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 Edna and I boarded a Beijing-bound plane from Chicago, neither one of us really knew what I should expect. For her part, Edna was pretty clear: run 250k over 7 days across the Gobi Desert, carrying all her own gear and supplies for the journey. Having successfully completed the Atacama Crossing in 2013, she knew exactly what type of pain and suffering lie ahead. The only question mark was the terrain.
For me, as a volunteer making his first Racing the Planet appearance, I didn’t really have any idea what I would be doing. I speak Chinese, so I figured I might be doing some of that. I know my way around an aid-station, so I assumed I would be handing out lots of water. Somehow climbing a sand dune in a snowstorm didn’t make it onto my pre-race assumption list. Nor did fraternizing with a precocious camel, busting balls with the Xinjiang locals over fruit and tea or making instant friends the world over. Had I known about any of the above, I would have joined the Racing the Planet ranks a long time ago.
It was a long journey. A very, very, long journey. We left our Chicago apartment around noon on May 24th; 38 hours and 50 minutes later we were finally collapsing on our hotel bed in Hami, Xinjiang, China. The trip included a 14-hour direct flight to Beijing, a 4-hour+ flight to Urumuqi, a not-so-welcoming stay in the Urumuqi airport (we arrived around 1am and were kicked out onto the street where we slept in our sleeping bags), an adventurous death-ride to the Urumuqi train station where we eventually endured three separate yet equally vigorous shouting matches with Chinese security officials about our possession of multi-tools before waiting in line for 90 minutes to buy train tickets for a train we just barely boarded in time, for yet another 3-hour trip to our final destination: Hami.
We arrived on Tuesday the 26th in the afternoon sometime. We checked in our hotel, ate and then went right to sleep. We woke up on Wednesday, went to eat and came back to our hotel, to sleep. Again. We woke up around 5 o’clock on Wednesday evening, went to eat, went for a walk, then went to sleep. AGAIN.
Our bodies were confused. So we slept a lot. And it paid off, because we woke up on Thursday and everything was back to normal.
I spent the entirety of that Friday learning the ins and outs of volunteer protocol for the 4 Deserts race series. Always the nerdy student, I sat right up front and soaked up all the information given (there was a lot). Feeling confident that I’d retained at least 75% of the training, I also enjoyed getting to know my fellow volunteers. We were from the US, China, Singapore, New Zealand, Norway, Hong Kong, India, the UK, Australia, South Africa and Canada. Our dear leader, Tony, was a lighthearted yet focused Englishman from Manchester who peppered his instruction with well timed humor.
At the end of the training, I realized that volunteering would be more work than competing. At least as a competitor one would be able to rest after doing his job. For the volunteers, our days would begin around 4:30 am and end around 10:30 pm, though I imagined we would have less blisters and skin maceration, so that was a plus. Knowing just how much time we would be spending together seemed to motivate us to get to know and befriend one another rather quickly.
Want instant friends? Gallivant in the remote desert for a week without bathing!
Checking In… And We’re Off!
On Saturday morning and afternoon, I spent most of my time checking competitors’ mandatory equipment. This would be my first major duty of the contest, one that would also give me the opportunity to meet many individuals with whom I would come to call my friends after the event. Among them were a host of Chinese, a trio of Belgians, a pair of Spaniards and an American from my own Chicagoland backyard. What a small world!
This early post also helped me prepare my language palate for the days to come. In a matter of a few hours I found myself comfortably switching between English, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, something that I would be doing non-stop the rest of the week.
The buzz around the check-in was global in nature. Surrounding me were people from 40 different countries and various cultural backgrounds. I was in my element. Soaking it in.
Of course, I took my checking mandatory equipment job very seriously. Race officials require each competitor to carry a list of essential survival items. In the middle of nowhere, anything is possible, so making sure each individual was prepared to deal with whatever might come her way was paramount. I didn’t have any major issues. Everyone I checked-in was well prepared. I marveled at how small some competitors’ items came, while others’ did not. The difference between an 11 kilogram pack and a 9 kilogram pack might not seem that much at first glance, but when you consider hauling that pack for 250k through a dastardly rugged landscape, a 2 kilo difference suddenly takes on greater significance.
Edna’s pack was around 11 kilos. I tried not to worry about her small frame handling the weight across the desert. After all, I thought, she is coming in to this extremely well trained (I helped train her!).
After everyone’s equipment was checked and okayed, the 163 competitors gathered themselves onto an army of buses while I and a few other Chinese speaking volunteers tattooed 4×4 jeeps with sponsor decals alongside our new friends, a fleet of Chinese local drivers.
I carefully chose car #8 to be my transport vehicle as all cars and buses, full of staff, volunteers and competitors made their way out of Hami and into the middle of nowhere, bound for camp before Stage 1.
When we arrived at camp, located in a lush, green valley at 2400 meters of altitude, the air was as chilly as the wind was brisk. We were greeted by a lovely sight of local foods, music and dress while the buzz of pre-race jitters filled multilingual conversations in every direction.
After a volunteer meeting where I found out I would be working Checkpoint 3 the next day, I found Edna, wrapped her up in my arms and gave her a long hug before wishing her good luck and good night.
Stage 1 – 34.4k
Sleep? I didn’t get much. The winds whipped through our tent all night. It was cold. And it rained.
Weather is fickle in the mountains, especially here. One minute the winds spear rain sideways, the next minute it’s clear and sunny.
We would have a little bit of both, and everything in between the rest of the day.
After a 6:00 am briefing, the volunteers and staff scattered off by 4×4 to our respective posts. Checkpoint 3 was located beside the sand dune of Barkhol — a seemingly displaced sand dune that towered above and alongside a happy little mountain valley.
We arrived and set up our checkpoint in good time. The air was a bit chilled and there was a steady wind zipping through, but all seemed tolerable… until, of course, it was not. Out of nowhere came violent, sand whipping winds that uplifted our tents, forcing all hands on deck to scurry towards anchoring our infrastructure. The temperature soon dropped, and with it came a torrent of icy, chilled rain.
And it rained.
And it rained.
Then it snowed.
You haven’t seen the truly bizarre until you’ve seen a sand dune covered in snow. I saw most of it from inside the jeep, where I had the heat cranked so I could feel my fingers as I reigned over the most important part of any checkpoint: keeping the book.
My duty was to record every competitor’s name, number and time as they came through our checkpoint. The difference between being accurate and being lackadaisical is a full-fledged wilderness search team and lots of heartburn, so I put my anal retentiveness to work, making sure to get everything right.
It was quite the chaotic day to test such retentiveness. With visibility poor and extremities constantly numb and/or frozen, our entire team was challenged to match the toughness of the competitors, most of whom probably did not expect to traipse through snow and freezing rain on their first day in the Gobi Desert. Hypothermia effected several. Pure insanity effected others.
But at the end of Stage 1, everyone found him/herself back at camp in one piece.
Our camp before Stage 2 was a quaint Yurt Village, surrounded in every direction by green. Upon arrival, my body throbbed with exhaustion. The extreme weather of the first day combined with little sleep zapped by body of any energy it might have had left. All I wanted to do was sleep.
But I couldn’t do so without finding Edna.
I went looking for her, and when I finally found her, we both couldn’t wait to tell one another about our day’s adventure.
Stage 2 – 40k
For the second stage, I was assigned as “sweeper”, which meant I got to wear a sweet pink kit over my gear while going along for a 40k hike at the back of the race.
And oh yeah, I got to carry a 12 kilogram pack and dress for a temperature range between very cold and I-have-way-too-many-layers-on. Still, like Edna, I was all smiles.
This was my first chance to see the entire course of a Racing the Planet stage and wow, did I have a good view! I made the trek alongside fellow American volunteer, Liz, whose husband was also competing in the race. Together with a Kazakh, a camel and a horse, the five of us would start off in the mountains, up a steep, snow-covered 574 meter climb, then descend over 1000 meters through a rocky mountain valley, into the barren desert towards Camp 3.
Having to stay just behind and in sight of the last competitors in the race, while also picking up all the course markings throughout, it was a very long yet uniquely gorgeous 12ish hour day.
When we arrived at camp, a small village in the foothills of Tian Shan, I found Edna and caught up with her about her day. She was tired yet full of elation. She was in her element, pushing her body to the limit in a picturesque surrounding, and I was there to see her. Our love was growing, even though we spent most of the day apart.
That night, in the village where we stayed, the locals made a deliciously spicy noodle dish that I devoured; I even went back for seconds! Later, we volunteers gathered for our nightly briefing and there I learned I would have what seemed like an easier post for Stage 3 (yeah, right!). My job would be to stay at camp and do whatever odd jobs might be necessary in maintaining the finish line and overall well-being of the competitors as they came in.
Little did I know it would be yet another day of extremes.
Stage 3 – 42.7k
We volunteers were up again at 4:30 am, adding water to our dehydrated meal bags while sipping instant coffee from plastic bottles. Since my day would be a little less labor intensive, I was able to take my time getting myself together. Once the checkpoint crews left around 6:00, I had some time to wander around the village, chatting with locals, competitors and of course, Edna.
After all the competitors left the village, the remaining volunteers and staff hurried about tidying up the village before departing for Camp 4.
When we got to Camp 4, a small plateau at the foot of a mountain, it was quite chilly, and the chilliness was only exacerbated by… THE RAIN.
It rained. And rained.
But we had to get the camp together so we bustled about, the best we could, frozen digits and all.
The end of Stage 3 was tough for Edna. She came across the finish line smiling, but because of the long day of cold rain, she was struck with hypothermia when she got back to her tent. It took a good hour for her to stop shaking. Her tent-mates encouraged her to strip down and snuggle up in her sleeping bag with bottles full of hot water. Eventually she was able to regulate her body temperature, calm down and eat a good, hot meal.
She then burned her socks over a camp fire, trying to dry them.
Seems like those are the types of breaks that are common in events like these. But it would take a whole lot more than some burned socks to erase Edna’s smile.
Despite the cold and the rain, I went to sleep a little better than the previous nights. I imagine this had something to do with being exhausted. Volunteering was a lot of hard work, with a lot of time on my feet, having to be actively engaged with my surroundings. I couldn’t wait to rest my eyes.
Besides, they told us we were going to the desert the next day — the real, HOT desert.
Stage 4 -42k
Another 4:30 am wake-up call and finally, the pre-dawn rising didn’t seem so abnormal. I quickly fell into my regular routine of coffee, breakfast and preparing my mind for another long day.
My post was Checkpoint 1, and once we had it set up next to a remote camel watering hole, I was assigned the task of roving back and forth along the course to check up on competitors coming from the start line.
It was only a 9.5k jaunt from the start to Checkpoint 1, but it included a steady bout of numbing cold, misty rain and whipping wind as the competitors made their way out of the mountains and into the more traditional, black Gobi desert. With the snow capped range at their backs, each competitor approached Checkpoint 1 with the ability to see off in the distance for miles and miles.
All of the competitors were through the first checkpoint by late morning, so we tore down the station and headed off towards Camp 5. Along the way we had to make a stop to check on a roving vehicle that had a competitor sequestered due to health reasons. As we stood along the silence of the road, overlooking vast desert where little found life, this medical stop was a humbling reminder of just how serious this event could be. Each competitor was taking a risk by stepping off into the distance; 250k through remote landscapes and weather extremes is no joke.
Eventually, the competitor was taken to the hospital (he made a full and healthy recovery) and the rest of us ventured to camp.
Camp 5 was an old clay village leftover from what looked like 50s era occupational China. Having never seen anything like it, I was marveling at the interesting architecture as I quickly stripped out of my cold weather clothes (it was now about 85 degrees and sunny) and in the combined excitement I totally missed Edna crossing the finish line.
Once I did catch up to her though, she was smiling her trademark grin. She couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful it was to be somewhere hot (words she would regret later).
She was right though. After several days of being cold and wet, the heat felt fantastic.
Adding to this wave of pleasure was the fact that Edna was right near the top of the competition among women. Having been in the top three since day one, she was still there going into the next day’s Long March (80.4k), her signature distance. I encouraged her to eat, get some rest and put her feet up before the long day.
Meanwhile, I got a chance to eat before being sent back out on the course in a roving vehicle. The temperature was rising and the competitors who were still out there were suffering considerably. My Chinese driver and I parked a couple of kilometers from the stage finish line, in a tiny village. There we hung out with two local policeman and four PLA soldiers curious about the goings on.
They fed me fresh fruit, bread and tea over introspective conversation (“why are they running this far again?” seemed to be a recurring question) while simultaneously topping off water bottles for the competitors, encouraging them to finish strong to the end.
After a couple of hours, I too, could feel the restlessness settle in. We were called back to camp where I banged on the drum at the finish line for a couple of hours before eating a hot meal and attending the nightly volunteer meeting.
The next day was the Long March and I would be all over the place. I did my best to get to bed early; unfortunately, that meant drifting off around midnight…
Stage 5 – The Long March – 80.4k
…and a wake-up at 4:30 am. It would have been easy to complain, but considering the barrage of blistery feet and dehydration zombie’ing around camp, I managed to keep my mouth shut.
My duties for the day would be to set up Checkpoint 2, work it until close, then sweep with Liz again through Checkpoint 4 (a total hike of 18.6k) before seeing what would happen next. I was told to be ready for anything. I was, including baking in the 120 degree sun for hours on end.
Since this day would cover over 80 kilometers of terrain, the checkpoint teams were a little spread out. Liz and I were assigned to help Dr. Avi at Checkpoint 2 and once we arrived at our location — a desolate wasteland where one could see for miles — we wasted no time getting set up.
By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, everyone had made it through our checkpoint. It was time for Liz and I to suit up and take to the deserts ourselves, keeping a close eye on those at the back of the pack.
This is exactly where my phone died. From here to the end, I would have no more camera to capture the mesmerizing images around me. I guess that’s what memories were made for.
We toiled. We sweat. We plugged away.
By the time Liz and I finished our sweeping duties, the sun was going down and the familiar chill of night was beginning to set in. By 10 pm, we had hitched a ride to Checkpoint 5 (60.4k), the overnight checkpoint where many competitors were taking advantage of the campfire and tents to eat a warm meal and catch a quick nap before soldiering on through the night. Liz and I ate a little something and chatted with the busy volunteer staff before heading back to camp to get a little rest ourselves.
We arrived at camp around 11 pm and I found Edna, who had finished about an hour beforehand. She was nearly in tears during her retelling of her day — a battle that took as much mental strength and courage as it did physical. She had coasted along until she hit the burning canyon section, enduring searing heat that forced her to scream out loud at no one in particular. But like she always does, she battled through and brought it home, pain and all.
I hugged her and let her know I loved her. I told her she inspired me, and that I was proud to be alongside during her big moment. It was an emotional 10 minute exchange.
But then I had to get back to work, and she had to rest. We parted ways and I reported back to the finish line. Luckily, I was told to take a nap. Unfortunately, I was told to report back at 2 am. Yikes!
I got in my sleeping bag, by now completely immune to the stench of my own being (six days in the wilderness without a shower will do that), and just as I was drifting off…
My alarm went off. 2 am. Oh boy.
I went to the finish line area and if I was feeling sorry for myself for not sleeping much the last several days, that sentiment changed immediately upon seeing the competitors coming into the finish after suffering along the lonely, Gobi Desert for 80 kilometers.
How inspiring it was to see them! Oh the smiles on their faces! And the tears springing from their eyes! How could one not be moved to do something epic himself upon seeing such a feat!
Inspired as I was, I was asked to go out on the course in a roving vehicle from 2 to 4 am, checking on competitors to make sure they were doing okay. Sarcasm and delirium aside, everybody was moving forward, which at this point, was all one could really ask.
After my two hour shift, I got to take another nap. This time I was out before I even zipped up the bag.
I woke up drowning in a pool of my own sweat.
Wow! It got hot quick! And it was only 9 am.
The only thing that made the scorching heat tolerable was the steady breeze accompanying it. When the wind blew, all was well. When it didn’t, things got uncomfortable.
This was very telling later that afternoon as Edna and I lounged in a shaded area in the middle of Camp 6. With all of the competitors finished with the Long March, we had the day off to recuperate before making the last 12k jaunt to the ultimate finish line. All around us was carnage — competitors dehydrated, windburn and covered in sand — but the jovial stories and upbeat smiles countered any physical deterioration. With the breeze, things felt even better than they were.
Until they weren’t.
The breeze became stronger. And stronger. And stronger.
Eventually no longer a breeze, but rather a violent whipping wind powerful enough to uproot tents and send anything not anchored to the ground flying through desolation, this seemingly angry force of nature started to make things very uncomfortable. The only way for me to combat it was to simply lie on the ground, near Edna, going back and forth between chatting with her and catnapping. This is how we spent most of the day.
But later in the evening, as I was making my way to my tent to get some dinner, I overheard one of the local Chinese staff members yell: “EVERYBODY TAKE COVER! IT’S COMING AND IT’S COMING QUICK!”
Baffled, I followed his pointed finger towards the sky and what I saw was right out of a Jerry Bruckheimer film, dropping my jaw to the ground: A SANDSTORM. A real, ominous, terrifying sandstorm.
“Edna!” I screamed heading back to the center of camp. “Edna! Come with me!” I shouted. I grabbed her hand and pulled her, limping legs and all, as fast as I could towards a large rock formation at the height of our camp. I had never been in a sandstorm before and I did not know what to expect, but the panic I heard in the voices of the locals was enough to make me take it very seriously.
With our mouths, noses and eyes covered as much as possible, I hovered over Edna, faces toward the wall of rock standing between us and the brunt of the storm. For the next three hours, the sand whipped and screamed, pelting us from every direction. By 10 pm the worst of it had passed and I was discovering sand in every part of my body, something I never imagined possible.
The storm destroyed our camp. It knocked down all the tents. It sent much of our gear and supplies off into the unknown. Everything was a mess. Still, the weather forecast looked better on the horizon, and due to the late hour, race officials decided it was safest to stay at camp and do our best to continue on with Stage 6 the next day.
Unfortunately, in the middle of the night, the wind picked up again. It was very violent, again pummeling us with sand from every direction. There was even rain! With this sudden change in weather, having to think quick on their feet, race officials decided it was the best and safest decision to immediately evacuate camp, cancel Stage 6 and head back to our final destination in the town of Hami.
Let me tell ya, that first shower after a week without was NICE! Better yet was the beer (or three) that I had while waiting to actually get in a room to take a shower. Of course, the latter only intensified the former.
After cleaning up, Edna and I passed out. SLEEP! It never felt so good.
That evening we attended the awards banquet where we chummed with over 200 new friends, all of us drawn closer after a week full of adversity. Competitors, volunteers and staff all joined in reminiscing over the week’s dramatic achievements. It was evident to me that the heroes in the spotlight were the competitors, no doubt. After all, they did have the hardest job of all, covering over 100 miles on tired legs over unforgiving terrain. Yet, I couldn’t help but marvel at what we as volunteers and staff had accomplished as well. We put on a full fledged marathon a day in hostile natural environments — environments that changed dramatically each day, from snowy mountain tops to searing desert canyons to full fledged sandstorms. Each stage of the race was so robust and detail dependent that it could have very well stood on its own.
For being a part of this, I was immensely proud.
I was also IMMENSELY proud of my girl! Edna WON her age group while also finishing as the fourth overall female. Woo hoo! And of course, she did it ALL with a SMILE!
The extent of memories we took away from this event could fill hundreds of pages, but one thing is definitely cemented in our minds: Edna and I, are very much a part of the Racing the Planet and 4 Deserts family. We look forward to being a part of another adventure very, very soon…
We did it! We made it through another year!
I started it out by sacrificing my footing in a frozen tundra.
A couple weeks later, I “ran” 21k through knee-deep snow, in the time it generally takes me to run twice that amount.
In the spring, I re-lived a dream to run the Boston Marathon, this time with no tragedies, floating atop the endless love and compassion from the good people of New England.
Not long after, I got cocky, raced a teenager and had to pull myself out of the game, flexing those mental muscles.
I recovered in time to run mad, around a .97 mile loop in a municipal park, setting a new personal distance record and fighting to stay on my feet for 24 hours straight.
In September, I experienced three distinct seasons over 50 glorious kilometers in the heart of my home state.
And in November, I popped my century mark cherry by crossing the finish line of the Pinhoti 100, proving that through a sound, prepared and focused mind we can do anything we wish to do.
Throughout the year, I volunteered again at the Earth Day 50k/10k and the Des Plaines River Trail Races. I paced my good friend Siamak to a fierce finish at the Mohican 100 and Edna in her 100 miles at Potawatomi and 100k at Hallucination.
I also had the good fortune of getting another race report published in Ultrarunning Magazine (October issue).
I lived every moment, one footfall at a time, over mountainous trail and monotonous blacktop.
I ran. I laughed. I cried (more than you’d think).
I slowed down. I took it all in. I wrapped myself up in the trail, in the challenge of going far on foot, with pushing myself past any and all boundaries.
But perhaps most exciting of all: I got engaged! The thrill of sharing my life with the woman I love — a woman who shares my passion for adventure, for exploration, for making dreams come true — is more exciting than any race I’ve ever run. It’s a good thing we both love distance running, because life, my friends, is THE ultimate ultra run.
Happy New Year!
In the wake of running 100 miles on my own two feet, chilling out has been a high priority. Post-race, I took a full 10 days off from running, mixed with some light cross training and gentle walking.
I also made sure to get on the mat.
It was during the shavasana (or relaxation/meditation) portion of a recent yoga class that I began to wonder what it would feel like to do a yoga class every day, for a week. Surely, lots of yogis do this, I thought to myself. Why not give it a try?
So I did.
Before I report my experience, I should first explain my own personal relationship with yoga. I came to the mat a couple of years ago, as a grumpy, injured runner looking for healing, both for body and mind. Having recently explored the power of meditation, the in-the-moment connection to the breath was something I could easily relate to, and it wasn’t long before I found myself in a yoga class once a week. The more I practiced, the better I felt.
Part of that betterment was encouraged by the environment in which I was practicing. I was lucky enough to find Tejas (pronounced teh-jus) Yoga, in the South Loop. From the very beginning, the owners, Jim and James, were so warm and inviting, that one would have a hard time not wanting to practice there, if for nothing else than to hang out, drink tea and have good conversation.
Considering that foundation, it’s no surprise that the teachers there also carry the same spirited warmth. Contrary to my pre-yoga reservations, I never once felt intimidated or overwhelmed at Tejas. In fact, it seems to me the teachers there go out of their way to make sure each student is comfortable, that modifications are always accessible, and that each person is set up to succeed, whatever his or her goals may be.
For me, this is essential. As an ultrarunner, as a boxer, as a person who makes his living teaching and practicing exercise, I come to the mat for mostly gentle, regenerative movements. I come to wind down, to heal, to focus on the breath, one inhalation and exhalation at a time. For me, yoga is not about wrapping my leg around my head. It’s about connecting breath to movement and staying present, the same cornerstones of running 100 miles or answering the bell.
But a class a day for seven days?
*Correction: there was, at least, a little sweat.
– – –
Monday, December 1, 2014
Pranayama Class with Jim Bennitt
3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Pranayama is described as the “extension of the prāna or breath” or “extension of the life force”. Simply put, this class focuses on different breathing techniques alongside a gentle physical practice. On this day, we held a bandha (physical lock) that seemed to get deep within my hamstrings, while also exploring meditative visualizations connected to the breath. Jim asked us to project any thoughts on a screen within our minds. I was quite amused at the random relfections conjured up from deep within my consciousness. Inexplicably, Roger Rabbit made several appearances.
Overall, I left this class feeling super energized and awake, acutely aware of my hamstrings.
– – –
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Open Class with Adam Grossi
7 a.m. – 8 a.m.
Like I tell my clients all the time, I have never heard someone say, “Man, I really regret getting up and doing that workout.” The same seems to be true for the yoga practice. While getting out of my cozy, warm bed at 6 a.m. didn’t sound very appealing, starting my day off with the immediate boost of a yoga class was well worth it. While the open class offers more challenges than the classes I typically attend, Adam provided me with options and modifications to suit my own yogic level. It felt good to sweat and to use more strength and balance than I’m used to. But most of all, it was a real treat to watch the sunlight slowly crescendo through the eastern facing windows with the progression of our class. I left feeling like a rockstar — a very grounded, introspetive rockstar.
– – –
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Gentle Class with Monica Stevens
9 a.m. – 10 a.m.
Another great way to start the day, this gentle class is the type of class I typically attend at Tejas. The slower pace and focus on restorative poses is essential to my own yogic identity, offering the type of healing I need after running as much as I do. Monica’s clear instruction and warm sense of humor always puts me at ease, and she seemed to read my mind by getting us into a deep pigeon pose — indispensable medicine for my chronically tight hips and IT bands.
– – –
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Gentle Class with Marcelyn Cole
12 p.m. – 1 p.m.
Gentle classes on consecutive days? Thank you, sir! May I have another?
During my two years of practice, I have taken Marcelyn’s gentle class more than any other. Her calming voice and quirky sense of humor have been staples of my own yogic development, helping me heal, relax and grow to the best of my ability. This class was no exception as we explored familiar twists and deep connections to the breath. Despite my familiarness with this class, for the first time all week I did have a little trouble staying focussed and using my ujjayi breath. My mind was wandering more than usual, something I liken to bonking in the marathoning world. Luckily, I got it under control by the time we entered shavasana, my favorite pose.
– – –
Friday, December 5, 2014
Open Class with Zach Zube
12 p.m. -1 p.m.
Though small in size, this open class was a great mix of gentle and more advanced asana, with plenty of options for every practioner. There was a theme of groundedness, of forcing movement downward, as explained by our teacher, Zach. This meant plenty of forward folding and sequencing that promoted a sound connection with the earth beneath us. It was a pleasure to be back in a class taught by Zach. I took his Introduction to Yoga series a couple of years ago when I first started. His clear and thoughtful sequencing always puts me at ease, allowing breath and movement to flow naturally.
– – –
Saturday, December 6, 2014
Open Class with Adam Grossi
8 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.
My second open class with Adam this week, and again there were no regrets for getting out of bed early to attend. Unlike the Tuesday class, this one was packed! There were probably close to 20 people in attendance, and as such there existed a powerful vibe in the room. So many dedicated practitioners provided me with extra focus and a desire to be a part of the group mind, even as we were lead through more complex movements. I sweat more in this class than any other and I left feeling accomplished, strong, and ready to take on the day!
– – –
Sunday, December 7, 2014
Gentle Class with James Tennant
4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
I started this week of yoga by knowing exactly how I would finish. James was the very first person I met at Tejas and I remember how nervous and self-conscious I was entering those doors, only to have such feelings disappear after a mere two-minute conversation with him. His tangible, supportive spirit put me at ease and in a position to succeed with yoga. I never looked back. Since then, James’ teachings have been a regular and welcome exploration into my own higher being. Finishing the week with his gentle class was just an extension of that. The sequences flowed, my ujjayi breath connected me to the present, and time moved so quickly that I couldn’t believe 90 minutes had already passed.
When I got home that night, I was so relaxed and serene that I had no desire to watch a marquee NFL match-up on television — a rarity in its own right. I was ready for bed. Ready for peace.
– – –
While seven classes in seven days may be a lot more yoga than I am used to, one thing I did gain from this experience is the realization that despite not always being in a class setting, the yoga practice is deep within me, at all times. Over the last two years, I can’t remember a day where I didn’t do a forward fold of some kind. I can’t recall a day without invoking the ujjayi breath. There hasn’t been a day where I didn’t connect movement to breath, whether running, boxing or just working out.
It’s more than just attending a class.
It’s being present, connected to my body and its place among the stars.
When my running renaissance took form in early 2010, the allure of the ultra run pulled on my conscience like no other physical challenge. At the time, finishing a half marathon was enough to exhaust me, but I knew that if I just stuck with the training and applied the lessons learned during each phase of my distance development, someday, maybe I, too, would cross a 100 mile finish line.
Saturday, November 1, 2014
It’s dark. It’s cold. I’m in the back of my car, eyes shut, huddled close to Edna for warmth. My dad is driving and my friend, Siamak, rides shotgun as the four of us make our way from Sylacauga, Alabama, where the race will eventually end, to middle-of-nowhere Heflin, quaintly dropped in the heart of the Talladega forest, where the race is to start.
It’s a 90 minute drive, which translates to 90 minutes of mental unrest. My mind is racing before my legs even get a chance, full of doubt, full of wonder.
What the hell have you gotten yourself into, Jeff?
This familiar pre-race phrase attacks at will. Each time I do my best to let it go.
This is exactly what I want to do, I remind myself. This is the adventure I’ve been looking for.
I’m right about that. The years of slow build-ups, from 5ks to half marathons to marathons to 50 milers is over. My first hundo is on the doorstep. Time to let it in.
My half conscious battle with my own thoughts is interrupted by the intimidating shake and rattle of the gravel road beneath us. We have entered the official forest grounds, and as we slowly navigate the twists and turns of sharp climbs and descents, my stomach begins to churn.
Nerves. It’s just nerves. Chill out, man. Once this thing starts you’ll have 30 hours to wrestle with your nerves.
Finally at our destination, parked alongside a small army of vehicles housing anxious adventurers, I open the door only to shut it again immediately. “Wow, it’s cold,” I say. “And windy!”
The wind is going to be an issue today. So is the cold. It’s Alabama. I didn’t think it got cold here.
The temps right now are in the 30s, with winds swirling at 20-30 mph. Luckily, I came prepared, with lots of warm clothes and an organized system for my crew to help me find things as quickly as possible.
As we make the half mile trek down to the start line, the sun begins to rise and nervous energy fills me. I look around at my crew: Edna, Dad, Siamak.
Man, am I lucky, or what?
I couldn’t ask for better group of people to help me along on this journey. With over 17 years of experience in ultras, Edna knows every up and down possible and how to handle each one. As one of the toughest and smartest guys I know, Siamak as my pacer is like having Tiger Woods as my caddy. In fact, I know all I have to do today is get to mile 55, where Siamak will start pacing, and I’ll will get that buckle I came here to get. And my Dad… well, who knows me any better than he? He’s been at all my other firsts (first 5k, first half, first full, first 50). I can’t imagine breaking my hundred mile cherry without his company.
Today, the four of us run as ONE. On my legs, of course.
We reach the start line and I embrace the adventure at hand. I give final hugs and farewells, excited to test my physical body like it’s never been tested before.
BAM! We’re off!
Miles 0 – 6.7
Slow, slow, slow, slow.
Today I will run slow.
I will run for a VERY VERY VERY LONG TIME, but it will be slow. This puts me at the back of the pack from the very beginning, and as we enter on to the first of what will be 80-some miles of single track, I have no problem with people flying by me as if we were out for a quick tempo run. More power to ’em, I think.
My race strategy is to run the flats and downhills at a comfortable pace and walk each and every incline, no matter how slight. With over 14,000 feet of climbing and 28,000 feet elevation change overall, there will obviously be plenty of places to walk and lower my heart rate. I suspect there will be a point where I’ll be wanting incline, so I have an excuse to slow down even more.
Here in the beginning too, I try to focus on just keeping a constant rhythm to my breath, staying connected to the present moment. Meditation has long been a key training component for me, and its importance has never been greater than it will be today. Thinking about how far I have yet to go would just kill my brain, and thus send me into negative space — a place I cannot afford to be. Focusing on the NOW, for me, is the best way to avoid such peril.
And the NOW is so full of beauty, so full of life! Just look at this goregous forest! The fall colors of red, yellow and brown fill an otherwise green backdrop that, with each breath, sends me to a happy place knowing I, too, am a part of this grandness.
How lucky am I?
These same beautifully colored leaves blanketing the ground also hide insidious roots and rocks that lie beneath. In the first 6+ miles, it is already apparent that I am not going to win the battle against them. All I can do — SHIT! OUCH! DAMN IT! — is tread lightly and keep my toes/ankles/arches together the best I — DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — can.
“HOLA, PAPI!” I hear from up the trail, followed by excited clapping. It’s Edna — my dear, sweet Edna. She is heavily wrapped in coats and blankets to ward off the cold, but the temperature hasn’t cooled off her spirit as she gleefully cheers me in to the first aid station.
I smile big, give her a hug, ditch my jacket (I’m getting warm now myself), chug some Pedialyte and try to get some calories in me. Today’s fueling plan is, like always, the see-food diet: eat whatever looks good at any given time. I also make sure to eat at every aid station and to take a little with me in a ziploc baggie that I put in my pack for the trail. I’m wearing my trusty 50 oz Salomon S-Lab 5 hydration pack that I keep filled with water and plenty of goodies in the pockets, like trail mix, Ginger Chews and Ibuprofen. My crew has Pedialyte for me at every crew-accesible aid station. I make sure to chug this as opposed to the race offered Heed.
(Off topic, but can we all just scratch our heads for a moment as to why so many ultra races offer Heed at their events? No offense to Hammer products, as I do like some of their gels, but have the makers of Heed ever tried Heed? To me, it tastes like flat, chalk-flavored drink spiked with Aspertame.)
I try not to waste too much time at the aid station, a theme I aim to carry over the whole race. A quick kiss “adios” and I’m back on the trail.
Miles 6.57 – 13.27
Energized from seeing my crew, I get back into a running groove. For the first time today I look down at my watch to see how much time has passed. An hour and forty-five minutes!?!? Wowsers!
Time DOES fly when you’re having fun! It seems like the race just started; and relatively speaking, that is a true statement, but the fact that nearly two hours have gone by without me even realizing it, is a very good sign. It proves that the meditative mind is working. I’m in the moment.
In this particular moment I feel there are a lot of rolling hills early on. While I did glance at the elevation profile and aid station chart pre-race, I didn’t commit much of it to memory because doing so would only intimidate and haunt me. I know there is a big climb before mile 40 and another killer climb around mile 70, but other than that, I’m just going with the proverbial flow.
And the flow is good, because before I — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — know it, I’m approaching another trail head and hear “HOLA PAPI!” from a smiling, cheering Edna.
This melts my heart, man. Every single time. How lucky am I!?
I eat and chug Pedialyte while Siamak fills my pack with more water. The crew is attentive and supportive, careful not to ask me “How do you feel?”, a question that anyone in an ultra already knows the answer to. While it may be early enough in the race still to not yet feel like absolute shit, we are fast approaching the 15 mile mark, a point where no matter what the race, I no longer feel fresh and ache-free.
My hips have been aching a little more than usual here to start the race, but I keep it to myself, expecting the feeling will go away. Besides, I have already tripped and stubbed my toes on unsuspecting rocks about fifty times, so the throbbing in my lower extremities does well to hide any aches above the knees.
Miles 13.27 – 18.27
Back out on the trail, I chat a little bit with Burt from Louisiana. He is running behind me the whole time, so I don’t get a good look at his face, but we pass the next five miles by chatting about ultras we’ve run and how hard this one is compared to the rest.
During our conversation, the first one I’ve had all day with any other participants, the ache in my hips magically disappears while — DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! FUUUUUUUUUCK — I keep stubbing my toes like it was my one and only goal. The trail gods were smart to hide their deviousness underneath the beauty of colorful leaves.
Miles 18.27 – 22.71
“HOLA PAPI!!!” I hear for the third time, each one more pleasurable than the next. I stride in to Aid Station #3 knowing this will be the last time I will see my crew until I reach the top of Bald Rock at mile 41. I chug more Pedialyte, eat and relay to the crew that all systems are go. (I don’t mention the toe stubbing and ankle rolling party to them, as they appear to be having a good time. Besides, we made a pact prior: no negativity.)
Edna fills a Ziploc baggie for me with enough trail mix to feed all the runners! I consider having her dump half of it out, but in my haste, I just shove the big bag in my pack and vow to carry on. I give everyone a big hug — all this in-the-moment-mind-body-focus is making me quite the emotional sap — and Dad snaps a quick picture of the four of us before I head back out on the trail.
I quickly get myself back into a groove, something that becomes easier and easier as the race goes on. Other than those five miles with Burt, I’ve been running solo throughout; and since this is a point-to-point race I suspect there will be many more miles alone before the day is through.
Thinking about this, a group of three 20-something runners from Cleveland catch up to me. I offer them a chance to pass, but they like my pace and tuck in behind. I spend the next several miles listening to their hilarious banter, a welcome distraction from the — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — that continues to terrorize my feet.
Miles 22.71 – 27.66
Aid Station #4 has two things I’ve never seen at an aid station before: Krispy Kreme donuts and Maker’s Mark whiskey. All things in moderation, I say, but I only have enough room for one guilty pleasure today. I devour the rich, fatty donuts and watch on curiously as the 20-somethings from Cleveland gleefully shoot Maker’s like it was a handheld of Gatorade.
Downing Maker’s Mark 22 miles into a hundred mile race? Now THAT is ballsy, I think to myself.
Back out on the trail, I again lead the way while eavesdropping on the youngsters’ conversation, every now and then adding my own chuckle or DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT!
Miles 27.66 – 35.16
At Aid Station #5 I stuff my face with all kinds of food: cookies, chips, peanut butter and jelly. Like usual, I’m starving, but the trail mix in my pockets just doesn’t sound appealing right now, so I do what I can to fill up here.
In doing so, I take a little more time than I’d hoped, and the youngsters from Cleveland kick off down the trail ahead of me. I follow a few minutes later but they are too fast and I don’t have any hopes of catching them.
Running solo it is.
Just me… and this grand… grand forest and all the beauty it has within it. My senses are on uber alert.
I feel the cold air on my skin like an end-swell on my slowly deteriorating body. My eyes sharpen on the lush, vibrant, varying colors. The fresh scent of dirt, grass and breeze fill my nose. The rubbery aftertaste of water from my hydration bladder sits on my tongue. The cool, incessant wind whispers in my ears.
For 7.5 miles I take inventory of these senses and — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — give thanks to the running gods that I have the physical ability to be in a place where I can appreciate them all.
Miles 35.16 – 40.94
After such a long stretch without aid, I reach Aid Station #6 expecting to find a bounty of high calorie options to fuel what many would consider the hardest climb of the day: a 1600 foot ascent up to 2400 feet at Bald Rock, the highest point in Alabama.
Instead, what I find is a lone aid station volunteer with some water and a few packets of Hammer gels. There is nothing else.
“Isn’t there any food?” I ask, fearful of what I already expect is his answer.
“We ran out of food, I’m afraid,” he says. “I do have a couple of gels here if you want.”
I’m speechless. No food? It’s been 7.5 miles since the last aid station, with another 6 or so to go up a huge climb and there’s no food? What the — ???
Out of the corner of my eye I see half loaf of bread, sadly sitting idle on the ground. I grab a couple slices out of the bag and go on my way, trying not to think about how I might die of starvation trying to get up the top of this climb.
No negativity, no negativity, no negativity…
But… how does a race like this run out of food??? How can I go on with —
DING — A mental light bulb goes off.
Trail mix. Fucking trail mix. Thank the running gods that Edna gave me all that damn trail mix! YEEEEE HAAAAA!!! I got it! I got this thing! Yes!
The only thing that distracts me from my newfound excitement is the occassional SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT!, an issue that apparently isn’t going away anytime soon. I don’t even care anymore. I just want to get up to the top of this mountain and see what all the fuss is about. Having run this race himself in 2012, Siamak told me that the view at the top of Bald Rock is breathtaking, well worth the laborious effort to get there.
I focus on that while keeping my head down so I don’t have to look at how far up I have yet to go.
Up, up, up…
Up, up, up…
A few false summits… followed by some strategic trail mix breaks…
Up, up, up…
Hm…. this is going to last forever it seems… until…
“Hey, Jeff! You made it!”
It’s Siamak! I don’t know who’s happier to see whom, but we’re both wearing million dollar smiles.
“Hey, real quick, check out the view, man. This is so worth it.” He guides me to the vista I’ve been waiting for and my goodness, does it ever take my breath away!
WOW! I climbed up here! I did this! I am doing this!
“Okay, I’m going to run up ahead and to tell Edna and your dad that you’re here. We have some great stuff for you from Panera: hot macaroni and cheese, a turkey and bacon sandwhich, a rich chocolate brownie.”
Holy shit my head is going to explode. Hearing those food items roll of his tongue makes me want to cry from immense joy. He takes off and I labor on behind him, giving chase the best I can. My run is still a respectable pace. I’ve been running smart all day. Fueling, drinking. 15 more miles and I’ll have Siamak to take me the rest of the way.
And then I hear it: “HOLA PAPI!!!!”
Oh my goodness there she is! “Ednita! Mi amor!” I yell back.
“Ven, mi amor, tenemos macaroni and cheese.”
This girl certainly knows how to make me happy.
Miles 40.94 – 45.25
We get to the aid station #7 and for the first time all day I sit down in a chair and relax a little bit while stuffing my face with HOT FOOD! MMMMMM!! YUMMMMM!
In between shivery bites (the temp is dropping and the wind is swirling up here), I relay the story of the foodless aid station to my crew and mention how that trail mix saved my life.
“Well, that explains why so many people look so bad up here then,” says my dad.
Poor Dad. He’s freezing. Sometimes crewing can be harder than the actual running. Standing around and waiting all day in poor conditions for a (sometimes) cranky runner can be hard work. I try to smile and actively refrain from cranky behavior, as much as possible. After all, I’m feeling relatively AWESOME and I’m having a fucking blast.
“This is real adventure!” I say.
Siamak hands me my headlamp and reminds me to hurry up so I can make the descent before sun down. We are losing sunlight quickly, and the next four miles are a very technical, treacherous, rocky plight down the mountain. Warmed from the hot food and the love from my crew, I grab a jacket and get on down the road.
The only thing that really hurts right now are my cheeks from smiling so much.
Of course, the smile wanes some as I begin the descent from Bald Rock. Each foot fall has to be carefully planned. There is no running here. In fact, I use my hands as much as my feet to navigate the guantlet of loose rocks and sharp drop-offs.
Ahead of me is a group of three who slowly plot a line that I follow the best I can. With so much concentration being exerted, the time passes quickly, and by the time we reach the bottom, the sun wanes with only minutes left before dropping off the horizon.
Whew! Close call! That would have been a real bitch going down in the dark! I think to myself.
Miles 45.25 – 52.07
It’s a dark night now, I flip on my headlamp, and not long after that, I reach aid station #8 where Siamak is anxiously awaiting. He asks if I need anything.
“Nope. All good here.” I quickly eat, drink, give everyone a hug, and I’m off.
I’m in a groove. Other than general accumulative soreness, the body feels good. Mind is good. All is good! I try to remember what I’ve been thinking about all day and I can’t really recall — a sign that I’ve been in the moment throughout.
And this moment.
And this one… uh-oh.
My head lamp dims. A couple of minutes later and it dims again, barely illuminating anything in front of me.
PANIC. STRESS. FUUUUUUUUUUUCK.
I turn the lamp on and off (probably not a good idea) and my assumption is correct. Dead batteries. And I’m not carrying back-ups. I was going to ask Siamak for them at the last aid station. But I forgot. And here I am in the middle of a technical gauntlet, in pitch black, helpless against the inevitable darkness that will soon consume me.
DING DING! My back up flash light! I asked for it back at mile 18, the last time I saw my crew before the 20 mile stretch without them, just in case something happened, and now it’s going to save my life.
Whew, dodged a BIG bullet there.
I spend the next few miles cursing myself for making such a rookie mistake. I changed the headlamp’s batteries to fresh ones after I used it last (in September) and it never occurred to me that they could drain even when not in use.
Lesson learned! Of course, the lesson keeps on being taught, as this small handheld flashlight doesn’t put out much of a beam. And on this — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — tough, unforgiving trail, every ill-illuminated — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — step is a dance with potential danger. I have no choice but to slow down. I won’t see my crew for another 10 miles, so I am going to have to make due.
Adapting, on the fly, is something one learns to do fairly quickly in the ultra game. In my experience as a pacer during 100 milers, the perfect race is a sort of unicorn. It just doesn’t exist. Something is bound to go unaccording to plan, at some point. Being able to adapt is key.
Miles 52.07 – 55.34
I roll into aid station #10 and refuel more quickly than usual so I can tag onto the back of a group of three just leaving. They have some of the brightest headlamps I’ve ever seen and I don’t care what their pace, I’m sticking with them as much as I can.
There is a lot of tough climbing in this section and I’m lucky to be the caboose of this group. I just cling on, focusing on my steps and their conversation. It’s a mile or so before any of them notice enough to ask me my name.
“Jeff, from Chicago,” I say. “This is my first hundred.”
Hearing myself speak, I sound winded, anxious.
“Well, Jeff from Chicago,” says the leader, Jason, up ahead, “you get up and over Pinnacle under the cut off time and you’ll finish this race.”
He goes on about the challenges of the race, how people tend to go out too fast, how people don’t fuel properly. But he seems intent on the idea that once we get past Pinnacle, it’s easy running from there on out. The other two echo his thoughts, so I put this in the back of my mind for later.
Pinnacle is the treacherous 1600ish foot climb from approximately mile 73 to 74. It’s too far off in the future for me to think about it now.
Just follow these guys to aid station #10, get some new batteries, and let Siamak take you home.
Miles 55.34 – 65.44
I roll into station #10 and immediately see my green Sable. Edna, Dad and Siamak pop out of it, ready to wait on me, whatever I need. “HOLA PAPI!”
Ay… mi corazon.
I get new batteries and then change into a dry, skintight baselayer top. I chug my first Red Bull of the race to chase two Ibuprofens. My body is pretty achy all over, and now seems like as good a time as any to shut it up, at least for a bit.
I down some more Pedialyte, tell Edna and Dad to stay warm (they are both shivering in the dark cold) and hug them before I set back out on the trail, this time with Siamak.
“Boy am I glad to see you,” I tell him. As much as I hate race cliches, I can’t help but utter “It’s all downhill from here.”
Siamak ran this race in 2012, as his first 100 mile race, and is one of the main reasons I sought to conquer the course myself. He has told me much about the trail already, but I knew if I had him pace me through the night, he would get me to the finish. You won’t find many runners tougher than Siamak. That I know. Oh yeah, he’s also the 2014 Midwest Ultra Grand Slam Champion.
I keep good company.
He leads and I follow. We spend the next 10 miles catching up on the day’s action, talking quite a bit about everything that has happened to us thus far. Just us two Chatty Cathies, running wild through the woods, trying not to — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT!
“Oh yeah, the leaves are covering all the booby traps on the trail, so be careful,” I advise too late.
We fly through aid station 11 and continue on, still talking the night away. The Red Bull is working. The Ibuprofen is working. We are cranking on the flats and downs, hiking the ups with a purpose. The temperature is dropping quickly. We both agree we need to keep moving at a brisk pace to keep our bodies warm.
And tights. I want my tights.
Miles 65.44 – 68.78
As we approach aid station #12, we come up on the back of my Sable, the Illinois plates reflecting brightly from our headlamps. The windows are fogged from my sleeping crew. I guess we got here faster than they expected. Not bad! Siamak taps on the doors and Dad and Edna quickly jump out and spring to action.
I am lucky to have these two crewing for me. Their love and dedication is beyond words and every time I’ve seen them throughout the race they have lifted my spirits, just by being here.
“Gracias, mi amor,” I say as I sit down in the chair she provides for me. “I need my tights.”
Dad grabs them from my bag and helps me get them on over my big, clunky Hoka Rapa Nuis. “You need to change socks or anything?” he asks.
“Nope, all good.” Surprisingly, my feet haven’t been wet all day long. No blisters. No issues whatsoever, unless you call generally sore feet from running all day an issue. Most ultrarunners would just call that part of a day’s work.
With warm legs now, Siamak and I get back to work.
The conversation falls off some, but both of us remain focused. We have run together a lot the last couple of years, so there is a mutual comfort in the silence.
Work, work, work. Run, run, run.
Miles 68.78 – 74.53
We get to aid station #13 and Siamak suggests we Red Bull again in preparation for the big push up Pinnacle. I take this opportunity to down another two Ibuprofen and chase it with some bean burritos.
Siamak reminds Dad and Edna that we won’t see them for a while now, that we have a really tough section coming up, and to be ready for whatever when we see them again at mile 85.
Another round of hugs and we’re gone.
There are quite a few downhills here, with a continued bevy of ankle breaking traps springing at inopportune — SNAP! THWACK! DAMN IT! OUCH! SHIT! — moments.
But then, we start up. And up. And up.
Switchbacks, switchbacks, switchbacks.
Looking up ahead proves too nauseating for me. As my quads, heels and lower back scream at me for all the contracting and flexing, I can’t imagine having to do any more climbing. All I can do is keep my head down, stare at the ground, and follow in Siamak’s wake, one step at a time.
“This is it,” he eventually says after what feels like forever, “we’re at the top!”
Siamak points to a sign that says we have reached the Pinnacle aid station. It is accompanied by a menu — yes, a menu — of food items available up ahead. Siamak and I both have grilled cheese on our minds.
Miles 74.53 – 85.63
“Grilled cheese it is!” says the volunteer who greets us at the top of Pinnacle. Up here it’s a an outright party, as everyone seems to be having a gay old time. Loud music, bouts of laughter, hot food and aromas galore.
Siamak and I take an extra few minutes to gather ourselves. “Yeah, now that you made it up here,” says one volunteer, “you’re gonna finish. It’s all downhill from here.”
That cliche again.
It doesn’t take too long out of the aid station to find out it indeed is NOT all downhill from here. There are plenty of rollers to keep us occupied, but now the challenge shifts from tough climbs to tough conditions. The temperature has dropped into the 20s, both of us fight sleep deprivation and now we battle 30 mph winds on a completely exposed ridge that seems to last forever.
For the first time in the race, I start to lose my heart. Instead of SNAP! THWACK! it’s now every, single, step that hurts. The pristine feet I boasted about earlier now reveal budding hot spots, and every time I step on wobbly rock or root it sends burning pains up through my skin.
I start to say this a lot now. Sometimes I say it to coax myself away from falling asleep. Sometimes I say it because I hurt. Sometimes I say it just to see if I’m still alive.
Aid station #15 has bacon that I believe came from a pig who was breathing this morning. I’ve never had fresher, better tasting bacon in my life. Or maybe I just think that because my body has deteriorated into its current state of zombieness and all my basic cognitive skills are short circuiting.
Siamak is doing something. I don’t know what. I sit down for a second and try not to fall asleep.
He must have said something to me because suddenly I’m back on the trail, though I don’t know how I got here.
“This is gonna be a hard time, but the sun will be up soon,” he encourages as we take off back down the ridge, fighting a relentless wind and despicable cold.
The next 6 miles are a complete blur: running, OUCH, sleeping, NO, drinking, FUCK, following, “COME ON, JEFF, YOU LOOK GREAT”, liar, SHIT, ouch, sleep, sun? death… RUN JEFF RUN.
We continue on, but it seems like a dream. I try to talk but nothing comes out. Even my curses stick in the back of my throat, unable to follow through. It takes every ounce of listless energy I have left to move one foot in front of the other. Luckily, that’s all that’s necessary.
And then the sun comes up.
“Hey, we’re gonna see Edna and your Dad soon,” says Siamak.
Between the prospect of seeing them and the sun coming up, I can’t help but cry.
Miles 85.63 – 89.63
“HOLA PAPI!” I see her. Dad is next to her. I’m bawling like a baby. I feel weak, exhausted. All I want to do is sleep. As I hug Edna, I feel myself wanting to collapse into her arms and hide my tears.
Why am I crying? I think to myself. I have no clue. Running exposes my feelings. Crying is inevitable.
Somewhat embarrassed by my tears, I refuel some before Siamak encourages me back onto the trail, which is now mostly road. Flushed from emotion, we start picking up the pace, cranking on the downs when possible.
It feels really good to be running like this 85 miles into the race. I wanted to be running til the end. It’s happening!
Miles 89.63 – 95.21
At aid station #17, there is no crew access, but there are homemade oatmeal cookies that I want to eat for the rest of my life.
NOM NOM NOM.
Whoever made these needs a statue dedicated in his/her honor!
Full of oatmeal cookie goodness, Siamak and I put our heads down and attack the road some more. The road is awesome. The road is great. There are no sneaky, leaf covered traps for my bludgeoned feet here. I hope the rest of the race is on roads (it’s not).
Miles 95.21 – 100.59
We approach aid station #18, the final aid station, and I am welcomed with one last “HOLA PAPI!”
If my heart could melt any more it would fall right out of my chest.
We have plenty of time to finish now, over 70 minutes ahead of the cut-off, so I take the time to sit down and slip out of my tights. Now that the sun has come up, I am warmer than I’d like to be, so any little comfort will help deter my mind from focusing on the pain that throbs throughout my entire body.
I didn’t want to admit it, but miles 75-85 almost killed me, and the fallout resonates in every nerve ending.
I eat some more, drink some more. My goodness, I’ve probably eaten and drunk a bazillion calories, and I’m STILL HUNGRY!
In my delirium, I ask Edna, “Are you going to be there at the finish?”
“Of course we will be there at the finish.”
Why wouldn’t they be at the finish? I don’t know. I don’t know anything right now. Just hurt. Hurt just know I… bleh bleh bleh. What?
When I get up from the chair, I hurt even worse.
Pain in my medial right knee. It’s stiff. I can hardly bend it. This has to be a casualty from the umpteenth trip, stub, roll I suffered over the last 95 miles.
Oh well. With only five to go, I ain’t stoppin’ now. We’ll just wobble until we warm up and truck along to the end.
Dad hands Siamak a walkie talkie so he can alert him of our arrival at the high school track and then the two of us head back out knowing the next time we see the crew will be there at the finish.
Yes, yes… the finish. I’m going to finish. Holy shit.
Every step is a killer now. I shuffle along the best I can. We hit some more trail, some more road.
FUUUUUUUCK, SHIIIIIIIIT, DAAAAAAAAMN.
I wonder if my incessant cursing is annoying Siamak yet. If it is, he doesn’t let it show. For that I am grateful.
Head down, arms pumping, we get through some trails and pop out on a road. Not a jeep road, not a dirt road. No. This is a good old fashioned proper highway!
We’re in Sylacauga! The track is near! The hotel is even closer! A bed! WOO HOO!
It’s happening. It’s really happening. Holy moly this religious experience turned sufferfest turned religious experience is really happening!
I hurt, but I don’t hurt! I don’t hurt, but I hurt! I don’t know what’s going on! I’m floating! I’m dead!
NO, I’M ALIIIIIIIVE!
Siamak and I run on the road for what feels like forever until finally, FINALLY…
YES. FIIIIINNNNNAAAAAALLLLLYYYYYY we turn right and I see the track entrance.
Siamak says some things to me but I can’t hear him clearly because the crowd in my head is roaring out all other thoughts.
My feet hit the rubber track and suddenly all pains drift away. All there is is blue sky, a rush of blood to the head and 200 meters to victory.
I cross the finish line in 28 hours, 51 minutes.
I collapse into Edna’s arms. Tears roll down my cheek. I hug Siamak, collect my buckle from the race director and then fall into my dad’s arms before I find myself in a chair.
Finally. In a chair. And I don’t have to get up and run anywhere.
I did it. I really did it. I ran 100 miles, on my own two feet, from the town of Heflin, to the city of Sylacauga, proving that with a little hard work and dedication, nothing is impossible. Up and over the mountains, through and between the trees, this was the experience of a lifetime — one that I will think about often, in times of darkness and times of joy.
You live and die your entire life in the span of a 100 mile race.
If you’re lucky you survive to be born again.
Last June, I went on a weekend adventure with Jim Street and Kirsten Pieper. Along the way, they got me excited about a race they co-direct: the Evergreen Lake Ultra Series. When planning out my 100 mile race training, I made sure to put their event on the schedule.
It would not disappoint.
Pre-Race, Sunday, September 14, 2014
Of course it’s 2:15 in the morning and of course I’m awake.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Only crazy people get excited about losing sleep and comfort to the task of running 50+ miles in the woods.
I am certified crazy, man.
Edna is crazy too, which is probably why we get along so well. Either way, we’re both up and getting ourselves ready for what will surely be a long day. It’s 38 degrees outside, with an expected high in the upper 60s, so we both pack layers along with our Red Bulls and Starbucks Double Shots.
After a 20-minute drive from our hotel in Minonk, we arrive at Evergreen Lake (about 14 miles from Bloomington) and the groggy bustle of the start/finish line. We check in, get our bibs and say hello to Kirsten, who is busy greeting chilly runners and directing us towards the food.
“I’m only here for the food anyway,” I remind Kirsten.
She laughs as Edna and I dig in to the smorgasbord of breakfast items — several different quiches, potato wedges, and of course: BACON.
Nom nom nom nom…
As Edna already knows, the fastest way to my heart is through bacon, and there is so much bacon here I think I will love this race forever, and it hasn’t even started yet.
We finish eating and then go through our regular pre-race routines, which unglamorously include bathroom breaks and lots of lubricants.
Ready to go, we runners gather around for Jim’s pre-race speech. It’s cold. I can see my own breath and this pre-autumn chill only reminds me of the awful winter we had and what more awfulness might be on the way in 2015.
Brrrr! I have on a skull cap, long sleeve pull-over and gloves. All wrapped up, Edna looks like she’s about to embark on an Aleutian whaling expedition.
“Good luck, babe!” I tell her with a quick kiss.
There is a countdown… and then…
LOOP ONE — WINTER
Miles 1 – 17
There is a surge of eager runners that tightly pack in front of me. I let them go. I will be going slow today — locking in that 100-mile pace.
I laugh out loud at the idea of my “100-mile pace”.
You say it as if it’s sooo fast, I tell myself.
Nah, it ain’t, I reply. But eventually, it will hurt just the same.
I know that. Anyone who runs ultras knows that. Pain is part of the game. It’s part of what draws me in, keeps me engaged. By feeling my body’s reaction to the stress I put on it, I remain present and in a constant conversation with myself.
I’m not a masochist. I don’t like to hurt. But I do like to feel alive, and nothing makes me feel more alive than putting my body to the ultimate test and relaxing in the happy wasted comfort of accomplishment that comes after.
It’s a magical, transcending experience.
Can’t wait to get there today!
One thing is for sure: that end will be a long time coming. We have 13 hours to finish, and I plan to take as much time as I need. This race is 51 miles and consists of three loops of 17 miles each. I hope to keep an even pace — something on par with what I’ll experience at Pinhoti in November — and log each loop somewhere in between 3.5 to 4 hours.
Just a few miles in, and I am all by myself. The forest is quiet and dark. My new Black Diamond headlamp (thanks, Edna!) shines a brilliant beam, lighting my path ahead. Occasionally I look at the vast blackness above, in complete awe of the billions and billions of stars that exist, up there, way beyond my comprehension.
We don’t get this kind of view in the city. What a beautiful sight.
My awe and tranquility is interrupted every 10 minutes with the sudden urge to pee — another unglamorous staple of my ultrarunning career. There is something about running in the woods for hours and hours that causes me to urinate often, exemplifying my oft said japish quip of “The world is my toilet.”
I say that out of respect, Mother Nature. Please do not strike me down with a bolt of lightning.
She does not. Instead, she gives me an aid station.
I quickly take some peanut butter and jelly, and before I can say “my hands are clean, no really” I’m off on my merry, dark way.
Not long after, I find myself at a creek crossing. I stop, take a quick look around for any object that might make crossing this body of water a bit easier (and drier).
Nope. No help for you, Mother Nature surely chides.
Meh. Just as well. My feet are already wet from the dewy grass. Might as well get dirty too.
I plunge through the cold creek, water up to my knees, with a loud and boisterous “YEEEEEE HAAAAAW!”
The chill of the water complements the chill in the air.
How is it so cold? We never even got a summer! Thanks, Obama!
I pick up the pace to generate more warmth, and immediately my mind goes to a warmer place… like… um… here, later today, where it will be in the upper 60s. Soon.
I can make it that long, I think as I zip through the halfway mark of the loop, met by enthusiastic volunteers and a rising sun. I put away my head lamp and find comfort in being able to see everything around me. I was running cautious in the dark, trying hard not to trip. Naturally, an hour or so into sunlight I take my first head dive off an ornery root. I can’t help but laugh at myself.
That’s another reason why I keep coming back to these races, I think to myself. I always end up laughing at myself.
It’s hard to take things too seriously when my biggest concerns often revolve around something as simple as picking up my own two feet, one after the other; or whether or not I used enough Vaseline on my butt crack to keep from chafing halfway through the race. Such are the silly demands of an all-day runner.
I plop through another knee-high creek — this one just as cold — and shriek just the same as before. Not long after passing through though, and I start to feel the warmth of the sun penetrate my winter layers, telling me it’s time for a costume change.
Change hats, ditch gloves, change shirts, eat. This is my mantra before I reach the start/finish line aid station. I often repeat such phrases so that I don’t show up to the aid station and waste time not knowing what the hell to do (as is often the case if I don’t have a plan).
Change hats, ditch gloves, change shirts, eat, I repeat again as I FINALLY come up on other people on the trail. I’ve run almost the entirety of this 17-mile loop without seeing any other people.
“Hey, you’re moving too fast,” one of the female runners I pass hollers, “this is the no passing zone!”
We all have a good chuckle as I continue on.
I’m still chuckling as I approach what looks just like any other bridge, except that when I step on this particular bridge, I almost fall off as it bounces awkwardly, daring to toss me in the water it spans below. Once I recover my wits and realize I didn’t actually break any bones trying to get across, I think back to my youth and the bouncy bridges that used to be popular at the playgrounds in my hometown. I used to get such a kick out of scaring my sisters on those things.
Before I can answer, I start to see signs of civilization: generators, tents, camp fire smoke. At this point I pick up the pace and notice I’m sweating. Uncomfortable.
Change hats, ditch gloves, change shirts, eat.
EAT! It’s time. I’ve been munching on whatever looks good at the aid stations thus far — mostly peanut butter and jelly and some fruit — but I’m ready for some real food. The start/finish line aid station has it.
Potato wedges, more fruit and… rice balls? Yes! Rice balls! With some sort of tomato-something… shit, I don’t know, but they are delicious. So I grab a cup and stuff a bunch of them in there for the road.
I change my shirt (short sleeves now), ditch my gloves (too hot for them) and change hats (ball cap rather than skully). Feeling fresh and refreshed, I fill up my Salomon hydration vest with another 50 ounces of water and strap it on.
Before I head out, I see Jim and say hello. “I guess you know how much I loved creek crossings,” I tell him.
“You mean you couldn’t jump those creeks?” he laughs back.
“Well, I’m still smiling, so all is well,” I respond, heading back out onto the trail.
(Loop One Time: 3 hours, 42 minutes)
LOOP TWO — SPRING
Miles 17 – 34
I am still smiling. 17 miles in and yeah, my legs are starting to ache, but keeping a smile on my face keeps me from dwelling on any discomforts I have. For now.
The peacefulness of this trail — this outdoor wonderland — is also distracting me from any creeping aches and pains. In fact, this time around the loop seems like the first time, at least for the first half, since when I came around earlier it was pitch black.
My breath keeps getting taken away, not by the labors of my body, but by the beauty of the trail. The views are dramatic and pristine. Nature at its finest. My eyes wander on scenes reminiscent of a Bob Ross painting.
There’s a happy little tree next to a happy little lake. And, oh look, there’s his friend, Mr. Rock, all nestled into the happy little grass.
Fucking beautiful, man. I could stay out here all day.
Ha! Guess what, YOU ARE!
Oh yeah. I am. I AM!
Damn it, I’m just overwhelmed with happiness right now.
Don’t start crying, silly. You’re not even halfway through the race yet. Can’t get so emotional so early.
Yet sometimes the trail calls for it. For me, running is communing with nature. Running is meditation. Running is pure joy. When it is all those things together at the same time, sometimes I can’t help but get pretty emotional about it.
Ah fuck it, no one cares. If anyone asks, just tell them you got some dirt in your eye.
No one is around anyway. I’m all by myself. Just me, the happy little trees and… GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE.
Yeah, as much as I would like to think I’m all alone out here in this forest, the constant turkey gobbling coming from deep within the woods reminds me I’m not. This is the first time I’ve knowingly shared the wilderness with turkeys, so that’ s kinda cool.
Just us turkeys out here!
I wonder what the turkeys think of this weather. It’s spring now. In the shade I’m too cold, in the sun I’m too hot. I guess the turkeys probably don’t think about that too much. They will just be happy to be alive come November.
Past the halfway mark of the loop now, my legs are really starting to slow down, so I welcome the clockwork necessity to stop and pee every 20 minutes. It feels good knowing I’m more than halfway through the course, right on my targeted goal per loop, but it would also feel really good to be sitting on a couch watching football right now.
My mind wanders from Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall to Alshon Jeffery.
I bet they couldn’t do what I’m doing right now, I think. Then again, I don’t think I could do what they do either, so I guess it’s a wash.
While debating what possibly hurts more: being tackled by 300 lb defensive linemen or running ultramarathons through he woods, I trudge through the creek crossing again.
WOOOOOO HOOOOOOOO! BRRRRRRR!!!
I wonder if anyone can hear me? Other than the aid station volunteers — whom are ALL AWESOME BEYOND AWESOME by the way — I haven’t seen a single soul on this loop yet. I’m all alone… with my thoughts…
And now my mantra is water, Ibuprofen, Red Bull.
That early morning wake-up is catching up with me now as I slumber my way through the back half of the course. The cold creek crossings do well to snap me out of my zombie-like state; and I keep running as much as I can despite the slow pace. But for the last 17 miles I’m going to want a pick-me-up.
And it’s getting hot.
Water, Ibuprofen, Red Bull… water, Ibuprofen, Red Bull…
I hear footsteps. About a mile from the end of the loop now and I hear hard, fast footsteps. What the —
I turn around and see a young man blazing toward me. It’s Zach Pligge, a talented runner I met at Potawatomi earlier this year. I recall he had a fast finishing time in the hundred miler at that race, so he must be on his last loop of this one.
“Finishing up?” I ask.
“Yep! You think we’re going to hit that bridge soon?” he replies.
The bouncy bridge. The scary bridge. The bridge that almost sent me home in pieces.
“I hope so,” I reply. I want to stick on Zach’s heels so I can see how a super fast runner with 50 miles in his legs handles that bridge monstrosity, but he’s too fast and I’m too hot (and slow) to chase. He takes off as I congratulate him on a great race.
Wow. So the only person I see on this whole 17-mile loop is the guy who laps me on his way to an overall win. Now that’s not something that happens every day.
Civilization creeps back into view, and I know I’ve only got one more loop to go. With a little help from my friends (Ibuprofen and Red Bull to be exact), I’m looking forward to getting done.
Back at the start/finish line aid station, Kirsten greets me asking, “Are you done?!”
“Um…. no. No way. I have one more loop to go.”
“Oh, okay, well be careful at the aid station. We are having a little bit of a bee problem.”
When I get to the food table, I see what she means: there are bees EVERYWHERE! Yikes! And they really seem to dig watermelon as they are all over that. Luckily, they’re not into those rice balls, so I take as many as I can, fill up my hydration vest, chug a Red Bull and swallow 400 mg of Ibuprofen. In about 15 minutes I expect I’ll feel like a new man!
(Loop Two Time: 3 hours, 49 minutes)
LOOP THREE — SUMMER
Miles 34 – 51
The sun is hot.
Duh. It’s only about 10 billion degrees Fahrenheit. And even at 92.9 million miles away from the earth, it’s pretty impressive that I’m not fried up and dead right now, because 10 billion degrees is really hot.
In moments of extreme fatigue, my mind spends a lot of time on the obvious.
Oh, look over there is a tree. And there’s another. And another…
Having chowed down on rice balls and Red Bull… I shuffle-cruise my way through the first couple of miles of this last loop. Still all alone. Still stopping to pee every 20 minutes.
I bet I could shave a good half hour of my finish time today if I didn’t have to pee so damn much, I tell myself.
Yeah, but you have to keep drinking. You have the bladder of a pregnant woman. Nothing you can do about that. Better to drink and pee than to dehydrate and suffer.
Good point, self. Good point.
I shuffle along wondering when the Ibuprofen will kick in when, all of the sudden. It kicks in.
BAM! Off to the races!
At this point, pace is relative. I know I’m probably moving along around an 11 or 12 minute mile pace (at best), but I feel like friggin’ Killian Jornet out here. Zooming down this hill, bending around that corner, power hiking up that climb.
How much of it is caffeine versus NSAIDS versus mental toughness, I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t care either. I’m feeling good and I’m lettin’ ‘er rip!
Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai?
I don’t know what I’m humming to myself exactly, but it’s a catchy hook to a song from Stromae, an artist a friend of mine introduced me to on my recent trip to Mexico, and I can’t get it out of my head.
Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai?
Now I’m singing it out loud. Why not!? Other than me and the turkeys, this forest is as still as can be.
Which begs the question: if an ultrarunner flies through the woods and no one is there to see him, does he really ever fly through the woods?
Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai?
I get to the halfway point aid station and chug another Red Bull from my drop bag. I notice in the bag that there’s another half consumed can, which means Edna is on the jolt now too. YAAAAAY EDNA! I hope she’s doing well. I love that girl.
“Thank you, volunteers! I love you all!” I shout as I head back on down the trail.
I’m getting finish-line syndrome — the phenomenon of central governor override that seems to happen the closer one gets to the finish line. Some people just call it “wanting to be done”.
I want to be done, no doubt. My feet and heels are aching, my butt is sore and all this running is making me a little too hot for comfort; but at the same time I don’t ever want to stop, don’t ever want to leave. I just want to be in the forest with my thoughts, surrounded by nature, consumed by beauty — perpetually in the moment.
This is the life! YES!!!
Oh my goodness! People!
I must be slowing down as there are people behind me. Two ladies. I look behind and they greet me: “Hi, are you in the 51 miler?” one asks.
“No, we’re in the 34 miler. You’re my hero though!”
Wow, that’s kinda cool. Who knew you only had to be stupid enough to want to run in the woods all day to be someone’s hero. I’ll take it!
“You’re too kind,” I holler back as I pick up the speed. “Enjoy your finish! Congrats!”
I rev up the engine. ZOOM!
YEEEEE HAAAAAW! through the creek crossings again, focused on reaching civilization, my mind wanders to the task of running 100 miles come November.
What an adventure that’s going to be, I remind myself. And what pain is in store!
“Running is a vehicle for self discovery.” Scott Jurek said that. It’s a quote I think about often, one that I live by.
Look at the person you have become, the self you have discovered, all because you decided to go run in the woods!
Indeed, this is the life.
I reach the wonky bridge, tip-toe over it, saving myself from any potential embarrassment while charging on towards the finish line. As I approach civilization again and am greeted by the friendly cheers of volunteers, spectators and fellow runners, I long to stay out here — to find out more about myself and what I’m made of.
There will be plenty of time for that, I remind myself.
The finish line is in sight, I charge forward to applause, throw my hands in the air and think that crazy thought I never thought I’d think: 5o miles doesn’t seem that long.
(Loop Two Time: 3 hours, 52 minutes)
TOTAL RACE TIME: 11 hours, 23 minutes
Not only is there a killer post-race spread of delicious recovery foods (roast beef, potatoes, drunken berries and sweets galore) but lots of folks stick around to cheer on finishers. I hang out, patiently waiting for Edna to come through, and enjoy some conversation with Jim. I also talk to several other runners, eager to hear their stories from the day. Many of them centered around the cold creek crossings and the wonky bridge. While I only had one face plant, some had several.
We are alike in that we all find humor in ourselves.
It still boggles my mind that I spent nearly all of those 11+ hours alone, by myself, on the trail.
Still, having done so gives me the confidence I need going into the hundred miler, especially knowing I will have a pacer to keep me company on the last half.
Edna comes through about an hour after me, all smiles as usual. She too has some stories to tell, and I can’t wait to hear them. We share an embrace — the kind that only comes from an entire day’s worth of exhaustive exercise — and collect our walking sticks (a unique, kick-ass finisher’s prize that has immediate worth I might add) before heading back to the hotel.
– – –
If you’re looking for a beautiful run in the woods next September, go run Evergreen Lake! They have three distances to choose from (17 miles, 34 miles, 51 miles) and the support is top-notch. The food was great, the volunteers spectacular and the views serene! Also, the trail was impeccably marked, a detail that can never be overstated.
More importantly, with running being that vehicle to self discovery, you’re bound to discover something new about yourself. And having the Shady Hollow Trail Runners’ love and warmth as the background for such introspection is a certain recipe for success.
For over a year I dreamed about what it would feel like to run in the 118th edition of the Boston Marathon. Like many others, I felt compelled to be there no matter what it took. I was inspired to stand up as part of the running community, to help New England heal, to show my compassion and my support by doing what I love to do most: run long.
The whole world would be watching.
This is my story:
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Sitting in the airport terminal, donned in a bright orange and blue Boston Marathon jacket, I see I am not alone. The head nods and thumbs ups from complete strangers come from runners and non-runners alike, but the runners are easily identified by their Boston Athletic Association gear. Hats, tech tees and of course, the iconic marathon jacket, like the one I am wearing, bring a sense of togetherness for what would otherwise be just another boring plane ride.
Once on the plane, the captain makes his welcome speech. He ends it with the following:
“And for all of our marathoners onboard today, we wish you the best of luck and hope you have a fantastic run.”
The cabin erupts with applause.
*Chills up and down my body*
Wow. This ain’t just your everyday marathon, I think to myself.
– – –
In Boston, having checked in to my hotel, I enjoy a pleasant walk along Charles Street, scoping out the perfect spot for a bowl of clam chowder. Along the way I am greeted by many a passerby and random shouts of “Good luck on Monday!”, “Hope ya have a great run!”, “Thanks for being hee-ya!”.
The street is dotted with other marathoners, coming and going along Boston’s iconic Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the sentiment throughout remains equally enthusiastic for all.
It’s not every day that strangers go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I experienced it here last year, so I’m not surprised at all. I’m relishing the moment. Bostonians love their marathon and what it does for the city. I love them for it.
Full of clam chowder and ready for more walking, I make my way to the Hynes Center for the marathon expo. The closer I get to Boylston Street, the more powerful the city’s buzz and when I finally find myself standing at the finish line I notice its reverence is like that of a Greek temple. I too pay my respects.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
I arrived in Boston on Saturday specifically so I could have all day Sunday to sit around and do nothing. For the last year or so, I have been working a lot of 13 hour days, so this break is exactly what I need. I start the day off with a nice 2-mile shake out jog along the Charles River and then spend the rest of the morning and afternoon with my feet up, napping, reading and munching on overpriced hotel fare.
In the evening, I head over to the Government Center to meet my friends Mike and Rita for the official pasta dinner. They are also from Chicagoland. In fact, Rita finished the 2013 marathon just minutes before the bombs went off, giving all of us Chicago folk quite a scare until we knew she was okay.
Now it’s a year later, and I don’t think any of us can wait much longer to toe the line for this 2014 Boston Marathon. There is a deep sense of urgency felt throughout the running community to get this race off and going, to make it the best marathon ever run. The chorus of smile accompanied chatter here at the pasta dinner serves as a grand prologue.
But to make sure this prologue is just grand enough, Mike, Rita and I find ourselves randomly sitting at a table with Lisa and Jeff, a couple from Winona, MN. This choice meeting is grand because Rita met Lisa at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota several months ago while on a college tour with her daughter. To make things even more coincidental, after some conversation we discovered that Jeff knows Rita’s brother from the mountain biking community.
In a sea of 36,000 runners, from all around the globe, we randomly sit down next to familiar ones. In gleeful unison, we stuff ourselves with pasta.
After dinner I head back to the hotel and count down the minutes before Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 3. For a solid hour I abandon all thoughts of marathoning for the dramatic tribulations of Westeros. Fiercely satisfied, with an acute obsession for the mother of dragons, I close my eyes and find myself fast asleep.
Monday, April 21, 2014
**BEEP BEEP BEEP**
Here we go!
I shoot out of bed, hit the power button on the coffee machine and eagerly flip on the news to check the weather. Reporting live from Hopkinton, the weather man confirms what I already know from countless weather app checks over the last 24 hours: low 40 degree temps at the start with highs reaching the mid to upper 60s by the time I hit the half marathon mark.
Could I be any more excited for this race? For this day? For this moment?!?
I eat my regular breakfast (bagel, banana, Clif Bar) and go through my regular pre-race preparations, which this time includes as much sunscreen as it does Bodyglide. A quick mental and physical check-in combined with some gentle foam rolling reveals an all-systems-go status.
But when it comes to another familiar routine, that of strapping on my watch, I hesitate.
Can I really do this? I ask myself. Can I really run without a watch?
You’re going to, I answer myself. You’re going to today. And you’re going to love it.
Sometimes I’m not sure if I believe myself. Today I choose to believe.
It’s been no secret that this training cycle has been one of my worst. I know that I don’t have the legs right now to run my best race. I have long made peace with this. But as much as I declare myself acceptant of my current condition, I know that if I run with my watch I will be checking it obsessively. And if I do that, I’m quite sure my competitive self, the one who often shows up to these sorts of events regardless of physical condition, won’t like what he sees.
Leave the watch at home, I tell myself. Run by feel. Give whatever you got today, but most importantly, enjoy the moment. Be present in it. Today doesn’t have to be about you or your performance. Let it be about people, about compassion, peace.
I leave my hotel room before I can change my mind.
In the elevator, I run into another, equally giddy runner.
His name is Steve and he’s from Pennsylvania. This is his first Boston Marathon and he plans to break three hours today. We split a cab to the Boston Commons and I give him the lowdown on the course: be conservative early on; don’t let the first 10k of downhill seduce you into blowing out your quads; kiss the girls at Wellesley; be ready to suck it up in Newton; when you hit the 21 mile mark let ‘er loose; when you see the Citgo sign you’re almost there.
He’s probably heard all of this already but I still lay it out there like it’s the most important speech he’ll ever hear. He thanks me for the advice and the conversation and before we know it we’re packed into a bus on the way to Hopkinton.
I close my eyes. I sleep a little. I turn off my mind.
When it comes back on we’re at the Athlete’s Village, deboarding the bus. The sweet chill in the air is invigoratin, the adrenaline in my blood plenty. This will be my 8th marathon. I have had butterflies before. I have been nervous. But today I feel none of that. Only adrenaline.
I feel pure adrenaline.
I look down where my watch should be to see how many hours I have to wait until the start.
Oh yeah, I forgot. No watch. No time.
No worry, no obsessing.
The Athlete’s Village is at Hopkinton High School. I head towards the baseball diamond, camp out next to the backstop and, now lying prostrate with a poncho as my mattress, I calm myself back into a deep, meditative state. The noise all around slowly fades and soon all I hear is the metronome of my breath.
– – –
I wake and find that I am now surrounded by a field of runners. The one almost uncomfortably close to me says, “Hey, mate. You were sleeping mighty well right then.”
His name is Robert. He’s a ginger. And he’s from London. This is his first Boston Marathon, and he too plans to run sub-3 hours.
If only I were in shape for a sub-3 hour race… struth gov’nr, cor blimey!
Robert and I chat, helping tick away the time that I can’t keep.
After a thorough comparison of races past and bucket lists to come, he finally notices, “You forget your watch?”
“Yeah, on purpose.”
“Wow, that would be hard for me.”
“Might be hard for me too.”
Nature calls Robert away while the PA announcer calls me and the rest of Wave 1 to our corrals.
Here we go…
With 15,000 more participants this year, I feel like a tuna fish tightly packed inside his school. During this long march from the Athelete’s Village out to the corrals I am hit by a cacophony of smells — from Icy Hot to Starbucks to b.o. — it’s a mixture specifically attune to running culture.
Once in line for my corral, I follow the leader even further down a long road towards Main Street (Route 135) in Hopkinton. It is here that I shed my warm-up clothing and feel that first skipping heart beat — nothing a short series of concentrated deep breaths can’t fix.
Here the crowds are already deep in support. On one lawn in particular stands a man with a sign yelling “Free Donuts, Cigarettes and Beer!” Like everyone else, I enjoy a laugh, but immediately after, the mood grows somber, reflective.
As we draw closer and closer to Main Street, the crowd of runners grows eerily quiet. This is the direct opposite of what I experienced last year. This is the group mind understanding the implications of this moment, the group mind preparing itself for an epic day.
– – –
Packed deep inside my corral now, squeezing elbow to elbow with my fellow tuna runners, I bump into Robert again.
“Hey, mate. Have a good run.”
“You too,” I say as the National Anthem begins.
Hat in my hand, hand on my heart, every hair on my body stands on end.
A massive cheer is followed by a Blackhawk helicopter flyover and finally…
Miles 1 – 6
I cross the first timing mat and instinctively try to start the timer on the watch that isn’t there. Whoops. Laughing at myself and feeling somewhat liberated as I go watchless, I begin the long descent out of Hopkinton. Already the crowd is loud, boisterous and Boston strong.
The adrenaline runs thick so I remind myself to not let my emotions dictate a fast pace. From experience, I already know that it is here, in these first 10 kilometers, where most people ruin their Boston Marathon. For we go down, down, down, banging our quadriceps in the opposite way mother nature designed them. If one goes too hard early on and blows out his quads, when he reaches Newton and really needs them to get up the longer climbs, he is going to feel a lot of pain and suffering.
Knowing this and having the good sense to reel myself in, last year I managed to run my one and only negative split marathon. Maybe today will yield similar results.
Still, it’s pretty demoralizing to have so many people pass by me — correction: FLY BY ME — so early on in the race. To avoid getting stomped to death, I straddle the center line of the narrow roadway and let everyone fight to go around me.
I step over the first 5k timing mat and think about all my friends and loved ones who are receiving a text message as a result. Technology is pretty sweet. I look down at my wrist to check my split but oh wait, yeah, never mind.
Look around you, I remind myself. You will never live this moment again. Soak it in!
Oh, man. I apologize for my rough language here, but How fucking cool is this?!?! I repeat to myself. This is just so fucking cool: the deep, cheering crowds; the speedsters; the gentle downhill making me feel like I’m floating on air.
And BAM, just like that, I’m over the 10k timing mat, texting my mom and dad again.
I finally break my habit of looking at my invisible watch.
Miles 6 – 12
After the initial 10k of quad thrashing, I do a full mind-body scan to take inventory. I feel great. My breathing is consistent and calculated. I’m running on feel, adjusting pace and cadence based on the course. My smile is about as big as it can get. If anything, my cheeks are beginning to hurt.
But most importantly, my quadriceps are perfectly fine. And they should be. I spent a lot of time over the last 18 weeks working and building my quads, just for this moment. Since I was confined to a treadmill for 90% of my training runs this winter, one of my favorite workouts was warming up for 10 minutes followed by 5 minutes at 6:30/mile pace, followed by 1 minute of air squats, 1 minute of lunges and a 1 minute wall-sit before going back to 5 minutes at 6:30/pace. I would repeat the 8 minute segment 3-8 times, depending on where I was in my training cycle. I typically like to think of myself as a pretty humble guy, but I can’t stop myself from saying I have big ass horse legs right now as a result of all the hard work.
They are coming in handy now.
As my mind drifts from those treadmill workouts to right this second to what kind of beer I’m going to drink after this, I try to always come back to right now. This moment. This little bit of history. This awesomeness.
I pass Team Hoyt and I give them a “WAY TO GO, TEAM HOYT!” while marveling at all those two have accomplished. Just thinking about how many people they’ve inspired the last 30 years makes me feel extremely appreciative to share the road with them. The crowd reacts to their presence appropriately and I am happy to be along for the ride.
Despite the roaring support, there are a couple of quiet spots in between Framingham and Natick. Just before mile 11 now, we hit another brief quiet spot before Wellesley when I feel a man approaching fast on my left side. As he sails by me I take one look at him from behind and immediately yell: “DEAN!”
It’s Dean Karnazes. No one has a body composition like that besides Dean. He’s also ridiculously tan, wearing his famous North Face singlet and visor.
“Hey, bro,” he replies looking back but not slowing down one bit, “how’s it going?”
“Wow! Going great!” I say, suddenly finding the energy and the turnover to keep up with him. I park myself on his right and match him stride for stride. “This is awesome, Dean,” I gush. “I gotta tell you, my name is Jeff and you’re the reason I run ultras! ”
“Cool, that means a lot to me to hear that. I’m glad to see you’re still running marathons too.”
“Yes, sir. In fact, I was training for my first marathon a few years ago when I wondered if people were crazy enough to ever run more than 26.2.”
“So I Googled it and up came your book, Ultramarathon Man. I bought it, read it in one day and about halfway through the book I said to myself ‘I’m doin’ that.'”
“That’s a great story,” he says, smiling almost as big as me. “Thanks for sharing that with me.”
We chat on about upcoming ultras and about how awesome this Boston Marathon is. But just as I start to hear the screaming women of Wellesley off in the distance, I realize there’s no way I can keep up this pace much longer without crashing hard. So I tell Dean as much and wish him an awesome second half of the race.
“Thanks, Jeff. You too, man. Take it all in. Today is special.”
Indeed, today is special. I just ran with one of my running idols in one of the biggest races of my life!
And now I’m in Wellesley, where hoards of women are screaming, asking me to kiss them! Woo hoo!
Admittedly, I don’t spend as much time with the Wellesley women as I did last year. It’s tradition here to kiss the girls, but I am in a happy relationship now and don’t need the attention nor the flattery. What I do need is the boost of energy their voracious cheering provides, so I tuck in close to the guard rail and sail on the power of their collective voices.
Miles 12 – 17
In the town of Wellesley I am greeted by “Sweeeeeeeeet Caroline…. BAH BAH BAHHHH!”
Oh boy the chill I get when that song comes on is a great boost to my psyche. And now that I cross the halfway mark (thus texting my friends and family again) I know I am going to need it. It’s getting warm, the sun is bright and high in the sky and yes, I’m starting to get a little tired.
I know the infamous Newton Hills are coming. Thinking about them, my mind begins to drift towards thoughts of suffering.
Now, Jeff! Stay in the now! Stay in the now!
That’s right. Stay in the now. After all, my love affair with running long is deeply rooted in being able to stay in the now for as long as I’m in motion.
Don’t think about mile 18 or 25 or the finish, just think about RIGHT NOW… then RIGHT NOW… then RIGHT NOW.
I do. I stay right here, right in this magical moment at the center of the world. I hug the left side of the road and high five as many hands as I can, riding on the cheers of countless strangers intent on making right now as special as it can be.
The more I begin to suffer, the more I hear my name. “Go Lung!” “You can do it, Lung!” “Pump those arms, Lung!”
My last name is prominently displayed across my chest specifically for tough times like these as I enter the town of Newton. Each time I hear my name I’m able to focus on the now, eschewing thoughts of discomfort.
Miles 17 – 21
As I embark on arguably the toughest part of the race, I fight back a brief bout of nausea. For some reason, I feel like I am going to throw up a the top of the first big Newton climb, but I remind myself that it’s just a phase and I’ll feel better soon.
I take water and Gatorade at every aid station, just as I have been doing all throughout the race, and after a half mile or so I feel much better. Dumping cold water on my head every chance I get helps. The sun is really shining on me now. I’m getting burned but there’s not much else I can do about it.
My heels are stiff and sore too, but running by some blade runners reminds me how lucky I am to be able-bodied, so I tell myself to suck it up and focus on the glory all around me.
“Go Lung! Get up that hill, Lung! You can do it!”
Good god these people are awesome!
While all day long the crowd has featured an array of wicked smaht signs, one seemingly boring one grabs my attention now. It reads: HAVE FUN. MEB WON.
WHAAAAAT???? MEB WON????
“Did Meb really win?” I yell back, corkscrewing my body into an awkward position not meant for marathoning.
“Yes!” the gentleman holding the sign says. “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
Wow, that is really cool. Meb Keflezighi won the marathon. This declaration provides me with even more untapped energy — enough to take me all the way up to Heartbreak Hill.
This spot, famous for its place in Boston Marathon lore, is also one where the crowds really provide a boost. Though my body is aching, I am happy knowing it’s simply fatigue and nothing else. My pace has slowed considerably, but I have not stopped running. I will NOT stop running, especially now. I will conquer this hill on the shoulders of this animated and positive crowd. While I shorten my stride to get to the top, I high-five little kids and blow kisses to those cheering me on.
At the top, finally, I think to myself, now that wasn’t so bad.
Miles 21 – 25.6
My reward for cresting the last of the Newton Hills is a nice, long downhill. Recovered and feeling the excitement of almost being done, I decide to let ‘er rip down this one.
In Brookline now and I am simply amazed at how the crowd just grows more and more intense the closer I get to the finish. My ears are ringing!
Do these people lover their marathon or what?!?!
My constant mind-body feedback loop yields the familiar aches and pains associated with three hours of continuous running but it’s all masked by the enormous amount of love I feel radiating through my every cell. My emotions are starting to come out. It’s a good thing I’m wearing sunglasses.
I have run in a lot of marathons, including three Chicago Marathons where I thought the crowds simply couldn’t be beat. I am being proved wrong. This moment, right here, in Hopkinton-Ashland-Framingham-Natick-Wellesley-Newton-Brookline and now BOSTON, MASSACHUSSETS is the most alive I’ve ever felt. This is history! Like 36,000 of my brothers and sisters, I am an integral part of this celebration of life, this festival of compassion, this party of love.
The Citgo sign greets me and I know I’m almost done.
My god, what am I going to do when I get to the finish line, I ask myself. Am I going to cry like a baby? Am I going to pass out?
STAY IN THE NOW, JEFF, IN THE NOW.
In the now. High-fiving this kid. In the now. Blowing kisses to that crowd. In the now. Being uplifted by the sound of my own name “GO LUNG GO!”
Miles 25.6 – 26.2
I turn right on Hereford, left on Boylston and there it is: the finish line. In all its glory, in all its majesty, there stands the finish line, drawing me near. It’s only 600 meters from here to the finish — one and a half times around the track.
This is where I usually sprint my heart out, pumping my arms and my legs to the beat of the fastest drummer I can summon.
But not today. Today I’m taking my sweet ass time. I’m soaking this in — this love, this peace. I’m right in the middle of it all and I’m not going to miss a second of it.
I let the wave of warmth and emotion flow over and through me. I know that this is one of the most special moments of my life.
I am in the now. I did it. I am right here, right here in Boston where I’m supposed to be.
I cross the finish line in 3 hours 38 minutes on the dot and can’t hold back the tears of joy any longer.
1968 Boston Marathon champion and longtime Runner’s World fixture Amby Burfoot described the 118th Boston Marathon as “the best day in running history”. I really can’t argue with that.
For me, it goes even further. The 2014 Boston Marathon was a celebration in motion, an honest tour of compassion and a testament to the love deep down inside us all. Whether we ran, we cheered or we watched via text messages at home, we were all together as one, running through the center of the world.