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A rocky trail of rough races lead to a 100-mile finish
It started with my husband reading the book, Ultra Marathon Man, by Dean Karnazes. …
It started after my husband read the book, Ultra Marathon Man, by Dean Karnazes. He passed it on to me and said, “We should do one of these!” I laughed at first, but before I knew it we had signed up to run the North Country 50 Mile in Wellston, Michigan. At the time, we had both completed a few marathons, and the thought of running an ultra didn’t sound too daunting.
A few months after we’d started training, though, my husband injured his back at work and had to call it quits. I pressed on, but come race day, I was ill-prepared for the course’s hills, heat and humidity. I fell countless times and wound up dropping out at the 35-mile mark. My husband ran the accompanying trail marathon anyway, untrained and did manage to finish. I felt like a failure. So, I signed up for the Run Woodstock 50 Mile in Pickney in September 2010. I needed redemption. Luckily, the race went exceptionally well and I finished in 13:01. I even took third in my age group. … Granted there were only three finishers in my age group, but I’m not complaining!
The next spring, I tackled several marathons including one back-to-back weekend: the Kentucky Derby Marathon (Saturday) and the Flying Pig Marathon (Sunday). I reasoned, if I can run 50 miles in one day, I can surely do 26.2 miles on consecutive days. My stars aligned (all four of them in the Marathon Maniacs) and I completed the journey. So what next?
On to what I called the “Epic Fail” of last year. I signed up for the Run Woodstock Hallucination 100 Mile. I felt good, my training had gone well. I had a previous 50-mile finish and a handful of 50Ks under my belt. I had pacers and a crew lined up. So what was the fail? Well, I was not prepared to adjust when things didn’t go according to my plan. The rain came pouring down for days before the event, soaking the trails. It continued throughout the event leaving eight inches of mud that literally sucked shoes right off of participant’s feet. I tiptoed around it the best I could, cursing and unhappy the entire time. I wound up a the start/finish aid station at the end of loop three (of six) trying to change my shoes and socks, which was pointless.
The race director told me I had four minutes to get out of the tent or I would miss a cut off. I just handed him my bib called it quits. I felt defeated, I did not think there was any chance to finish the race within the cut off, so I packed it in with a 50-mile finish before risking a DNF in the entire race.
After the race I was depressed. People asked how I did and I said, “Well I only finished 50 miles.” Of course the non-running friends would say, “Only 50 miles, what do you mean? That is great!” They could not see how I missed my goal and 50 miles was not the brass ring I was hoping for.
Friends began to ask me what race I planned to do next. They said they wanted to know so they didn’t sign up for it, joking that the “black cloud” would follow me and make for some crummy race conditions. So, I decided to simply embrace the suck, to take what mother nature threw at me and make the best of it. I took on a motto that I heard a friend say: “This sucks! But I love it!”
After a few days of sulking, I got back on the horse. Determined to surpass the 50-mile distance, I signed up for the Top of Michigan 100K in October of 2011. Again, bad weather struck: 40-mile-per-hour winds with a temp of 38 degrees and driving rain the entire time. I sucked it up and finished it in 13:00. I felt vindicated. I took third place in the “women under 45” category. I like to say that; it sounds good. I always put an asterisk after that, though. There were only 5 people in my age group to begin with. One was a DNS (Did Not Start) and one was a DNF. I scored some nice race swag for it. As a “back of the packer” I rarely get to place in anything, so I take what I can get. After the elation of the race I decided to go back to Run Woodstock in 2012 and get my 100-mile buckle.
2012 consisted of several marathons and a 50K. I followed a training plan from Bryon Powell’s book, Relentless Forward Progress. The title of the book became a mantra for me. The summer consisted of lots of long, hot training runs in almost unbearable weather. I went out when it was raining on purpose. I was bound and determined to run in all weather so that when race day came, I would be ready. The culmination of the training happened at the North Country Trail Marathon, the same place I DNF’d at mile 35 two years earlier. Granted I only did the marathon, but I was treated to 92-degree weather and high humidity. The race went on and so did I. And, I finished.
Two weeks of tapering began. The Facebook chatter was all about how great the weather was to be for Run Woodstock. Then it changed. The weather prediction went to (surprise, surprise!) RAIN! My husband told me to stop looking at the forecast. Every time I looked at Facebook someone was saying, it was going to be another “Mudstock,” like it was the previous year. I refused to let the banter bother me. I reminded myself that I trained in all weather, that I would accept and embrace whatever came my way on race day. While everyone else was complaining about the weather, I shouted, “Bring it on!”
Now to set the picture for the race: For anyone not familiar with the Run Woodstock Hallucination 100 Mile, it is in Pinckney State Park, not far from Ann Arbor, Michigan. The six-loop course, described as “dry and runnable,” consists of 16.7-mile dirt-road, horse trail and rail trail loops with an elevation gain of 1301 feet per loop. I knew my pacers would be crucial to my success. I asked my friend Dave if he would pace me again this year. He came out for one loop in the rain and mud last year. I thought for sure he wouldn’t sign on again after my “fail” last year. But he graciously accepted and said he would do the third and fourth loop with me.
For my second pacer, I leaned on a man who was partly responsible for my desire to do a 100 miler, Mike, a podcaster, whose show I listed to for years. I remember when he did his first 100-miler and I thought, “Wow, that is amazing that I know someone who has run that far.” Mike became a great resource, willing to help me with ultrarunning when I needed it.
I gave my pacers only one demand: I wanted them to lie to me, to tell me I look great when I look like crap, to promise me to do anything to keep me moving forward. I enlisted my husband, Eric, and my best friend, Rhonda, as my crew. Crews are so overlooked and under appreciated. They wait for you for an hour, just to see you for one minute.
Run Woodstock is three days of peace, love and running. They have races of every distance. You can run a 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, 50K, 50 mile, 100K and 100 mile. They even have a “natural mile” and of course I saw them on the trail well before I began hallucinating. The race takes place at Hell Creek Ranch, near Hell, Michigan. Yes, you can say you “ran through Hell.” It is a weekend of music, bonfires, friends and running, an atmosphere that makes you feel welcome.
A close friend of mine had recently passed away after a battle with cancer. I decided I would dedicate my race to her. Her spirit was with me the entire way. I felt she was an angel on my shoulder; if I almost tripped but recovered, I would say, “Thanks, Joyce.” There are different kinds of suffering, her suffering was not chosen, she did not choose to have cancer and, yet, she fought a good fight. And so, I chose to suffer some by the pain inflicted in running 100 miles, in her memory.
The night prior to the race I worked my shift at Hanson’s Running Shop. Customers and coworkers wished me luck. At home, I checked Facebook messages, which were lots of well-wishes from friends and family that would keep me going during the race. I updated my cover photo on Facebook to a photo my husband took of me from behind, decked out in my running gear and pack.
Race morning I woke up and checked my Facebook. My pacer Dave had posted a video on my wall of the Black Eyed Peas singing,“I gotta feeling, that tonight’s gonna be a good night …” A huge smile appeared on my face and I started dancing around the living room. This song became my race theme and popped in my head countless times later that day.
My husband and I arrived at the ranch at about 1 p.m. and found our assigned parking space for our RV, a recent purchase that my husband convinced me would be great for my races, which proved to be accurate. I picked up my race packet and bib, then settle back into the RV to watch TV and relax until the start. Just before leaving the RV, I slipped on an orange rubber bracelet a friend gave me last year after my first 100-mile attempt. It simply says the word “remarkable” on it. He felt that even though I had not met my goal, it was still “remarkable” that I would continue on this journey.
Photo by Greg Sadler
The start was 4 p.m. Five minutes before gun time, I headed into the start corral. I wasn’t even nervous. I knew there was no alternative but to finish. I had made my “Quit List.” I knew the only reasons would be acceptable for me do drop from this race.
1- a broken bone that was protruding from the skin
2- loss of consciousness for longer than a few minutes
3- not making a cut off (If this happened, I vowed I would give up my bib and finish the race on my own.)
I thought a few of my friends and family might want to track my progress, so I turned my cellphone over to my husband and he updated my Facebook status every four or so miles. What I later found out was that people were checking their computers every hour of the entire race, watching it unfold. I was humbled by the outpouring of comments and concerns as this adventure took place.
The humidity skyrocketed in the first lap and I settled into the camaraderie with the other runners. I had only one goal for the first loop: to finish while the sun was still out. The trail was sandy. The only hazard in the trail was the horse poop. Luckily, I dodged it all. I flew down the hills, which is unusual for me as I am kind of a slow poke on the descents. I reached the stretch flat rail trail with no trip hazards. I put time in the bank here and slowed down when I got back on the trail. After a while we popped back into the woods and then down the path that led to the aid station where Eric and Ronda were waiting. I waved a quick hello and continued on my way. I remembered the trail from two years ago.
By mile 12, I’d made good time. I passed my crew and headed back to the trail and up one of the course’s hardest hills that seemed to go on forever. Everything was going well … until it wasn’t. At Mile 15, I stepped off the trail and started vomiting. It came out of nowhere. I didn’t even feel sick. As I stood there a few of my friends passed. Thinking my race is over, they asked if I was OK. I said I will be in a minute. They seemed satisfied with my answer and kept running. I might have been stopped for two minutes at most and I knew it would pass. I threw up last year too, but that was mile 46. That was a different story. Last year I took a cup of vegetable soup and swallowed a pea. I hate peas. I think the thought of it alone made me vomit. I have no idea what happened this year. I hadn’t tried anything new. No matter, I just wiped my face off with a bandana and headed back to the trail and into the mile 16.6 aid station in the start/finish area during the day’s last light. The first lap took me about four hours.
Erik handed me my headlamp and a flashlight and I headed back out, easily following the course markers. I tried to eat again but gag. Luckily there was nothing else in my stomach to vomit. At the next aid station, my crew handed me some Tums. I could only nibble on them. Ronda handed me a ziplock bag with three slices of watermelon, the first thing I was able to keep down (so I ate it at every aid station from then on). I passed some people on the road and trail, some also passed me. No one passed without saying something encouraging. “How’s your race going?”, “You’re doing great”, “Keep it up!” We were not competing;we were on the same team. No one made me feel inferior because I was slower than them.
At about 10 p.m. the rain started, just as I expected, and I embraced it. It looked like shards of light in my headlamp. It played tricks on my eyes. I passed a lot of people that hadn’t prepared for the conditions. As planned, I embraced the suck. I took hot soup broth at the aid stations. I tell them only broth, no veggies … they graciously honored my request. I don’t want a pea incident like last year.
The second loop was tough as I was alone in the dark. When I arrived at the start/finish to meet my pacer, I was happy. In the dark with my headlamp on, I started singing as loud as I could, hoping to get Dave’s attention: “I gotta feeling, that tonight’s going to be a good night …” Halfway through the line, I saw him. He heard me and joined in with a huge smile on his face, ready to tackle his very first ultramarathon. Dave kept me on track and we started passing people, saying encouraging things . We passed 17 people in two laps. I felt strong as he encouraged me.
We ran into Juli, a friend of mine who was doing her first 100-miler. She was in a low spot. She told me she’d already cried twice and I told her to suck up some of my energy and push on. She did just that. Turns out, her pacer couldn’t keep up and she dropped him. The temps dropped to 50 degrees with a cold, steady rain (we found out later a lot of people dropped due to hypothermia). I said to Dave, “We will just have to run faster to stay warm.” He agreed. We pressed on. We tackled the big hills in the mud as best we could. That meant two steps forward, one step back. We finished the lap on schedule and I grabbed a small bite to eat and headed back out just before the sun started to move up in the sky. Somewhere near Richie’s Haven, Dave realized he’d passed the 26.2 mile mark, which was the farthest he’d ever run before. A few miles down the line I passed the 62-mile mark, the farthest I’d ever run. At 9:10 a.m., I saw my crew. We kept moving forward, loving every minute of the uncharted territory.
When Dave dropped me off for my next pacer Mike, he’d just finished his first 50K. I gave him a hug and said thank you and keep moving. To keep me moving, Mike played music on his phone and told me to stay close enough to hear it. If I got more than a dozen steps behind him I couldn’t hear the lyrics so I kept up. He has long legs and he was only walking. I warned him before he said he would pace me that it would be late in the game and I would be struggling to keep up with him. He still agreed. He’s good at fast walking. Every time I asked him if we are on pace he said yes.
I forced myself to run the flat sections but still needed more and more walk breaks. I didn’t feel like chatting and could only produce one-word answers. I didn’t have the energy to talk. The climbs and descents became increasingly hard.
We crossed the start/finish line for the fifth time just under 24 hours later. I had one loop to go! My crew posted a photo on Facebook saying I ws looking good and had an excellent attitude. I started losing time, unable to get my feet to do much more than a shuffle. My left shin started to hurt. I felt a blister pop. My feet were so swollen I wanted to loosen my shoes but also didn’t want to waste a minute. I touched the orange “remarkable” bracelet on my arm and drew energy from it.
My back and neck were getting sore. I leaned on a tree from time to time trying to stretch it out. I almost fell a few times, but luckily, didn’t. I thanked my trail angel, Joyce, for that.
The temps were mid-60s, perfect. My clothes dried from the overnight rains. I never bother to change into anything fresh. Still, I kept losing time and Mike kept telling me that I was still on pace. Next time I saw my crew, Eric asked how I was doing. I told him that my shin hurt. He said, “No, it doesn’t.” He told me to keep moving and so I did. A mile down the road, though, a sharp pain shot through my shin. I thought it might be the end of my race. I yelled and Mike instructed me to keep moving forward. A few miles later Juli blew past us with a new pacer and a whole lot of energy. I never saw her again. The author with crew and pacers after finishing.
Somewhere in mile 99, after hallucinating for several miles, I saw the campfire at the tent closest to the woods. I screamed out in joy. I was given a peace-sign finisher medal, an awesome belt buckle and a hat. A bottle of champagne was produced. Hugs and toasts with several of my ultrarunning fiends, crew and pacers. I told my husband I will NEVER run another 100-miler. His response? “We will talk about it tomorrow.” I woke up after nine hours of sleep and still couldn’t comprehend what I did. I held the buckle. It seemed so unreal. Who am I? I am just a normal person. I love running. I had a goal. I ran 100 miles. I finished in 29 hours 28 minutes 26 seconds. I was close to last, and that was fine with me. 149 people registered for the 100-mile race. Only 69 finished. I was number 63.
They say in ultras that there are three kinds of people at the finish line: The competitors, the runners and the survivors. I’m not sure if I am a runner or a survivor, I’m just glad I finished.
Eric wakes up and asks me what is on my mind. I simply say the name of the next race on my radar, Burning River 100.
The author with her crew and pacers after finishing.