There's a Japanese proverb that goes, “When you have completed 95 percent of your journey, you are only halfway there.” That's true of the 100 mile distance. Those last four miles were the longest four miles of my life. I ran/walked/trudged through the woods in a kind of daze, a determined stupor that would see me to the finish line. In the past 27 hours, I had seen a woman snap her ankle in half, a man collapse and shiver uncontrollably on the side of the trail, copious amounts of vomit, blood, blisters, and weeping. By the time I reached the last aid station before the finish, I had already seen the sun rise twice. I felt like - what did I feel like? It's so hard to conjure up the words to describe what it's like to run 100 miles. Joy. Pride. Pain. Courage. Somehow those words don't adequately convey the subjective experience. So rather than try to describe how I felt, I will stick to telling you what happened.
I played "American Pie" on the ride from Lubbock to Huntsville. Don McLean usually has no trouble calming down my nerves. But the good ol' boy wasn't doing much to ease my tension this time, so I broke out the big guns: The Allman Brothers, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Johnny Cash. As "Folsom Prison Blues" blasted from my iPod, I found myself gazing out the window of the backseat of the van. The roads were icy and slick. It occurred to me that we might not make it to the race. I kept getting e-mails on my Blackberry from runners who were encountering dangerous travel conditions on the way to the race site. Dozens of flights had been canceled. Roads were being closed down. But, Lee, Clarissa, and I carefully made our way from town to town, trying to avoid the worst of the weather. I was glad my friends were with me to make the trip easier. Lee drove, bless him, and Clarissa sat up front, helping him navigate. Lee was going to run the 100 miler with me. Clarissa came as my crew and race volunteer. To pass the time, we played a provocative game of "20 Questions."
Would you rather have assured sex with an unattractive person for the rest of your life, or no sex at all for the rest of your life?
Hmmm... I had to think about that one.
Could I at least masturbate if I chose the no sex option?
Then, I choose assured sex with an unattractive person. Maybe I will become enamored with their personality and start to see them as attractive. Or, at the very least, I can close my eyes and fantasize about someone else.
Eventually, my mind started wandering back to the race. What if we didn't make it? What if we encountered some bad weather and had to turn back around and head home? Shit. That would be tough to handle. I knew it was just a race, but I had spent so many weeks thinking about this run. I had planned it out so carefully, sacrificing so much time, money, and effort to make it to the start line. I had envisioned myself crossing the finish, finally and gloriously. And now there was the possibility I wouldn't even get the chance to run!
I put the thought out of my head and let myself be washed over by Laura Nyro's haunting voice:
"Never mind the forecast
Cause the sky has lost control,
Cause the fury and broken thunder's come
To match my raging soul..."
I think Lee was equally nervous. As we got closer and closer to Huntsville, we all got a little more pensive and quiet. Not a somber kind of quiet, but an excited kind, the kind that comes when you know something big is about to happen. By the time we got to runner check-in, I was so hyper, I could hardly contain myself. I bounded out of the van like a bat out of hell, ready to charge into the registration room and proudly declare, "Yes! We are here! We made it!" But before I could even take a single step, I was blasted with the cruel breath of some winter beast.
The cold hit me at once. It whipped my face and legs. This did not bode well for my run tomorrow. The race started at 5 am, while the sun was still down. Then we would run all day and into the night! I knew running in the sunlight would be okay. The snow would have a chance to melt. But the idea of running at night in these conditions scared me. I had never done much icy weather running. I knew hypothermia was a serious threat, but other than wearing lots of clothing layers and moving constantly to keep up your core temperature, I didn't know much about how to prevent it. All I had to run in was a big jacket, a windbreaker, and some skimpy running shorts. Oh well. Too late to worry about that now.
I went inside with my friends to check in to the race. On the way inside, I saw a couple of my ultrarunning friends: Dave Carder and Steven Monte, both from Dallas. Dave was sporting an impressive beard. A few weeks ago, he started an online group called "The Running Beard Movement," a forum for trail running men with long facial hair. Dave is a good guy and a superb athlete.
I introduced Clarissa and Lee to Steven. Steven is a lawyer and in his spare time he runs in these extreme events. After picking up our race packets, we all headed to eat, a little Italian place with the crappiest service I've ever encountered in a restaurant. Despite the rudeness of the waitstaff (I'll give them some credit: they were kind of busy), food was a welcome nourishment.
Eating out brought to mind another issue for me: veganism. There weren't many vegan choices on the menu. Everything had cheese or butter. I ended up ordering a garden salad with lots of olives and a side of olive oil and vinegar. Ordering at the restaurant wasn't nearly as troubling, though, as the thought of eating vegan at the race. Here is how ultras work: You run and run and run until you get to an aid station. Aid stations are stocked with food to keep you fueled to go. Calorie intake is very important in these long distance races. You pick up a handful of candy or potato chips and stuff them in your mouth, refill your water bottles and then keep going until you hit the next aid station.
Well, this was going to be my first race as a vegan. I didn't know what to expect. Would my body respond well to the limited food intake? I knew I needed to take in about 150 to 200 calories an hour, every hour. But, in prior races, there always came a point, usually at night, where I needed a surge of energy. In these cases, a slice of pizza or a cup of hot chicken noodle soup did the trick. I would not have those options now. Would I be able to do it? Would I drop my vegan diet just to get through the race? Wouldn't that make me a hypocrite? These thoughts plagued me as a munched unhappily on my lettuce.
At the hotel that night, I unpacked my gear and clothes. I told Clarissa to set the alarm for 4:15 am. I laid everything out on a chair for the morning. Flashlight, headlamp, BodyGlide, gloves. All was ready. I affixed my number bib to my shirt. Number 171. I didn't know what the morning would bring. All I knew was that in a few hours I would be waking up to an unknown. I would be embarking on a journey, the end of which was uncertain, scary, and so damned exciting! My stomach was doing cartwheels. I love this stuff.
Okay 171, we're soon to see what you're made of.
This race report will be published in three parts. For Part 2, click here. For Part 3, click here.