There was no turning back now.
I listened to other runners talk on the shuttle to the start about their own experiences with other 100's, precisely what I expected to hear in precisely the "know all, tell all" tone I expected to hear it in. It was almost like deja vous except that I wanted to laugh because it seemed so comical. How on earth could one possibly know what to expect? Distant thunder and lightning set my mood for the start, and I climbed off the bus into a sea of darkness illuminated by what seemed like a thousand headlamps and flashlights, and the barely lit faces of an infinity of people I did not recognize. By the time I made it up to Squire's Castle, I finally picked out a few familiar faces: Andy Emerson, Mike Shaughnessy, George Themelis, and Michelle Fortuna. I nervously fumbled around in the zip-pocket of one of my hand-held bottles and stammered something about my printed pace charts (none of which I'd ever use) that I'd made for 26, 27, and 28 hour finishes, assuming, of course, that a finish slower than 28 hours wasn't worth considering.
at the start with Andy Emerson who would finish in 22:00
As the start sounded and runners took off, I immediately felt completely out of my element. I spent the first 5 miles or so just trying to find my race legs, like an old rusty machine that had been oiled but hadn't quite worked itself back up to snuff. I ran the greater portion of this 6.2 mile segment with George and Hope Bradley and finally started to settle into a good running pace near the end of it. I found most of this segment very runnable, even though it had rained considerably the night before. The trail wasn't particularly muddy, and there were only a couple of noticeable climbs that had to be walked. I didn't wear a watch (you read that correct: no watch), but I heard the woman in front of me telling someone else that we were averaging a little over 9:30 pace (which was incorrect; my split for this segment shows a pace closer to 11:30), which I thought was a bit fast for trail miles.
The second segment led us onto the road for a stretch that seemed to extend into the next galaxy. While these were easy miles, I maintained a rather slow pace which, I'm assuming by the speed trap on the road that danced between 6 and 7 mph as I approached and ran by, were still in the 9:30-10 minute range. I reached the aid station around 12.5 miles hungry, but felt nauseated staring at a spread of candy, cookies, and brownies. I had my water bottles refilled, grabbed a few chips, and took off toward the Polo Fields aid station.
This segment was easily as boring as the one before, and nothing of real significance occurred. I continued on at the same familiar pace, still on the road, walking the uphill stretches. Turning into the Polo Field aid station parking lot, I was overwhelmed by the number of people waiting; I hadn't expected such a large gathering of people, and felt somewhat uncomfortable by all the attention. I ate about five large pieces of watermelon and refilled my water bottles, and continued on my way to Harper Ridge Picnic (23 miles), which would turn out to be the only text notification any of my friends/family received about my progress.
It was on this segment that the fate of my feet was sealed, I believe, because I encountered a creek that, while weeks earlier was easily passable without getting wet, now appeared to be a bottomless channel into the abyss. Approaching this monstrosity, complete with a raging current, my eyes darted left and right for something I might be able to use as a bridge, but my eyes failed me and I prepared myself for the worst. Watching as the man in front of me sunk thigh-deep, I plunged in, my poor Saucony trail shoes transformed from the love of my trail life into million pound weights that I was going to have to carry on my feet for miles until I reached my first drop bag at Shadow Lake (26.2 miles). Despite this set back, however, I was still making great time. I chatted with a few other runners from time to time, and saw a few familiar figures pass me with a happy "hello", and I felt really good, and incredibly optimistic.
I don't recall any particularly difficult climbs during this segment and that leading up to Shadow Lake, which I reached far ahead of pace in 5:02. I ate some more fruit here, refilled my water bottles again, and undertook the task of making my first shoe change. Without a crew, planning shoes appropriately escalated into a disaster. I'd placed my Brooks Pure Grit shoes in this bag, falsely assuming I wasn't going to need to change shoes at all, much less at 26.2 miles. I like these shoes on the road, but not on trails, especially after rain because they're lacking in grip, and within minutes of leaving the aid station they didn't fail me in this regard. After leaving the aid station at Shadow Lake, runners approach a series of steps that lead down to the trail, and the moment my foot hit the second step, I was on my butt at the speed of light. It hurt bad, and unfortunately the moment I stood up and stepped down to the next step, my legs were up in the air again and I landed on my rear end so hard I forgot where I was for a second and had a headache for the next ten minutes.
I walked off my fall for about a minute or two and then began to run again as this section was scenic and mostly flat. Still moving at a good pace, I reached the 31 mile aid station in just over 6 hours in the best mood yet, feeling more confident than ever that this was going to be a great race. In hindsight, I'd say I was bordering between runner's high and delusional considering I wasn't even a third of the way into the race and was fully aware that the worst portions of the course were yet to come, but at the time none of that mattered. I continued my rookie mistake of undereating (more watermelon), spent entirely too long waiting on a non-runner to exit the bathroom so I could use it, and then headed out again.
The miles between Egbert Shelter (31 miles) and Ottawa Point (46.7) are somewhat of a blur. There was another water crossing that far surpassed the plunge into the abyss, followed by a hand-and-foot climb up the steepest hill of the entire course. There were also miles of towpath, which ironically I cursed during training runs, but had now siezed as an opportunity to pick off runners, passing more than a half dozen over the course of the three miles. I know I still felt fabulous and was moving really well because when I reached Ottawa in 10:10, I made a mental note that I'd covered a half mile more in a minute less than I'd done at O24 back in April-- a 46 mile PR, in other words, on a course that was obviously a bit more challenging. I was confident I'd reach Snowville (50.7 miles) no later than 11:15-- a 50 mile PR as well, until I actually hit the trail and the miles started to slow down significantly. I became accutely aware that a blister was forming on my right ankle and another was forming under each of my big toes within a mile of exiting Ottawa, and shortly thereafter I had the horrific realization that a toenail had fallen off-- yes, fallen off my toe, and was now dancing a jig in my sock. Instead of running the majority of the segment as I had those leading up to it, I found myself walking along the trail instead, running occasionally to keep my head up and in the race. Snowville arrived much later than expected, in 11:31-- still a PR, and still ahead of pace, but my mood was on the brink of fizzling into the grips of trail hell after the miles of walking, the blisters, and a hunger that was setting in but could not be satiated; none of the food looked appealing.
I left Snowville running, but it quickly faded to a death march as the sensation from the blisters that were now boiling in rapid succession under my toes intensified. I was frustrated by my stupidity in choosing poorly which shoes to use and where, and could not bring myself to run for more than a couple minutes before I found myself walking again. These miles and trails more challenging than the earlier segments, I was inching up and down muddy hills on my gripless Brooks shoes, blisters wailing and freed toenail begging for attention, until finally the Blue Hen Falls aid station (54.6 miles) came into sight and I threw myself into a chair, covered my face and started bawling (for the first of many times) like a baby.
In a flash, a man appeared in front of me and introduced himself by saying in the most chipper tone imaginable, "hi, I'm Jesus! Well, I look like him, and I've been known to perform some miracles out here. What can I do for you?" It was impossible not to like this guy, and I answered in probably the most outrageously pathetic voice, "I don't know. I don't know what I need!" Jesus was the first of two people throughout the course of this adventure to recognize hunger when he saw it, and answered without missing a beat, "food-- you need to eat". Knowing my options were limited to sugar and starch, I ate salted, boiled potatoes and grapes with the passion of a true foodie, and announced that my feet were screamers, and if I didn't change shoes soon they were apt to rot off my body. Chris Olsen stepped in here as well, and one of the two men retrieved my drop bag containing none other than my NB Minimus trail shoes, the absolute worst choice of shoes I could have possibly made for the trail that extended its hand out to me. I allowed one of the men to remove my shoes, and then peeled away my socks to discover my feet now resembled pruning plums possibly warped into some manner of fermentation, and were in immediate danger of developing fangs to bite me. Jesus suggested I leave my shoes off for a few minutes to allow them air and better circulation, but I was eager to get back out onto the course and ignored him. Chris was kind enough to allow me to use his car to change out of the wet clothes I was wearing, and I emerged from the automobile feeling somewhat recharged in the way I imagine a cell phone on the fritz would feel after a 15 minute charging session. At this point, nearly 25 minutes had passed, and I was nervous about the time I was losing, so I said goodbye to Jesus and Chris and headed out toward Pine Lane.
No. You don't want to see the flip side of these babies.
Mistakes. If there is anything, anything at all I can analyze about this race and state as a conclusion and with complete certainty, it's that I never should have put on those NB Minimus shoes, and I should have been eating more than watermelon for the first 50 miles. The stretch to Pine Lane was a sad grasp at running and making up time that just didn't go "right", for lack of better or more appropriate terms. I tried to keep up with Jesus and the runner he was now pacing, but couldn't, and I started to worry for the first time that I wasn't going to be able to finish the race. I knew I could make it to the next aid station, so I spent as little time as I could at Pine Lane (59.9 miles), and then started a death march toward Happy Days (65.4 miles). Unfortunately, this death march led me straight into dusk and finally darkness with the same trusty flashlight from the morning. I'd neglected the headlamp in my Blue Hen Falls bag, assuming miracles were going to propel me back into action at a faster pace, and now I was wandering along the course with a flashlight the size of a glue stick.
Happy Days arrived in 16:41, or 9:41 pm, and I announced to Zack Johnson that my feet were in danger of giving up the ghost. I'd spent the last 4.5 miles walking on what felt like glass with my glue stick flashlight; and I was starving, and starting to lose my mind. Headlamp mounted and stomach sick from hunger but unwilling to eat more than watermelon and eggs, I charged the course toward Pine Hollow the way a turtle charges out of the water. I felt terrible, and the 5.7 mile stretch to Pine Hollow (71.1 miles) was ugly, full of negative thoughts, a terrible sense of defeat, and an ability to grasp what I was doing that was decreasing exponentially with every mile that passed. The course was not overly challenging here, but it took a long time to reach Pine Hollow, and when I finally got there, I collapsed in a dizzy, exhausted heap in the grass where I stayed in fetal position for probably ten minutes before anyone approached me.
Convincing me to sit, stand, eat, or continue moving at this point must have been a tremendous challenge, but one to which a couple brave souls thankfully rose, and after some period of time I finally agreed to eat (fruit, of course, and if my memory serves me correctly-- soup broth), and desperate to go to the bathroom which fortunately was in the same direction as the next segment, I walked off into the dark with probably as much faith as a condemned prisoner. I remember thinking, "what the hell; it's only 3 miles to Little Meadow...but there's no way I'm going to make it 6 more to Covered Bridge". I felt like the devil had chained my soul to the back of a garbage truck and was forcing it to walk along eternally to an aid station that was never going to arrive. Over grass, up and down hills, tripping on roots and rocks, and grunting and moaning like a cheap porn star, I stumbled on from Little Meadow toward Covered Bridge (80.1 miles) for what felt like 80 years. I was positive nobody could have taken longer if they had bets waged on the feat, and I rolled into the aid station with more confidence in the words, "I'm done" than I had in my ability to eat more watermelon.
I may be mistaken, but I believe this is where I met Hugh Patton who seemed as convinced in my ability to continue as I had in my ability to now sleep for 24 hours, and this also became the center stage for my second ridiculous crying jag of the race. I found my training buddy Andrew Gordon here as well and he solidified my case for dropping by informing me that I'd finally reached the pinnacle of hell: Bill's Badass loop. I wanted to die right there, die or hibernate like the guy laying on the floor next to me with a blanket up to his chin, and I pleaded my case to drop to all and sundry with about as much conviction as I could muster. My stomach was a mess of eggs and watermelon that seemed apt to sprout aliens at any moment and my feet were the devil's parting gift from my trek chained to the garbage truck, a frightening blistered duo at which I was too scared to even sneak a peek. I hadn't run for miles and knew my odds of running more than six consecutive steps on this segment were about as good as my chances of winning the super lotto, but after motivational chats with about 40593045 people and a bowl of potato soup, I stood up, cried in agony like a child who didn't get what they wanted for Christmas, "I didn't come out here to quit! I have to do this!" Apparently this woke Lazarus from the dead, or the bear from hibernation, because the guy laying on the floor with the blanket up to his chin laced up and moved back onto the course with these words.
I met up with another training buddy, Matthew Mondello, and his pacer, and ran/walked and talked with them for a couple miles before they took off on me. Unfortunately, by the time they left, my new found Campbell's Potato Soup strength had diminished and I was transformed back into a watermelon with blistered feet, traveling at the speed of an earthworm. Alone again on the course and walking, I felt more terrible than ever. I couldn't focus on more than the thought of quitting, the agony of my feet, and I had nobody with whom I could talk; there were just trees and hills and roots and the occasional pair: runner and pacer, happily chatting as they ran past me. Had the next aid station not been an unmanned water stop, I'd have probably been able to convince those there that it was time for me to take a bow and exit the stage. Instead, I continued.
Continued, indeed. Strange, scary things happened during this stretch like nothing I have ever experienced before. First, I found myself seeing and hearing things that simply were not there. For example, I heard the ringtone to my phone playing in my right ear over and over and over again every couple minutes. I saw diamond shaped road signs that were people, one wearing a yellow shirt and the other grey, and a pile of leaves in the middle of the trail were so convincingly a dead cat that my heart skipped a beat and I cried out in shock. I also started to fall asleep more than once while staggering along the trail. As bizarre as it sounds now to say it or even write it, I thought for certain that I was going die right there on the trail, that I was going to faint and never wake up. I was so scared I started crying for someone to help me, but at this point there was nobody within earshot. These miles, only 3.5 of them, were so slow I was averaging nearly 30 minutes per mile, and I didn't think I would ever reach the O'Neill Woods aid station (88.6 miles). By the time I finally got there, I had no desire whatsoever to finish the last 12 miles. I'd resigned myself completely to dropping and I wasn't prepared or willing to argue any longer with anyone about continuing.
That's when I met Suzanne Pokorny.
I believe she gave me about 90 seconds to plead my case before announcing that this entire web of the bizarre was the result of needing to eat, and had eggs and pancakes and Dr.Pepper at my side faster than I could type the words. My second immediate concern, my blanket of time on the cutoff that had unraveled down to a few threads, was about as much of a concern to her as my teary-eyed lamentation about being tired, and she assured me in no uncertain terms that I was going to go back out onto the course and finish and that I still had plenty of time on the cutoff (not true and I knew it then, but she said it with more confidence than anything spoken to me throughout the race). With desperate hope, I was back on the course speed walking and then running faster than I'd done since Snowville, walking when I was tired, scared I was running out of time and this effort would be in vain.
At Merriman (93.1 miles), Suzanne had arranged for a pacer to pick me up, a nice girl named Leigh who had offered to travel with me the remaining distance. At first we walked, then approaching Memorial Parkway (96.1 miles) to hear I could not stay/sit as the aid station was closing, I was gripped with the kind of fear that sets people moving like a bat out of hell.
Run like a bat out of hell I did.
Leigh was the ideal pacer, not the type to try to force conversation or laughter, and understood that I was not going to be a Chatty Cathy on the way to the finish. But, when she saw me run, she took the cue and over the next 4.8 miles, we barely walked for more than a couple minutes before she announced it was time for me to run again. I took the dreaded stairs two at a time, and barely drank any water despite the climbing temperature, so desperate I was to finish under 30 hours. As the bridge came into view I felt my heart ready to explode, I was so overwhelmed that I was going to finish, and we turned the corner running, even running up the incline toward town. After about two minutes of walking when I reached the top out of breath, we started running again, now past shops and parked cars under the sunshine. Cones lined the road and I knew the end was approaching, my pace increasing and my excitement building. George, who was driving in the opposite direction of the finish, appeared shocked to see me running down Front Street, and honked his horn loudly as I shouted, "I'm going to finish this!" I passed two runners on the last 1/4 mile stretch, and as the clock came into view I was shocked to see I'd not only finished under 30 hours, but had nearly 18 minutes to spare, finishing in 29:42:25.
Nothing felt better than sitting in this chair with that buckle and a glass of ginger ale.
In hindsight, I have a multitude of mistakes from which I've learned, beginning with my poor placement of drop bags to the type of shoes I placed in each of them. It's unwise to expect one's body to hold up for 100 miles on watermelon and hard boiled eggs, and prunish feet should be dried and lubed before going back into socks. But, these are things we only learn through experience, and experience I now have, nearly 30 hours of it. So, cheers to the end of this epic adventure. It was the best...