ain’t it? You go run in the sweltering heat for 24 hours and some random stranger gives you ice cream. What more do you want?
Heads down. Going to work. Together.
I have been reading “A Brief History of Mexico”, so now is a convenient time to discuss pre-Columbian Mexican history with someone close to the subject. Somehow our discussion meanders off towards Lady Guadalupe and all the iterations of the Virgin mother outside of Santa María.
Meanwhile, time ticks… and ticks… and ticks. There is more ice. More shuffling. Every once in a while we try to “run” but we quickly find ourselves back in shuffle mode. We don’t care. We’re all smiles.
What’s the alternative? Being pissy? Aggravated? We signed up for this shit, man! And we are going to finish. The sun is finally going down now and the remaining field of runners is scarce; but we have survived. We’re going to go the whole 24, which is exactly what we came here to do.
Damn it feels good to reach a goal. That’s why I do these things — these insane tests of endurance that call upon one’s mental and physical toughness to succeed. I love what they do to my mind, the conversations they start; and I love that I always leave them finding out something new about myself.
Today, as Edna and I approach the finish line of yet another extreme event — one that beat us down with intense rain, heat, humidity and and overall desire to bail — I realize that I am a better version of myself with her by my side. I know that I can trust her to help me get where I want to go, in races and in life. We are good for each other. We make a good team.
WE CROSS THE LINE…
When Edna and I boarded a Beijing-bound plane from Chicago, neither one of us really knew what I should expect. For her part, Edna was pretty clear: run 250k over 7 days across the Gobi Desert, carrying all her own gear and supplies for the journey. Having successfully completed the Atacama Crossing in 2013, she knew exactly what type of pain and suffering lie ahead. The only question mark was the terrain.
For me, as a volunteer making his first Racing the Planet appearance, I didn’t really have any idea what I would be doing. I speak Chinese, so I figured I might be doing some of that. I know my way around an aid-station, so I assumed I would be handing out lots of water. Somehow climbing a sand dune in a snowstorm didn’t make it onto my pre-race assumption list. Nor did fraternizing with a precocious camel, busting balls with the Xinjiang locals over fruit and tea or making instant friends the world over. Had I known about any of the above, I would have joined the Racing the Planet ranks a long time ago.
It was a long journey. A very, very, long journey. We left our Chicago apartment around noon on May 24th; 38 hours and 50 minutes later we were finally collapsing on our hotel bed in Hami, Xinjiang, China. The trip included a 14-hour direct flight to Beijing, a 4-hour+ flight to Urumuqi, a not-so-welcoming stay in the Urumuqi airport (we arrived around 1am and were kicked out onto the street where we slept in our sleeping bags), an adventurous death-ride to the Urumuqi train station where we eventually endured three separate yet equally vigorous shouting matches with Chinese security officials about our possession of multi-tools before waiting in line for 90 minutes to buy train tickets for a train we just barely boarded in time, for yet another 3-hour trip to our final destination: Hami.
We arrived on Tuesday the 26th in the afternoon sometime. We checked in our hotel, ate and then went right to sleep. We woke up on Wednesday, went to eat and came back to our hotel, to sleep. Again. We woke up around 5 o’clock on Wednesday evening, went to eat, went for a walk, then went to sleep. AGAIN.
Our bodies were confused. So we slept a lot. And it paid off, because we woke up on Thursday and everything was back to normal.
I spent the entirety of that Friday learning the ins and outs of volunteer protocol for the 4 Deserts race series. Always the nerdy student, I sat right up front and soaked up all the information given (there was a lot). Feeling confident that I’d retained at least 75% of the training, I also enjoyed getting to know my fellow volunteers. We were from the US, China, Singapore, New Zealand, Norway, Hong Kong, India, the UK, Australia, South Africa and Canada. Our dear leader, Tony, was a lighthearted yet focused Englishman from Manchester who peppered his instruction with well timed humor.
At the end of the training, I realized that volunteering would be more work than competing. At least as a competitor one would be able to rest after doing his job. For the volunteers, our days would begin around 4:30 am and end around 10:30 pm, though I imagined we would have less blisters and skin maceration, so that was a plus. Knowing just how much time we would be spending together seemed to motivate us to get to know and befriend one another rather quickly.
Want instant friends? Gallivant in the remote desert for a week without bathing!
Checking In… And We’re Off!
On Saturday morning and afternoon, I spent most of my time checking competitors’ mandatory equipment. This would be my first major duty of the contest, one that would also give me the opportunity to meet many individuals with whom I would come to call my friends after the event. Among them were a host of Chinese, a trio of Belgians, a pair of Spaniards and an American from my own Chicagoland backyard. What a small world!
This early post also helped me prepare my language palate for the days to come. In a matter of a few hours I found myself comfortably switching between English, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, something that I would be doing non-stop the rest of the week.
The buzz around the check-in was global in nature. Surrounding me were people from 40 different countries and various cultural backgrounds. I was in my element. Soaking it in.
Of course, I took my checking mandatory equipment job very seriously. Race officials require each competitor to carry a list of essential survival items. In the middle of nowhere, anything is possible, so making sure each individual was prepared to deal with whatever might come her way was paramount. I didn’t have any major issues. Everyone I checked-in was well prepared. I marveled at how small some competitors’ items came, while others’ did not. The difference between an 11 kilogram pack and a 9 kilogram pack might not seem that much at first glance, but when you consider hauling that pack for 250k through a dastardly rugged landscape, a 2 kilo difference suddenly takes on greater significance.
Edna’s pack was around 11 kilos. I tried not to worry about her small frame handling the weight across the desert. After all, I thought, she is coming in to this extremely well trained (I helped train her!).
After everyone’s equipment was checked and okayed, the 163 competitors gathered themselves onto an army of buses while I and a few other Chinese speaking volunteers tattooed 4×4 jeeps with sponsor decals alongside our new friends, a fleet of Chinese local drivers.
I carefully chose car #8 to be my transport vehicle as all cars and buses, full of staff, volunteers and competitors made their way out of Hami and into the middle of nowhere, bound for camp before Stage 1.
When we arrived at camp, located in a lush, green valley at 2400 meters of altitude, the air was as chilly as the wind was brisk. We were greeted by a lovely sight of local foods, music and dress while the buzz of pre-race jitters filled multilingual conversations in every direction.
After a volunteer meeting where I found out I would be working Checkpoint 3 the next day, I found Edna, wrapped her up in my arms and gave her a long hug before wishing her good luck and good night.
Stage 1 – 34.4k
Sleep? I didn’t get much. The winds whipped through our tent all night. It was cold. And it rained.
Weather is fickle in the mountains, especially here. One minute the winds spear rain sideways, the next minute it’s clear and sunny.
We would have a little bit of both, and everything in between the rest of the day.
After a 6:00 am briefing, the volunteers and staff scattered off by 4×4 to our respective posts. Checkpoint 3 was located beside the sand dune of Barkhol — a seemingly displaced sand dune that towered above and alongside a happy little mountain valley.
We arrived and set up our checkpoint in good time. The air was a bit chilled and there was a steady wind zipping through, but all seemed tolerable… until, of course, it was not. Out of nowhere came violent, sand whipping winds that uplifted our tents, forcing all hands on deck to scurry towards anchoring our infrastructure. The temperature soon dropped, and with it came a torrent of icy, chilled rain.
And it rained.
And it rained.
Then it snowed.
You haven’t seen the truly bizarre until you’ve seen a sand dune covered in snow. I saw most of it from inside the jeep, where I had the heat cranked so I could feel my fingers as I reigned over the most important part of any checkpoint: keeping the book.
My duty was to record every competitor’s name, number and time as they came through our checkpoint. The difference between being accurate and being lackadaisical is a full-fledged wilderness search team and lots of heartburn, so I put my anal retentiveness to work, making sure to get everything right.
It was quite the chaotic day to test such retentiveness. With visibility poor and extremities constantly numb and/or frozen, our entire team was challenged to match the toughness of the competitors, most of whom probably did not expect to traipse through snow and freezing rain on their first day in the Gobi Desert. Hypothermia effected several. Pure insanity effected others.
But at the end of Stage 1, everyone found him/herself back at camp in one piece.
Our camp before Stage 2 was a quaint Yurt Village, surrounded in every direction by green. Upon arrival, my body throbbed with exhaustion. The extreme weather of the first day combined with little sleep zapped by body of any energy it might have had left. All I wanted to do was sleep.
But I couldn’t do so without finding Edna.
I went looking for her, and when I finally found her, we both couldn’t wait to tell one another about our day’s adventure.
Stage 2 – 40k
For the second stage, I was assigned as “sweeper”, which meant I got to wear a sweet pink kit over my gear while going along for a 40k hike at the back of the race.
And oh yeah, I got to carry a 12 kilogram pack and dress for a temperature range between very cold and I-have-way-too-many-layers-on. Still, like Edna, I was all smiles.
This was my first chance to see the entire course of a Racing the Planet stage and wow, did I have a good view! I made the trek alongside fellow American volunteer, Liz, whose husband was also competing in the race. Together with a Kazakh, a camel and a horse, the five of us would start off in the mountains, up a steep, snow-covered 574 meter climb, then descend over 1000 meters through a rocky mountain valley, into the barren desert towards Camp 3.
Having to stay just behind and in sight of the last competitors in the race, while also picking up all the course markings throughout, it was a very long yet uniquely gorgeous 12ish hour day.
When we arrived at camp, a small village in the foothills of Tian Shan, I found Edna and caught up with her about her day. She was tired yet full of elation. She was in her element, pushing her body to the limit in a picturesque surrounding, and I was there to see her. Our love was growing, even though we spent most of the day apart.
That night, in the village where we stayed, the locals made a deliciously spicy noodle dish that I devoured; I even went back for seconds! Later, we volunteers gathered for our nightly briefing and there I learned I would have what seemed like an easier post for Stage 3 (yeah, right!). My job would be to stay at camp and do whatever odd jobs might be necessary in maintaining the finish line and overall well-being of the competitors as they came in.
Little did I know it would be yet another day of extremes.
Stage 3 – 42.7k
We volunteers were up again at 4:30 am, adding water to our dehydrated meal bags while sipping instant coffee from plastic bottles. Since my day would be a little less labor intensive, I was able to take my time getting myself together. Once the checkpoint crews left around 6:00, I had some time to wander around the village, chatting with locals, competitors and of course, Edna.
After all the competitors left the village, the remaining volunteers and staff hurried about tidying up the village before departing for Camp 4.
When we got to Camp 4, a small plateau at the foot of a mountain, it was quite chilly, and the chilliness was only exacerbated by… THE RAIN.
It rained. And rained.
But we had to get the camp together so we bustled about, the best we could, frozen digits and all.
The end of Stage 3 was tough for Edna. She came across the finish line smiling, but because of the long day of cold rain, she was struck with hypothermia when she got back to her tent. It took a good hour for her to stop shaking. Her tent-mates encouraged her to strip down and snuggle up in her sleeping bag with bottles full of hot water. Eventually she was able to regulate her body temperature, calm down and eat a good, hot meal.
She then burned her socks over a camp fire, trying to dry them.
Seems like those are the types of breaks that are common in events like these. But it would take a whole lot more than some burned socks to erase Edna’s smile.
Despite the cold and the rain, I went to sleep a little better than the previous nights. I imagine this had something to do with being exhausted. Volunteering was a lot of hard work, with a lot of time on my feet, having to be actively engaged with my surroundings. I couldn’t wait to rest my eyes.
Besides, they told us we were going to the desert the next day — the real, HOT desert.
Stage 4 -42k
Another 4:30 am wake-up call and finally, the pre-dawn rising didn’t seem so abnormal. I quickly fell into my regular routine of coffee, breakfast and preparing my mind for another long day.
My post was Checkpoint 1, and once we had it set up next to a remote camel watering hole, I was assigned the task of roving back and forth along the course to check up on competitors coming from the start line.
It was only a 9.5k jaunt from the start to Checkpoint 1, but it included a steady bout of numbing cold, misty rain and whipping wind as the competitors made their way out of the mountains and into the more traditional, black Gobi desert. With the snow capped range at their backs, each competitor approached Checkpoint 1 with the ability to see off in the distance for miles and miles.
All of the competitors were through the first checkpoint by late morning, so we tore down the station and headed off towards Camp 5. Along the way we had to make a stop to check on a roving vehicle that had a competitor sequestered due to health reasons. As we stood along the silence of the road, overlooking vast desert where little found life, this medical stop was a humbling reminder of just how serious this event could be. Each competitor was taking a risk by stepping off into the distance; 250k through remote landscapes and weather extremes is no joke.
Eventually, the competitor was taken to the hospital (he made a full and healthy recovery) and the rest of us ventured to camp.
Camp 5 was an old clay village leftover from what looked like 50s era occupational China. Having never seen anything like it, I was marveling at the interesting architecture as I quickly stripped out of my cold weather clothes (it was now about 85 degrees and sunny) and in the combined excitement I totally missed Edna crossing the finish line.
Once I did catch up to her though, she was smiling her trademark grin. She couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful it was to be somewhere hot (words she would regret later).
She was right though. After several days of being cold and wet, the heat felt fantastic.
Adding to this wave of pleasure was the fact that Edna was right near the top of the competition among women. Having been in the top three since day one, she was still there going into the next day’s Long March (80.4k), her signature distance. I encouraged her to eat, get some rest and put her feet up before the long day.
Meanwhile, I got a chance to eat before being sent back out on the course in a roving vehicle. The temperature was rising and the competitors who were still out there were suffering considerably. My Chinese driver and I parked a couple of kilometers from the stage finish line, in a tiny village. There we hung out with two local policeman and four PLA soldiers curious about the goings on.
They fed me fresh fruit, bread and tea over introspective conversation (“why are they running this far again?” seemed to be a recurring question) while simultaneously topping off water bottles for the competitors, encouraging them to finish strong to the end.
After a couple of hours, I too, could feel the restlessness settle in. We were called back to camp where I banged on the drum at the finish line for a couple of hours before eating a hot meal and attending the nightly volunteer meeting.
The next day was the Long March and I would be all over the place. I did my best to get to bed early; unfortunately, that meant drifting off around midnight…
Stage 5 – The Long March – 80.4k
…and a wake-up at 4:30 am. It would have been easy to complain, but considering the barrage of blistery feet and dehydration zombie’ing around camp, I managed to keep my mouth shut.
My duties for the day would be to set up Checkpoint 2, work it until close, then sweep with Liz again through Checkpoint 4 (a total hike of 18.6k) before seeing what would happen next. I was told to be ready for anything. I was, including baking in the 120 degree sun for hours on end.
Since this day would cover over 80 kilometers of terrain, the checkpoint teams were a little spread out. Liz and I were assigned to help Dr. Avi at Checkpoint 2 and once we arrived at our location — a desolate wasteland where one could see for miles — we wasted no time getting set up.
By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, everyone had made it through our checkpoint. It was time for Liz and I to suit up and take to the deserts ourselves, keeping a close eye on those at the back of the pack.
This is exactly where my phone died. From here to the end, I would have no more camera to capture the mesmerizing images around me. I guess that’s what memories were made for.
We toiled. We sweat. We plugged away.
By the time Liz and I finished our sweeping duties, the sun was going down and the familiar chill of night was beginning to set in. By 10 pm, we had hitched a ride to Checkpoint 5 (60.4k), the overnight checkpoint where many competitors were taking advantage of the campfire and tents to eat a warm meal and catch a quick nap before soldiering on through the night. Liz and I ate a little something and chatted with the busy volunteer staff before heading back to camp to get a little rest ourselves.
We arrived at camp around 11 pm and I found Edna, who had finished about an hour beforehand. She was nearly in tears during her retelling of her day — a battle that took as much mental strength and courage as it did physical. She had coasted along until she hit the burning canyon section, enduring searing heat that forced her to scream out loud at no one in particular. But like she always does, she battled through and brought it home, pain and all.
I hugged her and let her know I loved her. I told her she inspired me, and that I was proud to be alongside during her big moment. It was an emotional 10 minute exchange.
But then I had to get back to work, and she had to rest. We parted ways and I reported back to the finish line. Luckily, I was told to take a nap. Unfortunately, I was told to report back at 2 am. Yikes!
I got in my sleeping bag, by now completely immune to the stench of my own being (six days in the wilderness without a shower will do that), and just as I was drifting off…
My alarm went off. 2 am. Oh boy.
I went to the finish line area and if I was feeling sorry for myself for not sleeping much the last several days, that sentiment changed immediately upon seeing the competitors coming into the finish after suffering along the lonely, Gobi Desert for 80 kilometers.
How inspiring it was to see them! Oh the smiles on their faces! And the tears springing from their eyes! How could one not be moved to do something epic himself upon seeing such a feat!
Inspired as I was, I was asked to go out on the course in a roving vehicle from 2 to 4 am, checking on competitors to make sure they were doing okay. Sarcasm and delirium aside, everybody was moving forward, which at this point, was all one could really ask.
After my two hour shift, I got to take another nap. This time I was out before I even zipped up the bag.
I woke up drowning in a pool of my own sweat.
Wow! It got hot quick! And it was only 9 am.
The only thing that made the scorching heat tolerable was the steady breeze accompanying it. When the wind blew, all was well. When it didn’t, things got uncomfortable.
This was very telling later that afternoon as Edna and I lounged in a shaded area in the middle of Camp 6. With all of the competitors finished with the Long March, we had the day off to recuperate before making the last 12k jaunt to the ultimate finish line. All around us was carnage — competitors dehydrated, windburn and covered in sand — but the jovial stories and upbeat smiles countered any physical deterioration. With the breeze, things felt even better than they were.
Until they weren’t.
The breeze became stronger. And stronger. And stronger.
Eventually no longer a breeze, but rather a violent whipping wind powerful enough to uproot tents and send anything not anchored to the ground flying through desolation, this seemingly angry force of nature started to make things very uncomfortable. The only way for me to combat it was to simply lie on the ground, near Edna, going back and forth between chatting with her and catnapping. This is how we spent most of the day.
But later in the evening, as I was making my way to my tent to get some dinner, I overheard one of the local Chinese staff members yell: “EVERYBODY TAKE COVER! IT’S COMING AND IT’S COMING QUICK!”
Baffled, I followed his pointed finger towards the sky and what I saw was right out of a Jerry Bruckheimer film, dropping my jaw to the ground: A SANDSTORM. A real, ominous, terrifying sandstorm.
“Edna!” I screamed heading back to the center of camp. “Edna! Come with me!” I shouted. I grabbed her hand and pulled her, limping legs and all, as fast as I could towards a large rock formation at the height of our camp. I had never been in a sandstorm before and I did not know what to expect, but the panic I heard in the voices of the locals was enough to make me take it very seriously.
With our mouths, noses and eyes covered as much as possible, I hovered over Edna, faces toward the wall of rock standing between us and the brunt of the storm. For the next three hours, the sand whipped and screamed, pelting us from every direction. By 10 pm the worst of it had passed and I was discovering sand in every part of my body, something I never imagined possible.
The storm destroyed our camp. It knocked down all the tents. It sent much of our gear and supplies off into the unknown. Everything was a mess. Still, the weather forecast looked better on the horizon, and due to the late hour, race officials decided it was safest to stay at camp and do our best to continue on with Stage 6 the next day.
Unfortunately, in the middle of the night, the wind picked up again. It was very violent, again pummeling us with sand from every direction. There was even rain! With this sudden change in weather, having to think quick on their feet, race officials decided it was the best and safest decision to immediately evacuate camp, cancel Stage 6 and head back to our final destination in the town of Hami.
Let me tell ya, that first shower after a week without was NICE! Better yet was the beer (or three) that I had while waiting to actually get in a room to take a shower. Of course, the latter only intensified the former.
After cleaning up, Edna and I passed out. SLEEP! It never felt so good.
That evening we attended the awards banquet where we chummed with over 200 new friends, all of us drawn closer after a week full of adversity. Competitors, volunteers and staff all joined in reminiscing over the week’s dramatic achievements. It was evident to me that the heroes in the spotlight were the competitors, no doubt. After all, they did have the hardest job of all, covering over 100 miles on tired legs over unforgiving terrain. Yet, I couldn’t help but marvel at what we as volunteers and staff had accomplished as well. We put on a full fledged marathon a day in hostile natural environments — environments that changed dramatically each day, from snowy mountain tops to searing desert canyons to full fledged sandstorms. Each stage of the race was so robust and detail dependent that it could have very well stood on its own.
For being a part of this, I was immensely proud.
I was also IMMENSELY proud of my girl! Edna WON her age group while also finishing as the fourth overall female. Woo hoo! And of course, she did it ALL with a SMILE!
The extent of memories we took away from this event could fill hundreds of pages, but one thing is definitely cemented in our minds: Edna and I, are very much a part of the Racing the Planet and 4 Deserts family. We look forward to being a part of another adventure very, very soon…
And now for something completely different, yet equally exhilarating:
I’m going to western China to serve as race volunteer for Racing the Planet’s 250k Gobi March stage race across the desert.
While my exact duties won’t be totally clear until I arrive in the middle of nowhere, approximately 10 days from now, I do know that I will be participating in one of the world’s premier ultrarunning events and that I’m in for one hell of an adventure. Luckily, I won’t be alone.
My fiancée, Edna — (aka “La Diosa de la Ultramaratón”) (English version) — is competing in the event; and after hearing her vivid description of her successful Atacama Crossing in 2013, lending my services to a race that features human heroics from around the globe was an easy sell. This time I get a front row seat!
Over much of the last year I have been busy helping Edna train, and while we were both disappointed that the Sahara Crossing was cancelled due to civil unrest, the 2015 Gobi March offers an opportunity for us to experience this event together, even if on different sides. As most readers of mine know, I enjoy volunteering and giving back to the running community as pacer/crew/cheerleader just as much as I do competing. The stories I bring back are always as motivating as they are thrilling.
I can’t wait to share more with you!
But first… 我们 到中国 去 啊!
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Okay, run junkees, your days of time-suck-surfing the internets, piecemealing information from one site to another in order to form that perfect race calendar are over. No more do you have to check out Marathon Guide, scour the pages of UltraRunning Magazine and then Google “Frozen Gnome”, only hoping to find something relevant to a midwestern trail race rather than curiously incapacitated garden decor.
Reviews of all those races — 5ks, 10ks, 21ks, marathons, ultras, road, track and trail — can be found in one, central location: RaceRaves!
From site co-founder, Mike Sohaskey:
Our vision for RaceRaves is a dynamic, race-centric community where runners can share honest opinions on their race-day experiences, for the benefit of other runners and race directors. A place where all runners – road warriors, trail enthusiasts, triathletes, maximalism aficionados, barefoot loyalists and competitors of all sorts – can come together to discover their next race adventure, immortalize their race experiences (including those “excretory tract gone wild” horror stories that friends and family don’t seem to appreciate), and connect with other like-minded athletes and weekend warriors.
While I haven’t had to write about or seek out any “tract gone wild” stories yet, I appreciate the fact that if I need to know about one, I will find it here. In fact, the site has been live for a couple of weeks now, and as the community of runners taking part grows, I can see how valuable an asset this is for the running world. The plethora of information that exists on races across the globe is neatly organized here, in one easy-to-navigate, easy-to-use location.
From runners to race directors to bloggers and everyone in between, signing up and being a part of the review community is free, easy and fun! Share your blog posts, write that review that will steer someone to your favorite race, and voice your opinion on race-day protocols that need to be celebrated or addressed.
For more information on RaceRaves, poke around the site. You can also read Mike Sohaskey’s detailed post. In the meantime, find, research and share thousands of races of running events around the world!
In the wake of running 100 miles on my own two feet, chilling out has been a high priority. Post-race, I took a full 10 days off from running, mixed with some light cross training and gentle walking.
I also made sure to get on the mat.
It was during the shavasana (or relaxation/meditation) portion of a recent yoga class that I began to wonder what it would feel like to do a yoga class every day, for a week. Surely, lots of yogis do this, I thought to myself. Why not give it a try?
So I did.
Before I report my experience, I should first explain my own personal relationship with yoga. I came to the mat a couple of years ago, as a grumpy, injured runner looking for healing, both for body and mind. Having recently explored the power of meditation, the in-the-moment connection to the breath was something I could easily relate to, and it wasn’t long before I found myself in a yoga class once a week. The more I practiced, the better I felt.
Part of that betterment was encouraged by the environment in which I was practicing. I was lucky enough to find Tejas (pronounced teh-jus) Yoga, in the South Loop. From the very beginning, the owners, Jim and James, were so warm and inviting, that one would have a hard time not wanting to practice there, if for nothing else than to hang out, drink tea and have good conversation.
Considering that foundation, it’s no surprise that the teachers there also carry the same spirited warmth. Contrary to my pre-yoga reservations, I never once felt intimidated or overwhelmed at Tejas. In fact, it seems to me the teachers there go out of their way to make sure each student is comfortable, that modifications are always accessible, and that each person is set up to succeed, whatever his or her goals may be.
For me, this is essential. As an ultrarunner, as a boxer, as a person who makes his living teaching and practicing exercise, I come to the mat for mostly gentle, regenerative movements. I come to wind down, to heal, to focus on the breath, one inhalation and exhalation at a time. For me, yoga is not about wrapping my leg around my head. It’s about connecting breath to movement and staying present, the same cornerstones of running 100 miles or answering the bell.
But a class a day for seven days?
*Correction: there was, at least, a little sweat.
– – –
Monday, December 1, 2014
Pranayama Class with Jim Bennitt
3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Pranayama is described as the “extension of the prāna or breath” or “extension of the life force”. Simply put, this class focuses on different breathing techniques alongside a gentle physical practice. On this day, we held a bandha (physical lock) that seemed to get deep within my hamstrings, while also exploring meditative visualizations connected to the breath. Jim asked us to project any thoughts on a screen within our minds. I was quite amused at the random relfections conjured up from deep within my consciousness. Inexplicably, Roger Rabbit made several appearances.
Overall, I left this class feeling super energized and awake, acutely aware of my hamstrings.
– – –
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Open Class with Adam Grossi
7 a.m. – 8 a.m.
Like I tell my clients all the time, I have never heard someone say, “Man, I really regret getting up and doing that workout.” The same seems to be true for the yoga practice. While getting out of my cozy, warm bed at 6 a.m. didn’t sound very appealing, starting my day off with the immediate boost of a yoga class was well worth it. While the open class offers more challenges than the classes I typically attend, Adam provided me with options and modifications to suit my own yogic level. It felt good to sweat and to use more strength and balance than I’m used to. But most of all, it was a real treat to watch the sunlight slowly crescendo through the eastern facing windows with the progression of our class. I left feeling like a rockstar — a very grounded, introspetive rockstar.
– – –
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Gentle Class with Monica Stevens
9 a.m. – 10 a.m.
Another great way to start the day, this gentle class is the type of class I typically attend at Tejas. The slower pace and focus on restorative poses is essential to my own yogic identity, offering the type of healing I need after running as much as I do. Monica’s clear instruction and warm sense of humor always puts me at ease, and she seemed to read my mind by getting us into a deep pigeon pose — indispensable medicine for my chronically tight hips and IT bands.
– – –
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Gentle Class with Marcelyn Cole
12 p.m. – 1 p.m.
Gentle classes on consecutive days? Thank you, sir! May I have another?
During my two years of practice, I have taken Marcelyn’s gentle class more than any other. Her calming voice and quirky sense of humor have been staples of my own yogic development, helping me heal, relax and grow to the best of my ability. This class was no exception as we explored familiar twists and deep connections to the breath. Despite my familiarness with this class, for the first time all week I did have a little trouble staying focussed and using my ujjayi breath. My mind was wandering more than usual, something I liken to bonking in the marathoning world. Luckily, I got it under control by the time we entered shavasana, my favorite pose.
– – –
Friday, December 5, 2014
Open Class with Zach Zube
12 p.m. -1 p.m.
Though small in size, this open class was a great mix of gentle and more advanced asana, with plenty of options for every practioner. There was a theme of groundedness, of forcing movement downward, as explained by our teacher, Zach. This meant plenty of forward folding and sequencing that promoted a sound connection with the earth beneath us. It was a pleasure to be back in a class taught by Zach. I took his Introduction to Yoga series a couple of years ago when I first started. His clear and thoughtful sequencing always puts me at ease, allowing breath and movement to flow naturally.
– – –
Saturday, December 6, 2014
Open Class with Adam Grossi
8 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.
My second open class with Adam this week, and again there were no regrets for getting out of bed early to attend. Unlike the Tuesday class, this one was packed! There were probably close to 20 people in attendance, and as such there existed a powerful vibe in the room. So many dedicated practitioners provided me with extra focus and a desire to be a part of the group mind, even as we were lead through more complex movements. I sweat more in this class than any other and I left feeling accomplished, strong, and ready to take on the day!
– – –
Sunday, December 7, 2014
Gentle Class with James Tennant
4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
I started this week of yoga by knowing exactly how I would finish. James was the very first person I met at Tejas and I remember how nervous and self-conscious I was entering those doors, only to have such feelings disappear after a mere two-minute conversation with him. His tangible, supportive spirit put me at ease and in a position to succeed with yoga. I never looked back. Since then, James’ teachings have been a regular and welcome exploration into my own higher being. Finishing the week with his gentle class was just an extension of that. The sequences flowed, my ujjayi breath connected me to the present, and time moved so quickly that I couldn’t believe 90 minutes had already passed.
When I got home that night, I was so relaxed and serene that I had no desire to watch a marquee NFL match-up on television — a rarity in its own right. I was ready for bed. Ready for peace.
– – –
While seven classes in seven days may be a lot more yoga than I am used to, one thing I did gain from this experience is the realization that despite not always being in a class setting, the yoga practice is deep within me, at all times. Over the last two years, I can’t remember a day where I didn’t do a forward fold of some kind. I can’t recall a day without invoking the ujjayi breath. There hasn’t been a day where I didn’t connect movement to breath, whether running, boxing or just working out.
It’s more than just attending a class.
It’s being present, connected to my body and its place among the stars.
When my running renaissance took form in early 2010, the allure of the ultra run pulled on my conscience like no other physical challenge. At the time, finishing a half marathon was enough to exhaust me, but I knew that if I just stuck with the training and applied the lessons learned during each phase of my distance development, someday, maybe I, too, would cross a 100 mile finish line.
Saturday, November 1, 2014
It’s dark. It’s cold. I’m in the back of my car, eyes shut, huddled close to Edna for warmth. My dad is driving and my friend, Siamak, rides shotgun as the four of us make our way from Sylacauga, Alabama, where the race will eventually end, to middle-of-nowhere Heflin, quaintly dropped in the heart of the Talladega forest, where the race is to start.
It’s a 90 minute drive, which translates to 90 minutes of mental unrest. My mind is racing before my legs even get a chance, full of doubt, full of wonder.
What the hell have you gotten yourself into, Jeff?
This familiar pre-race phrase attacks at will. Each time I do my best to let it go.
This is exactly what I want to do, I remind myself. This is the adventure I’ve been looking for.
I’m right about that. The years of slow build-ups, from 5ks to half marathons to marathons to 50 milers is over. My first hundo is on the doorstep. Time to let it in.
My half conscious battle with my own thoughts is interrupted by the intimidating shake and rattle of the gravel road beneath us. We have entered the official forest grounds, and as we slowly navigate the twists and turns of sharp climbs and descents, my stomach begins to churn.
Nerves. It’s just nerves. Chill out, man. Once this thing starts you’ll have 30 hours to wrestle with your nerves.
Finally at our destination, parked alongside a small army of vehicles housing anxious adventurers, I open the door only to shut it again immediately. “Wow, it’s cold,” I say. “And windy!”
The wind is going to be an issue today. So is the cold. It’s Alabama. I didn’t think it got cold here.
The temps right now are in the 30s, with winds swirling at 20-30 mph. Luckily, I came prepared, with lots of warm clothes and an organized system for my crew to help me find things as quickly as possible.
As we make the half mile trek down to the start line, the sun begins to rise and nervous energy fills me. I look around at my crew: Edna, Dad, Siamak.
Man, am I lucky, or what?
I couldn’t ask for better group of people to help me along on this journey. With over 17 years of experience in ultras, Edna knows every up and down possible and how to handle each one. As one of the toughest and smartest guys I know, Siamak as my pacer is like having Tiger Woods as my caddy. In fact, I know all I have to do today is get to mile 55, where Siamak will start pacing, and I’ll will get that buckle I came here to get. And my Dad… well, who knows me any better than he? He’s been at all my other firsts (first 5k, first half, first full, first 50). I can’t imagine breaking my hundred mile cherry without his company.
Today, the four of us run as ONE. On my legs, of course.
We reach the start line and I embrace the adventure at hand. I give final hugs and farewells, excited to test my physical body like it’s never been tested before.
BAM! We’re off!
Miles 0 – 6.7
Slow, slow, slow, slow.
Today I will run slow.
I will run for a VERY VERY VERY LONG TIME, but it will be slow. This puts me at the back of the pack from the very beginning, and as we enter on to the first of what will be 80-some miles of single track, I have no problem with people flying by me as if we were out for a quick tempo run. More power to ’em, I think.
My race strategy is to run the flats and downhills at a comfortable pace and walk each and every incline, no matter how slight. With over 14,000 feet of climbing and 28,000 feet elevation change overall, there will obviously be plenty of places to walk and lower my heart rate. I suspect there will be a point where I’ll be wanting incline, so I have an excuse to slow down even more.
Here in the beginning too, I try to focus on just keeping a constant rhythm to my breath, staying connected to the present moment. Meditation has long been a key training component for me, and its importance has never been greater than it will be today. Thinking about how far I have yet to go would just kill my brain, and thus send me into negative space — a place I cannot afford to be. Focusing on the NOW, for me, is the best way to avoid such peril.
And the NOW is so full of beauty, so full of life! Just look at this goregous forest! The fall colors of red, yellow and brown fill an otherwise green backdrop that, with each breath, sends me to a happy place knowing I, too, am a part of this grandness.
How lucky am I?
These same beautifully colored leaves blanketing the ground also hide insidious roots and rocks that lie beneath. In the first 6+ miles, it is already apparent that I am not going to win the battle against them. All I can do — SHIT! OUCH! DAMN IT! — is tread lightly and keep my toes/ankles/arches together the best I — DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — can.
“HOLA, PAPI!” I hear from up the trail, followed by excited clapping. It’s Edna — my dear, sweet Edna. She is heavily wrapped in coats and blankets to ward off the cold, but the temperature hasn’t cooled off her spirit as she gleefully cheers me in to the first aid station.
I smile big, give her a hug, ditch my jacket (I’m getting warm now myself), chug some Pedialyte and try to get some calories in me. Today’s fueling plan is, like always, the see-food diet: eat whatever looks good at any given time. I also make sure to eat at every aid station and to take a little with me in a ziploc baggie that I put in my pack for the trail. I’m wearing my trusty 50 oz Salomon S-Lab 5 hydration pack that I keep filled with water and plenty of goodies in the pockets, like trail mix, Ginger Chews and Ibuprofen. My crew has Pedialyte for me at every crew-accesible aid station. I make sure to chug this as opposed to the race offered Heed.
(Off topic, but can we all just scratch our heads for a moment as to why so many ultra races offer Heed at their events? No offense to Hammer products, as I do like some of their gels, but have the makers of Heed ever tried Heed? To me, it tastes like flat, chalk-flavored drink spiked with Aspertame.)
I try not to waste too much time at the aid station, a theme I aim to carry over the whole race. A quick kiss “adios” and I’m back on the trail.
Miles 6.57 – 13.27
Energized from seeing my crew, I get back into a running groove. For the first time today I look down at my watch to see how much time has passed. An hour and forty-five minutes!?!? Wowsers!
Time DOES fly when you’re having fun! It seems like the race just started; and relatively speaking, that is a true statement, but the fact that nearly two hours have gone by without me even realizing it, is a very good sign. It proves that the meditative mind is working. I’m in the moment.
In this particular moment I feel there are a lot of rolling hills early on. While I did glance at the elevation profile and aid station chart pre-race, I didn’t commit much of it to memory because doing so would only intimidate and haunt me. I know there is a big climb before mile 40 and another killer climb around mile 70, but other than that, I’m just going with the proverbial flow.
And the flow is good, because before I — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — know it, I’m approaching another trail head and hear “HOLA PAPI!” from a smiling, cheering Edna.
This melts my heart, man. Every single time. How lucky am I!?
I eat and chug Pedialyte while Siamak fills my pack with more water. The crew is attentive and supportive, careful not to ask me “How do you feel?”, a question that anyone in an ultra already knows the answer to. While it may be early enough in the race still to not yet feel like absolute shit, we are fast approaching the 15 mile mark, a point where no matter what the race, I no longer feel fresh and ache-free.
My hips have been aching a little more than usual here to start the race, but I keep it to myself, expecting the feeling will go away. Besides, I have already tripped and stubbed my toes on unsuspecting rocks about fifty times, so the throbbing in my lower extremities does well to hide any aches above the knees.
Miles 13.27 – 18.27
Back out on the trail, I chat a little bit with Burt from Louisiana. He is running behind me the whole time, so I don’t get a good look at his face, but we pass the next five miles by chatting about ultras we’ve run and how hard this one is compared to the rest.
During our conversation, the first one I’ve had all day with any other participants, the ache in my hips magically disappears while — DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! FUUUUUUUUUCK — I keep stubbing my toes like it was my one and only goal. The trail gods were smart to hide their deviousness underneath the beauty of colorful leaves.
Miles 18.27 – 22.71
“HOLA PAPI!!!” I hear for the third time, each one more pleasurable than the next. I stride in to Aid Station #3 knowing this will be the last time I will see my crew until I reach the top of Bald Rock at mile 41. I chug more Pedialyte, eat and relay to the crew that all systems are go. (I don’t mention the toe stubbing and ankle rolling party to them, as they appear to be having a good time. Besides, we made a pact prior: no negativity.)
Edna fills a Ziploc baggie for me with enough trail mix to feed all the runners! I consider having her dump half of it out, but in my haste, I just shove the big bag in my pack and vow to carry on. I give everyone a big hug — all this in-the-moment-mind-body-focus is making me quite the emotional sap — and Dad snaps a quick picture of the four of us before I head back out on the trail.
I quickly get myself back into a groove, something that becomes easier and easier as the race goes on. Other than those five miles with Burt, I’ve been running solo throughout; and since this is a point-to-point race I suspect there will be many more miles alone before the day is through.
Thinking about this, a group of three 20-something runners from Cleveland catch up to me. I offer them a chance to pass, but they like my pace and tuck in behind. I spend the next several miles listening to their hilarious banter, a welcome distraction from the — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — that continues to terrorize my feet.
Miles 22.71 – 27.66
Aid Station #4 has two things I’ve never seen at an aid station before: Krispy Kreme donuts and Maker’s Mark whiskey. All things in moderation, I say, but I only have enough room for one guilty pleasure today. I devour the rich, fatty donuts and watch on curiously as the 20-somethings from Cleveland gleefully shoot Maker’s like it was a handheld of Gatorade.
Downing Maker’s Mark 22 miles into a hundred mile race? Now THAT is ballsy, I think to myself.
Back out on the trail, I again lead the way while eavesdropping on the youngsters’ conversation, every now and then adding my own chuckle or DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT!
Miles 27.66 – 35.16
At Aid Station #5 I stuff my face with all kinds of food: cookies, chips, peanut butter and jelly. Like usual, I’m starving, but the trail mix in my pockets just doesn’t sound appealing right now, so I do what I can to fill up here.
In doing so, I take a little more time than I’d hoped, and the youngsters from Cleveland kick off down the trail ahead of me. I follow a few minutes later but they are too fast and I don’t have any hopes of catching them.
Running solo it is.
Just me… and this grand… grand forest and all the beauty it has within it. My senses are on uber alert.
I feel the cold air on my skin like an end-swell on my slowly deteriorating body. My eyes sharpen on the lush, vibrant, varying colors. The fresh scent of dirt, grass and breeze fill my nose. The rubbery aftertaste of water from my hydration bladder sits on my tongue. The cool, incessant wind whispers in my ears.
For 7.5 miles I take inventory of these senses and — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — give thanks to the running gods that I have the physical ability to be in a place where I can appreciate them all.
Miles 35.16 – 40.94
After such a long stretch without aid, I reach Aid Station #6 expecting to find a bounty of high calorie options to fuel what many would consider the hardest climb of the day: a 1600 foot ascent up to 2400 feet at Bald Rock, the highest point in Alabama.
Instead, what I find is a lone aid station volunteer with some water and a few packets of Hammer gels. There is nothing else.
“Isn’t there any food?” I ask, fearful of what I already expect is his answer.
“We ran out of food, I’m afraid,” he says. “I do have a couple of gels here if you want.”
I’m speechless. No food? It’s been 7.5 miles since the last aid station, with another 6 or so to go up a huge climb and there’s no food? What the — ???
Out of the corner of my eye I see half loaf of bread, sadly sitting idle on the ground. I grab a couple slices out of the bag and go on my way, trying not to think about how I might die of starvation trying to get up the top of this climb.
No negativity, no negativity, no negativity…
But… how does a race like this run out of food??? How can I go on with —
DING — A mental light bulb goes off.
Trail mix. Fucking trail mix. Thank the running gods that Edna gave me all that damn trail mix! YEEEEE HAAAAA!!! I got it! I got this thing! Yes!
The only thing that distracts me from my newfound excitement is the occassional SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT!, an issue that apparently isn’t going away anytime soon. I don’t even care anymore. I just want to get up to the top of this mountain and see what all the fuss is about. Having run this race himself in 2012, Siamak told me that the view at the top of Bald Rock is breathtaking, well worth the laborious effort to get there.
I focus on that while keeping my head down so I don’t have to look at how far up I have yet to go.
Up, up, up…
Up, up, up…
A few false summits… followed by some strategic trail mix breaks…
Up, up, up…
Hm…. this is going to last forever it seems… until…
“Hey, Jeff! You made it!”
It’s Siamak! I don’t know who’s happier to see whom, but we’re both wearing million dollar smiles.
“Hey, real quick, check out the view, man. This is so worth it.” He guides me to the vista I’ve been waiting for and my goodness, does it ever take my breath away!
WOW! I climbed up here! I did this! I am doing this!
“Okay, I’m going to run up ahead and to tell Edna and your dad that you’re here. We have some great stuff for you from Panera: hot macaroni and cheese, a turkey and bacon sandwhich, a rich chocolate brownie.”
Holy shit my head is going to explode. Hearing those food items roll of his tongue makes me want to cry from immense joy. He takes off and I labor on behind him, giving chase the best I can. My run is still a respectable pace. I’ve been running smart all day. Fueling, drinking. 15 more miles and I’ll have Siamak to take me the rest of the way.
And then I hear it: “HOLA PAPI!!!!”
Oh my goodness there she is! “Ednita! Mi amor!” I yell back.
“Ven, mi amor, tenemos macaroni and cheese.”
This girl certainly knows how to make me happy.
Miles 40.94 – 45.25
We get to the aid station #7 and for the first time all day I sit down in a chair and relax a little bit while stuffing my face with HOT FOOD! MMMMMM!! YUMMMMM!
In between shivery bites (the temp is dropping and the wind is swirling up here), I relay the story of the foodless aid station to my crew and mention how that trail mix saved my life.
“Well, that explains why so many people look so bad up here then,” says my dad.
Poor Dad. He’s freezing. Sometimes crewing can be harder than the actual running. Standing around and waiting all day in poor conditions for a (sometimes) cranky runner can be hard work. I try to smile and actively refrain from cranky behavior, as much as possible. After all, I’m feeling relatively AWESOME and I’m having a fucking blast.
“This is real adventure!” I say.
Siamak hands me my headlamp and reminds me to hurry up so I can make the descent before sun down. We are losing sunlight quickly, and the next four miles are a very technical, treacherous, rocky plight down the mountain. Warmed from the hot food and the love from my crew, I grab a jacket and get on down the road.
The only thing that really hurts right now are my cheeks from smiling so much.
Of course, the smile wanes some as I begin the descent from Bald Rock. Each foot fall has to be carefully planned. There is no running here. In fact, I use my hands as much as my feet to navigate the guantlet of loose rocks and sharp drop-offs.
Ahead of me is a group of three who slowly plot a line that I follow the best I can. With so much concentration being exerted, the time passes quickly, and by the time we reach the bottom, the sun wanes with only minutes left before dropping off the horizon.
Whew! Close call! That would have been a real bitch going down in the dark! I think to myself.
Miles 45.25 – 52.07
It’s a dark night now, I flip on my headlamp, and not long after that, I reach aid station #8 where Siamak is anxiously awaiting. He asks if I need anything.
“Nope. All good here.” I quickly eat, drink, give everyone a hug, and I’m off.
I’m in a groove. Other than general accumulative soreness, the body feels good. Mind is good. All is good! I try to remember what I’ve been thinking about all day and I can’t really recall — a sign that I’ve been in the moment throughout.
And this moment.
And this one… uh-oh.
My head lamp dims. A couple of minutes later and it dims again, barely illuminating anything in front of me.
PANIC. STRESS. FUUUUUUUUUUUCK.
I turn the lamp on and off (probably not a good idea) and my assumption is correct. Dead batteries. And I’m not carrying back-ups. I was going to ask Siamak for them at the last aid station. But I forgot. And here I am in the middle of a technical gauntlet, in pitch black, helpless against the inevitable darkness that will soon consume me.
DING DING! My back up flash light! I asked for it back at mile 18, the last time I saw my crew before the 20 mile stretch without them, just in case something happened, and now it’s going to save my life.
Whew, dodged a BIG bullet there.
I spend the next few miles cursing myself for making such a rookie mistake. I changed the headlamp’s batteries to fresh ones after I used it last (in September) and it never occurred to me that they could drain even when not in use.
Lesson learned! Of course, the lesson keeps on being taught, as this small handheld flashlight doesn’t put out much of a beam. And on this — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — tough, unforgiving trail, every ill-illuminated — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — step is a dance with potential danger. I have no choice but to slow down. I won’t see my crew for another 10 miles, so I am going to have to make due.
Adapting, on the fly, is something one learns to do fairly quickly in the ultra game. In my experience as a pacer during 100 milers, the perfect race is a sort of unicorn. It just doesn’t exist. Something is bound to go unaccording to plan, at some point. Being able to adapt is key.
Miles 52.07 – 55.34
I roll into aid station #10 and refuel more quickly than usual so I can tag onto the back of a group of three just leaving. They have some of the brightest headlamps I’ve ever seen and I don’t care what their pace, I’m sticking with them as much as I can.
There is a lot of tough climbing in this section and I’m lucky to be the caboose of this group. I just cling on, focusing on my steps and their conversation. It’s a mile or so before any of them notice enough to ask me my name.
“Jeff, from Chicago,” I say. “This is my first hundred.”
Hearing myself speak, I sound winded, anxious.
“Well, Jeff from Chicago,” says the leader, Jason, up ahead, “you get up and over Pinnacle under the cut off time and you’ll finish this race.”
He goes on about the challenges of the race, how people tend to go out too fast, how people don’t fuel properly. But he seems intent on the idea that once we get past Pinnacle, it’s easy running from there on out. The other two echo his thoughts, so I put this in the back of my mind for later.
Pinnacle is the treacherous 1600ish foot climb from approximately mile 73 to 74. It’s too far off in the future for me to think about it now.
Just follow these guys to aid station #10, get some new batteries, and let Siamak take you home.
Miles 55.34 – 65.44
I roll into station #10 and immediately see my green Sable. Edna, Dad and Siamak pop out of it, ready to wait on me, whatever I need. “HOLA PAPI!”
Ay… mi corazon.
I get new batteries and then change into a dry, skintight baselayer top. I chug my first Red Bull of the race to chase two Ibuprofens. My body is pretty achy all over, and now seems like as good a time as any to shut it up, at least for a bit.
I down some more Pedialyte, tell Edna and Dad to stay warm (they are both shivering in the dark cold) and hug them before I set back out on the trail, this time with Siamak.
“Boy am I glad to see you,” I tell him. As much as I hate race cliches, I can’t help but utter “It’s all downhill from here.”
Siamak ran this race in 2012, as his first 100 mile race, and is one of the main reasons I sought to conquer the course myself. He has told me much about the trail already, but I knew if I had him pace me through the night, he would get me to the finish. You won’t find many runners tougher than Siamak. That I know. Oh yeah, he’s also the 2014 Midwest Ultra Grand Slam Champion.
I keep good company.
He leads and I follow. We spend the next 10 miles catching up on the day’s action, talking quite a bit about everything that has happened to us thus far. Just us two Chatty Cathies, running wild through the woods, trying not to — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT!
“Oh yeah, the leaves are covering all the booby traps on the trail, so be careful,” I advise too late.
We fly through aid station 11 and continue on, still talking the night away. The Red Bull is working. The Ibuprofen is working. We are cranking on the flats and downs, hiking the ups with a purpose. The temperature is dropping quickly. We both agree we need to keep moving at a brisk pace to keep our bodies warm.
And tights. I want my tights.
Miles 65.44 – 68.78
As we approach aid station #12, we come up on the back of my Sable, the Illinois plates reflecting brightly from our headlamps. The windows are fogged from my sleeping crew. I guess we got here faster than they expected. Not bad! Siamak taps on the doors and Dad and Edna quickly jump out and spring to action.
I am lucky to have these two crewing for me. Their love and dedication is beyond words and every time I’ve seen them throughout the race they have lifted my spirits, just by being here.
“Gracias, mi amor,” I say as I sit down in the chair she provides for me. “I need my tights.”
Dad grabs them from my bag and helps me get them on over my big, clunky Hoka Rapa Nuis. “You need to change socks or anything?” he asks.
“Nope, all good.” Surprisingly, my feet haven’t been wet all day long. No blisters. No issues whatsoever, unless you call generally sore feet from running all day an issue. Most ultrarunners would just call that part of a day’s work.
With warm legs now, Siamak and I get back to work.
The conversation falls off some, but both of us remain focused. We have run together a lot the last couple of years, so there is a mutual comfort in the silence.
Work, work, work. Run, run, run.
Miles 68.78 – 74.53
We get to aid station #13 and Siamak suggests we Red Bull again in preparation for the big push up Pinnacle. I take this opportunity to down another two Ibuprofen and chase it with some bean burritos.
Siamak reminds Dad and Edna that we won’t see them for a while now, that we have a really tough section coming up, and to be ready for whatever when we see them again at mile 85.
Another round of hugs and we’re gone.
There are quite a few downhills here, with a continued bevy of ankle breaking traps springing at inopportune — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — moments.
But then, we start up. And up. And up.
Switchbacks, switchbacks, switchbacks.
Looking up ahead proves too nauseating for me. As my quads, heels and lower back scream at me for all the contracting and flexing, I can’t imagine having to do any more climbing. All I can do is keep my head down, stare at the ground, and follow in Siamak’s wake, one step at a time.
“This is it,” he eventually says after what feels like forever, “we’re at the top!”
Siamak points to a sign that says we have reached the Pinnacle aid station. It is accompanied by a menu — yes, a menu — of food items available up ahead. Siamak and I both have grilled cheese on our minds.
Miles 74.53 – 85.63
“Grilled cheese it is!” says the volunteer who greets us at the top of Pinnacle. Up here it’s a an outright party, as everyone seems to be having a gay old time. Loud music, bouts of laughter, hot food and aromas galore.
Siamak and I take an extra few minutes to gather ourselves. “Yeah, now that you made it up here,” says one volunteer, “you’re gonna finish. It’s all downhill from here.”
That cliche again.
It doesn’t take too long out of the aid station to find out it indeed is NOT all downhill from here. There are plenty of rollers to keep us occupied, but now the challenge shifts from tough climbs to tough conditions. The temperature has dropped into the 20s, both of us fight sleep deprivation and now we battle 30 mph winds on a completely exposed ridge that seems to last forever.
For the first time in the race, I start to lose my heart. Instead of SNAP! THWACK! it’s now every, single, step that hurts. The pristine feet I boasted about earlier now reveal budding hot spots, and every time I step on wobbly rock or root it sends burning pains up through my skin.
I start to say this a lot now. Sometimes I say it to coax myself away from falling asleep. Sometimes I say it because I hurt. Sometimes I say it just to see if I’m still alive.
Aid station #15 has bacon that I believe came from a pig who was breathing this morning. I’ve never had fresher, better tasting bacon in my life. Or maybe I just think that because my body has deteriorated into its current state of zombieness and all my basic cognitive skills are short circuiting.
Siamak is doing something. I don’t know what. I sit down for a second and try not to fall asleep.
He must have said something to me because suddenly I’m back on the trail, though I don’t know how I got here.
“This is gonna be a hard time, but the sun will be up soon,” he encourages as we take off back down the ridge, fighting a relentless wind and despicable cold.
The next 6 miles are a complete blur: running, OUCH, sleeping, NO, drinking, FUCK, following, “COME ON, JEFF, YOU LOOK GREAT”, liar, SHIT, ouch, sleep, sun? death… RUN JEFF RUN.
We continue on, but it seems like a dream. I try to talk but nothing comes out. Even my curses stick in the back of my throat, unable to follow through. It takes every ounce of listless energy I have left to move one foot in front of the other. Luckily, that’s all that’s necessary.
And then the sun comes up.
“Hey, we’re gonna see Edna and your Dad soon,” says Siamak.
Between the prospect of seeing them and the sun coming up, I can’t help but cry.
Miles 85.63 – 89.63
“HOLA PAPI!” I see her. Dad is next to her. I’m bawling like a baby. I feel weak, exhausted. All I want to do is sleep. As I hug Edna, I feel myself wanting to collapse into her arms and hide my tears.
Why am I crying? I think to myself. I have no clue. Running exposes my feelings. Crying is inevitable.
Somewhat embarrassed by my tears, I refuel some before Siamak encourages me back onto the trail, which is now mostly road. Flushed from emotion, we start picking up the pace, cranking on the downs when possible.
It feels really good to be running like this 85 miles into the race. I wanted to be running til the end. It’s happening!
Miles 89.63 – 95.21
At aid station #17, there is no crew access, but there are homemade oatmeal cookies that I want to eat for the rest of my life.
NOM NOM NOM.
Whoever made these needs a statue dedicated in his/her honor!
Full of oatmeal cookie goodness, Siamak and I put our heads down and attack the road some more. The road is awesome. The road is great. There are no sneaky, leaf covered traps for my bludgeoned feet here. I hope the rest of the race is on roads (it’s not).
Miles 95.21 – 100.59
We approach aid station #18, the final aid station, and I am welcomed with one last “HOLA PAPI!”
If my heart could melt any more it would fall right out of my chest.
We have plenty of time to finish now, over 70 minutes ahead of the cut-off, so I take the time to sit down and slip out of my tights. Now that the sun has come up, I am warmer than I’d like to be, so any little comfort will help deter my mind from focusing on the pain that throbs throughout my entire body.
I didn’t want to admit it, but miles 75-85 almost killed me, and the fallout resonates in every nerve ending.
I eat some more, drink some more. My goodness, I’ve probably eaten and drunk a bazillion calories, and I’m STILL HUNGRY!
In my delirium, I ask Edna, “Are you going to be there at the finish?”
“Of course we will be there at the finish.”
Why wouldn’t they be at the finish? I don’t know. I don’t know anything right now. Just hurt. Hurt just know I… bleh bleh bleh. What?
When I get up from the chair, I hurt even worse.
Pain in my medial right knee. It’s stiff. I can hardly bend it. This has to be a casualty from the umpteenth trip, stub, roll I suffered over the last 95 miles.
Oh well. With only five to go, I ain’t stoppin’ now. We’ll just wobble until we warm up and truck along to the end.
Dad hands Siamak a walkie talkie so he can alert him of our arrival at the high school track and then the two of us head back out knowing the next time we see the crew will be there at the finish.
Yes, yes… the finish. I’m going to finish. Holy shit.
Every step is a killer now. I shuffle along the best I can. We hit some more trail, some more road.
FUUUUUUUCK, SHIIIIIIIIT, DAAAAAAAAMN.
I wonder if my incessant cursing is annoying Siamak yet. If it is, he doesn’t let it show. For that I am grateful.
Head down, arms pumping, we get through some trails and pop out on a road. Not a jeep road, not a dirt road. No. This is a good old fashioned proper highway!
We’re in Sylacauga! The track is near! The hotel is even closer! A bed! WOO HOO!
It’s happening. It’s really happening. Holy moly this religious experience turned sufferfest turned religious experience is really happening!
I hurt, but I don’t hurt! I don’t hurt, but I hurt! I don’t know what’s going on! I’m floating! I’m dead!
NO, I’M ALIIIIIIIVE!
Siamak and I run on the road for what feels like forever until finally, FINALLY…
YES. FIIIIINNNNNAAAAAALLLLLYYYYYY we turn right and I see the track entrance.
Siamak says some things to me but I can’t hear him clearly because the crowd in my head is roaring out all other thoughts.
My feet hit the rubber track and suddenly all pains drift away. All there is is blue sky, a rush of blood to the head and 200 meters to victory.
I cross the finish line in 28 hours, 51 minutes.
I collapse into Edna’s arms. Tears roll down my cheek. I hug Siamak, collect my buckle from the race director and then fall into my dad’s arms before I find myself in a chair.
Finally. In a chair. And I don’t have to get up and run anywhere.
I did it. I really did it. I ran 100 miles, on my own two feet, from the town of Heflin, to the city of Sylacauga, proving that with a little hard work and dedication, nothing is impossible. Up and over the mountains, through and between the trees, this was the experience of a lifetime — one that I will think about often, in times of darkness and times of joy.
You live and die your entire life in the span of a 100 mile race.
If you’re lucky you survive to be born again.
Though I don’t have any hard data to back it up, I am pretty confident that the most consistent distance runners have short memories. How many times have I found myself slugging through a grueling race, saying to myself never again, only to have completely changed my mind moments after crossing the finish line?
The answer is: A LOT.
On October 11, 2014, during the Prairie State Marathon, I said it many times only to get up and do it all over again on October 12, 2014, at the Chicago Marathon where I would continue to say it, only to forget… again.
It was all part of the double-dip plan: to train my legs to run tired, to run hungry, to run smart (stupid as that sounds).
Of course, it was a pain-in-the-ass type of blast!
(For part one of this adventure, click *HERE*)
Saturday, October 11, 2014
I get home from the Prairie State Marathon and chug some chocolate milk while drawing an ice bath. I am not a big fan of ice baths, but for an extreme endeavor like running two marathons in two days, I might as well try to limit the damage as much as possible.
Surprisingly, my legs feel pretty good. Of course, they are sore, but they aren’t injured, or shot, or anything other than fatigued as expected. Slowing down the pace this season has done my body wonders and I’m happy to say I’ve been healthy all year. If I can get through tomorrow, I know I’m ready for that hundo.
The ice bath sucks, but I survive.
I follow it up with a hot shower.
I put on my compression leggings, eat a healthy snack of fresh fruits, a green salad and boiled eggs, allow myself one beer and prop my feet up on a mountain of pillows before falling asleep.
I wake up and ready myself for Edna to come home and for my friend, Adam, to come over. Adam will be running his first marathon tomorrow and he’s crashing at my place tonight.
As I move around and start making dinner, I feel my stiff legs warm up.
Wow, not too bad, I think to myself. I guess I do have a pretty good shot at doing this.
I originally thought that I might be able to run two sub-4 hour marathons, back to back. However, after today’s 4:14 finish, I know that’s not happening. In fact, running a 4:14 tomorrow seems all but impossible, but I really don’t care as long as I cross the finish line. This ease of movement is a good sign for that to happen.
Still, I better get plenty of sleep.
Edna is home, Adam arrives and the three of us eat dinner, chatting away any anxieties that might lie beneath the surface, or so I think. I imagine Adam is pretty nervous. I remember how paranoid I was the night before my first marathon. Still, he looks much more composed than I was back then, and knowing he has done the training only solidifies the fact that he’s going to have a great run tomorrow.
After dinner, I roll out my legs on the Rumble Roller, enjoying the pain, and by 8:30 p.m., I’m fast asleep.
Sunday, October 12, 2014
The first couple of steps out of bed aren’t pretty, but after a few moments of movement, I’m feeling surprisingly well.
We’re really going to do this again today? I ask myself.
Yep. And we’re going to love every minute of it.
It’s Chicago Marathon day. In my house, it might as well be Christmas. And this time I’ll get to experience it in slow motion!
In solemn preparation, the three of us go through our regular pre-race routines and by 5:45 a.m. we are out the door.
After a quick train ride, the three of us arrive at Roosevelt and State and walk towards the party. As we walk, I can’t help but smile a big cheesy grin.
I’m walking with ease, man! No aches, no pains! Holy shit!
We arrive at the Hilton, where we will drop Edna off to meet her Chicago Run teammates, and before I kiss her goodbye we run into our good friend, Frank.
I already know this, but it will be reemphasized today: running makes the world REALLY small!
The four of us pose for a quick pre-race photo before Adam and I break off towards our corrals.
Excitement is everywhere. The buzz, the adrenaline, the anticipation electrifies me, and while Adam and I walk towards Grant Park I feel like I’m floating.
“I can’t wait to hear about how your race goes,” I tell Adam. I watch him closely, reminiscing on how I felt before my first marathon. “You only get one first marathon,” I remind him. “Have fun! That’s the most important thing!”
I give him a hug and set him on his way before stopping at gear check and making my way to my corral.
Safely in my corral now, I move all the way to the back. Unfortunately, this will not stop me from getting stampeded. I already know this.
I am in Corral A. I’m here based on my qualifying time (3:03) from 2012 that allowed me to bypass the lottery process for this year’s race. By the time I decided I was going to run a double-marathon, it was too late to switch out of Corral A, so here I am, stuck with the fasties.
Knowing that an onslaught of marathon snobbery regarding my unwelcome slow pace is coming, I put on my thick skin. I’m in the corral all of 30 seconds before the first runner approaches:
“What time you going for today?” the svelte, eager stranger asks.
“Umm….” I waffle, “Just trying to finish today.”
“Really? Why? This a training run for you?”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“What was your Boston time?” another runner asks. Silly me. This is what I get for wearing my Boston Marathon shirt.
“3:38,” I reply. The dude’s mouth drops.
“What, were you injured or something?”
“Nah. Just took my time.” Like I will today.
“I’m going for a 3:15 today,” says the first runner again, assuming I care (I don’t), “though I’m probably not trained enough. Oh well, gotta try, right?”
“You thinking you’ll be around what… a 7:15 pace, 7:20?” he continues.
“Ummm… no.” I didn’t really want to get into this conversation but he leaves me no choice. “I ran a marathon yesterday too,” I say, “so I just want to finish today.”
“What? Are you crazy or something?” he asks with a chuckle.
“Pretty much, yes.”
I try to shake it off and go about my business with a humble heart. I’ve been on the competitive marathoning side — the side where you size up those around you and casually drop your personal best time, trying to not sound too much like a jerk (hard to do). But having been on the lighthearted, injury-free run-because-you-love-running side for the better part of a year now, I can’t help but feel embarrassed for having been like that before.
The reality is: no one really cares how fast I run the marathon. And today, neither do I.
The National Anthem is sung. The elites are announced.
And WE’RE OFF!
I take off at my I-ran-a-marathon-yesterday pace and try not to get bulldozed. I get clipped some — an elbow here, a kick on the back of the foot there — but otherwise, I just stay focused and let everyone else navigate around me.
“You okay, man?” someone asks.
“You injured?” asks another.
“Nope. Feeling good. Thanks for asking. Have a nice day!” I reply with a smile.
Every time someone makes a comment about my speed I just reply with a smile.
I feel good, man, and no one is going to take that away from me.
That is the honest truth. I really do feel good. I was told that the first 10k might be a little rough, but actually, all systems are go for me right now. There’s a little residual tightness in the legs and glutes, but otherwise, every step is better than I thought. I’m wearing my Hoka Bondi 3s again today, and each cushioned step is a reminder that these maximal shoes were a good choice. Even after running a marathon yesterday, my feet don’t hurt at all.
This makes smiling a lot easier.
It’s easy to keep cool with all these people flying by me. I imagine I look pretty cool myself, moving like a tortoise through a maze of hares. As long as I smile.
And how can one not smile?
I say this every year, but damn, the Chicago Marathon is simply AWESOME!
Just look around! I hear myself say to myself. A perpetual sea of people lining the streets of your hometown, cheering for you!
The roars and claps and whistles make me feel a hundred feet tall.
“Go Jeff Lung!”
I look to the left and see my friend Betty cheering on the side of the street. “Thanks!” I yell back, grinning big and wide. Out of all these people she just picked me out of the crowd.
Running makes the world small!
Continuing on, I realize this is people watching at its absolute finest. I make eye contact with an elderly woman holding a Mexican flag. “Ahuevo!” I shout. I hug the side of the street and offer high-fives to all the kids waiting to be a part of the action. I chuckle at the cleverness of some of the spectator signs. “Don’t Be a Pussy”, although not particularly clever, is one that stands out.
I see my friend Tina captaining one of the aid stations. We holler salutations at each other above the roaring crowd noise.
Does it really get better than this? I ask myself, chills running up and down my arm.
A couple of miles later as I head into Lincoln Park I hear another “Go Jeff Lung!” and turn to see my friend, Jen, decked out in her cheerleader garb, waving pom-poms and kicking her legs high with excitement.
BIG CHEESY SMILE, MAN.
This is a party! Indeed! The Chicago Marathon is a celebration of people, of communities, of triumph! I look around me, at all those striding forward with strength and determination, and marvel at the idea that each one of us has a story. And while our stories are surely unique — why we run, who we run for, where we’re running — there will always remain a commonality between us because we run.
That’s fucking cool, man.
“Hey, Jeff, good work!” I hear from Saxon, another friend from my running club, who magically appears beside me in the crowd.
“Hey, man, how you feel?”
“I feel good!” he says with an intrepid smile before darting off ahead of me.
Getting close to Boystown now and I see I’m being overtaken by B and C corral runners. Way to go, guys! I think to myself. Let’s party!
Boystown is always a party and I soak it all in as usual. In fact, I’m so distracted by the feverish crowds lining every step of this race that I haven’t even really processed how slow I’m going.
I’m just going. I’m going to finish. Do you need to do or prove anything else?
Nope, it’s all good.
Around the 10-mile mark I hear my name AGAIN. “Jeff?!? Hey, Jeff! What’s up!”
I look to my left and see it’s one of my favorite running couples, Matt and Tiffanie. They run marathons, ultras, triathlons. They are one of the power couples I look up to.
“Hey, guys! Great to see you! How you feeling?”
“Okay, so far,” says Tiffanie. We chat along for the next mile. They know I ran Prairie yesterday, so we talk about that and I learn that they too have been busy running marathons as they both paced teams at Fox Valley a couple of weeks ago. The more we chat, the more effort it requires for me to match their speed. Eventually it is too much. I wish them well and drop back to my snail pace until I hit the next aid station.
One thing I continue to do is walk through all of the aid stations. This makes me an even bigger target for being mulled over, but I figure it’s up to the runner behind me to get out of the way. I take my time, walking, eating (brought my own Gardetto’s and Muddy Buddies again), and drinking. I walk the entire length of each stretched out aid station, every time. This is my reward for kicking my own ass this weekend, I tell myself.
The peeing continues to be an issue too. I am stopping a lot. I stop four times in the first 13 miles. There’s nothing I can really do about it, since I’m not going to stop drinking, so I just use each break as an extra time-out for my tired body. I do find it quite funny how frantic the other runners become when approaching the port-a-johns during the race. While I take my sweet ass time walking to and fro, I have to be careful of not getting plowed over by the runner trying to conserve every second he can.
I know what that feels like. Glad I don’t feel like that today.
Of course, the trade-off is that my entire body is aching now and despite my best mental efforts, I can’t really get my legs to move faster than an 11-minute mile pace. I pump my arms. I listen to the crowd. I smile.
Heading west it gets a little quiet in spots, but this is expected and I just try to stay in the moment. I process the increasingly incessant aches in my lower extremities, thankful that there aren’t any injuries or acute pains, and realize that what I am feeling now is going to feel like nothing compared to what is in store for me at the Pinhoti 100.
That’s what you signed up for, brother!
The mind is a strange thing. All it took was the simple thought about pushing through pain to attain my goals to send the hairs on the back of my neck standing once again. Just the idea of transcending discomfort floods my brain with dopamine, my body with adrenaline.
I run and I run and I run.
And I smile.
I smile and I smile and I smile.
Then I hear “El Rey” as I enter Pilsen and I smile even bigger. For a few seconds I don’t hear my legs screaming, I don’t feel my glutes knotting. I just hear mariachi music and know I’m on the home stretch of this magnificent day.
The sun is shining, the sky is blue and the crowd is LOUD. I pump my arms a little harder down 18th Street and think about how often I run this stretch of the marathon in my own daily training.
Just a short training jog now, Jeff. You’re almost home.
As I process that satisfying thought, I see him: a bouncy fella holding a sign that says “FREE BEER FOR RUNNERS”.
Um, yes. Thank you, sir. May I have another?
I have seen and heard about plenty of runners chugging a beer during a marathon, but that never seemed appealing to me before. When you’re racing hard, chugging a beer seems like a pretty dumb idea. But when you’re running slow, back-to-back marathons and your legs are cement, it may be the single greatest idea. EVER!
I cheerfully stop, put out my hand and take the PBR. Chug-chug-chug-chug. *BURP*
“Muchas gracias, señor!”
I burp my way along for the next mile until I run by the gym where I work. Waiting for me there, as he has the last three years, is my friend Omar. I stop to give him a hug, and ask “You want to carry me the rest of the way?”
“Haha! No way, man! RUN!” he encourages.
I soldier on. Smiling. Lots and lots of smiling.
Chinatown is next and I power my way through it on the strength of the crowd support. At Sox Park it gets quiet as usual, but around mile 23, I see the Hash House Harriers and their beer stop and that only means one thing: chug more beer.
A young lady dressed as a princess hands me a couple of beer shots and I shoot ’em like it was my freshman year. In fact, I think the last time I chugged a few beers before noon it probably was my freshman year. I try to do the math in my head as I continue on, but between the belching and the fatigue, I find it too difficult.
Just smile and pump your arms, man. Let’s get done!
Around mile 25 I see a group of my ultrarunning friends (The Flatlanders) spectating on the sidelines and I high-five them all as I make one last attempt at speeding up my wheels. Turns out they really can’t go much faster, but I am able to trick my mind by pumping my arms harder. I am almost done.
Then I see a sign for “FREE JELLO SHOTS FOR RUNNERS”.
Yep. Gotta have me one of those.
Less than a mile from finishing back-to-back marathons and I’m swallowing a jello shot. This is the life!
Finally I reach the right turn onto Mt. Roosevelt. I suffer up along its stretched incline and summit knowing it’s the equivalent of a short jog around the track to the glorious finish line. The banner welcomes me with its worldly grandness.
I cross the finish line in 4 hours 38 minutes 15 seconds. I belch.
Then I head immediately towards the Goose Island beer truck for my free beer.
The body is an amazing machine. That I know. Despite running two marathons in two days, my legs felt pretty darn good afterwards. They were stiff any time I sat too long and tried to get up, but otherwise they moved pretty well.
Right after the race I went to the post-race party, had another beer (my fourth and final of the day) and chatted with some of the other runners. Running makes the world small. If you want to make a lot of friends out of complete strangers, start running these races. You will become a social butterfly.
After my last beer, I went over to the Hilton and rendezvoused with Edna, who had a great race, finishing strong and smiling (of course). We posed for this picture in the lobby:
We went home immediately after and I struggled to stay awake in order to watch football, but I finally gave in and conked out around 7pm. Then I slept. FOR ELEVEN HOURS. Straight.
I guess I was tired.
The next day I was up and moving pretty normally. I wasn’t limping. I wasn’t hurt. And other than some general tenderness, I wasn’t even really sore.
My body seems to have figured it out: we’re going to do a lot of epic shit.
Though I don’t have any hard data to back it up, I am pretty confident that the most consistent distance runners have short memories. How many times have I found myself slugging through a grueling race, saying to myself never again, only to have completely changed my mind moments after crossing the finish line?
The answer is: A LOT.
On October 11, 2014, during the Prairie State Marathon, I said it many times only to get up and do it all over again on October 12, 2014, at the Chicago Marathon where I would continue to say it, only to forget… again.
It was all part of the double-dip plan: to train my legs to run tired, to run hungry, to run smart (stupid as that sounds).
Of course, it was a pain-in-the-ass type of blast!
Saturday, October 11, 2014
I get off the shuttle bus and walk toward the Start/Finish line of the Prarie State Marathon. It’s quite chilly, with temperatures in the low 40s and my feet are soaked from a tromp through dewy grass.
We’re in… Libertyville. I think. Or close to it. Rosa Maria, the lovely robotic voice on my GPS, told me I’m close to Grayslake, IL, but to be exact, we’re at a forest preserve, surrounded by nature, toeing the line on a mix of blacktop and crushed limestone.
The crowd gathered is very small. There is a half marathon taking place alongside this marathon and the majority of runners seem to be lining up for the former. Still, the idle conversation of those gathered is peppered with the familiar pre-race nervousness, the type found at most road races, as I assume many runners here today chose Prairie State after failing to get in the Chicago Marathon lottery.
Lucky me. I get to do both.
Because my weekend goal is to survive and nothing else, for once I find comfort at a marathon start line, not obsessing over splits or prerace fuel or the possibility of bonking. Instead, I’m about as relaxed as I’ve ever been for an event, trying to set a Vegas over/under line on how many times I will have to stop to pee.
I’m gonna say 6.5 for the whole race, one side of my conscious says.
I’ll take the over, says the other.
Quietly, I move to the back of the pack, keeping my hands warm by sticking them in my armpits until…
Miles 0 – 7
Wow, this place is pretty.
We start off along the paved bike path and I can’t help but be in awe of the serene beauty of this forest preserve. I know we’ll be following parts of the Des Plaines River Trail today, an area I’m somewhat familiar with, but I didn’t expect it to be this breathtaking. Everywhere I look I see bright reds and yellows and greens. Fall is here, and nowhere has it been as quaint as right here, right now, as the fog rolls up off the lake, adding mystery to its splendidness.
That was some fancy poetic thought, I say to myself.
Yeah, and now I have to pee, I reply.
What?!? We’re only half a mile in! Good thing I took the over!
I know, I know. Jeesh.
This incessant peeing thing has been a part of my training all summer. I wonder if I have some sort of exercise-induced bladder control issue. I don’t know. But I do know that around every 2-3 miles of every long distance run I’ve embarked upon this summer, I’ve had to stop and pee. I expect I probably wasted at least a half an hour peeing during the 24-hour run. And now, here we are just 800 meters into a marathon and already I feel the urge.
Unfortunately, there a lot of runners around me, and though we are on a “trail” of sorts, this doesn’t seem like the type of race where it’d be acceptable for me to jump off the side and take care of business in front of the world. I’ll have to wait until an aid station.
I try to think about something else — my footfalls, my slower pace. I look down a couple miles in and I’m sitting steady on 9:30s. Nice and easy.
Suddenly, my friend Aaron picks me out among the crowd and is now running alongside me.
“Hey, Jeff, how’s it going?” he asks.
We start chatting. I know he has run the Prairie State/Chicago Marathon double before.
“I’m doing it this year too,” he assures me.
Sweet! Another crazy person!
“So, any word of advice? What will be your post-race routine?” I ask.
“Chocolate milk, ice bath, hot shower, compression, a nap. Make sure you elevate your legs. Eat a good meal. Sleep as much as you can.”
“Sounds like the perfect post-race day to me. Though I would like to throw a beer or two in there.”
The conversation seems to have quieted my bladder, so when we reach the first aid station, I run right through, thinking nothing of it.
Half a mile later, the urge is back. Ugh. I look around, but still, people everywhere. Oh well.
Let’s just make it to the next station — the ultimate ultrarunning mantra, though rarely related to a pit stop.
Aaron and I chat about all-things ultra, upcoming races, races past. When we finally get to the next station there is a john, so I stop, take care of business and get back on the trail.
Miles 7 – 9
Taking my time to get back into a groove, I walk with a purpose while chowing down on some real food. Since I’m treating this as a training run/experiment for my upcoming 100 mile race, I have opted to eat real food rather than stick to the normal marathon fare of gels and sports drink.
I brought along several sandwich bags of Gardetto’s snack mix and Muddy Buddies (a chocolate/peanut butter/Chex mix of sugary greatness). When I get to the aid stations I stop, walk and eat. I’ve been training like this all summer — eating on the run. Walking fast. Feels pretty normal now.
Having lost Aaron, I work my way back up to a 9:30 pace, all by myself, until I come up on another friend of mine, Rita. We run along together and high-five our friend, Siamak, as he comes flying toward us from the other direction. As usual, there are many familiar faces out on this run.
Running makes the world small.
Just before the 9-mile turn around I break ahead of Rita, trying not to think about how already I’m feeling a bit zapped and I have 17 more miles to go.
Man, this is stupid. Two marathons in two days? What was I thinking?
Of course, it sounded like a GREAT idea a few months ago. For some reason I always seem to forget exactly how much discomfort is involved in these ultra endeavors until I’m right in the middle of it all.
Too late now! Might as well just process the pain and be glad you’re alive!
Miles 9 – 18
Now on the “back” side of the 9-mile out-and-back section that makes up the first part of the race, I see all the runners behind me. There aren’t too many. I figure I’m somewhere towards the end of the middle of the pack.
I’m kinda tired. And a little bored. Wish I was doing something else.
Yikes! Snap out of it, man! Enjoy the scenery!
Beautiful as the scenery is, it doesn’t do much for mind, nor my turnover. Not that I want to run particularly fast (I don’t; I want to conserve energy if anything). It’s just that with no crowd stimulation and no signs to look at or sounds to distract, time seems to slip by slower than it usually does in a traditional marathon, which causes me to feel every, single, step.
I am alone with my thoughts, which are a jumbled mess right now, not focused on any thing in particular — a rarity in my experience. In a typical ultramarathon, I will at least have a warped sense of time rooted in the constant attention that must be paid to my surroundings. Single track trails require extreme attention to footing, to leg lift, to balance. Here, on this wide crushed limestone trail, with long straightaways and zero elevation, time seems to pass by very slowly.
I feel it.
Looking at my watch every minute or so just makes it worse.
I slug along. By myself. For miles and miles and miles. I walk all the aid stations. I eat. I move slowly.
Miles 18 – 22
FINALLY… people. I reach some sights and sounds and a crude false finish as I complete the 9-mile out-and-back, pass the finish line and go out for a 4-mile out-and-back.
Again, long, flat stretches of endless visibility makes this task seem slower and harder than it really is. Even my constant mind/body feedback loop seems slow. I notice I have a blister on my left pinky toe. I’ve felt a burn there for the last five miles or so but didn’t think anything of it until now, realizing that it is a blister.
Just keep slogging.
And now it is a slog, no doubt. I’m moving, but not with much conviction. This feels more like a training run than anything else (thank goodness it IS!) and I make it feel even more so by continuing to walk and eat when I feel like it (which is often).
I am tired, but not any more tired than I would be if I were out running 20 miles on my own, by myself. The quietness of this race is challenging me more than the distance. I guess I am spoiled by equating “marathon” with raucous gaiety.
Miles 22 – 26.2
I hit the turn-around and quickly find myself running beside someone else.
Whoa! Company! I forgot what that was like!
His name is Ted and he’s from the city too. We chat for a bit and I find out he’s running his first ultra in a couple of weeks at the Lakefront 50. I gab on about ultras, making the time pass quickly (for once) until, just two miles from the finish line, I wish him ‘good luck’ and break off for what I hope is my last pit stop (7th total) of the day.
The over was a good bet!
As I get back to the Start/Finish area, I’m welcomed by another false finish that leads me on a short loop around where we started.
Finally though, 4 hours and 14 minutes after I started, I cross the finish line.
It’s my slowest marathon to date. But I will have plenty of time to go even slower tomorrow.
Siamak, still on a high from having run a marathon personal best time, greets me shortly after I get my medal. As we chat, all I can think about is going home and going to bed.
– – –
To be continued…
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.
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.
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.
When I first qualified for the Boston Marathon in 2012, I saw running the race as a once-in-a-lifetime event. I would go, run my heart out, then move on to other races.
I did go. I did run my heart out. But tragedy made it impossible to move on.
I am not alone.
The running community is close, passionate and stubborn as hell. When we line up in Hopkinton on Monday, April 21, it will be as ONE, and the world will know it. We will be loud, proud and obnoxiously neon (because we can).
Compassion. Peace. Solidarity.
This will be my mantra for 26 miles 385 yards.
It won’t matter that my training for this race has sucked. It won’t matter that I won’t even come close to my lofty time goals. It won’t matter that I will likely feel like garbage at some point (or all of the points).
What matters is that I’ll be there, running among like-minded souls, with a gigantic smile on my face and high-fives for all.
“What is thaaaaaaat?” asked Edna with a slurred voice somewhere between transcendence and delirium. “Look at thaaaaaaat! Why are there so many houses?”
It was 6:30 in the morning. We were approaching an open field covered with frost, and save for three twenty minute cat naps spread throughout, she had been awake and on her feet running for over 43 hours.
There were no houses.
“You’re seeing things, babe. You’re tired. Stay on my arm and let’s keep moving.” I said.
She looked at me with big, wild eyes. The fatigue forced upon her by 30 degree temps, two sleepless nights and 99 miles on the Potawatomi Trail — a trail that leaves you feeling like you’re being eaten alive by piranhas, one little vicious bite at a time — left her speech and reaction time slow. Her behavior reminded me of Paul Krendler as Hannibal Lecter fed him his last meal.
I was overwhelmed with the desire to take away all her pain, to snap my fingers and have us be in a warm hotel, fresh and clean, discussing dinner plans or a book we just read. But before my mind could wander further off into those pleasant thoughts, she was digging deep. Again. Fighting with every bit of her being.
She pushed and pushed and pushed.
I was in complete awe of her ability to fight through myriad discomforts to prove she could do what she set out to do. She inspired me with her indomitable will, her mental toughness, her humility and her never ceasing smile.
Man, I love this girl.
Upon completing 100 miles, we (Team Edna) decided it was best to rest. With only 8 hours left, we knew there wasn’t enough time to complete another five 10-mile loops. In fact, of the 44 registered to run the 150 mile race, only 14 managed to finish it, many of them my friends. To them, I bow down with admiration. What a feat.
Edna’s 100 mile finish was an equally enlivening triumph. Life got in her way a lot the last six months, but just like in the race, she put her head down and soldiered forward despite the hardships. She never once complained. She never once considered giving up. She had zero regrets.
THAT is what living is all about.
That’s how the race as metaphor keeps forcing me to go bigger, to be better.
Edna did that. She does that. And I couldn’t be more proud.
– – –
Special thanks to Team Edna members Robin Platt, Siamak Mostoufi and Raul Cervantes, Jr., all of whom played big roles in a smooth operation. Your loyalty and dedication to helping Edna get through the tough times will not be forgotten.
And to all of the runners, pacers, crew members, volunteers and race staff at the Potawatomi Trail Runs, I wish to give you all a great big virtual hug. The ultra community is family to me and having a front row seat to some of the most selfless acts of kindness and daring athletic performances is a pleasure I will always cherish.
-Phil, Groundhog Day
– – –
Saturday, February 1, 2014
You’re running a half marathon… in Grand Rapids, Michigan… in FEBRUARY!? Um… why?!?
This is myself scolding myself during the treacherous drive along I-94 East from Chicago to my sister’s place in St. Joseph. Visibility is poor. The roads are slick. The driving is uber slow. By the end of the day, 8+ inches of snow will have dumped on western Michigan.
I want to go run in it.
Because I want a challenge, I reassure myself. Mountains of snow, polar vortexes… if you can’t beat the weather, might as well get out and live it. Right? Maybe? Hope so?
My girlfriend, Edna, is gaming for the adventure too, so I don’t feel too crazy. As someone with several hundred milers under her belt, her continued desire to explore herself through physical challenges cements the sanity of my own decision.
After a nerve wracking drive, a nice home cooked meal by my sister and an evening of playing with toddlers, Edna and I are psyched to get out in the snow and have fun ourselves. When I receive an email from a friend telling me the course conditions — that the trail is brutally tough with snow up to one’s knees in spots — we look at each other and know that we’re going to give it a go anyway. Last week we ran in circles for 6 hours in the face of 40 mph wind gusts and barbarously cold temperatures. If we could survive that (and have fun!) then running in knee deep snow shouldn’t be much worse.
Sunday, February 2, 2014
At 5 a.m. our alarm clocks go off in smart-technology unison and we are up. I sip some coffee, eat a banana and then Edna and I eat some pie (why not?) to finish off our breakfast.
It’s 5:45 a.m. and we are on the road — one that is in much better condition than it was yesterday.
The temperature is going to stay in the low 20s with plenty of clouds overhead and *GASP*, no real accumulative snowfall is predicted. Still, knowing what we already know about the trail, we both expect to take it easy today.
An hour and twenty minutes later and we are in the John Ball parking lot, huddled among other frigid crazies waiting to catch the shuttle to the start/finish line. It arrives, we squeeze ourselves in, and by the time we make it to our destination we only have ten minutes left.
The two of us push ourselves through the crowd gathered inside the warm hospitality tent until we finally get to the check-in table and grab our bib numbers. Hurriedly, we pin one another, and venture outside just in time to hear “And they’re off!”
Miles 1 – 4.4
Hurry up and wait. That’s what we do. This is, after all, a race run on a paved bike trail (though you wouldn’t know it from the snow cover) and the trail isn’t exactly wide.
We are way at the back of a decadently fluorescent conga line and by the time we get to the timing mat, two minutes have gone by. I think about darting up ahead, but from the endless stream of slow moving head bobs, I know there’s no point. Might as well just take it slow until the crowd thins out.
I stick by Edna and after a quarter mile of struggling through shin and knee high snow, I accept what I already know: today is going to hurt and today is going to be slow.
“I think the key here is to take smaller steps,” I say to Edna. “If I take too large a stride the potential for injury is too large. I’m going to try to keep my feet under me.”
Even heeding my own advice, the potential for disaster is still there. The snow is powdery. Slippery. But it won’t pack down, not even with hundreds of runners trampling over it. It’s a snowy, ill-footed mine field.
Every step is a surprise.
We hit the first mile mark in just over 17 minutes. Holy shit.
With a hat-tip to the Bill Murray film, the Groundhog Day Half Marathon is a 4.4 mile loop run three times. It features mostly flat landscape with some pleasant views of the Grand River and surrounding wilderness, all of which is covered in snow and ice. Every once in a while I remind myself to look up — to actually enjoy the scenery — but most of my focus is on staying upright, requiring me to look down.
A couple of miles in and already my hips are starting to scream while my heart rate soars. It’s not every day I “run” a 17 minute mile and maintain a 160 beats per minute heart rate. As we reach the first aid station, where I fuel up on Gatorade and those delectable peanut butter pretzel bites, I feel like a rebel soldier fleeing the Empire’s invasion of Hoth.
You could use a good kiss! I think to myself. Whew, I could also use a good recliner. This is hard work!
A little more slogging later, and the crowd opens up a little. I turn to Edna, get my kiss and kick on down the snowy trail.
Down to a 15 minute mile now (HUZZAH!), I find that the footing on the back half of the course is even worse than the first half. Slip… slide… WHOA LOOKOUT… save myself… slip… slide… WHOA LOOKOUT…
A lot of things are on repeat here.
After much struggle, I find myself back at the start/finish line, only 4.4 miles into the race, in a whopping one hour, nine minutes. Yikes! Before I give in to the idea of quitting — as many ahead of me appear to be doing — I immediately turn around and get myself back out there.
Miles 4.4 – 8.8
Back out on the trail now, I know what to expect the rest of the way: powder, pain and suffering. At least it’s not very cold, I remind myself. And there’s no wind.
It could be worse. It could always be worse.
I will myself to remember this bit of truth. Just think about all those crazies running the full marathon!
Indeed, it could always be worse.
Right now, despite my achy hips and slow pace, life is pretty darn good. The crowd has subsided. I’m running pretty much all by myself now, passing people who’ve been slowed to a walk on occasion.
Shortly after refueling at the aid station and kicking back down the trail, my watch gleefully beeps to inform me that I am in the 13 minute mile range now.
Oh boy we’re blazin’ now!
Relatively speaking, I am moving pretty fast. Though I may look like I’m moving in slow motion, I maintain
running jogging slogging pace. I only come to a walk at the aid stations.
And because I’m paying so much attention to the ground beneath me, the time seems to pass quickly. Another hour and seven minutes has passed and I find myself at the start/finish line again.
I dart out for my third and final loop with the kind of enthusiasm born from an impending completion of epic snow schlepping. And oh look, my face hurts… from smiling! Again!
Miles 8.8 – 13.1
Beer, beer, beer… chili, chili, chili…
I’m going to hang on to whatever it takes to get through this fluffy mess, and right now, I know that concentrating on the finish line fare (and warmth!) will get me where I need to be.
I should also note that this fluffy mess seems to get worse as the day goes on, not better. If the snow were just a little more damp, perhaps it would pack down and stay down. Instead, what we get is surprise after surprise after surprise.
Just before hitting the first aid station on this last loop I notice someone close on my heels.
“Keep setting the pace, man,” says the guy behind me. I find out his name is Steve. We will share much of this last loop together. After the mental struggle of the first loop and the isolation of the second, I welcome the company and conversation.
We share our race resumes and talk about annoying injuries past. We discuss the difficulty of running a half marathon in February. In Michigan. In knee deep snow. And we both come to the conclusion that we need a beer.
“Just keep pumping your arms,” I say. Someone gave me this advice for the last 10k of my first marathon and it has stuck with me. “If you move your arms your legs will follow.”
After the last aid station, I thank all the aid station volunteers. I’m sure this has been a tough day for them too. Keeping water from freezing in sub-freezing temps and listening to cranky runners whine about the conditions probably doesn’t make for the best way to spend a Sunday, but they’re all troopers and it’s nice to hear their cheers each time we come through.
“These peanut butter pretzel balls are amazing,” I tell Steve, as I take off down the last leg of the loop. “I’ve been eating them all day. I’m ravenous. I’m starving!”
Chili, chili, chili… beer, beer, beer…
I’m coming for you!
As we reach the last turn back towards the finish line I pick up the pace and notice Steve fall back a bit. I keep going. I want to be done. I want to be warm. I want to eat and drink and–
“Hola, mi cielo!”
It’s Edna! “Hola, mi amorsita!” I yell back. She is heading out for her last loop while I finish up mine. We stop for a short embrace and she assures me she’s feeling fine. Her smile lights up the trail like always and I can’t wait for her to get back so we can both be warm, rested and DONE. “I will drink some beer and eat some chili for you,” I tell her.
“Very good,” she says ironically (Edna doesn’t drink) before taking off through the snow.
Stuck in cheesy smile mode, I run the last 200 meters to the finish, coming across the line in a whopping 3 hours, 18 minutes, 51 seconds, a time more reflective of my recent 26.2 mile races. Exhilarated and gassed, I head straight for the hospitality tent.
I can’t see!
Seriously, I can’t. I’m snow blind. Some kind soul directs me through the crowd of exhausted runners to collect my finisher’s medal. Once my eyes adjust I am able to see just how bad ass this piece of hardware is. Heavy and profound, the medal features a dancing groundhog in relief and I put it around my neck, where it will stay until I get home.
For the next hour and a half I camp out next to the New Holland kegs and sip The Poet until my equilibrium requires me to eat some chili to rebound. I talk to a bunch of strangers. I share war stories with other finishers. I’m about as happy as can be.
Edna finally comes through and we hug each other, celebrating our mental toughness victories.
“Wow, that was hard!” she says.
“Yep. Yep it was. That was crazy hard.”
But we did it. We stuck it out.
We chose to be here and we knew what we were getting into. We knew we’d escape with a story worth telling — one that would leave us starving and snow blind and smiling.
You can’t get this sort of experience on the couch. You gotta take a leap and learn to adapt. That’s life right there. That’s what keeps it interesting.
And interesting never gets old.
Just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill…
No me dejes nunca, nunca, nunca… te lo PIIIIIIIIIIIDO por favor…
Soup, soup, soup… hot… soup, soup, soup…
No doubt the above is an odd collection of unrelated thoughts turned mantras. But these, along with some choice others, were the phrases that kept me moving throughout my 7 hour 9 minute journey through frosty McHenry County wonderland at the 2014 Frozen Gnome 50k. This is my story:
Saturday, January 11, 2014
*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
Boom. I’m awake. I can smell the coffee brewing.
I jump to my feet and shove a couple of bananas and a Clif Bar down my throat while I check the weather. A night of freezing rain descended on the Veterans Acres course and the high for today looks like it will crest above 40. This is good news, or this is bad news.
So far this winter, over 30 inches of snow have accumulated in the Chicagoland area and with the Polar Vortex treating us to negative high temperatures just a few days ago, I’m feeling quite joyous about not having to risk hypothermia and frostbite during this race. However, above freezing temps and lots of rain will likely make the already challenging, hilly course a roller coaster of slushy, slick and slow surprises.
I love surprises.
My girlfriend and I arrive at Veteran Acres in Crystal Lake, IL and we both take note of the pleasant, warm air. But as soon as we try to navigate the parking lot turned ice rink, we immediately connect on what kind of adventure is in store for us today.
“We’re going to have to take it easy,” I say, “we’ll be just one spill away from six weeks in a walking boot.”
We pick up our bib numbers and greet the swarms of friendly faces near the start line. This event, hosted by our dear friends from the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dudes and Dudettes (M.U.D.D.) group, has attracted runners from all over the Chicago area. And like other ultra races held around here, the sense of love, joy and community is in high definition surround sound.
I greet race director Michele Hartwig and course director, Geoff Moffat, both with a hearty hug followed by a questioning grin.
“I think we’re in for quite a test today,” I say.
Geoff’s sinister chuckle validates my thought.
The 10k’ers go off, hopefully packing down the snow-slush trail for us on the way.
15 minutes later and…
Loop 1, Miles 1 – 6.2
My game plan for today is to go out nice and easy, survey the course the first time around and adjust my effort accordingly. I’m in Boston training mode, so everything I do right now is in preparation for that. Today I expect to get some gnarly hill and mental toughness training; and I would like to keep my heart rate around 150 bpm, so I’ll be keeping a close watch.
The course is a 10k loop, repeated 5 times, so I should know it (possibly love it, or hate it) very well by the end.
The initial findings in my constant mind-body-mind feedback loop are: oh boy, this is a toughie, what have I gotten myself into?
The snow is packed down in spots, not so much in others. The ongoing thaw has created a perpetually messy slush-soup in some parts and when we hit the occasional paved paths it’s nothing short of an ice rink. Oh, and then there are the hills — steep climbs that force me to dig in hard with the fat lugs on my Salomon Speedcross 3s on the way up and cautiously pick away through an admittedly odd looking dance on the way down.
I prepare my mind for the impending hip flexor hurt and subsequent butt soreness.
Traffic on the trail is moving pretty well. I am in a group of steady movers who, like me, seem to be striving to go home in one piece. Everything is going swell until suddenly, at the crest of a long climb, we stop. Completely.
“What’s going on?” I ask to those up ahead.
“Butt Slide Hill,” I hear someone holler back.
I poke my head out from the congested conga line to see a group of runners stopped in their slushy tracks, unsure of how to navigate down the frighteningly steep descent. Their facial expressions say they aren’t sure, so I cut the line and head straight to the front.
“It’s not called ‘Butt Slide Hill’ for nothin’,” I say as I scoot to my backside and slide — WEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! — all the way down.
Wow. That. Was. AWESOME.
I rise to my feet, and despite the snow filling my crack, I can’t stop from laughing.
“That was worth the price of registration alone,” I say to a runner close behind. “And to think, we get to do that four more times!!!”
A couple of miles later and my smile finally starts to wane as the thick slush soaking and freezing my feet reminds me that I have a lot of work to do, and a long way to go.
But I reach the start/finish line to a raucous cheer from a familiar cast of friends and volunteers. I fill my bottle, grab some grub and head back out for more punishment.
Loop 2, Miles 6.2 – 12.4
I walk fast while chomping down on some delicious cookies and notice my heart rate hovering around 140, even while walking. So far I have been successful in keeping my heart rate in the 150 range while running. I only wish it would drop a bit more when going slow. When I tackle any hill it seems to soar around 160-170.
I contemplate this, as well as the recipe to these scrumptious cookies, when suddenly I hear “What the–?” from behind. I turn back to see Jeff Moss, a friendly runner (with an awesome name) whom I met at the 2013 DPRT 50. He seems surprised to have caught me so early in the race.
“Oh no, it’s going to be slow-going for me today,” I assure him. “I want to go home in one piece.”
For the entirety of this loop, Jeff and I run together, sometimes talking, sometimes not, but always moving. We chat about races past and those to come. I am impressed with Jeff’s running resume, especially that he’s going to take on his first 100 miler this spring at the Potawatami 100.
“You definitely have the bug, don’t you? The racing bug.” I say.
“Oh yes, definitely.”
As we climb up towards the peak of Butt Slide Hill for the second time, I look back to see I’m first in a long line of runners. Eager to lead by good example, I excitedly drop down on my butt and — WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! — zoom down the hill.
I stop at the bottom, but again, I can’t stop laughing. I feel like a goofy kid drunk off life.
A couple miles of more slogging and we’re back at the start/finish line. This time there are cinnamon rolls! YES!
Loop 3, Miles 12.4 – 18.6
I start back out on my own, but it doesn’t take long for Jeff to catch up to me again. I welcome the company, even when the trail forces us to concentrate hard on staying upright, leading to limited conversation. It’s just nice to know that if I fall and snap my femur, someone will be there to help me up.
The loop is getting to be familiar now. Up this hill, down that one. Around this snow bank, zig-zagging over that one. Ankle high sloppy slush through this multi-track, cross country skiing with trail shoes through that one.
Every once in a while we are greeted by smiling course marshals and a ringing cow bell. It’s all becoming as familiar to me now as the rising ache in my butt.
“I’m getting beat up,” Jeff says.
“Me too. Me. Too.”
We reach the start/finish line and I head right for my drop bag and a much needed Red Bull. Friend and volunteer Julie Bane offers me some hot soup and I take it as fast as I can.
Ahhhhh… yes. It warms my soul as much as my gut.
“Wow, this soup is delicious, Julie,” I say. “It doesn’t necessarily pair well with the Red Bull, but man, did I need that!”
As I stand around my drop bag slurping soup and Red Bull, I contemplate a sock and shoe change. After 18+ miles of stomping through snow and slush, my feet are frozen bricks, and the more I stand around, the colder they get. It might be nice to have dry feet, I think to myself, but as soon as I get back on the trail they will go right back to being cold and soaking wet.
I’m better off just dealing with it.
So I do.
Loop 4, Miles 18.6 – 24.8
Jeff passes me as we head out for this loop and his backside quickly disappears from my view. That’s the last time I will see him until the finish line.
“Go get ’em, Jeff!” I yell, mostly to myself, because he is too far away to hear.
I put my head down, pump my arms and force myself to just… keep… moving.
My heart rate is hovering around 155-160 now and it’s getting harder and harder to bring it down. Each hill I climb sends it to 170 and beyond, and even when I slow to a fast hike I find it difficult to get below 150. I guess this is because THIS RACE IS HARD.
Up the hills, down the hills, up the hills, down the hills.
It’s a hard course, but beautiful, no doubt. I am all alone on this loop and the surrounding forest keeps me entertained with its eery quiet and comforting, wintery surprises.
I hit Butt Slide Hill again, chuckling all the way down, and when I find myself back at the start/finish line, volunteer extraordinaire Karen Shearer greets me with a beaming smile and more hot soup.
I really don’t want to leave the comforts of the start/finish area. My feet are bricks. My hip flexors are screaming. My butt aches. Heck, it’s taken me five and a half hours to complete 40k, cementing the idea that this will be my slowest 50k finish ever, in the seven hour plus range. But race director Michele said she brought my favorite post-race grub, her famous taco soup, and I would feel guilty filling up on that treasure without having finished the race, so I put on my big-boy smile and get the hell back out there.
Loop 5, Miles 24.8 – 31
The biggest difference between this loop and the previous four is the fact that I’m doing a LOT of walking now, even on the flats. Also, I’m singing. To be specific, I’m singing “Te Lo Pido, Por Favor”, a song that has been stuck in my head for a couple of weeks now. Since I’m all alone and suffering, I’m even singing three different versions (Juan Gabriel, Banda El Recodo and my favorite, Marc Anthony) at the top of my lungs.
Tu me sabes bien guiar, tu me sabes bien cuidar…
Oh man, my butt hurts.
Good grief my feet are cold. I could use some taco soup right about now. Yes, soup… hot soup, soup, soup…
Whew. Wow. I’m gonna suggest to the course director THAT HE MAKE THIS RACE A LITTLE TOUGHER NEXT TIME.
Just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill…
I get to Butt Slide Hill and now I know, yes, it’s… all downhill from here. WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!
At the bottom of the hill, resting on my back, I just smile. And laugh. Sure I’m sore. Sure I ache. Sure my feet are frigidly cold.
But is there anything else you’d rather be doing today?
And with that, I’m up running again. I’m running slow, using an exaggerated arm pump to convince myself I’m running faster than I really am, but I am running.
Hot soup, soup, soup.
Te lo pido, por favor.
As I reach the finish line to cheering voices, my eyes grow large with with the type of joy only arduous adventure can provide. Somehow the sun, an entity that has laid dormant throughout the entire day, comes out to shine, as if to say:
“Welcome to the finish line, Jeff. Now get yer ass some taco soup.”
While I patiently wait for the Polar Vortex to subside so mother nature can give me a cleaner, safer surface on which to train, I continue to battle the elements the best I can. I’m approaching the end of my fourth week of Boston Marathon training and about half of my runs thus far have been on a treadmill.
Physically, I feel great. My body is working well. As I slowly build my endurance, I am getting regular sports massage, with lots of attention placed on those cranky calves. All systems are go for Boston right now, and while I continue to be conservative in my training, I still dream of running a sub-3 race come April 21, 2014.
That’s my “A” goal. That’s the dream of dreams, as it has been and will continue to be until I finally make that dream a reality.
But there is no denying that my conservative training approach (at least for now), may make running 6:50 pace for 26.2 miles on a challenging course more difficult than I’d hoped. Right now my speed workouts — hampered by sub-freezing temps and rusty legs — haven’t been ideal. The turnover is there, the leg and core strength is there, but the cardiovascular system has a long way to go to keep up with my demands. With 14 weeks of training left, I’m not sweatin’ it. I am going to give it my all on Patriot’s Day regardless, and that, ultimately, is all that counts.
But what about after Boston?
Yes, indeed, the time has come, my friends. In 2014 I aim to complete my first 100 mile race. The Pinhoti 100, on November 1, in Heflin, Alabama, will be the scene. Lots of New Leaf and M.U.D.D. friends will be there. I’m hoping to get my dad down there. Siamak the Beast has agreed to pace me. I’m ready to go further than I’ve ever gone before, mentally and physically.
Every race I run from now until April 21 will be training for Boston, and every race I run post-Boston will be in preparation for the hundo.
Here is my tentative race plan:
January 11 – The Frozen Gnome 50k
My good friends from the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dudes and Dudettes (M.U.D.D.) put on great events and this one looks to be no different. 30 inches of snow accumulation so far this winter? Freezing rain? Hills galore? Bring on the suffering!
February 2 – The Groundhog Day Half Marathon
4-ish mile loopty loops in bone-chilling, snow covered Grand Rapids, Michigan? Like Phil said: I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.
March 2 – The Armadillo Dash Half Marathon
As one who seeks out opportunities where travel and racing can be combined, I found what looks to be a quaint half marathon in College Station, TX about a 40-minute drive from my dad’s place. And while Texas temps in March may not be tropical, they are almost certain to be warmer than anything I’ll find in the Chi.
April 21 – The Boston Marathon
No subtext necessary.
May 10 – Ice Age 50k
After the ass kickin’ I got last year, this is my 2014 revenge race. With some better planning and a good understanding of the course, I am hoping to go under 5 hours this time around.
July 18-19 – Christmas in July 24 Hour
What better way to prepare myself for my first hundred than running in circles for 24 hours? This race, put on by some friends of mine from the New Leaf club, is in my suburban backyard (Lisle, IL) and promises to be one heck of a fiesta. It’s on pavement. It’s on a short, one mile loop course. I’m looking forward to a post-race Frankenstein walk like I’ve never had before.
August 31 – The Mexico City Marathon
One of my best friends lives in Mexico City. I’m in love with a Mexican. The Mexico City Marathon, at 5000 feet of elevation, offers a scenic, challenging course. ¿Cómo no voy a correrlo? ¡Que onda, güey!
October 12 – The Chicago Marathon
Running my fourth straight Chicago Marathon proves to be the lone wild card in my 2014 schedule. Rumor (and history) suggests that this race is soon going to move to a lottery selection. I HOPE NOT! I remain hopeful that the registration process will be open like it has been. My steadfast ninja fingers are prepared to click forward the $170+ dollars as fast as they possibly can. For me, the biggest test with Chicago this year will be running it as a training run as opposed to balls-to-the-wall redlining.
November 1 – The Pinhoti 100
The holy grail. The heavy hitter. The big kahuna. For the greater part of 2014, my heart, and perhaps more literally my legs, will be focused on traversing 100 miles in one shot, for the very first time. And while I do feel a bit funny about throwing myself into a 100 miler that doesn’t even have a website (I’m told it is currently under construction), I have been assured by my friends — most importantly, Siamak, who ran it as his first hundred in 2012 — that this race is as challenging as it is breathtaking. I’m hoping it’s more breathtaking in the metaphorical sense, though in a 100 mile race it seems like there will certainly be some moments were even taking a breath seems impossible.
I don’t know.
But I’ll see.
Because THAT — the unknown, the adventure, the THRILL of it all — is what makes running long so worthwhile, fulfilling and fun!
After a 2012 that saw me break beaucoup barriers and dream of crossing the marathon finish line with a 2-hour-something time, it would be easy to assume that 2013 was a letdown year for me. I didn’t come close to my goal time for 26.2. I suffered through a long recovery from ITBS. I got a nasty case of Achilles tendonitis.
But just like in any other discourse, life is what you make it.
So, positively speaking:
I negative split the marathon for the first time while simultaneously experiencing triumph through tragedy.
Despite the heavy rain and relentless terrain, I answered the bell for all 50 miles of the Minnesota Voyageur and had a kickass time doing it.
I PR’d the half marathon in one of my favorite local races.
I played in the woods with my friends, again.
I was reminded to be grateful for what I have, to live in the moment, to enjoy every second of life as it comes.
I volunteered at the Earth Day 50k, the Des Plaines River Trail 50 Miler and the inaugural Naperville Marathon, perfecting the art of cowbell ringing in one hand while handing out aid with the other.
I had another race report published in Ultrarunning Magazine (October issue).
I spent hours and hours pounding pavement, traversing trails, meditating through movement.
And I fell in love.
Thank you, 2013. My graciously heartfelt smile remains from ear to ear.
Happy New Year!
In college, I was fascinated with Daoist philosophy. In particular, the idea of action by way of non-action enchanted me. I was so taken with the concept that I chased the existential carrot all the way to its birthplace in China, and ended up spending several years there trying to figure it all out.
Action by non-action. Seeing without seeing. Hearing without hearing. Hmm… Yoda voice you hear now.
Though these were ideas I projected on my ideal self, I never really grasped what the philosophy was trying to say. I was never able to bear the fruits of practice because I was too overwhelmed by precariousness, status and “stuff”.
Many years have passed and thankfully, I can say I matured. I settled down. I chilled out.
Mediation, or the simple practice of sitting in comfortable silence, calming the mind, has improved my mental health beyond what I ever thought possible. So, if it works for the mind, it should work for the body, right?
After the Chicago Marathon, I took three full weeks off from running and instead focused on light strength workouts and the occasional sparring session. Once my heels started to feel better, I let myself run whenever I felt like it, for as long as I felt necessary, at whatever speed felt comfortable.
For the month of November, that philosophy translated to 2-3 short runs a week, with only one run over 5 miles the entire month. The result of this rest was an energized, healthy, eager me, ready to focus on the next big race.
I also dedicated a lot of my rest time to running without running. Volunteering, spectating, cheering. I own a bodacious cowbell. Staying involved within the community and being an active part of the success of others definitely helped rekindle my passion for the sport. Plus I got to make some new friends and see new places during the process.
This month I have begun to ease back into a familiar running routine, gradually building in distance and in speed, careful not to do too much too soon. So far, it is working. I feel great. I feel focused.
And I will begin training for the Boston Marathon in earnest on December 16.
The 2014 Boston friggin’ Marathon. Wow. The idea of running this historic race never loses its sexiness. And I think we all know that this year is going to be even more special.
In the fall of 2011, while recovering in the back of an SUV from a particularly muddy climb up what the Michigan locals called “the stripper pole” section of trail, a teammate of mine from the Dances with Dirt 100k relay team mentioned a peculiar event that had just taken place: Run Woodstock.
“Wait,” I interrupted, “You’re saying that a bunch of people get together for three days to just camp, run crazy distances and hang out?”
“Yep. And there’s a ‘natural 5k’, don’t forget.”
“You mean, ‘natural’… as in, naked?”
“You got it.”
And I was. In 2012, I may not have run the natural 5k, but I did pace the women’s overall 100 mile champion to a 21 hour+ finish while spending the rest of the laid back weekend drinking beer and hanging out with awesome, like-minded folks.
A week after returning home, I circled the 2013 date on my calendar and encouraged my dad to come out from Houston to join in the adventure with me. With race options from the half marathon to a hundred miles and everything in between, I knew that a weekend in the woods with friends, family and a cooler of beer would be something I would look forward to all year.
I didn’t plan on toeing the line a bit hobbled — both by my heels and my low alcohol tolerance — but life throws us curveballs all the time. It’s how we swing at them that determines who we are.
Pre-Race, Saturday, September 7, 2013, 4:30 a.m.
*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
Oh… my… what the… who was… ah, shit.
I’m hung over.
Hung over! WHY!?!? WHY DID I DO THIS!?!? WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS!?!?
Oh yeah, I am. I’m responsible. Well, shit.
Sure, it sounded good at the time. In fact, it sounded like a GREAT idea at the time:
Carbo load with beer! Why not? My heels and whatever Achilles-tendonitis-and-or-calcaneus-bursitis have limited my training to the point where I didn’t even think I would be able to run the race, let alone “race” it so let’s add something new to this race experience by getting loaded the night before! Your heels are gonna hurt anyway, let’s kill the pain!
At least, this is how I remember the decision making going down. Actually, as the fog clears, I realize it was less calculated. Only once I was four or five beers in (enough to put me in the ‘beyond buzzed’ category) was I able to justify my position with nonsense. And now… well, now it’s too late.
I’m parched. I’m dizzy. I’m running 50k.
I’m running 50k! I have the ability to run 50k… hung over… with wonky heels.
Life could be so much worse.
Dad wakes up beside me and our tent comes alive with amateur detective skills as we try to piece together all the shenanigans from last night. I am shocked to hear that I was a bit bossy towards my father in my delirium. Okay, so I’m not shocked, but I am embarrassed. I do my best to apologize before I force down a banana, chug multiple bottles of water and lube up for a long, long day.
Loop 1, Miles 1-15.5
It is still very dark as an amoeba of groggy headlamps makes its way towards the forest, where 15.5 miles of trail waits to inflict damage on my psyche and soul. My first several steps, as expected, are tender and sore. The backs of my heels — the absolute bane of my summer training — don’t quite seem to be in agreement with me today. I expect they will loosen up and not hurt as much after a while, but I know better than to think the aches will go away completely.
Luckily, my friend Jen is alongside to keep my mind off this fact. And I also have to pay attention to the trail in front of me for fear of–
Tripping. Tripping on the trail. Nice save, I tell myself, nice save.
I look down at my watch and am astonished to see I don’t have one on. Hm… no watch. Hung over. This IS a race of firsts.
So I don’t know how fast I’m going. That’s probably a good thing. I’m starting to feel a little bit better as I move along at what feels like a consistent pace, but if I knew my speed I would probably spend too much time beating myself up.
In fact, I interrupt myself, let’s just stop beating ourselves up NOW, shall we? You’re here to have fun. You had some fun last night, you’re having some fun now, you’re having fun, period. HAVE FUN!
And, just like that, I enter happy runner world bliss, not giving two shits about anything other than moving forward in time and space… and getting to an aid station because boy am I hungry.
At the first aid station, approximately four miles into the loop, I spy peanut butter and jelly. The volunteers look at me like I’m Godzilla on the attack as I stuff my face faster than I can chew. NOM NOM NOM. I grab a handful of Saltines for the trail and get going, intent on not stopping long enough for my heels to stiffen.
On my way out I wave goodbye to Jen who kept me company for these first several miles. Today’s going to be one of those days where I want the distraction of conversation so I’m glad I got through the darkness with a friend.
Now the sun is coming up, I’m starting to feel less nauseous and I have the whole day ahead of me.
The Run Woodstock loop is made up of mostly single track trail through luscious forest, but there are a few seemingly long sections of road that gnaw away at my patience. I remember this from last year; however, I didn’t run a step of last year’s pacing duties during the sunlight hours. I ran it all at night, so seeing the road stretch out in front of me tests my ability to shut off the negativity that seems to always want me to quit when things get tough.
Not today, negativity. Not today.
I spend most of miles 4 through 10 ping-ponging among a solid group of runners. My pace, while certainly below what I am use to, feels great and suits the wonkiness of my heels. I stop every once in a while to stretch out my Achilles, and I embrace the opportunity to slow down and power hike when I feel like my heart rate is too high.
By the time I hit the third aid station, around mile 11 or so, I conclude that my body has won the war against hungover dehydration. I celebrate by stuffing massive amounts of peanut butter and jelly in my mouth.
NOM NOM NOM
*ZOOM, ZOOM, ZOOOOOOM*
What the? Half marathoners. Blazing. Flying! Right past me. I knew this was going to happen, that I would be embracing my inner tortoise, comfortably laboring along only to have my ego slaughtered by slender speedsters. With each approaching huff and puff gaining from behind, I politely step off trail to let them through.
Then immediately chase them. Duh.
By the time I hit the end of loop one my heart rate is way higher than it should be, the sun is beating down from above and when I see the clock reads 3 hours and change I know this is going to be the longest 50k of my life.
But, as if the running gods could actually feel my pain, at the start/finish line aid station I am gifted with the glorious grace of… GRILLED CHEESE.
The kind volunteer who offers it to me marvels at my ability to clear the plate. Well, I hope he is marveling and not chastising. Either way, that grilled cheese doesn’t stand a chance.
NOM NOM NOM
Before I head out for the second loop I make a stop at my tent to roll out my calves with The Stick. My heels are really thumping me with aches now. Tight calves are often the culprit. I back all of this up with 800 mg of Ibuprofen and a nice long chug of water.
I stumble out of the tent and see my friend, Kirsten, who is running the 50 mile race.
“Hey, Kirsten, wait up!” I call out, anxious to share more miles with friendly faces. If I’m going to be out there for another 3+ hours, I want to have some conversation to keep my occupied.
Loop 2, Miles 15.5-31
Kirsten has showed up on this blog many times, notably here and here. It’s been cool getting to know her over the last year and a half, another testament to the notion that ultrarunners are awesome by default, regardless of gender, occupation, speed. We run long, and in doing so, share so much.
Her 50 mile race speed is slightly faster than my current 50k race speed, but I don’t want to be alone right now so I just stay on her heels as we head back into the forest. We chat about everything and nothing at all, keen on sharing elevated heart rate stories caused by the blazing fast half marathoners who caught us on the first go around.
My legs are getting heavy, and by the time we hit the road section I can tell I need to slow myself down. I wish Kirsten the best with the rest of her race before I stop, stretch, then settle back into a slow slog — smile still ear to ear.
Because really, what is there not to be happy about? I am still moving, right? I’m still having fun, seeing my friends, enjoying time alone in the forest. I’m alive, I’m sound. It would be easy for me to feel sorry for myself right now because I’m not 100% but I’m not having it. As long as I’m able to run — period — I am going to be happy about it. That’s the choice I make.
That choice, and the bliss that goes with it, is what convinces me to take the time to stop around mile 23. I’m really starting to feel the thumping in my heels now and I know that taking my shoes off and massaging my heels will give me some relief. I sit down right beside the trail and do this, to both feet, for a few minutes. The relief I get from it is well worth the time lost. I’m not breaking any records today anyway, so I might as well be as comfortable as possible.
Back on my feet now, my smiles grows along with my effort. I really, really needed that.
I reach a road crossing and tuck in behind a friendly woman in pink, donning a Marathon Maniacs jersey. Her name is Amanda and this 50k is her very first ultra.
ULTRA VIRGIN! YES!
And immediately behind me is a familiar voice. I turn to see it’s Betty, another friendly gal whom I met at Ice Age this year, where she was running her first ultra.
We’re just one happy ultra world, ain’t we!?
It turns out we are all New Leafers (hooray!) and we all have a lot in common: marathon-crazed, adventure-driven, Bears fans. We will spend the next (and last) 8 miles running together, enjoying a free-flowing, easy conversation that does wonders for my achy feet.
Now I’m not even aware my heels hurt anymore. I just concentrate on the company and conversation, quick to share my race experiences on nutrition, pacing and everything in between. The three of us are forced to stay on our toes as multiple masses of mountain bikers haphazardly fly towards us.
Death wish on handlebars.
After successful navigation through the gauntlet of disgruntled bikers, we are almost done. I can hear the music and laughter of the camp off in the distance. Betty and Amanda pick up the pace. I do all I can to stick with them, but as we approach the last 800 meters or so, I’m more interested in just finishing rather than finishing with a kick, so they leave me in their dust.
I couldn’t be happier for them both.
When I cross the line myself, arms up in triumph after 6 hours and 22 minutes of running, they are both there with big smiles and individual age group awards.
Hot dog! What a day! Now somebody get me a beer!
Post-Race, Hair of the Dog, Hippies Abound
If you assumed I would celebrate this 50k finish with an Anti-Hero IPA from Revolution Brewing, then you are most definitely correct. Waiting for me by the cooler was my old man, himself content with his own half marathon finish, and there, the two of us rejoiced in one of nature’s longest pastimes: relaxation.
With our tent situated right on the trail coming out of the start/finish line aid station, we spent the next several hours cheering runners (50 milers, 100k’ers, 100 milers) along with the raucous sound of beer and cowbell.
Much of the rest of the evening was spent in a similar manner. We ate, we drank, we cheered. We took in live music, shared war stories with friends, and some of us (not me) even enjoyed a naked jog through the woods.
But most of all, we celebrated the peace that is being in nature, running long and being alive.
For sure, I will be back to Run Woodstock. As for how sober I will remain, well, there are no guarantees.
The Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon in Batavia, IL keeps bringing me back. I PR’d there in 2011. I did it again in 2012. And since the quaint little town is so welcoming with its serene course and opulent post-race party, I couldn’t help but toe the line for a third year in a row. Besides, the race fits quite well with my Chicago Marathon training and, for the last two years, has accurately projected where I can expect to finish in an all-things-being equal mid-October 26.2 mile contest.
Pre-Race, 4:15 a.m.
I am up and stuffing my face with bananas, toast and coffee. Despite the early morning butterflies, I actually slept pretty well last night. But now, just a few hours from the start, I begin to go through my regular cycle of self-doubt and reassuring affirmation. With this year’s Chicago Marathon goal being the loftiest I’ve ever imagined, the plan for today is to run all 13.1 at marathon pace, somewhere between 6:50-6:52 minute miles, finishing in 1 hour 30 minutes, which would be a new personal record by more than two minutes.
The weather doesn’t look too bad. It will be in the low 70s for most of my race with the type of humidity one can expect for the Midwest in August. If I can pull off a 1:30 finish in today’s summery conditions, I will spend the next 6 weeks feeling pretty confident about what I can do on October 13. Luckily, there will be a 1:30 pace group for today’s half, and having run this race twice before, I know the last two miles are essentially all downhill. As long as I can get to the 11-mile marker without dying, I should be able to accomplish my goal.
But 90 minutes at sub-7 minute pace… Jeff, you’ve NEVER done that before. You hear me? NEVER.
I’m only warming up and already my subconscious Debbie Downer is picking a fight.
And you don’t have the miles this year. Your heels are still wonky. Your speed work has sucked. Remember last week when you couldn’t hold 6:50 for two miles in a row!? And the week before where your legs just felt heavy and non-responsive? Yeah, good luck with that.
My subconscious Debbie Downer can be a real drag sometimes. I vow to shut it up. I’m coming in today off a mini-taper, feeling strong, feeling determined. I’m going to stick with the pace group as long as my body allows — and that means grinding through the pain.
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
I read that off someone’s Facebook feed this morning. I’m going to use that mantra when the going gets tough.
And it will get tough.
“Hi, my name is Jeff,” I say as I enter the chute and position myself next to two fluorescent yellow clad men holding the 1:30 pace sign.
“Hi, I’m Eric,” says the side burned leader, “and this is Kyle” he says motioning to his younger counterpart. I shake both of their hands and size them up. Both appear confident and svelte — two characteristics I usually look for in pace leaders.
“Do you plan on running even splits today?” I ask.
“Yes, 6:52 pace the whole way. Even splits,” says Eric. “I will be keeping track of the average per mile pace and Kyle will keep track of the actual mile splits each mile. If it makes you feel any better, we came in last year at 1:30:01.”
Awesome, I think to myself. Not only do these guys seem confident about their plan of attack, but they have also done this before, with success. I’m game.
“Okay, well I’m going to stick with you as long as I can,” I reply. “I just hope the heat and humidity don’t get to me.”
As soon as I say this I realize I’ve just given myself an excuse to abort if the going gets tough — an excuse my more determined self can’t accept right now.
Stick with them, Jeff. The whole way. The only thing that is going to stop you from achieving this goal today is a broken body part or a trip in an ambulance.
3… 2… 1… GO!
This is my third running of the race and the third variation to the start line I’ve experienced. In 2011 we began by going up a big hill. In 2012, that hill was gone. Today, there is another hill at the start but it’s in a different location. I think. Hell, I don’t know. I just know that we’re starting up an incline and it’s time to wedge myself into the group and get comfortable.
Eric and Kyle are in front. I tuck in directly behind. All around me are about 15-20 individuals who seem determined to hold pace.
This is your team, Jeff. Look around. Get used to these people. Stick with this group. Do NOT lose this group.
My subconscious voice is obnoxiously loud, but equally determined. Who am I to argue with what it wants?
The first couple of miles are a blur. We’re moving along right on pace and the folks in this peloton are focused. No ones seems to be huffing and puffing yet. Our footfalls create a natural, appealing rhythm. No one smells particularly awful.
This is work in motion — a thing of beauty.
Other than Eric and Kyle’s casual conversation, there isn’t much chit-chat. I can’t hold a conversation going this fast. I definitely admire those who can and the fact that our pacers seem to do so without losing a breath or a step is extremely comforting.
As we weave through the quiet neighborhoods of Batavia that remind me of the small town where I grew up, I notice everyone seems to know our pace leader, Eric. Course marshals, aid station volunteers and excited race observers alike are quick to shout out his name and wave a friendly hand.
This, combined with his detailed course preview assures me that Eric knows what he’s doing and that I should just stick on his heels. Right now, with the temperature still hovering right around the low 70s, I feel okay, but I am sweating a lot.
So when the first two aid stations only offer water and no sports drink, I begin to panic just a bit.
DOH! I need carbohydrate!
I recall this being an issue last year, that not all the aid stations offered sports drink and I had to just deal with it. I don’t know why I assumed that would change this year, but it didn’t. Am I being too snobbish by expecting that in a half marathon? I don’t know. I just know that the best fueling strategy for me is to take in carbohydrate and electrolytes from the very first aid station on through.
But a key element in distance running is adjusting to problems on the fly. I try to relax and know that I’ll get my electrolytes soon enough.
We get through the first 5k under 21 minutes and as I look around I see that our numbers are already dropping off. And so it goes with pace groups. Some days ya just don’t have it. I hone in on my constant mind-body feedback loop, keen to check my breathing, legs, feet, ankles. My wonky heels are aching a bit but that’s just going to be how it goes today. It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before. For now, I feel about as comfortable as I can expect to feel considering what I’m doing.
Somewhere around the 5-mile mark, we hit the steep downhill into downtown Batavia where the crowds are big, loud and supportive. The easiness of running decline combined with the cheering support and a MUCH needed Gatorade-rich aid station make the left turn on to the bike path a great relief to my tiring body.
We tuck in a little closer now as our path narrows, running alongside the picturesque Fox River. This well-shaded portion of the race is a welcome relief from the rising sun, and now that we find ourselves closer together, I marvel at the fact that no one has tripped yet. We are so close together that one slight misstep from anyone could cause a colossal crash and burn.
This is so cool, I think to myself.
But what is it specifically about running fast within a group that gives me goosebumps? Is it the sense of togetherness, the creation of community that is born of it? Maybe it’s the notion that I wouldn’t be able to sustain this type of movement just on my own. Or, perhaps it’s simply benefiting from less drag and focusing on the heels of the guy in front of me.
No matter what, I’m in the zone now. My only concern is right now. Right. This. Minute. Staying with the group. Sticking to Eric and Kyle.
“Eric and Kyle,” I say. “All we need now is Stan and Kenny to be complete.”
No one gets my bad Southpark joke/reference, but that’s okay, because we got work to do. A quick look around and I see we’re still about 8 strong. There are several fluorescent green and yellow shirts. There are also a few women among us and everyone is FOCUSED.
We pass the halfway mark and Eric briefs us on what is to come in the last half, which includes a couple of climbs.
Only 6.5 miles to go now, I tell myself. Just hang on. You’re doing great.
Oh yeah, you’re doing great, says my mischievous Debbie Downer self, if you consider feeling like shit doing great. You really think you can hold on to this pace? Ha!
I take a much needed gel, feel a bit more energized, and remind myself to pump my arms when the legs seem unresponsive.
The love and support our group gets from the people who came out to cheer us on along the course does wonders for my mind and body, but somewhere around mile 9, both start to suffer.
I don’t want to do this anymore.
No one cares if you run a 1:30 or a 1:35 or a 1:anything. No one cares. You can stop now.
It’s too warm. Too humid. You can chill out now, man. It’s okay. Seriously.
My Debbie Downer side bombards me just as my body starts to slow down. As we charge up an incline, I begin to fall off the pace. Actually, our whole group starts to fall apart. And while I entertain negative thoughts and consider just taking it easy from here to the end, Eric heads to the rear of the group, motivating those of us struggling to survive to stick to it, to pump our arms. His words and actions encourage me to dig a little deeper.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
And it’s only 4 more miles… the last two are downhill so just stick with it. STICK WITH IT, JEFF! NOW IS NO TIME TO GIVE UP!
The old adage of holding on through the rough spots because they’ll go away soon comes to mind as I find a little something inside to chase down Kyle up in front of me. My 30 meter surge is matched by a few others in the group and slowly, we come together again. By the time we crest the last of the inclines and hit the bike path for the last section, including the pacers we are a strong group of six. Eric and Kyle resume their leader spots, giving us much needed encouragement and support.
Holy cow, I can’t believe I just got through that, I think to myself.
“Isn’t this great?” Eric asks aloud. “A nice, steady decline here.”
Great? I think to myself. This is effing brilliant!
Properly shaded again and moving along the gradual downhill path, I look at my watch to see we’re less than two miles from the finish line and for the first time today it hits me: I am going to make that 1:30 mark. I’m going to PR and I’m going to finish this day satisfied that my marathon training is right where it needs to be to do exactly what I want to do.
The hairs on my arm stand up and I feel a cool breeze of satisfaction wash over me.
“You guys, this is going to be a huge, 4 minute PR for me today,” says the woman to my right, arms pumping, legs turning over at the high cadence which has locked in to all four of us surviving runners.
This is awesome, I think. This is simply awesome.
“If anyone is feeling good and wants to get by, just let us know,” says Eric. I definitely consider it, but when I try to accelerate, I got nothin’.
Nah, just stay right on their heels, Jeff. Just ride this out to the end and save that jolt for the finish line.
It takes all the concentration I have to just stick with the pacers. They look back every now and then to see how we survivors are doing and I can’t help but think the face I’m making must be a scary mess. I feel terrible.
But I’m almost done.
We exit the bike path and are close to the finish line because I can hear the crowd and a PA system. We turn left and run under a bridge of some sorts where we are forced to run single file.
Eric drops back and gives me one last “go get em!” as I slide by, steadily chasing the speedy Kyle in front of me. 300 meters from the finish, I feel euphoric — all the pain in my legs and lungs ceases. I feel myself well up as I thank Kyle for his help.
“Dude, thank you so much. I never would have been able to do this on my own,” I tell him.
“You’re welcome, man, awesome job,” he says as he motions me past him for my final sprint.
As I come down the finishing stretch I pass one of the guys who was in our pace group and suddenly I don’t feel my legs at all.
Am I flying? Gliding? Where am I?
I’m at the end. I cross the finish line, arms raised in proud triumph.
Holy shit I just ran a 1:30:10 half marathon.
I take a few seconds to catch my breath from the last sprint before I turn around and look for the rest of the group members. Kyle comes across and I immediately give him a hug, whether he wants it or not.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your help. Thank you. Thank you so much,” I gush.
The last woman standing from our group comes across too and I give her a radiant high five for her huge PR. The smile on her face is one that I won’t forget. Those types of highlight smiles don’t wane easily.
Two other guys come through and I greet them with high fives.
Finally, Eric arrives at the back of the group and I make a beeline towards him, celebratory hug included.
“Dude! Eric! Thank you! That was awesome. I really appreciate your help. Two minute PR for me today. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
This enthusiasm, this cheer, this ecstasy… it always seems to find its way into my running adventures.
So I just keep coming back.
The good folks in Batavia host one hell of a post-race party. After my emotions calmed down, I had my share of all you can eat pizza and all you can drink beer. I was quick to thank all of the volunteers who made the event a special one.
Watching this race grow over the last few years has been a real treat. In talking with some of my friends at the post-race party, I learned that the race organizers and volunteers had to fight hard to keep the course winding through the neighborhoods like it does. Apparently there was some opposition. Some entity wanted to restrict the entire race to just the bike patch, which, in my opinion would totally kill the charming vibe of this race.
I love going through the actual town, seeing folks on their front lawns with signs and cowbells and high fives. If I wanted to run on a bike path the whole time I’d just stay in Chicago.
Hopefully, this race will continue its awesome streak and I won’t ever have to worry about that.
In thinking about my performance post-race, I realize it would have been nice to break that 1:30 barrier; however, my goal for the day was to run a 1:30 and considering the conditions, where the race fell within my training plan and the fact that I really gave it all I had, I have no regrets.
All I have is a sore face from smiling so much.