What Am I Doing Here?
After a wet and windy sleepless night in McNaughton Park, I stood huddled under the teepee with a few dozen other runners. They were all ready to go, anxious to start running through the chilly sheets of rain. They were all ready in their running gear, bottles in hand, jumping around trying to stay warm. I was still in my fleece pants and rain gear, muddling about, generally unexcited about getting started. It wasn’t until about 30 minutes before the race that I retreated through the rain to my tent where I slowly proceeded to get ready for the journey I was about to take. This is my 3rd year coming to McNaughton Park, and the third year that it is raining. I know what lies ahead in terms of terrain and MUD… I’m not excited. Come to think of it, in the weeks leading up to this race, I was never really excited I was complacent and nervous about what to expect.
It’s been a long and arduous winter for me. Battling my demons ferociously having almost given up entirely on a few occasions, even spending some time in a psychiatric ICU. I had a surgery on December 30th that was “supposed” to keep me action-less for 6 weeks, I ran over 100 miles during that time in training anyway. I struggled through the winter and knew that while still in some kind of good shape, still underprepared, undertrained, for this 150 mile adventure. However, I still showed up in Illinois with all of my gear ready to run as far as I could with my heart and soul. This was as good a time as any to spend some time alone and work on rediscovering myself, to work on slaying my demons. This race was less about surviving the distance and more about surviving myself. So as the clock ticked down to the start, I slowly pulled on my worn and tattered running tights, laced up my shoes and covered up with my rain gear. I reluctantly stepped out from my tent to listen to the pre-race briefing and then tuned to stand behind the starting line.
The countdown began and it wasn’t long before the horn blasted into the saturated air while 50 some of us crazy ultra-runners placed our first foot in the front to only be followed quickly by the other… we’d repeat this process a few thousand times over the course of the weekend in an attempt to complete what only a few have… 150 miles at McNaughton Park. We turned sharp left and was faced with the first of many steep downhills. This one leads to the first field and the mud here is a quick indication of what the rest of the course is going to look like. It must have been funny to watch 50 runners slip and slide down a hill looking as if someone had dropped a bag of marbles. Legs went this way and that as all traction was lost due to the peanut buttery mud. I couldn’t stand the be sucked into a tight group of runners bumping elbows the entire way down this hill, so I snuck t the outside and quickly scampered down the hill emerging at the bottom in the top 10 runners.
The First Loop
I had a vision of running this loop in around 2 hours, hoping to keep pace with some of the leaders as we made our first rounds of the park. Rain continued to pour down in sheets soaking us to the bone with a chilly wind whipping across our faces. It was easy to get the chills yet even easier to be overheated and encumbered by the amount of gear one was wearing to try to stay dry. I’m not sure if it even mattered, because what you wore to stay dry only made you sweat making for a rather uncomfortable experience. Between the totem pole and HEavens Gate aid stations, Ryan Dexter caught up to me and made the comment, “A little fast Sherpa, slow down bud.” I often wondered why people make these comments… I mean, how does HE know that I’ve gone out too fast. Ryan would go on to be the eventual winner, but in my head I was right on the pace I wanted to accomplish for the first loop. I paid no mind and kept running at the pace I wanted to run. The creek crossings were both about knee deep with the first one sinking us up to my waist, the cold water simply took my breath away and I was growing increasingly more grumpy. As I finished the first loop, I rain into the start/finish area and began taking care of my resupply when one of the race volunteers and other runners father came up to me and warned me to “slow down, you’re way too fast bud.” The first loop took my 1:58 and I was very happy with my time, having come in right on the time I had wanted. I looked at him and said, “it’s all good.” I refilled my water bottles and headed out for loop 2..
Not far into the 2nd loop, A female runner I knew from years past had caught up to me. She doesn’t seem to be her usual cheerful self, and I worry about her. As she come up behind me in the first field she says, “You ran that one balls out didn’t you?” I asked, “where have you been?” after not being able to locate her at the start “Obviously behind you.” I’m getting quite irritated now with the comments of the locals. I always thought ultra-running was a personal journey. That’s at least why I love it so much… so why do others feel the need to make these comments. It would be one thing if they said them in a caring manner and added some kind of supportive conversation on the end of it… But so far I only felt like I had been talked down to and scolded by my peers. In fact… the night before the race, I really felt like I was being scorned for even showing up to try the 150 again. “How far you running this year John?” “150” “Really? After you told me last year that this was the dumbest thing you’ve ever done…?” I mean… really? I’m not sure what the deal was, if it was the weather or what, but I have every bit as much right to try my limits as I see fit as anyone else regardless of how things went in years past… yet I digress..
After the 3rd loop I stopped at my tent to change my socks and shoes. I had brought enough of everything to keep up with things throughout the race. After a quick inspection everything looked fine except for a hot spot on my big toe. This has been a common place for a blister in wet conditions of the past, so I expected a new child to grow on my toe this time around as well. I put on dry socks and shoes and headed out for another loop. The rain had finally stopped and the sun had peeked it’s shiny face through a few times. The wind was calm and intermittent, blustery in the fields but all ready doing tis job to make the course a bit tacky, the thoughts of what tomorrow held were promising. Somewhere shortly after the first river crossing I ran into Regis. Regis is from Ohio and had recognized me from races previous. We ran together for a bit enjoying conversation with each other. Regis’ pace was a bit faster then mine so I let him go ahead, lagging behind and continuing to run alone. I ran into the start finish after the 3rd lap, I grabbed by headlamp and prepared for the night. I left the main aid station and headed out into the darkness.
My feet are all ready pruned and hurting. My pace is slowing down ever so slightly as each lap continues on. As the night falls I wondered if I could make it the night without having to sleep. I keep slipping and sliding through the mud which is now ever so harder to see with just the glow of ones headlamp. I struggle up and down the hills and feel myself getting tired. My back really starts to hurt and tighten up on me during the 4th loop, its an experience I’ve never had while running ultras. I have terrible posture, constantly hunched forward while I run and not forcing myself to stand up tall, straight. And as I motor up and down these step hills, I hunch forward like Quasi-Moto as I briskly swing my arms for locomotion. My back is killing me and I stop periodically to stand up tall and try to stretch it out. As loop 4 melts into 5, I find myself growing more and more homesick. It’s Easter Weekend and the guilt of being away starts to fill my soul. I want ot be with my family, home, awaiting the Easter Egg hunt and a warm dinner… but my selfish hobby takes over.. and here I am, in Illinois, alone and running in circles. After the 4th loop I stopped to take my depression med’s during my re-supply. I really wish I didn’t have to take them, and wonder what effect they’d have on me during the race. And as I head out on loop 5, it was pretty obvious rather quickly the effect the meds were going to have.
Hush Little Baby
After running through the field opposite the start/finish area about a mile into lap 1. I headed off into the woods, alone, and promptly slipped on some mud and plopped onto my ass, sliding the rest of the way down the short hill. I got up, tried washing off my water bottles in the first stream and continued to run along. Except, running was slowing and my eyes were getting heavy. I struggled to remain conscious and awake but the effort was being beaten by the effects of my depression meds. I’m growing more and more tired with each step as I struggle to keep moving. I strolled into the Totem pole aid station and had some caffeine before heading off down the trail. After leaving the aid station, I made my way through the short fields and to towards the sandy area. When I got here, I was catching myself falling asleep on the run and I finally decided to duck off into the leaves and take a quick nap. So off the trail I went where I curled up into a ball and slept for 5 minutes. When I woke up I was cold and shivering. The night time temps were dropping well into the 30s. I made my way through the first stream crossing and wound my way over to rope hill. As I grabbed the rope I took a deep breath as my eyes continued to grow heavy again. I made it across Gold HIll and over to the mansion on the next hill. As I took the sharp left and re-entered the woods, I had to stop again and laid down in the leaves off the side of the trail. I was fading fast. I made my way back to the start/finish where I ran into the staging area with the clock reading just over 14 hours. I headed to my tent where I sat down and removed my soaked shoes and socks again. My feet are sore and becoming badly blistered. I took care of my basic needs, dried off my feet and put a new pair of dry socks on. I looked back at my sleeping bag and pad and decided that I’d throw the sleeping bag over me and take an hour nap. I laid back, draped the bag over me and went to sleep… it was a quick LIGHTS OUT.
Let’s Go Idiot!
I woke up to the loud bounding sound from RD Andy Weinberg and his microphone. I looked at my cell phone to see what time it was, it said 5:00am. I slammed back down onto my sleeping pad, put my hand on my head and thought to myself, “It’s a lie.. it can’t be that late.” Then Andy, “Wake up.. it’s 5am.. time to get ready to run!” My one hour nap turned into a 3 hour slumber party. I was so pissed at myself. I laced up my shoes, got what I needed and immediately headed back out on the trail. As I made my way around the first fields, I could hear Andy Weinberg on the loudspeaker giving those about to run, the 50 and 100 mile runners, their pre-race briefing. My goal was to get as far away from here as I could and hoping it would be rather late in the loop when all the new runners catch me. This course is notorious for being chewed up once you throw a couple hundred more runners on it. The further I could get before they came out, the better off I would be. To make matters worse, I had developed a rather uncomfortable tooth ache that was causing me to wince in pain and search for a place to lay down once more. As I got to totem pole, I sat down in a chair and tried to put some pressure on my jaw in the hopes that the pain would quickly go away. Ryan Dexter was lapping me, again, and he asked how I was doing. I told him about my ache and he wished me well. He is one class act for sure as he sped off into the distance.
It was during the Heavens Gate Loop that a sea of runners had caught up to me and the encouragement and mutual support I had been waiting and longing for during this race was finally pouring out from the mouths and hearts of the new runners. Excited about their own adventure I received many pats on the back, a few hugs and a lot of encouraging words. I was feeling great and my legs continued to turn over at a comfortable and feverish pace as I continued to make my rounds. The tooth ache was gone as I continued to make my rounds of the course.
Everything Is Going Good
60 Miles down and 90 to go. I start to think about how the hell I’m going to do it. As the sun shines ever brighter in the sky, I was excited to be able to run in a pair of shorts. I took off the running tights and shed some layers from the night and prepared for a warm day with cool breezes. I continued to chomp up the miles, taking on as many loops of the course that I could. I’d like to say that I enjoyed the company of the other runners, but I was surprised to spend most of the day by myself once again. The field was quickly spread out as we all made great time on our own. I continued to slow down and once again my back continued to ache. As each lap went by I watched as my pace continued to get slower and slower. Attrition is having its effect on me and I start doing math in my head. I can still make it, I can still make it…. as I made my way around the course for an 8th time, I could feel the grit and sand in my shoes and knew I’d need to change my socks and shoes shortly if I’m going to make it.. I made the decision to do it after 9 laps.
The Wheels Are Falling Off
As I made my way through the last river crossing on my 9th loop, it was very evident that my feet were in bad shape and a change of socks and shoes were needed. I was still very much in the game and if I wanted to finish, I need to take care of business. Though I can feel that my feet are in bad shape, I wouldn’t know how bad until I sat down. So after 9 laps, I ran through the chute and sat down in my tent. I peeled off my socks and shoes and took a good look at my feet. I was terrified with what I saw. I was the sand and grit off as best I could, but it was all ready long since ground into my skin. I had huge blisters on 8 of my 10 toes, I was starting to get a very sore skin fold on the balls of my feet and I was acquiring trench foot in between my toes. I grabbed a pair of Injinji toe socks and struggled to put them on. It actually took my more then 10 minutes to get the socks on my feet. The pain was intense and I was very uncomfortable. I was gasping for air and hyperventilating from pain. I put on thin pairs of Darn Tough mesh socks and looked for dry shoes. I tried on a few different pairs of shoes and none of them were comfortable anymore given the swelling of my feet. I found what pair felt the best and slid them on. When I stood up, my groin muscles were tight and cramping. I shuffled over to the aid table to fill my bottles and left leaving knowing that I could very well be taking off for my last loop once again. I was falling apart, rapidly and in a painful way.
I made my way around the course for a 10th time. I was sucking down as much caffeine as I could between caffeinated gels and mountain dew. Amazingly I felt wide awake during the entire loop. But one thing was evident as I shuffled along. I was getting exponentially slower. As I dipped my feet into the first creek crossing, I started to shiver and get extremely annoyed. I continued to shuffle along, watching the clock and trying to be mindful of how much time I had left. There was no more room for error, no room for big breaks.. I needed to keep moving. I was shivering, cold and my feet are killing me. The race had turned on a dime and I was well aware of what my limits were about to be. As I made my way to Heavens Gate, I made one more pass of the aid station… I carried on down the trail as best I could, struggling to make it up the up hills… starting to lose my whits. I was delirious and confused. My race continued to crumble. The clock continued to tick and tick and tick. I was out here way to long as the clock ticked past 4 hours for the loop. In fact, it took me over 2 and a half hours to go the 2 miles from the Heavens Gate aid station to the last creek crossing. As i stepped into the creek one more time… I shivered even more, my feet screamed in pain and I made a decision to not return again.
After crossing the creek for the final time, I continued to try my best to reel in that start/finish area. I was tired from trembling. Trembling both from being freezing cold and from my tired legs. I struggled to climb up hills and on each downhill, my legs wobbled like a Jenga Set. I knew that if the clock was much past 36 hours when I got in, I would need to establish the biggest comeback of my life… Was there any way that I could go 50 miles in less than 16 hours at this pace? Yes.. but the chances are slim. I started to think about life since October. I’ve all ready over come so much all ready. I’m lucky to be alive. My training has suffered, I’m beyond underprepared for this… 100 miles is a milestone in and of itself. “It’s ok to quit right?” I was hoping someone would answer. I wanted to ask everyone who past me but I remained silent… It is ok to be done right? No one will hate me? No one will be disappointed in me right? I continued to ask questions. The answers didn’t matter. I could barely walk anymore let alone run. I’d had an amazing time out here. I tested myself… mentally and physically and I had survived 100 miles… “I’ve got nothing to prove… to myself or anyone… I had fun… I want to leave it at that.” So as I slowly weaved my way down the field and into the chute, I looked at the clock and saw it said 36:15. My time was up… my race was over. I stood up proudly with my sore back and smiled as I told Tom Landis that I was done. Andy was in bed… GREAT! And So was Mike! I saw Phil Rosenstein over in the aid tent. “Phil!!…. I just Dropped!” I said with a smile. HE brought me over to the fire and sat me down. I felt so alone… accomplished yet disappointed. Phil brought me warm food as I sat there and reflected…
I know what I can do it.. I know I can go 150 miles. This weekend it just wasn’t meant to be. I realized just how selfish I can be in my life. Where I was willing to leave my family on Easter Weekend to run in circles in Illinois. I deserved to be alone. And as much as I deserved it, maybe it was good for me. I offered myself another chance to look deeper into myself, to ask myself important questions and to search for the answers. Isn’t that why we do these races? A chance at self discovery? I LOVE challenging myself in these long events. I love achieving and striving and driving and being myself. I enjoy the time alone… yet I hate the time away. I learn a lot about who and what I love. I learn a lot on these journeys. While I may not have made it 150 miles, I still walk away having run 100 miles and being a better person through doing so. I walk away accomplished… surviving and alive. I have a new appreciation for my life… and I’m lucky to still be living it. I’m going to continue to get back on track… to continue to dream and achieve at long distances. While I start 2009 with the same disappointment I started with in 2008, I continue to run with a brighter torch, looking ahead to the future and dreaming of races to come.