The start/finish area deck and aid station.(Photo cred: PGuza)
Almost a year has elapsed since my first, and only, attempt at the 100-mile distance. I DNFed. My friend, Jeff, had anxiously awaited my arrival at the start/finish area so that he could pace me for the third of my four 25-mile loops. Unfortunately, I dropped out after mile 53, succumbing to a tight and painful Achilles tendon. It did not take me long to recover physically, but the mental toll of the race and the DNF took me longer to overcome. Since then, I’ve learned a lot in the past year: patience, goal-setting and the revision of goals, the need for flexibility, the drive to just move forward. But as registration opened and this year’s TARC 100 neared, I did not possess the mental state or the physical readiness to take on the challenge again.
Jeff, however, had been training all winter for the event, and this year, I had the opportunity to support him in his quest to complete this sacred distance. Given my training and Jeff’s fear that the third loop would be the toughest for him, I planned to run miles 50-75 with him. Then, based on how I felt after that leg, I would try to join him for as much more as I could. Here’s our story.
I woke up around 7:00am on Saturday morning, two hours after gun time and immediately checked the live update page to see the runners’ progress. Nothing. I texted Edie, Jeff’s wife and got a quick note from her: Jeff was moving well. Fast-forward three hours later and Jeff had already completed his first lap in 4:58. Well ahead of schedule, but I was not too surprised. The man is fast, and he has trouble reining himself in at the start of races. Sometimes, you just have to run! I did some quick math and realized that my projected start time of 5:00pm was too late. If Jeff stayed on this pace, I’d be running at 3:00pm.
I arrived at Hale Reservation around 1:30pm and quickly learned about numerous runners who had already dropped out due to the heat and various injuries. This year’s course, while drier than last year’s, featured much more technical terrain, and the warm temperature and humidity did not help matters. I also heard of 100-mile runners who, after spending eight hours on the course for their first 25 miles, had only just begun their second loop. They would surely miss a cut-off time later in the day, but I admired their determination and desire to stay out there on the course for as long as they could.
The start/finish area beach.(Photo cred: PGuza)
While waiting for Jeff to come back in, I drank two liters of water and still could not stay hydrated. With temperatures in the high 80s and my inability to take in enough water while remaining stationary, I could not imagine how all the runners would manage as they exerted themselves throughout the afternoon.
I began to have mixed feelings about when I wanted to start running. An earlier start meant running in the heat, but having more daylight by which to navigate the course; a later start meant cooler temps but encountering nightfall sooner. I quickly ridded my mind of those thoughts; I could not control any of that. I had to focus on the single task that I was there to complete: help Jeff cross the finish line. I soon learned that he had passed through the 45-mile aid station and would be back at the start/finish area soon. I made my final preparations, drank yet more water, and got ready. Before long, I saw a tall, skinny, shirtless guy in an orange hat come bounding down the beach. It was time to go.
We set off just before 4:00pm, and Jeff immediately told me that he needed to walk. After running so hard and so well for 50 miles, he had hit a low point. His legs ached, his Achilles tendon had tightened up, and his stomach did not feel great; he warned me quickly that he might throw up soon. We walked and jogged for the next few miles, and he updated me on the first half of the race. A few runners passed us in this section and we let them go. Such is the nature of a long race; we just had to worry about ourselves. Before long, Jeff pulled over and threw up, emptying his stomach of the raspberry smoothie he had consumed at the last aid station. “It’s not blood,” he quickly assured me, immediately sensing my worry when I saw red. I made a quick note to myself to switch out Jeff’s Tailwind drink for plain water, and to get some bland food into him at the next aid station. The mind has a strange way of making associations, and it quickly forms connections between certain tastes and nausea/vomiting; Jeff would not want any fruity drink for a long time (in the psychology world, we call this a conditioned taste aversion). With three-or-so miles to go, he would have some time to recover and for his stomach to settle, and so we pressed on.
The next 15 miles passed without much event. We went in and out of aid stations, we climbed a couple of steep hills, and we mixed bursts of chatter with bouts of silence. We passed some runners who had gotten lost and tried to redirect them, but without knowing where they had veered off course, we were unable to offer much help. At one point, after hearing some whip-poor-wills call out in the dusk, a reminder of his youth in Virginia, Jeff mentioned that he missed seeing fireflies, which were abundant in Virginia. I’ve seen them around here, and said as much, but in my experience, they’re more the exception than the rule.
Not long thereafter, we crested Powisett Peak, one of the high points of the course, and off in the distance, the final glow of the sun burned above the horizon. We stopped to soak in the scenery, admiring the beauty and grandeur of the surrounding land, silently expressing our gratitude for this small reward. Nighttime had already descended upon the valleys around us, and we began our downward trek into the darkness.
A view from one of the peaks, taken earlier in the day.(Photo cred: PGuza)
We began to hike more and run less as Jeff’s Achilles continued to tighten. We swapped off leads, doing our best to keep our pace at sub-20-minute-miles. Approaching the Powisett Farm aid station, we ran through a large field. And what graced our presence? FIREFLIES. Another sign, another occasion to rejoice, another lift for our spirits. In and out of the aid station, and Jeff told me he’d probably have to walk the last five miles of this loop, along with the 25 miles of the fourth loop.
It’s amazing how quickly doubts can arise. My mind and body quickly had opposing thoughts. My body: “I can do that. We’re not moving too fast right now. I can keep this up.” My mind: “Holy crap — eight hours of power hiking through this? That sounds miserable. There’s no way I can do that.” So again, I had to remind myself that I had but a single goal, and that goal had nothing to do with me. So long as my legs could move, I would stay on the course and keep Jeff company. At times I experienced the twinges and aches that inevitably sink in with this much time on the trail, and I doubted my ability to go much farther than 25 miles. I thought about warning Jeff that I would probably stop once we returned to the start/finish area. But then I thought about HIS race and HIS goal of finishing, and I knew the effect that a simple warning like that might have. I kept my mouth shut; I wouldn’t say anything unless I absolutely had to.
Before exiting the field, we ran into another runner and his pacer, lost on the trail. They had been way ahead of us, and as we pointed them in the right direction, they shared that they’d been circling this area for an hour. We kept going, figuring they’d pass us soon enough. But they never did. I don’t know what happened to them but Jeff and I wondered if the psychological blow of spending an extra hour on the course, lost at night, might have been the final straw for them. More doubts crept in: One of my jobs as a pacer is to keep my runner on course. What if I fail in this regard? Would I miss a turn and get us lost?
We kept hiking, trying to maintain a quick pace, and every time my watch beeped to signal that another mile had passed, we marveled at our ability to stay below 20 minutes, no matter how slowly we felt we had been moving. Whereas this truly would have been slow on other occasions, we gained confidence in our ability to continue. We stopped at the start/finish area to change socks and shoes, refill on water, and we kept walking. Hills came and went, seemingly taller and steeper than before.
"Every step you take is a PR, so just keep moving forward," I told Jeff over and over again, to the point that the was repeating aloud, too. It became our mantra through all of the difficult moments when it would have just been easier to stop.
Midnight. 1:00am. 2:00am. 3:00am. Soon we would see the sky lighting up. 4:00am and the black sky began to take on a blue-ish hue. 5:00am, and as chance would have it, we found ourselves atop Powisset Peak, the site of last night’s sunset. And there we paused, now catching a glimpse of the impending sunrise, another round of orange and pink rising in the distance. At this point, we knew that we could, and that we would, finish.
In the last five miles, I took over the lead, setting a pace that I knew Jeff could handle, allowing him to just focus on making forward progress. We began to jog more, taking the flats and downhills as much as his Achilles could handle. With about a mile left, we encountered three small rises, with the finish line just around the corner. As we crested the final bump, I moved over and Jeff took over in front. He picked up the pace, and as we neared the beach and finish line, I said to him, “When we hit the sand, I want you to do your best David Hasselhoff impersonation.” One last chuckle as we heard the ringing bell and cheers, as we picked up the pace one last time. I stayed close behind, offering final words of encouragement, praise, and applause.
Approaching the finish line! (Photo cred: EDixon)
27 hours, 13 minutes, 36 seconds. Jeff did it. He trained for this event with purpose and determination. He didn’t quit when he realized that he would not meet his goal of 24 hours. He pushed through every low point on the course. He held his head high. He kept moving. He put in a gutsy performance. He finished.
Thank yous: First, a huge thank you to Jeff. I owe you tremendously for your many miles of companionship over the past year, and for letting me be a part of this momentous occasion. You’ve taught me a lot about about toughness — both mental and physical, and the will and fortitude it takes to go this distance. Second, a huge thank you to Edie, the race RDs, and all of the volunteers who got us through this event. We could not have done this without your smiles and words of encouragement, and your incredible care for our needs. Third, thank you to all of the other runners, and to the entire TARC family. We are an incredible community of people who push one another to accomplish incredible things. The example you set out there makes all of better runners and better people. Finally, thank you to my wife, who puts up with all of my training and crazy adventures, and who slept alone Saturday night. (Jeff thanks you, too.)
A link to our GPS track: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/516742599
Jeff shows off his new belt buckle! (Photo cred: MMaher)