Once upon a time, I said I had no interest in running a 100 miler. I'm a terrible night trail runner, and I really like sleep.
I think the first seed was planted at the California International Marathon in 2015
, where I'd fallen off pace, and I told Kate I'd rather run 100 slow miles than try to "race" another marathon.
At some point I realized that even if I was a terrible night trail runner, there were plenty of people who basically walked the entire night portion. And I could certainly do THAT. And for the sleep thing.. well, I'd just have to hope for the best, since I have very little experience with sleep deprivation. And so I signed up.
Training went well. I found a coach who agreed with me that "less is more", and I did some fairly comparatively minimal training for Rocky. That brought me to the start line rested, uninjured, and completely unsure that the training I'd done was enough to get me through 100 miles.
I also arrived at the start line already sleep-deprived, because just like the first day of Ultraman Canada
, I just could not sleep the night before. I actually did get a solid 30 minutes before Rocky, which I only know because I had a stress dream wherein I was repeatedly destroying a regenerating hive of demon wasps with a flamethrower. SO RESTFUL.
But there was nothing I could do except try to at least relax my body, and I got up race morning prepared to do whatever I could, mentally and physically, to get through the race.
There was no reason for my crew and pacers to show up until later in the day, so Matt and I drove to the park alone, and he went and set everything up while I sat in the car to stay warm. It was in the low 40s, heading toward a high in the mid 50s, then not slated to get too much colder than that overnight. Perfect on paper, if that's all the paper said. But the paper also said there was a 50% chance of rain. That's less perfect. But only 50% less perfect. Fingers crossed.Waiting to start. I hatehatehate the waiting part. I also was very reluctant to part with my puffy jacket.
With 3 minutes until race start, Matt took off for the car to meet me at the first aid station, I meandered over to the race start, and at 6am, we started the longest race of my life.Loop 1
From looking at the results, I guess there were around 350 people there at the starting line, but it really didn't feel congested at all. I was anticipating a very, very long day, so I made sure that I didn't push at all, didn't pass anyone, just settled in to go my easy pace and get my body used to running. Especially in the dark. I'd done no night trail runs in training (plenty of runs in the dark, but all road), and it's not one of my strongest skills. Fortunately I had a lot of miles and hours ahead of me to practice and get comfortable.Intently staring at the ground, as I would be doing for many miles. Huh, I forgot I started out wearing gloves.
As a very brief overview of the course (since I'll be mentioning the aid stations a lot), it was a 25 mile loop, mostly comprised of out and backs. (Previously it was 5 20-mile loops with one long out and back in the middle, but the park was ravaged by Hurricane Harvey, and all the trails had to be recovered and in some cases cut brand new.) You run to Nature Center, a long out and back to Gate, Damnation, interminable out and back to FarSide, back to Damnation, Nature Center again, then back to the start/finish line (aka Dogwood). Dogwood and Nature Center were easily accessible, the rest ranged from challenging to nigh impossible for crew and spectators to get to. That meant a whole lot of miles seeing practically nobody other than runners and aid station volunteers. Fortunately the aid station volunteers were amazing, and the runners were wonderful and so supportive.
Okay, so, having taken my first step, I officially had fewer than 100 miles to run. It had finally started.
The first few miles are really just a blur. It was dark. I had no idea where I was. I was intensely paranoid about the roots that I knew were present in abundance on the course. There were a fair number of people passing and being passed. And I was focused on settling in and practicing patience. I knew patience was going to be one of the (many) keys to my success. 100 miles is unfathomable and overwhelming, so I was mostly framing things in terms of half hours.
My nutrition strategy, which would be another key to my success, was to eat ~100 calories of something every half hour. I had my watch set to beep at me every half hour, because otherwise I knew I'd never remember. I was carrying a lot of GU (strawberry kiwi Roctane; jury is still out on whether I'll ever eat another one, but I don't food fatigue easily, so I actually probably will) and a lot of Honey Stinger blocks in tiny bags, 7 blocks per bag, just over 100 calories in each bag. Eat one of those things every half hour, or if I happened to be near an aid station when it was feeding time, eat a PB&J quarter from the aid station, or whatever else might appeal. Restock my backpack with those things every time through the start/finish line. Drink water frequently (carrying 24 ounces in two front bottles on my pack). Take 1 Salt Stick Cap every 2 hours, unless it got really warm, in which case take one every hour. That was my lofty plan that I figured would probably fall apart at some point, but I'd adhere to as long as possible. (Spoiler? Foreshadowing? Not telling, you'll have to keep reading.)
Eventually, after what felt like way, way too long, I made it to the first aid station, Nature Center. It was allegedly only 3.x miles (I never did, and still haven't, figured out exactly how long it was between each aid station, and really, why bother learning it NOW?), but I could SWEAR it took me over an hour to get there. I just checked with Matt and he says it was about 46 minutes. That explains why my feeling of timing was so off the whole first loop, though. Getting ahead of myself..
Came into Nature Center, might have refilled one of my water bottles, I honestly don't remember, ran by Matt at the drop bags and told him I didn't need anything yet. He had been planning on taking my headlamp if it was light, but it definitely wasn't light yet, so I headed back out.
Ugh, my headlamp. I hate headlamps. I can really only see out of one eye, so my night vision is terrible, headlamps give me horrible tunnel vision, and they're so very uncomfortable. Even more so because I don't wear hats while running, so that hard plastic is sitting right against my forehead, digging in. I could loosen it, but (a) that's hard to do while running in the dark, since you're depending on said headlamp to see, and (b) it was already loose enough that it kept creeping up to my hairline and I'd have to pull it back down constantly. So I was really looking forward to it finally getting light enough to remove it, and desperately trying not to think about what ALREADY being sick of my headlamp meant for the many, many, MANY hours of headlamp-wearing that were still ahead of me. Those hours were still many, many, many hours in the future, and I was sure many other things would be annoying between now and then to keep me occupied.
The sun did eventually come up, when I turned onto the long jeep road that went out to the Gate aid station. I took my headlamp off and wrapped it around my wrist, then had a volunteer at the aid station stash it in my backpack when I got there. I hate this picture, but .. jazz hands.
I should also mention it started raining. It had been threatening all week to maybe rain, and it finally settled at a 50% chance. I actually enjoy running in the rain, and I REALLY enjoy not running in the heat, so the overcast sky and the light rain was nice. I was hoping it would die off pretty quickly, though, because I'd already had one terrible mud run
this year, and I really wasn't excited to have another one.
The out and back to Gate, that interminable uphill and then return dowhill, seemed to take forever, but were on a fairly kind and unnotable jeep trail. Then the trail from there to the Damnation aid station actually seemed REALLY short. Every other set of aid stations seemed impossibly far apart, but Gate->Damnation was like a gift each time.
Cruised through Damnation with only a water refill (I basically refilled one water bottle at each aid station for the rest of the race, always had that second one Just In Case), then .. FarSide. Alleged distance from Damnation to FarSide according to the aid station list (which, FINE, I just looked up): 4.27 miles. Actual distance from Damnation to FarSide when you're running: no less than 10 miles. And then you have to come back to Damnation again. It took for-freaking-ever, and there's really nothing notable out there, certainly no spectators, and your reward at the end is an aid station with only water and TailWind.
The out and back to FarSide was my kryptonite. It was my demon. It was the worst part of the race for me, and I had to do it four times. I fully admit that I let it become A Thing in my mind, and I suffered heavily for it. But I couldn't get past it. (Mentally, that is. Physically I managed, or I'd still be out there, sprawled out on the side of the FarSide trail in the mud. No mud yet, though. Getting ahead of myself.)
The one saving grace of the FarSide out and back, and in fact of the entire race, is that it WAS an out and back. Everything was an out and back. Mentally that was tough, because you see everything a jillion times. But it also means you get to see the other runners a jillion times, too. And everyone was SO NICE AND ENCOURAGING. I wished everyone well, and they wished me the same in return. Each time we saw each other. Every out, every back. I said "good job" SO MANY TIMES during Rocky, and I meant it sincerely every single time. You could feel how much everyone supported everyone else, and it was an intensely bright point in a day that had some pretty dark points.
So I made it out to the FarSide aid station. And I made it back to Damnation. On the way back to Nature Center, I had my first real moment of physical frustration. Because I was tired already. I hadn't even completed one loop, and already things felt Really Difficult. How in the world was I going to run 100 miles when ~23 miles already had me questioning my life decisions? I think I actually ran by a mom and 4 kids on the side of the trail, and as they cheered for me, I said, "Running 100 miles is a stupid idea, kids. Don't do it." Then as I was almost out of earshot, I yelled, "Uh, and stay in school!" Look, I don't know. Being alone for a really long time makes the brain do weird things when it finally has an audience.
(Oh, and since I've had people ask: No, I don't run with music. 100 miles of the inside of my own head. Scary, scary times.)
Back through Nature Center, and then the home stretch back to the Dogwood and the end of my first loop. This was the first time I'd really "seen" that section, since it was dark when we came out. It ran along the lake, and went over a series of bridges/boardwalks that are lovely, but also cruel tiny hills that got more slippery the more it rained.
We turned a corner to an uphill, and then suddenly there were my friends! Betsy and David, Julie and Richard, along with birthday signs and beads and cheering and a frog balloon that I was instructed to kiss (and did!). It was a wonderful surprise and a little overwhelming after so many hours of being alone. And it was just a preview of what was to come, because another half mile later, there was the start/finish line! 25 miles. 1/4 done. Fuck.Loop 2
The pit crew cheered me in, then ushered me over to our tent where they had stuff laid out. Swapped out my water bottles for fresh ones, then asked what I wanted. I had been pondering this for a couple miles. I had picked out a lot of foods that I found worked for me, but I was only able to really carry GU and blocks, so I really only had 3 opportunities, at the start/finish of each loop, to eat some of the other things I'd brought. This time I elected to have half a turkey and cheese sandwich, and part of a miniature can of Coke. I was feeling good, so I wanted to get in a few extra calories over my 100/hour. Matt and Melissa (who had arrived while I was doing my first loop, along with Michael, who I introduced myself to as I was cramming food in my mouth) put new bags of nutrition in my pack while I shoved additional stuff in my front pocket. Then Matt walked out with me while I drank more Coke, so he could take the can from me when I'd had my fill.
Handing the Coke back to Matt, I said goodbye and headed back out for loop 2.This picture is SO terrible it loops back around to me loving it.
I glanced at my watch and saw that loop 1 had taken me just over 5.5 hours. That was better than I had anticipated, but I knew that didn't really mean much in the grand scheme of things, because it was still very early. Even while I was pleased with my time, I was very displeased with how hard things already were 25 miles in.
Loop 2 was the hardest loop for me. When I told Melissa that afterward, she said, "You're the only person on earth who has ever tried to claim that the hardest part of a hundred are miles 25 to 50." That may not strictly be true, but I do recognize it's probably not common.
Let me clarify that it was the hardest loop for me MENTALLY. Not physically. I was still doing okay physically. I was tired and I slowed down some, but I was still running anything that wasn't dangerous or noticeably uphill.
And actually I was probably doing pretty well mentally at first. I ran back past the Birthday Squad and got more cheers, then back through Nature Center. It was still raining, and the hill up to Gate was getting ever wetter and puddlier, but it was still tolerable. I decided to finally use a portapotty at Gate, since I knew there weren't any at Damnation or FarSide, and discovered that it smelled oddly delightful in there. Not something I've ever said about a portapotty. I first suspected some sort of scented rearview mirror-style air freshener, but no, it turns out there was a SCENTED CANDLE lit in the corner of the portapotty. That was a first for me. I would say it was for the athletes, but I suspect it was because the aid station volunteers were right there next to the bank of portapotties, and it was for their own self-preservation. Regardless.. weird, but pleasant.
When I got back to Damnation this time, I decided to stop and get my drop bag. I had a drop bag at both Damnation and Nature Center, just in case I needed anything special when I was out and about. A dry long-sleeved shirt, a flashlight, an extra bag of nutrition plus a PB&J, and a stick of SportShield, which is what I was after this stop. My portapotty adventure had shown me that some chafing of the nether realms might be taking place, and I wanted to get that under control before it got out of control.
As I ran up, I made eye contact with the drop bag volunteer, and called out my number. He went to find my bag, and I said, "It's BB-8." That understandably made no sense to him in that context, so when he finally found my bag and brought it over to me, he glanced down as he was carrying it and.. it was BB-8! He smiled, and I said, "I told you!" Easy to identify in a crowd.This was me dropping off my drop bag for Damnation the day before the race. I am both an Adult and a Very Serious Runner.
I shamelessly shoved my hand down the back of my shorts while he waited, then put the SportShield back. As a last minute decision, I also grabbed my flashlight from my pack. I had fully anticipated that I would be done with my second loop before the sun went down, but it was so overcast and dark all day, I wasn't sure what sunset would be like, or when. I felt a little better knowing I had SOME light with me just in case.
And then the out and back to FarSide. Again.
It was wetter this time, and there were many new puddles and mud fields to contend with. And a few miles in, it started really, really raining in earnest for the first time that day. Pouring. 95% of the people out there were wearing rain jackets or trash bags. I had neither of things. Now to be perfectly honest, I was not cold. And as I've said, I like running in the rain. But I was alone. It was pouring rain. I felt very exposed to the elements. And tired. And so sick of this section of the course. And I still had to do it again, in the dark. And then I had to do it AGAIN. How in the WORLD was I going to do it TWO MORE TIMES, when I was already SO TIRED?! Not to mention, not even done with the CURRENT time. The whole thought process was exhausting, and a spiral I couldn't drag myself out of.
I did rally a bit when I was almost to the FarSide aid station. I turned a corner, and there in the middle of the woods, standing on the side of the trail were three people in rain ponchos, not running. I was mystified as to who would be out there, and how they even GOT out there, since FarSide is pretty inaccessible other than hiking in. Then as I got closer, I saw it was David, Julie, and Richard! These crazy idiots were MY crazy idiots! They cheered for me and tried to take pictures as I ran by, then did so again as I ran back by after refilling my water at FarSide.Heading back in from FarSide in the pouring rain, taken by Julie!
That rally was pretty brief, though, after I left them. People were starting to spread out a lot more, so I was spending more time alone out on the trail, and with the harder rain, now the mud was really becoming annoying and problematic. I DID realize at some point that not only did I have a flashlight if I needed it, but I also had my headlamp in my pack, since evidently nobody had pulled it out after my first loop. Which I guess was reassuring, but I noticed it because it started to hit up against my flashlight and was making an awful noise. I spent a frustrating amount of time reaching back behind myself trying to smash my stuff around to separate the two things so they'd be quiet. I could have just stopped and spent 2 seconds fixing it, but that wasn't the frame of mind I was in.
As I went back through Damnation, I was going to grab a PB&J quarter, as I had done at a few of the aid stations, but then I saw they had quesadillas, which sounded delicious, so I grabbed one of those instead. It was pretty delicious.
Damnation through Nature Center and back to the start/finish were low. Just.. low. I admit that at one point I thought, "75 miles would be more miles than I've ever run. Maybe that's enough." I wasn't at that point yet, though. I pushed that out of my mind, and didn't let myself dwell on it. I knew that things can turn around at any time, and I suspected I was going to have a much easier time of it (mentally, at least) when I finally picked up a pacer.
In fact, in the last few miles as I ran in, people were coming out with their pacers. There was a new energy that went along with the first fresh faces we'd seen in many hours, and a lot of peppy talking (along with some less peppy replies). I grinned and joked as one couple went by with a particularly excitable pacer, "Ugh. Pacers are the WORST!"50 miles done!Loop 3
I came into Dogwood happy to see people again, but also feeling a little shellshocked. It was starting to get dark out on the trail, and I felt somewhat feral for not having much human interaction for nearly 12 hours at this point. And then suddenly here's my crew, asking me questions, changing my clothes, wrapping things around my waist, putting things in my hands. I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible, but everyone was talking so fast and asking so much.
Since the rain had finally (FINALLY) slackened off, we swapped out my wet short sleeved shirt for a dry one, then put a long sleeve on top. The temperature wasn't supposed to drop too much, but with the dark would likely come a lot more walking, which would lower my core temperature, so a little warmth would be welcome. Matt told me they were making me take my rain jacket in case it started raining again, and tied it around my waist. Melissa transferred my race number from my old shirt and pinned it on my new shirt while I drank about 3/4 of a Boost, since that's what I'd decided I wanted this round. I was tired of eating things, and drinking some calories sounded like a delightful change.
As we were replacing my water and nutrition in my pack, someone handed me a headlamp. I said we needed to sort something out before I went out, and explained that my headlamp had been driving me crazy that morning. I'd decided I needed to wear something under the headlamp to keep it from digging into my forehead, and to hold it in place. They dug out my running hat, but I was afraid that it would impair my already crappy night vision, so we decided I'd wear my warm hat (beanie), and hope for the best. I have trouble wearing warm hats even when it's cold, as gloves and hats make me overheat easily, but I hoped that would be more manageable than 12 hours of headlamp pain.The pit crew assisting me in prepping for my next loop.
And then it was back out for loop 3, this time with a pacer! First up was Karen. The original plan was to have Karen pace me first because while she's 100x the runner I am, she's a relatively new trail runner, and had never done any night trail running. We figured she would take the early shift, before it got too dark, and run me out to Gate. Of course, the reality was that it was already dark when we set out, so that didn't go quite as planned, but it turned out not to be a problem at all.Heading out with my Karen! Okay, fine, it was lighter than I remember. But getting dark!
As we set out, I told her I wasn't sure I was capable of having an actual conversation, because all I'd done for the last 12 hours was say "Good job! Good job! Good job!"
Despite that, though, I spent the first bit of the loop kinda giving the lay of the land and what I needed and my view on things out there. Basically that since everything was an out and back, we couldn't really run two abreast, so I'd prefer that she run behind me, and let me set the pace. I didn't need motivation or to be pulled, I was still self-motivating well, but I needed company, conversation, and light.
Then we just settled in to our normal comfortable running. Karen and I have run so many miles together, and it was nice to have one of my best friends out there sharing this experience with me. Also singing me happy birthday every 5 minutes.
We caught each other up on the stories of what had been happening in our worlds since the race began, and that got us all the way to Nature Center. As we saw the lights of Nature Center approaching, I said I was going to hit the portapotty once we got there. She said she was going to use the crew radio (walkie talkie) to let the rest of the crew know that we were at Nature Center and on our way to them at Gate. And also figure out how to turn her headlamp on.I barely even remember that someone took our picture, but I'm happy to have it! More jazz hands, Karen staring intently at the ground, and headlamp off!
Evidently this was her first time using her headlamp, and she'd never tried to turn it on wearing gloves, and she hadn't been able to figure it out while running. So she'd been running behind me for 3.7 miles wearing her headlamp, but just using her handheld flashlight the whole time. I told her this was absolutely going in my race report.
By the time I got out of the portapotty, Karen had figured out her headlamp, and attempted to contact the rest of the crew, but gotten no response.
We headed back out into the slightly-better-lit darkness. It was fun to run with someone for their first night trail run. She kept shining her lights into the dark in wonderment, and I kept telling her she was blinding the poor birds. The ones who weren't already asleep.
At this point it was full dark, and I was starting to walk a lot more of the heavily rooted sections and muddy areas. Self-preservation.
When we got to the jeep trail to Gate, we found that the rain had hit it pretty hard and made quite a mess. Most of the road was very squishy and slidey mud, often with a big puddle or two forcing you to the side. Sometimes there would be one semi-decent line through the mud, but you'd have 4 people (one runner+pacer going each direction) who all wanted to run that line. It involved a lot of weaving and splashing. We joked that Karen, who is more of a "nice hotel and a glass of wine" person than a "hang out in a tent in the woods" person, got credit through this experience for her first "camping" experience since she was a kid. She still won't poop in the woods, though.
Eventually we made our way up to Gate, and found Matt and Melissa! Matt was dropping Melissa off and picking up Karen, and Melissa was swapping in as my pacer for the rest of the 3rd loop.
As I ran into the aid station, I ran past the number verifier. Since they can't realistically put timing mats way out in the middle of nowhere, we had to check in each time we went through Gate and FarSide (the two out and backs) so they could note our number to verify we made it all the way out there and didn't cheat and shorten the course. He looked at my number and said, "Got you, number ... 98." And I was like, "Thanks! Wait, that's not my.." and I looked down, and sure enough, I was number 98. Except I wasn't. I turned to Melissa and said, "You had ONE JOB, Melissa!" She had pinned my number on upside down. For some reason I found it hysterical. Probably because I had run 56 miles at that point. But it's STILL one of my favorite memories of the whole race.
While the crew got their stuff sorted out, I shopped through the available food, and decided to grab two quesadilla triangles. I started eating one, and found that my crew were still talking, not really about anything relevant to the race. And I was antsy. So I said, "I gotta go!" and waved and took off running. It's actually the one moment that I feel bad about. One of my goals was to be kind and obedient to my pacers and crew, and even after I said it, I felt like it was kinda rude. And really I doubt anyone else thought anything of it, but it's weird how your brain works when it's tired. So.. sorry, crew.
Now I had a new pacer, and a two quesadillas, and we were headed back down that squishy, annoying hill. Melissa kinda took off and was pulling away from me, and I spent a few seconds trying to stay close to her, then I realized we needed to have a talk about what I needed from her, and I called her back. Once we established I'd prefer to set the pace and have her behind me, things went much better. I finished one quesadilla, carried the other for a while, told Melissa I was having Quesadilla Regrets, and she took the remaining one from me and summarily tossed it into the woods. Problem solved. You're welcome, nature.
Now, of course, we were headed back to my nemesis, FarSide, by way of Damnation. I was getting very frustrated because I felt like I couldn't see anything, and then we realized that my headlamp batteries needed to be replaced. We did that at Damnation, and it was so much easier to see after that.
Well, sort of. One SUPER frustrating thing that was happening was heavy fog rolling in over the course of the night. Wearing a headlamp in fog illuminates all the tiny water particles which then appear to be a tangible thing right in front of your face. I kept finding myself ducking or weaving to avoid hitting the thing in front of me, like it was a tree branch or something else hanging down, but it was really just water particles. It was a constant source of frustration and confusion for my poor tired brain throughout the night.
I tried to keep telling myself that once I got through this trip out and back to FarSide, I just had to do it one more time, but somehow that wasn't reassuring at all. I was pretty quiet during this part of the run, just trying to hold my shit together and practice patience and get through it. The good news is, you can basically just set Melissa to On and she'll talk as long as you need her to. About anything and everything. Some of it was just one-sided, telling me things. Sometimes she'd ask questions. Sometimes I'd respond. If I didn't, sometimes she'd move onto different topics, or sometimes she'd just realize that I wasn't in a place where I could interact, so she'd just talk. Sometimes my response was just to tell her how much my feet hurt, because I was a stellar conversationalist at that point.
And my feet really hurt. There were puddles and mudpits which were somewhat unavoidable, and those plus the hours of rain had gotten my feet fairly wet. Not soaking wet, but just a low-grade wet, which after many hours of running really softens up your feet and causes blisters. I found myself sometimes walking just because my feet hurt, and that scared me. I did NOT want to end up walking the entire last loop. I had this intense fear of doing that, even though I knew people do it all the time. For as much as I was practicing patience, I wasn't sure I had the patience to walk a full loop. It would just take So Very Long. My brain fought hard against that scenario.
And then I fell in the mud. It's actually (spoiler) the only fall I had the entire race, and it wasn't at all the one I was expecting. Tripping over a root? Sure, I was expecting that to happen at some point. I'd already seen one guy fall fairly well in the soft sand, and one girl do a full-on Superman in a kinda sketchy root area. Falling is a given with all those roots. But my fall came in a nasty, disgusting pit of churned up, super-slick mud. If it hadn't been so dark, we probably could have seen that there were many slide marks and buttprints in that mud pit, but I stepped in unaware, and suddenly my feet flew out from under me and I landed on my butt with both hands grabbing into the deep mud. Ugh. And ew.
As I got up, someone else running by said that you could go way around to the side, over a fallen log, and avoid the mud pit a bit. Knowledge which was useful, but would have been even more useful several seconds earlier. We navigated through the rest of the pit, and then started running again as I sorted out what to do about the mud. My butt was covered in mud, but that was no big deal. My headlamp had gotten knocked so it was pointing upward, and I haven't the slightest clue how that happened. I found out later I'd hit a button on my watch to move it to a different screen, though there was no mud on my watch, so again, how did that even happen? And my hands were full of mud. Just.. coated. I spent the next 20 or 30 minutes trying to scrape mud off one hand with the other equally muddy hand, with little success. Melissa gave me one of her wipes, and that really did nothing useful. I threw many handfuls of mud off into the woods. It was.. just gross and frustrating. I was inevitably going to have to wipe my eyes or nose or mouth, and I really didn't want to coat my face in mud.
I managed to cope with it until we finally (FINALLY) got to the FarSide aid station again, and then Melissa used her water bottle to wash down my hands enough to make them tolerable. We both refilled our water, then headed back in.
Which, predictably, took forever. I tried to run when I could, and Melissa kept saying that when I was running, I was keeping a great, steady pace. But the dark was really messing with me, and I was so paranoid about roots and my footing, and now about mud, so each time I'd catch my toe on something, or slide or slip, I'd end up walking again because I was afraid of falling. Get in a great rhythm of running for 5 minutes, then walk for a minute until I regained my courage. Repeat ad nauseum.
My LEGS actually felt pretty good. But my feet were starting to hurt more and more. If I could get started running and get into a rhythm, I could ignore the foot pain and zone out. But then something would break my concentration again, and I'd have to start all over.
And then the poop breaks. Fortunately I never had any intestinal distress, but sometimes my stomach would just be like "Hey, you need to poop, and you're gonna do it soon one way or the other." I'd try to wait for an aid station/portapotty, but then it would become non-optional, so I'd duck off into the woods.
We decided to celebrate the fact that my body was still taking in food and processing it and then eliminating it, just like a normal body, and not completely shutting down because I was stupidly running 100 miles.
Despite all the walking and sliding and pooping, we eventually made it back to Damnation again, and there were Rhonda and Vegas, volunteering! I'd known they were going to be there for the overnight shift, and had been looking forward to seeing them, so this was a nice little boost. We said hi, they made sure we were doing okay, and we headed out.
Damnation to Nature Center was another low point, running when I could, frustrated that I still had so much of this loop left before I had to do ANOTHER WHOLE DAMN LOOP, including the FarSide out and back again. (If you're tired of hearing about the FarSide out and back, just imagine LIVING IN MY HEAD for all of this. It was loud and terrible at times.)
Since this loop had taken so much longer than the previous two, I was running low on food, despite having grabbed my extra food bag from Damnation. So when we got to Nature Center, I shopped for something to eat from the aid station. I was going to grab Another Damn PB&J Square (just kidding, PB&J; I love you still, and you were reliable and good to my stomach the whole race; let's never fight again), as the volunteer rattled off a list of the things they had available. I had been ignoring all the other food all night, so I was about to grab my sandwich square when I heard her say "mashed potatoes". Mashed potatoes? I really like mashed potatoes. And they sounded warm and squishy and easy and salty. So I asked for that, and she returned with a cup of delicious mashed potatoes.
We headed out of Nature Center, finally destined for the start/finish line, and the end of my next to last loop. We walked as I ate mashed potatoes, and I realized there was no way I was going to eat this whole cup (which was only maybe 1/4 full to start). And we'd already passed all the trash cans. And there weren't any trash cans along the course until the end of the loop. I asked Melissa if she'd put the cup in the big pocket of my pack, and she said she'd just carry it. Which is how Melissa found herself running on a trail in the dark in the middle of the night in Huntsville, TX, carrying a cup of mashed potatoes. Living the dream.
I ran as much as I could during this time, and I actually rallied a bit, presumably just knowing that I was almost done with a loop. Plus we swapped some pretty funny stories during that time. Stellar "getting to know you" stories that you're usually probably pretty drunk when you tell other people. Excellent for laughing and passing the time, which is just what I needed then.Okay, so I didn't actually SEE this guy, but at one point Melissa said, "You wore it!" to some people running out as we ran back. I was intently staring at the ground/trying not to blind people with my headlamp, so I didn't see. When I asked about it, she said someone's pacer was wearing a Care Bear onesie. For an entire 25 mile loop. I told Melissa I didn't even realize that was an OPTION, and now I was disappointed in all my pacers.
One of the things Melissa talked about during that time was how your first 100 miler was the perfect time to come up with your "signature finish line move". Like Paul's finish line pushups, or something of that sort. I suggested I already kinda had jazz hands, but she wasn't satisfied with that. I said I often jumped at finish lines, but I really didn't think that was going to be feasible or safe after 100 miles. She asked if I could moonwalk, I assured her I couldn't. She asked if I could do the worm, and I admitted I once could, but hadn't tried in years, and again I wasn't sure that the end of a 100 miler was the time to try it. She finally tabled the discussion when she couldn't come up with anything that sounded realistic and appealing.
But that took us all the way to the end of the 3rd loop! I had run 75 miles. 22 more miles than I'd ever run before.Loop 4
I barely remember this part. It was late and dark and I was tired and so not excited about going back out. But I never considered NOT going back out. I was determined to finish at this point.
I had told Melissa I wanted to lose the jacket tied around my waist, and I wanted her to champion me in that decision if necessary. Evidently I was expecting a fight? But nobody objected. I was so tired of food, I hadn't really come in knowing what I wanted, as I had the last loops. Michael mentioned ramen as people were suggesting things, and I turned to him and asked if he would get me some ramen. Evidently I had decided Michael was my crew, too. He very graciously got me a cup of ramen, and two quesadillas, because either word had gotten out that I was pro-quesadilla, or he's some sort of quesadilla-whisperer.
As my crew did stuff, probably swapping out headlamps and stowing many batteries in backpacks and shoving nutrition places, I ate some of the ramen and a quesadilla, trying not to think about how very not-done I still was. How long I was still going to be on my feet.
We decided that since my feet were hurting so badly, I would take some tylenol. I hadn't taken any drugs so far, and tylenol might help with the foot pain, and likely wouldn't cause me any other harm, given how (relatively) little time I had left.
And then back out onto the trail again, for the last time. This time with Matt! The plan from the very beginning of this ridiculous idea was for Matt to pace me the last loop, and now here we finally were.
I had to give the pacer overview again, warning about slick bridges and muddy bogs, telling him to run behind me (though things were pretty spare at this point, and he was able to run beside-behind me a lot of the time). Then he told me various things that had happened with the crew and other races while I'd been running. I told him various things that had happened to me while I had been running. And then I started telling him the stories that Melissa had just told me, because when you run with someone you hang out with every day, sometimes you have to steal stories from other people to get fresh material.
I was walking more and more, getting clumsier and more awkward on my painful feet. Amazingly, I was still eating every 30 minutes. In fact, I was eating so much, I was actually running low on food. We had already ransacked my spare food from my Damnation drop bag, and as we went through Nature Center, we stole that food, too. No sense taking it back home, after all. Sometimes I would get hungry between feedings and eat an EXTRA GU. Who does that? This girl. Am I the only person to potentially gain weight during a 100 miler, other than through something like hyponatremia? Possibly so. (I don't actually know if I gained or lost weight, but I sure felt bloated.)
One place I completely failed was salt. I was taking it every 2 hours, and that worked for the first 12 hours. Then I maybe took 2 or 3 more salt pills for the remainder of the run. I just couldn't remember to pay attention that closely to the time. Watch beeps: eat. That was firmly in my brain. But I didn't really look at the TIME when it beeped, so I didn't take salt. Then I'd randomly remember, but it wouldn't be at a half hour or hour, so I'd say "Well, I'll just wait until the next feed, and get back on schedule." Then completely forget. The good news is, I never had any cramping from my lack of salt pills. The bad news is, in the last few hours, I was having to pee CONSTANTLY. I was still drinking dutifully, and the water was just going straight through me. The good news is, there were so few people out, I could just pee on the side of the trail without anyone (other than Matt) seeing me.
So I ran and I walked and I ran and I walked. I would sometimes force myself to run just by being so tired of being out there, and trying to make it END already, dammit. Through Damnation again, and hugs and cheers from Vegas and Rhonda. I completely lost the word "Damnation" around this time. I'd try to reference it, and I'd come up with "Deception". "Tarnation." "Consarnit." "Drperceptron." So many things, and I just couldn't retain "Damnation". Even now, I JUST typed "Deception" and had to go back and correct it.
Oh, I did sit down for the first and only time this loop (other than the portapotty). Even though my feet hurt, I could mostly force myself to run through the pain. Then I got something in my shoe that was rubbing up against my fourth toe on my left foot. I tried to shift my foot around in my shoe to get the object in a more tolerable place, but I just couldn't do it. So after 5 minutes or so of extra pain from this object, I finally told Matt I needed to take my shoe off and get this object out. I think he was hesitant, because taking off your shoes is bad unless you really, really need to, but I knew that with this thing in my shoe, I was going to have to walk. Just too painful otherwise. So we stopped and I sat on a log and we got my shoe off. Immediately debris fell out, which was probably the culprit. Then we cleaned up my sock more, and crammed my shoe back on. And it was great after that. I mean, my feet were still in agony, but with that thing gone, I could run again.
And then the sun came up.
Everyone had told me things would get better when the sun came up, but (a) it was impossible to wrap my brain around the fact the sun would ever come up, and that it would ever be light again, and (b) people lie to you a lot when they're trying to encourage you to continue doing something hard.
But slowly it got lighter and lighter, and then it was light enough to take off our headlamps. AND MY HAT. That hat saved my race. I appreciate that the hat allowed me to comfortably wear my headlamp with no forehead pain and no annoying sliding around. But that hat was way, way too warm for the weather, and taking it off felt amazing.
The sun came up at a very fortuitous time: on our way out to FarSide for the last time. Being able to see again raised my very low spirits, and helped convince me that I might be able to finish this and FINALLY STOP RUNNING. Actually, it convinced me that I COULD run again. Now that I could see, the paranoia was basically gone, and I was willing to run through areas I would have walked in the dark.
This is also where the brain weirdness really started. I was a little excited, going into this race, to see what my brain would do when it was really, really tired and sleep deprived. And honestly so far it was a little disappointing. I hadn't seen any spooky eyes looking back at me from the trees. I hadn't seen any rhinoceri out of the corner of my eye. Honestly, I didn't even really feel "tired", in the "sleepy" sense. I didn't want to just lay down and sleep on the trail. I was fine to stay awake. But with the weird light of early morning and my tired eyes and exhausted brain, I started to see things that weren't there. Or rather, miss-see things that were there. I'd see a person standing off the trail up ahead, but it would be a stump. I'd see birds clustered on the trail, but it was roots. We got to one mud pit, and I came to a screeching halt, Matt almost running me down. I looked at the mud pit, and I couldn't make sense of it. It looked like it had two thin paths through it that were dirt instead of mud, but if I turned my head, the whole thing kinda SHIFTED, and I couldn't focus my eyes directly on it. It's pointless to attempt to explain it, I couldn't describe it even then. I just told Matt he was going to have to lead us through that, and I'd stick straight on his heels, because I just could not make my brain process that image into a solid picture. So bizarre, and also kinda fun. THESE were the brain shenanigans I had been hoping for!
We made it out to FarSide. Refilled my water, and Matt said to go on ahead while he used his phone to check in with the crew and let them know we were on our way back. He caught up, and we settled into a kinda weird yoyo maneuver. I was running a lot more than I had been in the dark, and my running speed at that point was just a little too fast for his fast-walking pace, but awkward for his slow-running pace. So he'd walk and I'd pull ahead, then he'd run to catch up to me, repeat. Because the pace was awkward for him, he was catching his toe on a lot of roots and rocks, and stumbling a lot, which was making me nervous and wanting to turn around and make sure he was okay. We were a weary, exhausted comedy of errors out there.
As we came to the hill leading back up to Decep.. er.. Damnation, a guy passed us and said something about how if we pushed, we could still make it under the cut off.
Not making it under the cut off wasn't even on my radar as a thing that could happen. I knew the first two loops had taken me just under 12 hours, but I really hadn't paid any attention to how long the 3rd loop had taken, or how long the 4th loop was currently taking. Right then, a woman passed me and mentioned something about how we were just fine for the 10:30 Damnation cut off.
Now I could SEE Damnation at this point, and it was XX:08:XX on my watch, so I knew that even if this Damnation cut off she was mentioning was in 22 minutes, I could make it. But suddenly I realized that maybe I had done too much walking, and I was going to have to find another gear to make sure I finished under the 30 hour cut off. If I recall correctly, and the odds of that are probably low, I basically had 2.5 hours to go from Damnation to the finish line. Which sounded like a lot, but I wasn't sure how far it was from Damnation to the finish line, so I decided caution was the better part of valor.
And I ran.
I ran up the hill to Damnation, and when I got there, Matt pressed some of his GU into my hands (I had completely run out of the food I was carrying) and said, "Go, I'll catch up."
So I went. My feet felt like they were on fire, but I ran. If it was a particularly tall hill (some people would argue there are no tall hills in Huntsville State Park, but those people hadn't run 90 miles), or a particularly menacing hunk of roots, I'd slow down, but otherwise I ran.
Matt caught up and told me that it should be less than 7 miles from Damnation to the finish line, and that as long as I was doing under 20 minute miles, I should be fine. But I was running scared at that point. And annoyed with myself for having fallen so far behind without realizing it. And more than anything, I just wanted to be done. So I ran.
Matt stayed close to me, but neither of us were talking at that point. I was too focused on staying upright and pushing through the pain. We passed several people who were trying to walk purposefully, fighting the same demons and finish line cut offs that we were.
It was frustrating that I was moving well, but it was still taking so long to get from Damnation to Nature Center. Also frustrating that I had to keep eating. I was ready to go into "I'm almost there, it doesn't matter anymore" mode, but I still had a long time to go, and couldn't afford a calorie deficit, or dehydration. So I dutifully ate every time my watch beeped, even though I had started gagging a little each time I ate something. The food stayed down once it was in, but it sure didn't want to go in.
Finally I turned the corner to cross the road to Nature Center. I had pulled ahead of Matt a bit, so we hadn't discussed what I needed at Nature Center, but the only thing I planned to do was hit one final portapotty and then go. I had enough water and food to get me to the finish line, and I didn't want to stop for any longer than necessary.
So my head was down and I was focused on the portapotty on the other end of the aid station, when I heard cheering. A lot of cheering. And there were my people! I couldn't even process who all was there, but there were a lot of them, and one of them was ROBYN! It nearly broke my brain at first, because of course Robyn was there, she had been there before. Except that had been an entire day ago. She had gone home! To sleep! Like normal people who are just living their lives and not stupidly running in endless circles in the dark! But now here she was again! I was so happy to see everyone.
But also super focused, so I don't even know what I said or did, other than kept running past them all and into the portapotty. My hands barely functioning to untie and then later retie the drawstring of my shorts, but I got in and out as quickly as my body would let me. As I ran out, tying my shorts, I hooked a left and immediately started running down the trail, trusting that Matt was nearby and would follow me. Instead I heard Matt's voice yell from the distance, something like, "This was the plan! I love you!" and then Melissa appeared beside me.
I had no idea why I'd swapped pacers, but I couldn't be bothered to be too concerned, other than verifying that as far as she knew, Matt wasn't injured. She didn't think so, just said she'd been called in to run me to the finish line, so I put that out of my head and concentrated on running.
And I ran nearly the entire 3.7 miles back to the finish line. I mean, we're using the term "running" very loosely here. I was exhausted and sore and awkward, but what I was doing was notably, mostly, not walking. I was proud of how well I was still moving. And Melissa remarked on it, which helped me confirm that I wasn't just hallucinating my running.
I don't even know what we talked about in those last 3 miles, or if we did talk. It's a blur. I do remember she revisited the signature finish line move, and offered forth a few new suggestions, like parking a semi just before the finish line, full of 30 dogs. And then when I got close, someone would hand me 30 leashes, and I'd run those dogs across the finish line. I pointed out that maybe that was a little too much chaos to be realistic, and plus I wasn't sure you were even supposed to have dogs in the finish area. She remarked that my brain still worked awfully well for someone who had run nearly 100 miles.
I'm not sure if we talked about other things, but Melissa kept telling me how well I was doing. I used her words and her strength to keep pushing myself. I felt like maybe I'd started my finish line push a little too early (er.. kinda from Damnation, I guess), and now I wasn't sure I could maintain this. I knew that I didn't need to "run" as "fast" as I was, but it felt amazing to be so strong at the end of something so difficult. It felt amazing to BE at the end of something so difficult. I could finally wrap my head around the fact that I was going to FINISH this thing. That it would be over. That I could stop running. At some points it felt like maybe this was my life, forever. But I practiced patience, and I had made it.
We ran over the bridges that, for me, marked the beginning of the end. I was going to finish this.
We hit a small uphill, and I let myself fall to a walk briefly. And immediately we saw Julie playing lookout up in the Birthday Squad zone, so I HAD to start running again. Then through the cheering Birthday Squad one final time, bookending my journey. We had decided that, even though it was now February 4th, that it was still my birthday until my run was over. And my birthday was almost over.
Around the corner, and onto the home stretch. There's a small hill that's not even a hill until you're in your 99th mile, but keeps you from seeing the actual finish line at first. Melissa had told me that the finish line could see the runners before the runners realized they could be seen, and they'd see all the runners walking until they realized they could be seen, then breaking into a run. I started to walk, and then said, "Crap, when can they see me?!" and she said, "Now! They can see your head!" so I had to keep running.
Up the hill, across the street, and then the finish line just ahead. Just one final time across the timing mat and through the arch. As I got closer, I could see my people up at the finish line, and they were cheering loudly and yelling for me. Through the yelling, I heard Karen's voice say, "Amy, there's a dog you can pet!" Sure enough, there was a runner who had already finished in one of the tents before the finish line, and she was holding her dog on a leash. I waved to the dog as we approached, and Melissa said, "Do you want to run with the dog to the finish line?" I had no idea what she meant at first, but the answer to "do you want to XYZ with a dog" for any value of XYZ is never no, so I said Yes!I believe we are in the Dog Negotiation Phase at this moment.
She turned to the owner of the dog and asked if we could take her dog and run across the finish line, and she looked equally confused, but then said yes, her dog loved to run! So she handed me the leash, and my new dog friend and I ran over the finish line together! (The dog was like, "Ugh, why are you so SLOW? Go go go go!")Runnin' like I stole it. Where "it" is "some stranger's dog".
And so I ran 100 miles.
Melissa was pleased that I found my signature finish line move (run with stolen dog across the finish line, I guess?), but as I was being given my finisher's belt buckle, I said, "Hold onto that for one second.." and I went back to the finish line. Everyone was looking at me in confusion. Especially when I flopped down on my stomach in the dirt and did the worm. And I must say, I felt like I did a passable job, given that I'd run 100 miles! Of course, everyone figured I'd crossed the finish line, they were done with their phones, so there's no video evidence, but Matt did manage to catch what may be my favorite picture of the whole experience.Maybe my favorite picture of myself ever.
And THEN I got my finisher's belt buckle.The dirt on my butt is from falling, the dirt on the backs of my legs is from running in the mud, the dirt on the front of my legs is from doin' the worm.
My finishing time was 29:12:59, so I definitely didn't need to push as hard as I did at the end to come in under 30 hours. But it felt amazing (if incredibly painful) to push at the end of something so big.
I had said that I would be happy as long as I came in under 30 hours, and I am, but at first I was a little dismayed with my splits. 05:34:00, 06:24:44, 08:23:14, 08:51:01. That's some pretty damn positive splits, and I wished I could have run a little more consistent splits. Then I looked at a random sampling of other peoples' splits, and realized that's just how these things go. Everyone slows down after loop 2, when it gets dark. I'm actually pleased at how close loop 4 was to loop 3, which was probably entirely due to my push at the end.
And Melissa pointed out that I FINISHED. It's not necessarily common to actually finish/come in under the time cutoff on your first 100 miler. Add to that, of the 350ish people who started the race, only 201 finished under the time cutoff (or finished at all). 100 milers usually have a pretty high DNF rate, but this was even higher because of the rain and the mud.
So I'm proud. I am. On some level I don't really even believe that I did it. Running 100 miles doesn't sound like something I could do. But I have the shiny belt buckle which seems to indicate that I did. And the terrible blisters.So shiny. I so don't even own a belt.
Some time during loop 2, when I was at my lowest, I decided this was definitely a one-and-done sort of thing, if I managed to "done" it at all. Melissa said that would change, and maybe it will. I'm now at the point where I'm not saying never, but I'm not googling "100 milers" and finding my next race. I'm not sure I'd do Rocky again, because there's some pretty intense demons still there. I'm not sure I'd do a looped course again. I could maybe wrap my head around a single loop, where you see everything once. Or one out and back. Maybe in some beautiful mountains (except that usually means elevation, and I've already proven I'm bad at that).
For now I'm just focusing on walking normally again. And getting ready for SwimRun Lake James in early April.
So many people helped me get to the start line, and then get to the finish line, and it's a little overwhelming to thank all of them by name. But special thanks to Coach Russ Secker for handing me the plan that got me through this race in such good shape. Thanks to my pacers, Karen and Melissa, for tolerating me, encouraging me, and seeing me safely through the woods in the dark. Thanks to my bonus crew, Ryan and Michael, who didn't sign up for helping me, but did it anyway. Thank you to Betsy, David, Julie, and Richard for spending so much of your weekend standing in the woods with balloons and beads, and cheering so enthusiastically for me. Thank you to Robyn, Dave, Thomas, and William for the cheers and hugs, and extra double thanks to Robyn for coming BACK. (Though you got a BB-8 backpack out of it, so it wasn't completely selfless.) Thank you to Mike V., who was out crewing for someone else, but cheered for me like he was my own. Thank you to all of the volunteers, who were AMAZING. They were out there all day in the rain and dirt just to help a bunch of strangers realize their dreams.Some crew, some pacers, some fans.
Thank you to all the other runners. Since every bit of that course was an out and back, we all saw each other innumerable times, and each time, everyone was so encouraging. I came up with names for everyone (Kilt Guy, Tutu Girl, One of These Guys Must Be Gordon..), and they all became my new friends, even if they didn't know who I was.
Thank you to everyone who donated to Austin Pets Alive! I donated $100 to APA for my birthday, one dollar for every mile I intended to run, and I invited others to help motivate me by making their own donations. I ambitiously set my fundraising cap at $1000, and my donations had exceeded that before the race even started. All told, my birthday run raised $2030 for APA, and the best birthday present I've ever gotten was the gift of helping $2030 worth of dogs and cats.
And finally, all the rest of my thanks go to Matt. He got me through the training, crewing for my training runs, grocery shopping when I was exhausted, feeding the dogs when I got up stupidly early to run. He organized all of my stuff for the race. He set up an amazing crew HQ all by himself. He wouldn't let me carry a single thing the entire race weekend, before or after. He was out there and awake every single minute that I was. And he ran me through the night and into the morning. He is the main reason I was able to run 100 miles, and I could not have done it without him.