This year has been the most challenging year of running for me yet. Not because I set big goals for myself, I mean yes because I set big goals for myself, but also because of other struggles. Going into this year, after running only two 50k’s I decided it was time to push myself farther and longer. First I decided that I would take on a 50 mil race. Later I decided that this would also be the year I took on a 100 mile race. This all before I even ran my 3rd official 50k. I didn’t even wait to see how a 50 mile race would feel before diving in head first into the 100 mile pool. I put it all on the table early on in the year.
It seemed so….. Simple? I would train like my previous year for my 50k in May. That 50k would be my longest training run for my 50 mile race about a month after. The 50 mile race would be my longest training run leading into my 100 mile race two months later. The 50 mile race would also give me some experience at a new distance so I would have an idea of what to expect through the half-way point of my 100 mile race and that seemed like important knowledge to have.
Then life happened and all the plans and “simplicity” melted away. Like many runners I got injured with what turned out to apparently be hip bursitis. I ended up injured before I even got to the point in my year where I would run my 50k. So I tried to rest and recover as best I could and went into my 50k feeling under trained and nervous if I would even be able to finish. Worlds End 50k was the most painful and grueling race I have suffered through to date. I was in so much pain I walked the last 10 miles and almost every step of those ten miles caused pain in my hip. But I finished. I learned that if I had to I could tough it out and endure the pain as long as needed to cross the finish line. Not what I wanted from that race but a valuable lesson that would pay dividends later.
I had a month to try to get right physically for my 50 mile race. I got as much treatment and rest as I could and maintain my fitness for my 50 mile race. Finger Lakes 50’s 50 miler did not go as well as Worlds End. I was not in as much pain from my hip but it was hampering me, slowing me down and probably causing me to expend unnecessary energy. In the end being out in the heat and humidity of a July summer day did me in. I couldn’t keep up with the time I needed to move on to the third and final loop of the 50 mile race. But I did finish a 50k. The heat punished me. I was dizzy and wobbly on my feet at times. Heat exhaustion was hitting me hard. Then the rains came and I bounced back allowing me to finish in a decent time and feeling ok instead of suffering through to the end. Even though I wasn’t able to finish the 50 miles and gain the experience of feeling what 50 miles felt like I learned that I could bounce back from a physical low and keep moving on.
Training between the 50 mile attempt and my 100 mile race was not ideal but it was better than I had gotten any time since April. I decided that in order to reduce the impact on my hip I would focus on making sure I got in my long runs and decrease all other mileage. I ran regular 3 mile runs during the week and then a long run on the weekends. I was able to get in more long ruins during this time frame than any time since April and it included two 20 mile runs in the same week which I feel like were crucial to my physical preparedness and my mental preparedness. I knew my hip was getting better. I thought it would probably be an issue but not cost me the race. I was actually becoming more concerned about my long standing right ankle pain that tends to flare up with long runs, which seemed to be getting worse.
As the week of the race approached I was getting more and more nervous about it. Would I really be able to do this thing? Anxiety and fear were closing in on me. Was my training good enough? Would I be prepared? Was a physically strong enough? Was I mentally strong enough? I took the whole week leading up to the race off from running. I focused entirely on recovery and being as healthy as I possibly could be going into the race. I included a massage from Soul Ease Massage to help ensure that my hips and legs were in as good shape as possible. I am not sure you can ever feel relaxed when you have a 100 mile race looming.
If there was one secret weapon I knew I had to get me through this race, it was my crew. I was going to have a great crew, of my wife and my friends, out there taking care of me at the race. They would not let me fail.
The night before the Pine Creek Challenge my wife and I met up with two of our friends to camp for the night at the race location. We hung out. We chatted. I tried to relax. One thing we talked about is what to do if things don’t go according to plan. I had planned for this race more than I had ever planned or prepared for any other race or maybe even event in my life. I was organized. I had everything labeled. I had times for when I hoped to be in and out of aid stations. I planned for the best case scenario, even though I knew that the race was unlikely to play out that way. I knew what I wanted to happen and what I had in mid as more reasonable though still quite lofty goal for a first 100 mile race. I wanted to finish in under 24 hours. I thought that I had a good chance at making that happen as long as the first half of the race went reasonably well. I knew that a sub 24 hour goal was very likely not going to happen but it was the goal and it was really hard to think about anything outside of that goal. But we talked about just thinking about what is going ot happen if plan A doesn’t work out and plan B doesn’t work out and so on and so on. What do you do? How do you proceed? I think it was good to go through that mental exercise to just think that there are so many different ways that this event could unfold, none of which could be anticipated maybe. This perhaps is where experience would be valuable. If you have done this before I think it is easier to have contingency plans or at east to know what to do to get you back on track.
I sometimes have trouble sleeping before a race, but not usually too bad. I am also not much of a dreamer while I sleep. Well the night before my first 100 mile race was going to be different. I slept OK until about 4 AM when I was awakened by a nightmare. In this nightmare I had a full blown panic attack and completely shut down and was curled up in the fetal position in the tent and could not even manage to put on my clothes for the race. So, that resulted in me staring at the ceiling of the tent for an hour before my alarm went off at 5 AM and I got up and started to get ready for the race. I was not as anxious getting up and getting ready for the day as I thought I would be. There were the normal pre-race jitters but not anything major. I managed to not forget anything significant before starting. It was surprising to me that for the 6 AM start I still was going to end up needing my headlamp as I set out. I was not expecting that. We got to the start line. I kissed my wife and hugged my friends and then I set off on an adventure.
The start was hard. Not physically hard but mentally hard. My strategy was to go out at a 12 minute per mile pace, running a mile then walking 1 minute, much slower than I would go at any other type of flat run. The first bunch of people pulled away from me. Then another group of people pulled away. Then more people caught up to me and passed me. I kept trying to go slow. Eventually I seemed to essentially be alone on the trail. As I was alone on the trail I struggled a bit to stay out of my head. I began to think about all the things that could go wrong during this journey. I had to tell myself out loud multiple times to get out of your head. As the sun rose I stopped to take some photos along the way and used my GoPro while running some. I saw an eagle fly low along a swampy area and land in a tree, so that was a nice way to start off the race. It was 5.6 miles to the first aid station and I tried to go as slow as I could, but when I arrived my crew reported to me that I was still 5 minutes ahead of my planned pace. It was nice to get that first section over and see my crew though. The course is a multi out and back course to complete the full 100 miles and I was already at the terminus of one end so it was time to turn around and run back the other way for along time.
My crew got me out of the aid station without wasted time and I headed back the way I came. I needed to go slower. I took the time to use my GoPro more and take other photos. Run slower, walk longer to slow my pace. I got back to the swampy area and saw a great blue heron and snapped a few photos. I saw a few people with their dog and a woman with her camera and she said this is one of her favorite places to come for photography, so I made a mental note of that. She wasn’t kidding though because that bald eagle was still up in its perch on the large tree in the swamp. I tried to capture a few more photos of it. I might be the only one able to tell there is an eagle in the photos though because it is so far away. Eventually, I started to see runners from the other races of different distances happening on the same trail coming towards me on the trail. That made things a little more interesting on this return trip. I eventually got back to the start line where the next aid station was. I got some fuel and some hydration. Then waited forever some non-runner who decided to occupy the portapotty at the aid station, despite all the others available for spectator use, so that I could finally pee. That was probably the biggest frustration of that sort for me the entire race though, so I will call that a win.
Next was a 3.4 mile jaunt to the next aid station. I arrived at the aid station felling pretty good. Still going at what felt like the right pace. On plan. My hip wasn’t giving me any serious problems. It felt tight and maybe a little uncomfortable but not painful. My ankle was a little sore but nothing major. My crew made sure I had what I needed and got me going through the aid station without wasting too much time which is the goal. The next section would start the portion of the trail that really went through the valley.
The next aid station was nearly 8 miles away but I wouldn’t see my crew again for 16 miles. This 16 miles between seeing my crew again is one of the places I struggled most mentally. I had done marathon to 50k distances 8 times over the last three years. I thought I knew what to expect from it. I thought that on a flat course going the relatively slow pace for me that I had planned to go and was sustaining that the first 30 miles would feel relatively easy or at least not too hard. Maybe that was just being naive especially considering how my training had went. But during this 16 miles to the next time I would see my crew I really felt like I was struggling mentally. I felt like I was going slower than I wanted to when I was running and that I was walking longer than I wanted to to rest after each mile of running. My legs felt tired and sluggish and sore already. I really began to think that maybe I had gotten in over my head. If I was already feeling like this and it hadn’t even been 30 miles yet, what on earth was the rest of the race going to feel like?
One things that was a cool uplift for me during this 16 miles alone was seeing something I had never seen before. As I ran down the trail eventually I came to this spot where I saw someone had scratched out in large letters in the gravel the world snake with an arrow pointing to the left. I was instantly curious. Was someone just fucking with runners or was there really a snake over there in the rocks along the side o the trail? I had never seen a rattle snake in the wild but I was well aware of all the reports of snakes along this trail and the potential to see one. So I walked over to the side of the trail cautiously and looked at the rocks. Sure enough there was a rather large snake with a baby toy attached to its tail slithering underneath some rocks. I called back to a runner I had recently passed and let him know that there was a snake over here so that he could be aware and take caution. I did not get close to the snake or even try to get a photo of the snake. Those who know me are probably surprised by this. It was cool to be out doing something entirely new to me and see something entirely new to me as well.
After being a bit down physically and mentally it was a great relief to finally see my crew waiting for me a the Blackwell aid station. The aid station is half a mile before the turn around so I ran out to the turn around first as I dropped off my pack for my crew to refill. My first pacer of the day accompanied out to the turn around and we talked about how the race was going. Then I came back to the aid station and ate some food and got some extra hydration. I also took some Tylenol for my hip and ankle and had some bio freeze applied to my ankle. The first 30 miles had been harder than I thought they would be. That much was clear.
My pacer would accompany me the next 26 miles. We headed out to start the next phase of this journey. At least for this trip through the valley I would have someone along for the ride. WE talked quite a bit through the first 8 miles or so. We talked a lot about nature. I think I complained about all my grievances. I am kinda surprised my pacer didn’t just run off ahead of me or at least stay far enough ahead or behind that they couldn’t hear me anymore. This section started off strong. We ran 3+ miles without stopping for a walk break. Which was OK at the time because I was feeling strong. I didn’t actually feel like I needed a break after every mile which is how I had been feeling during the previous 16 miles. This run of 26 miles with my first pacer went OK. Not as well as I had hopped, but not as bad as it could have after how I felt during the end of the first 30 miles. I could feel myself slowing down some eventually. At times running much slower than I would have liked and at times taking much longer walking breaks than I would have liked. I stopped at the aid stations for extra food and hydration along the way. I had more bio freeze applied to the painful areas which seemed to be getting a little worse with more time on my feet.
At one point early on during this 26 miles with my first pacer we saw a group of people gathered up blocking almost the entire trail and many of them were over along the edge of the trail near the rocks. As we approached I knew they were looking at or for a snake. They were so close. I told my friend to get his camera out because there was about to be a Kodak moment. I don’t wish people harm, but these people were being dumb and unsafe. They were way too close they were essentially standing in the rock pile and had their phones out trying to get photos. They very easily could have gotten bitten and who gets blamed for that, the snake. Those kind of things really get me riled up. As we passed by I could see that there was a more light colored rattle snake among the rocks. Then shortly thereafter I saw a large almost completely black rattle snake out in the open along the rocks. It was the first time I was able to see the entire body of a rattle snake. It was quite large. They are amazing creatures and I am thrilled to be able to share a trail with them and pay them the appropriate respect they deserve by keeping my distance. I may be one of the few people happy to see a rattle snake on the trail, but I was secretly hoping to see one during the race.
Eventually my pacer were arriving at the 50 mile turn around aid station. The people running this aid stations had it going right. There were lights along the trail lighting the way. There was a fire. The crowd there was cheering so loudly. It was really making me emotional. I was getting choked up at all the people there cheering and supporting the runners out here like me. It is truly a blessing to be part of a larger community of runners like this.
When we arrived I took more Tylenol at the mile 50 turn around aid station and got more bio freeze. I don’t really remember much about this aid station, because I was too overcome with emotion from all the support from my crew, which kept expanding as more and more of my friends showed up over the course of the day, and the people at running the aid station itself cheering and high fiving. I changed my shoes here because I thought half way through a 100 mile race would be a good time to put on shoes with more cushion. My crew got me in and out of this aid station in good time. At this aid station I was picking up a new pacer, my best friend was going to run the next 9 miles with me.
It was really nice to be able to run part of this race with my best friend. We haven’t been able to run together much since early in the year. She may be my friend but she had no sympathy for my foolishness of getting myself into this race. She was going to make sure I stuck to my plan of running and then walking. She was not going to let me take it easy. She pushed me to run as much as I could and then told me when it was time to rest. I think I almost begged for a little longer time to rest at one point. I think she allowed me 30 more seconds to walk. Talking and sharing miles despite the slave driving was nice. I think the sharing of miles with friends is something you can only understand if you are a runner. During our 5+ miles together my friend informed me that our other friend who had been injured for the last month or more and not running was feeling better and may be running with me from the next aid station.
I arrived at the next aid station and fueled up. Got what I needed and was ready to head out. Sure enough my friend was ready to run with me. We headed out for the next 3+ miles to the next aid station. This might be one of the few ways that deviating from your plan can be a good thing. It was so nice to be able to share miles with my two running friends whom I have shared more miles with than anyone. Picking up a new pacer, an unexpectedly new pacer can only be good when it is your friend who you know would have wanted to be your pacer anyway, but due to injury wasn’t able to plan for it. She had been cleared to run just the other day and wanted to share some miles with me on this journey and it doesn’t get much better than that. She was not quite as much a hard ass on this section. I ran as much as I could but I needed longer rests, or at least I took advantage of my friend to get longer rests.
I arrived at the mile 65 aid station feeling pretty good all things considered. I enjoyed running with my friend that I didn’t expect to be able to share any miles with. I was in good spirits. I was tired but doing OK. The plan was to resupply water and food in my pack, add a warmer layer of clothes as it was now getting dark and pick up my new pacer. Then it happened. It felt like someone just pulled the plug on me and the power went out. I went from feeling fine and ready to go to crashing hard. I started to feel light headed and then nauseous. I thought I might throw up. My crew tried to keep me standing and get me some food. Then I started to experience things I had never experienced. My arms started to go numb and get tingly. My mouth started to get tingly. I was losing control of my body. It was shutting down. I was losing it. My mouth got number and number. I couldn’t feel or move my mouth or tongue. My left hand curled up into a claw. My hand was clenched and I couldn’t move it. My crew mates were literally holding me up. They got me seated and just started to literally pour sugar into me. Cups of Coke went in. My crew literally holding cups to my inoperative mouth and pouring little bits in so I could swallow. It was like being a helpless child being fed by your family. I couldn’t even drink from the cup if they held it to my mouth they had to literally manage to pour it in my mouth so I could swallow. I don’t know if I literally thought about quitting, but if I was going to it would have been here in this moment. There is no way I could have made it through this without them. My chosen family, My wife and my friends. This is why they mean the world to me. They would not let me fail.
My wife told me later that she had to walk away because it was too hard for her to see me like that and she didn’t want me to see her upset. At one point I looked at my inoperative curled up left hand and said “It’s the claw” making a Friends joke that probably only my wife would get, but she said when she heard that she knew I was still in there and that I was going to be OK. I think that is also when I knew I was going to be OK too. I was able to keep my mind right even in this lowest moment of what felt like at the time there would be no coming back from. My crew kept working on me. Getting more calories in me, more Coke to drink. Then I could slowly feel it. My body started to respond. I started to get the feeling back in my arms and my hand. I could actually use my hand. At one point I was able to hold a cup and I thought drink on my own, but apparently my face was still numb and I just poured Coke down my face. But it was OK. I am pretty sure I laughed at that. Eventually as my body recovered my crew got me some warm clothes. I put on a light long sleeve shirt and a light jacket. I put on a pair of wind pants. I put on a dry hat and a buff to keep my ears warm. I eventually regrouped and headed out with a new pacer.
Just reflecting on this moment in time makes me emotional. This was one of the toughest moments I have ever endured and I owe it all to my crew for getting me thorough. Literally propped up on the shoulders of my friends. Fed and clothed by my friends. Taken care of by my family. I owe the next 35 miles to them. If I did not have them there my day would have ended at that aid station and I would never know anything else.
After arriving at the mile 65 aide station in such good shape, leaving that aid station was not the same. I felt like I was barely moving. I could move but just had no energy. The next 16 miles till I saw my crew was going to be a very slow walk in the dark. Thank god for pacers. I don’t know how people ran in the dark, alone and tired. Thankfully my pacers worked to keep me engaged. We talked about Star Wars. There was line dancing. I think the best I felt was when we actually listened to Christmas music, Straight No Chaser, I actually had the energy to sing along with the music. It really helped lift my spirits at a time where I was moving way slower than I had hoped to. I eventually just got exhausted during this 16 mile section. I don’t know if was the normal kind of exhaustion that one would expect or if I was suffering more because of my crash at mile 65. But, I was struggling to not just fall asleep while standing up. My eyes kept closing. I was essentially just staggering down the path. Often not in a straight line. I am pretty sure that if I were alone I would have fallen off the trail, into the ditch or into the water. Thank god for amazing friends willing to walk miles in the dark with you and play ping pong with your body bouncing you from one edge of the path to the other to keep you safe. I felt like I needed to be on a leash. I eventually hallucinated that there was a huge wagon wheel in the middle of the path. Then I saw or at least am pretty sure I actually saw my first every flying squirrel in the wild. I saw something fly across the trail from the trees on the right and land in a tree on the left then climb up the tree. Not a good look due to it being dark, but I could only imagine it was a flying squirrel or another hallucination. Another tough part about this 16 miles was that my feet began to hurt. I could tell I was getting blisters on my feet and that was not going to be good. I thought that the shoes I changed into had caused the problem. I decided that I was going to change back into the shoes that I started with at the mile 81 aid station when I saw my crew again. We also decided while walking that I was going to try and take a brief five to ten minute nap at the aid station because I was just staggering around so much that I was wasting too much time and energy and not making enough forward progress and I thought that if I could just close my eyes for a few minutes I would recover enough energy to make much more substantial progress in the next phase.
I got to the mile 81 aid station and began to do all the normal things. Refresh food and water. Change shoes. Reapply anti chafe. Then it hit me again. My body started to revolt for a second time. As I sat in a chair I got light headed and nauseous. I started to lose feeling again. Me team sprung into action immediately getting me what I needed. They started to load me up with Coke again. They responded to my needs immediately despite what had been a long and strenuous day for them as well. They were right there to take care of me and get me out of this funk. They pulled me out of it faster than last time and with less severe symptoms. Then while wrapped in a space blanket I tried to fall asleep. Somehow the exhaustion that was overcoming me on the trail would not grant me sleep that I felt I needed. I had expected that I would close my eyes and instantly pass out, but it didn’t happen. I don’t know if it was the shock of the crash and then recovery but now my eyes wouldn’t stay closed and I couldn’t slep. Finally, filled with frustration I stood up ready to set out on another 16 mile trek through the valley in the dark. I knew I would have a pacer for this section but I learned to my surprise that my best friend would accompany for this 16 mile section. She knew I was moving slow and had gone fewer miles than anyone else that could pace me at that point so she joined me.
I think it was reassuring, when I was so low, to have someone on the trail with me that I had shared a lot of miles with. Someone who knew me well and could keep me going. We started out on a slow pace. Shortly after we left we saw the only other runner that remained behind me. He needed to push to make the cut off time at the mile 81 aid station and we encouraged him as he went by. Not too long after we saw him this same runner who was struggling caught me from behind and passed me with a huge surge, he had gotten another wind and was moving well. I was now DFL. I could accept being DFL as long as I finished. For a while as we moved down the path I actually almost reveled in the idea of being DFL. Early on during this stretch I was moving slowly but I at least felt more awake than I had previously even though I didn’t sleep. I don’t remember much about those first half dozen miles. I know that we were a little concerned about making the cut off time at the mile 89 aid station so we tried to speed up and when we finally arrived there id din’t even stop. I just essentially walked on through.
At some point during this 16 mile stretch my pacer could tell I was feeling better and she started to encourage me to pick up the pace some. We eventually could see the person who had passed me to leave me in last place. My pacer was like, oooh we can catch him. She encouraged me to move faster. We added some more very slow running into the mix. Honestly I am not sure I even wanted to pass them. Something in my mind wanted to just stay in last. There seemed to be more honor in being DFL than to be second to last. Or maybe I was just afraid that I would over take him only to be passed again. Eventually the mix of running and walking allowed me to pass him. But then we ran out of water and despite being well hydrated I was too afraid to push it with still a while to go until the next aid station. There was at least 3 miles and I was afraid of another crash which I could not afford this late into the race. So we dropped back to a walk and stayed ahead of him although he gained on us. It always seemed like we were farther away from that last aid station than seemed possible. Seeing a sign post for 1.7 miles until the aid station area was almost soul crushing. My pacer was critical to getting me through this tough section She kept me entertained with singing and dancing to music she played from her phone. It was slow going and would have been easy to get demoralized but she kept me uplifted. We decided that at the last aid station I would drop off my pack and pick up a hand held for the last 3.4 miles. Dropping of my heavy pack at the last aid station was something that never occurred to me. This is one of the many reasons yo have pacers. They will think of things you will not.
We FINALLY arrived at the aid station. I dropped my pack and grabbed a hand held and a gel. FYI, I didn’t even have a hand held at the race, it was one of my previous pacers hand helds. Have I mentioned how awesome my crew was for me. As I stopped at the last aid station briefly and ate some food I was once again overtaken by the person we had passed earlier. I was back in last. But I headed out on that last 3.4 miles anyway.
My pacer insisted I was going to run this last 3.4 miles. I was not so sure. But she pushed me anyway. She somehow knew what I had left to give to this race. I don’t know how she knew, but she knew. I sure as hell didn’t know. So, guess what? I ran. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty but I averaged around a 13 minutes/mile over the last 4 miles. I hadn’t run a 13 minute mile since mile 35. I am not sure how this was possible. I ran and took walk breaks. Somehow feeling pretty good. Walking just enough to give me strength for another push. My pacer took charge. She told me when to run and she told me when I could walk. It was starting to get sunny and hot as the morning sun continued to rise in the sky so we tried to run through the shady areas and walk in the sunny places. I didn’t try to over think it. I just listened to my pacer and tried to do what she was encouraging me to do. She believed that I could do this and somehow I was doing it. My legs carried my better and felt stronger than they ha at any point over the last 30+ miles. I don’t know how it is possible. When I left the last aid station I was last. I quickly passed the guy who had passed me again to put me in last. Then as we ran down the trail we began to see other runners up ahead. My pacer told me we could catch them. I had my doubts. She encouraged me to keep moving. Run to that tree and then we will walk, she told me. Then run to that post and we can walk. This strategy was working. We caught and passed multiple runners. I passed 6 runners in the last 3.4 miles. I can’t even imagine that being possible at the end of a 100 mile journey especially considering how dead I felt just a shot time ago. The only person we saw that I did not catch was the person who turned out to be a pacer. But that guy looked like he was a runner. He kept looking back at us and then speeding up like he was trying to keep me from catching up to him, so my pacer was like lets catch him. So I chased someone down the trail who wasn’t even technically in the race. But I guess whatever keeps you motivated right. I got to the final turn off the trail and up the gravel road to the finish line and could not believe how good I felt. I heard my crew start cheering for me. My family was waiting for me. I started to run faster and a little faster. My wife was there waiting for me. I was so happy to see her. She started running with me. I ran as hard as I could. I basically sprinted through the finish line with my wife by my side. It was amazing to feel that alive and have that much juice left in my legs after such a long journey. The energy that my family was giving me was amazing. Having them there for me right up until the end was amazing. I crossed the finish line and hugged my wife so hard. I cried. I was just completely overcome with emotion. My whole crew came and congratulated me on finishing this journey. Hugs and handshakes all around. I am so thankful for the person who took the picture of me with my finisher awards and my crew by my side. That is a memory I will never forget.
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