Race Report: The Hardest Race I’ve Ever Run (Pine Creek 100-miler)

I ran my 2nd 100-mile race this weekend. It was the hardest race I’ve yet run, and in some ways, gave me a new appreciation for ultrarunning. I’d read a lot about some of the most difficult, trying parts of long races, but hadn’t really experienced the full extent of real challenges ultrarunners face until this race.

Background

Last year, Will and I ran something like seven road marathons. Road marathons aren’t my favorite; they’re usually painful due to the speed at which you have to run them and the pounding of the pavement, and they aren’t very scenic, especially in comparison to trail runs. I was getting burnt out on road marathons.

I convinced Will to sign up for a trail 100 with me.  He suggested the Pine Creek Challenge, which he’d run as his first 100. This race was a good fit for several reasons. It’s located in Pennsylvania, so it would be a good way to see a part of the state I hadn’t seen before and probably wouldn’t have the chance to see again for a while. It was also after summer (yet before classes really got going), so we’d have ample opportunity to train.

Leading up to the race, I ran lots of solo 30-mile unsupported training runs, as well as a 12-hour race and a 50-miler trail race. These were all great experiences, especially because they represented the best part of running to me – the adventure of trying something new. Also, none of them were road marathons.

After our internships ended, Will and I visited several national parks. We took on a lot of the more challenging, iconic hikes and runs, including Angel’s Landing in Zion, hiking from the Grand Canyon Rim to the Colorado River and back in a single day, and Half Dome, all in the name of training. We may have overdone it here – we probably should have left more time for lazy tapering in preparation for the 100 – but these opportunities and the scenery were too good to miss.

Leading up to the race, I felt I’d trained well, especially given the long work hours at my summer internship and the erratic travel schedule afterwards. I’d logged more than 1,200 miles in the six months leading up to the race, including ten marathon-or-longer distances. While I wasn’t “pumped up” for this 100, I felt ready.

The Race

Pine Creek Challenge is a 100 mile race on relatively flat, wide gravel trail in upstate Pennsylvania. The first 20 miles consisted of a five-mile stretch, which we ran out and back twice, finishing that portion at the start line. The next 80 miles were one long, 40-mile out-and-back – again, ending at the same place we started.

The weather forecast was questionable for the week leading up to the race, alternating between ridiculously humid and largely rainy with possible thunderstorms. I wasn’t concerned about the rain, as my last 100 took place almost exclusively during a deluge. I wasn’t concerned about the humidity either, as New York City had been pretty brutal to train in over the summer.

Part One – The Beginning

The start line (photo credit: Will)

We arrived at the start line around 5:15 in the morning. It was humid enough outside that I put on a bit of bug spray, and warm enough that I didn’t need a jacket. That should have been my first warning sign; the best weather conditions for races are ones where the temperature is just a bit below comfortable.

Will and I arranged our drop bags, which contained our gear that we could pick up at different aid stations, and headed to the start line. The race itself had 62 registered runners, which is pretty small, even for a 100.

As a result, the start line felt very informal and not at all crowded. A few people were sitting on the ground adjusting their shoes. When they played the national anthem, we all turned towards the flag; someone had inconveniently placed the port-o-potties between the start line and the flagpole, so runners would come out of the restroom, see everyone staring in their direction, get confused, then turn around and face the flag once they realized what was going on. Nobody was toeing the line; thirty seconds here was not going to make or break anyone’s race, and it’s very foolish to start out too strong on an ultra; you’ll burn out quick.

At about 6am, we started off. Will and I together for the first five miles; he was planning to hold back a bit so he didn’t burn out too early.  I was aiming for a sub-24 finish, but didn’t really have any strategy other than run at my usual pace for as much as I could.

The first five miles were mostly in the pre-dawn light. Some runners had headlamps. I opted not to wear mine, instead enjoying the tranquility of the morning.

As the sun came up, we were able to appreciate the beauty of the scenery. A light mist covered lush, green farms on either side; we’d occasionally run past cows or a mossy pond. When the mist lifted, the early morning sunlight pierced through the clouds, turning the whole landscape a dewey golden yellow color.

Part of the fun of out-and-back sections is seeing where other runners are along the course and how they’re doing. I was excited to see that three of the top five runners were female. It was fun seeing Will after he took off, too.

By mile 17 or so, I’d seen the same scenery three times and was ready for a change. I made it through the start-line aid station around mile 21, and at this point, I felt like the real race was beginning.

Part Two – Things I don’t Really Remember and Early Challenges

Somewhere on the course – it was pretty! (Photo credit: Will)

I’d be lying if I said I could accurately describe the next 8-10 miles and my state of mind. I know the scenery was pretty, because the trail had lots of trees making pretty tree arches and because I ran it on the way back. I know there was an aid station around mile 24, but I don’t remember it. I know the next aid station after that was 7.7 miles away, which was pretty far. I saw two horse-drawn covered wagons along the way, as well as several very happy Amish women on bicycles. This bridge fits in somehow, and it was very pretty.

A bridge we ran across. It looked a lot creepier at night. (Photo credit: Will)

 

I do remember being pretty happy to be in such a gorgeous area. The trees and the river nearby were really just beautiful.

After those 7.7 miles, we had another long stretch – 8.3 until the next aid station. I fell in with another runner from Philadelphia – he’d completed an Ironman (!) and was an all-around excellent athlete. We paced each other through that long stretch to mile 40.7 before splitting up. He looked like he was doing well, but said he was struggling; I think he dropped out at some point.

We were reaching the early afternoon, and the hottest part of the day. This is the first time I really started struggling, for two reasons: my GPS watch and, as mentioned, the heat.

One: I’d been relying on my GPS watch to determine my walk breaks. I soon realized I was getting grumpy, because the watch was demoralizing; seeing the distance kept reminding me how far I still had to go. I decided to change my strategy and take my walk breaks based on a technique I’d learned from one of my ultrarunning friends: counting your breaths. I would run for 100 breaths (about 400 steps) then walk for 20 breaths (about 80 steps), repeating as necessary and adding either to the run or walk portion if I wanted to. This allowed me to disconnect myself from the watch and be more in-tune with my body and with nature. Studies show that the fastest runners are not the ones who focus on their distance or their own bodies, but the scenery around them. Additionally, part of the reason I like trail running is the experience of immersing myself in my surroundings; it’s hard to do that when you’re constantly staring at a digital screen.

Two: the heat came in fast. I recognized what was happening before it fully hit; I’d experienced the same thing at the 12-hour race I ran in New York. That didn’t make it easier to handle. By mile 43, I was getting dizzy during my walk breaks; I didn’t get dizzy during the running parts, but I couldn’t just run through the heat – that would be disastrous.

At one point, I think around mile 44, I reached a man on a chair; I think he was taking race bib numbers, but it wasn’t really clear what his role was.  He said something horrible: “You’re almost at half way!”  I muttered “Thanks” and kept going. There’s really nothing worse than being reminded how much further you have to go.

About a minute later, I couldn’t take the heat anymore. I remembered reading the article about Tim Olsen, an elite ultrarunner who struggled at the Hardrock 100; at one point, he decided that laying down on a mattress in a pile of trash was a really excellent choice for taking a break. I took a page of out his book and just collapsed on the side of the trail, back to the gravel. It felt great.

Another runner passed me asking if I was okay – I was, and she seemed to believe me, so she continued on. I was up just a few moments later.

Around mile 45, it started pouring – torrential downpour. My kind of challenge. I was ecstatic. I felt revived, revitalized, and excited to be alive. I was happy to be running again. I felt strong.

Mile 46 brought an aid station, along with a lot of runners huddling under it. I grabbed a trash bag for rain protection (I ended up not using it, because it was till warm) and took off again.

The rain subsided pretty quickly, but the happiness I’d felt during it lasted for a few more miles.

I also knew that my pacers would be meeting me at mile 53; that thought buoyed me through the next stretch.

Part 3 – Running with Friends

When I saw my two pacers at the next crew station, I was so happy I almost started crying. I couldn’t believe I had friends who loved me so much that they’d drive four hours on their weekend to run in the middle of a forest – probably in the dark, and slowly – while I was most likely (read: definitely) a terrible conversationalist. I felt so honored and humbled – and I was really, really looking forward to running with them.

Christina joined me first. She initially was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with me for the 16 miles we’d talked about, but was quickly dissuaded of that notion when she saw how slowly I was going (I was probably running 13-14 minute miles at this point, which actually isn’t that bad for a 100 … but is very slow for any other time). She took me to the turnaround and back to mile 68. We had some pretty deep conversations – the kind you have when you’re out in the forest at stupid-o-clock in the dark and nobody is around.

Jess would pace me for the next 12 miles, up through about 80.5. These were really hard miles for me, and Jess was so supportive, even though it definitely could not have been fun for her. I was still awake and moving, but I was moving very slowly. I was starting to feel the effects of the earlier humidity, and I repeated my earlier trick of starfishing out on the gravel.

At my last 100, I’d almost run out of batteries for my headlamp a few times, which would have left me completely in the dark. After that experience, I developed a weird pathology about light, and Jess had to put up with my constant worrying about whether or not the flashlight we had would run out of batteries. I probably mentioned it something like 20 times. We found more batteries for the flashlight at an aid station, and at mile 80 I’d also have my headlamp – but on reflection, I realize this fixation was definitely symptomatic of having run 70+ miles.

I was terrified of what would happen at mile 80. Mile 80 was the start of some long, solo stretches (remember the 8.3 + 7.7?). It was going to be dark, and I was tired, and I’d be alone. I was really nervous about it.

Part 4 – The Darkest Part of the Race

Jess and Christina left at mile 80.5. I was so happy to have had friends on the trail with me for so long – it was so motivating. The rest was up to me.

I downed about 12 ounces of Diet Coke to wake me up and grabbed my jacket, extra headlamp batteries, and my iPod, and charged into the darkness. It was me, the forest, the trail, and the night.

The next three miles were amazing. I felt like I was running downhill, and I ran most of them with very few walk breaks. I was listening to really upbeat Australian folk music about dingos and emus, so I was pretty happy. Then I had to pee three times in thirty minutes, the caffeine wore off, and I was exhausted again. This is when it got bad.

At this point, I couldn’t even walk straight. I was zigzagging back and forth on my little rut of the trail, and I was I was resting on the gravel every two miles or so. Literally, that gravel was the most comfortable bed I could imagine. A woman on a bike pacing another runner passed me while I was on the ground – she somehow looked like an underwater octopus.

I got up after one rest, and behind me I saw a shadow. At first I thought I was hallucinating, but it was, in fact, another runner – he just wasn’t wearing his headlamp. He and I somehow fell into step together and made it to the next aid station.

From there, we only had 11 miles to go. We shambled back onto the trail.

I can’t begin to describe how hard the next 4 miles were. I was exhausted. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I’m sure I was sleep walking at some point. I had my first real hallucinatory experience; I saw 10-foot long shoes (they were trees), a two-story apartment complex (also trees), a huge covered bridge (still trees), a bunch of miniature footballs on the trail (leaves), a pile of white index cards that someone had drawn smiley faces on with red pen (leaves), and even the new iPhone 6, which wasn’t announced yet (leaves). The strangest part was seeing these things and knowing they weren’t real, but my body thinking they were. I gingerly stepped over the iPhone 6 so as not to crush it, even as I told my subconscious mind to make the vision go away.

I was also borderline hypothermic. I was wearing a long-sleeve jacket, but not a very heavy one. If we stopped for more than a few moments, I’d start shivering uncontrollably.

The last half-hour before the sun came up was the most miserable half-hour of running I have ever experienced. I am so, so thankful to have found this other runner; I know he was in just as bad of shape as I was, and I think we both felt better that we could look out for each other.

Physically, I wasn’t in any particular pain. My feet were fine, and my muscles and joints felt fine. I was just generally fatigued, and my body was confused that it still had to be awake.

When the sky finally lightened, my new running friend and I could not have been more thrilled.

I woke up immediately. My body felt like a new day had begun, and mentally, I felt awake and alert. Basic math skills returned somewhat (they’d literally been nonexistent earlier – we couldn’t do things like add 0.9 to 8.3. That was challenging).

We reached the final aid station at mile 96.5, and I was ready to take on those next 3.5 miles. My runner friend and I parted ways, and I took off.

I was thinking about just a few things over those last few miles:

  • How outrageously hard this race had been, and how I didn’t yet feel any sense of pride for having finished it, even though I knew at that point I would finish it. It had just been hard and miserable.
  • That Will was waiting for me at the finish line, and the faster I got there, the faster I could see him.
  • How fortunate I was to get to be immersed in nature on this adventure (and survive).
  • Bed and sleeping.

The same yellow glow from more than 24 hours ago was filling the farm valley. As I saw people beginning their Sunday morning, I thought about the fact that they’d had a whole cycle of life since the last time I’d passed through there – eating, drinking, seeing friends, sleeping, and waking up again – and I’d just been running the whole time.

The final turn back into the parking lot was surreal. It was simultaneously overwhelmingly emotional and also starkly apocalyptic. The 0.1 mile driveway to the finish line seemed long and empty. There was a car sharing the driveway with me, which was weird and anticlimactic after being on a trail for so long. Will was in our rental relaxing (he’d finished a few hours before me) – he waved out the window as I passed, then got out of the car to follow me to the finish line.

There were only about eight people at the finish line – all race coordinators who I didn’t know – and they seemed wholly separate from the experience I was going through as I crossed under the finishing arch. I was just happy to be done. They clapped and waved cowbells, but I didn’t really know them and they didn’t really know me, and it seemed sort of hollow.

I thanked them and smiled and turned around, limping back to Will, who hugged me. The race was over. I began shivering again as we walked back to the car.

Will and I at the finish line, just after I crossed it

Afterwards

It took me a couple of hours to write this, but it took a few days to really think and digest my thoughts about the race. I obviously struggled a lot during this race, and I’ll probably go back later and add more color about just how hard it was. I thought about dropping out basically nonstop, and, the weird part was, I didn’t think I’d even care that I hadn’t finished the race; I’d just be happy that the pain was over. I’d never felt that apathetic before.

But, you can only make the decision to drop out at aid stations, and somehow, whenever I was there, the thought didn’t even cross my mind.

62 people registered to run the 100-mile distance. 54 showed up at the start line. Only 37 finished (possibly less – that was the count when I arrived, and there were many people still on the course behind me).

I know I want to do another 100-mile race, and I know it may be as mentally challenging as this one. That scares me a little bit.

For now, I’m just enjoying relaxing and thinking about the shorter races I have coming up.

 

Pain is Temporary

Lisa running along California’s coastline. Photo credit: Chris Chabot.

We push ourselves to the edge of our ability so we can learn. We learn how strong our persistence is, and how far we’ll go before we’ll let adversity beat us.

It was midnight in the middle of a forest in Texas, hours from appreciable civilization. I had just run 80 miles and had another 20 to go. I hadn’t slept for over 20 hours, and was still far from finishing my first 100-mile race.

I could head back to my hotel, or I could finish this race, this ultramarathon, this exercise in endurance that was roughly the equivalent of four back-to-back marathons.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to quit.

Just weeks afterwards, I met my manager and his manager in a conference room. We were preparing a quarterly business review. In that meeting, the entire vision of the presentation was changing again.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to quit.

These are frustrating experiences, and they share a commonality: difficulty on the home stretch. When the end is in sight and so much has already been accomplished, yet the goal posts seem so far away, it’s natural to think about giving up.

Will I let another 20 miles beat me? Will I let spreadsheet Cell B24 beat me? What about knowing that, tomorrow, I’m going to have to rework this presentation again?

At mile 80, in the dark Texan forest, as the clock ticked past midnight, I considered my options. Just as the presentation wouldn’t write itself, neither would this race finish itself.

The answer was clear. I’d already decided to keep moving several times during the day. This was just another decision point, and, really, that meant there was no decision.

I got up and summoned the courage to stumble back onto the course.

Those last 20 miles took a very long time. I had to walk most of them; unbeknownst to me, blisters were blossoming on every toe. My wet shoes squished into the mud, and my headlamp almost ran out of batteries several times, leaving me alone with the dark trees.

Finishing that 100-mile race is one of the moments I am most proud of. It taught me that giving up is not the answer. Even though a task – a race, a presentation, or a mathematical model – may seem insurmountable in the moment, it’s usually not as bad as we might think.

That presentation I worked on with my manager and his manager was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in my professional career. However, I also learned more from working on that presentation than on any other I’ve put together. From messaging to slide layout to the creative process, my presentation skills improved dramatically after that difficult week.

We push ourselves to find our limits, and, ultimately, to exceed them.

As runners say: pain is temporary. Pride is forever.

_Prompt: Show us an activity you enjoy doing. Tell us how you think it contributes to your personal and professional development_

Confessions of an Injured Runner

This is not a stress fracture! Also, check out my dense and well-defined muscles.

“Let’s go schedule a followup. You okay to walk?”

“Yep. Let’s go.”

I stood up and walked out of the room. Blood quickly started draining out of my head. My vision looked like a poorly-focused vignette.

“Nope.  I need to sit down again. Hang on a minute.”

My name is Lisa, and I’m an injured athlete.

That exchange was about five weeks ago, in a doctor’s office at Stanford. The doctor had just told me he was about 80% certain I had a stress fracture. It was on the growth plate of my right tibia. I most likely wouldn’t be running for about three months.

“What can I do?”

“Swim.”

The next few days were disastrous.

I was immediately terrified that, without a regular exercise routine, I would promptly gain 40 pounds and never be an athlete again. Despite the irrationality of this thought process, it seemed like a very real outcome. To try and combat this perceived impending obesity, the first thing I did was sign up for a membership at 24 Hour Fitness, the only gym nearby with a pool open at all hours of the day. Within a week, I was swimming 2 miles a day. Within three weeks, I was up to 3 miles.

In my mind, I was no longer a runner. I wasn’t actively running, and it wasn’t clear when I next would, so that meant I wasn’t a runner.  I felt like I was lying to the world, posing as a runner when I clearly wasn’t one. I didn’t tell anyone about my injury. I was too embarrassed, and it was too painful to think about it, much less talk about it.

I stopped eating for about a week and dropped several pounds. Because, in my mind, I wasn’t an athlete, I didn’t know how to eat anymore; food no longer was categorized as fuel. It was an undefined quantity with no clear use to me.

The first few weeks were worse than any breakup I’ve ever been through. After a breakup, I could pound out a hard 10 miles to work off the emotional turbulence. Running has always been a way to burn of pent-up emotional confusion. This injury was the first problem I had encountered where it couldn’t be solved, or at least temporarily alleviated, by running.

Every time I felt pain, I imagined my bone splitting apart. It was nauseating.

A few weeks later, I went back for an MRI to confirm the diagnosis. I made sure to eat breakfast beforehand; I had convinced myself that the dizziness from the last visit was due to low blood sugar, not shock.

There was good news, and bad news.  The good news: it wasn’t a stress fracture. The bad news: it was tendinitis. Recovery time for tendinitis can be as short as 4-6 weeks. I was relieved, but it also didn’t immediately change anything I was doing. I still had to spend every morning confined within the walls of a windowless gym.

Sidenote: There’s no doubt in my mind regarding what caused this injury. I didn’t give myself enough time to recover after my 100-mile race. Consider that lesson learned.

Today, about five weeks after the first diagnosis, I ran 1.25 miles without pain. Today is the first day I’ve felt real optimism that I’ll run again.

Over the past few weeks, things have settled down a bit. I’m cycling almost every morning, and I’ve started lifting some weights. An exercise routine has been successfully established.

I’ll probably do some additional writing on different facets of this recovery process, mainly so others can read about some of the things I’ve learned. Having never done any research on injuries prior to this event, I’ve definitely learned a lot about injury prevention, recovery, and some specific health issues, like the female athlete triad.

Because of this process, my motivations and psychology around running and my approach to life have been torn apart, laid bare, and pieced back together. It’s been an eye-opening experience, made even more shocking because of the relative lack of severity of the injury.

Importantly, I’ve come to terms with this injury. Just because I’m not running today doesn’t mean I’m not a runner. I’m still a runner. I’m just taking a vacation.

Have you had a sports-related injury? How did you recover?

Race Report: Rocky Raccoon 100-miler

[originally posted at gametheoryninja.com]

As some of you know, I ran 100 miles this weekend.  Here’s the race report.  Also, I know it’s not related to game theory at all.

The race I ran was Rocky Raccoon, a five-lap race in Huntsville, Texas. You can see the results here. I finished in 24:58:28.  Only 43% of the 415 runners finished. (Does anyone have updated stats on this?)

Lap 1: It was a dark and stormy night …

About an hour before the race started, Dad and I were sitting in the rental car.  Rain was coming down in sheets. Per the normal clichés about storms, lightening zig-zagged through the sky and thunder echoed through the forest.  We don’t get storms like this in Northern California, and I hadn’t prepared for it.

I hacked some holes into a black plastic trash bag, and used duct tape to get the extra plastic away from my legs.  In my mind, the end result looked like a superhero combination of a Catwoman costume and a steampunk bustle. In reality, it probably looked like a house getting tented for termites.

The race started at 6am. Much of the first lap was in the dark.  It took less than a mile for me to trip over a tree root, a hazard the course is notorious for.  I was already bleeding, and we hadn’t even been running for ten minutes. Somehow, this early wipe-out didn’t dampen my spirits any more than the storm did.

Every two or three miles featured an enormous, impossible-to-avoid mud puddle. I was regularly up to my ankles in mud and water. My shoes were at least damp, if not drenched, for the entire race. This would prove to cause problems later.

I don’t remember much of the first lap. There was so much running left to do, and I didn’t want to think too much about what was to come.  I do remember, around mile 8, having a bit of a panic attack.  I still had 92 miles to run.  92 miles seems a lot longer than 100 miles.

Lap 2: The Man with the Sea Dragon Compression Socks

Every so often, in a race, runners will fall into step and pace off of each other. The two runners acknowledge each other and run in silent camaraderie. No words required.

For lap 2, and some of lap 3, I found such companionship with a man whose name I still don’t know. All I know about him was that he had running spandex and compression socks that looked like sea dragon scales, so that’s how I mentally referred to him.

Somewhere during lap 2, I also met a man named Bruce. He was wearing a blue shirt with cat paw-prints on it, so, being a cat person, I had to ask about it. I learned that Bruce was from Toronto, and told him I’d be visiting in July for World Futures 2012. Bruce had heard of WFS; he’s a CIO for a large school district near Toronto with 7k faculty and 54k students, so he’d been thinking about attending.

Best part: Bruce is in the middle of deploying Google Apps for Edu for his school district. [For those who don’t know, Google Apps is the part of Google I work for].  Bruce and I talked about everything from Gmail to Chromebooks to centrally-managed Android tablets. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I drilled him for about an hour on his opinions on our products.  He seemed happy to oblige my curiosity.

Lap 3: Lothlorien in Light and Shadow

About midway through this lap, I saw the sun for the first and last time during the race. It was a wan orb, low on the horizon, mostly obscured by emaciated tree trunks. Spindly shadows reached across the dirt path.

Seeing the sun made me unreasonably happy.

Around mile 52, I realized that it was going to get dark before I got to the turnaround and could pick up a headlamp.  I ran the last 8 miles of this lap very quickly to avoid getting caught in the dark.

Lap 4: Trust

This was the lap I had been looking forward to for the last 60 miles. My thought had been that if I could just get to this lap, I’d make it the rest of the way.  This is the lap when my pacer, Georgia, joined me.

The first two-thirds of this lap were great.  It was fantastic to have someone to talk to, and Georgia was an excellent pacer. Real friendship is carrying extra caffeine Gus and a jacket for your runner.

One of the fun parts of this lap was being able to share my newly-acquired, yet very intimate, knowledge of the course. Having been around the course three times times already, I could tell her where all the turnoffs were, where the tricky roots were, and the easiest way around mud puddles.  The aid stations were at 3.1 miles, 6.2 miles, 12.2 miles, and 15.6 miles. The hardest bit was the loop between 6.2 and 12.2, because that’s a full six miles without aid.  The far timing mat was a little less than 10 miles into the loop.

There’s one stretch of the course – less than a 10th of a mile – that’s right along the lake. It’s the only part of the course with an unobstructed view of the sky. On lap four, we had front-row seats to the stars.

That short stretch is also difficult, because just a few hundred yards away, across the lake, is the finish line.  You can hear the shouts and cheers of spectators urging their runners across the timing mat. It throws into sharp relief the fact that you’re just about halfway through the lap.

If I learned anything this time around it’s that, in long distance races, mood swings happen unpredictably and with no discernible cause. Miles 72 to 78 were very tough, and I’m not sure why. I had to sit down for a minute on a mound of dirt, where I spent two minutes contemplating the meaning of life with Georgia before finishing the lap.

At the impromptu rest point, I was about three-quarters done with the race. Sounds impressive, but not when that means I still had another full marathon until the finish.

Lap 5: Silence

Georgia and I finished lap 4 around midnight. I had been running for about 18 hours at that point. A sub-24 hour finish was still possible, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t very likely. I haven’t done a lot of research into this, but my intuition tells me that negative splits don’t often happen on 100-mile races.

After inhaling a chocolate donut and my first-ever mocha [which was delicious – thanks Dad!], I grabbed my iPod and took off for the last lap.

It was dark. Profoundly dark. And very, very quiet.

At this point, runners were either by themselves or running with a pacer. Everyone was spread out along the course.  Runners were exhausted, focused, and not interested in talking to othe rpeople.

All I could think about was the next step I was about to take.

When I talk about running, I often get asked about my music. Usually, I don’t listen to music. It’s distracting. When you’re this tired, any additional outside inputs or stimuli – even music – seem complicated, confusing, and overwhelming.

On this lap, I think I listened to about 45 minutes of music before I had to turn off the iPod.

The most frustrating part of this lap was that my muscles and joints felt fine, but I was unable to run. The constantly wet shoes finally taken their toll. Mud puddles had nurtured blisters on every single toe and the entire front pad of both of my feet. Each step was excruciating.

This lap reminded me of the Ave Maria sequence from Fantasia. Individual runners – little pools of light – painstakingly making a pilgrimage to the finish line. Not quickly, but inexorably, as if pulled by some external force.  And the sky is slowly turning grey.

The finish line.

There was no big celebration at the finish line. I walked across the timing pad, we took a picture, and that was that.

Epilogue: You Have My Sword, and my Bow, and My Axe

I finished the run in 24 hours and 58 minutes. I think that’s the longest I’ve been awake. I consumed more caffeine during that period than in the previous six months combined. There were highs, lows, and a lot of learning.

The hardest part of this race was not the roots, although that’s what the course is known for.  The hardest part was running in the dark. One of the reasons I like running is that it provides the opportunity to be fully immersed in nature. No technology, no distractions.  In the darkness, all you get is a tiny pool of light: just enough to see the path in front of you. There’s an entire forest, and all you get to see is some dirt and roots.  And a few headlamps twinkling in the distance. It’s hard to describe how frantic I felt at times, not being able to see anything around me.  Physically, 100 miles didn’t feel substantially different than 50. Mentally, the challenge was the darkness.

When I crewed for Mike at Badwater, he mentioned that picking a good crew is one of the most important components of a successful race. I didn’t think about it much at the time, and I didn’t understand why that would be the case until the end of the 4th lap of this race.  Going into the 5th lap, I felt like I was suffering from information overload, even though the number of ideas I had to hold in my head was very small. Case in point: I had to choose which jacket to wear on the final lap. Despite being a binary decision, this seemed like an insurmountable task, so I deferred to Georgia to help me decide. Decisions like that, so late in the race, can make or break a finish.

To sum up: I had a great crew. Dad and Georgia were incredibly supportive, upbeat, and helped me make good decisions.  Thanks so much, you guys. I could not have done it without you.

After finishing, I promptly pronounced I would never run another 100-mile race again.  Just over 24 hours later, I’m taking less of a hard line towards that assertion. While I have no immediate plans to run another 100, I could see doing it again, sometime in the distant future. Just to see how it compares to this one.