Our official start time was 4:00pm. The race was held at Hell Creek Ranch, Pinkney, MI, on a course that varied among single track, rail trail, and horse trail with terrain that included rocks, sand, gravel roads, dirt roads, and what would soon become mud pits. It was a 15.5 mile loop and since 100k is 62 miles, it took four reps of the loop to complete the race. This was not only my first 100k, but it was the first one done almost completely in the dark. It was a hot afternoon and the energy was high. Sixty runners started the rain-soaked race, and 42 finished it. I’m proud to say, I was one of them.
It’s really hard to put into words exactly how it felt to reach the finish line. I don’t think I could ever describe what the mind and body actually endure in such circumstances, but I’ll try.
I have to start with how I got to this point first.
Now that you understand what it took to prepare and SHOW UP on race day, let me take you through running this course. Luckily for me, my parents live only 25 minutes from the start line, so my father and I leisurely arrived Friday afternoon to set up camp and prepare my gear. We went through the logistics of each lap, what I would need when, where my extra clothes and fuel were located, and how we would communicate. My dad would become a direct link to my success. He was my entire crew, cheering section, and #1 fan!
The 100 mile and 100k runners started together. Like I typically do, I went out fast and completed my first loop in three hours flat. My watch said the course was just over 16 miles, not 15.5. That may not seem like much, but when you are running 62 miles, you will want to be done at 62 miles, and not one step farther.
Anyway, I felt amazing on the first loop, but I wouldn’t see that kind of speed again. It was okay, though, because my strategy for this run was to run what my body gave me. That meant, I would need to listen and be fully aware of everything it was telling me. It said run fast in the first loop, so I did. I wanted to SEE the entire course before it got dark. I wanted to familiarize myself with the surroundings and the aid stations.
Coming out of the first loop, I cooled off with these amazing ice towels they had because the heat and humidity made it very uncomfortable. My dad was there waiting to restock my fuel and hydration bag. I’m a light eater when I run. I’ve learned that although I have a stomach made of steel, when it comes to eating and running at the same time, eating too much or not the right types of food, slows me down and often leaves me feeling sluggish. So, for this race I went with my usual:
It was 7:00 pm when I started loop two, and would likely take me 3.5 hours. My dad handed me my hat and headlamp. In a knee jerk reaction, I also asked him if I could take his mini J5 tactical flashlight, you know, “Just in case.”
Good thing. Only 2 hours later my headlamp died! I would have been in complete darkness without the little torch.
The second loop would prove to be a challenging one. Having never really trained in the dark, I wasn’t prepared for that type of experience. It’s hard to explain, but imagine being dropped in a forest, at night, with no one around, and navigating a trail with a spotlight on your head. Not only that, but it’s hot, humid, and the bugs are making sure you know you are in THEIR territory, not the other way around.
As I made my way to the half-way point, I texted my dad that I was incredibly uncomfortable. I asked if he could have a “few” things ready for me because I wanted to take a quick shower at the half-way point. Yes! I was dead serious and luckily for me, there were campground showers at the start/finish line.
Between the heat, humidity, sunscreen and bug spray, I felt absolutely covered in grease. DISGUSTING. A shower would solve that problem, but before I could get one, I would have to experience my first major issue.
When my headlamp battery died and I was left out in the pitch black forest where lions, tigers and bears live. I started imagining all sorts of heathen beasts tracking me through the forest. When I say it was pitch black, I mean I couldn’t even see the brim of my white hat. So, what does one do when something like this happens?
- You text your lifeline. Help me, Dad!
- You remember the mini-tactical light you grabbed “just in case” which is not easy to run with as your main source of lighting, but it did its job. And it had a powerful beam. Get one!
I made my way to the next aid station where my dad was waiting for me. We switched out our headlamps and I set out to finish loop two. The shower and the beasts were my motivation!
I finished the second loop feeling very strong but with a few challenges along the way, it took me 50 minutes longer than the first loop. As I came out of the aid station, I saw my dad was there, waiting for me with all my gear so I could strip everything off and literally do a complete wardrobe change. I took a shower, changed my clothes, switched out my compression sleeves, socks, and shoes and swapped out my Camelbak for a handheld bottle made by Amphipod. The break took me 30 minutes, but it was worth every minute. I had to do it if I was going to finish. I was transformed.
Since I decided to use my handheld hydration bottle, I had to leave my phone behind which made me very nervous. It was my sole source of communication with my dad, but I had nowhere to put it and the Camelbak was starting to put a strain on my back. It started to sprinkle but I didn’t even notice it.
About ten minutes into loop three, the skies opened up and it began to pour rain.
It’s approaching midnight.
I’m in the woods.
I have run 32 miles.
I have 32 miles to go.
The only thing I didn’t grab was my brand new Outdoor Research Helium II rain jacket. Man. Wouldn’t that have been nice?!
From the start I knew this was going to be an interesting loop. A lot could happen at this point in the race and how I decided to handle it would determine my ability to reach the finish line. I started out slow trying to navigate the ground with the rain. I found the rain to be both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because it cooled me down. As the temperature fell, my breathing improved, and with better breathing, I became a stronger runner. The rain was a curse because the course would soon turn into a mud pit, and with falling rain, I started to hear things in the woods which would startle me more than once!
I found myself thinking, “I hope that isn’t an animal, or worse, a person, trying to get me!” I’m not kidding, either. When you are 40 miles into a race, and its dark, and you are by yourself, your mind starts to wander. I was staring straight into a Criminal Minds episode.
I was starting to get tired. Not physically tired, but that ‘if there were a bed at an aid station I’d have probably laid my ass down’ kind of tired. Luckily, there were no beds but there were PRINGLES. You know, the “Once you POP! You can’t STOP!” potato chips? That’s right! They became my sole source of nutrition for the last 25 miles. At each aid station I would grab four plain Pringles and two cups of water. To this day, I believe that choice, while not my typical preference, helped me finish this race. Sometimes it pays to listen to your body.
As I left the 8-mile marker aid station, heading into the back half of the third loop, I caught a second wind. I’m not sure if it was because I was sleep running the first half or if it was because I thought something was chasing me in the woods, but I started running faster. Either way, I was running about two minutes faster per mile than I had the previous ten miles. That’s a lot of speed when you are at a point in a race where you are literally anticipating a major crash or hitting the wall that most runners experience. At a point where I thought things would unravel, I was incredibly encouraged by the fact that I felt very much in control. Not only that, but my energy was about to improve!
As I turned the corner to finish the third loop at 4:00am, I had a huge rush of excitement because I KNEW I was going to finish the biggest race of my life. I knew because my dad was geared up and ready to pace me through the last lap! Seeing him standing there gave me the final push I needed to go out and finish this thing, even if it meant I had to walk. I was going to finish and the only thing that was slowing us down was the rain!
It was raining so hard and my body temperature was dropping quickly. Luckily, my dad grabbed that pricey rain jacket I had and it was time to test it out. I’m happy to report, it did its job and was worth the price. That said, it didn’t protect me from the inevitable “crash.” It crept in like a lion stalking its prey, ready to pounce with ten miles to go. I was running as fast as my dad was walking. Each blink I took lasted at least 5 seconds. Fatigue was setting in and every time I gathered the strength to say something, my dad would break the silence with a few words of encouragement.
“You’re doing great, Bug.”
It never failed. I would hear those words at the right time, every time, because only my dad would know when I needed it the most. He gave me the motivation to keep moving forward and with 4 miles to go, I caught a third wind.
Is there such a thing?
Anyway, I grabbed my last four soggy and stale Pringles, and turned to my dad and said “let’s go! I’m ready to finish this thing.” We turned and entered the last and final stretch. Only this time, I would take off running, slowing down only when I encountered a group of 5k runners that were heading for the same finish line on a different course. I was quickly reminded what a pair of fresh legs looked like. It looked NOTHING like a pair that had been running sixteen hours. As they were jumping and gliding over mud stacked roots and rocks, I was delicately lifting my leg over them as if they were fallen tree trunks blocking my right of way. Never mind, though; I was less than a mile out and could taste the sweet victory.
If you have ever run a “1st time” race, whether it was your first 5k, first half marathon, first marathon, or first ultra, you will know exactly how I felt turning the final corner and seeing the finish line. My body was numb, my hearing started to fade as if I had just plunged under water. My heart was beating out of my chest, and my eyes started to glaze over with a thick layer of tears. I felt my hands trembling and remember mumbling the words under my breath…
“I fucking did it!”
Not only that, but I finished 16th out of 60 runners, 6th out of 25 women, and 2nd in my age group! With a time of 16:28:29 which included a nice cool shower, I was more than happy, I was ECSTATIC!!