I arranged to pick Dan up at his home in Columbia which was on my way to the race in Florida. We ended up driving down to the host hotel in Jacksonville and arriving at the host hotel (Hampton Inn) around 4:00 PM.
The race director, Chris Rodatz, was putting on a brief race meeting at 6:00 PM so we killed a little time lounging around the hotel. Meeting time came around quick and we were surprised to find nearly 100 people packed into the small hotel lobby. The packet pickup was smooth and I noticed the finishers belt buckles laid on the table for everyone to admire. I starred at it for a minute and was reminded that I would soon be in for the race of my life.
Trestles, oh the trestles. This race is famous for it's three old railroad trestle crossings. Chris explained the tretles like this. At .75 miles into the loop runners will enounter trestle #1. It has been planked with 13 inch wide wooden rails. WALK. DO NOT RUN ACROSS THIS TRESTLE OR ANY OF THE OTHERS! If you lose your footing you will end up in the hospital. Trestle #2 is about three miles into the loop. This one has plywood on it and you can run it if you want to, but I wouldn't! Trestle #3 is just west of the turn around. This is a 320 ft. long trestle. WALK! Do not run! This is a long, slippery, and rotted trestle. DON'T RUN! We do not want to haul you out in an amblulance.
Race check-in was uneventful which is always a good thing. It was cool to meet another GUTS runner - Ryan Cobb at the check-in table. The guy looked way too relaxed to have 100 miles in front of him. I wondered if I looked that relaxed too?I headed back to the car and just sat trying to not think too much about the distance that stretched before me. Ok, so I did grab a bagel and some coffee to snack on, but I deserved it. I kept telling myself, "Start out slow, Start out slow, not too fast...." Here is dark shot from the car just before the race...
I made sure that Dan had everything that he needed for the day and then walked over to the start line around 6:55. You will hear the roosters in the video. Try to listen to Chris' prayer just before the shotgun start. It was incredible! I was so pumped up I wanted to start off with a fast 7 minute mile, but I didn't! Chills raced up and down my spine. The air was electric!
My heart nearly jumped out of my chest when the gun went off! This race was finally here and it was really happening! I felt myself getting caught up in emotions that would normally make me run too fast when I looked over and saw my buddy Tiger running with one of her friends. She is always laughing and having fun during her races and she reminded me to take it easy and enjoy the moment. I ran with her for about three miles until we reach an aid station.
We had a congested little three mile section to run on the first leg of the race. It was simply overwhelming to look around at the other runners. One lady was attempting to run thirty 100 milers this year, another had a prostetic leg, several runners had finished much tougher races such as Hard Rock, Western States, Badwater, etc. I felt intimidated for a few minutes and then realized that all of these people want to see me succeed! Wow! After pondering that thought for a few minutes my confidence shot through the roof.
We came to the first trestle crossing and it looked just as tricky as Chris had described. I wish I had a picture for you, but just imagine a trestle that has had the rail road tracks removed. Chris had placed two six inch wide boards three inches apart on both sides of the trestle where the old tracks would have been. This gave runners just enough footing to shimmy across the trestle while balancing like you were on a high wire. I wondered how difficult this was going to be at mile 90?!
I passed Dan at the car around mile three and he said that he would meet me a bit farther down the trail. The trail was ten feet wide with spotty areas of railroad rock and gentle pine needles. There were sections of beautiful swamps and grassy pastuers throughout the trail. Some of the trail ran parallel to a highway, but the traffic never took away from my trail running experience.
Here is a look at the trail and one of the aid stations. It was very flat and I'm guessing that you could see 2 - 3 miles straight down the trail in some sections.
After leaving this aid station we ran about 5.5 miles to the next station which was near the turn around point. I met a great guy name Joe during this section who had ran some of the tougher 100 milers that I mentioned earlier. I picked him for whatever tips he was willing to share and enjoyed running with him on/off for the next 20 miles. He reminded me to continue taking walk breaks, eat some good protien early in the day, and try to get in as many miles as possible before dark when things will really slow down.
Here is a shot of Marie (RD Weymouth Woods) in front of me heading into aid station number three. I ran a big chunk of the first 50 miles with Marie while we were listening to music. Joe is running beside me in the red jacket. He was reminding me to get in and out of the aid stations as quickly as possible. Just keep moving forward!
So I reach the turn around point around 15 miles and I have now ran the entire trail. I now know what I have to work with. I try to record mental notes of gravel spots that I will need to walk over and soft trail that I should definately pick up the pace on. This will become valuable information when the sun sets. Most of the trail was soft & lightly covered with gravel, but a few places were thick with them.
I roll into the aid station at mile 25 feeling strong in 5 hours and 25 mintes. Dan checked in on me and was so helpful with getting me everything that I needed. I let him know that I wanted to change shoes & socks and when I reached the station he had a chair waiting with everything I asked for sitting in front of it. He really made me feel like a rock star! I quickly changed and put some more Glide on my feet to fight off blister formations. I grabbed a big juicy cheeseburger and then ran back onto the course ready to tackle miles 26-50.
Dan & some of the other folks around the aid stations found a little puppy all alone on the trail. He was as cute as a button and ended up finding a loving home with another runner later in the race...Miles 26-50 were a little slower and tougher, but I still felt O.K. I was pushing hard to squeeze in a few extra miles before it got completely dark around 6:45 PM. It felt strangely great to run all day long. After 40 miles the watch just became another tool to use during the race. It was a measuring stick that let me know how fast I needed to be moving. At this point in the race I didn't care what time it was - it was like time had completely disapeared.
I hit my first mental low point at mile 48. Lots of runners were running the 50 mile race option and were flying past me laughing their way to the finish line. Then faster runners who had already reached the turn around point were passing me while heading back out to work on their 51-75 mile portions. I knew that this low would pass, but it lasted two more miles all the way into the 50 mile aid station.
Dan helped me snap out of the funk quickly. He was all geared up and ready to run the 50 mile night portion with me. His energy and excitement charged me back up too. He had all of his gear on and was ready to run when I came into mile 50. I quickly changed into my long pants and put my jacket on. I went ahead and put my head lamp on and stuck a backup flashlight in my pocket too. We had about thirty minutes before complete darkness and I told Dan that I needed to make some calls on my cell phone as we ran.
I was blown away by all of the great posts of encouragement from my friends and family on Facebook! I read everyone of them and nearly choked up with tears from all of the support. Wayne D (Weezy) had called me several times which just did wonders for my spirit. I was able to talk to Beth, my mother, and my sister. I called my personal trainer friend John R and he pumped me up as well. I was amazed at how much difference all of these contacts to the outside world had on my mind & body! I went from a very low time to a mountain top high within thirty minutes. I felt invincible and ready to tackle 47 more miles after shutting my phone off for the night!
Several experienced 100 mile runners told me that the real race does not begin until after your first 50 miles. They were exactly right! The sun had completely set as we entered mile 54 and the trail waited for us in the dark night ahead.
Dan is a faster runner than I am and he had to make some big adjustments to his running style to accomadate my pace. He would run just ahead of me for 10-20 feet then look back and check on me. This actually ended up helping me because it forced me to keep moving as he was leading in front of me. By this point in the race I was running 2-3 minutes and walking 1-2 minutes. Back & forth, back & forth - the same rhythm for mile after mile.
We could see other runner's lights miles down the trail comming & going in both directions. The aid stations looked like small cities far off in a desert. Each one had a variety of different lights and a roaring fire that just begged me to come lay down beside of it. I just ran and ran trying to make each aid station get closer knowing that each time I reached one I was that much closer to the finish.
As we reached the next two aid stations Dan could afford to mingle at them longer than I because he could easily catch back up to my reduced motion of a trot. I ate hot chicken noodle soup at the stations between 50 and 64. It was incredibly delicious.
We finally reached the turnaround point for the third time of the day and began heading back to the start/finish line. I hit another low mental point from mile 70-75. Several more runners were finishing their 100K races and this made the course even more desolate. I was feeling sorry for myself. I had forty more miles to go and I just couldn't stand to feel like this now. My legs were getting heavy and the trail just seemed to go on and on. It was demoralizing to come out of one aid station and then see the next one glaring in the distance miles down the trail. I just kept running and never seemed to get to it.
Dan was doing his best to try and keep my mind off the distance and running. He was throwing all sorts of different conversation starters at me, but I just didn't have much to say back. I wanted him to keep talking because the slience of the night was sucking the life out of me. He kept talking and we both kept running.
I later found out that more 100 milers seem drop around the 60 mile point than any other distance. That was a very low point, but I never even thought of quitting. However, my stale mental condition had caused my pace to slow down considerably.
We finally made it back to the start/finish line at mile 75. Dan was scrambling around the aid station trying to take care of stuff for both of us. He deserves a LOT of credit. The guy is a strong runner, but he has crewed for me all day long and is now running his first 50 mile all night run while trying to take care of me too.
I didn't want to eat, drink, run or anything at this point. Dan told me to eat and drink and I just did it. I ate some chips, soup, and chocolate milk before heading back out for the 75 - 100 mile section. I had no idea how I was going to make it 14 miles back down that cold, dark trail and then turn around for 11 more to finish. Quiting was just not an option after going 75 miles. I wanted the buckle!
I will never forget what Dan did next. As we started back down the trail heading into the 76 mile he asked me how I was doing. I told him I was terrible. He stopped, looked me in the eye and told me that I had slowed my pace way too much and that I was in danger of missing the 26 hour cutoff if I continued to move at that speed. He told me that he was just being realistic and that he wanted to keep me informed of the situation. He said that we need to run and we need to run now. I'm not sure what clicked in my head, but I suddely went from the mental toilet to the high peaks again! We ran the next 10 miles hard. In the slump I was averaging 17/18 minute miles. Now we were laying down 12/13 minute miles! We were passing other runners who were stumbling around like zombies in the night. It was awesome! Dan kept tabs on me and we kept moving. We even passed ultra running legend Hans Dieter. He was bent over struggling down the trail. Dan asked him, "how's it goin Hans?". Hans replied with one word, "Survival." He has all my respect being at least twice my age.
Remember the trestles? I had been crossing them several times all day long in various distances on the course. They were a little trickier to balance across each time. Well, now the temperature was down to 28 degrees and it was freezing cold in deep darkness. We came running hard into one of the last three aid stations at mile 88. I knew that the longest & trickiest trestle would have to be crossed two more times at mile 89 and 91.
My mind tried to drag me down to the mental abyss again at this point, but I was fighting it off. I tried to talk to Dan and he tried to keep me moving forward. I prayed and asked God to make it go away. Either way the trestles were up ahead. I came upon the trestle and saw the thin wooden planks stretching down it into the darkness. I took a deep breath, relaxed my shoulders, and started putting one foot in front of the other. I knew that one slip would put me out of the race and possibly into the ambulance. It seemed like an hour before I reached the other side, but in reality it was probably only a few minutes.
Dan caught up with me from the aid station just before the turn around near mile 91. When we actually made the turn back to the finish line with 9 miles to go everything changed. I knew that the next 9 miles would be the toughest of my life, but at the same time I knew that I was going to finish. The feeling was incredible.
I was feeling so strong mentally that I wanted to run fast - not happening! Apparently the big push from miles 80-90 had taken their toll on my body. I could still hold a 15 min/mile pace with a mix of running and walking, but I knew that would not be lasting much longer.
Dan did the math and let me know that because I pushed hard through the last 10 miles I now had four hours to finish 9.8 miles! I knew for certain that I could move forward faster than a 2.5 mile/hour pace.
We both were sleep walking during the final six miles. I would drift off and cat nap for a few seconds and then snap back awake. Dan was still working hard to keep me moving mentally & physically. He even let me know that if I pushed it I could finish under 25 hours. I told him I just wanted to finish. I was tired of hurrying. I had been hurrying for 24 hours and I just wanted to live in the moment. I wanted that buckle!
I was reduced to the walk known as the "death march" for the final six miles. Running was no longer possible for more than a few steps. My legs felt like concrete mix had been poured inside of them. They were nearly impossible to shove forward. As I slowed down Dan began to get really cold. I think I noticed him shivering at one point, but being the great pacer that he is, he would not confess up to it.
The sun began to rise behind us at mile 95 and we were less than one mile from the final aid station. Birds began to sing and traffic on the highway started to pick up. I told Dan to run ahead and stand by the aid station fire barrel until I caught up. He was not hesitant because he would be able to look back and see me all the way down the trail. He ran ahead and I marched on towards the tent far ahead in the distance. 24 hours ago this section looked flat - now it looked like one long hill going up to the final station. I had a deep sense of serenity during this stretch. Everything was going to be OK now. The sun was up.
It took me a long time to stagger up to Dan at the final station. He was looking strong and toasty standing beside the fire. I grabbed a huge hand full of M&Ms and shoved them down. I chased them with some pretzels and had a mini celebration because I knew that was my final aid station of the race. I filled my pockets with M&Ms just in case I needed a final surge to hold off another running catching up. At this point Dan said we had 2 hours to finish the final four miles.
He kept checking behind us as we walked to be sure no other runners were creeping up on us. I'm so glad that they weren't because I know that he would have made me run. It felt excellent to start talking about breakfast plans and what we were going to do when we got back to the car. Then the hallucinations began.
I wore my glasses for this entire race and I think it made a huge different on keeping me mentally focused. My eyes never got tired and I didn't see any of my little "trail friends" up until now. At mile 98 we crossed over a little dirt road and then went back into the woods on the trail. On the road I could see a bald man in his late 50's wearing a tank top and jeans standing by the road. Let's call him the "Trail Mayor." I thought that poor man must be freezing out here with those clothes on! This was not a shadow or a series of trees making it look like a man - it was a man standing in the road! I asked Dan if he saw him and he said no. When we got within 10 feet of him I blinked my eyes and he was gone. I just laughed to myself and kept moving.
After that Dan had confessed to seeing some deer in the middle of the trail a mile back. He asked the aid station workers if they saw them while he was there and they just looked at him like he was crazy. I never saw them either.
The final 100th mile was incredible! Dan and I had a mini recollection of the entire trip and run. It seemed that time had been meshed together into one big lump called the Iron Horse. We laughed a lot during that mile. I think we may have laughed more during that mile than we did the entire event.
We made a final turn and could see the finish line. Oh, the finish line looked beautiful. Dan checked behind us one more time and sure enough another runner was about 1/2 mile back and running to close the distance between us. We had 1/4 mile to go and Dan said we are going to run through the finish line. I agreed and was actaully able to run at what I thought was a decent pace. We reached the parking lot which was 100 yards from the finish line and we both began to cry. The closer we got to the finish line, the more we cried. I was crying so much I couldn't see and Dan had to direct me to cross the finish line. The time keeper yelled out 25 hours and 10 minutes! There were a few people around clapping, but most of the crowd was gone. One of the workers came up and handed me my buckle and gave me a big firm handshake. It was incredible. I gave Dan a big bear hug and we cried some more - simply incredible moment that I will never forget.
We stood around the fire for a few minutes and talked to some other runners / workers. We saw the man behind us finish strong. I was in another world. All that I wanted to do was sit down and not think.
We walked over to the car and were getting ready to leave when Hans came running up the trail with about 20 minutes to spare before the cutoff. That man is pure amazement - that is all that I can say. He is at least 65 years old and just doesn't have the word "quit" in his dictionary. We cheered for him and then took off towards Jacksonville to get some breakfast.
Chris Rodatz and his crew put together a fantastic event and it comes highly recommended to any runners with a sense of adventure! I enjoyed the course, the scenery, and the people associated with it. Do one of the distances he offers if you get the chance.
Funny story after the race.... We stopped in Jacksonville to grab breakfast at McDonalds. After breakfast the plan was for both of us to catch a 1-2 hour nap in the car before driving back to South Carolina. Dan went to sleep in just a few minutes, but I could not get comfortable in any position. We were parked in a Kmart parking lot and I decided to just lay down on the pavement and make myself at home. I slept in the parking lot for about thirty minutes until traffic started picking up some. I think a few cars may have drove by slow to look at me, but I didn't care. I had just ran my first 100 miles!