How do you survive the longest run of your life? How do you keep your tortured body and mind going when the going gets impossibly tough? What do you tell yourself when you are shrouded in doubt? What is the answer to that ever confounding question for the ages: Why? Why are you doing this?
A week and a half ago, I stood excited, scared, and feeling naively prepared for the journey that lay ahead of me. I was going to run 100 miles. I was at Hell Creek Ranch preparing to run not only my first real ultra race, but my first 100 mile race. Let me paint you this picture. It was Friday, 4pm. It was 90 with the heat index. The sun was beating down on us and I was sweating just walking to the start line. The heat was unfortunate but really, it would be the most pleasant experience of my race in Hell. Really, I was in Hell, Michigan. Oh, the irony to be had.
I’m not sure how to divide out a race of this magnitude. There were 6 laps of 16.67 miles, but in reality, it wasn’t evenly split at all. So, I’ll start with what went right: Nothing. That’s what. And what went wrong? Everything.
A severe storm blew through Friday night, bringing violent wind that sent large limbs and small trees falling down around us, in the middle of the woods. Running while watching the trail ahead of you for the usual tripping hazards while simultaneously watching the sky, being honestly afraid for your life, as the forest caved in on you is NOT a good time. Had I been able to step off the course easily, I would have probably stopped right then but I was in the middle of the woods. The only way out was through. Then the lightning started and the heavy, steady rain that would not quit. The only upside was the storm dropped the temperature a good 20+ degrees. In the process of sprinting out of the woods, my friend and I got separated and lost for almost 5 hours. This meant, I ran out of food and water in my pack. It meant it was way past dark and I didn’t have a headlamp because I was supposed to be back hours ago. I ended up using the small, dim light from my dying cell phone that half heartedly showed me the way. This also meant I had been wearing my very wet socks and shoes for the last 8+ hours and nasty blisters were settling in.
When I finally made my way back to my crew, I was drained not just physically but emotionally. We set out for another lap in the dead of night. Despite a hard fall, this was one of the “easier” laps. I lost my friend at the next aid station due to foot issues, but my race went on and time went on, ever so slowly. I started struggling a lot early Saturday morning, whatever lap that was. I called a good friend whining, crying, and desperately looking for motivation. I was feeling pretty awful and like I’d never stop running. My blisters kept getting worse and I just wanted it to stop. She talked me through my desperation and gave me the courage to keep moving. The rain had made the trails super thick and muddy and really hard to pass in spots. I fell 2 more times, luckily, with no real injuries.
I lost track of all time. I lost track of where I was and what I was doing and I just kept going. And going. And going. Every aid station, I cried because I was so relieved to see people again and not just an empty trail. I knew I was either last or very close to it after getting lost early on. I was so isolated out on that trail, I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming this or really doing it.
I forgot what lap I was on, my Garmin died, I confused the folks in charge because I got lost, and they were missing some of my info for previous early laps. Because of that, I thought I was on my 3rd lap, not 5th. Regardless, on my actual 5th lap, a friend appeared on the trail ahead of me. I thought I was hallucinating, but she was really there. I ran, ok, more like slowly shuffled, to her crying and so thankful to see a familiar face I could barely find the words. She encouraged me and stuck with me until I could see my crew again. My kids and mother in law were there and I was overwhelmed with exhaustion and emotion. We made new friends with the experienced ultra-marathoners next to us and they helped fix the damage that was my feet. 2 blood blisters the size of my thumbnail, 4 blisters in between my toes, a huge blister on the pad of my foot, and another on my heel. They did everything they could to tape and bandage me up. My feet were so swollen I could barely get them back in my shoes. And once I did every step was agony. Pure torture. I winced, audibly gasped, cried tears of pain, and grit my teeth with nearly every movement.
I set out for what would be my last lap. I thought I was going to end up running 73 miles in all and take home a 100k finish at the very least with this lap. I still had no idea I was heading for 100 miles as planned. My husband, not a runner, not trained, not even dressed for something of this magnitude, agreed to bring me in my last lap. He was going to run 16.67 miles on a whim, just so I wouldn’t be alone. I don’t remember much of this lap. I wasn’t really running, I was limping and barely moving my feet. I cried a lot, desperate, hysterical, rantings of an exhausted woman on the edge. I remember flip flopping between thinking we are going to make it and thinking we would never, ever make it. Many times, I didn’t care how close I was, I just wanted to stop. My husband brought me through the most miserable hours of my life. When I stepped out of that forest for good and saw the finish line ahead of me, I couldn’t believe it. My husband was walking, I was holding his hand, slowly shuffling next to him in a pathetic attempt at a run. I crossed the finish line in 29 hours and 44 minutes. Just 16 minutes away from the 30 hour time limit. I made it.
I went home thinking I had run 73 miles, not 100. A week later my results still stood and the race director had emailed me back, confirming, yes I had in fact run 100 miles. There was no way around it. My splits weren’t right because the early ones are missing and included in the later ones, but that didn’t matter. I was second to last anyhow. I made it. That’s all that mattered. But I couldn’t have done it without my family and friends. If I didn’t have people behind me and people that knew how important it was to do this, I wouldn’t have made it. This was not my solo endeavor, there were so many other people that made this journey possible.
So how do you survive? Simple. Just keep going. “Keep the end in mind” as my brother in law would say. In life, in running, and in other things, it’s going to be hard. You’re going to want to quit. You’re going to be standing all alone in the black of night, in the pouring rain, exhausted, defeated, and asking yourself why. Why am I doing this? Only you can answer that question. Only you can decide if it’s worth it to keep going.
-Road Warrior Kathy