It was Saturday, June 23rd, 2012; I had just finished the Niagara Ultra 100 km. The clock displayed a time of 9:54:05 and a hard earned 3rd place finish. My wife Dianne, having just completed her first half marathon knew the drill – guide me to somewhere to sit before I collapse. Certain I had just completed what would be the longest running event this body would ever endure, I assured Dianne – “I’ll never do a 100 miler! I couldn’t imagine having to run another 38 miles. It’s one thing to finish a race by 4:00 pm but running through the night, sleep deprivation…that’s a whole different story. I have no interest in doing a 100 miler, it just sounds ridiculous!” Dianne agreed and supported my decision 100% and life went on as we knew it…
Ultra running for me all started with the Haliburton Forest Trail Race – 50 Miler. It was Saturday, September 12th, 2009; I remember the event like it was yesterday. From the “unique” participants to the bagpipes as runners congregated behind a line scraped in the dirt…this was definitely cool! I crossed the finish line on that particular day in 9:49:49 and a satisfying 14th overall. Dianne relived my experience as I described my ignorance surrounding “Ultra Running.” The pain was like nothing I experienced before and I assured her – “I’ll never do that again!”
November 23rd, 2013 and the completion of my 9th “Ultra” – JFK 50 Mile Memorial (the oldest continuously run ultra marathon in the United States). One could say there’s something about running endurance events that has a certain allure to it. Ask me what that something is and I have no idea. Ask me if I’d ever do a 100 miler and the answer was most certainly “No”. Yet, on October 3rd, 2015 I towed the line at Cloudsplitter 100 and I think I found the answer. It’s a race that has forever changed my outlook on life and solidified my belief that “anything is possible.”
The winter of 2015 involved a group of friends preparing for the Indiana Trail 100 and an invite to accompany them on a long run. It was time on the feet; pace was not of paramount importance. Run a mile, walk a ¼ mile and average an 11 minute mile – this was race pace. Four hours to complete 20 miles? It seemed like a long time but I surmised that my long runs needed to be slower anyway. So it was here, that unknown to me the seed was planted.
There was something about those 5 am runs lasting 4 plus hours in duration that started to grow on me. Sure it was dark, extremely cold and at times downright miserable and yet, I was starting to look forward to them. We laughed, shared stories, solved the world’s problems and created a bond amongst friends. The worse the conditions, the better the stories and training runs began to have their own names i.e. Tauntaun run.
March 20th, 2015 – Casey’s Fat Ass Forty-Miler and the last official long run for the Indiana Trail 100. “Fat Ass” is most commonly viewed, and understood, as a glorified group run. With the start scheduled for 4 pm and finishing at midnight, the 40 miler consisted of 5 mile loops, each one finishing back at ground zero. A potluck of sorts welcomed runners consisting of an array of hot dishes, junk food and craft beers. Final Stats: 40 runners and 570 miles logged. I finished the 40 miles that day along with Casey and Gord. We toasted our accomplishments with Ouzo and a fine array of craft beers. While they had completed their last long run before the Indiana Trail 100, I on the other hand had no intentions of competing in anything longer than 13.1 miles. In hindsight, I was more prepared for a 100 miler that day than I was October 3rd, 2015.
The boys went on to successfully complete the Indiana Trail 100 and although conditions were less than ideal, the group persevered and relished in their accomplishments. I won’t lie, I felt like I had missed out on the adventure. Having ran every Ultra solo in the past, I was intrigued with the team approach. Experiencing the laughter and suffering as a group rather than as an individual with nothing more than my own thoughts was enticing.
Dianne must have sensed my desire to be a part of the adventure and suggested I support Casey by running Cloudsplitter 100. Could I run 100 miles following a season of Duathlons? There was only one way to find out and I was willing to give it a shot!
Now, it’s been a while since I’ve trained for an Ultra. I’ve never been one to follow much of a training schedule and apparently 2015, would be no different. In 2013, I switched over from Duathlon mid-September and raced both Vulture Bait 50K (2nd) and JFK 50 Miler in the fall, increasing the mileage to regular 20 mile excursions in hopes that my body would withstand the assault. With my last Duathlon scheduled September 20th, 2015, I had but 2 weeks before Cloudsplitter 100. I was going in a wee bit under trained. How under trained one may ask? I’ve since reviewed my logs and determined that in the 22 weeks leading up to Cloudsplitter 100, I managed an average 30 miles/wk of running. In total I ventured to the trails on 5 occasions, entailing 1 x 20 miler and 3 x hill specific training runs. To make things worse, I was hampered with IT band issues the month leading into Cloudsplitter, resulting in Race Day ONLY activity for 2 complete weeks. I could only hope that all the rest leading into Cloudsplitter 100 would serve me well. My worst fear, the IT band issue resurfaces and stops me in my tracks. My confidence was at an all-time low but quitting was not an option.
With the Duathlon season behind me, it was time to focus my attention on the task at hand – Cloudsplitter 100. A detailed itinerary provided by none other than Casey Thivierge made life simple and pain free. The “Race Plan” was formulated, fuel & hydration consumption calculated and items to pack itemized – tape nipples, check. It was all there and yet for the first time I felt an uneasiness in the pit of my stomach like I’ve never encountered before. With so many things to consider and in all honesty, no personal experience from which to draw on, I was beginning to feel like a fish out of water. Historically, I researched my competition for Ultras and was confident in my abilities to endure pain. Ultra-Signup had me ranked 3rd based on previous results and yet not a 100 miler to my name. Cloudsplitter 100 involved little to no researching on my part. The only thing I knew for certain was that “due to the difficulty of the 100 mile distance, the cutoff time would be 40 hours.” The total ascent for the 100 mile route 25893 feet; by the elevation chart that looked extremely daunting and therefore I should have reason to be nervous.
Friday morning arrived early and with the crew intact, we hit the road. Gord, Francois, Derek and Blair – this team had proven to be able to get the job done. All were established Ultra runners – 3 out of the 4 with 100 milers to their name. Casey and I were confident in their abilities to “weather the storm”. Weather forecasts predicted heavy rain, not to mention the weeklong showers that had saturated Kentucky’s Pine Mountain region. The conditions were certain to be less than ideal adding another layer of difficulty to an already formidable challenge.
Elkhorn City (population 964), is nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. This area of the United States is very economically depressed, and continues to suffer even more with the loss of coal mining jobs. On this particular day with lots of rain, mud and muck, over 160 runners gathered at the ball park in Elkhorn City on a grey and cloudy Saturday morning. My stomach was in knots and I was uncertain of what the future held. I’m not what you call a superstitious individual but before leaving the hotel I glanced at the key card from our room. The Wi-Fi password read DJF46 – my son’s initials and I took that as a sign. I needed something to draw on, itwas going to be long couple days.
The Pine Mountain Scenic Trail started at the bottom of the valley in Elkhorn City and ascended steeply to the top of the ridge, and then traced a geological fault line along the southern Kentucky-Virginia border. Virtually no section of the trail was flat. It either went up or down, and more often than not, the grades were very steep. I’d never experienced climbs of this nature and it quickly became evident that Casey’s training had far surpassed anything I had done. I wasn’t able to keep pace on the climbs, Casey was too strong and I soon lost contact. Initially, I was angry and questioned why I had traveled all this way to support Casey and yet here I was all by myself. I had no doubt Casey was going to make me pay for my stupidity. I on the other hand was going to complete this 100 miler. Not just any 100 miler but a race ranked among the most difficult in the world for endurance. There was no doubt in my mind, that my ability to finish the race was in question. I wasn’t going to give anyone that satisfaction. Now, it was me against the world (figuratively speaking). I was going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and the realization that I may have to push my body to the point at which it starts shutting down.
At 32.9 miles I picked up my first pacer – Derek. It was 4:15 pm and I was happy to finally have company. Over the course of the next 37 miles I’d be entering uncharted territory with the need to navigate through the night. It was an 18.5 mile loop before I picked up my second pacer – Francois. It was then I realized that I’d be doing the same loop a 2nd time (remember I didn’t prep much). With the aid stations disproportionately spaced, 9 miles and then 8 miles, I wasn’t overly thrilled. The aid station set-up required my hydration regimen to be altered and forced my body to tap into dwindling reserves. I was consuming 500 ml/hr and with the first loop taking roughly 6 hours, I was down 1000 ml. The second loop, roughly 8 hours and an additional 2000 ml lost. I was starting to struggle.
It was fast approaching 7:00 am when I finally returned to the crew. Thirty miles remaining, the sun wasn’t quite up yet. I was a hurting individual and in rough shape. I didn’t dare change my shoes for fear I wouldn’t get another pair on. Actually, I didn’t change a thing from start to finish, yet I had packed an entire bag for an array of weather conditions. My backside was burning, void of Vaseline the acid cut like a knife. I sat in the chair; the thought of quitting consumed me. For a moment I felt very alone, I just wanted to go home.
It was at that moment Gord enquired – “Depending on what you decide to do, Blair will be your next pacer.” Did I hear that correctly? Was I being given the option to quit? The easy answer would have been “yes”. Maybe these people don’t know me as well as I thought. Francois and Blair awaited my response, “there’s no giving up…DNF is not an option.” Francois let out a supportive cheer. It was the next statement that Gord made that had me realize how bad things had gotten – “maintain a pace of 2 miles/hr and you’ll finish by midnight.” I couldn’t wrap my head around it…the sun wasn’t even up yet and we were talking about finishing at midnight! I’d been going 23 hours already; I had to finish by midnight.
With the sun now up, the hallucinations began. The Rhododendron thickets played havoc with my mind and I could no longer rely on my senses for direction. I had to keep moving though; every step took me closer to the finish line. Running seemed next to impossible, but I trusted Blair’s ability as an accomplished runner to keep me on track.
Maybe it was the lack of oxygen to my brain but I got the impression that at some point, there were discussions regarding my ability to finish such a daunting 100 miler. I focused on Dianne and Dakota and knew I couldn’t quit. In my mind, the only acceptable reason for not crossing the finish line – medical intervention.
It’s impossible to truly capture how steep many of the sections were. Descending the inclines often took me longer than climbing them. I hadn’t remembered them being quite as muddy on the way out and I struggled to maintain my footing. I surmised that the use of skiis would have been a beneficial tool for this adventure but sadly not allowed. With the final crew point in site, we laboured up the endless climb and with each bend in the road I became increasingly agitated. The road went on forever…I just wanted to stop!
With 13 miles remaining, the ever so present desire to quit grew with each passing moment. Derek had drawn the short straw and was assigned pacing duties for what could only be described as a “death march.” As the hours of daylight dwindled, my ability to maneuver became increasingly limited. My knees had ballooned, the result of wearing both compression socks and compression shorts at the same time. On a positive note, my calves and quads were relatively pain free; I just couldn’t bend my knees.
It took every ounce of energy to remain upright and I found myself staggering on many occasions. I followed Derek’s lead, attuned to his every word. Without his guidance I would never have been able to navigate those final miles. I was ever so thankful he didn’t lead me off a cliff because I would have undoubtedly followed. Just 2 miles left!
It sounded so minimal and yet I still had an hour to go, I couldn’t quit now. We were almost there; I could see the lights of the ball diamond and my watch read 35:06:00 – I had done it! Wait, how do we maneuver our way around the river? Derek went one way and I the other. We’ve got to be close, I could see the lights! Why were there women praying for me on the side of the road? The hallucinations wouldn’t stop.
So close and yet so far…where were we? We had run the same country road 3 times, Derek stopped to ask a local – “Elkhorn City? It’s a couple miles from here, I don’t know about no ball diamond. What are you guys running from?”
I wasn’t going to finish was I? The tears were welling-up. My mind was racing; time was ticking and my body crawling. A vehicle stopped to give us directions, “end of the road, turn left, and over the over-pass. Keep going and the ball diamond will be on your left.” “Can we get a ride?” I yelled as the vehicle drove off. Seemed logical to me at the time, seeing I had ran more than the required 100 miles.
With the fear of not finishing, I found a new gear – probably unnoticeable to the human eye, but it certainly felt faster. I did my best to run it in but sadly my knees would not bend. I crossed the finish line in a time of 37:54:49. I was a 100 mile FINISHER but more importantly, I had finished what I started!
So what is the allure of running an endurance event? For me, it’s the anticipation of the battle. It’s what gets me out the door. It’s a conversation starter and it fuels the fire. It’s the need to do what most can’t fathom or are willing to attempt.
Cloudsplitter 100 had me digging deeper than I ever thought possible. It became evident that I have a deep seeded need to succeed accompanied by a fear of failure. I’m not comfortable with giving up and I realized that I’m no longer running just for me. If one doesn’t have a reason to continue moving forward, it’s easy to throw in the towel. I was now running for my son and I focused solely on him – “finish what you start – no matter how insurmountable the challenge.” The allure of running endurance events is the pride I feel when my son believes I can do anything…“but you can run 100 miles.” In his eyes I can do anything and I want to foster that belief for as long as possible!
“One & done?” Dianne asked upon my arrival home. Hmmm…I’ll do it again and next time I’ll do it faster!