“Uh, guys? Yeah, I think I, uh, went out a little too fast.”
After spending the previous 3 weeks in Berkeley, CA at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab doing something that I’m still unsure of, it was finally time to go to Wisconsin, see all my buddies and run my first 100 miler. I landed in Chicago on Thursday evening and was picked up by Mike Regula, a buddy in my program at Penn State. We drove up to Beloit, where I was staying with some buddies. Since it’s rather uneventful, I will quickly get to the race.
We camped the night before (Friday, June 5) at a campsite close to the start. After we checked in at the campground and set up our tents (which went up with surprising ease – I assume that’s what happens when you have 2 engineers in the group), we went to the guest house that the majority of the other Beloit runners for the weekend were staying. It was great seeing everybody who I hadn’t seen either since Kettle last year or when I visited Beloit in mid-October. Pretty much the same crew comes back every year, although it’s grown since I started coming annually after my freshman year. One of my buddies is doing a web series about ultrarunning, so he wanted to interview the people who were doing the longer distances (100m and 100k) during the weekend, so I went off with him and talked about the reasons why I run and what I was expecting for the weekend (more on these “expectations” later – hint: I wanted to win). Dinner was served shortly after, of course as a meal of pasta, salad and rolls, and we ate, tossed the Frisbee and (tried to) relax before the huge day that was happening in less than 12 hours. At about 9pm or so, the camping group bid adieu and left for the 20 minute or so drive back to the campsite where we pretty quickly got ready for bed and slept. I ended up sleeping better before this race than before any other big race that I’ve done recently. I woke up only a couple times and, even better, without having any stress dreams. Before my marathon and the 100k last year, I was plagued by stress dreams in which I was running the night before and would wake up out of breath. Luckily, that did not happen this year. I had a completely dreamless sleep, and only woke up a few times. When my alarm went off at 4am sharp, it actually woke me up, something that never happens on race day. I quickly woke up everyone else in the campsite (some were less than pleased to be up and going at 4am). As I quickly tried to chow down my peanut butter in tortilla burritos (good for the digestive system before running), the others took down the tents and started packing up the campsite. After a brief moment of thinking I dropped my keys somewhere in the dark, I found them, and we began driving the 20 or so minutes to the start at 4:50, a full 10 minutes earlier than I expected. I’m not going to lie, I had my severe doubts about Beloiters being able to get to places on time.
We got to the start with the car blaring my running pump up mix as I hopped out and started to drink my pre-race Red Bull and Gatorade. I gathered all my stuff and gave my crew (Josh “Smithers” Smith, Adam Beardsley, Joe “JD” Peacock and “Iron” Mike Regula) last minute instructions. We meandered to the starting area where I took care of business, grabbed my ankle tracker and began the arduous, 30 minute wait for the race to start; this pre-race purgatory/holdover/torture time is always the hardest. Other Beloiters came in, and with about 5 minutes to go, we finally got a group picture of all of us. And just like that, I walked to the start line and we were off. It didn’t really seem real that I was finally running something that I had looked forward to running for the last 365 days.
The start of these races is always chaotic. While not particularly fast, there are a bunch of people jockeying for position and trying to find running partners for the next 24 hours. After scrambling around, jumping over some unfortunate soul who tripped before she even started, and missing one hundred percent of every picture that was taken at the start, I found my running buddy/coach/mentor/everything in between Paul Dionne. After quickly realizing that the pact was too slow, he immediately sped up to run with my old track coach in college, David “Eck” Eckburg and Turner Smith, a former teammate and fraternity brother. We ran together through the ups and downs of the out-of-season cross country skiing trails, and before we knew it, we came to the first aid station, “Bluff,” at 7.5 miles, still going way too fast. Knowing that I didn’t need much, I grabbed a couple handfuls of Mike n Ike’s (a personal favorite during ultras) and was off before anyone could see me. My crew was still eating breakfast at a local diner, so I didn’t really need to check in with anybody. I started the next climb before my running partners knew where I went. I was quickly joined back up by Paul, Turner and Eck, along with a rather older gentleman whose name is lost in the abyss of my mind. We hit some of the larger climbs on the course together, and I, after spending the last year training in the hilly region of middle Pennsylvania, quickly distanced myself from the others, only to be caught on the downhills. I was still feeling terrific, and although I knew I was going too fast, it was too addicting to slow myself down. I kept pace with them through the next seven miles as we joked about everything, the majority of which should never be written down. Coming into the second aid station, “Emma Carlin,” I knew that I would continue to go way too fast if I stayed with Paul, so I took this opportune moment to let the pre-race caffeine do its work and relieve my digestive system as I shouted out instructions to my crew through the bathroom walls to let Paul go ahead of me. “Get me my skin lube, a Clif Bar, Gatorade, and some fruity candy” was probably a strange thing to be heard coming out of the walls of the campground bathroom at 9am. I finished, took a hefty serving of hand sanitizer, grabbed my requested accouterments, and set off into “the Meadows,” the most debilitating part of the course. It was at this point, 15% done with the race, that I felt the first twinge of soreness in my quads and new that it was going to be a long day/night. I decided that I was going to fight through it as long as possible, but knowing that you’re going to run for 85 miles with sore legs is a difficult thing to get over mentally. I didn’t tell my crew that I was hurting which made it even more of a difficult internal struggle.
“The Meadows” is a ten miles section of very flat, open trails on the lowest part of the course that weaves its way through a swamp in the middle of the state forest. At this point in the day, it’s not too bad, but when we come back through it in the afternoon, it becomes hot, humid, and soul-crushing. One of the tough parts of it is actually the fact that it’s so flat. There are no hills to mentally or physically break up the monotony of taking the same steps over and over again. It becomes very easy to get ahead of yourself and start picking up the pace too much. And that is pretty much exactly what happened to me. Even as the eventual winners started to pass me, I felt like I was still pushing the pace too much. It was at this point, in between mile 15 and 20, which I realized my legs were already starting to hurt and I was going to be in for a long day. Despite this depressing thought that I was not even one quarter of the way done, I managed to continue to push on. The flatness and lack of steady running partner was crushing me mentally, but I still kept it going. Once I began to hear cars, I knew that I was within 5 minutes of the next aid station, “Highway 67,” and my spirits lifted greatly, as they always do just before and just after aid stations. I began to hear people talking, and I made the “boo-whoop” sound that my college track team can recognize from a mile away. As soon as I made that sound, I heard cheering, and couldn’t wait to see them. I came into the aid station pessimistic about the rest of the race, but still able to muster a good smile. I grabbed some pickles, Gatorade, a banana, some watermelon and probably some other random food that I can’t remember at this point. The next aid station was in a couple miles, so I told me crew that I didn’t want to see them, but I knew I was beginning to reach a dark place, so I told Camilla Jackson, a great friend that I’ve had since freshman year who was running a relay that day, that I would “appreciate it if she could come.” She nodded and gave me the “I know that you know that you’re struggling right now” look that I’ve come to know and love.
I set off in the woods for the next 3 miles to the “Highway ZZ” aid station. I was actually able to feel pretty good through this section knowing that it was decently short. Nothing of note happened here, and I think I was able to pick up my pace a little bit. Having some gentle hills was a nice break from the monotony of the Meadows, and I came into the aid station feeling decently happy, although still with pain in my legs that was slowly growing with every step. This was not good. When I got into the aid station, Camilla was (of course) there. I took some Mountain Dew (I wanted the caffeine) and some watermelon as I grabbed her hand and squeezed probably too hard for her own comfort. She knew that I wasn’t doing too hot at this point. She gave me some on point words of encouragement, and told me that I was pretty close to getting to the 50k turnaround point. I left the aid station feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and excited to be able to turn around and come back the way I came. (The course is set up like a ‘Y,’ and at this point, I was approaching the top right section of the ‘Y’).
The last 5 miles before the turnaround actually went pretty smoothly. Outside of some, shall we say, intestinal stress that had to be taken care of at about mile 29, miles 26 through 31 were some of the smoothest on the course. I still wasn’t at the point where I was walking all of the uphills, and I was still moving pretty quickly on the flats. As this was the section that I crashed at last year, I was very happy to come upon the 50k turnaround much quicker and easier than I thought. I got in to the aid station, make sure that there were no lingering problems from my trail-side pit stop at mile 29, grabbed some food and Gatorade, turned around and was on my way. Now that I was running back the way I had just come, I felt pretty good knowing that I had dominated these trails not even an hour before. Although my legs were still hurting (as they had been for the last 15 miles at this point), my mind was still sharp, and I had yet to hit that point of despair that I was riding at this point last year during the 100k. It did give me much cause for concern, however, that my legs were continually getting worse, despite the fact that I was still hitting approximately the same mile splits. I was still going up and the down the hills well without anybody passing me, which was a great feeling. I got into the aid station at mile 36 feeling much better than I did when I was there two hours before. I quickly grabbed some soda, Mike n Ikes, watermelons and left. It was only two and a half miles until the next aid station, and I felt like I was flying downhill the entire time (although something was messed up with the splits online and it looks like I was going slower). I got into this aid station (about 39 miles) feeling really solid and ready to hit the next 9 miles, which are almost all open marshland with the early afternoon sun just draining the energy and hope of all the runners. My crew took care of my at this aid station, made sure that I was looking good, and then sent me on my way into “The Meadows.” I started this section pretty alone, and suddenly pessimistic about it. There are no hills to be able to break up my running to walk up, and I was ready for the sun to just start beating down on me and drain all of my energy. However, within the first 15 minutes of the Meadows, I realized that I was neither hot nor was it particularly sunny, and this gave me a sort of pep in my step that I didn’t think was going to be with me this late in race, especially when my legs had been hurting for the last 30 miles. (It seems so weird a this point to talk about my legs hurting for longer than a marathon.) And even better news, I came up behind another runner taking care of his business on the side of the trail, so I was able to start running with him. We were hitting a pretty good pace for about five miles, and despite my increasing pain, I was able to stay mentally strong and keep up with him. However, we got to a water stop, and I had to let him go ahead so I could take more time. It was at this point that I started to feel my pace begin to slow. The last 2.5 miles through the end of this section to the aid station at mile 47 involved much of me just struggling to finish. Getting into the Emma Carlin aid station again gave me a bit of a boost, and after some fruit, nuts, and Gatorade, I took off with a bit of a pep in my step. This lasted all of half a mile before I started struggling. Probably one of the most depressing parts of the race came at the unmanned aid station “Horseriders” at mile 50.4. Knowing that I was just barely half of the way done and that I had a longer time left on the course than I had been running crushed me mentally. I knew that I was going to have to suck it up to make it the next 5 miles to the aid station at Bluff, so I told my legs to stop whining and tried to run as much as I could back to Bluff.
I was able to pretty successfully lie to my crew about how well I was doing up through this point in the race, but at Bluff, they knew that I was falling off the bus. After putting as much gummy candy I could in my mouth, hands and running vest, I sauntered off for the last 7.5 miles before I could pick up JD as my pacer. While this section seemed flat when I was running the first few miles out on it, it was anything but flat this time. The numerous ups and downs just crushed my knees, and even though the total elevation change was not all that great, the number of changes killed my joints and my spirit. I was able to jog my way into the start/finish aid station at Nordic, but I knew that the last 37 miles would be tough. I sat down, switched socks, got some Red Bull and was ready to go. The race directors do this thing where they yell “100 miler going out!” when people doing the whole hundred leave the start/finish area. That gave me a nice boost leaving and a HUGE smile on my face. Although I did have some other thoughts creeping into my head…
I picked up JD to pace me at mile 63 and we took off at a decent pace. And then, after a first 12 minute mile, we stopped moving at a decent pace. I started walking in hopes that I could recover whatever strength my muscles had left, but there was just no recovery, and on top of that, my knees and my joints were in some serious pain going up and down all the hills. At mile 67, I considered for the first time what dropping out would feel like, but I knew that I would not be able to live with myself for dropping out of my first 100 miler, especially after working so hard for it. So I sucked it up, made it to the mile 71 Bluff aid station, took some Advil, switched from my hydration vest to a hydration belt, and went on my merry way. About 20 minutes out of the aid station, the Advil started kicking in, so JD and I were able to kind of rumble down hills and flats while still maintaining a good pace walk through the uphills. We were actually able to carry this pace all the way through the mile 82 aid station turnaround without much ado. Granted, I was still hurt and my legs still felt heavy, but we were able to push our way through it. Coming into the mile 82 Rice Lake turnaround, I knew I was in for some more hurt. I switched out my pacer JD for Smithers, who would take me to the Promised Land. I took some Advil with the plan to take Red Bull at mile 86. This time however, when I started off, the Advil did not help. The hills continued to crush my knees and there was no point that I felt better. Everything hurt, and everything felt tired. The only reason I was moving forward was to reach the finish and get off my feet. It was all about moving forward. I HAD to get done. At this point, the only keeping me moving at any sort of decent clip was the thought of being able to not be on my feet. After some discrepancies with asking passing runners about how far it was to the next aid station (“a few miles,” “just up ahead,” “twenty minutes,” and “no idea dude” were the answers we got), we finally got to Bluff aid station at mile 93, the last time I would see my crew before I would finish. I was 7.6 miles from the finish and just wanted to get there and be done with it. I got some Gatorade, ate about five super deep fried hashbrowns and started off to the finish. I really wanted to run this section, but that was just not going to happen. My legs could not move. Even when I tried to latch on to two people that were passing me, I could not change my pace to go with them. It was getting into the danger zone. And then about 4 miles out, the rolling hills started, again tearing my knees and joints apart. As I went down each of them, I yelled, only to walk up another, to go down again. It was one of the most painful things in my life. A Beloiter on a relay team passed me with about 3.5 miles left, and I told her to send Eck, my undergrad track coach, out to help me come in, since we could now have 5 pacers from here to the finish. Before he was able to get out to me, I sat down on a bench at about mile 98 and did not think I was going to be able to move again. This point was honestly the closest I felt to dropping out. I could barely think about moving my legs as I fell onto the bench. I did not think I could get up again. After about 15 seconds, I moved one foot, and then the other, and then got up and started moving. I saw Matt McKay, one of my roommates from junior year less than five minutes later, as he had come out to make sure that I hadn’t died. It was like a jolt of energy went into my muscles. I started thinking about what it would be like to run again. I saw Eck shortly after and I knew I was about a mile from the finish. With about three quarters of a mile to go, I saw about 5 people ahead of me, and I was gaining on them. Knowing that I needed a kick-ass finishing picture without any other runners in it, it was up to me to either slow my pace so I would finish behind them or pick up my pace to finish well in front of them. I’ll let you figure out what I decided. As I started running, it felt like cobwebs were being shook from my joints and muscles. I was able to start running as hard as I could, passing all of these people with a huge smile on my face. I made the last little downhill turn and saw the finish line. As I heard all the Beloiters cheering, I gave it one last kick, and crossed the finish line at 23:01:58.
As I collapsed at the finish line, getting choked up and smiling at the same time, somebody took off my ankle timing bracelet and handed me my finisher “kettle,” a small, actually usable copper kettle. I felt somebody press the bubble-wrapped kettle to my head, and, with my eyes still closed, I gathered the kettle close to my chest and kind of spooned with it. I could not believe that I was done. It felt so good just to know that I did not have to run anymore or move forward anymore. After having some Gatorade and a piece of pizza (with olives! Why would you give pizza with olives!? The only thing worse would be anchovies) with chili, I got in the car and Mike drove back to the house that a bunch of Beloiters were staying, took a shower, and finally fell asleep.
Looking back on this 100 miler, I don’t feel the sense of accomplishment that I had anticipated feeling. I finished 5 hours longer than my pre-race arbitrary time and in 35th place out of 276 starters, so it was neither the place nor the time I was going for. While I am so proud that I was able to finish all 100 miles, I think that there is a bit of disappointment in the finish. It was disappointing to have to change my expectations mid-race from “racing” to “finishing,” especially since all of my races from the last year were all about competing. All this makes me want to do is run it again next year and continue to get better and keep racing. Which is what I plan to do.