Betty Draper: How are the [bottles] already open?
Ronnie Gittridge: Betty, we don’t want life to look difficult, now do we?Mad Men, Season 1: Episode 9
Relatively few people want to run 100 miles at one time.
That is roughly the distance from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Salzburg to Innsbruck, or mental health to insanity.
I discovered this rare breed of foot races exists two years ago at work; a co-worker came into the office on a Tuesday wearing an air boot on each foot.
He had hairline fractures throughout his feet and told us what he had done that weekend.
From the comfort of my chair, I recalled the extent of my running achievements: 6.2 miles in the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta after graduating high school.
Therefore, when he said he ran the Rocky Raccoon 100 in south Texas, it made an impression. Or maybe it was the broken feet and air boots.
Why did he look so thrilled to be in so much pain?
Perhaps it is because everything for humans boils down to pleasure and pain.
The path to each of these frequently starts with the other — you’ll either find this obvious or think about it later. Many things in our lives follow this counter-intuition.
Essentially, I believe the longer you can do something painful that has a purpose, the bigger the reward. Pain with no payoff is pointless torture. So, is it pointless torture or does a 100-mile race have a purpose? Right this way.
I spent December 2015 recovering from two events: one physical in November, one intellectual in December. I wrote about it here. If you are new to this thought emporium, start there because most of it is applicable and relevant to this race and it provides proper context to this post.
Although I had sworn off 24-hour endurance races while wet and shaking in the Las Vegas desert at 3:00am last November, once you get a taste of these, nothing else is quite the same.
When I got back to Dallas after Christmas, I found myself typing into Google: most scenic 100-mile races. Oregon was at the top of my list for states to visit, so when I found the Mountain Lakes 100 in Oregon on September 24th, I couldn’t resist.
I said last year the “why” is unique for everyone and although the foundational reasons for me are the same as they were 18 months ago, it has expanded and evolved. Fundamentally, it has become a metaphor for everything that I do and equanimity is the goal. But I have also realized going through this type of process helps you understand and accept reality. Eventually, running stops being about running and becomes a placeholder for the way you commit to things in your life.
My most important goal of 2016 had even less to do with running than running, but regrettably provides scant reading interest. It was passing Level 2 of the CFA program on Saturday June 4th. On January 26th, I found out I made it through Level 1 and signed up for Level 2 the following day. Four days later, the Mountain Lakes 100 registration opened. With a few clicks, I had committed myself to 300 more hours of isolation studying before June and 1,000 miles of torture running before October on top of my job and personal relationships. Hey maybe I’ll sleep next year.
Last year, everything was comparatively new. Waking up for Boot Camp was motivating and exciting. Running 40-70 miles per week was unchartered territory. This year, Week 1 of my Training Plan called for 40 miles. Ground Control to Major Tom. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.
Some people hire a coach and/or nutritionist. Depending on your level within the sport, this could make sense for you. However, even with an Olympic coach, a glossy meal-by-meal nutrition plan and cutting edge ultra-marathon research, the fact remains: there is no substitute for miles on your feet.
To get the miles you have to be consistent. I try to be consistent across the areas of my life, but I often fail and the discipline doesn’t always translate to other activities. I’d rather run 10 miles than fold clothes. I never skip a run, but my clean clothes would come out of the dryer on Sunday night and stay on my bed until Thursday.
The average laundry-averse male lives 78.4 years, so if I don’t cross that finish line in September I wasted 1.3% of my life. The stakes are high. If you want to play high stakes anything, you must have a healthy respect for the possibility of failure. The higher the stakes, the higher the probability. Those who compete at the highest levels have failed. It is not that they are ok with it, quite the opposite. It’s just that they get over it quickly and move forward. The key concept is they are in the game.
How do you walk that ever-dangerously thin tightrope between confidence and over-confidence?
Nothing noteworthy happens without the former, while the latter is disastrous.
I had two conflicting ideas at the same time: Of my 130+ training runs, I was nervous I was unprepared (see “miles behind” below) on all of them except 3 or 4 near the end, but simultaneously there was never a doubt in my mind that I would complete the race within the 30-hour cutoff time.
One of my favorite things I have obtained over the past 18 months is a deep appreciation for the fact that everything has a process. Once you figure out the process (hard), execute on the process (hard) then you have what you want (easy). A + B = C. This is the heart of engineering and a path to confidence because it is always looking to break down problems to get closer to what we want. I knew what the process was, all I had to do was execute on it.
Another principle that must be learned for successful running, but is much more useful in the real world, is acknowledging your emotions without being controlled by them.
You grow comfortable with the wide range of emotions you experience and this teaches you about yourself. It’s ok to feel anything, as long as you keep running.
The most convincing person you will ever meet is yourself telling you to take the easy way.
The carrot to keep you going is the special euphoria after a run. It is comparable to very few things, and it’s uniquely reliable. We can’t help slapping big fat unrealistic expectations onto everything we do, which sets ourselves up for inevitable disappointments (we have to keep doing this though because there are currently no known alternatives to growth). If you have never felt the runner’s high or find running boring, give it one last chance and run a half-marathon before completely writing it off. I only ask that you resist any urge to put a “13.1” sticker on your car.
Enough with the theory guac guy, let’s see your pain. I was injured in January with plantar fasciitis in my foot, a pulled calf, and tweaked knee, but recovered in February and began running short distances with regularity for a couple of months before my 28-week training plan began on April 1st.
Miles completed: 100
Miles behind schedule: 106
Off to a good start.
An injured friend asked me to run in her place for the Dallas Skyline Half-Marathon on Sunday, May 1st. I had spent the previous 3 days between Alabama and Atlanta for my grandmother’s banger of a 90th birthday party and returned to my apartment in Dallas at midnight the night before the race. With an 8:00am start-time, Sunday morning was brutal. The guys and girls in the white jackets with stethoscopes say your max heart rate per minute should be 220 minus your age. I’m 27, so a dead sprint would be approximately 193. My average heart rate over 13.1 miles was 185. I was in bed for the rest of the day. It was hard to rationalize how out-of-shape I was. My 1:47:29 finish (8:11 min./mile) was less of a time problem than an exertion problem. If it took that much effort, a marathon would be a more reasonable September goal. The only time I’m reasonable though is at work.
Very few endurance races require a fast pace; all of them require you to keep moving. Some brave souls asked, “Can’t you just walk?” If it wasn’t a waste of your time, I would suggest trying. To meet the 30-hour cutoff time necessitates just under an 18-min. mile, and it sounds like you can walk that—you can, when you are fresh and on a flat surface. Once you inevitably slow down to a 20-min./mile uphill then you have to do a 16-min. mile to make up for it, which is probably going to require you to jog, which is more tiring than walking. You can quickly see how this feedback loop spirals into an unacceptable finishing time.
CFA Exam. I didn’t run that Saturday.
My time freed up, but it was starting to get warm.
Training outside in Texas during the summer is difficult to describe and almost unnecessary if you live here. If you’re in Dallas in June, July or August, you can leave an air conditioned room, walk through a parking deck and by the time you get to your car you’re scrambling for the “MAX COOL” button, and you never had direct exposure to the sun.
On Saturdays, I woke up between 4:00-6:00am in an attempt to finish runs by 10:30am before it got too hot. Perhaps I was a wimp, but when the temperatures were in the 90s, every mile I would have to stop for water and walk for a moment because the heat had sucked the energy out of me. One of the worst runs of the year was a solo marathon around White Rock Lake a couple times and up the White Rock Creek Trail. By the time I finished, salt was all over my face. I was dehydrated, and I looked like an extra on the Walking Dead.
Monday: Only strength training day (gym)
Tuesday: 4 miles (shortest weekday run; if I’m going to run fast, this is the day)
Wednesday: 6-15 miles (longest weekday run)
Thursday: 6 miles
Friday: Rest day
Saturday: 9-27 miles (longest run of the week)
Sunday: Usually less mileage than Saturday; sometimes the same (preferably within 24 hours of the Saturday run, Heaven forbid your legs have a relaxing weekend)
The only exposure I had to elevation was hiking in Norway for a week.
While we were there, my girlfriend at the time said, “Did you know your eyelid is inflamed?” I said that I had vaguely noticed it. “Well, it’s been like that for a few months.” Oh great. When we got back to the US, I went to the optometrist. After a few questions he determined the cause: when I wiped the sweat out of my eyes hundreds of times over the summer, the salt irritated the eyelid, which is sensitive. Once irritated, the heat aggravates it causing it to become inflamed. A headband mitigates the problem. The solution: stop running. Add inflamed eyelid to the list of things I would have to manage until October.
Back in the US, on Saturdays I began going to the North Shore Trail, a mountain biking course in Grapevine, which would give me the closest glimpse of race conditions. A primary difference between road and trail is the absence of long straightaways in the woods. Pace changes can be measured in minutes, not seconds, when you have to navigate switchbacks and are constantly turning.
A friend encouraged me to drop out of the race and try again next year because I was behind in the recommended mileage of my training plan by 372 miles. There are a few reasons for this, but a rule-of-thumb in the sport is to limit weekly mileage increases to 10% (e.g. if you ran 40 miles this week, run 44 miles next week) and gradually build up. Ain’t nobody got time for that. In the months leading up to April, I was running ~15 miles per week. As much as you just read about me preaching the importance of executing on processes, I was behind and there is no excuse other than if I would have jumped immediately from 15 to 40, I risked injuring myself.
The peak of my training encompassed back-to-back 70-mile weeks.
Tuesday: 4 mile morning run @ SMU track (7:15 min/mile)
Wednesday: 15 miles Uptown-Downtown-Uptown-SMU morning run (9:30 min/mile)
Thursday: 6 miles night run (9 min/mile)
Friday: Rest day
Saturday: 25-27 mile trail run
Sunday: 18-20 mile run
The hard work is over. Sort of. Tapering is of interest to athletes because it is inherently counter-intuitive, but really appealing, to think doing less is doing more. When you see your suggested weekly mileage drop from 75 miles to 40 to 20 to 10 the week of the race, it’s natural to anxiously think there is no way this is the right strategy. However, the data supports it. Fine, I will run less.
Now that things were slowing down, there was time to assess the situation. Judging overall fitness on a scale of 1-20, I was probably at a 15—1 being Kenneth Bone, 20 being a Navy SEAL. If I sprinted 100 meters I would be out of breath. But if it was less than 55 degrees with no humidity, I could run 20 miles and my shirt would be dry. Throughout the training, by spending so much time on my legs and largely neglecting my upper body, I was nervous I would turn into a Scrawny Steve. It took longer than I expected, but by early September my clothes started fitting looser than I wanted.
To offset my concerns about getting too skinny, I started to feel “it”. On my runs leading up to the final week, I started to get chills from excitement. Your body knows when something like this is coming. Think coming down the stairs on Christmas morning as a child. I missed my target mileage by just under 400 miles, but I felt strong.
If worrying accomplished anything, I would love doing it. But the only influence I could have on my performance at this point was getting sleep and eating well. The only fear that was hard to shake was the uncontrollable, such as twisting an ankle on the course. Otherwise, when I landed in Portland on Wednesday, two days before my dad’s arrival, I felt completely relaxed. One of my college roommates, Scott, picked me up from the airport and showed me around the city. Over the next day and a half I did touristy things.
Late Thursday night, after taking a break from the hours of preparing my meals for both before and during the race, my best friend sent me the following text: “Motivation from a biologist: pain, fear, and exhaustion even, are just your brain’s representation of its stimuli. They do not objectively exist. They only exist in consciousness as a construct of your mind.”
I read it aloud to Scott and he said, “Yeah, except stress fractures, those are real.”
Race Weekend September 24-25, 2016
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat, “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
- 88.7 miles of single-track trails
- 9 miles of gravel roads
- 3 miles of jeep roads
- 0.25 miles of pavement
10,800 feet of gain & 10,800 feet of loss = 21,600 feet total
It will be helpful to run through some basics first.
The orange part on the map above is the course and the purple lines are roads for the crew to use between aid stations.
Your crew helps with everything from refilling your water bottles and providing gear for the next segments to emotional support to get you standing up and back on the course.
The Aid Stations (“AS”) are all fairly similar, with 3-10 energetic selfless volunteers providing water, PB&Js, candy, Pringles, salt tablets, pickles, and energy gels during the day, adding soup broth, rice, etc. at night. Chairs are available to sit in and some of the stations have paramedics and heated tents (beware of the chair: comfort is your enemy deep into a race).
A majority of the runners wear a hydration system (e.g. CamelBak). I use one made by Inov8 that has two ½-liter collapsible water bottles that fit into pockets by each side of my stomach with a straw that tucks into slots by my shoulder. The pack has 2 compartments in the back for additional water, clothes, or food. The engineering is unbelievable because when empty, it is essentially unnoticeable.
The course: Starting at Olallie Lake (Mile 0), you head south, completing a loop around a mountain, and return to the starting line (Mile 26). From there you head north to Clackamas (Mile 55) and complete a loop around Timothy Lake returning to Clackamas (Mile 71), then all you have to do is get back to where you started at Olallie Lake (Mile 100.95).
There are 16 aid stations that are on average 6 miles apart—the longest is Segment 3 at 9 miles (also the steepest segment), and the shortest is 3.6, the distance from Aid Station 16 to the Finish Line. Crew members are only allowed to be at 7 of the 16 aid stations, primarily due to logistical issues and road access, so make sure you can live with any gear you have for up to 30 miles.
Due to the “out-and-back” nature of the race, several of the aid stations were passed twice, stopping at it the first time heading north then again when heading south. For example Red Wolf was both AS#8 & AS#13.
Everyone has his/her individual strategy, and although I thought about it, what relevant experience would I be basing my strategy on? First off, the weather forecast showed highs that were colder than the lowest temperatures Dallas had seen in the past 6 months, and if it rained that would change everything I had planned from number of times I changed socks to the type of clothes I would wear. Next, I had never run at ~5,000 ft. altitudes, nor had I run on any long gradual inclines. And finally, this would be 46 miles longer than my farthest run. My dad often provides concise solutions and he stayed in character by saying in late August, “you’re going to have no idea until you get out there.”
Let’s pause for a moment and talk about cognitive psychology.
You have probably heard the word “framing”. It is an information-processing bias, in which people behave differently based on the way words (information) are presented. In other words, it is everything.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to talk to a professional golfer about the phenomenon of how golfers (people) compound mistakes unnecessarily. Just because you hit a ball in the water does not condemn you to a bad round. However, most people let the negativity impact the rest of their game and so it does condemn them to a bad round.
His remedy was, instead of thinking about a round of golf as 1 game of 18 holes, think of it as 18 individual games, separating the whole into manageable pieces. This powerful framework can make all the difference in the world. When strategizing, the usefulness of the analogy became obvious and I decided that would be the way to think about the race. All I had to do was get to the next AS, which would be on average 6 miles away, and everyone can run that far. With 16 aid stations and the Finish Line, I was one segment short of a perfect comparison.
The night before was unique.
The Olallie Lakes Resort is a resort in the same way a tent is a place to live. It comprised of cabins with no electricity, no cell phone service, and no plumbing. Regardless of the absence of amenities, the cabins had been booked for months. After a few attempts, we parked the miniature van on a relatively flat spot for the night (otherwise the blood would rush to one part of your body). We folded the seats into the floorboard, forced an air mattress in between the walls and slept in sleeping bags. I slept from 8:00pm to 1:00am, was up until 2:00 and then back to sleep until the alarm went off at 5:00am. 8 hours the night before a race is 3-4 more than you can usually expect.
Just before the race, tensions were high between pops and I because he realized the importance of knowing the distinctions of my gear later than he would have liked. I was alone in the back of the mini-van covering myself with Desitin to the point my lower half looked like I was covered in icing, but this is the surest recipe to avoiding chafing and blisters.
Although the community is very friendly, you can feel the individuality of it. We all have our own way to get in the zone. Everyone there knows the next 30 hours will, to varying degrees, influence the rest of their lives. There are two types of participants: ones prepared for these year-round, here to compete and ones like me who consider a finish a win.
The beginning of the race…should you even get excited? It almost seemed like a waste of energy. I could already imagine how desperately I would crave that energy in 64 miles.
There were absolutely no excuses to be found.
The conditions were perfect, the forecast showed a low of around 40 degrees and a high of 60 (perfect running weather). The furnace I trained in all summer called Texas turned out to be a #blessing because my body had grown incredibly efficient.
I don’t know the math, but if your body makes 5-6 hour runs work in 100-degree heat index weather, then 50 degrees feels like a moving sidewalk with misting fans. Instead of slurping water like Moses after the desert, I was drinking it in a controlled manner like a normal human being.
The trail was so beautiful it seemed as if an ad executive was tasked with creating an advertisement of Heaven, he was given all resources imaginable and this was his final product.
From an energy perspective, the first 18 miles felt easier than some 3-mile runs I have been on because I was a tourist. The scenery around every turn was postcard-worthy. However, a benefit to postcards is you don’t have to run up the mountains on them. The elevation was such a drastic departure from anything I had ever run before I laughed with another runner as I told him, “This is so bad, even if I knew it was going to be like this, I would have been too lazy to train for it.”
Everything was going perfectly until halfway through mile 19, where I gained an appreciation of the vague adage about expecting the unexpected.
Four other runners and I were hovering around the same pace and came to a manageable incline, which we decided to jog. As we were passing an otherwise unremarkable tree, I felt a sharp pain on my lower left calf and let out an unrestrained “Mother F****R!” Before I had time to register what had happened three of the four other people yelled their version of the same sentiment. We warned the runners behind us, “Bees!” while I tallied up the number of stings—3, my favorite number.
The mindset required to complete an event like this can be summed up by the guy’s answer to my question:
“Do bee stings affect running?”
“Does it matter?”
After AS#3, there were some gunshots in the woods, and while I don’t traditionally keep track of hunting seasons I assumed that was the explanation. An older man—who was already bleeding from an apparently nasty fall—was running in front of me as we were passing another pristine lake with birds resting calmly on the water nearby when all of a sudden my body impulsively froze after hearing a gunshot aimed at the birds less than 50 yards from us; the bleeding man, the flock and I didn’t wait around to investigate. If getting stung by bees was low on my list of things to expect, guns were even lower.
I didn’t listen to music, and I only saw 2 people on the course with headphones. Part of the reason is simplicity, because that is one more thing you have to keep up with, but mainly this is a unique experience that is worthy of full attention. I came a long way for this, and good or bad, I wanted to savor the moment.
A veteran ultra-marathoner I ran with for a few miles said, “At Mile 26, you want to feel about the same as you did when you started the race.” That was true as of Mile 20, but when I returned to Olallie Lake (Aid Station #4) at Mile 26, although I felt as good as I could have expected to feel, it wasn’t like I did at the beginning. By then, Paul had arrived—he drove down that morning from Seattle to pace me for the last 30 miles. He rode with my dad to the other aid stations and would ultimately try to get as much sleep as possible before it was time to join me at the Clackamas Ranger Station (AS#12, Mile 71). He was going to have an unusual day. Because of the uncertainty around how I’d feel late in the race, who knows what time I would be there? The range was probably midnight to 6:00am. Imagine trying to get a decent night’s sleep before running 30 miles when your alarm may go off at any time over a 6-hour period and you need to be ready to run an ultra-marathon as soon as you woke up.
Spirits were high until I left AS#5 (Mile 29.65). This is when the race really starts because you won’t see your pit crew again until AS#9 (Mile 55), 25 miles later. My stomach started to hurt while I was trying to force a chicken quesadilla down, knowing I needed to get calories early on to set the foundation for the rest of the day, while walking a seemingly never-ending incline. When studying the course map and elevation changes, the big mountains draw the most attention. The little ridges in the chart go unnoticed, until you’re on them. I would get into a good rhythm then meet a hill, all but forcing me to walk it. I was alone for an hour or two.
During a stretch in the late afternoon, I noticed one of my water bottles was missing. It is the exact panic you would experience if the gates were closing to your flight and you couldn’t find your cell phone. I went back to look for it and the sun was setting. I didn’t want to think about the potential implications of not finding it. Within 5 minutes, I saw a woman was walking up the hill towards me holding it. We can board the plane.
Regarding technical trail running, everywhere you put your foot matters. I estimate that stepping on a rock or tree root impacts the bottom of your feet as much as running 2 additional miles.
The most depressing part of the race was the stretch from Mile 45 to 55. At Warm Springs (AS#7), my feet hurt. By feet I mean the ball of my right foot and by hurt I mean I started to breathe differently when my foot hit the ground. And it wasn’t just my feet. If my knees or leg muscles felt that way on a normal run, I would have stopped and taken at least a day off. You’d like to think that by crossing the 50-mile mark at AS#8 you can breathe a sigh of relief, “over halfway”. Unfortunately, that little vessel of satisfaction smashes against the rocks of reality when your GPS watch ticks to 54.01 miles over an hour later, and you realize you have over 46 miles left to run. It started to feel like pointless torture.
Speaking of GPS watches, current technology allows for precision down to the foot, yet somehow the watches will vary from the aid station signage by up to 2 miles. This was particularly frustrating for me because it was another source of uncertainty and stress. It’s like life before Google Maps, if I had paper directions and they said turn at the road on the right in 1 mile, and my odometer showed I had been driving for 2 miles with no roads on the right.
The aid stations are complicated to strategize around because they are both necessary and disruptive. Each minute spent at one is one minute not spent getting closer to the Finish Line. But if you don’t spend enough time there, what do you have to look forward to when you head to the next one? If you don’t get enough energy and rest, do you jeopardize finishing the race? The only place time goes faster than at an aid station is in one of those game show tanks with money blowing around. The elites will aim to spend 2 minutes or less at each one, which is about how long it takes me to get the 3 water bottles out of my pack, hand them to a volunteer to be filled, and put back into their pockets. If you change a piece of clothing or socks, add 3 minutes.
Nutrition for this race was similar to WTM: chicken quesadillas, CarboPro/protein shakes, and Amino Energy w/ water. In a way, I improved on making sure I got calories in, but I should have consumed more caffeine. A substantial percentage of my calories came from the aid stations. I ended up eating a lot of PB&Js in the first 40 miles, and you can only eat so many before they start their inevitable path through the pipes. The soup broth was an unexpected source of warmth. I can still remember the feeling in my palms clinching the cup. Ultimately, I guess I managed to take in 5,000-8,000 calories, but I suppose I burned somewhere in the 13,000-16,000 range.
I drank 1.0-1.5 liters of water between aid stations and then another .5-1.0 liter at each one. I also may have set a course record for number of pee-breaks. The most conservative estimate would be 35 times on the low-end. Several runners reassuringly told me this was a good sign, indicating my “system” was working well. Good, bad, or meaningless, I used the opportunity to lean against a tree to rest while my body did its thing. Again, there’s a downside to all this relaxing beyond the time lost. I could have fallen asleep on any one of those trees. If I could fall asleep standing up peeing, you can imagine how every fallen tree on the trail that runners had to climb over looked like a suite at the Ritz. I heard someone went to sleep in the woods. This takes a toll on the psyche.
At times, the isolation and exhaustion were so deep that I found myself wondering, “Is this even a real event, or am I getting Punk’d and I’m out here running through the woods for the amusement of a studio audience?” The insane part is, even if that were true and at Mile 71 you stopped the 108 people who ultimately finished the race and told them that there was some joke being played on them…they may have laughed, but they would have finished the race. You have invested your soul into it by then.
What’s it like running in the dark? Watch The Blair Witch Project. Headlamp and a trail.
Regardless of your degree of independence, I can assure you that although solitude is profoundly enjoyable, invaluable and necessary at times, people need people. Solitude turns into loneliness the moment you decide you are ready to see people and they aren’t there. The worst part of loneliness is that one second can seem like an eternity, whereas when you are with someone an eternity can seem like a second, or at least a second can still feel like a second (excluding extreme cases). This is especially true with pain and suffering. If your headlamp is the only light in the woods, the hairs on your arms are standing straight up begging for warmth, and you haven’t seen another sign of life in over an hour, the eternities start to add up.
The exhaustion had practical effects. I thought about my feet for entire segments, only to get distracted by food, music and people and forget to ask for pain medication at the aid stations. When I stopped moving, I felt the residual burn from the bee stings. Thinking back to my friend’s text, the pain and exhaustion started to feel like they in-fact objectively existed.
Talking to the other runners is a wonderful part of the event. There are no boring people out there. Whether you spent 30 seconds or 4 hours with someone, you would enjoy the time together and then you would go on your way at different paces, with only positive feelings remaining. Few areas of life offer such clean breaks.
I met Stewart, a 42-year-old from Mount Airy, NC, around 5:00pm (Mile ~40). Trekking poles in-hand he was moving, his walking pace was faster than some people’s running pace at this stage. Stewart is the type of guy you would want next to you in a war. If you hear him talk for 5 minutes, you understand without him ever having said so that there is a better chance of the mountains flattening out than him giving up. On-and-off we spent the next 30 miles, or 8.5 hours, together. In the thick Oregon forests, twilight lasts for only a moment and by 7:00pm, it was completely dark. I had talked to him for several hours before I ever saw his face. Although we were close for a long time, “together” is misleading. I had to stop to pee so frequently that it seemed like I was primarily running to catch up with him, then by the time I did I was out of gas and had to walk hard to match his pace. The further in the night we got and as our spacing grew, the less time he spent talking and the more time I wished that he found something to say.
I had heard/read about the hallucinations from other Ultra runners and had largely avoided them last year. Not this time. It was weird. Rocks were dogs and leaves were sheets with ghosts on them. When I ran past them and the light was focused on them, they were back to rocks and leaves. I needed my brain to finish, and when it started letting me down, I started questioning everything.
The question gets asked, “How do you keep going?” I could go on and on about Stoic philosophy and embracing the transient nature of pain, but the essence is almost unsatisfying in its simplicity and a clothing company trademarked the idea: Just Do It. Whether you are at Mile 37 or 91, are you going to take the next single step? If you are going to quit at 37, why did you do the previous 36?
The most surreal part of the weekend was the approach to the Timothy Lake Dam Aid Station. The back part of the course feels more secluded than the rest because everyone’s pace is different—145 people spread out over ~50 miles may mean hours without seeing other runners. Judging from the map, the trail is right on the water, but whether the lake is visible or not during the day is little consolation for the fact that at night it is not. This is demoralizing when you are hoping for some scenery to disrupt the monotony of night forest hiking. By this point, I was in a series of running spurts that quickly extinguished my energy and was forced to return to walking, which was more painful on my feet than running. So here I am, surrounded by darkness, and suddenly, I emerge from the woods onto what felt like a massive illuminated fashion show runway made of concrete, lined with red, white and blue stringed lights bordering the railing on the right side of the dam. On the left, there was the absolute silence of the lake. On the right, the white noise of the water rushing through the dam. The primary source of light was the stars above. It felt like I was walking through the world’s biggest planetarium; the only place I had seen this many stars blanketing the sky was in the Australian Outback 4 hours from the nearest gas station. The stars had been visible for the entire night through the trees, but I could only catch a quick glimpse without risking tripping over a rock on the trail. I took this moment to walk backwards, the only time this would be possible, allowing me to give the muscles in my legs used to go forward a brief rest and have a little enjoyment for the first time in hours.
Adding to the dream, the 3 volunteers at the aid station were dressed in Halloween costumes and warm jackets listening to music. From their attitudes, you would have guessed it was 2:00 in the afternoon, not morning. Stewart spent less than 30 seconds there, while I had to collect myself for a couple of minutes before I could convince my feet they should move again. I tried to generate heat while drinking broth and watching my breath. Aside from a brief nod at the next aid station, that was the last time I saw Stewart.
My watch died at Mile 69, nearly 18.5 hours in. It’s advertised with a 24-hour battery life. C’est la vie.
Clackamas Aid Station #12 (Mile 71) ~2:30am
This was an important Aid Station because any gear adjustments made would have to last until Mile 97, or practically the end of the race. I was on a mission and I couldn’t risk forgetting what I needed. “[Dad] take the watch and plug it in so it can charge while we’re doing everything else. I need Advil now. I need to drink at least half a bottle of [my caffeine drink] and a full protein/carb shake. Let’s make sure I have my backup headlamp.”
The EMT gave me 4 prescription-strength Advil while someone else was taking care of my water bottles. In hindsight, it was comical that he was trying to sell me on why this dosage was safe because of the amount of fluids and food passing through my body. At the time, my feet were in such pain if he offered to saw them off and put prosthetics on that would allow me to finish the race I would have heard him out.
This was also the coldest part of the night.
Paul was suited up and ready to go. The three of us came over to the van and my dad had a chair set up and everything I could possibly need laid-out across the back. I decided to stay in the same shoes, they were the newest and had the most cushioning. My jacket had sealed all the moisture inside of it so my base layer compression shirt and long-sleeve shirt were wet. I thought nothing of taking my clothes off, the cool air deceptively felt refreshing on my skin, before changing into dry shirts. I reapplied Desitin and SportShield everywhere. I slid pants on over my shorts. My watch had charged to 17%. I put my gloves back on.
I didn’t realize it but my teeth had started chattering. I chugged my shakes and we were ready to go. We started walking off towards the trail, when it hit me, “Wait, I am really cold.” If I had ignored the hypothermia symptoms last year, I would have certainly been forced to drop out of that race 9 hours into it. Knowing that, as much as I wanted to see if running would warm my blood up, it was risky so I told Paul, “I need to go back to warm up.” We got in the front seats of the van and turned the heat on. I was wearing a jacket, so if I got too warm I would start sweating and then as soon as we got outside it would be even worse than the previous cold. We stayed in there for 3-4 minutes and although the clock was ticking and this became my longest pit stop, it was worth every second.
30 miles to go.
You have to respect the pacers, especially Paul. Although he hadn’t gotten the results at the time, he had qualified for the Boston Marathon with a 3:02 marathon in San Francisco. These last 30 miles nearly matched his longest run to-date and here he was, helping me finish a race in the middle of the night that was going to be at a considerably slower pace than he was capable of. He not only did some research to discover the best way to pace someone was by running behind them—allegedly the runner feels pressure to move as fast as possible—he also had memorized most of the elevation changes, so he would suggest appropriate jogging intervals in anticipation of the hills, where I would need to walk. Having someone of sound mind that you could outsource your thinking to was indescribably helpful. Those are also some of the purest, open and honest conversations you will have.
If you want to simulate the exhaustion felt at this point in the race, put your favorite running shoes on, take 6-7 Benadryl and go for a 16-mile run.
I didn’t know it was possible to fall asleep while running. As Paul later suggested, it’s analogous to falling asleep while driving. It’s between 5:30am and 6:00am, and the only light I had seen over the past 11 hours, outside of the Aid Stations, is the 250 lumens coming from my headlamp. The specs said this thing would shine at the same intensity for 60 hours. Given it would only be dark for a fraction of that time, the risk-assessment side of my brain thought 49 hours was a pretty good margin-of-safety. Wrong. Paul told me my light was dimming. I did not want to disrupt the pace to stop and get my backup headlamp out. The intermittent hallucinations I had experienced from midnight to 3:00am gave way to full-on dreamlike states. Later, I was staring off at the trees in front of me and the trail seemed to twist and turn like an endless video game, my body effectively on auto-pilot taking each step. Unwittingly, I was enjoying the battery dying because it was getting darker, allowing my body to fall asleep. Before I knew it, I tripped over a root in the trail and my head had apparently been nodding because it popped straight up with eyes wide open, returning to consciousness. “Are you okay?” Paul asked. “Yeah,” without realizing what exactly happened…until it happened again moments later, except this time I tripped on a rock. This repeated itself a few times before I started to get irritable. How far was this damn aid station and when the hell is sunrise?
My watch died again.
Worst moment of the race.
We get to the small aid station and I sit in the closest chair. I ignore the loud music and the guy in the mascot costume trying to cheer me up. Despite the extreme tiredness, throughout the whole race I could talk coherently, in full sentences. The volunteer tries to make eye contact thru the small slit in my eyelids. I ask if there is a heating tent at this aid station. He says, “Yes, but please don’t go into it. The sun is rising and you will feel much better in just a few minutes.” I could see the sky was lighting up but I still couldn’t see anything in the woods. I felt pathetic and weak. My arms pushed me out of the chair, I stood up and we walked away from the heating tent, towards the trail.
Best moment of the race.
I could see the trees. The sun was up. There are no words to describe the contrast in mental/emotional states and energy levels that occurred the moment my body realized it was daylight. It was then that the prospect of finishing the race went from abstract to concrete. We were going to do it.
The only question was: when? The miles were slow. Our average moving pace was 17:10/mile. The Advil was barely masking the stinging in my feet, so around Mile 84 Paul gave me 2 ibuprofens and a B-12 vitamin. Surprisingly, running felt better than walking, maybe because the impact was felt over a shorter period of time. So you may think, “what a convenient problem, why don’t you just run the whole time then?” I ran out of juice. Short bursts were quickly doused. Now that it was light again, you could see the inclines up ahead.
The only substantial moves being made at this point were in one direction, down. At best you maintain. The difference between Saturday morning and Sunday morning was the difference between seeing your favorite food and seeing your favorite food after it gave you food poisoning. The scenery interested me in the way the lines of a page might interest you if you were writing 100 sentences for punishment. Sure, you notice them subconsciously, but you are really ready to finish the sentences.
At the final aid station (#16), my dad was expecting us–he had parked the van as close as possible to the tent. I changed shirts, removed any unnecessary weight from my pack and took off my pants. It was warm again. It was past 11:00am so if we were going to make a sub-28 hour finish we needed to go faster than we had all night.
The last mile was longer than a mile. Imagine a movie scene where the long-lost characters are running at each other in dramatic slow motion to reconnect and the scene goes on for 11 minutes and 3 seconds. Every time we saw a turn in the trail I thought that was the final one before getting to the pavement, which would have meant we were less than 1/10th of a mile from finishing. My pace was faster than any of my previous 75 miles. Knowing I was running on fumes—physically and mentally—I was nervous that as each turn was met with more trail and rocks instead of asphalt that the disappointment would manifest itself in my body collapsing. Paul found a subtle way to get me there. “At this pace, we will finish 45 seconds before noon.”
When it came, I didn’t have to convince myself I was motivated. The trail changed to pavement. The morning silence became cowbells and cheers. The trees became people. Paul went faster so I went faster. Then I saw it.
When I crossed the Finish Line, one of the event organizers handed me the universal finisher’s prize for 100-milers, the Belt Buckle. We took a picture, and then I went up to my dad and his smile let me know that it was over and I could smile too.
I needed food, so I inhaled a few pancakes and pieces of bacon, but existentially, I wanted nothing. My dad asked me what I wanted to drink, and they had a keg of beer and freshly-brewed coffee, two things I like. I thought I wanted both so that’s what I said, but after a sip of each, I set them down.
I took my socks and shoes off. I sat on a rock, put my feet in the cold Olallie Lake and looked up at the indifferent Mount Jefferson.
Does a 100-mile race have a purpose? Of course not.