Thursday, November 27, 2008

Be Careful of The Friends You Keep

In July of 2007 I ran my first 100 mile race and this is the race report that I wrote afterwards:

Truth be told, I'm very grateful for the friends I keep. I was so inspired by the amazing accomplishments of friends who made the 100 mile distance seem like a natural, obtainable goal, I caught the bug to run 100 miles myself. After all, they did it with grace, making it seem possible for event me. It was a year ago, 42 miles into the Voyageur 50 Mile race when my inspiration turned to certainty. I was going to attempt 100 miles, and I wanted to do it at The Vermont 100.

Nancy and Tom were married in Vermont four years ago. Afterwards, Tom ran the 100 mile race while Nancy crewed and then paced Tom to a 23:05 finish. They wanted to return to celebrate their anniversary. Upon hearing my goal, they offered to crew and pace for me. Then Julie Berg decided she wanted to attempt her first mountain race and be there for my first 100. With such wonderful friends joining me I knew it would be memorable.

Only those who risk going to far can possibly know how far they can go. T.S. Elliot

The training went well. I had massages from Nancy, support, encouragement and advice from ultra runners, especially Tom. Many friends joined me on my runs. My longest runs were the Ice Age 50 Mile Race and an "Afton 100K" that Jason Husveth and I ran. It was during that Afton run that I was introduced to the entrance of the lair of the 100 mile beast! I had only a small taste that day of what I would experience during the hundred miler, and it was different than any wall I had ever hit before. Thankfully, with Jason's patience, I recovered and learned a lot to bring along to Vermont. I was as ready as I would ever be for the race.

We arrived in Vermont two days before the race, giving us time to purchase extra supplies, explore the area, and see the covered bridge where Tom and Nancy were married in 2003. I was enjoying Vermont, feeling relaxed, and then we went to packet pick up! Suddenly, I was dizzy with nervousness. During the medical check, my blood pressure was 140 over something (the nurse wouldn't tell me). She took my blood pressure three times. Finally it dropped down to 138. She was comfortable that it was elevated because of nerves and gave me the clear.

We came back to the start-finish tent later in the day for the pre-race meeting. During that meeting the race director asked for a show of hand for those who had signed up because it was "an easy 100". I didn't raise my hand, but I admit I had heard it and read it; however, my reasons for choosing The Vermont 100 were:

  • I had been to Vermont a few times before and thought that it was so beautiful

  • It was one of the original 100 mile races

  • and it still had a horse division

After all, how could any 100 mile race be easy? The the race director announced this year's changes to the course. More hill and more technical trail had been added. It was as though he was attempting to erase any reputation The Vermont 100 had gained as "easy", and we were his test subjects.

Surprisingly, with the help of some Sleepy Time Tea, I slept well the night before. Race morning we were up at 2:00 a.m. and arrived at the start nervous with anticipation. With the Chariots of Fire theme in the background, we checked in and waited for the race to begin at 4:00 a.m. Soon enough, the race director called the runners to the start. We all lined up, and then we were off. Julie and I started out together, and I felt myself relax as we were enjoying the trail and conversation. It felt good to be running again after a period of tapering. Not having run a 100 miler before, I thought starting out with Julie would give me an idea of how to pace myself and not start too fast. When she was ready, I'd let her go ahead. Soon, I watched her move out, while keeping my eye on her in the pre-dawn darkness.

As the morning light came up, I enjoyed the beautiful scenery around me: the mountains, the beautiful forest, the quaint and manicured farms of Vermont. Soon, the horses in the race ran by. It was exhilarating to hear the pounding of their hooves and watch them gallop down the trail. As I ran, I talked with runners from all around the country, many of whom were attempting the 100 mile distance for the first time.

The day was going great, and before I knew it, I was coming into the Pretty Horse aid station, the first aid station where Tom and Nancy would be. Nancy was cheering for me and taking pictures as I approached. Tom was waiting a little farther into the station with a fresh water bottle and gel. I was excited to see them and asked how Julie was doing. Nancy told me that Julie hadn't come through yet. I was a little worried and wondered how I could have gone ahead of her. I checked my watch and saw that my pace was slower than my first 20 miles during my previous 50 mile races and felt relieved. I thanked Tom and Nancy and said goodbye as I left the aid station.

The day was progressing so well. The temperature was only in the 70's. How lucky could we be? I stopped to take a bathroom break, and when I came out of the woods, there was Julie. I was so happy to see her. She told me she had stopped for a bathroom break when it was still dark, and that was when I had gone ahead. I was glad to know that I wasn't too far ahead and checked my watch again, noting that I was still on pace. It was delightful to be running with Julie. We ran together through what we both agreed was the prettiest section of the course. In a huge clover field, surrounded by beautiful mountain vistas, we stopped to take some pictures.

Soon we were running into the Stage Road 30 mile aid station, and there were Tom and Nancy again to take care of us. The highlight of my race was running aid station to aid station, seeing their happy faces, hearing them tell me how well I was doing, getting hugs and encouragement each time. I watched Julie leave the aid station. I wanted to continue with her, but thought perhaps it was time to follow the old adage, "when you feel good, slow down."

After leaving Stage Road, the time seemed to pass so quickly. Before I knew it, I was at mile 47, Camp 10 Bear, where I saw Tom and Nancy and underwent my first medical check. Camp 10 Bear was like a huge party, crowded with people and tents and filled with so much energy and enthusiasm. My spirits soared. As I approached the aid station Tom grabbed my pack, and I stepped on the scale. I was down 2.5 pounds. The doctor asked a couple of questions, then told me I was doing great and reminded me to keep doing what I was doing, stay hydrated and maybe slow down a bit because I was in the heat of the day. As I was ready to leave, Tom reminded me that in 20 more miles, he'd be with me. I left taking heed to the doctor's advice and thinking "just 20 more miles until Tom joins me! I'm so excited, I can't wait." The long climb out of Camp 10 Bear slowed me down, and I thought that was good. My mind was focused to get through the next 20, or really 23 miles.

I saw Tom and Nancy next at Tracer Brook, mile 57. As I came into the aid station, it was sobering to see a runner lying under a blanket, being given oxygen and an IV. I ate some watermelon. Nancy offered a couple of boiled potatoes with salt, and I hoped for the best for the man under the blanket as I left.

Soon, I was approaching Margaritaville at mile 62, welcomed once again by Tom and Nancy. As I was talking with Nancy, the man who was under the blanket at Tracer Brook passed me by. I was amazed! Only an ultra runner would stop for an IV and oxygen, and then keep going.

After leaving Margaritaville, I headed back to Camp 10 Bear, this time at mile 70, where Tom would join me as my pacer. The closer I got to Camp 10 Bear, the more excited I became. Running strong down the hill into the aid station I saw Tom standing there, all ready to go! I gave him a big hug, then sat down to eat a half hamburger. I learned that Julie was still on 24 hour pace. You go Girl! I was so excited for her. Nancy hugged me goodbye, stating she was going to the finish line to be there when Julie finished. Thinking that the next time I would see her would be at the finish made me feel so close to it. I was eager for the finish as Tom and I began the last 30 miles. Then shortly after we began the long climb out of Camp 10 Bear, all of the excitement and energy I had only moments before abandoned me, and I hit the wall! I bonked! Now my race was an entirely different one.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep. Robert Frost

Tom thought that I would recover, but around mile 80, he knew differently. He ascertained that his strategy as a pacer was going to be keeping me awake, eating and walking forward for at 2.5 miles per hour for the next 20 miles if we held any hope for an official finish. I was falling asleep on my feet, which Tom realized when he had to pull me out of the ditch. I fell asleep on my feet while walking, or, if we stood still for any moment. I was falling asleep as he tried to fill water bottles at the unmanned aid stations. Additionally, I was having trouble taking in food. Nothing tasted good. I was like a two year old. With each gel Tom insisted that I eat, I'd take a taste and then hide the rest in my pack, telling him I had finished it. He had the patience of a saint, slowly walking along with me, gently encouraging me, and taking care of me. Not only was I falling asleep, but my stomach was gone, and my legs were trashed. The constant hills had done me in. Each step forward was agonizing, and there seemed to be no relief. Climbing uphill created a terrible pain in my glutes, downhills created excruciating pain in my quads. Somewhere along the way, I apologized to Tom for not being able to run and allowing him to enjoy the last part of the race. He graciously told me not to worry about it; that he knew this would make us friends for life. I smiled at that.

Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independent of logic. Tim Noakes

We stopped at the 83.6 mile aid station where there was a fire. I sat down. Every part of me wanted to stay, to drop; but, soon enough Tom was telling me it was time to go and pulled me away. About a mile out of the aid station, falling asleep again, thinking of the fire and the kind people at the aid station we had just left behind, I finally asked what had been on my mind for the past 10 miles, "Tom, can we quit?" Of course, and thankfully, he said "No." He told me if I was going to quit it had to be at an aid station, and since we just left one, it would have to be at the next one. He also told me that the damage was done, that I was going to have to recover anyway, and that it would be better to recover with a finish that without one! Suddenly, I remembered some words of wisdom that Larry Pederson had shared with me. "If you find yourself falling asleep during the night, just lay down and take a 10-20 minute nap, and you will be amazed at how refreshed you will feel. Soon the sun will come up, and you'll feel even better." I mentioned the nap suggestion to Tom, and he agreed we should try it. I was so happy at the thought of giving in to sleep for just a few moments that I immediately made my way to the side of the road and plopped down under a tree and took what Tom informed me was a 10 minute nap. It was heavenly. Then we were off again, and Larry was right, I did feel better. The sun was coming up, and things were looking better.

We finally made it to Bill's, the last aid station with a medical check at mile 88. The doctor cleared me, and after a quick stop, Tom notified me it was time to go. We hit some wonderful trail that included switchbacks through the woods and prairie. I was surprised and happy to find myself running a little. Soon after those nice trails, we were back to steep climbs, and I realized any little bit I had gained from running took too much out of my reserved energy. We were reduced to walking the rest of the way.

We left Polly's at mile 95.5 with 4.5 miles to go. We were cutting it close. Tom said we just had to maintain our pace to make it to the finish line. I no longer cared. I only wanted to be done. I wanted to see Nancy and Julie's faces and to hear about Julie's race. We by-passed the last unmanned aid station at mile 97.7. Time was too precious to waste.

We entered a single track trail that snaked around and around to the finish line. I could feel it getting close, only to be frustrated as it continued on and on. Even at the point where Tom told me we had only 1 mile left, I felt we'd never get there, and I was losing hope.

Suddenly, we could hear cheering, and Tom said, "Alicia, it's the finish." I replied, "It's probably a horse show." I no longer believed a finish line even existed. It was like searching for the Wizard of Oz to find he never existed. But then suddenly, I could see the top of a white tent and Tom said, "There's Nancy!" I looked and took a second look in disbelief, but sure enough it was Nancy. There was a finish line. Like magic, Julie appeared. I couldn't help but cry.

Tom had informed me before the race that his one pacing rule was that we had to run across the finish line. In the struggle throughout the night, he told me he'd give up his rule, just this one time. For all that he'd done and seen me through, I could let that happen. I looked at Tom and said "Let's run!" We ran the last fifteen feet across the line to a 29:47 finish!

Soon, I had Nancy and Julie hugging me, celebrating the finish. I learned that Julie had finished in 24:40. Amazing! I was so happy for her and myself!

How fortunate I am to have such wonderful friends. Friends who would crew for me all day long, a friend who would patiently pace me through an agonizing night, friends who would wait through the night for me to finish.

Those last thirty miles, although anything but glamorous, taught me amazing things about the human spirit, about the strength I have deep, deep in my core, about the loyalty and generosity of my friends. I would have never made it to the finish line without them. During the night, Tom told me, "It's easy to finish when everything is going well. Sticking with it to the end when you fall apart is what determines how tough you are." And I though that was true of pacing as well. When it got tough, Tom could have easily let me drop, but he didn't. He hung in there with me to a finish.

Thank you Tom, Nancy, and Julie. I am truly blessed.


MN Ultra Runner said...

Hi Alicia,

Great to see the blog! Nice report and great race...see you around.


Alicia said...

Thank you! I like the title of your blog. Pain is temporary, Regret hurst forever. It reflects the inspiration that got me through Vermont.

Helen said...

Great race report Alicia! Welcome to the blogging world :)

And a Happy New Year. Hope you guys had fun up north.


Alicia said...

Thank you Helen! Happy New Year! I hope that you had a wonderful trip to Ireland.