“I just... I just can’t. I just can’t focus. My brain can’t...” The words failed as my eyes welled up with tears. My husband and only pacer tripped just five miles into the 25 he was planning on running with me, and while avoiding a faceplant, he severely aggravated a persistent back injury. I felt bad for him and knew he didn’t want to tell me here, at mile 86-point-something, that he was afraid to run anymore. The problem was, without someone to push me (or clap their hands two inches from my face) and keep me awake, I was afraid to keep going, too.
My time goals were slipping away as the night stole confidence from my stride. My headlamp was fading along with my brain. My feet burned from blisters thanks to multiple water crossings and kicking a few rocks myself. Really, everything between my knees and my neck was fine... just the bottom and top were coming undone. And the top part - my mind, so desperate to curl up in the dirt and close my eyes - this was the beast I wasn’t expecting to battle.
The Pinhoti 100-mile race had started 23 hours prior. It was warm and humid, something I knew would take its toll on many runners that day. I was prepared, however, with plenty of Tailwind, salt pills, and a nutrition plan that got me through several hot races. The plan was to sip fluids as often as I pleased, even if it meant keeping my pack and my bladder on the heavier side, and eat solid food every 60-90 minutes; even if it was only a bite, even if I had to force-feed myself. I’d keep an eye on my fingers for swelling, and chug water like crazy if I didn’t pee after 20 miles. My nutrition was dialed in and it lead me to a very strong first half.
My race “strategy” (if you can call it that, for a slightly above-average mid-packer) was to move with a little gusto in the beginning while it was relatively cool and create a little space for myself to avoid any anxiety-driven surges from getting caught in a conga line. This played out well as I clicked off some very calm and comfortable miles. I breezed through the first aid station and took a top-off and some orange at the second. As I neared the third aid station, mile 18, flashbacks of last year’s nasty ankle sprain came to mind. I recognized one particular bend in the trail where I first rolled it hard and called to the runner behind me that I was putting on the brakes and to pass if he needed to. He was happy to stay on my pace and we cruised through without incident. At the aid station, the crew that wasn’t my crew but adopted me anyway (more on this to come), informed me that some other runners were already looking haggard from the heat. Of course I hate to hear how so many struggled out there during the race, but I took it as a sign that whatever I was doing was working well. I power-hiked the road up to where the trail picked up again, called my husband with an update, then carefully and slowly stepped off the road and back into the woods. This is where the big sprain happened last year (and the “G** F*****G DAMNIT” heard ‘round the world). I decided to walk past that spot before resuming my pace.
For the next 20 miles I leap-frogged with some awesomely strong women and I felt like we all kind of tuned in to each others’ pace, with some time spent close together and other times more spread out. I could feel myself starting to want to slow down as we worked our way up to Bald Rock (mile 40) but having these women nearby kept me trucking along at a strong pace up that beast of a climb. It wasn’t incredibly steep but it was relentless. With every slight downhill I’d get disappointed, thinking “No! I want to climb! I want to be at the top!”
Because the top, that’s where the party was at.
In trail and ultra running, each race you attend (as a participant or volunteer) cultivates new friendships. At Bald Rock, where I knew I’d see my husband, Zac, for the first time that day, as well as the crew that wasn’t my crew, I also saw so many familiar faces. Everyone says the same thing here: It really does feel like a family reunion. The cheers and high fives were incredibly uplifting. After a brief chat with a few people I grabbed some grub and head to the car to refresh my supplies.
Leaving Bald Rock I felt pretty good, although stopping and starting was beginning to get a little tough at this point. My legs were still singing to me from the climb up and I now had to convince them to climb down “Blue Hell”. I had no reason to rush this, which was good because it was challenging to distinguish the trail among the field of boulders littering the path. Some flags had been stomped on which I took the time to fix, thinking what a bitch the trail would be in the dark.
Back down to level ground, I had some good smooth running and a bit of a mental break thanks to a four-mile stretch of pavement and fire road. The heat was still on but in the growing shade I started to cool off. One huge benefit of my heat training this year is that I cool off rather quickly. It wasn’t long before I was getting goosebumps when I stopped at the aid stations. Being on the far east side of the Central Time Zone, my headlamp came on not long after 6:00 PM on the Silent Trail, the path we’d follow along and over a river - one of many water crossings that day - before reconnecting with the Pinhoti Trail. We had Hubbard Creek, Aid Station #9 aka “Temptation Station” to look forward to as we reached darkness and the dinner hour. As expected, they provided a phenomenal spread. I scarfed a few bites of potato and chicken quesadilla, a few swings of Coke (quickly becoming a must at every stop), and plugged on toward where I would next meet my husband. My feet needed dry socks. Physically I felt fine but my feet were really barking now. At mile 55 I swapped socks, took in my staples of banana, orange and Coke, and half a cinnamon Pop-Tart for the road. I wasn’t cool enough to change shirts but stopping for too long brought on the chills. I hobbled on to warm back up as quick as I could.
Over the next 10 miles of mostly fire road, the day began to wear on me. I was moving fine, calories and fluids on point, but my focus was fading. Perhaps it was my sinuses (as expected my nose was dripping all day- normal for me on any run) or just tiredness, but my face felt heavy. I blinked hard, slapped my cheeks, shook out and stretched here and there, but I felt like if I didn’t start taking in more caffeine RIGHT then I’d be in trouble. I choked down a caffeinated gel and perhaps it was placebo, but I felt a little lift. Until mile 65.
When I reached this aid station to find my husband passed out in the car, I was concerned. If he couldn’t stay up, how in the world was he going to keep me up? The original plan was to have him take me in from mile 85, but after learning that he had a poor night’s sleep, I wasn’t so sure. As I refueled I begged him to get some decent food, rest more, and really be “on” the next time I saw him. The next aid station was only 3 miles away so I said I didn’t expect to see him until mile 75. He surprised me at mile 68 anyway and I was incredibly grateful as I was finally ready to change shirts before starting the second biggest climb of the day. He insisted he could start running with me from mile 75 and again, I said “I’m tired so I need you to be on!” The Pinnacle, as it’s called, is not THE pinnacle of this climb and I was having to really push now to stay on my A-Goal of finishing within 24 hours. It wouldn’t be until much later that I would realize just how ridiculous of an expectation that was.
But as promised, Zac was on and ready, in his favorite neon yellow shirt and sufficiently caffeinated. I downed some Ramen and Coke, changed shoes, and we were off. Not three miles in though, I noticed my headlamp fading. Of course I was prepared for anything except a backup for my USB-chargeable lamp that, as I was just discovering, did not last the promised 12 hours. My husband’s lamp was brighter, but bounced all over with each stride and my eyes got sick of trying to focus. I had to squat down and just stare at the gravel by my feet to stop the tunnel vision. For a second my eyes closed and I thought I’d fall over. But my pace was slipping significantly and I had to keep moving forward. Luckily, we were soon back on single track (although I was cursing roots and rocks at this point), so I let Zac go ahead with his brighter light and I used my iPhone as a backup flashlight. This worked fine... until that one damn rock grabbed his foot. He stumbled, then planted a foot hard to regain his stride, but in doing so he made a groan I immediately recognized as an indication something was wrong. He insists he’s fine but his posture says otherwise. We fumble our way to the aid station near mile 80 and split a 5-Hour Energy. The climbing wasn’t done, nor were we done navigating chewed up fire roads or rocky single track. I feigned positivity but in my heart, all I felt was the feeling of doom and crushing doubt. I’m suffering, he’s suffering, why are we here? Why am I putting him through this? What business do I have even imagining a 24-hour finish? Do I even bother if I can’t make it in 25 hours, or 26? I’m here to do better, not worse. But here I am and in my mind, I’m failing.
Enter Team Dad Bod.
I got to work an aid station with these fine (and quite intriguing) people at Georgia Death Race and since then we’ve stayed connected, plotting the future races we would work or run together. When I found out TDB Alum Jeff Stafford was running Pinhoti, I was thrilled to know I’d have more familiar faces to look forward to seeing on the course.
Although I started my race technically crew-less for the first 40 miles, I was fortunate to run strong enough most of the day that I stayed close in pace to Jeff, so I got to see the TDB crew at every aid station. They drove me to the race and took excellent care of me before Zac took over at Bald Rock. By "take care" I mean, this crew practically ripped my vest out of my hands to do refills and gave me the third degree about every single calorie and ounce of fluid I had consumed between aid stations. They 100% took me under their wings, and here, at mile 86-point-something, would save my race.
“Do you want me to pace you?” Ryan Ploeckelman pressed, as I held back tears and tried to tune out “Hit Me Baby One More Time” blasting from the speakers at Bulls Gap aid station. Something about crying to Britney Spears made me feel like I was falling into a pit of despair I would never escape. But the way he said it sounded more like “I’m running with you,” and within a minute had his handheld filled and pockets stuffed with food. “Come on, let’s go.”
Ryan already ran 25 miles with Jeff, and other TBD members Jen and Patrick also took turns running and crewing. The fact that they were so willing to contribute their energy to me was truly an honor. I felt bad dropping Zac, but we both knew it was for the best, and that I was in really good hands. We pressed on toward the fire road, where for the first time in ages, so it seemed, I was treated to soft, level ground. It was hard to shake the feeling of failure, knowing I was going to be so far off from both my "A" and "B" time goals, but as we settle into a groove I start passing people and I regain some confidence that maybe I have some untapped reserve of strength that will carry me through. Ryan has more than enough stories (and some great vocal impressions) to pass the time and I’m able to relax into the notion of simply finishing this damn thing and stop worrying about the clock.
The final aid station still felt like it was an eternity away, but getting out of the dark - literally and figuratively - made me finally feel like the end was within reach. Once we finally reached Jen, who was now the only TDB member on aid station duty as everyone else was on the course, I lightened my pack, took the last big bite of Ramen I’ll have for several months, and stole a gulp of Ryan’s PBR. I’m not ashamed to admit how amazing that was.
Six miles. The last stretch of a trail with portions that were less “trail” and more rocky drainage ditch, accompanied by the appropriate amount of curse words for the terrain.
Five miles. Fuck this hill. Fuck this shit. We start yelling out “Oh thank GOD more ROCKS.”
Four miles. Wait, didn’t we already run by this? Are we going in a circle? Honestly I can't even tell east from west, despite the sun's position in the sky. Everything feels kind of backwards but at least I'm still moving forward.
Three miles. Just get to that boulder that you thought was a house. Now to that tree you were certain was a lamppost. Now to the GATE! That's really a gate, right? Oh my God I can’t wait for pavement.
Two miles. Sweet, back country road, with your sketchy boarded up shacks, flea-ridden train track cats, and rebel flags. I could kiss you, beautiful road.
One mile. It’s Jason Green! You can't not smile when you see this guy, and now I'm certain I'm not hallucinating and we're near the finish. Then comes a low rumble from the tracks. We book it across the rails because I’m NOT getting stuck waiting for a train I swear to God I’ll lose my shit if I do.
Half a mile. Last turn toward the school. Can’t push too hard. Don’t need to have my finisher picture be of me crawling across the line.
400 meters. Through the cool dew of the field adjacent to the track. I’m going to see my people. I’m going to be done. This is it.
200 meters. I remember running track in high school and my one-time 200m best of something like 25 seconds. That sure as hell ain’t happening now.
100 meters. Smile, but not too hard. You look crazy in all of your running pictures. Oh what the heck grin like an idiot who cares?
Nothing worth having comes without a little fight, right? And truthfully, this one was a fight. I don’t know why it felt harder than last year, when I ran on an ankle the size of a softball. Some say it was the heat, which I suppose slowed me down more than I realized as it never really cooled off overnight. Or maybe the lack of caffeine that I thought I wouldn’t need to rely on. Or maybe it was just my turn to really feel what it was like to want to quit, and to claw myself back up out of that hole. Whatever happened, the course of emotions is unexpected when they occur, but make total sense when it’s over. And I always go from “Never again,” to “When can I sign up for next year?” sometime between the start and the finish.
Sometimes I take for granted being able to just get up and do something. Having an unrealistic goal thrown in my face is humbling in many ways. It reminds me that there’s always work to be done, but to also take the time to recognize where I really am and be patient in that moment when facing my limitations. But I don’t want to be content to just “do” anymore. And this year’s Pinhoti taught me that I have a little more fight in me than I thought, which I will apply to my training in 2018.
Thank you, everyone I mentioned here, and so many more, for your support in this never-ending journey. And to those of you running your races, fighting your fights, know that the darkness might come and you’re going to have to punch, kick or claw your way out. You’re going to doubt that you can, or that you even want to, but deep down you know this will shape you into a new, stronger person. Perhaps even make you feel more galvanized to move forward with the challenges that await you in the real world, when the race is over.
All photos provided by We Run Race Photos, which have been purchased for private and personal use only. Any redistribution or commercial use is prohibited by copyright. 11/14/2017