“Sometimes it’s like hitting the reset button,” a bodiless voice called out of the darkness behind me. Whichever runner offered this encouragement, I’ll never know as I had my back to him, heaving up the Honey Stinger Waffle and Tailwind I’d just consumed. I was 22 miles into the Hallucination 100-miler and started wondering what was wrong with me.
I signed up for the race five months prior, enlisting the aid of a buddy with several 100-mile finishes as well as one 200-miler. With a change in career, I had more time to train and wanted to know of what I was capable. A rack in my basement hangs heavy with ribbons and hunks of metal, wood, glass, ceramic, and even a coonskin cap commemorating the races I’ve completed, including several marathons and even a fair few 50k’s. They weren’t ever easy, but at each event, I’ve crossed the finish line with a smile, knowing I’d be completing other races soon thereafter. Running keeps me happy and healthy, injecting adventure into days that I would otherwise spend on the couch with a beer in one hand and a controller in the other.
The platitude, “do the thing that scares you,” has been echoing in my head over the last several years, leading to me to push past the comfortable and conventional and compelling me to consider the complicated and the crazy, such as completing the 200-mile Pelotonia ride last month. Since taking up running in 2010, my body befuddles me with its ability to go further and faster, recovering far sooner that I’d expect. If I can do THIS, of what ELSE am I capable? Signing up for Hallucination seemed challenging enough. I’d be pushing my limits, yet it was practical as well, as I know several runners who view their 100-mile finisher’s buckles as the crown jewels of their medal collections.
Therefore, puking my racing fuel into the ditch four miles short of marathon distance threw me off with as much force as a brahma bull. Eating and drinking every 45 minutes is what I’ve always done. I’m not even running that hard. Am I sick? Should I not have filled up my hydration bladder from the sink at the campground? We’re not that far from Flint. The emails said to bring water for camping. Was that because the water isn’t potable? Dean Karnazes had to drop out of his first Badwater because drinking out of that water hose made him sick. Will I throw up again? I’m not okay; I feel off. Maybe if I get this loop done, I can complete the 50k and just sleep in the tent tonight. Getting a 50k done with stomach issues is plenty, right?
That’s the cycle of thinking I got stuck in for the next few miles. When tripping on a root sent me to my knees, my right leg cramped, confirming to my already anxious mind that things had gone sideways, and that stopping was probably the best option.
None of this happened at the Eagle Up Ultra where I’d run 50 miles back in the spring and stopped, not because I didn’t have more miles in me, but because Laura and the kids awaited me at the finish, and I wanted to go out to dinner and spend the evening with them. I felt stronger running those 50 miles than I did running the double 50k’s just the winter before.
Now I was done. With doubt plaguing me, I staggered to the next aid station, sure I could do no more. Nevermind I’d run the first loop of 17 miles in four hours, well ahead of the allotted time. My body betrayed me. I’d gotten sick. Time to pack it in. And I would have…
If not for that aid station volunteer who put up with zero of my horseshit.
I stepped over the timing mats as everyone beneath the white pavilion cheered, celebrating my arrival.
“How’re you doing?”
“Not well.” I sidestepped another runner to sink into the nearest folding chair.
“What’s going on, buddy?”
I don’t remember verbatim how our conversation went, but I do recall telling the volunteer I’d thrown up and expressed my doubts about continuing. When another runner tried to share a story of one of his buddies experiencing stomach issues in another race, she cut him off and told me I could sit for five minutes. Seeing I was no longer on my feet, a third runner tried to tell me it was a bad idea to sit down. Frustrated, I told him I understood that. He backed off, and the volunteer handed me a saltine. “Eat this.”
“How does your stomach feel now?” I chewed the cracker, responding that my stomach seemed to be fine. “That’s good.” She handed me a second cracker.
At no point did she give me choices, just facts. Willing me to look her in the eye, she affirmed, “You look really strong. Get to the next aid station; it’s just four miles from here.” I stood up, drank two pre-poured cups of Coke, and trotted off as she called after me, “We’ll see you again.”
And I kept going.
It’s been said that small decisions matter, that wars aren’t won on the strategy laid out by generals but on the everyday choices of the enlisted. Getting up and continuing on was a small decision I made, the only choice with which I was presented, really, but it proved the volunteer right. I did see her again, twice in fact. Her telling me the truth when all I felt was despair was the reset my mind so desperately needed.
Now, if this were a Disney movie, I would’ve gone on to not only finish the Hallucination 100 but in the process would have set the course record, aided by a wolf I found injured in the woods. Last time I checked, though, my name’s not Natty Gann, and injured wolves tend to maul people.
In real life, I tagged up with Jim, a fellow first time 100-miler, and we paced each other through most of the rest of the night until, complaining of blisters at mile 47, he encouraged me to go on without him.
That I did, for 20 more miles.
Bartending for six hours can leave my feet sore. Doing a trail run in excess of 20 hours makes me ache from the waist down, so I slowed my roll to a pace of 20 minutes per mile, missing the noon cutoff by more than an hour.
When I came out of the woods, Laura was there to capture my rapture on camera. Only thing was, I was no longer smiling. As I passed, one spectator remarked to another, “That’s what death face looks like.”
Crossing the finish, I announced to the volunteer who approached me with a medal, “I’m done; dropping down from the 100-miler to the 100k.”
With an enormous smile and a hug I didn’t expect, she announced, “You did such a good job; come get something to eat.”
Banana in hand and Laura directing me to a shady spot, I removed my shirt and shoes and laid down in the grass, it’s coolness a welcome respite from the grind.
Though not the distance for which I signed up, doing Hallucination marked the first time I ever ran from sundown to sunrise and provided a new PR for distance of 67.25 miles in 21 hours, 10 minutes, and 42 seconds. I also found my limits and one spot of chafing on my left hip. Other than that, I left unscathed. No blisters, not even a hotspot — miraculous — that or I didn’t push nearly as hard as I could’ve.
Prior to the event, Laura told me how training for the 100-miler took me away from other things, and we agreed that this would be my last one. I asked her if this meant I was only going to run 5k’s from here on out, but she assured me she was fine with me continuing to do marathons. “Can I still do 50k’s?”
“Those are fine. Just no more 100-milers.”
Every time I came out of the woods, Laura was there taking care of me, handing me socks, bringing food, and kissing me, letting me know she loved me no matter how bad I smelled. 11:00 pm? She was there. 7:05 the next morning? Throwing down the folding chair she’d brought for herself, she ensured I was seated comfortably and brought me pancakes, scrambled eggs, and half a cup of coffee. “I wasn’t sure how your stomach was, so I only filled it up half-way. Do you want some more?”
Back at our tent, Laura continued caring for me, bringing me drinks she’d chilled precisely for this moment and handing me items just beyond my reach, as getting back out of my chair proved to be an arduous task.
After showering and brushing my teeth (Oh, sweet relief!), whenever I nodded off, Laura let me sleep, no matter how oddly my head bobbed. She also packed up our campsite by herself and drove us home, letting me lie down in the passenger seat to snooze throughout the four-hour drive, pushing away her own weariness in the process.
With better preparation and training, I could’ve completed the Hallucination 100, but without that volunteer, Jim’s encouragement, and Laura’s sacrifice, I would never have made it as far as I did.
Did I fail to meet my goal?
Did I accomplish a greater feat than I ever have before?
Have Laura and I agreed on how much running is healthy not only for me but for our family as a whole?
We sure did.
Will I sign up for my next 50k this weekend?
Is Laura considering the nine-miler at the same event, marking the longest distance she’d have ever run?
With the right people in your corner, you can accomplish astounding things.