Lessons from a 100-mile Ultra Marathon

In 2011, I met a woman.

GrandfatherMountain2

Along the bottom of the picture, you’ll notice a light brown pony tail and a black french braid. This will become relevant later on in our story. I promise.

Okay that’s not technically true. What happened was this: I followed this woman up Grandfather Mountain in Boone, North Carolina for about 7 miles as we both labored to finish one of the hardest street marathons I’ve run. After the race I tweeted out my time, and she responded.

We struck up one of those weird digital friendships. We chatted about ultra running, a sport we’d both recently picked up, and we liked pictures of our respective pets. Other than that, we rarely interacted.

I assumed the hallmark of our friendship would be marked by a casual distance and be limited to a shared love of running. Maybe we’d see each other someday at race, but it was more likely we’d be those people who existed in the ether of our digital lives.

That’s not exactly how it played out.

* * *

“I’ve got an idea,” I said to my wife.

“Okay,” she said to me in that voice.

We’ve been together less than two years, but already I’ve come to realize that I make requests that most husbands never make. I’ve gone camping to do book research without her, I take extended writing trips to local cabins, and I’ve flown to see former students who needed me. These are not extravagant requests, but they are not necessarily what marriages are built upon.

This time, I thought my luck was going to run out.

“So,” I said. “I met this girl a few years ago. Well, I didn’t really meet her. We met on Twitter after we ran the same marathon. She’s going to do an ultra marathon, and I told her I’d run a pace lap with her. That would be okay, right? You should come. It will be fun.”

In my head, this sounded rational: I’d drive to St. Louis, pick Juli up from the airport, shuttle her to the Mark Twain National Forest where she’d run a 100-mile race, and then bring her back. Along the way, I’d take care of her equipment, make sure she was okay, and run 1 of the 25-mile loops with her.

As the words came out of my mouth, though, I realized that for most wives this would be a non-starter. I waited for a second as Rebecca furrowed her brow. Then she flashed her cute “stern” face to let me know that this was one of those questions.

“Who is she,” Rebecca asked.

“Well, she’s a veterinarian, and she does beauty pageants. That’s about all I know.”

“Of course she’s a beauty pageant winner,” she said in mock exasperation before telling me that we would absolutely go.

* * *

Rebecca, Holly, Juli, Richard, and Brad on the way to Mark Twain National Forest.

Rebecca, Holly, Juli, Richard, and Brad on the way to Mark Twain National Forest. The best way to get to know new people: Cram yourself into a car for 2 hours.

“I have no idea how we are going to get everything into the car,” I whispered to my wife as we sat at the Starbucks in the St. Louis airport waiting for Juli’s friend Holly to arrive.

When we first agreed to crew, I assumed that it would just be the three of us: Juli, my wife, and me.

I found out soon enough that I was incorrect in that assumption. Juli’s friend and running partner was attempting the 50-mile run, and another friend, Richard, would be a second pacer for Juli.

As everyone made their way to the Starbucks, I couldn’t visualize how the bags might fit into the back of our Kia Soul. Rebecca and I had been aspirational as we packed. While we crammed all of our clothes and gear into one hiking pack, we’d decided to take our large tent, camp chairs, and blankets in case we stayed on site that race.

The back was simply full.

Now we had to figure out how to get training bags, suitcases, running packs, and clothes into a car that was just a little bit short on space.

* * *

Richard and Brad filling up  Juli and Holly's water packs at Mile 25.

Richard and Brad filling up Juli’s and Holly’s water packs at Mile 25.

My alarm at the Super 8 went off at 4:30 a.m., just 90 minutes before the start of the 50- and 100-mile races.

The women wanted to get to the start early, and we had a 25-minute drive from downtown Potosi to the Berryman Trail.

The night before we’d gone shopping, buying breakfast food, snacks, sports drinks, and fruits so that the women could eat and hydrate before race. Pre-race nerves kept much of that from happening. They’d nibbled and sipped, but everyone was anxious to get the day started.

We arrived at the start, which was hidden in the darkness. Thankfully we had about 15 minutes to spare, which was just enough time for me to fill up Holly’s water and make sure their drop bags were in the appropriate places.

In the moments before a long race, runners envision every possible mishap. My job was to make sure none of those mishaps occurred.

I stayed for a few minutes until the runners were released just to make sure nobody came back, and then I drove back to the motel to get a few hours of shut eye before our day officially began.

By 10 a.m., Richard, Rebecca, and I made our way back to the Start/Finish line where we set up camp, waiting for our runners to make their first loop. As the women battled the brutal terrain, we fretted over their replacement packs, their food, their water, and what we were sure were countless items we’d forgotten to bring.

* * *

After dropping me off at the Super 8, Rebecca and Richard brought fruit popsicles  to Juli and Holly as a reward for finishing Mile 34.

After dropping me off at the Super 8, Rebecca and Richard brought fruit popsicles to Juli and Holly as a reward for finishing Mile 34.

Once Juli and Holly made it through the first loop, we all relaxed. We’d survived, and we hadn’t messed anyone’s race up, which was a reality we’d all silently dreaded as we waited for the women to complete their loop.

Now the race began, and we didn’t have time to waste.

Rebecca and Richard needed to get to Mile 34, the next crew accessible area. Both Juli and Holly wanted popsicles to cool off during their run, and we wanted to surprise them during the second lap.

Before they could head to the checkpoint, though, they had to drop me off at the hotel. Later that evening, I would be heading out on a 25-mile run as Juli’s pacer. I needed to eat and relax because when I hit the trail, it was my job to help her navigate the course during the night as she began to wear down.

* * *

Juli and I at the last crew checkpoint - Mile 59 - before we headed out for a 16-mile run through the dark.

Juli and I at the last crew checkpoint – Mile 59 – before we headed out for a 16-mile run through the dark.

“You’ve got to tell me a story,” Juli said, her voice cutting through the cold and darkness.

“I’ve been waiting my whole life for someone to say that to me,” I replied, “and now that you’ve asked, I don’t know exactly what to tell you. That’s bad timing too, considering where we are right now.”

In our rearview mirror was Mile 59, the crew checkpoint where she’d enjoyed her popsicle hours ago when the sun was still out. Now we were on our own, and in the dark.

Despite making decent time, we were in the middle of the hardest of the 4 race loops (even though each 25-mile loop happens on the same trail.)

Loop 3 is a slog across some of the roughest marathon terrain in the Midwest done in the middle of the night with just two small headlamps and 2 small mag lights to lead the way. Adding to the fun, the 75-degree weather was pushed aside by the sub-40 temperatures that blanketed the valleys.

No matter how many layers we put on, the cold chill tore through our hats, gloves, and sweatshirts. No matter how hard we tried to navigate the rocks, the trail was trying to push us off the side of the hill. No matter how much we tried to distract ourselves with stories, the relentless darkness kept reminding us that we had no idea how much farther we had to travel.

* * *

Richard wrapped in mylar while waiting to start Loop 4.

Richard wrapped in mylar while waiting for me to bring Juli in to the Start/Finish line so they could start Loop 4.

At the 65-mile mark, we were in trouble. In ultra marathons, the race organizers require that you reach certain check points at designated times or else you’ll be pulled from the race.

Runners were required to be through the gates and back on the trail at the 24-hour mark.

Late into the morning, our pace had slowed considerably. We’d fallen about 4 minutes off what we needed, which over 25 miles adds up to a 1 hour, 40 minutes.

The few times we’d tried to run, the combination of fatigue, limited visibility, huge rocks on the trail, and a narrow path kept forcing us back into a brisk walk.

Despite all of setbacks, Juli pushed hard. She pushed as tears came, as fatigue settled in, and as debilitating self-doubt crept in. No matter what, she kept moving forward.

In normal times the phrase “pushed as hard as she could” is the type of general compliment you pay to somebody who is giving a little bit of an extra effort. That phrase took on another meaning altogether as Juli willed herself to keep moving forward at 4 a.m. in near freezing conditions after a 65-mile run.

* * *

We crossed the Start/Finish line at 24 hours, 14 minutes. We’d missed the final cutoff by 14 minutes, which meant the race director had to pull us off the course.

Richard, Rebecca, and I tried to comfort Juli, but there are no words that bring any comfort. I couldn’t even pretend to understand what was happening inside even though I’d just run with her for 25 miles and experienced the Did Not Finish (DNF) twice before.

In that moment, she did not yet realize that the journey is what mattered. She didn’t realize that the three of us sat in awe of what she had accomplished. She couldn’t see that everyone around her saw what she did, not what she didn’t do.

For her, in that moment, she only saw failure. For us, we saw so much success.

* * *

After less than 48 hours, we sadly said goodbye. Five relative strangers bonded together by one amazing weekend in the woods.

After less than 48 hours, we sadly said goodbye. Five relative strangers bonded together by one amazing weekend in the woods.

“You bring so much goodness into my life, Mr. King,” my wife said to me as we packed up our gear in the Super 8.

“We just did everything my mother always told me not to do: meet people on the Internet, go into the woods, and wander in the dark,” she continued. “Now I don’t want it to end.”

“That,” I said, “is pretty much the story of my life: Don’t do what your mother said.”

Exhausted, the five of us piled back into the Kia for 90-minute journey back to St. Louis. Before the doors were shut, we began making plans for visits, team relays, and running adventures.

We reveled in the dreams of the moment, wished that we could find a way to overcome time and space and life so that we might spend more time together, and drank in the last few moments when we were all together.

When we  arrived at the airport hotel where Juli, Holly, and Richard were staying for the night, we lingered out front for a few minutes. We talked through the silences that normally come just before “goodbye.”

Then we took a selfie. We hugged. And we returned to our lives.

* * *

The Coda:

During our weekend, Juli mentioned that Holly had run the Grandfather Mountain Marathon with her in 2011. I remembered Juli’s group because they were all wearing running skirts (which I’d never seen before) and they were standing right in front of me taking pictures. (Also: there were only a few hundred of us attempting to run the mountain so it was easy to remember.)

I skimmed through my pictures. I came across one that I took just before the race started. In it, I saw two familiar people. The woman on the left had a short brown ponytail, and the one on the right had a french braid.

Standing directly in front of me: Juli and Holly.