Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ozark Trail 100: The Journey Ends

As of today, it has been 4 weeks since this race, for lack of a better term, "happened". I've been working on this for 2 weeks, which is by far the longest I've ever spent writing anything in my life. Sadly, that probably includes my academic career.

I am always torn about when to start writing. For me, it's not just about listing the things that transpired. Obviously, that's important...but I am usually more interested in telling what it meant, or how it made me feel, and definitely how I feel about it after the it has changed me. It's hard to strike a balance between writing soon enough to remember all the little details and waiting long enough to be able to fully synthesize the experience so I can tell the Whole Story. Not sure that makes sense to anyone else,

(Not sorry)

If you read my rambling train wreck of a blog entry from before the race...first of all, I'm sorry...

(Actually sorry)

...but that post revealed a tangled mess of conflicting emotions, rambling thoughts, questionable motives, and wasn't nearly as therapeutic to write as I had hoped. Usually my pre-race rant is intended to let me vent any worries I have while allowing me to really focus on all the positives so I can calm myself down and breathe easy. Instead it kinda felt like I had climbed the wrong way onto a horse and said "Whatever...giddy the fuck up!"

So I never really found that focus and serenity that I wanted. The day before the race was a complete cluster...I slept through my alarm, looked at the clock, flipped out, threw a lot of stuff into a duffel bag, and had to haul ass to make it to check-in and drop off my drop bags, which were not even packed yet. I had planned to wake up early, do some last minute shopping, calmly pack my drop bags, double and triple checking everything, maybe meditate or something, and then set off on the 5 hour drive to the race site.

As it was, I miraculously avoided speeding tickets, but still got lost trying to find the Bass River Resort, swearing constantly, and arrived with about 15 minutes to spare, during which time I had to retrieve my packet and pack all of my drop bags. So I got some of them packed, but realized I would simply have to rely on my crew to hang on to the rest of them for the aid stations they had access to.

I made it back to my parents' house in Rolla, had some dinner, and then attempted to fall asleep. It didn't really work. I was so amped up about everything I may have forgotten to pack and just how hectic the day had been, I think I got roughly half an hour of sleep before it was time to wake up and get ready. Aside from that pittance of a nap, I had been awake for over 12 hours at that point, and I was looking at perhaps another 36 before it was all said and done.

"And miles to go before I sleep." 

The drive out to the start of the race I felt sick to my stomach from nervousness. I've had butterflies before, but never this bad. It was cold at the start, but not awful. It was comforting to spend that last half hour with my dad and a few of my crew members, Heather and Janeé(the rest would be arriving later that day). As the minutes ticked down, I felt this desperate sense of uneasiness...I still hadn't really found anything resembling focus. I wasn't afraid. I wasn't excited.

I wasn't ANYTHING.
Something is about to happen, apparently.

I was just there. And then the race started.

The Gloom

It wasn't a gun. It wasn't a horn. It was a fucking SIREN. How blissfully calming...

So I began shuffling forwards with roughly 75 other people. It was 6 am and still dark, so we all had headlamps on. I was in a serious funk. Not necessarily a bad mood...just a lack of a mood. All of the blahs from the previous few months had apparently carried over. Here I was embarking on the biggest race of my life, and I felt NOTHING! And realizing this in the moment made me feel even more nothing. My feels were broken apparently.

So mentally, I was wonky, but physically I began to settle in. The pack stretched into a long conga line. The leaves had begun falling so the footwork was tricky. I saw a lot of runners stumble and trip, but nobody fell. The combined nervous energy slowly began to wane as everybody found their form. My footwork was pretty spot on, though I did catch my foot on something in the first few miles and the guy behind me joked, "Thanks for spotting that rock for us." Apart from that, everybody was eerily silent for the first several miles.

My pace felt good. I was running 11-12 minute miles, but I still worried it was too fast. But then I worried it was too slow. Everybody says to start slow. But how slow? I just tried to keep from exerting myself. And just like everybody else, I walked every hill. But people started passing me, and I had to battle my ego to stay within my comfort zone.

After an hour or so, as the sun prepared to rise, the sky began to lighten. Not long after that, I shut off my headlamp and let my eyes adjust naturally. I noticed that the guy behind me had been there for quite awhile, and had actually been the same guy who joked about the rock earlier. We somehow ended up engaging in some pleasant smalltalk for the next few miles. His name was Joe and this was his 2nd attempt at this race. In 2011 he had fallen at mile 25 and broken some ribs. And he had made it all the way to mile 80 before DNFing from a time cutoff. He said he just wasn't able to run. So he trudged it out with broken ribs for 55 miles. If that ain't tough, I don't know what is. He and I kept good company up until the Grasshopper Hollow aid station at mile 8. I ditched my headlamp, grabbed some food, and headed down the trail. Shortly after leaving the aid station, I felt a rock in my shoe so I stepped off the trail to get it out. As I was stopped, Joe passed me and I wouldn't see him again for several hours.

As it turns out, there was no rock in my shoe. I put my shoe back on and continued, but I could still feel SOMETHING on the ball of my left foot. I knew it couldn't be a blister...not this early in the race. And that firm knowledge slowly turned into paranoia that I had somehow developed a blister over the course of 8 measly miles. I tried not to think about it, and for the most part failed to do so.

The Kindness Of Strangers

A nice distraction arrived shortly after though. From behind me, I started hearing the faint "click click" of somebody running with trekking poles. I know some people love them, but I've never really been inclined to give them a shot, possibly because I am secretly inclined to make fun of them instead. Well, I'll let you know right now that exactly 24 hours later, I was definitely eating a large slice of humble pie on this matter, and one of my pacers can confirm this fact. But for now, I was about to be passed by a guy using them.

We greeted one another. He asked how things were going. I was still kind of in my non-feeling, unsure, funky mood, so I said something along the lines of "I don't know...I guess I'm just waiting to see what's gonna happen." I asked him how he was doing and he said, "Just fantastic. Any day in the woods is a good day."

Something changed. I realized that he had spoken an exact truth. I was here. In the woods. I was doing that thing I had been training for and fixating upon for well over a year. And so far, things seemed to indeed be going very well. I acknowledged his point out loud and thanked him for his perspective.

His name was Will. I asked him if this was his first 100 miler. He simply said "No." I then asked what other 100 milers he had done. And then he informed me that he had previously finished 24 of them. It seemed like he might have some wise words, so I asked him if he had any pointers for a first timer like myself.

"Just keep going. You'll eventually get there. The only reason I ever stop is if an ambulance is taking me away, or if race officials make me quit because I've missed a cutoff."

It sounded very similar to my advice to Hayley when I began pacing her at the Bear 100. He also went on to say that a lot of first timers go out way faster than they should, but that he thought I was doing an excellent job of pacing myself so far. With that, he completed his pass and left me behind. I thanked him for his advice and encouragement, and I wished him well.

Suddenly I felt better about everything. I was enjoying myself. I was moving well. And I would be seeing my crew imminently at the Sutton Bluff aid station at mile 17. I looked forward to the familiar faces and wanted to get eyes on the blister that, at this point, I was absolutely certain was forming on the ball of my left foot. There was a pretty significant water crossing a few miles before the aid station...both feet wet up to the I was doubly concerned and keen to get some fresh body glide and dry socks on as soon as possible.

The mile up to the aid station teased us with a spectacular view as we traversed a bluff, even allowing us a glimpse of the aid station itself before we slowly wound our way down the hillside and crossed the bridge that led to the pavilion.
Drinking ramen out of a cup. That's how they do it in Belgium.

I was pleased to see Heather, Janeé, and my father all waiting for me. They made quick work of refilling my hydration pack and grabbing me some snacks while I stood around going "Ummm...uhh....let's see.....what do I need?" I also switched out my long sleeve and jacket for a short sleeve with arm warmers and then came the moment of truth. The wet socks came off and I looked at my foot.


My foot looked more or less pristine. I rubbed the spot that I was previously certain was a blister. It felt strangely numb, but the skin was completely intact. This phantom blister was simply a weird numb spot on the bottom of my foot. I had never had anything like this happen before, but I guess I was happy it wasn't anything serious. As I rubbed some lube on my feet and put on fresh socks, I made a mental note to check it regularly as my day progressed.

As I left the aid station, I made a decision that I have always sworn I would never make.

I got out my headphones.

This may not seem like a big deal to many people, but the simple fact is that I have never once raced with music up until this moment. The first reason is that a lot of races forbid it. And if I wasn't allowed to race with it, why would I train with it? The second reason is because of the words on this page.

I have always felt that listening to music robs you of some of the richness of a good run or race. I can understand a long training run where I'm not feeling my best and just need to hammer out the miles. But a race is an experience. It's something I want to remember every moment of. It's something I need to learn from and cherish. A possible reason why my race reports are so full of detail and emotion and "life lessons" is that I haven't been zoned out to music the entire time. Obviously this is simply a theory since I've never actually put it to the test.

Until now...

Dancing The Ozark Trail

Once again unto the breach, good friend...
I power hiked up the road for the half mile climb out of the aid station while I dug into my pack to get out my ipod shuffle. My crew car passed me as they left, cheering and pumping their fists. I would run roughly a marathon before I would see them again, and before Emily would join me as a pacer. The lesson I learned at Free State 100K was that, in the wrong state of mind, solitude can be poisonous and debilitating. I didn't trust my current mindset enough to gamble 25% of the biggest race of my life, so I broke my rule. I got the headphones situated and clipped the shuffle to my pack. As my foot once again hit dirt, I took a deep breath, pressed play, and began running.

As I'm slowly synthesizing this experience and getting it written down, a clear theme of this race is beginning to emerge. I'd like to take a moment to briefly introduce it so that you know what the hell I'm talking about when I reference it later...and because I can't really decide where else to put it, it is arbitrarily going right here.

A lot of what I considered going into this race and coming out of it is this idea of self-reliance versus dependance. In my own life I try to do as much as I can on my own. It's the whole "becoming a grown-ass adult" thing. I like how it feels to be living on my own and being financially independent. I want to think that I can translate that feeling into my running life, and for the most part I do ok. Then when I decide I want a pacer or a crew to help me race, I have to give up some of that self-reliance and some of that satisfaction. It's really a matter of letting go of the ego to enhance the likelihood of success. Even relying on music represents a small chink in the self reliance armor.

The other matter that weighed on me was the size of my crew. Sure, I didn't ASK five people to help me finish this race, but that's the number of people who freely volunteered. I like all of these people a lot and had no thoughts of turning any of them down. But in the ultramarathoning world where doing big races without crew or pacers is considered "badass" then I was on the opposite end of that spectrum. Did it matter to me that much? No. This was my first hundred and I wanted to make sure I could actually FINISH one before I started upping the ante on difficulty/badassery. Was I in any way unappreciative of the help? NO NO NO NO and NO. It was just a thing that made me feel self-conscious. Did anybody else have five people crewing them? I honestly have no idea, but I would suspect not too many. Would a five person crew prove to be excessive? I'll get back to you on that...

The music began and I immediately noted a marked improvement in my mood. I hadn't been in a particularly bad mood or anything...but a switch flipped in my brain. Everything seemed like it was falling into place at mile 18 of 100. My body was fully warmed up and ready to rock. My pre-race doldrums were nowhere to be found. I almost instantaneously decided that the music was perhaps the best decision I had ever made in my entire life. My pace picked up and the miles effortlessly flew by as I began dancing the Ozark Trail. Figuratively and literally.

Something I've realized as I've grown up is that for me, music is a full body experience. If I'm listening to good music, chances are I'm doing any number of the following things: Tapping a foot, bobbing my head, humming, singing, fist pumping, dancing, playing air guitar, air drums, air piano, air bass, or air orchestra conductor(you know, for classical music). I used to be embarrassed by this, but at this point in my life, there is no shame, just a fuller manner of experiencing music that I love.

So there I was, running the biggest, most grueling race of my life and to any casual observer I was flailing like an absolute idiot and singing along to unheard music. And I didn't care. I was doing something I loved and I had some of my best friends along for the journey. Friends like Phoenix, The Decemberists, Pearl Jam, John Legend, Madeon, Daft Punk, They Might Be Giants, Brett Dennen, and countless others. This music was a source of lightness and buoyancy for me, and it most definitely was putting fire in my steps because I started passing people.

I had decided to play a little ultra game that Indi M had told me about. You basically keep score for the duration of your race. Pass somebody? Plus one point. Get passed? Minus one point. I didn't start keeping score until the first aid station because I figured there'd be a lot of that going on in the first few miles. Coming into Sutton Bluff, I had been -2 from Joe and Will passing me. Within a few miles of leaving, I was back to breaking even. And then I started to slowly build a lead. It was a fun little exercise that helped occupy the mind as well as a way to express that tiny competitive spark inside me.

I can say without a doubt that the 25 miles between Sutton Bluff and Brooks Creek were the best miles of my race, and furthermore, some of the best miles I've ever run in my entire life. The terrain was ideal, featuring short climbs and long winding downhills with just enough technicality to make them fun, but not too tricky. I was in a great mood, blasting down the trail to excellent music, and feeling better and better about myself and the world.

I knew that this course featured several water crossings, and a few of them were mandatory foot dunkers. I had planned for this and packed several pairs of fresh socks for the duration of the course, but I really just underestimated how MANY of them there would be. I didn't count, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were thirty of them. Some of them were minor and easily traversed. But the majority of them required at least some amount of strategy, balance, and athletic ability in order to keep your feet dry.

Approaching a water crossing, you began to assess the situation. You'd look for a path of stable rocks to walk across, a fallen log, and a sturdy landing spot on the opposite shore. Usually it was just carefully controlled steps from one spot to the next, but occasionally it required hopping from rock to rock. Early in the race with fresh legs, this was usually not a problem, but I will say that as I passed the 30 and 40 mile mark, it got more and more difficult to execute a 5 foot double standing long jump and nail the dismount. Obviously I didn't succeed every time, but with each challenge met and overcome I celebrated. Keeping the feet dry for just one extra mile could absolutely mean the difference between developing a blister and having happy feet.

Because of the importance of keeping my feet happy, each successful water crossing became more and more joyously celebrated. Early on it was just a quiet self-congratulation. Then it became an emphatic fist pump. Eventually it was a full blown hooting, hollering, butt-wiggling happy dance.

Dry feet are a big deal, you guys.

One particular moment in my race stands out as the clear physical and emotional high. As I was approaching the 50K mark, I had been deep in thought about certain things in my life. First of all, that I was able to be deep in thought AND have music playing was a big win. But there are a handful of very specific things from the past 2 years of my life that I've really been beating myself up over, and I basically just decided to forgive myself for all of them. I am NOT a fool and I AM allowed to feel this way despite all I've been through. With that matter settled, a weight lifted.

And then this song came on.

This is quite possibly one of the happiest songs I've ever heard in my life. But at this exact moment in my life, following my startling revelation and self-forgiveness, it hit me upside the head with about a 5 minute stretch of unfiltered serenity and joy...a grown man running in the woods, bopping his head to music with a huge shit-eating grin on his face, and making absolutely no effort to suppress the happy tears flowing from his face.

At the time I appreciated the moment for all it was worth, but in retrospect I can say that something big must have finally snapped because I definitely have felt like a different person the past few weeks.

During this amazing stretch from mile 17 to 43, despite everything that was going right, I did experience a familiar but minor hydration issue that I've come to know as "old man bladder". This happened at Ironman Florida, at the Perry 50K, and it was happening now. Basically when I underhydrate, I reach a point where I feel like I have to pee, but I can't. It is uncomfortable, but manageable. And most importantly, it doesn't affect my athletic performance. If it hits, I simply have to increase my water intake and then I know it will go away within an hour or so. It isn't pleasant, but the alternative is overhydration, which has nearly ruined me on several occasions. Being low on sodium absolutely hurts my performance, and the lesson I've learned over the years is that I'd rather flirt with dehydration than with hyponatremia. I can deal with Old Man Bladder...I can't deal with feeling drunk, delirious, and debilitated.

There were 3 aid stations between Sutton Bluff and Brooks Creek that were crewed by race staff only. No crews allowed. I have vague memories of each of them because I tried to get in and out of them as quickly as possible. At least one of them involved a sock change, I believe it was Gunstock Hollow at Mile 34. In order to change my socks, I sat down in one of the chairs they had. I dried off my feet with a towel and a quick examination showed they were still intact. I reapplied body glide, resocked, and reshoed while I sipped on some hot potato soup. Once I was ready to go, I stood up. And I immediately decided that sitting down was no longer in the race plan.

In the 5 minutes I had been seated, every muscle in my legs had apparently agreed that we were done running. Apparently they didn't get the memo that we weren't even halfway done. Standing back up I was immediately hobbled by the stiffest, sorest legs I had felt all day. Getting back into a jog was a bit of a struggle, and over the next few miles all the kinks worked their way out and I was back in business.

As I neared Brooks Creek, I was still on top of the world and loving life, but I was a tiny bit conflicted. I was enjoying my music so much that I was a little bummed that I'd have to leave it behind once I had a pacer. But then again....A PACER! Hooray! Emily is definitely a great gal, a badass, and somebody who I think "gets" me. I was looking forward to having her along as I began carving into the real meat of the race. The sun would be going down and the legs would be leaving me at some point overnight. Everything after that would be new territory for me.

On one of the last water crossings before Brooks Creek, during one of my gymnastically fantastic standing long jumps from a rock to dry land, while flinging myself through the air, I wrenched my back pretty badly. My victory dance was cut short as I grimaced from the pain and tried to stretch it out. It wasn't awful, but it's something I could have done without.

My assembled crew of badasses(minus Erica)
I finally arrived at Brooks Creek. My crew was assembled and ready to spring into action. I had a list of things that needed doing. They immediately set to work helping me get those things done. I needed to change out of shorts and into tights for the impending cold night. Add layers. Fill up water. Eat food. Change socks.

Hmm...the changing socks thing seemed a lot more complicated if I wasn't allowed to sit down anymore. Changing into my tights definitely involved not a lot of modesty as I walked behind a car and said, "I'm getting naked." before unceremoniously dropping trou. Once the tights were on, I walked back to my crew who were all scampering around getting me things. I discussed the sock change and the limitation of no sitting. Without a moment's hesitation, Heather squatted down and began removing my shoes and socks, toweling off and lubing my feet, and replacing socks and shoes, all while Janeé held onto my arm for stability. In terms of the self-reliance vs dependance thing, this was definitely a significant moment. And it wouldn't be the last.

Up All Night To Get Buckles

Emily was strapped in and ready to go, so once I was filled up, fooded up, layered up, and content, we ponied up and headed out to the sound of cheers from the rest of the gang. I restated my expectations for myself, that I needed to run the flats and downs, and hike the ups. She verbally confirmed the plan and we began chipping away at the 25 miles she was responsible for pacing me through. I ran in front and she followed close behind as we got the conversation going. We talked about rock climbing, Homestar Runner, light switch raves, skydiving, adventures in Alaska, her stint as a collegiate athlete at KU, know...running until you puke.

The early miles running with Emily were continuing in the excellent style of the miles before she joined me. I was moving well and not hurting too badly yet. As the sun set, we brought the headlamps out. The really serious pain that I knew would eventually come was kept at bay for the time being by the ibuprofen I'd been taking periodically throughout the day. I don't remember exactly when it did hit, mostly because it was such a gradual change. Subtle changes in our runner/pacer relationship started to appear. I started needing to be prompted to run on a flat or downhill section. I wasn't unwilling or unable, it was just no longer my natural instinct to do so. She'd say "Hey, run this." and I'd run it. As the miles passed, the pain and fatigue slowly grew. My response time to "Hey, run this." became slightly delayed, and then more and more delayed.

Honestly the thing that hurt the most was the bottoms of my feet. They'd been pounding the dirt, rocks, and roots for about 12 hours at this point and were getting awfully sore. Additionally, my left ankle...the same ankle that had been giving me trouble in October and for which I tapered a week early...slowly began to indicate its displeasure with the current activities it was involved with. It wasn't necessarily painful, but it just felt less stable than it should have been. The pain came later.

As we delved into the long night, Emily got out her smartphone which had some music saved on it. The first track was Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" which I was still in a good enough mood and had enough spare energy to do a sort-of "running/robot dance/butt wiggle" along to. The next track was apparently Miley Cyrus "Wrecking Ball", but I informed her that I'd never heard it, nor did I have any interest in ever hearing it, so it got skipped. The next track was this delightful techno track whose only redeeming feature was the repeated spoken line, "All day. All night. All day. All night. What the fuck!?" It turns out that Emily only had 12 songs on her phone(one of which was Miley Cyrus), and limited battery, so she only got it out on occasion when the conversation lulled or if I was struggling more than usual.

We were still moving really well when we rolled into and out of the aid station at  Highway DD, roughly the halfway mark of this journey. Staffed by friendly faces, I made good on my promise to deliver smothering bearhugs to Coleen and the rest of her wondrous crew. I added a layer on top for the coldest stretch of the night, which was expected to dip into the teens, and ate something delicious and warm, but I honestly have no recollection of what it was. We passed several people in the mile or two after that aid station, and I was honestly feeling pretty good about things. I think I calculated that I was reasonably on pace to finish in 28-29 hours at that point.

As the night wore on, the wheels on my freight train slowly wore down. Transitioning from a walk to a run involved a bit of a windup, usually 5-10 steps long, before I was able to lurch into a stride of any kind. One interesting thing I noticed was that if I was able to muster it, running fast hurt less than running slow. Something about inertia, or which muscle groups were utilized, or maybe just how I held my body. But it soon became less about what my muscles could do, and more about how technical and uncertain the footing was. Some of this terrain was perfectly runnable, flat or downhill, but as was heavily advertised in the race description, the leaves covering everything were proving very difficult on my increasingly unstable ankle and my sore feet. It would have been fine if I could have just refrained from stepping on rocks and roots, but it was really a crapshoot every time I put down my foot.

So it was from about mile 55 onwards that my pace began to suffer due to the mildly technical and hidden terrain. The only thing I could confidently run was a dry path with no obstacles of any size on it, and not too steep on the downhills either. I came close to face-planting several times. Emily was doing an excellent job of keeping me moving, but I did make the following proposal to her. If I were to fall, I was allowed to lay on the ground for at least a minute before she made me get back up and continue moving. I think she agreed, but I honestly don't remember.

Significant moments in this stretch were when we passed the 15:30 mark which represented the longest time I had ever spent running/racing/exercising in any form. And a while later we passed 62 miles, which was my previous longest distance covered on foot. I then trudged off into the unknown...

As it turns out, "the unknown" was getting increasingly unpleasant, painful, and slow. I am sad to admit that I remember very few details about the miles leading into Hazel Creek aside from the fact that I suffered greatly. Some of the people that I had passed in the previous 10 miles were beginning to pass me back. I do remember that Emily and I were getting increasingly clever and resourceful in negotiating water crossings with dry feet. Occasionally, we'd hike 20 yards down from where the trail crossed the water to find a more suitable path across. One crossing in particular definitely stands out in my mind. The water was several feet deep and a good 30 feet across. I really didn't want to get my feet wet, since they had been good and dry for quite a while now. There appeared to be only one way to get across, and it looked sketchy at best.

There was a tree which had been uprooted near the opposite shore. It had fallen towards the shore we were standing on. Some delicate scrambling allowed us to walk balance beam style across the trunk of this tree to the massive root structure which was now exposed above the water. From the roots of this tree, it was another 7-8 feet to dry land. Emily went first. She climbed around the roots to the other side facing the landing zone, was somehow able to find a solid root to stand on. From her precarious perch, she spied a rock that would allow for a well-aimed medium sized leap followed by a smaller leap to the shore. After seeing what she had done, and not trusting that my fatigued legs could successfully control the landing on such a small target, I basically just went for the gusto and heaved my body straight at the sand. My back wrenched again really badly as my feet struck dry earth. My feet were dry, but not remotely happy. This was the last major obstacle before Hazel Creek at mile 68, where I would be joined by Delaware for the next 13 miles.

I arrived to cheers and hugs from my crew. It was nearly 12:30 am. I was in piss-poor shape, and I know everyone could tell. The whole "no sitting down" thing which had been previously implemented was now a moot point. My legs were trashed and there was nothing I could do that would make them much worse, so I sagged into a chair as my crew sprang into action. I don't remember being altogether coherent, but they asked all the right questions. Heather once again dove into the disgusting and thankless "foot duty". My hydration pack was filled, warm food was brought to me. I got another dose of ibuprofen. This was the point in my race where I had planned to change shoes, and I did so. I still had no blisters, luckily, and having on fresh shoes and socks was about the only thing I had that felt nice. I think there was also some hot chocolate that was wondrous. In fact...I'm gonna go make myself a cup right now. Be right back.

(Author seriously just made himself hot chocolate) 

So there I was, sitting in a camp chair in front of a space heater, watching helplessly as 4 amazing people fulfilled my every need(Erica would not arrive until I reached Berryman). Remember that whole "self reliance" thing? Along with my ego, that was a distant memory at this point. I was incapable of doing any single one of these tasks. Removing my own shoes alone would have taken 5 minutes. I couldn't even touch my toes at this point without experiencing severe discomfort. After my feet were taken care of, Heather even took a few moments to roll out my quads because she's awesome.

This whole time while I was staring around with glazed eyes in a fog of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, the aid station captain kept telling me how much BETTER I looked than everyone else who had been coming through. First of all, I know that is complete and utter BS, but at the time I was gullible enough to be uplifted by this terrible, awful lie. My amazing crew had me in and out of Hazel Creek in just about 20 minutes, which is a minor miracle when I consider how I felt. I was hurting for sure, but I was somehow still increasing the time cushion between myself and Cutoff Land. Leaving Hazel Creek I had nearly 2 hours to spare. SURELY, that would be plenty.

An Ode To Delaware and NSAIDs

As Delaware and I left, he was in front and settled right into a modest trot...which looked like a god-damned sprint to me. I immediately informed him that running wasn't quite in the cards yet. I was still moving just as poorly as I had when I arrived at the aid station, basically walking very gingerly and occasionally a slow trot if there was nothing technical to turn my ankle on.

Delaware complied and kept his pace at a purposeful hike 10-20 yards in front of me. But after a few miles I was growing discontent. This wasn't working for me. I needed him back here, talking to me, encouraging me. I'm certain he thought he was pulling me along, but in the dark places of my brain, that 10-20 yards was telling me how slow I was and how pitiful it was that I couldn't keep up. I knew I should just SAY something but the dark places were winning the argument and I remained silent. I realized there were sections that I was walking that I was perfectly capable of running at this point. The only reason I wasn't running them was because I didn't have somebody behind me telling me to do so. You have to try the carrot, and when that doesn't work, you use the stick. I needed the stick. So I found an opportune moment for this to happen.

It was time to take my asthma medicine, so I asked Del to retrieve it from my pack. After taking it, I told him I wanted(needed) to be in front. I didn't explain why, but he excitedly gave me the keys and put me in the driver's seat. From that moment, everything came back together. Being back in charge, and knowing he was behind me keeping me accountable to running what was runnable, I began to run more regularly and for longer stretches.

For certain, the ibuprofen had come through in a big way. Everything still hurt, but it was just enough to take the edge off so I could move effectively. I ran good long stretches and he pumped me up in the best way possible with every effort. And he talked my ear off about all the stuff that Delaware likes to talk about. He told me how great I looked even though I probably looked like a homeless drug-addict zombie shambling through the woods. After 5 or so really great miles, the trail spilled briefly onto a dirt road which led to Pigeon Roost at mile 76. We followed this dirt road for a very short distance, but my mind was blown when I looked up. Being out of the woods afforded us a clear view of the sky on a moonless night, miles and miles from any form of civilization. I asked that we walk the rest of the way into the aid station with headlamps turned off. As we switched them off, I saw the universe in its entirety. I swear I've never seen more stars in my life. It was breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and incredibly moving.

Arriving at Pigeon Roost we saw some other runners taking a breather. One of them was currently being informed that she was 3rd place female. I also inquired about who was the 1st place female. Of course it was Mindy Coolman, and of course she had been smiling when she rolled through. But hey, I was keeping pace with 3rd female, so that was cool. I didn't sit because I was moving and didn't want to ruin that. We got some food and headed back out into the darkness, leaving behind several runners. In terms of the game I was playing, this was as high as my score ever got, and I believe it stood at 10 when I left Pigeon Roost. We could see some headlamps farther ahead of us and I was keen to see if I could catch them.

In the 5 miles between Pigeon Roost and Berryman Campground there are differing accounts of how it all went down. Delaware claims that the wheels slowly fell off over that stretch, but in my recollection I was moving really well until I was 2 miles out from the aid station. And that's when IT finally happened. This is my race report, so I'm going with what I remember.

In the midst of a good section of running, my left ankle rolled really hard. It didn't slow me down too much, and I kept running. 10 seconds later it rolled again, even harder. And that's when my dog and pony show ground to a halt. I didn't know it at the time, but that ankle was done. Finished. Spent. Kaput. Proper-fucked. I knew I had to walk a bit to try and work it out, loosen it up. I knew it'd just take some time, so I power-hiked until such a time as it felt ok to run on it again. And then we made the turn off to Berryman at mile 81.

The crew was amazing, of course. They sat me down and made me eat. My feet hadn't gotten wet again, so no sock change was required. Heather rolled out my quads and calves. It was possibly a religious experience...I might've heard the voice of God. It wasn't time for ibuprofen yet, because I like my kidneys and stuff. But food needed to happen.

Since nightfall, the only aid station food I'd been interested in was hot soup...usually ramen noodles or potato soup. Then somebody said "They've got pierogis." Then I said, "What's that?" Apparently it's some kinda meat-filled pastry-type thing. It immediately sounded like a thing that I could eat and possibly enjoy.

I had two. Under normal circumstances I might've described them as "delicious" but at that moment they were simply "edible". I've never really had problems with nausea or keeping food down during a race, so it is perplexing to me that I wasn't inhaling food at this point in the race. I didn't feel nauseous. For the most part, the thought of solid food just made me feel like this.

According to the notes that Heather took while crewing, I was only at Berryman for 12 minutes. Thinking back on the state I was in...I'm actually getting choked up thinking about how amazing my crew performed on my behalf. Until I actually saw the timestamps she hand wrote, I would've sworn up and down that I was there for more than half an hour. But they took care of me, fed me, and most importantly, got me back up and moving...

...this time with Honey Badger Erica Motherfucking Carper at the helm of my slowly sinking ship. And I can honestly think of nobody better suited to the task of kicking my ass, calling me names, screaming obscenities...or whatever it would take to push me through the most painful and grueling portion of a race like this. I specifically wanted her for this stretch for those particular qualities of her personality. As we hiked back out into the darkness, with 22 miles left to go, I prepared to be abused...but I'd be moving.

"We handled this grim section with the well-known technique of struggling." *

The ankle was a problem. A big one. I kept waiting for it to get better. And I waited some more. And then I realized it wasn't going to happen. A few miles passed, clocking in at close to 30 minutes apiece. Maybe once I could get some ibuprofen back on board, THEN....then I could start running again.

That never actually happened. I kept hobbling. And time was slipping away. I slowly began to develop an alarming sense of panic. My 2 hour time cushion didn't seem quite so rock-solid anymore. I kept looking at my watch, trying to do math in my head, failing to do math in my head, and then freaking out just a little bit more, even though I hadn't actually made any new conclusions. I voiced my concerns that I might not be able to make it.

Erica, the badass...the asskicker...the whipcracker...she came through with a nearly instantaneous reassurance that we had "plenty of time". And I believed her. I can't overemphasize how important that moment was. If there had been any doubt in my mind that finishing was still possible, even at my pathetic pace, I really don't want to think about what might have happened. I learned how dangerous despair is when I paced Hayley. It had nearly stopped BOTH of us cold in our tracks. But Erica knew exactly where my mind was, where it was headed, and she stopped THAT thought process cold in its tracks. Honestly, I can't for a moment believe that she wasn't thinking the exact same thing, but the important thing is that she never once let a speck of doubt show.

We were gonna make shut the fuck up, Danny.

That wasn't my only freakout of this stretch, unfortunately. A few miles later I once again convinced myself that I HAD to get moving or I would surely fail. I'm not sure you could call it running, even loosely defined...but for roughly a mile I was able to desperately fling my body forward at a pace faster than walking, only out of sheer terror that I might have come so far only to ultimately fail.

Erica once again reeled me in and reassured me we were ok. She calmly told me not to waste all of my remaining energy at this point because I might need it later. And honestly, I was probably seriously endangering my safety trying to move the way I was. It was entirely reckless and I'm still shocked that I didn't plant my face onto a rock. I did end up rolling the bad ankle several more times during this ill-advised feat. Each time I rolled it again, the slowly growing injury to my back was compounded further.

Once I finally accepted and trusted Erica's assessment that we could finish, I calmed down and settled in to basically hike it in the rest of the way. Normally, my pride would have had a huge problem with this. After all, this was an "endurance run" and I wanted to fucking run! I did finally get that next dose of ibuprofen, and the effect, once it kicked in, only provided about 5 minutes of mild relief from the horrendous pain I was experiencing in my ankle and back.

As the sun began to rise, we approached Billy's Branch, the aid station at mile 90. I was completely delirious and unable to form complete thoughts or sentences. I think somebody I know was volunteering there, but I have no recollection of who it was. Erica somehow acquired a brief spot of cellphone coverage and was able to snap this photo and transmit it to Facebook to show the world that I was "almost done" and looking "great".
This man knows where he is. Probably.
At mile 90, with 13 miles to go, I finally had a familiar distance to calculate splits based on how much time we had left. I had to finish by 2:00 pm, and it was 8:00 am. That's a half marathon in about 6 hours. I'd have to maintain a pitiful pace of 25-30 minutes per mile with another aid station left to go. Think about that for a moment, and then realize that it was a HUGE effort to maintain that pace with how broken my body was.

We continued moving. The only things I remember about the 6 miles between Billy's Branch and Henpeck Hollow were the fall colors. Many of the leaves had fallen, contributing to my current woeful state...but the leaves that hadn't yet fallen were utterly breathtaking. I might have been emotionally moved by the sight, but those parts of my brain were on sleep mode, allowing only for the most basic of thought processes involved in forward motion and survival.

Remember when I made fun of trekking poles earlier? Oh yeah, of course you remember. If you don't remember...I made fun of trekking poles earlier. And my comeuppance is thus! In the last few miles before Henpeck Hollow, I said to Erica, "I would absolutely kill for some trekking poles right now."

It all made sense. I was a fool. Humble pie NOM NOM NOM NOM!!!! I can't believe I ate the whole thing.

Erica found a large fallen branch and handed it to me to use as a walking stick. It was a little flimsy, but it was an incredible idea. I decided to keep my eyes open for another one that might work a little better. And then we arrived at Henpeck Hollow and I completely forgot about that idea for the rest of the race.

This video, taken by Erica who had just finished pacing me, shows the piss poor state I was in with 6 miles to go. Notable quotes:

"He looks as though he may be in some...distress."

"...and then he tried to argue with me about math."

"I'm beating somebody? How is that possible?"

Also, the sunglasses given to me for the end of the race completely disguise how unhealthy I looked. This photo shows the sunken cheeks, which is really the look I was going for.
How to age a decade in 32 hours. 
While I sat there being cared for and fed, Heather grabbed the rolling stick and started working on my quads again. I nearly cried. It was partially from the overwhelming sensation, but it was mostly overwhelming emotion that suddenly flooded into my mind. Gratitude to the amazing people who had given me so much today. Relief that I was nearing the end of my journey. Sadness at how much my race had fallen apart. Joy that I was even here, able to attempt something like this. I had joked that I would probably end up crying in the fetal position at some point in my race, but this was as close as I came to breaking down. But it was REALLY close.


Heather was taking over the pacing responsibilities for the final 6 miles. Before the race, in my mind, I imagined being so stoked to be nearly finished that I'd be able to overcome any pain I was experiencing and light it up for the end of the race...really bring it home in style, ya know?

(Author pauses to laugh at himself and his silly expectations)

As slow as I was moving up to this point, it only got worse. All throughout my race, any time I was walking a hill, I made a point to "walk with purpose" so that I was still maintaining a decent pace. You can normally power hike a mile in 15-16 minutes. With my ankle performing at roughly 5% capacity, power hiking was really out of the question. Heather did everything she could to keep me moving forward. Every part of me wanted to just lie down for awhile.

At this point in the race, with only 6 miles remaining, my brain kept trying to tell me that we were "almost done" and that we could probably abandon the nutrition and hydration plan now. The thing that was weird to realize is that I was still HOURS from finishing. I wasn't remotely close, and if I stopped eating now, it could cripple me. I mean, I was barely holding it together as it was...I couldn't imagine what would happen if I properly bonked. So I continually had to remind myself that it DID still matter, and I kept choking down my honey stingers and sipping on water when I could.

I had read race reports, and I knew that the final 3 miles involved endless switchbacks up and down the same hill several times. I knew to expect it. I was prepared for it.

I was not prepared for it.

It was 100 times worse than I could have possibly imagined. We wound back and forth up a huge hill, and then back and forth down it. Then we had a water crossing. Then back and forth up the opposite hill. And back down. And then up again. It was torturous, unnecessary, humbling, cruel, and unusual. And would we really have it any other way? Complaining about trail difficulty is like showing up to a rock concert and complaining that it's too loud.

In yet another instance where one of my pacers quite possibly saved my race, Heather made her presence known. Every single time my modest hike slowed to a drunken stumble, she'd give me subtle cues. She'd say things like "Let's pick it up a bit." or "This is flat, let's move a little faster." But my absolute favorite was "March!" Growing up a musician and playing endless John Philip Sousa marches in various community bands, this was a theme I could latch onto. She started singing "The ants go marching one by one, hurrah...hurrah..." and I pictured myself as a civil war soldier marching off to glory and bloody death in battle. And then I joined the game and started humming some of the marches that I had learned by heart in high school and college. Dorky? Yes. But I was moving faster.

Sometimes you really never know what's going to help your body find those unspent reserves of energy. A funny notion, or a strategic distraction...whatever it was, it was pure genius.

The endless hills ended. We topped out on the final painful section of switchbacks. Then trail then slowly wound its way back down towards the Bass River Resort. The last mile or so would be across a flat field. Here is what I looked like emerging from the woods near that field.
And that's as fast as I could move.

That final mile was the longest of my life, and I'm both proud and ashamed that my friends and family got to/had to witness it. To my recollection, I was silent for the majority of it. Even if I did speak, I can't imagine what I might have said. My mind and body were both completely depleted of any kind of spark. And in the final quarter mile, somebody had apparently dug an equivalent of the grand canyon between myself and the finish line.
Seeing this video after the fact, I am still stunned. Even in the moment I could not have fathomed how slowly I was moving. I hiked the final several hundred yards towards the resort. I promised myself that I would try to run across the finish line. It didn't matter if what I ended up doing actually resembled running, but for some reason I just needed to try. We walked past a playground and the final 20-30 feet arrived. My moment was here.

It didn't actually resemble running, but it worked.

My moment. The moment I had fixated on. Dreamt of. Aspired to. THIS moment.

I had just finished a 100 mile race. Something that only a few years prior seemed so far-fetched. It was done. This is normally the moment when I cry. I place a lot of meaning and emotion into the things I strive for, and after training for an entire year, dealing with doubts and injuries, and facing one of the hardest emotional battles of my life...surely the floodgates were bound to burst.

The lady in orange asked me what I needed. I told her that I needed to lie down somewhere.

I was shown to a cot in the finish tent. With a word, without a thought, without any tears, I promptly collapsed into it and fell asleep. I was awoken by my amazing crew as they removed my shoes and helped me remove some excess layers. Much like my first Ironman finish, I wasn't able to fully comprehend what was going on, but it wasn't because of being emotionally overwhelmed. It was because my exhaustion had completely trumped my elation.

I had finished in 31:36:12 with less than 25 minutes to spare. I was the 2nd to last finisher. Nearly half the field had dropped or been cut off. I eventually swelled with pride at this fact. People told me how gutsy it was that I basically hobbled the last 23 miles on a bum ankle. I would be proud of this point, except for the fact that giving up hadn't actually crossed my mind. I had come to finish, plain and simple.

I'm really not done heaping praise on my crew, not by a long shot. To say that I could not have done this without them is the November Understatement of the Month. They absolutely made my finish a possibility. 25 minutes is not a lot of time. I can think of dozens of ways to spend 25 minutes in an ultra. There were 5 crew accessible aid stations. An extra 5 minutes spent at each of them? DNF. My pacers kept me moving as fast as I was physically capable and didn't let me slack. For the 50+ miles I was with them, I could've easily slacked away 25 minutes without the proper motivation. They all ended up being so indispensable, and I am overflowing with gratitude towards them for all their hard work and the love they showed me.
I owe them everything.
I have to thank all the usual people again. My family and friends for their love and support. All of my trail running friends who have graciously welcomed me into their community over the past 3 years. Everyone who followed along on Facebook or the live update website. Everyone who commented on my wall or sent me encouraging text messages. Everyone who believed in me. My crew. The amazing volunteers at the race. Really just everyone who has helped me in any way this year. From the bottom of my heart, thank you!

I would recommend this race to anybody wanting to conquer their first 100. It is a top-notch event and I never lacked for support at any point.

I will leave you with my immediate reaction to the race director when he asked for my thoughts afterwards.

"I overestimated how hard it would be...and it still wasn't enough."

Thanks so much for reading!


* Layton Kor, first ascent of South Face of Washington Column, Yosemite National Park 1964
GPS map readout source: