Rocky Raccoon is casually touted as one of the ‘easier’ 100 mile races in the country. The lack of overall elevation (5.6K over 100 miles) makes it more manageable for the non-mountain-goat ultra runners like myself. It’s a race that is extremely well-supported with crew and frequent aid stations. But it does possess a hell of a lot of hidden roots, temperature swing (72 to 36 last weekend) and 13+ hours of darkness. This year’s finishing rate (57%) was an all-time low. So, sure it’s no Leadville or WS or Cactus Rose ...but for a ‘beginner friendly’ course, it sure isn’t easy!
The race is consisted of one 20-mile loop you had to run 5 times. 30 hours to complete. Saturday 6am to Sunday 12pm. It is an all-trail run through Huntsville State Park.
We came to Texas on Thursday Jan 30. Me, Holly, Amy and Dave. My coach, Jason, would take a later flight over. Dave, Jason, Holly and Amy are all Ironman triathletes. They are all triathlon coaches. They are all good friends of mine. Jason and I have worked together before, and he has been coaching me since September. He was the mind behind the training plan that got me through many months of running without injury or losing my mind. Dave is an army vet with decades of experience moving through the dark. He’s also a teacher. Amy is currently training for her first ultramarathon (Leona Divide 50K on April 26). She's a mother and works on things that travel through space to Mars and Jupiter (how cool!). Holly just finished up her own ultra-like event at the Goofy Challenge in January. She, more than anyone, knows what it took for me to get to this start line. They are first-rate athletes and friends. Kind, giving and full of determination. And they are all people that I knew I could shamelessly crumble in front of, if things got tough. Which they did. And I did.
We spent Friday doing some gear shopping, grabbing my packet and visiting various restaurant chains around Huntsville, TX. Dave, Jason and I went for a 30min trail workout along the first 1.5 miles of the race in the morning, and surveyed the immense amounts of roots along the course. We noted how hidden they could be among the leaves, and that I'd really have to watch my footing. After the race briefing, we all had a simple dinner at Chili’s and called it an evening around 10pm.
Saturday morning, Jason and I set our alarms for 3:45am in order to get into the park and snag a good parking space. I ate three waffles with peanut butter and had 2 cups of coffee – the last caffeine I’d allow myself to have until darkness fell at 6pm Saturday night. This was a strategic choice, hoping that introducing caffeine after many hours of running without it would help me stay awake and alert through the night. I’d done some night running, but never completely from sundown to sun up, so any little boost that could help me through was welcome.
We arrived with a little over an hour to start. We stayed in the car and relaxed, listening to music and reclining back. It was at this point that I released all my fear about the race, about finishing, and about the pain I knew I’d go through. I signed up for this race because I had become complacent with my training – nothing scared me. This challenge scared me. It scared me into completing every single workout for six months. It raked me across exhaustion and scraped up my soul. It pushed me to be more committed and focused than I thought I could ever be.
And here I was – at the end goal of my training: the starting line. I took a sharpie and wrote two things on my arm:
Believe – on my left forearm
The Fighter Still Remains – on the top of my left hand
With about 20 minutes until the start, we headed to the tent. No corrals in ultra running. 500 or so runners packed in. Darkness broken by generator-powered camping lights. Lots of chatter and milling. It was close to 60 degrees and humidity was noticeable. Throughout the day the temps would climb into the 70’s with almost 80% humidity. The downfall of many racers, as my crew would see.
We didn’t notice a gunshot or any other flag to start the race. At 6:00am, people just started moving. I gave Jason a hug and a wave and I off I went.
Loop 1 (Miles 0 – 20)
We were a giant pack of runners, and snaked down a narrow path into the dark. There were so many people that I didn’t need to turn on my own head lights (clipped to my visor), I mooched off of other runners' lights. The first two miles were basically a walk. I took note of the roots as we rolled up and down the small dirt inclines. They were roots EVERYWHERE. I rolled my ankle very early, though very lightly and it stressed me for a moment. But the pain went away quickly. I kicked a few roots, along with everyone else. We were all just trying to watch our steps.
It was 3.1 miles to the first aid station, Nature Center. I knew Jason would be waiting there for me. It was still dark when I arrived. He checked that I’d been drinking enough and reminded me to keep on my plan – the humidity was going to be something to deal with. I think I grabbed a quarter of a PBJ sandwich and headed out.
From this point on and for the next 27 hours, almost without fail, I would eat something every 20-30 minutes. PBJ, goldfish, PB crackers, potatoes, Ramen, chocolate, ginger, pureed fruit, espresso chips, coffee or soda. I’d drink 1 bottle of Osmo Nutrition (electrolyte drink) every 10 miles, and another 3-4 bottles during the rest of the loop. I’d trained by using Osmo and water for hydration and eating “real food” (no gels, Gatorade, CarboPro, sports bars) for the past six months and it worked really well. I never had any gastric distress or sour stomach. No projectile nothing! In fact, my nutrition and hydration plan – pushed on me by my crew in the later hours – was the key to my finishing. I stayed coherent the entire race because of it.
The dawn broke before I made it the next 3.1 miles to the second aid station, Damnation. The trail between Nature and Damn was also rolling and rooted. There were very few truly fast, flat seconds to run along. The only relief from all of the roots was about 15 mini-bridge crossings (wooded bridges over mud and creeks). So onward I plodded at a steady pace, maintaining an 8-1 interval and walking some of the more pronounced climbs.
At mile 5, just before the station, I tweaked my left ankle on a root. My achilles – the one that had plagued me this summer but had seemingly healed - became cranky quickly. And a very dreaded thought crossed my mind – I have to feel this for the next 95 miles. Oh shit.
Ah, the first low moment of the day, only 5 miles in! I made two mental mistakes in that moment: I assumed that the pain will last forever, and I thought about the entire race. This caused frustration (what am I doing here?!) and fear (I cannot tolerate this, I’m not strong enough).
A week prior to the race I had a good talk with my friend Rob, who had completed Tahoe Rim Trail 100 over the summer. He was dealt some amazingly difficult moments, but powered through against it all and claimed a belt buckle. One piece of advice he gave to me that was crucial throughout my day, was never to think about the finish line until it was time to think about the finish line. All I had to think about was moving from aid station to aid station. And since no station was farther than 6 miles at any give time, I could take the entire 100 miles in tiny bites. As I would talk to myself through the day, “You can eat an elephant one bite at a time." Chomp chomp chomp.
Remembering Rob’s words, I slowed my mental spiral and focused on the last mile to Damnation.
I also looked my arm and what I’d written. I started singing the Paul Simon lyrics over and over again:
In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminder of every glove that laid him down and cut him ‘till he cried out
In his anger and his shame, ‘I am leaving, I am leaving’
But the fighter still remains
Damnation Station (Mile 6.2). Aptly named. This was an aid station where I could have a drop bag, though crews were not allowed here until later in the race. I was thrilled to see it about ½ mile away, and trotted in to find my bag. Grabbed some PB crackers, topped off my bottle and got running again. From Damnation, we would cover a 6-mile loop that would bring us right back to this point (mile 12.2). It is the longest section of the course without support. I felt at this point the 6 miles were very manageable for me to take on.
The 6 miles provided long, low-grade ascents followed by long, low-grade descents. Rolling but not steep. And of course, Roots! Approximately three miles out, right near the edge of Raven Lake, the trail made a sweeping U-turn and we headed back. At mile 11 of the race (which was mile 5 of this 6-mile loop), the trail led us out of the woods to an open space right alongside the lake. This 0.3-mile section would become extremely important for me as 1) it had not one root! and 2) you could SEE THE FINISH LINE across the lake. What a mind trap! I saw on my watch I was at mile 11 and thought to myself – in 90 more miles you are going to be really happy to be here. Yeah, that was wishful thinking...and ultimately very inaccurate.
I arrived back at Damnation (mile 12.2 total) and refilled my bottle with Osmo, took a salt pill and ate a little. From here, I’d run 3.4 miles to Park Road where I knew my crew would be waiting for me. I felt motivated and excited to see them all. Along the way I chatted with a nice man named Larry who was also doing his first 100 miler. He’d done Leadville marathon and a handful of other 50s. We talked about ultra and triathlon. I got him interested in Ironman by saying that, for me, it was easier on the body than a 50-mile race. Talking passed the time and suddenly I was running into Park Road. I was getting psyched to see my crew. And there they were: Cheeseheads. (My nickname is Cheese).
It was fantastic! I received some high fives and some pointed questions from them – have you eaten, are you hydrated, how are your socks and shoes? I reported my twisted ankles and kicked roots, but nothing else was off. Dave reminded me of the humidity and to stay on my hydration. I told them I had an extra bottle stashed at Damnation, and I would carry that (in addition to my vest bottle) for the 6-miler because I was drinking like a fish. I hadn’t needed a bathroom yet, which was cause for some concern. But we wrote it off to humidity and just monitored for the next few hours.
I was wished well and started my way back to Dogwood aka Home Base – the start and end of each loop. Like other parts of the course, there were portions where we double backed, meaning we were running backwards on sections we ran out on. This allowed us to see people who were starting their second loop. Mentally it was a great boost to cheer them on. Every runner that came at me I made eye contact, smiled big and said something like “Good work” or “Looking strong”. It’s amazing how a few words can make someone smile and add pep to their step. And so early in the race, it was very well received.
I came into Dogwood with my crew cheering me in. I felt good – 20 mile runs have been the bread and butter of my training schedule, so it felt fairly easy. I’d thought I’d gone slower than 4:15, and was happy to see I was ahead of what I predicted while still feeling like I had held back and stayed steady.
No change of clothes or shoes. Just a bag of potatoes to eat and pack away for the next few miles. Jason grabbed a sharpie and wrote “YES I CAN” on my right arm. I touched up the word BELIEVE on my left. The crew wished me well again and assured me we’d all meet up at Nature Center.
Total Time: 4:15:55
Time of Day: 6am – 10:15am
Loop 2 (Miles 20-40)
I had the wonderful realization that until I’d have pacers, 40 miles from now, they would all go to all of the aid stations (Dogwood, Nature Center and Park Road). Just another reason to focus on moving mile-by-mile to see them, and forget about the giant stretch of time still to go.
Around mile 25 I chatted with a man from Milwaukee who was on his 7th RR100. Wow! He was very encouraging. He let me know that one year, he’d fallen bad around mile 26 and had to walk the remainder of the race – and he still finished under 30hrs! So I told myself that every mile I get past 26 without taking a digger and hurting myself made my chances of finishing that much greater.
There were some low moments once again. My brains started to get bored of its own thoughts. The trail all looked the same, and I felt a little disoriented. It was so clearly marked, though, that getting lost wasn't ever an issue. Along this loop, I rolled my ankle twice more and almost fell on some roots twice. I kept downing peanut butter sandwiches, peanut butter pretzels and peanut butter crackers. Palate fatigue settled in around the 6-hour mark. But sandwiches, crackers and potatoes kept working, so I grudgingly ate them. I carried the extra bottle for the 6-mile Damnation loop, and because it didn’t have a hand strap, I had to grip it. Probably lost some energy I could have conserved by bringing my handhelds, but no matter. And finally along this loop, I peed! Seriously a cause for celebration – my kidneys were working, my hydration was on track, and I no longer had to worry I was digging myself into a dehydrated hole.
I’d spent a lot of time in my own head, and there was still another whole day to go. But one of the greatest things Jason made me do during training was to run alone, without music. To get comfortable in my own head with my own thoughts and nothing else to distract me from the inevitable pain and soreness that comes with this challenge. It was around now that the pain and soreness began to creep into my joints – primarily my hips. I walked a little more, but kept steady. There were many moments where I called upon this discipline of keeping focused and staying on task even when I started to ache.
Back to Park Road (mile 35.6) I met Holly, Jason, Dave and Amy. No longer cheddarheads, but still amazing helpers. I became very concerned that I didn’t have my clip lights and that the sun was about to set. I didn’t realize it was only about 1:30pm and the cloud cover was confusing me. Jason told me it was still early and I didn’t have to worry. I did the quick math - Wow, I've been running for 7 hours? Not bad, I feel all right.
This was another strategy I used all day – I never once looked at the time of day or race clock on my watch. I kept myself ignorant to that as much as I could so I wouldn’t become focused on the big picture. My Garmin read my heart rate and mileage only.
They filled my bottle, grabbed me some grapes, promised to meet me back at Dogwood, 4.4 miles from here.
A while later I came into Dogwood to see Amy and Jason cheering for me, and Holly decked out in her Luigi costume. She skipped down the straightaway with me and I was laughing – which hurt! It was a great boost for my tired-of-thinking brain.
This was the start of my final loop without pacers. I knew I could do another 20 miles, albeit a little slower with 40 miles on my legs. I knew that sundown was coming at some point on this loop, so I had my crew load up pack with my GoMotion Chest Light, two visor clip lights and a long sleeve shirt. The temps were still in the 60s and 70s (high was 72 that day), so I didn’t anticipate needing the layers, but better safe than not.
I also asked them to give me my ipod at Nature Center. I’d go 3.1 miles from Dogwood to there, and then get to listen to music (sanctioned by race directors, so totally allowed). They did another nutrition/hydration/apparel/mood check and cheered me on as I headed back out once again.
Total Time: 4:26:08
Time of Day: 10:15am – 2:45 pm
Loop 3 (Miles 40 – 60)
Dave was at Nature Center and handed me my ipod, checked my state and sent me into the woods. Music was a GAME CHANGER! Listening to music for the first time in 43.1 miles! Wow! It got me moving ...well, as fast as one can go after 43.1 miles. I was so jazzed at having my music, I no longer dreaded the next 12 miles I’d have to cover before seeing my crew. JT, Pink, Dan and the Wildfires, One Republic, Garth Brooks, David Guetta and all sorts of good tunes!
I was feeling really good heading into Damnation (from Nature Center), so good that I thought I might be hallucinating – because Holly was standing there at my drop bag. Surprise! She’d hiked out there to help me out. We filled my bottled, got some food (stopped her from eating a hot dog quesadilla that may have had her sh**ing on my shoes later on ... she has some allergies) and she reminded me that the next time I saw her (after finishing the loop), I’d have run farther than I’d ever had before – 52.2 miles.
I don’t recall much of that loop other than hitting mile 50 and thinking, “Well, we’re counting down from here.” By now my hips were cranky, the bottoms of my feet were getting tired, and my lower back started to ache. I was somewhere in the 11 or 12-hour mark, and I’d started walking much, much more. The thing about this race distance is that it wears you down to a level of exhaustion and vulnerability that you really can’t recreate well during training - not unless you sign up for a 50M or a 100K race as practice. Which I hadn't. So, it just hurts, and you have to face the pain, make friends with it, and keep going. As Macca and Dave say, "Embrace the Suck".
I returned to Damnation where I got my first soda of the day – caffeine free ginger ale. Yum! A good treat for my mind and body. As we walked out of the station I asked Holly if I needed to put on my chest light. She looked at the time and said I should – meaning the sun is going down shortly.
Two things happened in this moment – I realized I had just run from sunrise to sunset, and I realized I’d now begin the remainder of the race, the part where it’s completely dark all night, 12+ hours in a row. It freaked me out a little, but again I switched my focus to getting to Park Rd, and the gratitude I had for getting company along the way. I’d starting telling her about my aches, pains and that I was freaked out that I’d run for so many hours. She continued to encourage me, as she and the rest of the crew would for the remainder of the race.
Jason was at Park Road (I think Amy and Dave were taking naps, I can’t recall), and Holly stopped there. Jason switched out my Garmin for a new one, and we reset my interval to a 3-1. I was hurting at this point and needed to walk more. I also took off my heart rate monitor at this point because fatigue will render it high and I just had to keep going at my slow and steady pace. Jason made me promise that I’d treat the interval like a coach, and stick to 3mins of running if I could. It was dark now, and all of those roots along the course seemed to grow and grab you. But I left Park (4.4 miles until pacers!) and moved steadily through the forest.
I arrived at Dogwood feeling pretty good, all things considered and 60 miles down. Joked around a bit with Amy, Jason and Holly. I had two loops left – I was closer to the finish line than I was to the start line. And I got to have a pacer with me for the rest of the way! I assumed that mentally, the hardest part was behind me because now I had company!
That was completely wrong.
Total Time: 5:14:45
Time of Day: 2:45pm – 8:00pm
Loop 4 (Miles 60 – 80)
First up to pace was Amy. She covered miles 60-63.1 with me. We talked about how the forest looked like Connecticut (we both grew up there), about diet and exercise and personal training, and about anything else that flitted through my mind. She was encouraging and patient as I moved slowly and walked a lot. By now my feet were very sore. The bottoms of them aches and I started to have noticeable pains shoot through the bones in my legs. Bone pain is the worst – it’s not muscular, it feels so much deeper, like someone is injecting your skeleton with hot lead. Ouch.
After three miles we saw the Nature Center lights. Waiting for me there was Jason, Holly and Dave, who would escort me from 63.4 to 75.6. There was a bathroom there so I hopped inside. I told them if I wasn't out in 10 minutes it wasn't a stomach issue, it was because I couldn't stand up. So come and get me. Really, ever time I stopped at an aid station, from here on out, my muscles would stiffen quickly. Starting up was a small fight. But with the help of some coffee and food, I’d get on my way.
From this mile on, I could barely run. I would end up walking 90% of the rest of the way, with only a few spurts of running in between powerwalking or death marching.
Dave took me through the woods slowly and carefully. My exhaustion started to show. I could see and could understand what I was doing, but I just wanted to sleep. He shined his light on the ground right beside me and called out every single root in our way. In fact, this became the conversation for about 3 hours:
Dave: Step up
Dave: Step Down
Me: ‘kay. Owwwww.
I’d been up since 3:45am. It was somewhere around 11pm and the effects of sleep deprivation bodyslammed me. My voice became a whisper. My hips all-but-refused to let me step up or step down along the technical parts of the trail. And my mind began to drift away from my tiny goals (Get to the aid station) and spotlight the big ones (I have to do another loop after this!?!?)
“Dave, I’ve lost the ability to control my drool.”
It was true. Spit was running down my face and I didn’t care. I couldn’t purse my lips to keep it in. I’d wipe my chin every few minutes. And then, somewhere during the Damnation Loop, the tears started. I was so tired. I was hurting so much. And we were walking so slow. I could not fathom doing another 30-35 miles. The weight of that challenge sat on my heart. I half-heartedly attempted to hold back my tears but I was becoming so tired that I didn’t care. So we walked, and I cried. For about 2.5 hours. I’d groan and whimper, “Ouch” and “It hurts so much” and “I’m so tired.” I would mumble in desperation, “I’m doing the best that I can” and ask “Am I the only one who is in pain?” And then I’d cry some more. Dave was great. He’d put his hand on my back and reassure me that I’m not the only one suffering out here, and that I was doing great. At one point he said, “Em, it’s not a matter of if you finish, but when you will finish.” He distracted me from myself by telling me stories from Ranger School and his own sleep deprivation suffering. It was comforting as it could be. But the pain was still there.
I had the emotional stability of a teething toddler. My mood swings would continue in a drastic manner. At one low point, I pulled over to a log (there were no restrooms in the woods), and after I was done, I hopped up, told Dave I maybe had some tree in my shorts. And the I began to run. Not walk, but run! I was – for a few minutes – a new person. Bathroom breaks and coffee/soda would pick me up out of my despair, and then 20 minutes later I’d be back down that black hole again.
We finished the 6-mile Damnation loop and Dave made the excellent decision to change my socks and shoe. Just the left shoe. I kicked a root and tore the top of my first pair. So we swapped out the torn one with a lefty from my drop bag. He also put on my socks for me and checked my feet for blisters – none so far. The one mistake I did make here, though, was switching from compression socks to regular socks. At this point I’d gone 72.2 miles. When I took off the compression, my right knee began to swell just enough to make bending my knee pretty painful and barely possible. Luckily with my exhausted walking form I was able to move forward despite this limitation.
We trudged from Damnation to Park, 3.4 miles away. Because of the roots, I had to stay extremely focused (in my sad state) on the ground. Which meant I could not turn my neck / head lights away from exactly in front of me. My neck stayed in this stiff position pretty much until sun up. This was not happy-making in the least. Also, I’d developed a touchable knot in my right shoulder blade from carrying my water bottle on one side of my vest. My crew would work on it for me at the aid stations, but mother of all pain it was a bad one!
Along our way to Park, I saw a frog. This frog became the greatest thing ever. “Dave! A frog!” We stopped mid-walk. I leaned down and petted it. It jumped at me and I laughed. Like I said, I was loopy. Never incoherent, but definitely out of it.
Since sundown, I’d started taking caffeine regularly. The temps had dropped to the 50s, so I wasn’t sweating a lot. And I was drinking soup and Osmo and water and coffee. Caffeine is a diuretic, so all of a sudden, every 20 minutes for the rest of the race, I was in need of a log, or a bush, or as the case became, the middle of the trail with no privacy needed. I’d drop my shorts without much of a thought, pee and move on.
During our long walk to Park, I needed to go again. I knew there were port-a-johns close by so I decided to wait. I knew they were located at a turn on the trail that butted up against the road. You could see cars driving by and street lights. I pointed them out in the distance to Dave and excitedly began to powerwalk faster. I also remarked that I was running like a clubbed seal. Which was accurate.
When we “got there” … there was no lights. No road. No cars. I whined: “Dave, where are they??! They were here! I saw the lights and the cars! Where did they go! Did you see them? You saw them, right?” We were in complete darkness, it was around 1am. And my brain might have convinced me I had seen something that wasn’t quite there. Dave, probably with a lot of empathy said, “I can neither confirm or deny.” In other word, you were seeing things.
About a mile later, when we finally found the bathrooms – farther away than I’d thought – I hopped in and took care of everything. Then I hopped out and said to Dave, “There was a pretzel on the floor. I didn’t eat it.” I was proud of myself. He thought I'd lost it.
We continued walking.
The crew met me and Dave at Park, where I was handed off to Holly. She’d take me through the woods back to Dogwood. Dave had made me promise that when I was with her I’d do a little running, but by the time we got to Park, it was clear I was in no shape to do anything other than keep moving forward as best as possible.
Holly recalls this portion of the race as the rock bottom. It took us over 2 hours to go 4.4 miles. My emotions were labile and shifted with full, violent swinging. I’d go from hilarity to deep, deep sadness. I whined. I groaned. I cried. I became fixated on the sun – “I just want to see the sun. Why won’t it rise. I can’t make it in the dark. I can’t do another loop. Owwww. It hurts. It hurts so much.” When I realized I’d been awake for more than 23 hours and covered almost 80 miles, I almost lost it – those facts were too much for me to handle.
Holly patiently wait for me to step up or down or around all those damn roots. She walked alongside me and tried to work the knot out of my back. I cried and cried and I kept moving forward. She kept me moving forward. When I said for the 100th time that I couldn’t face the thought of one more loop, she told me all we had to do was get to Dogwood and then we would “Reset”. I held onto that hope, that the tides would change. And I slumped on.
My body hurting in ways I’d never hurt before – my hips screamed, my feet screamed, my back screamed. I didn’t believe I’d ever feel normal again. My mind was in a little twisted torture room of its own. And yet, despite all of that physical and mental anguish, quitting never crossed my mind. I was worried about continuing through the pain, but I never wanted to leave the race. I wanted to take a nap so very badly, but I never wanted to give up. Not once.
Back at Dogwood, Amy and Jason knew I was in dire straits. They sent out a Facebook SOS for good vibes for me. Holly and I arrived and I immediately got into a chair. All hands on deck. They swapped out my vest (taking pressure off my shoulder), changed my socks (ultimately resulting in two blisters but no big deal), put on me a long sleeve shirt, got some coffee and chocolate in me, and got 2 Tylenol to dull the pain. Jason handed me the pills and promised they would take the edge off for 8 hours. I believed him because I had to. Because I needed to hear that the pain would subside. That was the only way I could get myself out of the chair and off on the final loop.
With new gear, some warm liquids and my crew taking extremely good care of me, my sense of humor returned. I accidentally dropped my salt pill in my soup, and then laughed when I found it at the bottom when I finished drinking it. Just like the toy in a box of cereal!
We began the walk away from Dogwood and onto the final loop. Amy, Holly, Jason and me. Final Lap.
Total Time: 6:31:18
Time of Day: 8:00pm – 2:30am
Loop 5 (80-100)
I’d love to say things picked up from here. Well, they did, but not for long. I was a little more cheerful and poking fun at my crew, “You know, out here, we call you guys ‘normies’.” I was later told by Jason that I (not they) completely missed the poor man who was projectile ... “stomach aching” ... on a tree right next to the trail as we went by. Not sorry I missed that. Poor guy.
We got to Nature Center, mile 83.1 and it was noticeable colder. Jason grabbed an extra jacket that I would wear. It was kind of see-through so at one point I zipped it up, and with my chest light still glowing, said, “ET Phone Home…” I laughed, and then probably started crying five minutes later. I went to the bathroom (a real one) there, but did not want to leave it. There was light, there were tiles, there was running water and I could rest for just a moment. That bathroom was the happiest place I’d been all night. It wasn’t dark! It wasn’t cold! But I had to come out and keep going.
Jason and I continued from 83.1 to 95.4 in quiet fashion. The humor I'd had for those three previous miles was gone. He tried to get me to talk, but I could not. I could barely whisper. All I could think about was the sun coming up, though I had no idea what time it was or when it would happen. All I saw was darkness, and Jason five steps ahead of me. I’d moan at him to slow down, and he would. But then he’d walk again and I couldn’t get myself to keep up. This tug of pace-war continued for 9 miles. My bladder had not calmed so I was dropping my shorts frequently. I no longer cared if I was behind a bush. I no longer felt much of anything, just hollow. I'd run the gamut of emotions all night and was running out of things to feel, other than pain.
When we arrived at Damnation Jason brought me to the heat lamp and fed me some coffee and soup. I put on a wind/rain jacket of my own. Then we began the final 6-mile loop out to the lake and back. I wanted to get to the lake – it was mile 91 and the point of the race that I had thought about almost a day ago at mile 11. I thought it would be a great mental relief.
It wasn’t a heaving sigh of appeasement, but when we got there – after I peed again and basically mooned one of the boats driving by – I knew we were close to finishing the Damn loop and only 7.8 miles away from the finish line. The sun finally started to lighten the sky. We could see outlines of trees. It was easier to avoid the roots. And it hit me that I had just gone from Sunrise to Sundown to Sunrise again .... and I was still going. This was a confusing, heartening, scary, weird thought. I didn't have too much time to dwell though.
Because the rain started.
Light at first, but then harder and colder. We got back to Damnation and someone said it was 45 degrees with a wind chill of 42. Jason gave me gloves to stay warm and he put some pants on me. But there was no staying warm. A lot of the racers were huddled in the tent at Damn. I saw more than a few pack up and hitch a ride back, call it a day. Despite the worsening weather, I never thought to join them.
Jason brought me into Park Road after what seemed to be an eternity. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t keep my head high up. I barely looked at my crew waiting for me. I went right to a chair and held out my bottle for a refill.
Amy handed me some soup and I drank. I asked if I was going to make the cutoff. They assured me I would. So all that was left was 4.4 miles. Holly would pace me to the finish line. 4.4 miles seemed like a marathon, like an ultra. I knew it would be close to 2 hours more. Sitting around would only make it longer, so off we went. I didn't feel relief or hope or impending finish quite yet. I just felt numb and tired.
It rained hard. It was cold. But I was no longer in despair. I was just tired, and cold, and wet, and sleep deprived. I wanted to thank Holly for bringing me in the final stretch. I wanted to hug my crew and tell them that I could not have done this without them and that they took care of me better than any crew took care of their runners. I won the jackpot with them. I wanted to dig deep and find that final push to actually run the last couple miles to the finish. But I could do none of that. I’d lost control of all non-essential bodily functions. My brain shut down any thoughts or actions outside of Keep Moving Forward, and occasionally, Pee. So I just walked.
About 2 miles out, Holly started telling me about everyone who was following the race back in LA. I knew she’d been texting my parents and some friends (Lori even sent her a video for me that I watched at mile 46), but I had no idea that others had been “watching” on online. My crew had been taking pictures of me all day, but I didn’t quite connect they were telling my story on facebook. So when I heard some of the messages that people were sending, a little light went on inside me and I perked up.
She put a sweatshirt over my head to keep the rain off of it.
I warmed slightly. She counted up the miles (1 done, 2 done…) and counted down as well (4 left, 3 left…) and suddenly we had less than 30 minutes left to go. A song came to me:
We’re out of the woods
We’re out of the dark
We’re out of the night
Step into the sun
Step into the light
I told her and she sang along like a Munchkin from Oz. And we laughed. And I mentioned that I hadn’t worn pants for the last 28 hours. Which made me laugh more. And I finally felt like the finish line was close by. We passed a few folks as we walked in, and a few others ran past us. I admired their last kick. We crossed two roads, made a turn, and there is was – 200 yards of a finishers' chute. Holly ran ahead and joined Jason, Dave and Amy. They cheered and clapped, along with the rest of the folks waiting for their own runner.
I ran toward them. Not fast and certainly not far, but I ran the best I could so I knew I had left it all out there on the course.
I crossed the finish line 27 hours and 43 minutes after I started. 100 miles done.
Total Time: 7:14:58
Time of Day: 2:30am – 9:45am
Joyce Prusaitis (race director) gave me a big hug. Her husband Joe (race director) gave me my finisher’s buckle. And then my amazing crew came in for a group hug. Among all of these wonderful things, I did not feel the same elation I felt crossing an Ironman finish line, or a marathon finish line. I couldn’t process all that happened. But I knew I could stop moving forward now. I could sit down and rest. And not eat peanut butter ever again (for now).
After sitting for a few minutes and warming up, my crew drove me (about a quarter mile) to the showers. They stripped me down out of my wet gear and into some sweats and a hat. I crawled into the van and we headed back to the hotel. No hunger or cravings, just a desire to get horizontal as quick as possible.
Back at the hotel, Amy and Holly stripped me down again and pretty much bathed me. Kind of humbling after what I had accomplished, but there was no way I was able to get by without help. And frankly, everyone had seen me drop my trousers plenty of times over the day. No room for modesty anymore. I wasn’t able to stand well, so I just sat in a bath and soaked, then turned on the shower on and sat in the spray. At least this kind of rain was warm. Sweats went back on and I was tucked into bed by 11:30am.
It was hard to rest, as overtired as I was. I closed my eyes and all I saw were root patterns. I couldn't lay still, but every time I moved my body yelled and snapped at me. It was uncomfortable. But I got an hour or so of napping while my friends fed themselves and rested. The rest of the day was saved for hanging around comparing stories, watching the Superbowl, and eating takeout and Dairy Queen.
And an evil, evil ice bath.
I managed to survive the race without too many physical mishaps, aside from general pain and soreness. I had two blisters (probably from the rain at the end), and my feet swelled up slightly. A couple chaffing marks from my shirt, but nothing that hasn't already disappeared. No black or lost toenails. No cuts or scrapes or bruises. I was and am pretty much intact.
Monday meant cleaning the van, packing, learning to walk again and flying back to Los Angeles. I spent time reflecting on the race, but had a hard time processing it. Physically I felt it, but mentally I didn't – and still haven’t – really absorbed the achievement. Six months’ worth of training, lots of sacrifice, and a successful day when one was not necessarily guaranteed.
It’s really cool. It just hasn’t hit me yet.
I stayed off Facebook until I got home. When I checked it out finally, I was bowled over by the wonderful messages from my friends. I didn’t know everyone was ‘watching’ so to realize that they were all pulling for me in those deep, dark moments means very much to me. People have used the word “inspiration”. It’s a positive one, but somewhat vague, and I don’t quite know how it's defined.
I hope by ‘inspiration’ people mean that what they saw and cheered on this weekend was a demonstration of how our limits are self-made, and that we can go much farther beyond what we assume we can do.
There was a sign on the course that said: Challenge your most precious assumptions.
You assume you can’t do something simply because you’ve never tried. Well, it’s worth a try. You assume you’re not capable of accomplishing something because your past experiences tell you couldn't do it before. Well, try again. In spite of your fear or doubt. Fear is real. Fear is a great motivator. But Fear is limiting. So fuck Fear. Go out and climb that mountain. Go out and challenge yourself. Go out and live a big life and suffer a bit and rise above it and savor the moments that you overcome yourself. It's what makes life worth it. And as Kalil Gibran says, "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain."
It's taken a a couple days to regain my ability to walk (and control my drool), but as of today, Wednesday, I am back to normal. And as each day passes, I'm more and more appreciative of my body and my mind, and what they worked together to accomplish.
To every single person who left a note, liked a post or cheered me on and wished me well – THANK YOU.
To the folks who trained with me since October, came out to run along San Vicente or Palos Verde or Griffith Park, over and over again – THANK YOU.
To my friends Fern, Christine, Lori and Adam who texted and tweeted and messages so intently this weekend and over this entire training season – THANK YOU.
To my parents and my sister, don’t worry I think I’m going to take a few months off.
To my crew, Jason, Holly, Amy and Dave: I could not have done this without every single one of you and your help this weekend and this season. The belt buckle belongs to you, too.