Last Updated on May 22, 2018 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP
“Sometimes think I’m in this for the wrong reasons.”
It was somewhere around 9:30 pm on Saturday night and I was sitting on the floor of a massive wooden observation deck among the trees in the middle of the Lake Conestee woods. In retrospect, it was an absolutely ridiculous place to be. I had spent the last 25.5 hours and 87 miles on my feet and the 25 or so steps I had to climb to get up to the deck were a disgusting misuse of already depleted mental and physical resources. But there I was, 25 feet up in the air, watching the fireflies light up around me as I tried contemplating why the hell I was putting myself through this miserable torture once again.
“Well, what are your reasons?” my husband asked.
“I don’t know…” I instinctively reply, letting the sentence trail off into silence. My mind immediately goes back to a conversation we were having with a new friend not twenty miles ago, where we all shared why we chose the ultra marathon world. For him, it started after watching a Badwater documentary, and someone telling him he could never run 100 miles…so he proved them wrong. My husband simply replied “my wife makes me do it” (which is not entirely untrue). I had kept my response short. “Because it hurts less than so many other things in life. But this pain is self inflicted, and I am in control. Plus, I really like running.” It was a very vague answer to sum up a lifetime of hurt, yet I knew they both understood. Many ultra runners do.
But here I was, 20 miles and quite a few hours later, feeling completely out of control and wanting nothing more than for it to be over. With every ultra, I take away valuable life lessons, and this race would be no different. So what did I learn?
Never make decisions at mile 90.
Every year after Knock on Wood 100 miler, I promise myself I’m not going to attempt the race again. The course has far more pavement than my hips, knees, and feet like. The 8 pm start is really rough, leaving you feeling sleep deprivation from the get-go. The 5 mile loops are just long and monotonous enough to feel overwhelming, when you realize how many more you have left to do before you are finished.
Yet every year, I show up. Mostly because Matthew Hammersmith and his wife Victoria, race directors for Upstate Ultras, put on an incredible event. And because despite all the aforementioned reasons to dislike the course, it’s absolutely GORGEOUS. I’ve met some incredible people at this event in the past, and cannot fathom NOT participating. Of course, there is always the option of running the 50K or even the shorter 8K…but clearly I’m not capable of making thoughtful, rational decisions. As such, Friday afternoon I found myself in a lawn chair at Lake Conestee nature park in Greenville, SC, relaxing and laughing with friends as I waited for the 8:00 pm start time for another 100 mile attempt…an attempt I hadn’t planned on making until just about a week prior.
To be honest, I have no excuses nor accolades for my training this spring. I’ve spent pretty much all of 2018 in the weight room, throwing in a handful of runs and spin classes every week. From a fitness perspective, I feel strong. From an ultra running perspective, there hasn’t been any training done with a race goal in mind. But the 50 miles at Wambaw Swamp Stomp a few weeks prior felt really good, a bunch of friends were going to be at Knock on Wood, and the time was going to pass anyway…might as well try to run it out. Right?
The positive side of this laissez-faire attitude was the fact that I was not nervous at all. I had zero expectations nor hesitations, and could simply enjoy my experience at Knock on Wood, whatever may come of it. I wasn’t even bummed about the weather forecast: rain, thunderstorms, and more rain. At 7:30, we gathered around to celebrate the lives of a few runners we had lost this past year, and celebrate the fact that one runner we almost lost on the course last year was still with us today. The whole thing made me wildly emotional, in a good way. I found myself incredibly grateful to be a part of such an incredible “family”, and incredibly grateful for the ability to be able to physically do what I do. It was definitely a powerful way to start my race.
At 7:59 pm we lined up for the start, and at 8:00 pm we headed into the woods.
I decided from the start to take a very conservative approach with 3 minute run, 2 minute walk intervals. The course was pretty rolling, but there was only one hill (at the time) that I would walk up even if I found myself on a run interval. Because the course was the exact same 5 mile loop that I ran twenty times the year before, I was relatively confident in knowing where I was going. So I was able to just relax and enjoy my time.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Knock on Wood course, it essentially covers nearly every terrain you could imagine. There is rooty, typical east coast single track, pavement, grassy field, red-clay super narrow single track, wooden bridges, mud, and wooden planks across a swamp. And none of it stretches more than maybe a half a mile at a time, making for a constantly changing course. I love it and I hate it: love it because it certainly lacks monotony, hate it because there ends up being SO MUCH PAVEMENT. Either way, there is no denying that the course is absolutely gorgeous.
Fun fact: I didn’t take a single picture all weekend. Not one. So a huge thank you to all of the friends who provided the visuals for this blog post!
I run the first loop with Geoff and our friend Raquel. She is hoping to run her first 100 miles, so we decide to stick together. Geoff leaves us after the first loop (he plans to only run a 50K that night) and Raquel and I carry on, picking up other friends as we go. We chat, crack jokes, and just enjoy our time on the trail.
The 8 pm start time slaps me in the face and I’m overcome with mental exhaustion already, even though it’s barely past midnight. I joke (though I’m not certain I’m actually joking) that it is WELL past this old lady’s bed time, and it’s hard to convince my body that we are indeed going to keep on running. Raquel and I had decided to wait until we passed the marathon mark to start listening to music, but I tell her I’m grabbing my phone early.
In the past three years, I’ve never run an ultra, or any race really, with music. I tend to subscribe to the belief that being on the trail is enough. The sound of the birds, the trees rustling in the wind, the frogs croaking as the sun sets…it’s all the sound I need. Until a few weeks ago a local-ish ultra runner who consistently destroys 100 milers mentioned in passing the music he listens to during the overnights. It sounds unbelievable, but that was honestly the first time that it occured to me that maybe I should, or even could, listen to music during an ultra.
It’s like I don’t even live in the 21st century.
Long story short, the music, combined with what I lovingly referred to as a “two and a half hour energy shot” (half of a 5 hour energy) immediately made me forget about how tired I was. I led the way through the next ten miles like I had just started running. I literally danced on trail as I listened to the most obscure playlist ever, including, but not limited to the sounds and songs of:
Ambrosia, Missy Elliot, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Devin Townsend Project, Alice in Chains, Sting, Rage Against the Machine, Hall and Oates…the “your musical taste makes no sense” list goes on and on.
At some point around maybe mile 25ish Raquel and I stumble upon John, a runner we had just met before the race started. He saw us approaching and told us he was taking pictures of all of the wildlife he had seen. He asked if we wanted to see what critter he had in his hand right then. We both said yes and bounded right over, only to be met with a 4 inch long millipede.
If you know me even the tiniest bit, you know that the only creature on this green earth that causes me to shudder is a millipede. I will hug a spider. Kiss a snake. High five a cockroach. But millipedes and their wildly excessive (and unnecessary) number of legs can stay the hell away. Apparently Raquel felt the same way, as she loudly shouted obscenities at the creature in Johns hand.
Fortunately, John put the unwanted insect back on the ground before asking if he could tag along with us. We told John that our current goal was to knock out 45 miles by 8 am, and he said he wanted to as well. And so the three of us continued on our way.
This section of mileage is still a bit of a blur to me. At some point Raquel started struggling and told John and I to go on without her. After confirming she really meant it, we did take off. And we ran, and we ran. Loop after loop, mile after mile. I remember somewhere around mile 40 we started both saying over and over how much we were looking forward to the sun coming up, because we were fading fast. But we were running strong, and somehow I had managed to creep my way up from 7th place the first time I looked at the leaderboard, to first. It was a cool feeling, but I tried not to focus on it too much. As I’ve learned a million times before, anything can happen in the middle of a race. ESPECIALLY a 100 miler.
At one point around 5am, I heard the first bird tweet of the day. It was the most magical sound ever, as it signaled the fact that daylight was indeed near. We were well on our way to hitting 45 miles before 8 am, so we instead changed our goal to be back out on loop 45-50 before the 50K and 24 hour relay started at 8 am. Somewhere around 7:30, we started loop 10.
Daylight only gave temporary reprieve from the sleep deprivation I was already feeling. It was nice to not have to carry lamps, and seeing more people out on the trail was encouraging. Also encouraging was the fact that we had somehow missed out on any significant rain thus far. At this point, John and I both determined that we were approximately 26 hours without sleep, and we were certainly feeling it.
At mile 50 I wanted to re-lube and powder my feet. I had gone this far incident free, but was starting to feel a little hot spot around my arches. I sat down and my amazing husband got right to work, doing everything for me. After nearly 6 years together, I’ve finally discovered what it takes to get a foot rub out of that guy…run 50 miles.
Around mile 55 I asked Geoff to suit back up and pace us.
We were still cruising along with our 3 minute run, 2 minute walk, and surprisingly still maintaining the exact same pace we had held the entire race. This post is getting ridiculously long, so here are some highlights from this section:
– There was a 10 minute absolute DOWNPOUR…which coincidentally started almost exactly when I entered our tent during transition. So we stayed perfectly dry.
– John caught and carried a snake for a good half a mile.
– I somehow was still in first place.
– The sun came out and it was so freaking hot. SO. HOT. Geoff and John took baths under the water buffalo.
It was somewhere on mile 75-80 (loop 15?) that I cried for the first time. I don’t even remember how it started, but I remember that I immediately recognized the fact that I wasn’t sad, I was just utterly exhausted. I even said out loud to the guys something along the lines of “I don’t know why I’m crying but I am. But don’t worry, I’ll get over it.” I suddenly went from fine to downright struggling, and the guys agreed to walk an entire loop.
When we got back to the tents after this loop, I came in to our group of friends, sat down, and immediately started crying. Surrounded by many first time ultra runners who had just finished their first 50K, I felt the need to reassure them that this was perfectly normal. I mumbled something between sobs about how I was fine, this was normal, I’m just in a low and my body is revolting by shedding tears, but I’ll come out of it, and I probably need food. Almost everyone stared at me bewildered, but thankfully my amazing friend Paul, ultra experienced and long time emergency room nurse, knew exactly what to do. He shoved a tupperware container of quinoa, beans, and corn in my face and said “eat this”. I didn’t argue, and as it would turn out, it was the best food I had eaten all day. The delicious taste alone was enough to get me out of that funk.
Dinah: you are the greatest cook on the face of the earth.
While I sit here crying into my quinoa, my friend Mikie catches up to me and subsequently passes me, heading out onto the course and stealing 1st place. I won’t lie, the inner competitive brat that lives in my head threw a huge hissy fit. I could not figure out how she had caught up to me, as at one point, according to the live tracking, I had a solid loop and a half on her. But the truth was, I didn’t have the energy left to even try to hold that lead, so I let her go. And honestly? If anyone is going to steal first place from me, I’d want it to be that badass chick every single time.
After probably 30 minutes of sitting and crying, I wake up John (who was the BEST at taking 5 minute naps, I’m quite jealous) and suggest to the guys that we get moving. At this point, it is suggested to me that I use trekking poles. I’ve never used trekking poles in my life, but I figure what the hell, I’ll give it a shot. Long story short, they were incredible. I couldn’t believe how much easier they made descending on tired feet. Hell, I couldn’t believe how much pressure they took off of my feet period, even on the flats.
Speaking of feet, now is the point in the blog where I tell you that I went into this race wearing brand new shoes. As in, I had NEVER run in them before. I highly suggest not doing this, ever, but it worked out amazingly for me. Of course, they were the exact same model I’ve been running in (Hoka Challenger ATR 3’s) but the lack of mileage on them meant extra cushion. Sure, my feet hurt, as they tend to do after a ridiculous amount of mileage run in one day, but they didn’t hurt nearly as much as they normally do. I attribute this a little bit to experience, but a lot to brand new shoes.
We head out for miles 80-85. At some point it gets dark. At some point John takes off running. I try but can’t. It’s all a damn blur if we are being honest. All I recall is that he left, but when we got back to transition after the slog-fest that was 80-85, he was sleeping in a chair. Then, he moved from the chair to the ground. At the time, I thought he was taking a nap. Come to find out, he told us later he blacked out. And we all just let him lay there. I swear, this sport is ridiculous. Sorry, friend. Thought you were sleeping!
I tell Geoff that I need music for this lap, and grab my phone. We take off walking down the trail. I make it about a mile before suddenly everything becomes blurry. I tell him I need to sit, and so in the middle of the road, I sit. I’m suddenly overwhelmed by absolutely everything, my music, the trekking poles, my headlamp, all of it. I shake my head a few times as if I could shake off the dizziness, and then decide I no longer want anything to do with all of the aforementioned “stuff”. I ask Geoff to help me pack up the trekking poles, my phone/earbuds, and the headlamp. I instead switch back over to my handheld Nathan lamp. I get up, and continue walking. I’m feeling lighter and less dizzy, but cannot shake the exhaustion, nor overwhelming feeling that I don’t want to do this anymore.
But deep down I know that this is part of the game. I’ve told others a dozen times already on this very day that they would go through ridiculous lows and come back out of them, the trick is to hang in there until you come back out.
I will myself to hang in there.
Another ridiculously slow 25 minute mile passes and I am no better. I say to Geoff “I completely understand now how people can drop out of a 100 miler 90 miles into the race.” I laugh to myself, remembering a guy we had met at Swamp Fox who told us he had dropped out of the Umstead 100 at mile 93. At the time, I scoffed at him and asked how in the hell that was possible, to come so freaking far and just give up.
And suddenly, I understood it.
As we walked along, Geoff declared that he was fading, hard. Now I find myself dragging my pacer through the woods. We come up to an observation tower, and Geoff suggests we sit down. “On the stairs?” I ask.
“No, up top.” he replies.
I look at the massive set of stairs ahead of me, which at this point might as well be Mt. Everest, and I realize what a ridiculous waste of energy it is to climb this…and then climb it anyway.
We sit. We talk. I explain to Geoff how I suddenly have absolutely zero desire to do this anymore. None. In fact, in that moment I can’t even fathom why I’d want to in the first place. I’ve practically crawled these last 13 miles once before. I knew I could do it. But I also knew it was going to take at least another four hours, and I just didn’t want to anymore.
I cry. We discuss my motivations. My training and approach to this sport. I contemplate what I’m trying to prove. And I finally determine the answer is: nothing. I have nothing to prove. I love this sport of ultra running as much as I love life itself. I love the community, I love pushing my limits, and I just freaking love running. But at that point, I could find absolutely no reason to go on. Not the fact that I was holding second place by a significant lead. Not the fact that I only had just over 10 miles left to go. It was a very empty, yet very gratifying feeling at the same time.
Geoff, who was utterly exhausted himself, and who I had made promise that he wouldn’t let me quit, agreed to let me quit. As we sat there, I had moved from the bench to the floor of the observation tower, and found myself fighting the urge to just lay down and go to sleep. Realizing I might find myself out there overnight if I didn’t get moving, we decided to get up and keep pushing forward. I knew that another mile ahead would be the paved road where we could skip the last two sections and instead go right back to the start and call it.
We walk. And when we reach the paved intersection, Geoff asks me one more time: “Are you sure?” To be honest, I wasn’t. I never am. But I said yes, and we turned towards the finish line.
When we get there, I head directly towards the timing tent. I hand the guy my bib and tell him to please remove my last loop from the records, as I only completed half of it (even though my GPS does indeed say 90 miles). I tell him I’m done. He congratulates me for making it as far as I do. As I walk away, a bunch of strangers give me high fives and I choke back the tears. I find myself grateful that the race director, Matt, was nowhere to be found. I knew he wouldn’t let me quit.
I head over to my tent and cringe at the cheers from my friends, because I know I have to tell them the truth…and I know they are going to fight me. “I’m done. I quit.” I tell them. I don’t remember what anyone said, except for Paul, who replied matter of factly “No you aren’t. ” I think I firmly said something like “Yes, I’m done, I already gave them my bib and officially quit, I’m seriously done” and then made a beeline for my tent before anyone could say anything else.
Once in the safety of my tent, I quietly sobbed.
I cried out of relief. I cried out of disappointment. I cried because I felt like I let my friends down. I cried because I was so freaking exhausted. And then I told myself to pull it together: I made this decision and I had to be OK with it. So I stood up, changed into fresh clothes, and went out to spend some time with my friends, trying not to fall asleep in a lawn chair as we all giggled over things that only made sense to our sleep deprived selves.
Turns out the one thing harder than trying to understand how a person could drop out of a 100 mile race 90 miles in, is explaining to people why you willingly chose to drop out of a 100 mile race 90 miles in. Especially when you were holding 2nd place, and had 16 hours left to complete 10 miles.
I defensively declare to anyone who asks that my heart simply wasn’t into it. And that’s not entirely untrue: I hadn’t even planned on attempting this 100 until a few weeks prior. I was absolutely thrilled with the fact that I had a strong, solid first 70 -80 miles. Hell, I was still RUNNING at 80 miles, that’s something I’ve never done before. Speaking of things I’ve never done before: I made it through an overnight, and actually at that point, 27 hours, without a single nap. I had a great race…until suddenly nothing in the world could have motivated me to keep racing.
In retrospect, I am disappointed. I promised Geoff I wouldn’t be, and I do stand behind the decision I made on my own. But I don’t believe there isn’t a part of anyone who wouldn’t stop and think…what if? What if I took a nap? What if I took in another caffeine shot? What if I had grabbed a fresh pacer? I know I would have finished. Could I have rallied to make it sub 30 hours? Maybe. Who knows.
At the end of the day, we all have our reasons for participating – or not participating – in this sport. For me, I’m beginning to realize it’s never really about the buckle. It’s certainly not about the ultrasignup stats. It’s about the community. The family. Pushing myself to be better than I was the time before. Finding my limits, and being in control of whether or not I want to push beyond them. As I had said to John and Geoff early, one of the reasons I race ultras is to be in control of the physical and emotional pain, almost as a way to fight back for all the times I wasn’t able to be in control. Healthy coping mechanism or not, it’s admittedly one of the ways I deal with my own demons.
And on this day, the way I chose to be in control was to say I didn’t want to feel any of it anymore.
Some days I think I have this ultra-marathon thing figured out. Other days I realize I have so much left to learn. And considering the fact that I hope to be doing this for the rest of my life, I’m quite alright with still being at the beginning of my journey.
As usual, I have some amazing people to thank.
Matthew Hammersmith: thank you once again for an incredible race, and for having created an event that truly does feel like a family reunion.
All of the incredible volunteers and fellow athletes who never had anything short of a smile and positive attitude. This family truly is the best.
Paul: You are the best crew member ever, even if I was supposed to crew for you this year, and not vice versa. Thank you for always knowing what I need. Thank you for always making me laugh. Thank you for going out and getting me Mike’s hard lemonade even though I quit and didn’t earn it. Thank you for driving my smelly ass all over the state in your adventure mobile. Thank you for “getting” me, and never questioning my reasons. I could not ask for a greater friendship.
John: How do you go from stranger to family in less than 24 hours? Run 60 miles together. Thanks for pushing me, for keeping me company, for respecting the times I needed to be quiet and be in my own head, and laughing at stupid things that probably weren’t even funny in the first place, but were because of the lack of sleep. You’ll always be a part of our SCUM family. Congrats on your finish, you were a beast out there. I hope to see you again in the future!
Raquel: Thanks for those first few loops together. You never cease to make me laugh, especially when you yell at frogs in the dark. You’ll get that buckle one day, I promise, and I’d be honored to help you get there when the time comes.
Mikie: I’m always so encouraged by the fact that you can be absolutely suffering, body falling apart, and you are still cracking jokes and smiling. I absolutely admire your strength. Congrats on that buckle and first place. I knew you’d get it!
Myrtle Beach crew: thank you for the support, the cheers, the food, the chairs, everything. Seeing your smiling faces on the trail and in the tent was always the pick-me-up I needed. A huge congrats to Crystal on your first 100 miler, Kristy, James, Andy, Sara, and Kate on your first 50K’s, and the rest of you on another awesome race for year #2.
And of course, Geoffrey Hart: I feel like the saying “I could not have done this without you” is pretty trite, but I honestly believe it to be true. Thank you for following me around the country as I drag you running through ridiculous distances when you would much rather be riding your bike. Thank you for never giving up on me when I’m sleep deprived, glycogen deprived, or just simply hurt because 90 miles is a long freaking way to run. Thank you for laughing and singing along when your trekking poles remind me of the dance from “Jackie Wilson Says”. Thank you for loving me, even when I smell atrocious, when I’m covered in mud, and when I unexpectedly change my mind about a race…90% of the way to the finish line. I love you.
Until next time…