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.
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.
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 two weeks of progressive running leading up to the Houston Half Marathon gave me plenty of confidence that my IT band syndrome issues had finally subsided. I knew that I probably wasn’t ready to push myself to the point of all out racing, but I knew that I had a good shot at finishing 13.1 miles pain free.
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Pre-Race, 4:15 a.m.
The alarm clock goes off and I’m ready to go through my now conditioned routine: half a cup of coffee, one banana and a bagel. I peek out the window to see the trees outside my dad’s house blowing violently in the wind. I open the door to see just what type of weather I will be dealing with today and I quickly shut it, less I freeze to death. Low 40s. Lots of rain. 20+ mph winds.
Dad throws his bike in the back of the truck and we begin the 45 minute drive to downtown Houston. I didn’t sleep much last night so I take this time to catnap. I visualize a succesful race, one without knee pain, without giving in to the elements. Training in Chicago the last several years has made me pretty tough. I don’t like running in the cold, windy rain (does anyone really?) but I know I have the ability to shut it out, toughen up and just get the work done regardless.
In my corral now, I’m huddled among a mass of anxiously freezing runners. I have decided to wear my lightweight running jacket over my singlet. The high powered winds are just too chilling for me to go without it. A quick look around shows that I’m not the only one dressed for warmth, and as the announcer begins his introductions, the rain starts to come down steady and strong. A gust of wind hits me below the belt. Dressed in my trademark short shorts, I start to worry about the safety of “my boys”. But it’s too late now. All I can do is focus on running.
And we’re off…
Brrrrrr! Well, it’s a good thing I’m not trying to break any records today, I remind myself. The first few miles are a mental showdown between me and the elements. The winds are strong and mostly in my face, pushing me backwards with violent force, but I just keep my head down and barrel through. I stop trying to avoid puddles — there are just too many of them, and my feet are already soaked anyway.
Since I lined up at the very front of the corral, I’m not suffocated by a bunch of people tripping and skipping their way across my path. I’m surrounded by runners who match my fitness level and at the two mile mark I’m drafting inside a tightly formed pack. My plan is to just go out at a comfortable 7-minute pace and hold it throughout the race. I cross the three mile marker in 21 minutes. Right on schedule.
My body feels good, but I’m not really enjoying myself. All I can think to myself is I can’t wait until this is over, I can’t wait until this is over. This is a rare thought for me, especially during a race, but the elements are wearing on my mind. The gusts of wind keep coming at me, from all directions, and I’m pretty sure my balls are frozen now.
At least my leg/ITB/knee feels good.
Until, *BAM*, it doesn’t.
Oh shit. Here we go. I pass the six mile marker and almost immediately, I start to feel that familiar ache developing at the ITB insertion point of my right knee. No, no, no… this is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening.
Except, it is happening. And there’s not much I can do about it.
Maybe it’ll go away, I think to myself. I grit my teeth, trying to ignore it. But having been dealing with this issue for so long now, I know better.
Around the seven mile marker, I see Dad, a bright spot. Goooo Jeff! he encourages me.
Not feeling good. My knee is starting to hurt, I tell him.
Uh oh, he responds. The look on his face is the same look I’ve been carrying for the last mile or so — the same one I was hoping to avoid indefinitely. Sometimes we do all the right things and we still don’t get what we want. This is a lesson I’m trying to understand.
I keep going, pushing along as my pack starts to move ahead of me. The ache is becoming a throb, so I stop and do some ITB stretches, hoping this will make it go away. The stretching feels good, but once I get moving again, the pain persists. I push and push and push, but another, more sane voice finds its way inside my head and says, Dude, it’s not worth it. Stop now. Live to fight another fight.
I hate that this voice is right. But, for once, I listen.
I stop running. I look down at my watch. 8.62 miles in one hour exactly.
Well, now what? I ask myself. All I really want to do is punch something, to scream, to break things.
I resort to a hobble-walk. I can’t walk too fast. The ITB pain gets worse the faster I move.
Just as I feel myself succumbing to the dark cavern of negative thoughts, I see Dad up ahead. I’m happy to see him, but beyond disappointed in my condition. I tell him how I’m feeling and, knowing how pissy I am right now, he doesn’t say much. Instead he peddles alongside me on the race course while I try to stay out of the path of the hordes of runners passing me.
I can’t help but feel embarrassed, defeated. I’m sorry, I tell him.
Don’t be sorry. You have no reason to be sorry with me.
I’m really trying hard not to be a baby right now.
If it wasn’t so damn cold, windy and rainy, maybe I’d have the strength to have a good cry. But I’m shivering, struggling to stay warm.
Do you want your warm-up pants? he asks. I try to run again, hoping maybe everything was just in my head. It wasn’t. I still have ITBS and running is not an option right now. We stop so I can put my pants on. I pin my bib to my front leg. He gives me his raincoat too, which helps immensely.
We discuss me dropping. I really want to. I hate hobble-walking while the crowds continue to cheer for all of those running past me. I know they mean well, but if I hear one more person tell me I’m doing a good job, when I CLEARLY am not, I might do something stupid.
We get to about the ten mile mark and I decide that not finishing is NOT an option. DNF’ing was not a part of the plan today, so I’m going to gut this one out and hobble across the finish line no matter what. Dad labors alongside me on his bike, offering consoling conversation when I need it, but mostly just staying quiet, like me.
I can’t help but think how lucky I am to have a dad who would bike alongside me like this in such shitty conditions, offering up his own coat so that I don’t freeze. Despite my bum leg, I’m a pretty lucky dude.
With a half mile to go, the course narrows and the crowd grows. There isn’t enough room for Dad to bike alongside me anymore so he splits off and we agree to meet back at the George R. Brown Center.
I cross the finish line just as the lead American marathoner finishes his 26.2. The deafening roar drowns out my depression and I take a second to cheer the guy on myself. I’ll have days like that again someday, I tell myself. This ain’t my last rodeo.
I’ve had enough time now to find a little bit of healthy perspective on the whole ordeal. Despite my positive training runs leading up to this event, I’m thinking that my body just wasn’t ready to handle that sort of continuous speed quite yet. Or maybe it was pounding on the few rolling downhills the course had to offer. Or maybe it was the conditions. I don’t know.
I will see my sports doctor on Tuesday to get his perspective and advice.
In the meantime, I’m finding comfort in the fact that I didn’t continue to push my body through the pain — that I didn’t act with recklessness as I probably would have once done. I let reason dictate my actions. And I’m hoping such discretion will allow me to have enough time to adequately train for Boston.
Perspective is a bitch sometimes, no doubt, but I’m glad I finally have it.
“Holy… effing… shit,” I said to Dr. Jay, my long-time chiropractor (and now, savior), “I wish I could explain to you the type of relief I’m feeling right now.” I lay there, face down, breathing alleviated breaths that seemed to crescendo into sweeter, livelier respirations of victory. Finally. Everything made sense. Sort of.
“Yeah, even your ribs were all out of whack.” he said.
Ribs? Back? But my problem is ITBS… or so I thought.
In fact, the last three weeks have been as frustrating as they have been debilitating. Laid up from my DNF at the Des Plaines River Trail 50 from what was most certainly IT band syndrome, I have spent the last 20-some days scouring the internet for anti-ITBS clues, searching frantically from one runner injury forum to the next, soliciting advice from anyone with any inkling of authority, even if his handle is RUNNERSLAVE69.
I bought a $15 compression wrap that would be better used as a headband. I endured three intense ART sessions. I rolled and stretched my IT band so much that I feel like I should be an inch or two taller.
But none of it seemed to do anything to help, which led to repeatedly asking myself: WHY? WHY ME?
My hip flexors are super strong! My gluteus medius could be used as an anatomy classroom specimen! My quads are about as muscular as one could ever expect them to be! SO WHY ME? WHY NOW? DON’T YOU KNOW I HAVE A MARATHON TO RUN IN 9 1/2 WEEKS?
It wasn’t until I was on the phone with my dad, complaining to him as best I could without turning into a complete baby, explaining how I went from being uber tough BQ runner to debilitated hobby jogger who couldn’t run 4 miles without a flaring IT band leaving him hobbled, depressed and defeated.
“First I throw out my back on the ab roller,” I told him, “then my knee locks up from ITBS, and then, because I was so frustrated with not being able to train, I went straight to the heavy bag without wrapping my hands and now I’m pretty sure I have a broken wrist.”
(Luckily, I don’t actually have a broken wrist. Just a sore wrist. A very, very sore wrist.)
“Wait, what did you say about your back?” Dad asked.
“I threw it out on the ab roller. The Monday before my DNF actually.”
“Maybe that and your IT band are related.”
DING DING DING!
Why didn’t I ever think of that? I should have known that. I should have known that!
“Oh yes, the two are definitely related.” said Dr. Jay. “When you strained your back, all the muscles around it tightened, pulling inwards, which pulled your hip upwards, rotating it into an abnormal position.”
With the rotated hip, the IT band got off track, and voila, after a few gentle miles I wanted to saw my own leg off. Thankfully, I won’t need to saw my own leg off.
In fact, Doc says after another adjustment or two, I should be back to normal. Seven to ten days should do it, which is fantastic news for humanity, considering I’ve been a moody bear without my regular training regimen to keep me centered.
But just in case I have any lingering ITB issues, I did buy some KT tape. I plan to start using it immediately, which finally offers me a legitimate excuse to experiment with shaving my legs.
“Running is a vehicle for self-discovery.”
In May of 2009, I was a pack-and-a-half a day smoker who drank too much, ate like shit and never exercised. In May of 2010, I was logging 3-mile runs two or three times a week. In May of 2011, I was recovering from my first marathon.
And in May of 2012, I unleashed an ultrarunning, trail-diggin’, dirt lovin’ dragon.
Here is my story:
Race Morning, 3:30 a.m.
I’m up! Banana, granola bar, a big gooey blueberry muffin and a cup of coffee. Did I sleep last night? A little. Am I nervous? No! But I should be… right?
In a couple of hours I will begin the journey of completing my very first 50 mile race. With four road marathons and five trail 50Ks in my legs already, this is the trip that will really stretch my psyche. This is the one that I’ve been daydreaming about for well over a year.
I’m craving it. I’m expecting it. I can’t wait to test the body I’ve been steadily building for this exact day, May 12, 2012.
Dad doesn’t seem to hear the blaring alarm clock deafening my ears so I nudge him awake and then we both busy ourselves with prepping for a very long day. I’m really glad he’s here with me. He’s one of the main reasons I fell in love with running in the first place and he’s been with me at every step of my transformation. Despite the fact that he lives outside of Houston (which is pretty far from Chicago and the midwest) he was at my first 5K, my first half marathon, first marathon and first 50K!
Now he’s here for my first 50 miler, only instead of participating as runner or spectator, this time I’m puttin’ him to work as my crew. Last night we went over his duties and I’m pretty confident that he’ll be a big help to me throughout the day. This might be almost as epic for him as it will be for me.
I think that’s pretty cool.
Start Line, 5:30 a.m.
With so many of my New Leaf and M.U.D.D. friends also running in this race, I know the start and finish lines are gonna be buzzin’ with awesome-sauce. Every time I look around I see someone I know, which is just fantastic! With this kind of good company, it’s hard for me to give in to the normal anxieties and fears I usually have before a big race. My stomach’s not churning at all. I’m not shaking. Instead, I’m crackin’ jokes and shakin’ hands.
If I were all alone right now, surely I’d be worrying about the unknown, about the fact that I’ve never run more than 32 miles at any one time, or longer than 6 and a half hours — both tasks I’m going to have to deal with. But I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by a loving, joyous community.
And some kick-ass trail.
The temp is in the mid 50s. It will get up into the high 60s, but we’ll have cloud cover for most of the day and virtually no rain (some spits here and there).
The race director addresses all 360+ of us, then comes the National Anthem. I hug my dad goodbye and take my place at the start line. This is really happening now.
This is really, actually happening.
The first section of the race takes place on the Nordic Loop, which is a relatively wide and flat grassy section, ideal for speed. But this ain’t no speed contest. This is a long haul. And pacing will either save me, or destroy me.
My goal for today is to just finish the race, to enjoy the virginal voyage. After the last few trail races, where I’ve placed in the top 10, it is paramount that I stay humble and don’t get cocky. There are world class athletes here today with lots of experience and I need to just watch them blow by.
Racing a 50K is much different than racing a 50 miler. I think. Hell, I don’t even know how to race a 50 miler yet, because I’ve never done it! And my track record on first races at all the different distances is not very good.
Sure, I’ve finished them all, but in each case (my first half marathon, first marathon, first 50K) I went out WAAAY too fast and had to suffer through some gut-busting, painful miles at the end. I don’t want that to happen today.
So the plan is to run this first loop at a controlled 10-11 minute pace with my new friend, Geoff, whom I met at the Earth Day 50K. He and I finished a close 4th and 5th there and since our paces are about the same, we decided to run this first bit together.
I’m very glad we did, because the conversation with Geoff is making this early portion quite fun. As if the infinitely luscious green forest isn’t enough to make me smile, the chatter we have going makes it all the sweeter. We share our running backgrounds and talk race schedules. We wax on nutrition, training, and of course, beer (this will be an all-day theme actually). We also share the strategy of running the flats, walking the uphills, and running the downs. The Ice Age Trail is notorious for its incessant batch of rolling hills and having an attack plan could be key.
I’m carrying a 20 oz. handheld bottle and lots of GU stuffed in my short pockets. All is going well so we blow by the first aid station. In fact, the first 8 miles breeze by, but nature calls and I tell Geoff to head on while I make a quick stop to water the trees.
A few minutes later, I’m back on the trail, but the lot of racers has already spread out so much that I have little company. That’s to be expected in a trail race, so I embrace the alone time while I have it. As I come into the second aid station at mile 9, I see Dad waving his arms, yelling my name.
The temperature is rising, so I rip off my singlet, get a quick bottle refill and get back to work.
Cruising. Damn. I just feel… good. I’m not going too fast. Am I? No. I think. I don’t know.
Because it is so early still, I try not to think about what I’m doing too much. I mean, I don’t wanna stress myself out with math and splits and whatever else problem could come up. I’m pretty much just zooming along by myself here, enjoying the magnificent surroundings, eating a GU every half hour and taking a sip of my half-water-half-Gatorade mix every few minutes. It’s not really too warm, but it is a bit humid and when the sun does break out of the clouds it jumps up and smacks me in the face.
Of course, the actual trail does a good job of smacking me in the face as well. Literally. While it’s not uncommon for me to trip and do a face-plant during the latter stages of a race, this early section sees me fall *BOOM* not once but *BOOM* twice. Luckily, I’m alone and my embarrassment is limited to just me and Mother Nature, who graciously covers me with mud and dirt upon each trip.
After collecting myself, I reach one of the rare exposed sections of the course, close to a lake, and suddenly I’m choking on a swarm of bugs.
What the — … are these gnats or… midges or…. what the hell are these things?!?
Whatever they are, they swarm in bunches and attack from out of nowhere. While some of them kamikaze into my sweaty torso, the majority decide to invade my eyes, ears and mouth.
I look behind me and see another runner falling victim to the same insect army.
Disgusting, he says. He has a very pleasant sounding British accent, and he’s running faster than I am, so I move out of the way and let him lead.
His name is Mark. He’s from Evanston via Cambridge, England. I recognize him from some earlier banter, back when I was running with Geoff. We were talking about beer.
Though it’s quite early, we pick up our beer conversation in anticipation of the finish line refreshment and share some stories of races past. Along the way, we pick up another runner, one donning a Marathon Maniacs singlet, whom I sheepishly anoint as “Maniac”. Turns out his real name is Steve.
For the next 10-20 miles, I will spend a lot of time with Mark and Steve, ebbing and flowing according to the terrain.
Shortly after we depart the Highway 12 aid station at approximately 17.3 miles, I trip and fall AGAIN, this time breaking the strap on my water bottle.
I don’t have a backup strap either. Damn it! But… wait… I do have… duct tape! It’s in my gear bag that Dad is hauling around, and if anyone can create something functional out of duct tape, it’s my father. He’s been doing it my whole life.
I will see him in 5 miles or so. I can hold on to this thing the old fashioned way until then. I hope.
BOOM. I trip again. What the FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!
Pick up yer damn feet, Forest! I tell myself. I can’t go a week of running in my neighborhood without some jackass yelling Run, Forest, Run! at me through his car window, so when I do something stupid I like to call myself Forest. And today, Forest is falling all over his face.
BUT I’M STILL HAVING FUUUUUN! says Forest, er… I mean, me.
Here is where time sorta stops and I don’t know what’s happening where. I know that my right IT band is aching. And that has NEVER happened before. On the uphill power hikes, when I have a chance, I stop and knead my knuckles into the band as hard as I can. This relieves whatever pressure is building up, but my hand can’t keep up with the tightness and the lateral portion of my right knee begins to ache. I know this is not good but I ain’t stoppin’ so I’ll just deal with it later.
Luckily, there are a lot of out-and-back sections in this race so there is a constant flow of traffic coming from the other direction. At first it’s the leaders — whom I can’t help but stop and watch with complete awe. Such form! Such ease! And then I’m on the other side, high-fiving those who are behind me.
Perhaps this is why everyone says the Ice Age Trail 50 is so special. Hell, I know at least 50 people who are running this thing, and each time I see their smiling, suffering faces, I get a HUGE energy boost. Pushing my limits is fun enough on its own I guess, but when it involves the type of camaraderie and support inherent in the ultrarunning community, it’s just like a big old party. Instead of boozing, we’re running. That’s all.
I try to use that energy in hammering the downhills, but eventually, all that force causes my right knee to ache, so I begin to take it easy on the downs. This is probably a good thing, because now I’m starting to feel pretty tired. Not wasted, just tired, as expected. I look down at my watch to see 4 hours and 10 minutes have gone by and I’m only at 24.2 miles.
Can I sustain this pace for another marathon? Will my knee hold up? How many more times am I going to trip and fall? Can I even feel my right toe anymore?
Before I can answer these questions I’m at another aid station, instructing Dad to rig me a duct tape bottle handle — a task he gleefully accepts. I reload on GUs (even though I’m getting sick of them now), suck on some orange slices and I’m back on the trail.
Sticking with Mark and Steve, back and forth, all this time and finally I fall back. I’m starting to feel more and more gassed. The sun is busting out. Mark takes off, Steve is right behind him, but I gotta slow down for a minute.
Zone out. Just keep moving. Don’t think too much.
I get to the shoulder of Duffin Road, 30.2 miles in the bag, and I see Dad.
VAS! I yell.
What? he says.
VAS! I need VAS.
VASELINE, yells the crowd of other crew members, spectators and volunteers. In unison.
I didn’t realize it until just now but I need some lubrication down in the nether regions and this aid station couldn’t have come at a better time. In true trail runner form, I dip my hand in the jar, pull out of big glob and then immediately stick my hand down my shorts. Apparently, I don’t mind an audience.
I’m starting to get hot, I tell Dad. I don’t feel too good. He douses me with ice water, dumps ice cubes in my bottle — a bottle that NOW has a nice, new and STRONG duct tape strap, (good work, Dad!) — and asks if I need anything else.
Salt. I need salt.
He hurries to grab some salt tablets out of my bag and he kindly puts them in a plastic baggie for me to take. My old man has always been there for me, and I know he always has my back, but in this instance, watching him run around all over this forest preserve, jumping into quick action at my slightest command, to help me, is quite a comforting feeling. I know he’d like to be out there adventuring himself, and that crewing can be a drag sometimes, but more than anything, he is here for me. I am not alone.
He believes in me.
You’re doing great, Jeff. Keep going. Just keep going, he says.
I catch up to Steve again.
Mark took off, he says. Just flew. Had a lot of energy left.
Not me, man. I’m starting to feel tired, I admitted.
Steve and I share the trail. We talk about races we’ve run, races we want to run. We keep each other going.
I see a bunch of folks coming on from the opposite direction again and the salutations, while maybe a bit quieter than they were during the first half, still serve as pleasant boosts of mental energy. I say “mental”, because that’s what is taking over now. My mind has to control everything from here on out because my body is starting to revolt.
Eventually Steve starts to fade, but I keep trucking.
BOOM. I trip and fall. Again.
Fuck you, earth. Fuck you. Then I look and see that the duct tape water bottle strap did not break. Alas, duct tape is better than anything I could buy in a running store! I’m sorry, earth. I didn’t mean to say ‘fuck you’. I love you. Seriously. I really do.
I get back up. Keep on moving.
I’m still surrounded by lush, green canopy, but I hear traffic. And voices. And… a cowbell!
I come out of the forest and realize I am at Emma Carlin, aid station 10, and I’ve run 40.2 miles so far. Holy shit. 40.2 miles.
Dad is waving his arms, yelling my name, and with all these people watching me run in I suddenly feel the urge to pick up the pace and at least LOOK strong, even if I don’t feel it.
40 miles already, Jeff! Dang. Just think how much you’ve done. You’ve never gone that far before, says Dad.
I think I wanna be done now.
Nooo, you’re doing good. Just keep going.
Just keep going. Just keep moving. Just put one foot in front of the other.
What time is it? I ask.
One thirty, someone says.
I want it to be beer thirty, I say. Everyone within ear shot chuckles. I smile too. Dad tries to hand me GUs but I’ll puke if I eat another so I go for the orange slices instead. Also, some Coke, some water, some whatever… I don’t know, I’m tired and I’m pretty sure I smell worse than I ever have before and I’m globbing Vaseline all over my balls and I had some bugs for lunch and… wha… huh…
This is the last time I’ll see Dad before I make it to the finish line, so I give him a big hug and thank him for his help.
I honestly feel like shit right now. Just completely zapped of energy. I went too fast in the middle sections and now my unseasoned body is paying for it. But there’s a huge crowd here at Emma Carlin and I won’t be out of their sight as I run away for a good quarter mile so I’m gonna bust it outta here and will myself to finish strong.
Off I go… 10 minute pace, 9 minute pace, 8 minute pace! I look at my watch and see I can finish under 9 hours if I just stay strong and steady.
But where will the energy come from? I ask myself. Don’t worry, I answer myself. Just keep moving.
And then, SNAP, THWACK, BOOM.
I’m on the ground. Again. Face down.
I hear the Inception soundtrack as I look at the deceivingly beautiful rocks and roots responsible for slamming me to the ground. I roll over, slowly, and gaze up at the light peaking through the gargantuan canopy. I’m tired. I’m so, so tired.
SO WHAT. GET UP.
I’m achy. So, so achy.
SO WHAT. GET. UP.
I want to be in bed, under the covers, with the lights off.
I get up. I put one foot in front of the other. I tell myself I can walk all the hills, but I have to run — or at least try to run — the remaining flats and downs.
I reach an oasis at Horseriders, the 43.3 mile mark and I see some friendly faces (Brian, Kelly, Geoff and Paige). Their encouragement gives me an extra boost. But I got 6.7 miles to go and I think I wanna die so I’m not sure how much the boost will last.
As quickly as I was surrounded by a swarm of people, I’m just as quickly all by myself. I come to a series of big hills — DO THESE HILLS EVER FRIGGIN’ STOP??? — and before I can power hike (can we even call it that at this point? more like anti-power crawl) up the dang thing I actually have to come to a complete stop, take a few deep breaths, then psyche myself into moving further along.
People start to pass me. I’m wavin’ ’em through. They’re saying “good work” and “dig deep” and “stay strong” but they’re all full of shit. I look terrible. I feel terrible. I’m slow and I’m basically crippled. I can’t feel my right big toe. My IT band and knee still ache but I can hardly tell because I’ve fallen so many times that all the scrapes and bruises are beginning to take precedent.
BUT I SIGNED UP FOR THIS.
A guy passes me, moving pretty swiftly. As he darts by I throw out an invisible lasso, hook him around the waist and let him pull me. My feet are moving along quite nicely (considering) for a good bit so the invisible lasso works. Eventually another dude flies by. I lasso him too and let him carry me for a few hundred yards until the invisible rope breaks, just as I break myself.
I hear Jimmy Buffett off in the distance. I lasso that motherfucker and let him bring me in. Maybe he has margaritas.
If he does, I don’t see them. I don’t ask either, for fear they might actually have them. The thought of putting anything in my mouth (liquid or otherwise) absolutely disgusts me at this point. I feel kind of sick. Dizzy. Am I gonna throw up? I try, but I can’t.
My only option is to just go finish this thing. At least I’m only 1.5 miles from the finish, right? Nope. Someone tells me I’m still 2.5 miles from the finish. Oh well. I don’t know what to believe anymore. All I believe is I’m broken.
I leave the aid station and find myself alone again. I’m shuffling now.
And then, I start to cry. Like a big baby.
I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because it has taken me about an hour to go these last 4 miles. Maybe it’s because my body aches and wants to sit in a pool. Maybe it’s because I’m just not as tough as I think I am.
NO, YOU DUMMY. IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE PUSHING YOURSELF. YOU’RE BREAKING THROUGH. YOU’RE REALLY DOING THIS.
Really? I’m really doing this?
I’m really doing this!
I wipe the tears away, dust myself off and put one foot in front of the other as fast as I can.
– – –
Jeff!!! someone shouts from behind.
*CUE THE HALLELUJAH ANGEL CHOIR, BITCHES, CUZ I’M ABOUT TO GET ALL VERKLEMPT*
Behind me is my buddy, Siamak. He’s in my running club and we’ve spent most Wednesday nights since January running together. He looks strong. He looks fresh. And most importantly, he’s wearing a big old smile on his face.
Siamak, man… oh, god, I… I’m not doin’ so good… I…
Come on, bro, run it in with me. You got this. Let’s go in together.
I pick up the pace to match his, which is much faster than what I was going. I search my brain for something to say. I’m searching hard, but I have that Microsoft hourglass of death spinning relentlessly and I don’t know what to say. I felt so small just now, like a burned up piece of space junk ready to disintegrate into the atmosphere, and then Siamak came along and now… now everything is okay and I’m gonna finish this race and my dad’s gonna be there and all my friends and I’ve worked so hard and…
I’m crying again.
I’m sorry, man… I don’ know why… I don’t know why I’m so emotional right now.
Hey, it happens. To a lot of people.
I look at him and he’s all there. Has his wits. His legs. Dude, if you want to go ahead of me, don’t let me hold you back —
Nah, let’s do this together.
Time. There is no time. This moment, right now, even with these last few hills to climb and these last few meters to run, this moment, it will always live. It will always be.
Here on Saturday, May 12, 2012, I woke up with the goal of running 50 miles — FIFTY FRIGGIN’ MILES — and I sure as hell am about to reach that goal.
I made some mistakes. Yes. I fell flat on my face. I also marveled at nature’s endless beauty while getting to play in the most gorgeous of forests for hours on end. I had a ton of laughs, a bunch of real conversations with real, fascinating, INTERESTING people. And I had an endless amount of support, from my family, from my friends.
But right now, it’s just Siamak and I. And the finish line.
Smile, he says, you’ll feel better.
I do. He is right.
We end our journeys together. 9 hours, 38 minutes. I collapse into my Dad’s arms. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt happier.
Man, we had a blast. I had at least six beers, got to catch up with Steve and Mark. I talked to everyone who would talk to me. I cheered on all my other buddies coming through the finish line in style. It was such a fantastic day — a day that I will never forget, ever.
And, despite all the pain and suffering I experienced in the last 10 miles, my body is recovering nicely. I promised myself I would take a week off. But, once an ultrarunner, always an ultrarunner.
The next target race? The Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Ultra in August. It’s gonna be hot, humid and downright nasty as I try to run as many miles as I can in an 8-hour period on a 3.2 mile loop course.
The more I run, the harder I push and the further I go, I learn just what kind of man I really am. And I’ll tell ya what: I’m a damn happy one.
People who have met me within the last couple of years have a hard time believing I used to be someone else. Not that I was literally someone else, but the lifestyle I led and the things that interested me used to be so far from what they are now that I might as well have been another person.
Every runner has a story. There’s the story about running into a coyote on the trail, the story of getting clipped by that car that one time, the story of blowing up during that race. But a runner’s creation story is what I always find to be the most fascinating: how did a runner become a runner.
Here’s my story:
Growing up I was an active kid. Sure we had Nintendo, but in order to play it we had to be outside most of the day, doing whatever it was we kids would do: baseball, soccer, basketball, tag, kick the can, chase the girl! I grew up with a full house of siblings so we lived for good weather, exploring the neighborhood and bottle rocket fights.
My dad was a runner. Marathons, trail runs, 5Ks. I always had fun going to races and cheering for him in different events. When I was about 12 years old I started running with him in local short races. I didn’t particularly enjoy the running (it was hard!) but I did like the atmosphere and the eclectic group of folks who would get together and run around together for a couple hours. They’re crazy! I used to think.
I ran track in junior high. I ran the mile because it was the furthest distance offered and my dad seemed to like the idea of me running the longer distances like he did, so I just went with it. I wasn’t very good and I whined about how hard it was. I think my fastest time was 6-something. I was getting smoked.
By the time I reached high school I’d had it with track and had moved on to different things — music and theatre mostly. Dad continued to run and whenever I was feeling particularly out of shape I’d hit the road for 5 miles or so. But I didn’t enjoy it. I was used to being comfortable, and back then, for me, running was the absolute opposite of comfort.
In 1997, as a new freshman in college, I went for a run and quickly encountered the hill monsters of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Well, I’m done with this running shit, I thought. And I was.
Which is probably a good thing for the 18-year old me, because I quickly found other passions, like booze and smoking and chasing tail. My outta-this-world metabolism kept me from becoming Jabba the Hutt, so I ate whatever I felt like eating. I also drank and smoked, drank and smoked, drank and smoked.
Fast forward to December 30, 2009. The only part of my college lifestyle that had changed was that I wasn’t in college, and my metabolism wasn’t quite as efficient. I was constantly feeling tired (despite never having done anything), I struggled with severe bouts of depression and I was all the time coughing/wheezing/gasping.
Meh. This is my place in the universe, I told myself. This is who I am. I smoke a pack and a half a day. That’s just the way it is.
I was late for work and had about 4 minutes to catch the bus. From my place to the bus stop is about a quarter of a mile. If I walked I’d be late, so I decided to run.
Couldn’t make it.
About halfway through I stopped, keeled over onto my knees, gasping for breath. WHEEEEEEZE HUHHHH WHEEEEEEEZE HUHHHH. People were staring at me, kids were pointing, an old lady asked “Are you okay?”
I’M DONE WITH THIS, I yelled at myself. JUST STOP IT! THIS IS INSANE!
I was so embarrassed, so full of shame of what I was right then and there at that moment that I decided to do something I’d seemingly forgotten how to do: I took control of my life.
I quit smoking. That day. I haven’t smoked a cigarette since.
I quit boozing. I quit depriving my body of sleep. I quit filling my body with synthetic food stuffs, learned about basic nutrition and revamped my entire diet.
But most of all, I decided I wanted to be a runner again.
The first “run” lasted about 3 minutes. I didn’t get very far. But I kept going. I’d walk a little, jog a little, walk a little, jog a little. I made it a whole mile in about 20 minutes.
The next day, instead of quitting, I put on my shoes and went out the door again. Every time I thought about quitting, I saw myself keeled over, embarrassed by my lack of fitness, my lack of identity.
I’M A RUNNER GODDAMMIT. I’M A RUNNER.
I told myself this. I made myself believe it. And over the next couple of months, one mile became two, then two became three. I was feeling good. And most of all, I was HAPPY. I finished every run with a great big smile on my face.
Then, in the summer of 2010, a colleague of mine told me he was running a 5K sponsored by one of the museums we work with in Chinatown. He asked if I wanted to run it. A 5K? Me? My first instinct was to decline, so instead, I said yes.
Immediately, I wrote an email to my father, telling him as much. He seemed incredulous. In fact, to him, this entire “lifestyle transformation” of mine seemed too abrupt to be real. And considering how little attention I paid to personal health and well-being prior, I don’t blame him for thinking that way.
But I emailed him a copy of my race registration confirmation.
And a little bit later he emailed me a copy of his.
My dad traveled all the way from Houston, Texas to Chicago, Illinois to run a goddamn 5K with me, to show his support for my new direction, to pat me on the back for having the courage to finally change.
I ran my heart out in that race. I made my dad proud. And I never looked back.
I was a runner.
I am a runner.
And in becoming one, I found out it makes me the happiest me I can be.
…And there was Dad, slowly plodding up the trail to greet me.
I was close to the halfway mark of the Rocky Raccoon 50K and the sun was really shining now. My arm warmers and skull cap were soggy messes when I ripped them off and handed them to him. I slowed to a walk so I could talk to him for a second.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“I feel great!”
I did feel great. It was my first ultra distance race and all of the anxiety that normally comes with a big event (will I get that PR? will my stomach act up? will I have to stop and pee fifty times?) were nonexistent. I was just out there having a good time. That was my one and only goal going into it.
“Everyone’s so nice and friendly, Dad.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what people who run these types of races are like. They’re nice.”
When the race started it was cold and pitch black. I had a headlamp and a handheld flashlight to light my way, but this would also mark the first time I had really done any significant running in the dark.
The Rocky Raccoon course isn’t much in the way of elevation gain, but it is one rooty minefield, so I had no choice but to go gingerly slow until dawn broke. What I wasn’t prepared for was how running in the dark would alter my sense of time. When I finally glanced at my watch, I expected to see something like 10 or 11 minutes gone by, instead, I saw that I’d been running for 30 minutes!
And that would set the tone for the rest of the day. Big lush green forest with rolling trail, charming wooden bridges and the occasional calming lake or pond greeted me all throughout, muting any allegiance to time. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was just so… happy. I was so happy to be there in Texas, close to my dad, experiencing the 50K distance for the first time in such a welcoming environment.
So when Dad was there waiting for me close to the halfway mark to check how I was doing and switch me out some dry clothes, I knew the rest of the day was just going to be icing on top of icing.
Yeah, my glutes seized up on me a few times, but all I had to do was stop and stretch for a couple seconds and I was back at it. And yes, I did have a brief stomach scare around 3 and a half hours, but it wasn’t anything a Ginger Chew couldn’t cure.
Nothing could keep me down. Running that race and meeting the people I met and watching the landscape change from pitch black cold to warm, bright and inviting was an honor and a pleasure.
The hug I got from my dad once I sprinted through the finish line…