“If I NEVER see mud again it will be too soon…”
said by me (and many others I’m sure)…many times over the course of the TARC 100
As I looked around, I suddenly felt like maybe I had bitten off more than I could possibly chew. Everywhere I looked I saw people who looked like runners, I mean really looked like runners. As I weighed in (something they do I guess at the 100-mile distance), I glanced over at the guy next to me. He was about my height.
“145,” I heard the med staff call out. 145? I stepped onto my scale.
Now don’t get me wrong – I am happy with my weight. Nobody wants to see me at 145. It just made me wonder if maybe I was too big to be running this distance. Before long they called us to the start. JB, Doug and I looked at each other and gave one last hug of encouragement.
We were about to undertake a challenge of truly epic proportions.
There was a plan in place. JB and I had it all worked out. Doug had his own plan that he would follow, but JB and I had been thinking about this for weeks. 4 miles of running followed by 1 mile of brisk walking – powerwalking any hills we might encounter during the running stretches; repeat 19 more times and we would be across the finish line in or around 24 hours. Despite the three days of rain that preceded the race; despite the warnings from the race directors that the course was “a little wet” we had faith that if we stuck to the plan we would get to the end. We had no idea just how wet and muddy the course really was.
Suddenly it was time to go. The race director gave the word and we were off running.
The course was broken into two loops – a 4.5 mile loop to start, followed by a winding 20.5 mile loop to complete the 25 mile lap. The first loop started innocently enough – what I had expected as typical trails – soft ground, a sea of grass, a trip into the woods, a few small streams to jump over, but about two miles in we got our first taste of what was to come in the larger loop – mud…
In the words of local singer Jeannie Mack, “I can’t go around it, I have to go through it! Mud! Mud…”. And that’s what each of us did. But it was a wet mud that went straight through the shoes. I wondered if I was going to be running with wet, muddy feet for the next 98 miles.
“Don’t be a hero.”
I could hear myself repeating the words Jess had said to me over and over again, but I was not directing them toward myself. “Don’t be a hero JB. You’ve got a wife and a baby at home and you need to make sure that you are able to go home to them.” I was standing over him at the Aid Station at Mile 15. He had been heaving ever since mile 10. We had been clicking along nicely for the first 10 miles. At first we thought he had simply taken in too much fluid too quickly at the last Aid Station, but it was becoming readily apparent that this was not the case. Having thrown up a couple times over the last 5 miles, he sat on the ground, wanting to run but physically unable.
After 5 – 10 minutes he looked up at me. “Go,” he said, “you’ve got to go.”
“Are you sure,” I asked certain that this was where JB’s race was ending this night. I didn’t want to lose my wing man, but I had no other choice.
“Yeah, I’m gonna sit here for a few and if I can, I’ll catch up.”
I bid my running partner good-bye and stared down the road – 85 miles to go, the next 35 of which would be in the dark of night, essentially alone. I took a deep breath and put one foot in front of the other.
“Don’t be a hero,” I kept hearing Jess say in my head.
I was going to have to readjust my game plan.
It wasn’t long before I fell in behind a woman in a pink shirt. Martha was moving more slowly than I was, but having just lost my partner, I was more than happy to fall in step with her. It was now closing in on 11 PM – the runners had thinned out along the course, so that it would be long stretches before one would pass or be passed by another runner. As we made our way in the darkness, our paths lit by our headlamps, we chatted about running, ultras and the crazy people who do them. She mentioned that she was part of the Gifford Athletic Club, a group headed by her husband. We kept pace all the way to the next Aid Station at Mile 20. This next loop was only 2 miles, so I grabbed some orange and watermelon slices, thanked Martha for the company and was on my way, picking up the pace. It had to be the longest 2 mile loop in the history of 2 mile loops punctuated by a thigh deep pool of muddy water that one hit on both the way out and on the way back…and just as my feet were starting to dry a little.
Closing in on the end of the first 25 mile loop, I was confronted with had had to be at least 50 – 75 yards of ankle to knee deep mud. We had encountered this on the way out, but it felt like it had gotten worse (probably because it had). There was no way around it and by this point, I had given up on trying to keep my feet dry so I ran right through it. Coming out of the mud run, I ran by a large tent with a banner that read G.A.C. – the same letters that were on Martha’s (the nice lady who kept me company from 15 to 20) shirt.
“Are you guys with Martha?”
“Yeah, I’m her husband,” one of the guys replied.
“She’s not too far behind me. She kept me company for about 5 miles. Love her!”
“That’s great. You touch her I’ll f***ing kill you,” joked the husband. I laughed, fairly certain he was kidding and carried on
As I pulled into the end of the first loop, my watch beeped. The battery was dying. I would no longer know how fast I was going over the next 75 miles.
As I crossed the start/finish marker, I thought, “okay, only three more times and you’re done!” I found my gear, changed my socks and headed out on the 4.5 loop that would bring me back to the start/finish before starting the 20.5 mile loop. It was now a little past 1:15 AM. The first lap had taken me 6 hours 11 minutes. I couldn’t complain. Considering the mud, mud pits and water hazards, I was right where JB and I had hoped we would be. Despite the 5 miles I had spent with Martha, the last 5 had been very quiet and lonesome and I knew I was looking at another 20 to 25 miles in the dark of night. Without my Garmin to help me track distance and pace, I was going to have to change my strategy from distance based to time based. I arbitrarily chose 45/15 – 45 minutes of running followed by 15 minutes of brisk walking.
Coming out of the 4.5 mile loop I saw my buddy Doug coming the other way. Something didn’t seem right. It took me a moment to realize that he had started the 4.5 mile loop in the wrong direction.
“I’m going the wrong way aren’t I,” Doug asked.
“Yeah, I’m afraid so.” He looked defeated. He had essentially wasted nearly a mile of energy.
“Conditions suck out there,” he said.
“I think I’m gonna pull out and crew for you.”
This was one of those rare moments where I was both happy and sad. Doug, along with JB, had convinced me to run this with them. This was their race, not mine. They were supposed to finish, not me. They were supposed to be getting the belt buckles at the end, not me. At the same time, I was happy that there would be somebody who could have things ready for me at select Aid Stations. I would be able to think less and focus more on just putting one foot in front of the other.
The next 20 miles would pass in a blur. From time to time I would fall in step with another runner, but for the most part I spent the wee dark hours of the night running alone, only the soft shuffle of my footsteps and the occasional Aid Station to keep me company. Pulling into the Aid Station that served as both Mile 35 and 40 I was delighted to see that the volunteers had dressed up as if they were at a Luau. I took it to be a good sign. I was reminded that 25 miles earlier this was where JB had become sick and had to drop out. I said a silent prayer and traveled on.
Running long distances tires the legs; it is inevitable. Add night running to the mixture and the feet begin to drag. This is where I ran into trouble throughout the night. As bright as my headlamp was, the resultant tunnel-vision played havoc on my depth perception and every so often I would slam my toes into either a large rock or root – toe catchers is what I think the race director called them. You do this enough times and the toes and their toe nails really end up taking a beating. It was somewhere around Mile 40ish that I realized that I was going to lose my right big toe nail when I hit a rock and felt a pop.
“There’s goes my toenail,” I said to the darkness.
“Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it,” I kept telling myself, “less than 60 miles to go.”
A few miles later I felt the other big toe’s nail go as well.
As I pulled into the Aid Station at Mile 45 I found Doug working as a volunteer. He had texted me about 45 minutes earlier and had asked if I wanted coffee (“yes” was my simple if not over-exuberant reply…you just can’t see the exuberance because, well, I was texting at 6 in the morning after running all night). He told me that he would meet me back at mile 50 and introduce me to his pal Erica. She would be pacing me over the third 25 mile loop. This is where I truly got to see and experience the kind spirit and nature that is the ultra-marathon. Yes, the 100-mile distance can be cruel and harsh and painful, but despite that or maybe because of that, this complete stranger was going to spend 6 to 7 hours with me, keeping me company, pushing me along, keeping me in the race.
When I arrived at the start/finish to reach the halfway point, Doug and Erica were waiting for me. I quickly changed my socks, shoes and singlet, slipped on some sunglasses. I had completed the second lap in about 6 1/2 hours, covering the first 50 miles in 12:39. That felt pretty good considering the conditions and the loss of my running partner 35 miles earlier. Erica appeared ready to go, but I paused. I wanted to do the next 4.5 mile loop by myself and have her join me for the larger 20.5 loop. I’m not sure what my logic was other than convincing myself that when Erica joined me for the next 25 miles there would really only be 20.5 miles left. They helped me fill my water bottles with my chia honey water, I jammed a pancake down as best I could and was off.
The sun had risen making the course look completely different. Maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe it was the light of day, but it almost felt as if the race directors had rearranged the course. I realized they had not when 2 miles into the third loop but once dry socks and shoes were soaked through with mud and water.
At 54.5 Erica jumped in for the big loop. Erica had planned on pacing a friend of hers but he had pulled out at 50 miles with a broken toe. Right from the start she said she would be happy to do all the talking, let me do all the talking, chit chat the whole time or run in silence. I think that over the course of 20.5 miles we ended up doing all of those things. She let me lead when I needed to and pulled me along when I needed that. As we pulled into each Aid Station, she would fill my bottles and make sure I ate something. Psychologically the third lap was going to be the hardest of them all (a large number of people dropped out at either 50 or 54.5). Knowing that after 25 more miles you would still have the most physically painful 25 miles ahead of you made it tough to go out and keep going during that 3rd lap.
But Erica kept my spirits light, reminding me that each step forward was one more step closer to the finish.
At some point during the run Erica told me that Doug had arranged for a friend of ours to pace me through the last 25. Maddy, who is a runner I have long admired was dropping her plans for the day because Doug had reached out to her for help.
I was so touched. Regular readers may recognize that Julie C is the race director of the Leprechaun 5K. The two of us have become friends via Facebook and occasional runner tweet-ups. We are both runner and both have daughters with autism and that has created a special bond between the two of us.
Closing in on 75, I passed Martha’s group again. There was Martha, hanging with her husband and friends. Seems she had thought better of it after going out for the mini-loop after 50 and decided that she would fight another day. The cheer I received from that group was energizing. They hardly knew me, but they got up and hooted and hollered as I went by. The last thing I heard from that crowd was Martha’s husband again yelling, “if you touch my wife, I’ll f***ing kill ya!” As the laughter receded into the distance, I focused on the last quarter-mile of this 3rd loop. I would finish the 3rd lap in about 6:40. I wasn’t complaining.
The first person I saw coming into the start/finish area was Julie C. It was good to see a familiar face. She followed me to where my gear was. Waiting for me at my gear drop was Maddy, suited up and ready to go. As I changed my socks yet again, Erica filled my water bottles. Both Julie and Maddy gave me a big hug despite the fact that I probably smelled awful.
“I have a surprise for you,” she said, “can you wait a second?” I was more than happy to sit just a little longer. Julie ran off and when she came back she had her daughter Helen with her. I had only met Helen briefly once before, but had never been able to interact with her.
“I wanted to remind you why and for whom you are running,” Julie said. I was running with the Charity Miles App and thanks to the battery packs donated my Mophie (thank you Mophie!!!), my phone was still going strong. I was about to offer Helen a high-five but then I looked at my hands. They were muddy and grim from just over 19 hours of running in the mud. So I offered her a high-one, not sure if she would respond.
To my great delight, she put her pointer finger to mine and we tapped. I apologized to her for my dirty fingers and she then wiped it off, but not before we took a picture together.
It was now time to head back out. I knew if I sat too much longer my legs would refuse to restart. So one quick photo of me and my pacers and it was time to go.
I would later write this about Erica and Maddy:
So the enormity of what these two women did for me on Saturday is just finally sinking in. Erica (center) paced me from mile 54.5 to mile 75 and Maddy (right) paced me from 75 to 100. Erica had never met me (online or in real life) yet she jumped right in and kept me going for 6 hours. Maddy, whom I have long admired as a runner, heard I needed help and drove over at the drop of a hat to shepherd me through the final stages…I cannot possibly do either of you justice with words (as my eyes start to well up). Thank you!
Of course, I also had to do a little problem solving from afar…
Maddy has become somewhat of a local superstar in our little neck of the woods – that happens when you enter your first 100-miler and win, yes WIN, the whole thing. I was a bit nervous about having her pace me because she is just that fast and at the pace I was going, I was sure she was going to feel like she was walking…backwards…on her hands.
Her pacing strategy was a little different than Erica’s. Where Erica was gentle in letting me lead the pace, Maddy immediately pulled me along, pushing the pace ever so slightly whenever she felt like she could. It was exactly what I needed. Where the third 25 miles was psychologically the hardest, the last 25 was going to be physically the hardest. My right knee had been bothering me since 50 and now the bottom of my right shin was getting very, very angry. Hitting the water hazards at 77 popped several blisters in my feet. I realized I was going to have to get taped up before heading out for the final 20.5.
As we pulled into the start/finish area at 79.5 I hobbled over to the medical tent.
“Yeah,” I tried to sound chipper, “I just need some tape on my feet.”
“Where,” they asked.
“Uh, I think everywhere.”
When they took off my shoes and socks, the look on the medics face did not provide me with a lot of comfort.
“Uh, you’re a mess.”
No Shit! I thought. “Can you make it better?”
“We’ll see what we can do.” And so they taped up my toes, the balls of my feet and my heels.
I was hoping the tape job would hold, at least for a while. Less than a mile into the big (and final) loop, I felt the tape just rip away as we made our way through the mud.
The miles were coming much more slowly now. Part of it was fatigue, part of it was the heat. We would run for 40 minutes and I would look down at my watch and realize that only 10 minutes had passed. It now became a game of simply getting to the next Aid Station. Spread out about 5 miles apart as they were made for long stretches. At some points the mud was so bad and my shin was barking so loudly that I had no choice but to walk slowly. The pain and lack of sleep were starting to catch up to me, but Maddy kept me moving.Maddy had originally thought we could maybe make in by 9PM – that would have been 26 hours total, but when it took 3 hours to get from 75 to 85, reality began to set in. Physically I was crumbling. I wasn’t even thinking about the finish or the belt buckle at this point, I was simply thinking “next Aid Station”. If I could get to the next Aid Station then maybe I could get myself to try for the next one and then the next one.
As we left 85, Maddy point out this sign
At some point around this time we picked up another runner, Marcus. We very slowly picked up the pace and for about a 20 minute stretch, all the pain and doubt was gone. We were trucking along at what felt like 10 minute pace or better. We were just trying to get to the Aid Station at Mile 95 and every time we thought the next turn would bring us to the stretch that would take us there, it wouldn’t. Finally the burst of energy left us and we were once again trudging along at a pace a toddler could pass. My shin and knee were killing me, especially going downhill. Every time I would build some momentum and a decent clip, the path would turn ever so slightly downhill and I would not be able to maintain my balance without slowing down to a walk. It felt so strange to be running up hill and walking down.
It had taken up 3 hours to go 10 miles. All that was left was a small 2-mile loop back to this Aid Station and then 3 miles back to the start. With five miles to go, there was no way we were getting back before the sun went down completely.
“Pretty nice to have a friend pacing you,” said one of the volunteers.
“Yeah,” I said rubbing my shin, “and I will never return the favor.” Everyone laughed but I felt the need to clarify. “She’s too fast. I would be doing her a favor by NOT pacing her.”
My shin was raging. I hesitantly went over to the doctor at the Aid Station.
“Wait,” I stopped, “you’re not gonna pull me, are you?”
The doctor looked at me, head slightly tilted like a golden retriever trying to understand its owner.
“I said you’re not gonna pull me if I show you where it hurts, right?” I had come 95 miles and unless it was broken, I was NOT going to get pulled because of the pain in my shin.
“With 5 miles to go? No, I will not pull you” I breathed a sigh of relief. After examining my shin the doctor pronounced that the extra stress of running through the mud had in all likelihood stretched out my tendon, but based on what he had felt he was sure that I hadn’t broken anything.
Another sigh of relief, a few orange slices and a filled water bottle later, I was ready to go.
As I headed out from Mile 95, things got a little weird. 200 yards in I suddenly got cold. Not “oh gee the temperature dropped” kind of cold, but rather “oh gee MY temperature just dropped” kind of cold. I panicked. I had just convinced the medical staff not to pull me and here I was possibly in for a complete physcial breakdown.
“Maddy, I’m cold,” I shouted as I walked along.
“It’s okay,” she yelled back, “you’re not going fast enough. Pick up the pace.”
Easy for her to say I thought, but that is just what I did, and I started to warm up a bit, but I was dreading the water hazards ahead.
I’m not sure if it was my preoccupation with the water and mud that I would face over the next two miles or the chill or the exhaustion or a combination of all three but as I looked down on the ground, attempting to avoid slamming my poor toes into any more rocks or roots, I began to see faces. Yes, faces. They looked like faces drawn by Vincent van Gogh with chalk. Every few feet I would pass another and another and another. It didn’t help that about a half mile in we ran by a pentagram that had been painted onto the ground. I became convinced that these faces have been put there by the local residents to freak runners like me out; that is until I paused to take a closer look at one of the faces and it disappeared, becoming a leaf. I guess almost 27 straight hours of running will do that to a person. I decided to keep this particular incident to myself for fear that Maddy would have me checked into the madhouse.
As we pulled in to Mile 97, I had the common sense to request a blanket which I would run the last three miles with to keep warm.
At this point I texted Jess – 3 miles to go. May take me over an hour since I am only able to shuffle. We had three hours to make the cut off. Going into this last 25 mile loop I had told myself that if I reached 97 with an hour to spare I would be completely confident in finishing. I have to admit, even with three hours to make it to the finish line, I did not truly “know” if I was going to make. I thought I would, but I just didn’t “know”.
The final 3 miles put up a fight. The TARC 100 wasn’t going to make it easy for me. At this point, over 100 of the 170+ runners who had started the race had dropped out. The course wanted one more and it was doing it’s best to slow me down. Over the last 2 miles the mud got worse, forming running rivers of mud/water that flowed against me. I no longer had the strength or brain power to try to pick my way around and simply trudged through. At one point I realized that I was stuck. If I pulled too hard, I would lose my shoe and quite frankly, I wasn’t sure if I had the strength or where with all to put it back on if the shoe came off. I tried positioning my foot to keep the shoe in place as I lifted but the pain in my shin was overwhelming. I put my foot back down. I was not going to go out like this, stuck with 2 miles to go.
I paused, took a deep breath and tried again. This time the shoe and foot came free.
Maddy was up ahead, encouraging me along, reminding me that my belt buckle was waiting for me not even a mile away, but mentally I was at that point where I really wasn’t hearing anything. I had to get through the mud before I would let myself think of the finish.
I looked at my watch. We were closing in fast on 11PM. I had spent nearly 28 hours relentlessly moving forward.
“I don’t know if we’re gonna make 11,” I said.
“Maybe,” was Maddy’s reply. We hadn’t made sub-24, sub-26 or even sub-27 hours. Somewhere in my fried brain I knew that the mud had not only slowed me down, but had caused enough pain in my legs to slow me even further. I knew that today was just a matter of finishing, not finishing for time, but somewhere in my scrambled mind I knew I wanted to come in under 28 hours. On my next step the mud cleared and I came out of the woods into the final third of a mile. I tried running, but my legs weren’t responding. I swung my arms to try to build momentum. My legs followed.
I passed the tent where Martha’s friends and family had been, but they were long gone.
Slowly my legs started to move in a way that resembled running.
Less than a quarter mile to go and we re-entered the trees for a slight downhill stretch that was beyond painful.
200 yards to go and out of the trees and into the parking lot where the start/finish was I threw my blanket to Maddy. The crowd at the finish could see my headlamp and began hooting and hollering. Nearly 28 hours later and these people were still cheering like they were watching the winners come in. I picked up the pace and began hooting myself. I was going to finish! I was about to finish this 100- mile journey that Doug, JB and I had started!!!
Coming into the last 20 yards I thought of my friend Rebecca who ends a lot of her marathons with a jump and a heel tap. With a sudden burst of energy I ran across the finish line at took to the air. I just wish someone there had taken a picture.
I looked at the clock.
I had done it. And with that exhaustion took over. A volunteer took me over to a seat and wrapped me in a blanket. The race director brought over a bucket of hot water, took off my shoes and socks and began to gently wash my feet. I was struck by the tenderness that these people treated their runners. Maddy checked in to see if there was anything I needed. I really couldn’t think straight other than to say that I thought I would need to sleep a few hours in my car despite being in desperate need of a shower. God bless her because she took my car keys and ran the nearly half mile back to my car to bring it to the start/finish. She then packed up all of my gear in the car, even offering to drive me home. I thanked her (profusely I hope) and said that I would sleep for a few hours before heading back.
I crawled into the backseat and tried to think over the events of the past day, but passed out almost immediately. I awoke a few hours later to the sound of someone’s car alarm going off. I looked at my watch. 4:30AM. Good enough I thought, climbing into the front seat.
On the way home I thought about the past day, of all the runners I had met and chatted with along the course, of Erica and Maddy, of Doug and JB.
Because of Mophie, I was able to post this.
I would end up wearing that belt buckle for a week straight…it didn’t matter what I was wearing.
Over a week later I still haven’t washed off my shoes…I’m wondering if I should just retire them.
On Monday I would pass this at my younger daughter’s school and have a mild PTSD moment.
So what did I learn over the course of 100 miles? What deep life lesson did I take away from it all? Honestly, I’m not sure yet. Over a week later I am still processing the whole thing. What I can tell you is that the human spirit is strong; that our bodies are capable of more than we believe; and that with a little luck and determination, if you set your mind to something and relentlessly move forward, reaching your goal is inevitable.