Its been awhile, a long while... since I ran a 100mi race. It just hasn't been in me to do it and I'm not all that sure why. Older, heavier, less-motivated, lower priority, and so on, but there was a time when the 100 was my distance. Didn't matter when, where, or how: I enjoyed everything about it. The training, the funning, the pain, and the bloodletting: all equal parts of the key to reach my own inner peace. I directed Rocky 15 years and before that, ran it at few times, so why would I come back after all these years and run it again? A Don Quixote de la Mancha complex, or more likely Ahab in search of the white whale. This would be my 5th finish and good for a 500-mile jacket, but I dont need a jacket. Its also Rocky's 25th anniversary, but I'm not one for those sorts of things either. It is the first year in forever I have not been involved with directing Rocky, so my demons may be manipulating my reasoning so I'll suffer through all the races I've directed one after the other in retribution or spite. Most likely its a question I have asked myself: can I still do it?
We arrived a few days ago to mark the course, our RV parked right next to the start/finish. Can't be more than 30 yards away, so we can hear everything without leaving the comfort of our bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom. I am certain I've never been in a more convenient and advantageous location to run a 100 miler before. Of course, this advantage has the disadvantage of being convenient as well. An hour before start, breakfast done and dressed to run, I lay on the floor to wait. Nothing to make ready that hasn't already been done. I can hear the announcer and everybody else through the thin RV walls. Joyce is expecting little sleep til I'm done, so she stays in bed, trying to get as much sleep as is possible now.
Its a balmy 45 degrees, which is what was forcaste for the entire day without change. I was not sure if this would be hot or cold, and learn quickly, its cold if standing still, warm if running. I should know better but chose the long-sleeve under the short-sleeve. With five minutes to start, I leave my cocoon for the chute. After the dark quiet of the RV, the din and the lights overwhelm my senses. A stickler for headlight etiquette, I am bombasted with too many high-intensity headlamps, and it offends me. I calm myself within the herd, try to remain relaxed and just let it be, moving further back away from the front line.
There's a bit of jostling when we start, sorting ourselves while we surge through the long cattle chute. There are a few sections of course that are root-free including the half mile stretching out from the start/finish, but when we're in the roots, we better be dancing. The roots require constant attention. A moment of mindlessness, a lazy low stride, and payment comes quickly. I'm very comfortable running in the dark, but usually I'm not in a crowd this large, especially on trails this narrow and full of obstacles. Moving bodies and shifting shadows skew my perception, creating a more difficult set of circumstances, so I back off right away. The potential to trip and fall is palpable. I doubt many are running the effort they'd prefer right now, trapped between trees within the herd. Some lose patience and surge through the seams, not realizing the seams occur where the herd is avoiding a more notable root. I try to warn him, but there is no time, cutting past me when I step aside to avoid a particularly gnarly root tangle. He falls hard, creating a log jam as people stop to help, trapping others coming along. After the 3rd such body slam, I get a short musical riff stuck in my head: 'another one bites the dust'. Before I've run 2 miles, the long-sleeve shirt is off and I'm still hot in just a thin short-sleeve.
This course has 3 locations where extra attention must be paid, the first just ahead, which Henry refers to as the Kiss. From the start, we pass strait through on our way to Nature Center, but later when we are 3 miles from the finish, we come from a Park Road and turn right to reverse the route we have just run back to the finish. It looks simple enough, but add dark and 333 runners. I know of its existence before we get there and not a bit surprised to see a few lights shoot up the wrong way and then return. Our pack passes through just fine. The 2nd location is at Amy's Crossing, and the 3rd is on the DamNation Loop where the course loops back onto itself and reconnects.
The chaos of lights, bodies, and noise rolls through Nature Center relentlessly intact til we reach Amy's Crossing. The old road running between DamNation and Park Road used to be a pine needle and shade covered quaint old jeep road, but lately has been smashed into a pasty white crushed stone Road blended with dirt and sand into an unattractive disfigurement. 'The Road' as told by Cormac McCarthy might have been speaking about THIS road. Its roughly 3 miles from end to end, but by slipping in at Amy's, its only a mile straitaway from here to DamNation. This is also the start and end point of what I call the Big Loop, because we are coming back to this same point after the DamNation Loop. Besides this Road, the rest of the route is a serene pine needle covered path through a growth of huge pines, tranquil and relaxing. Sunrise chases the dark prior to DamNation, so I drop my headlamp in the drop bag I have here. I'll use it again later, so this is a perfect place to leave it. Also in my bag are 2 sets of clothing for everything from heat to snow, including 5 identical bags of nutritional needs. I doubt I'll use much more than the nutrition, but Its always better looking at it than looking for it.
We used to call this the Far Side Loop after the Far Side aid. Lynn Ballard renamed it DamNation during his many years running the station for NTTR. Its the only station on course that sees runners in both directions and gets double the work load of the other stations. Doing the math: every finisher runs 5 loops, passing through 10 times per. So, 333 runners multiplied by 10 equals 3330, effectively having 3330 runners passing through DamNation, and you begin to understand why Lynn called it DamNation. Now, imagine when the 50-miler was still run with the 100-miler and both races were bigger at 484 in the 100 and 222 in the 50 in 2014 and it was 6172 hits through DamNation. It starts to get mind-blowing for a single aid station at a single race to deal with that much in one 30 hour period. I want to hug a NTTR member whenever I see one.
The Dam Loop is longer now and pretty much all single-track. Because of the dam project the park has been working for the last 2 years, they've closed this entire back corner for everything except this race, so its even more pristine and secluded. When I marked the course, I couldn't see any dirt or sand here. Nothing but pine needles piled on pine needles, gathering any noise and burying it. Besides the natural beauty there's also a warm relaxing feel. This particular loop does seem to go on forever. The back trail follows the border fence in a strait line that rolls up and down more than anywhere else in the park from DamNation to the long bridge. About a mile out, we pass the final point of contention, where the returning loop reconnects and sends us back to DamNation, but first, the loop! There are no bridges along the fenceline, but a few exist along the shore. Its odd how there are switchbacks where there is no hill, for a bridge where there is no water. I know this is swampland so it must be water sometime, but it still seems odd. The terminal point at the levee marks the right turn that crosses back over and reconnects the loop. My landmark that I'm getting close is a big fat tree leaning across the trail but not quite on the ground. The connecting turn is one of a handful of spots that become a major highlight for me. I don't know why but I stop and piss between the signs each and every time I get here... for the rest of race. Like any good dog, I keep remarking my spot. I must be hydrating well enough.
After my sabbatical, I get right back to work, which brings up an interesting point of internal debate I had for way too long: every time I saw another person, they always said one of two phrases - 'good job' or 'good work'. Why was it everyone thought of this as a job or work? Certainly it's hard and takes a bit to do, but work? I'm not getting paid! I decide to have some fun with it: starting with my reply: 'have fun!', then just a plain old 'howdy!', then after a while... when we were a few loops in, I was curious to know: 'what loop' they were on, so I start saying 'loop 3' when I was on 3, and 'loop 4' when I was on 4, hoping I could start a new trend. What Loop are you on? Then we'd get onto 'name', 'state', and 'have you run this before'? This humored me for many hours in such a stupid sort of mindless way. I wasn't up for a nuclear physics discussion, being in an abyss of dull-wittedness.
Getting back to DamNation I want to celebrate, but because we're still not done with the big loop, I restrain my euphoria! Instead, I reload my bottle, eat a bit, and walk out chewing a coconut bar. Aha, back to the Road, only now we get to enjoy the full serpentine length of it from DamNation to Park Road. Its all the same white rock, white sand, and white dirt, but at least it's not flat. My body does ok because my mind goes to sleep, but I wake for a moment as we pass Amy's Crossing, the end of the Big Loop. An uphill out of the hole starts us toward the other end of the Road, which is a fair bit longer. Its not much different, any of it, all the way to highway gate except for an occasional bend left or right! Left at the gate and another five minutes later, we turn onto a nice little connector trail over to Park Road aid. I have survived the Road... for now! I can hardly contain myself.
This final split between Park Road and the finish can be broke into two parts: an ancient old pine needle covered jeep road, and the Mushroom in reverse of what we started when we came out from the start, joined by the Kiss. The old road has a few bends under a tunnel of tall pines and so much more comfortable that the Road we just left. We turn right at the Kiss and enter the 3 mile Mushroom back to the finish. Twisty and full of roots, bridges one right after the other, each different than the next. Some are low, some taper onto the crest smoothly, and others have an edge to trip onto the topside. A path leads around a few where runners grew tired of going up and over when they can go around. Turns everywhere, left, right, and repeat til the 50km spot. Yea, I know there's no 50km, but next week there is, and we marked if for the 50km next week as well as the 100mi this week. The 100 milers will never see or know, but its already done and I know where the 50km turn is, so thats what I call it. Its only a half-mile from the finish, but its another major reference for me. I make the 50km turn and head home, pass the ranger's house, cross a paved road and then another, to cross the mat in 4:10. Immediately, I duck under the chute and walk to the RV.
Joyce sees me from further down the chute and angles to meet me at the RV. Refueling begins with a kiss prior the other less important stuff. How do you feel, she asks? Like I just ran a road marathon. I hurt pretty bad already. What are you going to do? Keep going, see how it goes. For some damn reason, it takes a solid 18 minutes to get back out again. And loop two begins. The exact same 20mi loop as last time. The same 3 mile mushroom to Nature Center, drop down trail to Amy's Crossing, then the Road to DamNation, the Big Loop out and back to DamNation, the Road to Park Road, then the old road to the Kiss and back around the Mushroom to the start. I talk to a few people, drink a lot of Tailwind, eat a few coconut bars, and repeat what I did on loop one, but a little slower. Loop two takes 4:30, but I used 20 minutes to reset this time and I feel the same: like I ran another road marathon. Hobbs and Kuss are both at the RV to observe.
Not sure if its the 45 degree weather, the humidity, course marking a few days ago on the bike, or just plain bad luck, but the ache seems to be everywhere. I've been comfortably eating Ramen and grilled-cheese as well as Tailwind and coconut bars. My stomach feels fine. Its just an overall body ache, starting with my right hip and right leg. There is nothing I can think to do about it, so I keep on. I get into DamNation and stop to pick up my headlamp. I might have enough time to finish the loop before sunset, but I'm not sure and dont want to gamble, so I put the light on my head and take off. I settle in behind a guy with external speakers playing chicano music. He has a good constant effort going, while mine goes in fits and starts. I go faster than him and catch him quickly but then I walk again and he pulls ahead. His loud music provides a reference, even a good ways ahead. I finally pass him near the turn and when I do, it motivates me to keep pushing until I lose the noise. I'm making good time on the flats and downs and get a nice rhythm going, even after sunset.
Its full dark at the cutback and I return to DamNation in the dark. The Road is hard to fathom in the dark. All I can see are spots of light at intervals appearing and disappearing as each group goes over a rise and drops back down on the other side. About as many are going away as there are approaching, until I pass Amys Crossing, and then we're all going in the same direction. It takes awhile to reach Park Road and I walk a good bit, talking with those I line up with. Some dont wish to talk but most seem quite sociable. A bit of refreshment at Park Road and on to the next. Alone, I slide down to the Kiss and then the Mushroom with all her turns and bridges. Wide awake and stomach humming, I'm surprised how good I feel in so many ways while I feel so bad in so many others. A walking contradiction! I go round all the turns and wind back to the RV with a 5:07 split. Joyce is ready to go on loop 4, but it still takes me 22 minutes to sort myself out. All together now, I have killed an hour just RV-ing. Of course, all this is just afterthought, because I'm not paying much attention to it as its happening.
Aches are starting to outnumber the non-aches, and my spin-cycle's stuck in a decelerating mode. I just cant get the motor spinning. Joyce tries a few old school pacer tactics, but we've both been doing this so long, I deduce her scheme and ask her to stop. I dont need a motivator. What I need is a new body. Because of the rain forecast, Joyce has rain gear, long sleeve shirts, gloves and such in her pack, but there is never a need for any of it. It does sprinkle now and again, but it's never enough to warrant any change. It does feel good for the few seconds of each misting.
I manage to run down each of the descents on the Road and after DamNation, proving to Joyce I can still run on a few occasions when we find some long stretches of Down and Flat. My ability to run is decreasing rapidly at this point. My lower legs are in some amount of pain from what I cannot tell, unless its just the stress of time-on-feet. Stomach is still good and still marking the same spot each loop, so some functions are still in order. We clear the Big Loop and pass by Amy's Crossing, trudging up the long lonely Road to Hell. Joyce, who is only on her 1st Road loop begins to understand the complaints she has heard about it. Park Road is as good as always, offering a cup of ramen and some coke. My stops at all the aid stations on course except the RV at the start have all been reasonably short. We move on, heading to the Kiss and the Mushroom. The bridges, roots, and turns entertain us til we near the 50k turn. Joyce is a good bit confused and thinks two or three of the turns are the 50k turn, such that it becomes a good bit of comedy between us. Are you sure? Yes, certainly - this is NOT it! is it this one? No - NOT this one either! When we are within 20 feet of the actual 50k turn, I tell Joyce - THIS is IT, when she trips and smashes into the ground behind me. She's stretched out on her right side with an arm under and her eyes closed. She says my ear hurts, but she doesn't move, maybe she cant move! The way she's wedged up against a small sapling, she can't set up, so I help her move her legs forward so she can sit up. Once she's sitting, I check her ear. Blood is pooling in her lobe from a small cut across it, and she has 3 slashes across her cheek. She's disoriented, so I don't rush her, but people are going by in both directions and some insist on helping. I tell them to go on, she needs a few moments. After a bit, I get her to her feet. Somebody's pacer stops and waits to help and we slowly assit her up. But we're in a root filled ditch, so I hold her for a few moments til she can balance herself. We're just a half-mile from the finish and I tell her we need to see John. She understands that John is our friend, but also the medical support for the race. We take it slowly, not that its much of a shift from my already lethargic momentum and soon talk our way down to the finish. I send her to the RV while I find John in the aid tent. This go round took me 6:16, including the end crash.
The medical area is packed, butt in every chair, Becky working on somebody, head down, John next chair over, eyes closed, resting. I ask for John, everybody looks, they think its me! I tell John, Joyce needs some help. She fell and hurt her ear. At the RV I tell him, so he gets up and follows. For the first time, my pit crew is otherwise busy: Joyce on the floor in pain, Hobbs taking a nap, and Kuss working on Joyce. Joyce did sit some hot soup out for me, but I need to lube, eat, reload my bottle, and change my shirt. Kuss is asking Joyce questions, trying to determine how bad she is: Are you dizzy? Yes! Do you have a headache? Yes! Well, you're done, he says. You need to stay here and let Joe go without you. I agree and this starts a debate about pacers and who can do it, but I tell her I'm fine and can do without, so I get my butt out of the RV and back into the circus.
FortyFive minutes at the RV, not counting the time I sat by the 50km turn with Joyce. Well, it was never going to be fast, but I'm throwing away time in huge buckets. Time to get going and keep going. About mid-way into the Mushroom I cross paths with old friend Bobby Keogh, and we both stop to chat. We talk longer than I expect and end up sitting down to get more comfortable. Turns out, it hurts to stand up, so I sit to ease the pain while we talk. A few people going by ask after us, thinking we're hurt. We try to explain, he's going this way, I'm going that, and we simply decide to stop and visit. Talk about not wasting time and already forgot. Bobby says he's done and he'll see me later, so I get up and get going, arriving at Nature Center. Joyce is waiting there with Richard, my new pacer. They got there just before I did, so Bobby delayed me just the right amount of time.
Richard is a delightful person to hang with, so it works out. I try to run the root-loaded downhill over to Amy's Crossing but it doesn't amount to much: more of a stuttering awkward fast walk with occasional bursts of running for four or five strides each. It's really pathetic and almost embarrassing enough that I'd rather be alone instead of sharing this. Richard's cool about it though and locks in easy enough with whatever I attempt to do. The Road has more potential for me to run, but again I'm unworthy to the task and end up walking all the way to DamNation. As we turn to head out onto the Big Loop, I suddenly feel that my right shoe is too tight, so I stop to loosen the laces. I'm surprised how tight my shoe is and how constricting the laces are. It takes a bit of work to get them loose. My foot is so smashed into the shoe it feels odd to set it free. I just had my shoes off at the RV, so all this swelling must have just happened in the last few miles. Surprisingly, my foot does not feel any better. if anything, it feels worse. I'm now starting to weave as well as stumble. The legs that already felt bad are in more pain and it seems to be all over. I try to run more than a few times, but it never happens. Three or four strides and thats it. The pain has gone way up just now, and it hurts to drop down on my right foot so I stage each descent to lead with the left foot, and try to quick turn with the right. My speed just got a lot worse. Its a big deal for me to get to the end point of the Dam Loop and start back, knowing its the last time. I am so relieved to be heading back. Only 10 more miles.
10 minutes later, I feel a blossom of pain scream up from my right foot, but its dark and I'm not sure Richard knows what just happened. Hell, I'm not sure what just happened. We keep walking as fast as I can, which is pretty slow. The only thing that will make all of this feel better is to reach the finish, and I aim to do just that. I try to talk with Richard but the conversation is becoming one-sided and Richard quits talking too. The sun comes up, which means its 7:11am, or 25 hours into the race. I know at this point I can walk it in leisurely to make the final cut, so I back off and begin to relax as much as I can, knowing I still have 8 miles or so. We make the turn back at the uphill shortcut and then back the final bit to DamNation, where I cross paths with the final half-dozen, starting the Big Loop knowing they'll be fighting the cutoffs and happy to see Michael Stanard in the group.
DamNation is cleaning up. Their 1st cutoff has already passed, the 2nd and final one is in two hours. A woman there asks me why I'm rubbing my ankle and asks if she can help. She sprays some bio-freeze and then jams her thump into my ankle. I nearly scream! She does it again, and again. Richard and I start down the Road, and as much as I hate this road, I am so damn glad to finally be on it. I want it behind me. Three miles of nothing but trudge til we reach Park Road, the last aid before the finish and I want nothing more than to see it behind me as well. I walk strait through, feeling so good and so bad at the same time. What the hell is wrong with my foot? The pain in my ankle has dissipated, but now I can no longer pick up my leg, so I'm dragging it. Not badly really, just skimming the ground, not much different than the standard ultra-shuffle. Makes no difference at this point as I need to get to the finish where Joyce is and this is the way. The final Mushroom is a pain in the ass, and I almost fall off a few of the bridges trying to push up over the apex onto the top. Coming off is a bit more daunting with humidity's moisture creating some slick spots. Hobbs is walking towards us from the old campground, looking for me. He turns with us and chats us up as we walk the final bit around and in, texting Joyce the whole time, letting her know exactly where we are. The last loop was so slow, she had to be worried. The final turn and walk to the finish is anti-climatic. It is done. Jason Bryant hands me the 2nd place medal for 60-64 USATF. There were only 2 of us that survived. Chris hands me a 5 year jacket and then a 5 year buckle. I visit a few others at the finish for some time when Joel comes in to finish, then I drag my body off to the showers. Final lap was 6:50. Overall time 28:41:03 with 1:45 spent at the RV personal aid time sucker. The RV was a huge waste of time but the perfect personal aid station. Of course, Joyce was awesome as usual, and the boys, Hobbs and Kuss are always there.