I said more than that, but it seemed like that was where my pacer, Lisa, got worried and stopped listening. I was actually trying to be a little inspirational, leading with a complaint, but finishing with resolution. Instead, I shot wide of the mark and made her nervous about how I was feeling just as we were about to get going together.
In fairness, being concerned about me was a totally justified response. I was a little over 41 miles into the Javelina Jundred 100K. It had been a long, hot day, and the sun had set two hours ago. I had come into the main aid station after two loops of the course, with one more to go, and that was where we were meeting up. Nobody told me at the time, but apparently I looked pretty rough.
I wasn’t feeling great. I had crossed the threshold of the longest distance I had ever done at mile 33 and had been moving into uncharted territory ever since. I was tired and surprised at how much my feet hurt, and how sore my lower back was. It seems dumb in retrospect, but I had thought that sore feet was a thing I’d just gotten over experiencing. I couldn’t remember the last time my feet hurt just from running on them.
I wasn’t looking forward to the next several hours.
I had camped out near “Jeadquarters” the night before, thinking that it would be a good way to avoid a traffic mess the morning of the race. I was right about the traffic part, but I ended up sleeping lousy because I’d planned for a colder night than it ended up being. I spent all night doing a sweat-and-chill shuffle, with inside the bag being too warm, and outside the bag being too cool.
Fortunately, I’m not one to stress about a restless night, so even though I wasn’t sleeping deeply, I was able to stay relaxed and dozed off and on. When the music started cranking through camp at around 4:30, I still felt okay. The one and only thing I had been concerned about was making sure my drop bag was where it needed to be by the 5:30 deadline, so a noisy call to start the day wasn’t entirely unwelcome. I flopped my way out of my sleeping bag, made my way over to the drop-off depot, and parted with the drop bag.
With that done, I decided to wander around the area a bit to see what was going on. It was my first time participating in a race with a 100-mile distance, and there was a really different vibe around camp from what I had experienced before at other races. A different level of excitement, energy. It was very cool.
And then I went back to my tent and laid back down for a while.
I popped back out a little before 6:00, when the 100 mile race was set to start, and walked over to the race lane that ran through camp. The horn blew, the group started running, and… then they hit the bottleneck where the lane funneled into the trail, and everybody had to stop and walk until they had all made it into the singletrack. It’s funny to stand and cheer for people who have slowed to a shuffle, especially when they’re only about five feet in front of you.
Then it was my turn to get ready, so I went back to the tent once more and started my final preparations. Checked my pack inventory, laid some extra clothing items out that I thought I might want or need throughout the day, and before I knew it, it was time to head up to the starting line for my own race.
Mile 0: We start. As with the 100 mile runners, we run a short distance through the camp loop and then bunch up terribly where the singletrack begins.
Mile 2: There is a guy wearing the raddest (and weirdest) unitard I have ever seen. It is a giant kitten. (This race takes place around Halloween, and there is a strong costume element to it, including costume prizes in certain categories.) I complimented him on it as I passed.
Mile 9: I talk with a girl from Vancouver, Canada. This is her first time doing the race and 100k distance, though she has been there before for her boyfriend’s attempts at the 100 mile distance. She expresses concern about the heat—it is roughly 9 AM at this point, and that makes me worry for her, because it’s going to get much, much warmer.
I saw her a couple of hours later, during my second loop, recuperating in the shade of one of the aid station tents, along with many others. I did not see her again after that, but I checked on her after the race and she completed it. Awesome.
Mile 12: I see a blue gummy bear someone dropped on the trail, and it looks like the tastiest thing I have ever seen. I barely resist picking it up, and then spend many hours thinking that I should have taken it after all. The things your mind fixates on can be so weird.
Mile 18: I see the first person of the day experiencing serious heat issues. She is with a small group. After staying ahead of me for a while, she stops definitively and sits. I giver her some of the ice I have packed in my pockets and move on. She has lots of company. I don’t know if she finished or not, but I did see her much later when I was leaving for my third loop.
Mile 23: It is getting seriously hot now. I walk for a while with a girl doing the 100 miler who is having major heat issues—can’t keep any food down. She tells me she is in from Albuquerque. I give her some suggestions, and she says she’s tried all of them. She pulls off to the side of the trail to get some shade and tells me to keep going. She didn’t finish the race.
Mile 24: Two trail signs blow in a breeze I can’t feel.
Mile 28: I see the girl who will go on to win the 100K overall, Courtney Dauwalter. She is way, way ahead of the next 100K runner I see—the first male. She ended up beating him by over an hour.
31.5: I see a man faint right in front of me. Fortunately, another runner had stopped to ask how he was doing and was able to catch him as he fell. He was in the longest unsupported stretch of the course (about 6.5 miles) in the hottest part of the day, carrying only two handheld water bottles. They were bone dry. He regains consciousness quickly and we talk to him. I stand over him to make shade with my body and give him some of the ice in my pockets. He tells us he is from Phoenix, and there is a tiny pause where I feel slightly relieved for some reason, thinking that if he is local then maybe he has experienced this before and can bounce back from it, and then he says it’s Phoenix, Oregon. Relief fades.
A passing runner tells us that he will send help back from the aid station that is nearby (“nearby” = about a mile and a half back from where I came). With several runners who are going in his direction staying with him, I start moving again, since I am heading the opposite direction.
He did not finish the race.
37: When I get to the next aid station, they are out of the ice I have been relying on all day. They tell us that “the city of Fountain Hills is out of ice.” This seems like a weird thing to say. How much of the city have they checked?
41: I complete my second loop and meet up with my pacer, Lisa. I tell her that I don’t know how I’m going to do another loop, but we’re going to find out. Lisa seems less impressed by this statement than I feel like she should be.
I unload everything that isn’t absolutely necessary out of my pack. I am sore and tired and looking to lighten my load as much as possible. It helps. I change my socks and wish I had a second pair of shoes to change into as well.
41: As we are leaving to start my third and final lap, one of the 100 mile runners passes us coming in. I tell Lisa I think we are seeing the winner and we wait to hear if I’m right. I am. This is Zach Bitter, and he has set a new course record of 13:30, running an average pace of 8:05 per mile. He ran 100 miles in the time it took me to do 41. I feel like I have seen a superhero.
47: We pass a 10-year old kid on his second lap. Crazy. He is with a man who I assume is his parent. I wonder if that is even a good idea for a kid to do. It ended up being his final lap.
50: We don’t take a photo at this 10-mile mark. It is dark, and I am tired. But mostly it’s because I don’t even think about doing it at this point in the race.
53: As we leave the Jackass Junction aid station, the trail descends into some washes where the air is cooler. Even though the temperature is probably still in the 80s, I feel chilled and put on my jacket. I wear it through the remainder of the race.
55: We pass someone laying on the side of the trail. Concerned, we stop. His pacer tells us that he is just napping for a bit and that we can keep going, so we do.
57: We come to the final aid station. I am roughly two hours over my projected time at this point, so I text Kris. I am so tired, and in so much pain. As she did throughout the night, Lisa lets me sit and brings me food and anything I ask for. She was so great.
60: I know that the actual distance of the race comes up about a mile short of being a full 100k, and this bothers me. When I started the race, my plan was to get to this point, then run back a half mile, and come back in so that when I was done, I would have run a “full” 100k. But I am so far behind schedule, and Kris has been waiting for me for so long, I have to let it go.
61: We finish, and I earn my first ultra finisher buckle.
Someone working the finish line asks me, ”which loop was harder, second or third?” I tell them I honestly don’t know. The second loop was so long, and so brutally hot, but I was exhausted and sore for the last one.
I still don’t know the answer.
And that was it. Lisa graciously helped us take down my little campsite, which I had left up so Kris could shelter in it if she got cold or wanted to rest while she was waiting for me (she told me later that she had done exactly that).
On the drive home, I fell asleep in the middle of telling Kris some story from the day and dozed for several minutes with my head slumped forward. Pretty sure I’d never fallen asleep while speaking before.
After we got home, it took me a lot longer to feel ready to go to bed than I thought it would, and when I did go, I didn’t sleep as well or long as I thought I would. I napped a lot the next day.
When I posted about finishing my first marathon, I said it was hard for me to write about it. It took me almost a year to come up with a post that talked about it, but even at that, I still didn’t feel successful.
I can’t even count how many drafts of this post I have written and discarded. I am backdating this post so it appears in the correct chronological order, but for the record, I am posting this in 2018. Like… mid-2018.
There’s a thing that you have to understand about completing an extremely long foot race. You can’t put what happens to you during those hours into words. Those of us who write about it, we try to convey this thing into ideas that people who don’t do what we do can understand, but… I’ve been on both sides of it now. I’ve crossed the border between not knowing and knowing, and that border is still fresh in my mind. There are some really good words out there—much better than mine—but even the best of them don’t convey what happens inside you as you fight your way to the finish. The profound, staggering transitions you experience as you move from easy motion to tired motion, from painless to painful, from surety to skepticism, from possible to impossible, and the utter transcendence of continuing on through that tired, painful, skeptical, impossibility until it all starts to feel possible again, and then, at long last, into surety.
It’s an experience of discovery. You go into it with one understanding of yourself, and you come out of it with another. The person who comes to the end of one of these great races is not the same person who began it. They have moved through time and space in ways that very few have or ever will, and it changes them.
Race reports are stories that we tell each other, but they are mostly stories of things that happen outside us. They are funny (“I fell down”) or inspiring (“I got back up”) or horrifying (“I fell again”), but they do an inadequate job of explaining the “why?” that people on the outside ask. They don’t tell the story of the things that happen inside us. If we had a way to put that into words, to make others truly understand what we have experienced, no one would ever ask “why” again.
They’d ask how anyone could ever stop.