They say you should start every story at the beginning.
But when was that?
At the start line? When they counted us down from ten to one?
Or was it when I woke up with the flu two days before the Miwok 100k and was forced to take my first ever DNS (did not start) and I missed out on my Western States qualifier?
Maybe this story started when I mentioned the idea of someday running the oldest 100 mile footrace in the United States to my son. His response? “No offense, Dad, but you should do it sooner rather than later. You’re not getting any younger.”
Or maybe it goes back even further. I can’t really be sure.
What I am sure of is this: running 100 miles in 24 hours, running 100 miles with only a few short stops to refuel, well, that makes you introspective.
I entered this race seeking…something intangible. I wanted to go where I’d never gone before, experience something totally new and unexpected. Maybe I thought there would be answers out there.
Out past 50 miles, out past 11 hours, my previous longest run.
There had to be something out there in the dark as I ran 13 hours through an entire night, right?
You can’t literally run for an entire day and not learn something…
Here are some things I learned:
- Running 100 miles didn’t hurt as much as I thought it might.
- The passing of time got very elastic, especially in the dark. Some sections that actually took minutes felt like hours while some hours simply disappeared completely.
- Inclines were not only a welcome sight, I was actively hoping for them much of the time.
- Every time I saw my crew, I smiled. They later reported that I was incredibly cheerful at every sighting (they had been forewarned that CREW stood for Cranky Runner, Endless Waiting).
- There is nothing quite like the joy of changing into a dry shirt after 35 miles & also 44 miles & also 59 miles…
- There might be something magical about the combination of Injinji toe socks and Altra Lone Peak trail shoes. I did not get a single blister.
But enough with the amorphous…let’s talk details.
Saturday, November 4th, 5 am – Rio Del Lago 100 Mile Endurance Run
I place myself at the back of the pack, prepared to walk over the start line in an attempt to keep myself from going out too fast. This is a genuine concern as the first nine miles are not only paved, but also mostly a gentle down slope.
Of course I begin running just as I reach the arch of the start.
I do manage to keep my speed in check and I drop to a walk in the rare moments the course reaches a hill. The wide bike path is crowded with runners chatting and laughing. We pierce the predawn darkness with thousands of lumens of artificial light. All is good and easy.
I reach the first aid station (Willow Creek – mile 6.5) feeling strong. While the pack has begun to thin, I can still see dozens of runners ahead and behind me. I cruise past the aid station and on into the dark.
My memories of the next section are blurred. There was a long paved path that snaked into the darkness, there were other runners, and I remember running under one bridge and over another bridge, there was rain that came and went and came back again. At one point it began to rain hard and I put on my jacket.
I started chatting with a woman named Julie who was running with two friends, each of them hoping to finish in less than 24 hours.
I remember pausing at the second aid station (Negro Bar – mile 14) and sipping a cup of Gu Roctane drink. I remember the sky slowly growing lighter and lighter, though the sunrise was completely hidden by low hanging clouds. I was content to run slowly.
This was all very familiar. It felt like a road marathon, albeit one that started absurdly early. I saw Julie and her friends a few more times, the last being around the 16 mile mark when I pulled ahead of them. I wouldn’t see any of them again. I hope they met their goal.
I ran into the Beal’s Point aid station (also the start/finish line) in 3:47:17. After 18.5 miles, I was in 241st place overall, though of course I had no idea at the time. I felt good and it was an energizing experience to run through the start/finish area. So much hustle and bustle!
It was the first time runners could get help from their crew. I saw lots of smiling faces, despite the rain, and more than once I heard, “Go on, get out of here, you still have a long way to go!” I stopped briefly to grab an almond butter sandwich from my drop bag and refill my hydration pack.
My legs felt strong, though not invincible. I could feel the miles on me, but I was confident and ready to keep moving forward, into the brightening day and into the drizzling rain. There were miles and miles of trail ahead of me with very little pavement. For this I was thankful.
I sent a quick text to my wife (also my crew chief!): “I’m leaving Beals right now” She responded: “Great! See you soon”
Before long I found myself at what I thought was the Granite Beach aid station (mile 23). I cruised through the aid station, grabbed a cup of electrolyte, and…did not see my crew. Maybe I was confused? Maybe this wasn’t a crew access point? Maybe this wasn’t Granite Beach? I kept moving, leaving the aid station behind and diving back into the woods.
Not long after my phone whistled with another text from my wife: “We are at Granite Beach.”
My response: “I think I missed you? Not sure. Sorry”
Her response: “Drat!! Ok see you at the next one – you are doing awesome!!” She also included a picture of her and my son smiling in a selfie.
Immediately after came a text from my son: “Pace thyself”
I smiled and laughed and probably sped up anyway. It was over nine miles to the next aid station, and twelve until I would finally see my crew for the first time, which was a bummer, but luckily I fell in with an amazing group of four other runners forming a train on the winding single track. The man and woman in front were both local, knew each other, and kept up an interesting and distracting conversation until we rolled into the Horseshoe Bar aid station (mile 32.5). I arrived in 6:40:36, now in 197th place.
The volunteers waiting for us were taken aback as we five runners galloped into the aid station smiling and laughing.
“You’re…you’re all smiling. That’s a new one!”
“Hey,” I said. “It feels just like a fun group run!”
I grabbed a quick snack…maybe pretzels?…and cruised through the aid station. Most of the rest of the train stopped for a longer recharge and I found myself alone. It was only three miles until the Rattlesnake Bar aid station (mile 35.5) and the time flew by. I dropped down a steep little hill and entered the aid station…
And then I saw my crew! My wife and both my sons were waiting and we beamed at each other, I was so excited to see them I couldn’t stop smiling. My older son helped me get some food from my drop bag: another almond butter sandwich, two lara bars, and a trio of gluten-free snicker doodle cookies!
“Are you going to eat ALL of that?” my son asked.
They also brought me the leftovers from my dinner the night before the race: gluten-free no cheese pizza with chicken and artichoke hearts. Never underestimate the power of cold pizza.
I did a quick change, peeling off my soaking wet jacket and shirt. I pulled on a dry shirt, stuffed a dry jacket in my pack and headed off.
I left the aid station balancing the pizza in one hand, still smiling, and feeling recharged. I had now run more than a 50k, but felt stronger than ever before at that distance. I gave little thought to the miles behind me and the only miles ahead of me that were of any concern were the ones that would take me to the next aid station. I was cruising. I was running my own race.
I was secretly looking forward to seeing my family/crew again!
Up to this point, there had been very little in the way of what I would call climbing. The trail had been mellow, rolling hills with the occasional steep, but generally short climb.
Until mile 41. Until I exited the Cardiac aid station. Here, I grabbed a quick snack and returned to the trail beside another runner who I had been leap-frogging for a few miles.
“Ready?” he said
“It’s three straight miles of climbing. First on gravel road and then on pavement.”
So I started walking. I was beginning to feel weary in both body and mind. My first low point in the race, though not so very low. Not “pain cave” kind of low. Just…weary. We hit a sort of runnable section of pavement, but I kept walking.
After 3.5 miles of mostly trudging, I arrived at the Overlook aid station (mile 44.5). I had been on the course for 9:35:29 and was now in 167th place.
I climbed the final hill to find my crew! A chicken burrito! And thermos full of coffee! It was as though I had ascended into heaven and all my dreams had suddenly come true…
A kiss, a bunch of hugs, coffee! Such joy!
I was getting incredibly close to my previous limits of 50 miles and 11hrs 15mins. And I felt good. But I was beginning to feel the miles. My legs were ‘talking’ a little, not complaining exactly, but a conversation had been started. I was aware of their presence.
I left the aid station, my family, the other half of the burrito and continued on my way. The trail immediately descended steeply into a heavily forested section with some seriously muddy trails. The first real mud I’d encountered all day, despite the on and off drizzle that had followed us almost since the start.
The trail dipped and dropped, swung around switchbacks. I passed some folks on horseback. We passed out from under the trees and made our way along a rollercoaster fire road. I stayed on top of my hydration and nutrition. Time passed. Miles passed.
And then I saw it: No Hands Bridge!
Having watched a number of videos from the Western States 100 miler, I recognized it immediately.
We runners cruised the length of the bridge to find not only the No Hands Bridge aid station (mile 48.5) but also one hell of a party. It was loud and raucous and my world suddenly went from calm quiet wilderness to frat party kegger. I was a bit overwhelmed and got out of there quickly.
It had been 10:41:15, I was now in 159th place, and I was in no mood to party. I was inching closer and closer to my own personal uncharted territory. I was tired. The revelry was not a welcome distraction.
Thankfully, the trail climbed quickly up from No Hands Bridge and it wasn’t long before the noise of the aid station was swallowed by the dense trees and lightly falling rain.
Not long after, I came to a fork in the trail. There was a large arrow pointing to the left fork. I could see a series of orange ribbons when I looked up the right fork…uh, what?
“Well…which way do I go?” I asked the universe.
“Go left,” the universe answered. Technically it was another runner coming up from behind me, but it felt almost divine. “We go left now and then come back on the other trail later.”
Clearly, my brain was not operating at 100%. Thank goodness for other runners.
We dropped quickly down a very steep hill, crossed a highway (thank you to the volunteers who stopped traffic for us runners!). We found ourselves on a sort of gravel, but mostly dirt quarry road. It was flat and, since I could see a long way into the distance, I could tell it would be flat for a considerable distance. This was not good. My legs and my feet did not want flat. They wanted varied terrain. They wanted little climbs followed by short, gentle descents followed by more little climbs.
They wanted to run a little, then walk a little, then run a little, etc.
Flat, incessant running had become painful.
It was on this stretch that I passed the 50 mile mark and headed into new territory. Every step was taking me to a new personal best distance. I honestly had no idea. I’d completely forgotten about that threshold amidst the pain and drudgery of this flat, tedious road.
Fortunately, that road did not last forever and we were soon climbing again, the trail was growing more and more narrow. We were blissfully running up and down muddy single track interspersed with five, six, maybe seven stream crossings. It was still hard, but it felt more like trail running. This was, as one of my Twitter peeps has pointed out, my jam.
The rain had resumed, and this time Mother Nature seemed intent on giving us a good soaking. The sun was going down. It was growing dark, and we ran beneath a thick canopy of trees. Night was coming early. And I was loving every minute of it! This section was probably my favorite. It was true trail running in the best sense; these were difficult, challenging, dirty miles!
Before I knew it we were rolling into the Auburn Lake Trails aid station (mile 59). Either it hadn’t sunk in that I’d run beyond 50 miles or I just didn’t care at this point because I took no real notice of the fact. I changed out of my wet shirt into a dry one, refilled my food stores, and strapped on my headlamp all while the rain dumped down on us.
While grabbing a cup of lukewarm broth, I overheard one of the volunteers yell out, “Do we have any blankets or anything? I can’t get this guy to stop shivering!” It was then I noticed my knees were quivering slightly. It wasn’t from exhaustion. I had started to get cold while stopping for my wardrobe change and refueling.
I quickly finished my broth and ran out of the aid station. After literally a minute of running, I was fine again, warm and happy to be moving. At this point I latched onto a group of four runners (2 racers, 2 pacers) and let them drag me on into the ever growing darkness. It was 8.5 miles to the next aid station and I think I ran with those four wonderful folks for half of those miles.
When we reached a ridiculously steep, absurdly muddy hill that had most runners using hands and feet to navigate the more treacherous bits, I somehow lost my train. The remaining miles to the Highway 49 aid station were not pretty.
They were dark miles.
And I don’t mean because it was nighttime. I mean because I was weary, tired, exhausted. I was glad when we hit a hill and I could drop into a walk and I cursed the trail every time it leveled out or dared to descend. I was one grumpy hombre when I finally reached the Highway 49 aid station (mile 67.5).
While grabbing a quick snack, I asked the aid station captain, “Which way do we go?”
I turned to see that he was walking away from me. Maybe he hadn’t heard me?
“Which way do we go?” I asked the volunteer behind the snack table.
Was I mumbling? Whispering? I wasn’t sure, but I was certainly getting even grumpier.
As loud and as clear as I could manage without yelling I said, “Which. Way. Do. We. Go?!?”
Still no answer…what the hell was going on?
“Hi!” I said, waving my hand in the guy’s face. “Which way do we go?”
This was ridiculous.
Every other aid station in this entire race was staffed by eager, attentive, kind, friendly, helpful volunteers who went out of their way to help every single runner. If I were grading them, I would give mostly A’s with a few A+ grades in there.
This aid station? D-
“How do I get out of here? Which way does the race go?”
“Um…oh…yeah…see that red light over there?” I nodded. “Run toward that. When you see a blue light, run toward that.”
For the last 67.5 miles I had been following orange ribbons with reflective tape on them. Now I was supposed to follow lights? I was somewhat doubtful of this guy’s instructions, but since I didn’t know what else to do, I followed them.
He lead me right.
Not long after the red light there was a blue light, and not long after that I was able to see one of the normal course markers glowing in the distance. Thankfully, the person who marked that section of the course did a great job. I was especially thankful because it was the first long, extended section where I was completely on my own without a single runner in sight either in front or behind.
I enjoyed running this section alone. It was a little scary, exhilarating and empowering. I moved along well and finally made it back to the party (still raging) at No Hands Bridge aid station (mile 70.5). I had been on the course for 17:54:42 and was now in 119th place.
I stopped long enough to grab a little grub, snap a picture, and chat for a moment with one of the volunteers. Then I trotted back across the famous bridge. Physically, I was bone weary at that point, but mentally I was energized by the fact that I would be seeing my wondrous crew again in only a few miles!
I sent a quick text: “I’m at mile 70 👍🏼”
Several minutes later I got a reply: “We are at Overlook”
I retraced my steps from several hours earlier, climbed up to the Overlook aid station for the second time (mile 74.5) and stepped into the best hug I’ve ever had.
“You look great!” Maybe it was a lie or a maybe the truth was being stretched or maybe it was true. I honestly didn’t care. I was just happy to see my family.
I changed out of my damp socks and my mud-packed shoes, changed my shirt one final time and started to leave the aid station. Then I stopped. I went back to my crew. I’d forgotten to give them my soaking wet hat and a few other “day time” items I wouldn’t need again.
Then I turned to leave the aid station. And then I turned back, again.
I’d forgotten to swap out my headlamp.
I think it’s safe to say that while seeing my crew had significantly buoyed my spirits, it hadn’t done much to sharpen my mental acuity. At this point, it was going to be mostly my guts that got me to the finish line.
“Are you sure you have everything you need?” my wife asked. I nodded. “Okay, keep it up. You’re way ahead of your estimates.”
I ran out of the aid station and started down Cardiac…the three mile hill. This time I was going downhill. I snuck a peek at my watch. I hadn’t looked at it in…three hours? More? No idea. Time had ceased to have any meaning in the dark and I had been content to just move forward at whatever speed I was able to muster.
But now? Well, I did a little math, which was more than a little challenge. My conclusion?
“If I really bust my ass, I could break 24 hours,” I thought, probably out loud. “If everything goes great and I can run most of the way in, I could do it.”
I cruised down Cardiac. I was probably moving faster than I had at any point during the entire race. I was hurting, but my confidence was high.
Three-quarters of the miles were behind me. I knew I was going to finish. Even if I had to walk the last 25 miles I was confident that I could beat the cutoff. I had almost a 4.5 hour cushion. But maybe, maybe if I could really fly home…maybe I could break 24 hours. Surely it was worth a shot. Worst case scenario? I walk way more than I run and I finish in 27, 28, 29 hours.
I ran into the Cardiac aid station at full speed.
“What can I get you?” a volunteer said.
“Nothing. I’m good.” He seemed disappointed. I smiled and kept going…for a little while.
That burst of speed had been kind of fun, but it wasn’t easy. It was another 5.5 miles to the next aid station and the hills were either more numerous than I remembered or they just seemed harder on worn out legs. Mentally I was also beginning to fade again.
I ran into the Rattlesnake aid station (mile 83.5) and didn’t even recognize it even though I had been there early in the race. I saw my crew, refueled, and then asked my wife which way I was supposed to go.
“You go back out the way you came, remember?” she sounded concerned and later admitted that this was the first time she was legitimately worried, not only about my finishing, but my general well-being. It was the last time I would see her before the finish. She secretly feared I wouldn’t make it. Not that I was physically unable, but that mental fatigue might lead me off course or physical exhaustion would cause a fall and I might injure myself.
“Sure you’re okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m good.” And I believed it. I believed there was absolutely no chance of me not finishing. I was still even considering the idea of finishing sub-24 hours.
I still thought it might be possible when I ran into the Horseshoe Bar aid station (mile 86.5). I had been on course for 20:51:04. At that point I was in 91st place. A 24 hour finish seemed possible.
But I’d forgotten one very important detail: The Meat Grinder
A notorious three mile long section of trail that included several short, but very steep hills, lots of step-ups and step-downs that drained your legs and stressed your knees. This is probably the most technical section of the entire race. It was on this section that my dream of finishing in less than 24 hours was finally driven out my head entirely. This section, a mere three miles, felt like an eternity.
And the miles after the Grinder were not kind either. The trail twisted and turned and turned and twisted until I was sure that I had gotten lost and run an extra loop. Haven’t I run down this little rocky hill once before? The trail turned right and then right and then right and then right again…surely I’m lost, running in circles…but no, there’s another marker hanging in that tree.
I grew frustrated. Angry. I was tired and I just wanted to be done. It was 9.5 miles between aid stations, but felt like a hundred all on its own.
When I finally arrived at the Granite Beach, the last aid station, (mile 95) I knew I was toast. In fact, I thought I had been out on the Grinder so long that I was now looking at more than 25 hours. Maybe even 26. I’d been reduced to a walk for what seemed like hours.
But I wasn’t dejected or discouraged. Just tired. I was going to finish. I was going to do this.
I took a moment to admire the disco-theme of that final aid station. The volunteers were rocking some crazy costumes. They looked even more exhausted than I did, but they were still friendly and helpful.
I was grabbing some Jolly Ranchers and getting ready to head out when a kid came running into the aid station, following by his mom. Yeah, you read that right, a kid. This maybe 10 year-old was pacing his mom in a 100 mile race at four in the morning. And not only that, but he had been pacing her for at least the last 12.5 miles! How freakin’ cool is that?
I smiled, popped a Jolly Rancher in my mouth, and headed out of there. Five miles to go.
Not long after leaving Granite Beach, I got a text from my wife: “How are you? We are on our way to see you at the FINISH 😍😜😀”
I wish I could say that text really energized me. I wish I could say I flew the last five miles. I wish I could say I basked in the glory of my achievement, that the understanding that I would indeed finish burbled up in me causing the kind joyous laughter and tears I’d experience in other races.
But none of that happened.
The last five miles were just hard. I pushed myself to run as much of it as possible, stopping to walk only when the trail became a steep climb. I trudged. Weary, but determined, ever closer to the point when I could finally stop. And that’s all I wanted, I wanted to stop. I wanted to be finished.
And then I heard a voice yelling encouragement through the deep darkness, “You’re almost there! Just run across this dam and you’re home free!”
The anger and frustration that had been building all melted away in that moment, everything negative was gone. I was suddenly empty. Drained. Depleted. Exhausted.
But I ran on. I crossed that dam, made one last left turn, dropped down a short hill and it was over.
Somehow I made a little jump across the finish line, accepted my medal, my buckle, my finisher’s jacket.
I heard my name announced over the loudspeaker.
A man shook my hand and said, “Welcome to the 100 mile club, Jeff.”
24 hours, 14 minutes, 31 seconds
14:33 per mile
83rd place overall
30th age group
430 people signed up to race
166 were running their first 100 miler
297 finished before the 30 hour cutoff