Hitting the Reset

“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?

Yes.

Did I accomplish a greater feat than I ever have before?

Absolutely.

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?

Most likely.

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.

Getting Fuzzy: Our First Trail 50k

As we embraced at church, Matt whispered the following into my ear: “You fucking asshole…”

Not your typical Sunday morning greeting, no.

What elicited Matt’s observation was his realization I initiated the hug just to dig my finger into his right quadricep where he ached the most. At least that’s where I guessed he hurt, having done a little jaunt with him the day before. Well, it wasn’t a jaunt exactly, and one could better describe the soreness in our legs as throbbing pain.

We took on the Fuzzy Fandango 50k, a 32-mile trail run through the hills of the Mohican-Memorial State Forest. With a starting line aiming us straight up the ski slope of Clear Fork Adventure Resort and more than 4,000 feet of total elevation gain, the Fuzzy took us eight hours, fourteen minutes, and change to complete. If you imagine running from San Diego, California to Tijuana, Mexico while climbing up and down all 102 stories of the Empire State building nearly four times, that should give you a sense of the challenge we and 66 other runners paid to face on November 10, 2018. That also happens to be the first day we got snow this season as the temperature only climbed to a touch above 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

If this sounds miserable to you, don’t stop reading. I tell you this not to alienate you, but to get you to understand that choosing to go through that pain and cold for all those hours while moving over that distance was one of the worst experiences of my life.

It sucked so much!

It was also transcendent.

Mohican-Memorial forest is one of my favorite places. At 4,525 acres, this preserved woodland in Ashland County would easily swallow up the nearby county seat; Ashland, Ohio. For whatever reason, upon hearing the word, ‘forest,’ my mind retrieves an image of a flat plain with trees. Probably because I grew up in the glaciated portion of Ohio.

Mohican is unglaciated, which means the topography rolls like a bowling ball with one flattened side. We’re not talking hills and valleys with whispering streams. Yeah, it’s got those, but it also has towering granite formations, drop-offs that’ll kill you, channels of water large enough to sweep you away, and an aid station where the guy handed me a shot of bourbon. It’s a wondrous place, and when we ran it, the forest floor was blanketed with newly-fallen leaves beneath trees still ablaze with color. In other areas, even as the scent of pine pricked your nose, your ears strained to pick up familiar sounds now dampened by the brown needles below and the green ones everywhere else. We passed boulders adorned with icicles and a waterfall plummeting more than two stories. I know, because I climbed the several flights of steps that took you from the base of the cascade to its pinnacle.

Laura, wife-for-life, wanted to have two children, a girl and a boy, but desired twins, so she would only have to experience pregnancy once. She knew the toll it would take on her body, that it would be one of the most difficult things she’d ever choose to do, and she was correct.

We did have two children, a girl and a boy, but they weren’t twins. Laura went through pregnancy twice to get what she wanted. As one incapable of sacrificing my life to allow another to gestate within, I can’t describe the discomfort, emotional trauma, and pain my wife went through to allow our children to live. I can communicate what I witnessed her face and what she shared with me, sometimes in tears. And it was hard, soul-wrenching, tearing pain. But then each time it was over, and she held this helpless, wailing, flailing life that needed her like no one else. And there was healing in the holding — all the pain forgotten in joy. Even ten years later, there’s nothing Laura wouldn’t do for Maggie. To keep Asher safe, Laura will fight anyone and anything to her dying breath.

No, I’m not comparing running an ultra-marathon to giving birth. Are you nuts?!? I’m just illustrating how going through pain and sacrificing for something you desire changes you, creating unbreakable bonds.

Think about your closest friends. Likely, you know them from work or school. Maybe you grew up with them. I challenge you to identify one friend with whom you did not go through some shit. Name someone you hold dear that did not see you through difficulty in your life.

Please. Allow me to go one step further. Identify someone you hold dear, your best friend or even the family member you love the most, and think about all the trauma the two of you faced together. Is it a significant amount? I bet so.

My best friends are the people with whom I run on a regular basis. When you spend hours at a time with someone on the trail, you end up sharing what’s going on in your life. Not only do you face the miles and the hills and the temperatures and the weather and the sleep deprivation together, you face the trouble you’re having at work. You share how you’re trying to fix the condo after the pipes backed up and sewage flooded your basement. You share trying to get your MFA while working full-time and how you’re not sure you’re going to make it. You ask if it’s normal to yell at your wife about weeding the flower beds then breaking down in tears. That is normal, right?

Running the Fuzzy Fandango 50k showed me I can do something most perceive as impossible, but I did it with my good friend, Matt, pictured above, who cussed me out in church. He’s my friend who’s seen me through all the moments I listed above along with innumerable others over the last five years.

Yeah, there were points in the race where we descended slopes like little kids, allowing gravity to pull us forward, arms windmilling, trying to step fast enough so we didn’t fall and giggling as our stomachs achieved weightlessness. There were other moments, though, where we hit a series of switchbacks ascending a slope we thought would never end. These weren’t amiable switchbacks either. They were the sort where you put your head down and dig into it like a kid trying to get through a plate of brussel sprouts, the only option being to keep trudging.

I could say I took up running nearly a decade ago because I hit my early thirties, and they hit me with a slowed metabolism. That was a motivating factor, but the SOLE reason I took up running was because my friend, Josh, challenged me to run a half-marathon with him. This hobby that’s now core to my identity started as a challenge from a friend with whom I still see multiple times a week to accumulate mileage.

Having spent the majority of my existence running from challenges, my pursuit of ultra-running makes little sense. Teenage me thought it quite clever to tell others I was “allergic to pain.” Afraid I wasn’t good enough to do them well, I always put off assignments until the last minute, making them that much more difficult. Despite this, I got good grades, graduating summa cum lauda and going on to earn two master’s degrees.

I’m good at running. It’s one of the few things in my life I no longer put off or avoid, and I keep elevating my goals, such as breaking a four hour marathon or choosing tougher races and longer distances. Maybe I’m still trying to prove to myself I am good enough. Maybe I enjoy doing my best when things get toughest. Maybe I only like to do what I’m good at, and I use running to avoid areas in which I think I’ll fail. You know what? Let’s go with Option D: All of the above.

Matt and I spent all day traversing the trail. Day dawned as they bussed us to the starting line, and dusk settled as we crossed the finish line. Our saving grace? The aid stations where volunteers greeted us with cheers and the smell of hot ramen noodles. They refilled our hydration packs and made us PB & J, grilled cheese sammiches, and quesadillas so fresh, they were too hot to eat. At one stop, I enjoyed a Gatorade slushy.

Crossing the finish line, friends offered celebratory beer and pats on the back. Inside the warm lodge, a stranger bought me a sticker featuring an illustration of the race’s mascot in red; a smiling, cartoon puffball with hand lifted in greeting and fairy wings. We ate warm chili heaped high with corn chips, shredded cheddar, and sour cream. I downed one beer while walking the ten steps to get my chili, then enjoyed another as I replenished my calories. Friends we’d just met, known for months, and acquired on the trail regaled each other with stories. I changed into warm clothes and headed back outside to join the impromptu finish line party gathered around a fire pit. We cheered the last of the runners then met up for dinner later that evening.

At one point along the course, Matt’s stomach turned sour, and he told me to go on ahead. I refused and slowed to match his pace, as we had agreed to run the Fuzzy together weeks before, so we walked several miles through the pines before arriving at the aid station with the grilled cheese. Both of us ate, and Matt bounced back, running through the finish.

Friends help see each other through the shit, and Lord willing, we’re going to face even more together, because moving forward with friends strengthens your heart, and the more confidence you gain through putting one foot in front of the other, the more of life you can face, heads held high.

Weekend Plans

You know that feeling you get when you’re working up the nerve to ask someone out? Where you can feel the clockwork in your brain gearing from one function to another while the blood pumps through your hands at such a rate, it seems you could click your chopsticks together to find a housefly pinched between them recalling each of the faces of his 500 children before he heads to that great trash heap in the sky? I’ve got that, the feeling of near panic mixed with equal parts trepidation and glee where the brain recognizes the body’s about to endure an ordeal and has initiated a shot of adrenaline.

Don’t get anxious. I’m not facing any danger…yet. I’ve just finished packing my bags for a weekend trip to Niagara with the wife and a few friends. No, we’re not having an intervention. No, I’m not crossing the border to disappear into the Canadian wilderness. My friends and I are going for a run. A 50K. Thirty-one miles. On foot. In one go.

I teach eighth-grade English, so I’m used to people looking at me with incredulity seasoned with pity, and when I’ve shared my weekend plans, people’s reactions seem all too familiar.

“You’re going to do what?”

“How far?”

“I could do that. In my car!”

“Are you ready?”

That last question is the most pertinent as well as the most difficult to answer. I’ve run marathons before, including a marathon-distance training run just a few weeks ago, and the 50K is only five miles further than that, but I don’t know if I’m ready or not. This weekend will see me start my first ultramarathon, but I’m not certain I’ll finish.

Have I trained harder for this than any race I’ve done prior?

Yes.

Have I been getting plenty of sleep and kept myself hydrated?

Yes.

Is there a pain in my right foot, and did I experience a twinge in my left calf on a run not too long ago, hearkening back to injuries I suffered fours years ago that put me on crutches?

Why, yes. That’s an oddly specific question. You’re very perceptive.

That’s what’s got me nervous. Have I pushed my body too far, and instead of building it up for this race, have I pushed it to the point where it’s going to crumble beneath me?

I don’t know; no one does.

There’s only one way to find out.