50 miles is a long way. 264,000 feet to be exact. That’s approximately 100,000 steps. One. Hundred. Thousand. 50-thousand strikes per foot. And, last month at the Mark Twain Endurance event, I ran it.
Well, ran is a generous term. I ran parts of it. Considering the 5,300 feet of climb involved,I hiked a lot of it as well.
A Well Supported Run
I went into the race well supported. I have an incredible running group. I never had to do an entire long run alone. Generally, if I wanted to do miles solo during training, it had to be done intentionally. Knowing that I had the support was kept me motivated. These friends were investing part of their runs into mine and I didn’t want to let them down.
Shannon, who started the running group and has been one of my biggest supporters and good friends, coached me through the training. I had asked for a running plan, but she poured her heart into giving me workouts and plans each week to fit my goals and abilities. She incorporated my schedule into her own even though we had vastly different goals. We logged hundreds of miles together. After all that, she and her husband Chris came up to crew for me during the race. Everyone knows how big of a sacrifice it is to spend a weekend devoted to helping another person when you have any number of other obligations you could spend the time one. I cannot express my gratitude deeply enough for that time she gave me during the race.
Heading to the Race
As it turned out, two of my brothers were visiting from out of town the weekend of the race as well. I convinced them and my brother-in-law to ride up to the race with me and turn it into a guy’s camping trip. They took the opportunity to get a ride that close to St. Louis and planned to spend the day there while I ran around in the woods.
We drove up the afternoon before the race to get our tent set up and try to make the pre-race meeting. As we pulled out of town the rain started. The sky deluged for the entire 150 mile trip. Our average speed on the interstate was only 45 miles an hour.
Half of a mile before we exited the highway, with my brother-in-law driving, I received a life-changing phone call. A company in Denver that I’d been interviewing with in the days before called to offer me the job. My phone had been connected to the rental car’s bluetooth for traveling music. When I answered it automatically went to speakerphone. All the guys in the car got to hear the offer, hear me counter, and watch me place my head between my knees and hyperventilate, all while the GPS, also on my phone, kept interrupting loudly.
When we finally arrived at the campground we sat in the car for 20 minutes praying for a break. It never came, so we set the tent up in the pouring rain. Once the tent was up we warmed the chicken soup my wonderful wife had thoughtfully made for us. I threw some in a thermos for the next day while it was hot, and then we drove the 10 miles back to where the pre-race meeting was.
For whatever reason the race directors held the informational part of the meeting about 45 minutes early, so we missed that. I’m told it was relatively simple. “Stay on the trail. Don’t die. Have fun.” I did get a pair of Drymax socks in a raffle, some salad, and some cobbler. I wasn’t too disappointed.
As we settled back into the tent the rain picked back up. All night it performed a symphony of “thwocks” on the tent surface. No one slept well. My mind kept going back and forth between nervousness about the next day’s efforts and scrambling over the job offer. It felt like only moments after I had finally fallen asleep when someone’s car alarm went off. Once the owner took care of that I realized that someone else had a radio playing country music nearby.
The Race Begins
Somehow by the time morning came none of that was on my mind. Training kicked in. I prepped my vest like it was any other long run. I knew what I needed, where it needed to go, and when. The only mistake I made at that point was to leave the thermos with my chicken soup for mile 35 in the cooler. Eventually, runners and organizer began milling around the camp, getting ready. About 30 minutes before the race I found Shannon and Chris. We snapped a few pics, talked a little strategy, and suddenly it was time to start.
The start of the race was rather casual. Everyone gathered at the line almost instinctively. The race clock ticked on. One of the directors began the countdown, and just like that we were off. Try to imagine 75 runners on single track in the early morning dark. It made it hard to start off too quickly. I’m sure there is an etiquette to passing runners on the trail. I’m still not sure I have it figured out. Every couple miles the person in front of me would ask if I wanted by after they got tired of my breath on their back. Sometimes I would pass a few people at once. I’m sure I accidentally ticked off a few people but I was trying to pass politely.
At the first aid station I grabbed a few bites and got back out as quickly as possible, hoping the bottleneck would open some room on the trail. For the next few miles I chatted with another runner who was doing a comfortable pace. It was a good way to pass the time.
I hit the Brazil Creek 10 mile aid station right at 2 hours. Everything seemed to be going well. I was running a little harder than I probably should have been. The 100% humidity made the breathing and keeping my heart rate at a reasonable level a little more difficult. Shannon met me there and made sure I was eating and drinking. I told her the sad tale about my thermos of soup which was certainly all the way in St. Louis by then. She brought me the items that were harder to carry, like my avocados (yumm!) and refilled my vest. There was no sitting yet.
Brazil creek ran alongside the campground where the aid station sat. Appropriately the first creek crossing was immediately after getting back on the trail. There were some fears that the water was super high, but it was flowing gently mid-calf. I was so focused on crossing carefully and not stirring up gravel that I didn’t notice the photographer standing upstream until I was across. Some runners got great photos of themselves splashing across the creek like they were in some Disney movie. Mine looked like I was doing advanced calculus in my head. But I did not get any baby rocks in my Altras.
The next 5 miles were probably the most enjoyable of the whole race. The weather was nice, the terrain had evened out a bit. I was near other runners, but there was no competition for trail space.
The aid station volunteers were really fantastic. They had all sorts of food set out. I arrived, bottles in hand, surveying the buffet. One volunteer took and filled my bottles while I attacked the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and orange slices. I grabbed a fig newton as they stuffed my bottles back into my vest for me, the now-ice-cold bottle bringing my body temperature down just a notch. And I was off again.
A couple miles later was the spring. I didn’t need to refill my water there because the aid stations were so great, but I splashed the cool water on myself before continuing. At that point I was in one of the lower points of the race. I had just had my fastest mile. The problem with being at the bottom is that is where the water comes to rest. I don’t remember how many water crossings I there were after that. At the preview there had been 2. This time there were more than 6. The trail itself was standing water at one point. Most of the crossings were too wide to jump across. I spent the next 10 miles in wet socks. I could feel the blisters forming and there was nothing I could do about it.
By the time I made it to Berryman campground my glutes were on fire from all the climbing. Everyone said I looked great but I felt rough. I was struggling mentally because of the water challenges. Shannon helped me with a change of socks, played 20 questions, made sure I fueled, and refilled my pack while I rolled out my butt on a lacrosse ball. And then she kicked me out of camp. No time to get settled and give up.
The Second Half
The next 10 miles to Brazil Creek took 2.5 hours. It was a struggle. My glutes settled down but I got a knot in my left calf that stayed for the rest of the race. I could feel my muscles beginning to run out of fuel. I tried to keep ahead of the curve. I’d been told that ultras are an eating competition with some running involved. It’s true. Between the aid stations, I would typically eat 1-2 GUs, a sweet potato or part of Complete Cookie and several handfuls of trail mix.
At Brazil Creek Shannon sat me down. She or Chris had gone out and found me a can of chicken noodle soup and warmed it up. While I slurped it she rolled out my calf. That was the best cup of soup I’ve ever had. The calf roller I could have done without, but it was necessary. When I described all I’d eaten in the last 10 miles Chris asked if I’d left anything for the other runners. We threw an extra pair of socks in my pack along with my headlight just in case it got dark and more food.
About a half mile after I crossed Brazil Creek, I got stung by a honey bee on the ankle, through my sock. That was kind of a downer. At that point in the race the the game became entirely about staying mentally solid. My muscles were fatigued, I had blisters, and I had been moving for 8 straight hours. In order to complete the next 14 miles I had to maintain fueling and hydration. If I let myself dwell on things that were annoying or difficult I would lose focus. I had to take every thought captive. A bee sting was annoying, but it wasn’t crippling. I looked at it as a challenge and I tackled it head on.
That said, the remainder of the race was rough. The knot in my left calf became a constant pain, particularly when climbing uphill or descending downhill. Since there were very few flat areas of trail movement became a constant struggle. It wasn’t severe pain, but it was constant. With 10 miles to go, nearly every step was a battle.
I made it through the bottom-land again without incident. It was still wet, but I was prepared with the extra socks. I made it to the final aid station, said a silent prayer for whoever had donated the socks for the raffle, and sat to address my feet. Let me say again, the volunteers were amazing. I asked these guys for duct tape for my blisters and they not only provided but knelt down and bandaged my wet, abused feet. They brought me food and drink and generally encouraged me. Really, I can’t say enough good things about guys who will stand around outside all day to give food to delusion runners and nurse their wounds. I could have stayed there forever, but they fixed me up and sent me on my way. With dry socks and freshly taped toes I was on the trail again.
Even after that wonderful oasis, the last 5 miles were not fun. The mental challenge took herculean efforts for me. At one point I found myself with an Adelle song stuck in my head. Part of it really. There was no way I saw myself going for another hour with “Hello, it’s me.” repeating inside my head over and over again. I had to master it. So I tried to recite Bible verses. The first one that popped into my head was, “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Not helpful. But I realized it could be, and I made myself recite the whole psalm. The only way I was able to do that was to sing it. So pretty soon I was wandering through the woods singing Psalm 23 out loud. “I shall not want… He leadeth me… I shall fear no evil…” It didn’t last long as oxygen was at a premium (with humidity hovering around 98% still) and my legs were demanding most of it, but it did the trick to keep me mentally in the game.
Around that time I was at one of the few flat areas of the course. The woods were somewhat sparse, mostly pine trees. I plodded along, enjoying the respite from the climbs and descents. Suddenly, for a brief moment, I heard a loud buzzing much like a miniature bomber jet. And then a brutal, sharp pain in the back of my right knee pit. It nearly took me to my knees. I never saw what stung me. It felt like I’d been stabbed. 2 miles from the finish. I cursed that creature upside down and sideways. That sting left a welt that took a week to go away.
The rest of the run was comparatively uneventful. A couple thousand more steps and I finally saw the finish line. I watched the numbers on the race clock counting up. 12:29 and change. Damned if I wasn’t going to beat 12:30. At mile 50, I sprinted for the finish. Or it felt like I did. Video evidence suggested that I made a valiant effort at speed walking through the end. Andy, one of the race directors took an excruciating 5 seconds to put the medal around my neck (I may have cussed at him for trying to get it straight), and that was the race. A few pictures were taken and I was finally able to sink into a camp chair. People brought me food and drink, and if I hadn’t been so completely dead I would have felt like I was living the life.
As you can see, running 50 miles was not what you would call fun. When people ask me about it I tell them that there came a point in the race where it wasn’t fun anymore. But I still loved it. The race presented me with challenges, and I took them one at at time. I didn’t do it alone. I had the miles of training with my running group and friends, and I had Shannon and Chris crewing for me, equipping me to succeed. Running long has only strengthened my love of running. But no, I do not have plans for a hundred in the near future. I know you want to ask.
The accomplishment was eclipsed by my accepting the job offer and announcing that week that I was moving my family 800 miles across the country. I story topped myself. Stay tuned for stories from that adventure, as they are developing.