Chasing 42

Life, the Universe, & Running

Archive for the tag “ultra marathon”

The Pacer Chronicles: The Flight of the Squirrel

The joy of having multiple pacers is that the memories and accounts of the event all differ just enough to make these stories different. This account keeps that theory alive as Lani describes her experience at the Mark Twain 100.

“The ultra run experience is still pretty fresh. I made my debut as a pacer at the Mark Twain 100 in the middle of September. Someone used the word “intense” to describe it. I cannot think of a better word. It truly was one of the most intense and rewarding running experiences I’ve had to-date. I have hesitated to write this because I don’t want to take any undue ownership of Adam’s run, but I found it meaningful enough personally to go ahead and write down some of my thoughts about it all since he requested it.

Lani "The Flying Squirrel" made friends on the way down to MO.

Lani “The Flying Squirrel” made friends on the way down to MO.

Adam arrived for his final 25 mile loop at about 2:30 a.m. on Sunday morning…. I had been waiting for him since midnight. Not because I expected him to be there at midnight, but just because I had been sleeping fitfully and I just really wanted to be ready when he came rolling in to the aid station where we were camping. I knew the last thing he would need is to be waiting on me. It was cold out. I was shivering in my layers inside a cozy sleeping bag and having visions of him and Carla out in the dark woods with nothing but shorts and shirts. When we met him earlier at mile 59 and he came running in with Nicole (our first crew pacer), he was not only hurting but also fighting back severe nausea and stomach cramping (something he had never experienced before) from eating half of a burrito with cheese in it that didn’t settle well with his lactose intolerant constitution. His wife/crew chief extraordinaire had given him a digestive enzyme at this point, we had all lifted him to his feet and reluctantly pushed him out of the first aid station (words from his wife/crew chief extraordinaire whispered in his ear spurring him forward) with Carla (the next-in-line of the crew pacers) to navigate the next six hours of the night. It was SO hard to watch him go knowing how bad he was hurting. I can only imagine what his wife was thinking/feeling. In those hours before midnight, I lay in my cozy sleeping bag worrying. Weird things happen when you fade in and out of consciousness. Hearing the cowbell when runners came in at various points throughout the evening (at one point in the evening, Nicole thrashed restlessly, half-awake/half-asleep, around in her sleeping bag and commanded, “Seriously! Enough with the damn cowbell ALREADY!” I mean really… we were trying to get sleep around here… those runners can find a different way to be motivated, right? Heh.) and listening to the race director masterfully help runners make their way back out on the course. “Get moving,” I would hear him demand, “You’ll warm up when you start moving. Do you have a coat? Does anyone have a coat? You need to get a coat on and get back out there. GET outta here. Move… you’ll warm up when you start moving.”

Curled up in the sleeping bag for a few zzz's.

Curled up in the sleeping bag for a few zzz’s.

It sounded harsh, but I realized psychologically this is what those runners needed to be able to finish. Self-motivation was near impossible at this point in their running experience. An excuse to stop would be a welcome reprieve from the aches, the tiredness, the shivering from the cold, and the gigantic mountain of the prospect of a “night in the dark woods” looming ahead of them. At one point, I sat straight up and looked at a sleepy, disoriented Nicole trying to make sense of what I was saying and asked, “Where’s Adam’s coat? His silver coat he had on this morning? We need his coat.” So it was no wonder I just got myself up and set myself in a chair around the campfire at midnight with others waiting for their runners to come in. My company was mixed. One man whose wife was running her first 100. Another couple of guys whose Dad was out on the course and were discussing ways to keep their mother from worrying and plotting how they could just get her to come out of hiding in her tent and sit around the campfire with the rest of us. A young man, experienced in 100 mile runs himself, waiting to pace a friend who was quite willing to share tips with me about what I should do for Adam through the next leg of the race. What I learned? Melissa (Adam’s wife) said it best. “Crewing for an ultra involves a LOT of waiting around and anxious speculation.”

Ready and waiting...and waiting :)

Ready and waiting…and waiting 🙂

When Adam finally rolled in at 2:30 a.m., he was tired and sat down in a chair voicing his decision to stop (this at mile 75 with one more 25 mile loop to go… and well ahead of the cut off deadline). I had been told this would happen (thank you, Larry Kelly, for a very accurate and thorough pacer overview/tutorial of what to expect) and I thought he looked good enough to continue (at least until the next first aid station where we could re-evaluate) so when he came rolling in at 2:30ish saying he was sorry and he was done, giving me a hug and asking me if I was disappointed in him… acting a bit loopy and a lot tired… well, we just sat him down in the chair… I put my gloves on his hands, someone in first aid got him some warm potato soup, I put my Relay Iowa jacket on him (as I mentioned earlier, it was COLD in MO that night and he was only wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt!), I offered him some Aleeve which he took even though he normally doesn’t, I put Carla’s (the pacer who just brought him in from mile 59) headlamp on his head, pulled him up and said, “Let’s get going, Adam… you’ll warm up if you get moving.”… he stood up and weakly/slowly/wobbly, but not unwillingly and more notably, without any verbal protest, followed me… I did my best to power him through from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m (apparently the darkest hours mentally and physically in the ultra run experience, although I’m not sure this was the case in Adam’s experience as he had a pretty challenging 16 miles with Carla just prior to my shift)…. it was a pretty long nine miles, and I’m not sure what he remembers about those dark hours but he kept up with me pretty good and I tried to push him as much as I dared… non-stop through the dark for those four long hours I was saying… look out for those roots, watch for those rocks… stay with me… stop and take a drink (when he did, he swayed in a slow circle trying to stay awake)… he was not coherent at all and completely childlike in his dependence on me. We talked about various things. Who had he met? What was his favorite ultra race, to date? What was his highest point, so far. His lowest point? Where was his favorite place to vacation? We made up a little song about “rock and roots” and laughed some. He stopped mid-trail at one point when he heard some rustling off to the side in the shadows just outside the fringes of our headlamps’ line of vision. I heard it, too, but didn’t want him using energy to worry about anything so assured him I had just tripped over a rock.

Thankfully I didn’t research big animals in the dark Mark Twain woods until AFTER I got home from the race. A small little white mouse skittered out onto the trail and then back to the left. We were passed a couple of times by human beings. The second time, by a man who looked at us with a long hollow, glazed over, vacant stare as he trudged by and on up the hill. Straight out of a horror movie kind of stare. At another point Adam talked about how he was so very, very tired and could just curl up over there on the side and go to sleep. “I know you could, Adam, but we just have to keep going,” I urged. At some point, I veered to the left and down into a riverbed. Thankfully, Adam was coherent enough to stop and call me on my error. It was the only time, I believe, I actually came close to getting us lost in the woods and somehow I think it wouldn’t have taken me very long in that direction to realize it. However, at this point? Every extra step? Really. Counts. Sorry, Adam. It was also at this juncture I quite distinctly heard an animal growl off to the right side of the trail and a little behind us. It is strange how your mind just pretends it isn’t really happening. That it’s just your imagination. That there really aren’t ferocious forest animals in the dark that could eat humans. How you just set your face forward and power ahead. Adam talked about how he just wanted to sit by a campfire. “Soon,” I assured him, “very soon.” And I didn’t know how true that would be. As we approached the first aid station, a chair was waiting for him in front of a very inviting, cozy campfire – a worrisome inviting, cozy campfire. I was having visions of him deciding to curl up right there and go to sleep. So he again enjoyed a warm bite of potato soup – this time in front of the fire and I’m a bit disappointed now to realize he doesn’t remember any of it. It seemed like such a welcome reprieve in an otherwise dark, cold night. As had been typical of our experience with the race support staff all race long, I was treated once more to their above-and-beyond attentiveness as they helped me change the battery in Adam’s waning headlamp and we were ready to move on out again. I knew for certain it needed to be sooner rather than later. The dark woods awaited us. A few times I remember telling him, “Adam, this is the last time! The last time you will run this trail until you come back someday.” He assured me it was the last time. EVER. There was only one other stop on the trail as my own headlamp grew dim where we were passed by a woman and her pacer. I had Adam take a hydration break while I replaced the batteries. It’s amazing what a difference a bright, as opposed to not dim, light makes.

The rejuvenating power of the sun!

The rejuvenating power of the sun!

And this next stretch is where the miracle started to happen. I had been told if we could keep him running until daylight, he’d be home free. I remember being amazed myself to look up and see light at the top of the trees above. I remember thinking, “Is that the moon?”, and then hearing that first bird… the hopeful morning song of the whip-poor-will calling out in the dark woods not that much unlike the one you hear in this video clip – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sukE9pGayRc. It was then the full realization hit that it was daylight. We had made it to daylight! I pointed up and said, “Adam, look… it’s daylight. You know what that means? Today’s the day. Today’s the day you run 100 miles!” The next few miles were a challenge as we winded back and forth through the woods, me worrying the entire time that maybe we were not on the trail, but not wanting to burden Adam with my worry by voicing it. So I looked for and inwardly and outwardly rejoiced every time we saw a pink ribbon or arrow on the ground reassuring me that indeed… we were still on the trail. Almost unexpectedly, we popped out of the forest onto the paved road we had to run on for just a little ways to the first aid station where Eric (our final pacer and the absolute perfect one to bring Adam to the finish line, I might add!) was waiting to take him on the home stretch. Emotions surfaced sharply and unexpectedly, tears welling up in my eyes, overpowering me as I realized I was running (yes, running!) alongside him (did I mention that we were running??!!) down that paved road and up to that first aid station in those early morning dawn hours, the sky filled with such beautiful light… it was an experience I can’t explain in words or ever replicate. A euphoria, a sense of re-awakening, a sense of hope and pride in his accomplishment I could never describe. And I said it out loud again. Just in case Adam hadn’t heard me the first time. “This is the DAY, Adam! This is the beautiful, amazing day you run 100 miles! We did it! No. YOU did it!”

No better way to pass the morning hours!

No better way to pass the morning hours!

The Mark Twain National Forest is pretty dark, even with the moon, in the wee hours of the morning. Cut off for this trail ultra was 32 hours. He wanted to finish in 24, but to my knowledge he’d never done a trail run like this before. I was literally picking up his leg for him and then supporting him as he would lift himself across the logs across the trail at various points. I would later find out this was largely because of a hamstring injury he sustained earlier in the race. On the last one, I actually lifted his leg across and then physically lifted/pulled him across the log myself. At certain points during the night he was fighting to stay awake. In fact, I’m quite certain he might have run while sleeping the last part of our run. I was very humbled and a lot inspired by the whole experience… it really spoke to me about the power of a good “encourager” and how important encouragement is to finishing when you don’t have the power to encourage yourself. I was glad to be able to play a small part in him achieving his big goal. He EARNED that belt buckle! So proud of him. So amazing to see “Don’t want to? Do it anyway.” in action.”

Mark Twain 100 Race Report: Part II

I believe I last spoke to you as I was returning from my second loop. I had completed 50 miles, was smiling, and my crew of friends, along with the epicurean crew chief, were restocking my pack, bladder, and flasks. My legs could definitely tell that I had just covered 50 miles, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a tad bit jealous of the folks finishing their race at that moment, but I was feeling really good for the most part. I was ready to tackle the second half of the race, and excited by the prospect of having pacing company for the next 50 miles. I was going to treat these miles as just another great run through the woods with some amazing friends! I ate part of a bean and cheese burrito, along with some orange slices, and was ready to roll.

Loop 3- The Darkness Sets In 

The nature of the course and the number of pacers meant that each of the four folks would tackle either 9 or 16 miles with me. Nicole and I headed out back onto the trail, and we were ready to conquer the next nine miles. It was nice to have someone to chat with after 50 miles of relative silence, and our conversations bounced all over the place. As I’ve talked to my friends more and more about the race, I’ve come to realize that I don’t actually remember nearly as many of the conversations as I thought I did. I was still feeling good early on in the third loops, so my mind wasn’t straying all that much from reality. My stomach, however, began to stray from comfortable after about 3 miles. Almost without warning, I began to feel nauseous and acquired a throbbing headache. I shared my discomfort with Nicole, and we spent some time trying to think about where my nutrition and hydration plan had gone wrong at this point. Most ultrarunners know that the stomach is a finicky beast, and I’ve certainly had my share of G.I. issues in the past. However, I felt like I had been taking in solid foods, Tailwind, and water pretty consistently over the course of the day.

Heading out for Loop 3 (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Heading out for Loop 3 (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

After a bit of discussion, it occurred to both of us…the burrito! How could I have been so foolish?! I was perhaps more hungry than I realized when I returned after the second loop, and the burrito sounded great at the time. It even triggered memories from the race in Arizona and the fantastic overnight burritos they fed us. Those, however, didn’t have cheese in them. I should obviously know better since I’m lactose intolerant. The middle of a 100-mile race is probably the wrong time to add some dairy-induced distress into your system, but that’s exactly what I did. The sun was setting, and my body was diverting resources to deal with the nausea that was consuming me. This, coupled with the declining temperatures, meant that my body was no longer balancing the fatigue that was beginning to overtake it. Our pace dropped off significantly, and Nicole did her best to keep me moving. The first aid station was a bit of a blur but I drank some ginger ale and found a ginger chew to try and calm my stomach. Running became considerably harder as I was constantly holding back the urge to vomit, and I’m still not sure how I managed to not return my dietary acquisitions to the earth. I focused on her voice, feet, and the trail and just kept moving forward.

By the time we reached the small section of black top before the mile 9 aid station and crew access point, I was hurting. It was a struggle to keep moving, and I was at a loss for how to describe the battle my immune system was waging against me. I was convinced that I was being attacked from within, and all I could do was settle in for the overnight siege. I’m not entirely sure how Nicole dragged me up to the aid station, and I don’t entirely remember it happening, but I made it and everyone was waiting for me. I found a chair, sat down, and put my head between my legs. Everyone worked around me to fill my bottles and get me food, and the images in my mind are more like blurry photographs than clear thoughts. The warmth and blandness of a cup of mashed potatoes was the perfect medicine for what was ailing me, and I gladly accepted it. I sat in the chair for what seemed like an eternity while everyone assured me that I was doing great, and Carla readied herself to take me out on the next segment. This was my first moment of doubt. This was the first time thoughts of quitting entered my mind. Everyone lifted me out of the chair, and the epicurean shared her faith in my ability to finish, quietly in my ear, as I left. That small, whispered sentence may have been the only think that got me back out on the trail.

Coming in to Mile 59...who took away the light? (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Coming in to Mile 59…who took away the light? (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Carla and I made our way down the trail to the stream-crossing, and I slowly stepped across, trying not to topple over. She helped me across (I think), and we continued on our way. I had picked up my headlamp at the last aid station, and it was now entirely black in the woods, so our lamps were the only think lighting our way. The moon would make an appearance later in the evening, but only in those brief moments when the tree canopy parted long enough for the beams of light to float down to the forest floor. After about 30 minutes, my headlamp began to get much dimmer. This was considerably worrisome, because a) I had fully charged it before the trip, and b) we had many hours left to go in the dark! After a few minutes, my headlamp was completely dark. Fortunately, my intrepid crew had snuck my flashlight back into my pack after I had handed it off. Carla fished it out, and we carried on,

The next few hours proved to be the lowest point not only in the race, but in my entire running career. My energy never really bounced back, and each step became a battle with my body. We ran a little, walked a lot, and our conversations drifted from topic to topic, becoming more and more random and non-coherent as the miles passed by (from what I remember, and what I’ve been told, anyway!). I struggled from aid station to aid station, and my mind drifted to thoughts of quitting quite frequently. Luckily, Carla kept me talking, kept me moving, and didn’t acknowledge my self-doubt. She maintained such an amazing attitude throughout the entire 16 miles, and I’m fairly certain that I finished those miles with her energy more than my own. This part of the race was such a blur that I seem to be gaining new memories each time we talk about it. I do, however, remember that silent moment in the dark when we heard a rustling to our left. We both pointed our lights on the area, and ever so faintly, we spied the image of a small, spotted cat. At the time, it didn’t register as overly frightful to me, although I’m guessing Carla, who was far more coherent, had other thoughts. We would find out later that bobcats are pretty common in the Mark Twain National Forest, and the story only grew from there 🙂

Somehow, despite my body’s constant onslaught on my movement, I continued to make relentless forward progress and we finished those 16 miles. It took 6 hours, which if I had been asked earlier, would have seemed like a ridiculous figure. Carla had definitely gone above and beyond the call of duty as a pacer, and earned her MVP (most valuable pacer) status for the trip. There’s no question in my mind that I wouldn’t have finished that loop without her. I had plenty of time to plan my DNF speech, but she got me to the 75 mile mark. I walked into Jackson’s landing like a zombie, with a look in my eyes that no doubt gave everyone a bit of a scare.

I remember sitting down in that chair, exhausted, and barely able to coherently utter the words I had been mentally rehearsing for the last two hours. My entire crew could sense my mood, and I whispered hints of dropping, which they expertly ignored as they checked my gear, filled my water, and sought out food to nourish me. My hands were almost numb after forgetting to pick my gloves up off the ground following a pit stop hours earlier, and I needed gloves. My fingers couldn’t function properly, so they slid the gloves onto my fingers comically as the race director watched on with a smile. He made a comment about getting me back out on the course, and was quick to help me remember I’d feel worse if I stopped than if I jumped back on the trail for the final 25 miles. He was right. I knew it, and I fought my body every step of the way so I could get back out there. Ultimately, I was simply too tired to quit. The words didn’t come out, and deep down, I didn’t want them to leave my mouth. They lifted me up, and Lani assumed her role as the next pacer as we slowly made our way to the trailhead.

Loop 4- Let There Be Light! 

The first nine miles of this loop were more of a blur than perhaps any other section of the course. I was unreasonably tired for some reason, and could have curled up on the ground at any point to take a brief nap. Lani’s amazingly positive attitude kept me moving as she announced each and every rock and tree root that my reflexes were too slow to adequately avoid. At certain points, stopping to take a drink of water meant teetering on the brink of sleep, and I spent most of those nine miles on the verge of falling asleep right on the course. My legs were heavy, and she helped lift them over the fallen trees that looked like the walls of Alcatraz, trying their best to hold me in the gloriously open prison of my own making. I’m always thankful for Lani’s positive attitude and energy, but was no more so than during those nine miles. I followed her voice, stared at her feet, and kept moving. The darkness seemed to encompass us completely, and the tunnel vision I experienced was perhaps a blessing in disguise.

I don’t remember making it to the first aid station, but I’m sure I took in some nutrition, drank as much as I could stomach, and kept moving. The nausea was gone, replaced by fatigue as pure as freshly fallen snow, and it took all of my energy reserves to keep moving. These hours represented a very dark point in my journey, and tested me in a way that no previous endurance event had. We were passed by a few folks in the couple of hours it took us to navigate the darkness, but for the most part, we were alone and left to our own thoughts. I recalled later hearing strange noises, but Lani brushed them off as kicked brush at the time, although I would learn later that she felt a shiver of fear at what might be lurking in the darkness. Our saving grace was truly the rising sun, which began to cut through the darkness slowly and gave me hope. I recognized the trail more towards the end of our 9-mile journey as I caught a subtle 8th or 9th wind. However, each time I thought we were close to turning the corner, I’d realize that I had miscalculated. I was running from tree to tree, from Switchback to Switchback, and eagerly anticipating our emergence onto the short stretch of black top. We finally hit that section as the light emerged with enough strength to allow us to turn off our lights, and it was a wondrous moment. Lani looked over at me and said “we did this”, and “you’re going to do this!”, and she was right. I could feel the sunlight coursing into my veins and reinvigorating me as we strolled into the Huck’s Watering Hole and Eric was there to meet us. Lani had pulled me through the darkness and I was eternally grateful!

On the final leg- this was going to happen! (photo credit: Eric Esser)

On the final leg- this was going to happen! (photo credit: Eric Esser)

I stopped to refuel, enjoy another cup of mashed potatoes, and visit a restroom that didn’t involve nature’s toilet paper. Many ultrarunners talk about the importance of getting through the night, and reaching the dawn. If you can reach the dawn, you can do it. I’d always thought this was a nice sentiment, and great for motivation. However, it wasn’t until this moment that I realized just how true it really was. Almost instantly, I felt my energy return, my mood improve, and excitement fill my body. I had just woken up from a walking slumber, and I felt as well rested as when the race had begun 25 or 26 hours earlier. My crew was admittedly surprised, especially considering how I looked the last time they saw me, and I assured them that it wasn’t a fluke. I took a final drink of water, and Eric and I headed out for the final 16 miles.

I was now awake and aware enough to appreciate passing each portion of the trail for the last time. We joked, talked about the previous lap, and discussed my new-found energy as we pushed forward at a much more brisk pace than I had seen in quite some time. I was able to run and power hike the whole rest of the route, and felt like I had extra energy to burn. Eric began joking about how easy his pacing duties were compared to the others, and I laughed with him. It was true, and I knew at that point that I would indeed be finishing this race, and my excitement only grew with each passing mile. In some ways, this segment became like any other early morning run with a wonderful friend. Eric and I have spent many early mornings ticking off the miles before meeting others, and I could think of no better person to finish out the race. We stopped at the final two aid stations and joked with the volunteers, ate pancakes, and I thanked them profusely for their support. Many folks seemed a bit surprised at my energy, but they were ultrarunners so they understood. Heck, we even passed a few people on the way into the finish.

Crossing the finish line...I promise I was very awake, despite my closed eyes!

Crossing the finish line…I promise I was very awake, despite my closed eyes!

With about a half mile to go, we came across a volunteer standing on the side of the trail and she began cheering us on. It was a testament to the dedication of all of the race staff that she had hiked that far down to cheer runners as they entered the home stretch. No matter how hard I push myself and for how long, I always seem to find a little bit of extra energy at the end of a race, and this one was no different. Eric and I rounded the final turn up the hill and into the clearing near the finish line, and I picked up the pace and began running with all the energy I had left. I crossed the finish line in 29 hours 46 minutes, wearing the biggest smile I’d had all day. The immensity of what I had accomplished took much longer to set in, but my joy was immediate. I felt a surge of endorphins rush through me instead of the expected final wave of fatigue, and I knew it had been an amazing race, and an incredible experience. There were plenty of hugs and handshakes, and I took a bit of time to rest and eat before we packed up the car. Our exit was quick due to the 9 hour drive we had ahead of us, but that just meant I had plenty of time to process what had just happened. I’ve never been more thankful for such amazing friends and an incredible partner than during this race, and there is no question in my mind that I couldn’t have done it without them. I’ve no doubt forgotten many moments in this recap, despite it’s length, but that’s the beauty of a 100-mile race. The memories will keep floating in for months to come, and they’ll bring a little smile to my face every time!

Hard-earned hardware!

Hard-earned hardware!

 

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: