A marathon on the coldest, iciest continent – Antarctica

Late afternoon sunlight in Antarctica

I just got back from what can only be described as one of the most epic escapades I’ve been privileged to undertake – a two-week expedition to the loneliest place on earth, where myself and about 150 others explored, adventured, and, of course, ran a marathon.

If the title didn’t give it away, we went to Antarctica.

[Warning – probably a long and rambling post. It was an awesome trip, and the marathon was just a small part of it. It will be hard to do it justice.]

Backstory. I first heard about the Seven Continents Club when I ran the Inca Trail Marathon in 2012. The club is for those who are in the process of running, or have completed, a marathon on every continent. Obviously, the most logistically challenging continent to run a race on is Antarctica. In 2012, I also learned that there’s a 3-5 year wait list to get on a voyage down there, so I put down a small deposit – I figured I’d decide to take that journey if, and when, the time came. Putting down the Antartica Marathon deposit was choosing more of an option to participate rather than a firm commitment to this outrageous expedition.

Since then, I’ve run races on two other continents: Australia and and Africa. Antarctica makes six (although my Europe marathon was a solo, unsupported run, so I’ll probably have to go back and do that one again).

When I finally got off the wait list for Antarctica, the timing couldn’t have been better: it overlapped with my school’s spring break, and I’d get to train through Philly’s miserable winter (that last part turned out to be especially helpful during the race).

Before the race. Two weeks ago, four hundred of us met up in Buenos Aires with our Marathon Tours organizers. We divided into two ships: The Akademik Ioffe, which left one day early and whose runners would race on March 9th, and my ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, sister ship to the Ioffe, whose runners would race on March 10th. The results from the two days would be aggregated (important for later).

We had a few days in Buenos Aires – padding for those whose flights had been delayed – and a small group of us visited Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay for a day. That trip led to some shenanigans, such as a 20k training run in Uruguay which was actually only 1.5k. This silliness quickly solidified the friendship of this group of 9, and we affectionally named ourselves “The Colonials.”

The Colonial 9, atop the Uruguayan lighthouse

That day in Uruguay foreshadowed the depth of some of the friendships that would form over the course of the trip. Runners are a strange bunch, but there are some deep commonalities we have which makes it easy, and rewarding, to become fast friends with fellow running travelers.

The first two days were spent crossing the infamous Drake Passage. Many of us, myself included, spent significant time in our bunks attempting to avoid seasickness, with mixed success. We spent the time in-between getting to know each other, taking photos of the open ocean, and attending lectures on everything Antarctic, from penguins, to whales, to ice.

There was more than a little nervous energy onboard. Everyone was thinking about the race, and that manifested itself in a variety of ways. Most notably, we discussed every single aspect of the day-of race logistics ad nauseam. A couple of components were just unique enough that they made for interesting talking points. For example, we had to provide all of our own food and water during the race, and nothing could have a wrapper. Traditional food items, like Clif bars and Gus, were ruled out. Everyone had their own workaround, and we heard about all of them. I planned to use unwrapped Snickers bars shoved into a front pocket, operating under the assumption that they wouldn’t melt due to the frigid temperatures.

I was also not 100% convinced we’d even be running the race at all, so I was trying to avoid getting my hopes up too much. The entire lead up to the race was filled with weather warnings – inclement weather could cancel the race completely, and, in Antarctica, weather is not something you gamble with. I’d been reading the Ernest Shackleton story in my spare time, and, based on his harrowing 17-month survival experience stranded on the continent, I was more than convinced that the race should be called off in the case of poor weather. Nobody wants to get stuck ashore in Antarctica and forced to eat dog pemmican.

However, our first day ashore in Antartica – the day before the race – was amazing. We visited Half Moon Island, known for  its fur seals and chinstrap penguins. There’s also one, lone macaroni penguin – named Kenneth – who thinks he’s part of the chinstrap colony. The island itself was stunning – a little, white crescent surrounded by pounding, grey waves. It was our first taste of what Antarctic isolation is really about.

First shore day. The Vavilov is behind me

That day, the runners on the Ioffe were running their race. We learned that part of the course was drowned under about a foot of water due to melted snow, so they’d had to re-route, but they’d all made it safely back to the boat after running. That night, after our pre-race briefing, I removed myself from the rabble and anxiety – I didn’t want to discuss race-day nutrition for the 800th time – and went to bed early.

The race.

The official race map.

I woke up multiple times during the night. Just outside the porthole, massive snow flurries blinked in the dim deck lights. I kept trying to convince myself that it definitely wasn’t snow, but every time I woke up, it was definitely still snow, and it was piling up on the deck railings.

By the time we made our way to breakfast, it had stopped snowing, although the winds were holding steady at about 30 knots, with gusts to 35 knots. Even as we packed our dry-bags with warm clothes, filled up our water bottles, and donned our foul-weather gear for the boat ride over, I still wasn’t convinced they weren’t going to call it off due to weather.

We were aiming for a 9am start, which meant we had to start offloading 100 runners around 8am. Many of the Colonials were in a later boat – second or third-to-last. It seemed prudent not to wait in the cold for an hour.

The boats – called Zodiacs – were little rubber contraptions. During any expedition away from our ship, even if it was a very short trip to shore, each Zodiac carried ample extra fuel, enough food for all ~12 passengers for three days, and basic shelter supplies. We all wore lifejackets and waterproof foul-weather-gear at all times when on the Zodiacs. Again, no messing around down here.

On the boat ahead of us, a group of runners, including a family, were navigating the gangway down to a Zodiac. One woman was extremely terrified to step off of the ship and onto the gangway, which was shaking rather violently. She let her son and daughter escort her slowly down to the Zodiac, but the Zodiac was pitching and rolling on the choppy swells. I saw her reach a shaking hand out to cross from the gangway to the Zodiac, but she couldn’t take that step across onto the boat. She turned around and came back onboard the Vavilov. The Zodiac finished loading – without her – and took off for shore. (I found out later that she gave it another go, made it to shore, and finished the half marathon. The whole trip was full of inspirational stories like this).

Our trip over on the Zodiac took about 15 minutes, and the winds were fierce. We huddled together on the rubber seats, and I rubbed strategically-placed hand warmers to keep my fingers mobile. We all hoped that when we started moving, we’d warm up.

When we got to shore, we jumped out of the boat and into the freezing water, feet protected by rubber boots. We waded to shore and then up to the start line.

A couple of us at the start line

Even then, divesting of our foul-weather gear, we were still debating how many layers we should wear. I opted to trust my Philly training, and stripped down to just three layers: a long-sleeve shirt, a short-sleeve shirt, and a light jacket. I also had on running tights, a neck buff, a baseball-like hat to protect from any possible precipitation, a headband for ear warmth, and a warmer hat on top of that. I wore heavy ski gloves on my hands and tucked hand warmers into each one, and my normal trail shoes on my feet.

The start was anticlimactic (and I have never seen so many GoPros – mine included – recording it). Thom, our intrepid race director, counted us down from five, and we started trotting down the  muddy course.

The course would be a six-loop out-and-back course. Basically, we’d run 2.18 miles to a turn-around, then run back to the start, and do that six times. I tend to like loop courses, and I think this is because my powers of observation are pretty weak during a race – I’m discovering something new on every lap.

Just after the start

The first lap or two felt easy. The scenery was gorgeous at parts – the first mile or so was through the Russian and Chilean research bases, and after that we passed a glacial lake and ran right near the shore of the island, until we turned around at a Chinese research base. Despite how windy and overcast it was, it was very cool to be running past these towering mountains – in Antarctica!

I was powering up the hills and keeping pace with some runners that looked pretty fast to me. I didn’t think I had a chance of placing, but I do like to count how far back I am from the lead women … and after the first lap, there were only four women in front of me. My roommate, Erin, was in 3rd, and in 4th was another girl from Philly, named Taylor.

I was pretty sure I’d hit a wall at some point and fall back, so I didn’t think too much about it. However, at the end of lap 2, I was feeling pretty good – I’d been pacing off of another runner, and at the turn-around, he took a bit longer at the aid station than I did, so I kept going. The runner in 2nd had fallen back, which meant Erin was in 2nd now. Taylor, in 3rd, was just ahead of me … so I kept trotting along.

Even though I was keeping an eye on the competition, I, like most runners, was really just in it to finish. Because all of the runners knew each other by this point, the cheering throughout our short course was so enthusiastic and genuine. The course was only a few miles, so we saw our new friends frequently, and we all took the opportunity to encourage each other loudly, to the amusement of on-base researchers. They looked at us with what I like to imagine was admiration, but more likely confusion and worry for these crazy people who’d be out in these conditions.

Every so often, I would just appreciate how ludicrous the whole construct was – running a marathon on Antarctica is pretty crazy, when considered in the absolute. In my running career, it was also the race that I’d been thinking about for the longest – three years is a serious chunk of time, and this race was the culmination of that preparation.

Getting after it on the muddy trails.

Around lap 4, I was feeling a little fatigued, but Taylor was still just ahead, so I kept pushing. I passed her at one point, but then she passed me back, and I was pretty sure that was the end of things. It didn’t matter anyway – there was no way that, after combining our times with the other boat’s, the third-place person on our boat would also place overall.

However, I then passed her again, and with only 10k to go, I felt like I could maybe push it to the end and finish 3rd on my boat.

The next six miles were a slog. The hills were starting to feel steeper than before, and there were two short ones that I would walk for a quick recovery. The weather had also taken a turn for the worse, and it seemed like, no matter which direction we were heading, we were facing a stiff headwind. It had also started sleeting, and little particles of ice were now driving into any unexposed skin. I moved my buff up to cover my nose and mouth, but all that did was restrict my breathing, so I left it around my neck and faced the storm.

The last lap was rough. At the turnaround, with only 2 miles to go, I had my GoPro running. I crouched down to show off my favorite race sign – it said “Penguin Crossing” – and saw my Philly compatriot right behind me. I kicked it into gear and didn’t look back.

I felt like I was flying through the last two miles, although I’m sure it looked more like a limping slog than an Olympic sprint.

 

Running through the research bases.

The last 0.2 miles were up a shallow hill. I saw the 26-mile marker, and for some reason, turned around – I think I didn’t want to get passed at the last second. Taylor was right behind me! I turned back and sprinted to the finish line. She came in just a few seconds after me.

We high-fived and hugged it out, taking a finish-line photo (with Erin, who had finished 2nd and about 20 minutes ahead of Taylor and I. The first-place woman had already gotten back on a Zodiac and was headed for a hot shower). Taylor and I agreed that there was no way we’d be in contention for an overall podium spot, but we appreciated the competition.

After the finish

Volunteers bundled us into our foul-weather gear and back onto a Zodiac before we knew what was happening. My fingers, warm throughout the race, immediately became numb when I started handling zippers and velcro, and the Zodiac ride was pretty rough as a result.

After the race. That night, we learned that our boat had dominated the rankings. The men on Vavilov swept the top three spots, and the woman had grabbed the top two … and maybe the third! For the next twelve hours, I was constantly checking to see if they’d posted the results … and found out that a girl on the other boat beat me by two minutes. Very disappointing. I like to think that they had easier weather – it was very sunny! – but I know she also ran a great race.

The next several days were a combination of calm appreciation of our success and evening parties of wild, reckless abandon. Days ashore were happier and more relaxed. A few highlights:

  • A double-rainbow over icebergs.

What does it mean?

 

  • Quiet kayaking on reflective water (after a messy capsize due to inclement weather the day before).

I’m in that kayak on the right.

  • Whale watching – literally 20 feet from our boat – in the calm waters of Wilhelmina Bay on the last day.

Whale tail – so close to our Zodiac!

Whale next to a Zodiac

So peaceful and serene.

Epilogue. The whole experience was amazing. I focused here on the race because this is a blog about running, although, as mentioned, the race just became one part of a much broader, more epic adventure, which really deserves its own blog. Just like summer camp, we made memories and forged friendships that we’ll remember for a lifetime.

Antarctica is a pristine, unspoiled place. It is stark and isolated, and unlike anywhere else on earth. I am grateful that humanity was only able to reach it after developing an appreciation for preserving natural beauty – the continent is governed by a multinational research treaty – although I fear for the day that the lucrativeness of mineral rights overshadows this agreement.

The staff concluded our voyage with this quote:

Out here is where the magic happens, here in the quiet hills.
Here is where you have cried out with moans as deep as the earth.
Here is where you have found your long lost self that the madness took away.
So when you get back to those who talk loud in small rooms,
Remember that you have been to a place too beautiful for words.

-Anonymous

Here’s to the adventurers.

My favorite photo I took on this trip. Hi penguin!


Flap flap flap.

Want more Antarctica marathon?

Austin Marathon / Valentine’s Day Race

Will and I ran Austin Marathon a few days ago. We’d signed up pretty soon after last year’s race – there was a two-person division that summed the times of two athletes (who didn’t have to run together), then compared the lowest combined times across pairs. We thought we could be pretty competitive in that category, but a few weeks after registering, learned they wouldn’t have that category this year. We figured we’d head down to Austin anyway and run it, because we’d already paid for it and what’s *another* race in Texas?

The race was pretty hilly, and it was pretty humid outside. I also hadn’t run much since my last race, so I was undertrained. Will was getting sick from traveling and knew he was in no shape to PR or push it. Basically, we were in pretty weak form. Will decided to hang back with me, and we ran the whole race together at a pretty leisurely pace.

The race supporters had some great signs this time around:

  • “John Stewart wouldn’t quit here! Oh wait …”
  • “Brian Williams says he’s running with you – make it memorable for him!”
  • “This is no time for Walken,” featuring a photo of … Christopher Walken.
  • A guy wearing a giraffe head, holding a sign that said, “Stick your neck out.”

Not a bad race.

Heading towards the finish

 

Hardware at the finish line

 

Time for food!

BCS Marathon – a trip to Texas with friends

Late update – went to Texas last week with some Wharton friends for a race down there. We all thought it would be a fast course, but early hills and late wind changed our plans! Fun trip nevertheless, and here are some photos.

Wharton crew in the pre-race dark

Taking off pretty strong! Sorry for the watermark.

This was my first time running any substantial portion of the race with a pace group. The pacer himself was hilarious. “This is my first race pacing a pace group, and in the pre-race meeting this morning they told us we should point out historic landmarks. But I’m not from around here, so I’m just going to make things up.”

Later, he pointed out a great donut shop that wrapped their donuts in bacon. I’m still not sure if this place actually exists.

He took off  early with some super fast miles, so most of the group dropped back at some point. I kept with him until mile 16, then fell back around mile 17 – the last 9 miles were pretty brutal.

4:03 finish. Not bad for having run a 50k a week before!

The crew, post-race and looking classy.

The best part of this race was getting to travel to it and run it with friends. My kind of weekend!

One more race this year … stay tuned!

Lessons I’ve learned from running 10,000 miles

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During my first ultra in Lake Tahoe

Today, I ran my 10,000th lifetime mile. That’s a pretty crazy milestone, especially for someone who still doesn’t really consider themselves an athlete. It’s also an opportunity for reflection, so here goes. [Also, for those curious, my training log is still available here]

I started running when I got to college in 2006. This was after three years of fulfilling my high school athletics requirement with yoga and tech theatre which, yes, somehow counted as a sport. I was inspired to run by a friend who ran the 135-mile beast called Badwater. Despite no prior running experience or athletic abilities to speak of, I crewed for him during this race, and realized that if he could do five back-to-back marathons in 120+*F heat, I could probably do six miles a day. Also, I thought by burning more calories, I could eat more ice cream [protip: not true].

I had zero confidence in my athletic abilities. In middle school, I played defense when we played soccer – but not goalie, because I didn’t want the responsibility of actually defending the goal. I was the second-to-last person to finish the mile run fitness test – the one girl behind me had a medical condition and walked the mile. As a result, when I started running, for a long time I didn’t talk about running at all. I didn’t read about running. I definitely didn’t think too hard about running or the reasons I ran. I didn’t run with other people, and wasn’t even comfortable doing so until about five years later. Mainly, I was afraid of doing anything that might derail my newfound interest in anything athletic. I was afraid if I overthought it, I’d uncover all the reasons to not to do it.

I started tracking my mileage in the middle of 2008, which was also the time when I ran my first marathon. It wasn’t an official marathon – in fact, it was just me, running around near a river for 26.2 miles with a bottle of water and some Gu gels. I didn’t realize solo-marathoning was a big deal – probably because I still hadn’t read anything about running. It just seemed like the next logical step in my training. A year later, I ran my first ultra in Lake Tahoe; with no altitude training, I came in 2nd to last. Two weeks after my first ultra, I ran my 2nd ultra – again, I didn’t know about recovery because I still hadn’t done any research about running. After another 50k a few months later, I finally ran my first real road marathon – San Francisco – in 2010. It was all downhill from there [but sometimes uphill. Lots of uphill].

I’ve now run 47 marathon-or-longer distances and covered a lot of training miles in between. I’ve also learned a lot. In classic consultant style, here are three lessons that stuck with me.

  1. A good run doesn’t make you a good runner. A bad run doesn’t make you a bad runner, either. While the academic definition of a “good” runner is one who runs really fast, the majority of us probably won’t be breaking any records any time soon. That means that we have to come up with our own definitions of success. For me, success is consistency – consistently getting out there, even when I don’t really want to, or it’s raining, or I’m tired. To me, a good runner is a consistent runner – one who runs when they say they will, and doesn’t create excuses in order to skip days. One good run doesn’t make you a good runner if you never run again; it just means you had one good run. A “bad” run doesn’t make you a bad runner, either – it’s just an opportunity to get out there the next day and try again. The key is just doing it.
  2. There are a lot of different types of runners; celebrate and learn from them. There are short-distance runners and long-distance runners. There are people who run once a week and athletes who train 10-15x/week. There are people who run one marathon – ever – and elite athletes who race 10+ marathons a year. There are people who love treadmills, and there are people who hate them. Some runners love Gu; some runners are vegan. Some runners like running naked – of electronics, while some like running actually naked. Some just keep their feet naked. My feeling is, if whatever you’re doing is working for you, keep doing it, and don’t judge those who do it differently.
  3. I am a runner. I’m a lot of other things, too. Probably one of the most difficult times in my life was a year and a half ago, when I had a knee injury. I don’t know that I’ve ever fully written about it on this blog, because it was a really difficult time for me [I did write about an earlier injury]. Running had been so core to my life, and my self-identity, for the past several years. When I went running on Sunday mornings, I called it “runner’s church,” because it was my way of getting in touch with myself and my environment. I even had my own Runner Heaven. Being injured – the prospect of never fully recovering, and never being able to run any appreciable distance again – really made me question how I defined myself and what was important to me. Importantly, it made me realize that while I am a runner, I’m a lot of other things too – a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a photographer, a sailor, a student, a sometimes-dancer, a wannabe chef, a reader, a behavioral scientist, a TA, am ailurophile – the list goes on. Running may be core to my identity, but, especially when I’m injured, I have to remember that there’s so much more to runners than just the act of running.

I may never add a 6th digit to my lifetime mileage. To reach 100,000 miles, I’d have to keep running 2,000 miles a year … until I’m 70. Or run this 3,100-mile race every year for 30 years. Or run the 1,000-mile Iditarod race three times a year for the next 30 years. That’s a lot of running.

If I’ve learned anything over the last 10,000 miles, it’s that there will always be faster runners. There will always be runners who run farther. There will always be runners who are just a little bit more extreme. But running isn’t about that. Running is about the personal satisfaction we get – from achieving our goals, being out in nature, and just giving ourselves some time to explore.

Marathon #47 – Philly Marathon (for a second time!)

On Sunday, I ran the Philadelphia Marathon for the second time. It was awesome to see lots of my Wharton running friends on the course and on the sidelines. Even in a crowd of 30,000+ runners, it really felt like there was a community of runners there and I was a part of it.

There isn’t too much to report on this one – it was a pretty straightforward race, and logistically super easy (the start line is about a mile and a half from my house). The course is fun because we run through the closed streets of Philly, which means a lot more when you live in a city, I’ve found.

I finished in ~3:53, which doesn’t suck, but my first half was a 1:48 … so I probably could have paced myself better!

Here are some photos from the race.

Dat quad muscle! This is from somewhere on the course

 

Lol that guy on his phone behind me. There were a weirdly high number of people just chatting it up on their cell phones this race …?! Is this a new thing?

Crossing the finish line. I started 8-9 minutes after the gun (which is what the timer is based on)

Just after finishing

Me and Will! He finished in 2:52:xx … so, pretty fast (and a NY qualifying time, according to the new standards!)

That’s all for now! Got a couple of fun races coming up in the next few weeks … so look forward to those. =)

Cool Articles I’ve read recently

Here are some neat articles I’ve read about running recently. They’ve stuck with me for various reasons and have made me think – hopefully you’ll like them, too!

I know it’s been quiet around here … I’ve been doing some solo marathons, so nothing major to report. I’ve got about four more – pretty cool – races coming up before the end of the year, so stay tuned!

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.