As I stood at the starting line that dark Saturday morning, the air was crisp, but not too cool. While it felt good, I knew the comfortable temperatures at the start would mean that later in the day I would be uncomfortably warm. Still, I had an objective, a mission to do. I was there to run 100 miles. I had tried it before, things did not go well.
In the year since my last attempt, I had learned much about ultrarunning, about training for 100 miles and most importantly about myself. I started this year out with a mission of finishing the 2 races that I had failed to complete last year, I had completed the first one in January and now I needed this last one.
The gun went off and I knew that I had to pace myself. Just enjoy the first few miles and save energy for the long road ahead. It was still dark until I was almost to the first aid station. Everything seemed to be flowing perfectly. I focused on running aid station to aid station, not thinking about the miles left or the challenges that I may face.
It was through this area that I started a mantra. I was wearing the KIA bracelet for a fallen Navy SEAL named Adam Brown. Call it fate or call it divine intervention, I ended up with the bib number 24, Adam’s football jersey number.
SEAL training has what is called Hell Week. During this time, trainees are subjected to superhuman tests. They are almost constantly moving on minimal sleep for 132 hours. The trainee can stop anytime they want, therefore quitting the SEALS, the catch is that they must stand in front of all the others and ring a bell. The sound of the clanging bell announces to the world that you did not have what it takes to finish the test.
I started to think of this race as my Hell Weekend. I had a mission and I would not quit, I would not suffer ringing that figurative bell in my ears again. This was just the line of thinking I needed because I don’t remember a time after that point that I thought about quitting. I just kept telling myself, don’t ring the bell-don’t ring the bell!
The miles clicked off and before I knew it, I had reached Lake Sylvia, the first station where my crew would be waiting. A quick shirt change into a singlet, I grabbed a sandwich and was out. I’ve done more hill repeats on the stretch coming out of Lake Sylvia than I could count. This could be dangerous, I could get over confident and burn myself out in that section. I made it a point to hold back through here. On to Pumpkin Patch at mile 22, Electronic tower at 24.6 miles, then on to Lake Winona at 31 miles, calling to the radio operators as I left each one- 24 out. This is done for safety and to track each runners progress.
Running has it’s ups and downs emotionally and Electronic Tower to Lake Winona provided my first down. The stretch seemed to drag on. In years past there had been an aid station between to two. This year race officials eliminated it and moved them slightly closer together. Don’t ring the bell.
At Lake Winona I had my entire crew waiting. Change of socks and shoes and a few minutes of stretching and I was ready again. As I left, I told my pacers to be ready, they WOULD run with me this year. Last year they didn’t get that chance.
By this point it was getting warm. I had to change my nutrition strategy. I had planned on gels and waffles between aid station, but they just didn’t taste good. Not that my stomach was bothering me, they just were not doing the trick. I made the call to switch to Tailwind as my primary calorie source between the aid stations and rely on the solid foods provided at the stations.
I settled into a rhythm, not looking at the time, just running. I wasn’t wearing any GPS watch, just a cheap Casio I had bought earlier in the week. As I neared the Power Line aid station at mile 48, I realized that I was about half an hour faster getting to that aid station than the previous year.
At this point a runner can pick up a pacer. Someone to help guide you, to make sure you are eating and drinking enough and making sure you check in with the Ham radio operators as you left the aid stations. I had a pacer who was suddenly deployed and finding a replacement was tough, so I opted to run with out one for now. I would end up running 68 miles solo. I was on to the Copperhead aid station at mile 52. This would be a mental milestone for me. This was the aid station I dropped at last year. As I approached, I made the decision to move as fast as possible through it, I didn’t want to linger on the bad memories. If I had not needed to get water and food, I would have passed it.
As I waited for my water bottles to be filled, looked over at the chairs. Runners who had dropped out sat there in defeat. Wrapped in blankets and asking themselves what they could have done differently, I knew that feeling. They would face weeks of self questioning, wondering if they made the right call. They had rang the bell and I would not put myself through that again.
The Turnaround aid station was another mental milestone for me. At that point I was running back towards the finish line, there were only 42 miles left! This thought reinvigorated me, I wanted this. Back to Copperhead then on to Power Line (mile 68) again.
At Power Line I was joined by Micah. She had never paced anyone in an ultra, but she had a very positive energy that I knew I would need through the night. She would take me back to Lake Winona (mile 84.8). Off we went over Smith Mountain.
Looking back, two thing during this time really stand out to me. The first is when we got to a clearing on Smith Mountain, I stopped and we turned off our headlamps. We just enjoyed the stars for a couple of minutes. This was a small reward to enjoy the beauty for a moment. The weekend had been about moving, sometimes it needs to be about stopping and enjoying.
The other thing that stands out was an odd thing that happened, I was nodding off while running. Somewhere between Bahama Mama (mile 72.6) and Club Flamingo (mile 76.4) I realized that as I ran, I was leaning on my trekking poles and almost falling asleep. I got a cup of coffee at Club Flamingo and continued. This woke me up just enough to stop the small naps between steps.
We continued towards Lake Winona, watching the lightening all around us. Wondering if we would get rained on or if we would have to whether a small storm. Luckily, it never happened. We got to Lake Winona just as the light started to appear on the horizon. I quickly got what I needed and thanked Micah for her help.
Shauna would be joining me from here on out. She and I have ran many miles together, I knew she could push me if needed. We headed out for Electronic Tower (mile 91.2) just before sunrise. This would be a key aid station. If I made it past there before the cutoff, I would be allowed to finish regardless of 30 hour time limit. The problem was that this would be the longest most miserable stretch. I had not been close to cutoffs, but my energy was fading.
She would push me, while not telling me anything about pace or distance. We both knew that I did not need to know that information, I just needed to keep moving as fast as I could.
It was during this stretch that I realized that my perception of time and distance were way off. The miles dragged on and on. After what felt like days, we finally reached Electronic Tower, I would be a finisher! I was tired and beaten, but I would be able to finish. My friend Tina was there and gave me a zip lock bag of chocolate covered espresso beans that ended up carrying me through.
I always thought that I would be a little emotional at the end. As it turned out, my emotional moment came at mile 93.7, Pumpkin Patch. A lady named Lisa Gunnoe introduced me to the world of trail and ultra running. I paced her when she ran this race the first time. While she finished that year, she has tried unsuccessfully two times since, this year became the third unsuccessful try.
At some point during the night, I got word that she had dropped out. I knew she would be at Pumpkin Patch since her family volunteered there. As I rounded the corner, she stood there in the middle of the road, tears rolling down her cheeks. As she hugged me, I told her how sorry I was that she wasn’t able to finish. Lisa said to me that she wasn’t crying for her race, but that she was crying because she was so proud of me. After we had our moment, her family and some of our friends came over and took care of me.
A little over 6 miles left and I was ready to be done. I had 3 miles to a creek crossing, one mile from there to the last radio check station and then 2.5 miles to the finish. I was ready, so we ran a bit. I felt like we had ran for a couple of miles, but no it was only a couple of minutes. I would take a walk break then run again and repeat. Shauna and I had found a pace that felt good to me and she kept me there (She still hasn’t told me what the pace was, but I know it was slow).
I was worried about the creek crossing. How would I do it on my worn out legs? Should I just push across and not worry about wet feet? When we got there, Shauna went first, finding any loose rocks. When she got across, she turned around and talked me across. In the end, I got across better at mile 97 than I did the first time at mile 18.
I had done many hill repeats on this last couple of miles of the course. It’s near an area that we camp and train at often. I knew that it would be a mile and a half of down hill and some flats then one last small hill to the end. I ran the down hill as much as I could.
The one uphill that had scared me during all the training was that last one. It’s not really that steep, I just wondered how it would feel to run it with 99+ miles on my legs. As it turned out, I opted to walk it. I did know that there was a point where the hill leveled off and actually went down a little, there was a road sign there that had always been a marker in my mind.
At that point, I ran as well as my worn out, chafed legs would allow. I had always thought that I would be extremely excited and over joyed to cross the finish line. In the end, it was just sense of being done. It was an odd feeling, not exhaustion, I just wanted to stop running. There was too much adrenaline to be sleepy, this was the most worn out yet awake and in the moment I have ever been. I had not rang the bell, I had survived my own little Hell Weekend. After 29 hours and 20 minutes, I turned to the Ham radio operators and gave my final check-24 DONE!