The idea to run a 62 mile race first came to me when I heard about my gym friend, Kat Edwards, running one. At the time, I had no desire to run a 100K race, but it was inspiring to hear about her journey.
Want to watch my 100K journey? Check out the IG stories here.
As my 45th birthday approached, I wanted to celebrate by attempting a really difficult physical challenge. I crowdsourced some ideas, but Kat’s 100K kept coming back to mind. The question that circled was, “Can you run 62 miles with no run-specific training?”
It was intriguing.
A quick google search revealed a 100K race in a nearby town, The Freight Train Ultra Marathon. Even better, it was just 10 days before my 45th birthday. After a day or two of hesitation, a warning on the website that only 4 spots remained, and a push from my wife to stop talking about it and just do it, I registered. It was November 8th. The race was 4 week away.
Part of the appeal for this challenge was the relatively high potential for failure. With no time (or desire) to train specifically for a 100K run, it was a huge wildcard to know how my body would respond to the beating 62 miles would bring. The mystery of the unknown was a huge appeal to me. I purposely did no research on ultra running (except to find a good running pack). I had no game plan. No support crew. No pacer. No headphones. No nutrition plan. I was going in with one mission: run until you finish.
By the time race day rolled around, I had done 6 training runs. I did a half marathon to test my running stamina. I did a 10K to test running with a pack on. I did 8 miles one night to practice running with a headlamp on a trail. Then, the week of the race, I skipped the gym and I ran 2 miles three days to “just move” and deload.
The morning of the race, my wife drove me to the start. I gave her the option to just pick me up at the finish or to meet me at some of the checkpoints. I’m thankful to say she chose to meet me at all the checkpoints because I needed to see her more than I ever knew I would. She was a light amidst the darkness, my greatest ally, and wasn’t afraid to tell me to stop standing around and get back to work.
The race started at 7:30 AM. Having no strategy or race plan, and having a MO for coming out hot in every workout ever (right Crossfit Addict?), I just ran. It felt great. The weather was overcast and chilly. As miles passed by and I kept laughing. It kept dawning on me how incredibly far this race was going to be. All I could do was laugh.
The lack of pacing would come back to bite me, but at the 13 mile mark I was in the top 10, running a 9:30+/-, and felt really great. That would all soon change.
Around mile 19, my body began to realize what I was doing and started its protest. The main areas of revolt were the hips and ankles. It was at this point that I began to understand what this race was going to be about. I was less than 1/3 of the way there. I had 43 (technically 44 since this race was just over 100K) more miles in front of me and I was already having to come to terms with the physical pain setting in.
When I finally hit the first marathon (around 4:30 ish) I took a moment to walk. The pain was present and the distance ahead was looming large. While I felt I had the mental endurance, my stamina was fading. My pace had dropped from sub-10 to 14-15. Instead of passing other people, I was now getting passed. The race was getting in my head.
I plugged along, but things kept going down. I found it harder and harder to keep pace. I found myself taking walk breaks more frequently. At one point I realized that I was likely over an hour away from the halfway station. It was depressing and discouraging.
One of the challenges particular to this course is that it is a trail built over a former train line. As you can imagine, train lines are built to be as long, straight, and flat as possible. Because of this, as you run on this trail, there are many portions where you can see the trail ahead for what seems like miles. The bad news is that you regularly have the sense that no matter how long or fast you’re running, you’re not actually getting any closer to anything. And, it all looks the same. All of it.
If you’re feeling discouraged, this only pours fuel on the fire.
About 3 miles from the 30-mile checkpoint, I texted with my wife, confessing how bad I was feeling and moving. She encouraged me that if I walked it would take me like an hour to get there. I couldn’t stomach the idea of 3 miles taking me an hour. With that, I picked up the pace and forced myself to run the next 3 miles. I use the term “run” loosely.
My wife met me on the trail just outside of town (because she got bored waiting for me, she confessed) and cheered me on to the checkpoint where there were tons of people, energy, and food.
I was really spent. I ate a bunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips, and cookies. I sat down on a bench. It was amazing. I imagined how nice it might be if I were finished at this point.
After about 5 minutes, Jenn told me it was time to go. I got up, hobbled up the stairs, and looked down the seemingly unending trail.
I didn’t want to go. 33 more miles. It was daunting.
I took a deep breath, and with regret in my heart, I shuffled away from the crowd. I made it about 100 yards before I got to a post in the middle of the trail. I stopped, leaned against it, and laughed. 100 yards and I needed a break already.
A deep breath. Ok. Let’s go.
Miles 30-40 were horrible. My body hurt bad. I couldn’t make myself run for very long. I went back and forth with run/walk. How was I going to do this? It was going to take forever. Could I really finish? The trail stretched on for eternity.
Because the race starts in the middle of the trail, the first half is a down and back and the second half is down and back the other side. For this race, there was a 100k, 50K, and half marathon option. This meant that as I was running the “out” portion of the second half, there was a steady stream of runners coming “back.” I put on the happy face and gave them a “Great job, keep it up.” While on the inside I was saying, “they look fine, what’s wrong with you?” Each interaction was a reminder that other people’s day was about to be done and mine… well, it was far from over.
Mentally, this was the darkest part of the race. I knew that I was going to finish, but the distance might as well have been a million miles. It just seemed so far away.
Somewhere around the 40 mile mark I texted my wife and asked her to get me a Redbull. I needed caffeine. I needed wings.
At the next aid station, she met me on the trail and walked with me for about 1/4 a mile. She gave me the Redbull, a hug, and more encouragement. Twilight was upon us. The sun was going down. The cold was digging in.
For the last 20 miles, there were 5 aid stations. Leaving my wife and the Redbull behind, I knew I needed to run. No matter how slow the pace, walking was not going to be good enough. But, the pain of starting was brutal. I found that if I just started with a shuffle walk, almost dragging my feet, after a few steps I could lift them a little, and then the next thing I knew, I was doing something that closely resembled running. The pace, at best, was in the 14-16 minute range. But, it was moving. It was progress. It got me closer to home.
The funny thing about the last 20 is that it no longer seemed like a long distance. I no longer was looking at the time or my pace. My one and only object was to keep running from aid station to aid station. No walking. Just running. It was in this stretch, maybe the last 15 miles, that I picked up the mantra, “this is the pace that takes you home.” I had come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t moving well or fast, but I was moving and that was what I needed to do. If I wanted to end this torture, it was going to be at this pace. It was the pace that would take me home. I found comfort in the pace and the mantra.
It was now cold and dark. I put my shell on at one of the aid stations and turned on my headlamp. At this point in the race, 99% of the running was in total solitude, only broken by aid stations and occasional runner passing me.
It was funny. In the middle of the race, I was mad and depressed whenever someone passed me. I felt like a failure. In the last 20, I started to feel different. I was both proud of and amazed by those who passed me. They looked so steady and moved so well. I was broken and miserable and they overtook me. I imagined that it was a confidence boost for them to have seen a runner up ahead (again, they probably saw me a mile before they caught me) and they chased me down and passed me. That had to feel good for them. I took joy in knowing that I likely gave them a mental victory on the home stretch.
At the final aid station, 5 miles from the finish, the crew was as amazing and helpful as all the previous stations had been. Except for one woman. She was determined to make my stop as helpful as possible. Along with food and drink, she offered to let me take a quick nap with the promise of waking me up in a few minutes. The offer was perplexing to my fragile brain. There was no way in hell I was stopping to take a nap 5 miles from the finish. She then nearly demanded to massage my calves. A kind and selfless act, for sure. But once she started my legs assumed we were done and this was their reward. Confused by the nap offer and massage, desiring for this all to be over, I grabbed some cookies and stumbled into the darkness.
One last time, all I needed to do was make my legs start. The shuffle walk was pain incarnate. But forward progress prevailed and the shuffle turned into the run… the pace that would take me home.
In the dark and cold, I plodded.
“This is the pace that takes you home.”
At mile 63 I crossed the finish line. 15 hours, 9 minutes, 39 seconds.
I hobbled my way to a bench. Got my finisher Christmas ornament. And with little fanfare and a tremendous amount of effort and help from my wife, I got in the car. We headed to the hotel. It was over.
In the following days, I paid the true price for not training. In self defence and preservation, my feet and ankles swelled like balloons, making walking an ordeal. My hip flexors were so sore and swollen that I couldn’t lift my legs but a few inches.
Each day, the swelling subsided and the pain reduced. A week out, I still have some soreness and tightness, but I’m walking and moving close to normal.
I wanted to do something really hard for my birthday. This certainly delivered all I wanted and more.
As I’ve gotten older, I have grown to love endurance challenges. While I’m rarely the strongest, fastest, or any “est”, I do feel like I have a strong ability to endure. I often think about the family motto of Sir William Shackelton, “By endurance we conquer.” There is something in life (and for me, in fitness) about the ability to choose to continue onward despite the voices in your head telling you to quit that excites and drives me.
And, while I disavowed all running (and perhaps all future physical activity) several times during the race, as I sit and reflect on it now, I can’t help but wonder what the experience would be like if I actually trained for it. Like all true crazy people, my “I’ll never do that again” is now, “Hey Google, are there any Ultras near me in the next 6 months?”
To all those who supported me in this crazy journey, especially my biggest supporter and love, thank you.
DIsclaimer: This is my personal journey and not a prescription or advice on how to run a 100k. Also, I have a fairly high level of fitness and have done numerous long distance rucks in the past, so long distance endurance events aren’t entirely foreign to me. However, running is foregin to me. At best, I run several miles a month as part of CrossFit training.