Going Too Long

A first 100 mile ultra in 2016 by Steven Garand

(featured on Ultra Running)

I struggle with an undiagnosed cognitive disability. The idea of running non-stop for 100 miles on hilly trails would cause most folks to at least contemplate a rather long list of difficulties they might encounter. My brain can’t seem to read this mental list of problems as if written in hieroglyphics from a lost civilization. Some vague fleeting pictures of what might be warnings but nothing decipherable. Instead a clear narrative unfolds in my head of happily gliding through the woods basked in sunlight, merrily bantering with fellow runners while singing birds guide us along. The scene continues under the soft glow of the moon until the finish line appears, much too soon, followed by a relaxing drive back to Pittsburgh. As long as I maintain a pace greater than your average cephalopod, down boxes of Power Bars, gels, and gallons of Gatorade, and remember to grab my flashlight before sunset, what could possibly go wrong?

Furthermore, after this fun adventure my body would likely feel stronger so I should take advantage of the situation and immediately train hard for a mile track race held four short weeks after the ultra. What a fantastic racing season this is going to be I thought. I was confused when presented with the same general response from others when told about my plan, which is basically “You’re an idiot and going to die”.

The morning of April 29th arrived and I set out for Chain O’ Lakes State Park in Albion Indiana. Estimated driving time, according to Google Maps, was 5 hours and 32 minutes. Google should have an option to check off for drivers hydrating for a race. The thing about drinking often on a long trip is that maximum bladder volume stays fixed while the input flow rate increases exponentially. The distraction of all this teeth clenching, leg crossing, and eyes straining to find the next bathroom opportunity, not resulting in an indecent exposure citation, often leads to getting oneself lost. Actual driving time was closer to 10 hours, but with no arrests, warnings don’t count. After setting up camp near the start of the race I spent a restless five hours in a tent with temperatures hovering just above freezing. At 4:00 AM it’s time to start my pre-race routine. The weather report called for rain all day and night but very few if any tornadoes.

The starting gun went off at 6:00 AM. The sun missed the start and wouldn’t arrive for another 40 minutes. Three hundred and seventeen runners lurched forward and spilled onto the cold dark trail. Headlamps bobbed along inside the human mass like some strange quarter mile long bounding creature with hundreds of flashing eyes. An hour later my earlier vision of the race became a reality. Runners broke out into small friendly groups, the daylight joined us, and birds sang songs to cheer us on.

The trails were in excellent condition thanks to the tireless efforts of a small army of volunteers who organized and supported the event. They spent months fixing and marking the most easy to follow trail I’ve ever run on. Glow sticks were hung on trees within sight of each for the entire course to aid in night time navigation. The event itself was incredibly well organized and the volunteers were extremely helpful, friendly, and accommodating. The bag of free stuff given out before the race contained a treasure trove of items such as an awesome $120 ultra-light weight rain shell and a $40 collapsible hand held water bottle. Life was good and was expected to stay that way for the next 23 hours.

The course consisted of a 16.7 mile hilly dirt trail loop which we repeated 6 times. Four large heated aid stations containing supplies were stationed along the loop. I carried my own Power Bars, gels, and Gatorade powder, so my only need was a quick fill of my water bottle at each aid station. Making great time, I found myself at the end of the first loop an hour sooner than the expected 4 hours. My pace was definitely way to fast. This must mean “I’m going to finish six hours early, Yippee” I thought. Something in the back of my head was trying to warn me but I couldn’t quite make out what it was.

A light rain started to fall with the temperature hovering around 40 degrees which would be great conditions for most races. This trail however apparently consisted of 17 miles of dehydrated axle grease. In its dry state running over the surface was fine, however with each passing hour the rain rehydrated the trail closer to its six inch thick axle grease state, impossible to traverse on with road running shoes. The mud pits formed in small sections at first, a mile or so long at a time. Each loop got progressively worse. Off trail terrain consisted of thick brush and trees so there was no practical way around the mud. The ground also became very interested in obtaining my footwear. Every step was a battle to keep my shoes, of which I lost the fight on several occasions. The bottoms of my feet are like rocks from all my training. I’m not making this up; I actually went to Home Depot and asked what type of tool would work best to remove calluses from feet. The employee slowly backed away and I think was trying to contact security when I promptly found and bought a sufficiently large rough file from the tool department. The tops of my feet however are used to just going along for the ride but were now taking a severe beating on every step from the sucking action on my shoes. My feet demonstrated their displeasure by inflating, much like a startled puffer fish. My socks were short and started digging into my newly acquired puffer feet. At the next aid station I borrowed a pair of scissors and everyone stood in horror as I reached into my shoes and began cutting at my swollen muddy feet. They breathed a collective sigh of relief when I announced “I’m only cutting my socks open”.

Daylight gave up in the middle of the fourth loop, along with quite a few other runners. I seriously considered joining them. On the fifth loop, well into the night, the rain turned to a windblown downpour and the temperature dropped back into the high 30’s. Alone in the middle of the woods, soaking wet, freezing cold, covered in mud, and shivering uncontrollably it finally occurred to me “I’m an idiot and going to die”. An hour and a half later I stumble into the next aid station. It looked like a scene from an old war movie. The emergency lights of an ambulance flashed in the background. Part of a runner’s head projected from a thick sleeping bag on the ground waiting to be transported out of the race. A woman next to me was pronounced hypothermic by attending paramedics. Almost everyone looked somber and beaten. A quick calculation told me nine hours lay between me and the finish line. I decided to quit the race.

Suddenly hypothermic woman announces she’s fine and runs back out into the storm. I looked at the foreboding darkness outside the cocoon of warmth and light. Cursing under my breath I looked around for something that would give me a reasonable chance of survival. I spotted a space blanket and asked if I could have it. Space blankets keep astronauts alive and space is a lot harsher than these conditions I reasoned with, in retrospect, extremely flawed logic. I removed my soaking wet outer layer, wrapped myself with the foil over my soaked inner layer of clothes, and replaced the outer layer again. The crumpled space blanket puffed out around the sides of my head. Feeling like a space explorer, I charged back out into the stormy night. It wasn’t long before my new found determination ended with a large tree limb, lurking above my flashlight vision, whacked me in the forehead and tumbled me backward into the mud. At this point I finally gave up and quit for good. Strangely nothing changed since there was no one around to assist in the actual act of quitting. I slowly got up, checked to make sure my head was still firmly attached and shuffled on.

Sometime latter a blood curdling scream pierced the night. After the race I found the scream belonged to a runner behind me on the trail but one lap ahead in the race who slid and fell down a hill ripping essential parts of his body required to finishing the race. He had covered 95 miles amazingly fast and suddenly became just one more name added to the growing list of DNF, or did not finish.

I finally reached the end of the fifth loop around 4:00 AM and was faced with carefully weighing my options to make a thorough and informed decision on whether to attempt the sixth and final 17 mile loop. Instead I opted to skip the thinking part, swear a lot and just do it. Slipping and sliding over this last loop, my pace was so slow the cephalopods were laughing and taunting me. Considering I don’t often curse, swearing became a surprisingly helpful coping method. I would growl “This is the last %!@# time I’ll ever have to cross this %!@# bridge” or “This is the last %!@# time I’ll ever have to go by this %!@# tree”. I’ve heard ultra-runners comment on how the second sunrise of the race is the most beautiful. Instead of admiration I barked “This is the last %!@# sunrise I’ll ever have to see in this %!@# park”.

Around 9:45 AM I reached the finish, 27 hours, 45 minutes, and 23 seconds after starting and well within the cutoff of 30 hours. I was told there were showers available. Curiously no one ever prefixed the word shower with the word hot. I soon found out why. After a brisk cold shower the guys were discussing what type of shoes they wore and how their particular shoe gripped through the mud. It suddenly occurred to me most of the runners had shoes especially designed to run through axle grease. Commenting on how I used road running shoes they all instinctively winced, the same way men do when the subject of vasectomies comes up in conversation.

Preparing to get into my car parked near the finish, I heard a lot of excitement. Far up the trail was a woman coming into view. It turns out this same runner in last year’s race ran the full 100 miles but missed the 30 hour cutoff time by seconds. In these races if you are one second over the cutoff time, you are labeled DNF with no time, no finishing medal, and no placement, as if you weren’t really there. I looked over at the finish clock and back at the approaching runner. This was going to be close. Everyone got caught up trying to cheer her on. Flanked by two pacers whose only goal was to get her through the race, she picked up her pace. With the crowd going wild she crossed the line just under 30 hours. Fighting for her existence she won.

This event which included a fifty mile or one hundred mile option listed 400 runners having signed up. Of those 317 made it to the starting line. At the fifty mile mark 238 decided to try and finish the full one hundred miles. A total of 80 runners succeeded. I was the 54th. It is unknown how many tried to immediately drive back home alone. After attempting to do so I discovered a few issues that were a bit problematic to a safe return.

One is that there’s a big difference between being awake and being cognitively functional. I was wide awake, having ingested in gel form the equivalent of 18 cups of coffee during the race. I however became mesmerized by colored lights up ahead which seemed at the time like beautiful Christmas decorations. Suddenly realizing these “decorations” were in fact traffic lights and served a key role in keeping me alive, I kept repeating “lights very important”.

Secondly the inability to pick up my leg prevented me from switching between the gas and the brake pedals. Fortunately my foot was able to push whichever pedal it happened to be on, so transferring to the other pedal seemed to be the key challenge. I found that reaching down and grabbing the underside of my right leg with my right hand allowed me to operate the appropriate pedal when necessary. This technique probably would not pass the scrutiny of a driver’s test but did seem to work.

The third problem was encountered after stopping and attempting to get out of the car and purchase a snack in a convenience store. Ten minutes of painful car extraction was followed by an even longer stiff legged shuffle into the store while everyone stared at me. I managed to choose a few items and make my way to the checkout counter where I promptly dropped my credit card onto the floor. Starring in horror and disbelief at the impossibly far off card with no way to bend down I almost started to whimper. The clerk stared at me while I made some sort of wild twisted gyration with my upper body while grabbing on to the counter with one hand and lunging for the card with the other. I let out a muffled cry as the clerk’s mouth dropped open and his gaze stayed fixed on me while I paid my bill and left.

I parked the car at the first rest stop on the turnpike and closed my eyes. I opened them a second later to find the second had lasted an hour as if I was under general anesthesia for surgery. Hallucinations seemed to have subsided, I could still move my leg between the gas and the break with my hand, and I didn’t have to get out of the car and walk. With this safety check list completed I grabbed my leg, threw it on the gas pedal and made it back to Pittsburgh without incident.

After a week my legs and feet still looked like they’d been worked over with a baseball bat by a large bodyguard named Guido. I still tried to stick to the original plan and started training hard for the upcoming track meet. I still had an outside chance to break a five minute mile. The only thing I ended up breaking was my left foot. Official diagnosis following an MRI was a stress reaction, a split tendon, and a swollen joint. Recommended punishment was a big clunky orthopedic boot for 4 weeks and no running. This treatment left a lot of options open. Biking is not running and technically neither is hopping up stairs. I’m careful not to say running up stairs because that might be confused with running of which I definitely can’t do. Each day I bike 10 miles, stop at the Cathedral Of Learning and bound, but definitely not run, up the stairs to the 35th floor. Doing 8 to 10 climbs gives me the equivalent of running up the Empire State Building 3 times, which I definitely could not do.

Someone once told me “There are two types of people in this world, those that learn from their mistakes and runners”. If I ever learn from my mistakes I’ll let you know. Until then I guess I’ll keep running.