On December 17 and 18, I did the unthinkable: I ran 100 miles. After 28 hours, 12 minutes, and 14 seconds, I crossed the finish line of the inaugural Devil Dog Ultras 100-mile race, held in northern Virginia's Prince William Forest Park.
When I crossed the finish line, I'd been running for so damn long that I had in fact seen two sunrises. A week later, I'm still trying to wrap my ahead around that thought. When else will I be able to measure the length of an event I've participated in using "sunrises" as a unit?
There's a lot that happened during those two sunrises. But I've written more than enough standard race reports in my life, and I have no desire to write another chronological minute-by-minute narrative of the ups and downs of a race (plus, if I were to truly do that, this race report would be more a race book). Instead, here is my stream-of-consciousness sketch of what it's like to run a 100-miler.
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Getting to the starting line is often the scariest part of a race. Until the gun goes off and you're actually thrown into the fray, you are burdened by the expectations, the endless speculation, the knots in your stomach (and in your brain). This race was no different. As my first 100-miler, the Devil Dog caused even more angst than the other ultramarathons I've done. I'd also worked hellish hours for the 3-week period leading up to race day, so was physically and psychologically worn down. I'm thankful that none of this psyched me out from showing up to the start line. That was truly half the battle.
The start line experience itself was also a tad scary. Throughout the night and into the morning, freezing rain had been coming down. The roads were covered with a sheet of centimeter-thick ice (nearby, that ice had caused a tragic explosion and 55-car pile-up). In the parking lot outside the hotel, my race almost ended before it had even begun when I slipped and slided, in my half-awake state, on my way to the car. And at 6 a.m., when the gun went off in the darkness, this is what we began running into:
For one and a half solid laps (of 20 miles)--until the rain finally ceased, the sun came out, and the ambient temperature rose enough to begin the thawing process--I ran on trails that might otherwise have been mistaken for a forested luge course. One of my run-buddies that first lap stated it best: "I play hockey. I've been skating all my life. But this? This is f**king ridiculous." He slipped and fell on his butt as he said that (and he slipped and fell another half dozen times while I was running with him).
In retrospect, I will always wonder: did the freezing rain actually improve my performance? After all, I ran a freakishly slow first lap, not because I'd planned to, but because I had no choice (assuming, that is, I did not want to break my tailbone by slipping and falling on the ice). Had the ice not forced me at times literally onto my hands and knees (those damn handrail-less footbridges!), I probably would have gone out slightly harder--not so hard that I'd have completely burnt out, but hard enough that I probably would have suffered the consequences later. All I can do is speculate, though. In ultrarunning, it's impossible to separate cause from effect. A million causes get jumbled up with a million effects. All one can do is theorize about the impact that action X, taken 8 hours earlier, had on action Y, done 8 hours later.
The 100-mile experience is untethered from traditional conceptions of time. I wore my watch during the race (or at least until it ran out of batteries, somewhere around the 100K mark), but I practically never looked at the actual time of day. Instead of units of time, I measured my race in other units: calories consumed (or, imagined calories consumed), number of aid stations reached, number of loops left, the self-assessed 1-10 "score of how I'm feeling" I gave myself on a periodic basis. Though I tried to track time, I ultimately could not process what was happening along that dimension.
The heart is another guide. The heart keeps us alive (what are we without our hearts?); it kept me alive. And monitoring my heart is what kept me on my feet for almost 28 and a half hours. For a race of this distance and duration, I couldn't let myself run simply "by feel" because it is genuinely hard to distinguish when one is exerting 133 beats per minute of effort from when one is exerting 139 beats per minute of effort. Those marginal 6 beats per minute can make all the difference--especially when extended over a 24-hour period. So every 30 seconds or so, I looked down at the screen of my Garmin 910XT and read my heartrate and adjusted my pace accordingly. My race target was 135 bpm--I had predicted I could sustain this heart rate for the duration of the race. And for the first 12 hours of the race, that's exactly what I did:
But even that was unsustainable. As the mind and body fatigued, so too did the ability to sustain a higher heart rate. My body was going into hibernation of sorts--an attempt to conserve what little precious energy it had left. The last ten hours of my race, I averaged 112 bpm, which is about the level of exertion that is typical for a brisk walk (I suppose that's exactly what I was actually doing). All I could do was do my best to keep moving forward, one footstep at a time. Whenever I took a break, the longer I stood still, the harder it was to keep going. But with 5 miles to go, I knew I had nothing to lose. I was almost home. It was time to go. I pushed and I pushed, and I hit 150 bpm as I broke the tape at the finish line.
Wasn't this a metaphor for life? We come charging out of the gates, energized with youthful vigor, tackling everything that life puts in our path, and then, as the decades pass, that vitality peters away, slowly but surely. And in that last moment before "the end," we try to relive the glory of our youth, do all of the things we previously chalked off as impossible, and leave absolutely everything behind so that we can leave this world thinking, "I have no regrets." And then we cross that metaphorical finish line--and go kaput. The progression of my heart rate is the progression of life.
There are 2 moments that stand out as symbols of just how close to the edge I was.
The first occurred somewhere around mile 66.6 (exactly 2/3 of the way through my odyssey, and coinciding with what we may as well call the ultrarunner's devil's number). As I was leaving Camp Gunny, I was overcome by a wave of chills. Why I experienced this wave is unknown to me, especially because it wasn't even that cold. The only conclusion, of course, is that the devil had possessed me. It was causing my teeth to chatter uncontrollably, and the styrofoam cup holding my lukewarm coffee to gyrate and overflow on all sides. I felt doomed at this point. There was no way that I could carry my shaking, shivering body another 33.3 miles to the finish line. Thankfully, Julie, who had been pacing me for this 4th loop, had an extra mid-layer and a hat she could spare. I threw those on and was back to feeling (somewhat) normal--as normal as one can feel when running a 100-miler--within a matter of few miles. The devil had almost succeeded in breaking my spirit. But almost succeeding is still failure. I had won.
The second occurred right around mile 86, as I was approaching Camp Gunny for the final time. By this point, I had been running for almost 24 hours. Even though I'd already changed the batteries to my headlamp once during the race, the second set of batteries was dying. As the light was fading, so too was my consciousness. Instead of chills, this time I was overcome by a wave of tiredness. My eyes were heavy, weighed down by lack of sleep, and probable overexertion. I was literally falling asleep while running. I told Jeremy, who was pacing me this final lap, that I needed to take a nap, however brief it might be. Jeremy--like an owner teaching his puppy the ground rules of coexisting with humans--sternly told me "no." A nap this late in the game was the quickest way to a DNF ("Did Not Finish"). I would lie down, curl up into a ball, close my eyes, and never get up, he said. I knew this risk too. Yet, as I stumbled along in my fatigue haze--swaying from one edge of the trail to the other, like a drunken sailor who is simultaneously trying to find his land legs--I kept thinking to myself, "if I don't close my eyes intentionally, it's going to happen unintentionally and I'll end up with my face in these branches or roots." I told Jeremy that I had no choice--as soon as we reached Camp Gunny, I would nap for 5 minutes. Jeremy reluctantly agreed, but assured me he would not let me sleep a millisecond beyond 300 seconds. We reached Camp Gunny, and I plopped down into a chair, at which point a perceptive volunteer wrapped me in a space blanket. I then tilted my head back, opened my mouth, and fell asleep almost instantly. 299 seconds later (though it felt more like 299 hours), I was jolted awake by Jeremy. After a quick cup of coffee, I was on my way again. In retrospect, this was a brilliant strategic choice. I didn't feel the fatigue haze for the rest of the race. And I didn't face-plant into a tree.
These 2 moments raise an important point: you can't run an ultra by yourself. I had Julie and Jeremy pacing me on my 4th and 5th laps and supporting me in critical, this-could-be-the-end moments. I also had Phil pacing me on my 3rd lap, where, with each step I took, I couldn't fathom the idea of running two more 20-mile laps after completing the present one. And I had Gillian as my "crew"--she was the field general in charge of resupply, logistics, moral support, and kisses. I was making sacrifices, but they were making sacrifices of a different kind to support me. I can't thank them enough for that.
I also had the support from all of the millions of volunteers who braved the cold and the freezing rain to serve us grilled cheeses and quesadillas and chicken broth and PB&Js and potato chips (I love potato chips). Last, it's easy to forget the other racers out there. It was good to know that several friends (Brad, Eryn, and Kurt) were out there on the trails with me. And for so many segments, I was running with others--all of whom were having the same thoughts, and feeling the same sensations, as I. This feeling of camaraderie is just as critical to a successful day as any amount of training and preparation.
In the end, I finished in 13th place. I finished many hours off of the tentative goal I had set for myself. But the conditions were tough. The fact that, of the 110 runners who toed the line that morning, 64 ultimately didn't cross the finish line is one indication of the race's difficulty. A finish is a finish. All I can do is be thankful for the experience, and having avoided a more terrible outcome (e.g., serious injury).
It's easy to view the 100-mile experience as an unrelenting sufferfest. In some ways it is. But in other ways, it is a happy journey. Despite the many dark moments I faced, it was impossible not to smile and find levity in the insanity of it all.
The idea of the 100-miler as an adventure--with its bright moments as well as its dark--is what drew me in this time. And I know that it is the pursuit of that adventure that will draw me in again next time. For now, I am looking forward to a break, both physical and psychological, from running. I'll be spending this next week hiking and stargazing with friends in Channel Islands National Park and Joshua Tree National Park. I can't think of a better way to recharge and reflect as the new year begins--and with it, the possibilities of new adventures and challenges in the future.