Some Photos Modified from: T. Bushey
70 hours in...Brad and I having a good ol' time
Usually I will start a report off chronologically and begin by retelling the story of my race prep or of my pre-race routines. Not this time though.
Somewhere, at some point deep into the final night at "3 Days", I had finally reached that point that I so long for...that state of existence so indescribable to others. I had my head down, desperately trying to finish the last loop I had told myself I would do before hitting my tent for a nap....loop 222. I was fighting every ounce of my being to stay awake, and my walking had become a bit drunkard in fashion. I just had to make it that final 1/4 mile to my tent and then I would have earned my rest. Marylou passed me and asked if I was ok. I grunted something audible and somehow got out the words "tent" and "nap". She made me focus and asked if I would set alarms. I grunted again, but then somehow immediately flashbacked to last year's fiasco when I slept through them all on the final night. I looked up at her with what little energy I had, and during a tiny moment of clarity, asked her to shake my tent if she didn't see me on the course in 2 hours. This simple sentence would later save my run. I put my head back down and was immediately out-of-focus again. Marylou jogged on ahead. My walk turned into a shuffle, and I could feel myself falling asleep standing up just a few hundred feet from my tent. I drifted into oblivion while standing.
But then I felt someone grab my arm. It was Marylou again. She had turned around, saw me fading and had come back to pull me to my tent. I could barely speak as I was now going on about 64 hours with about 2 hours of sleep. She guided me to my tent by my arm as though I was blind man, and I fumbled my way up the grass somehow setting 4 alarms in the haze of it all on my phone. It wouldn't matter though as I would turn all 4 off as soon as the first one went off 2 hours later. (I have no memory of doing this). I was asleep before I got my shoes off.
What seemed like moments later, I hear the zip of my tent fly, and a soft voice saying, "John. Are you up? It's been 2 hours and I haven't seen you". It was Marylou, coming to my rescue yet again. I felt only slightly rested, but well enough to get up and get moving again. I was on pace to break my mileage from last year, and I wanted to break it by at least 10 and hit the low 240's. Marylou was gone as though she was a ghost, and I never saw her until a few loops later. I very slowly made my way around the loop, waking up, allowing my achy bones and joints to suss themselves out, and then rewarded myself with a large hot coffee and mouthful of brownies. Breakfast of champions. Two loops later I would finally see Marylou and give her an enormous hug, thanking her for saving my race. I still owe her big time for that one.
Early on during day 1
I have many times thought about it, that feeling I get late into these endeavors....especially when reminiscing about my thru-hikes or say the final descent down Chimney Top at Barkley, but it is such an elusive feeling that I find myself tripping over my own words when trying to tell others of it, or even remembering the specifics. Even as I write this text now, I find myself trying to remember it almost as a dream after having just woken up.
There comes a point for me during these ridiculous things that I do, when I am reduced to my absolute identity (for a lack of a better way to describe it). I guess in some way I find that I am like many others in that I am collection of multiple layers. An onion, a russian nesting matryoshka doll, or whatever other metaphor you want to use. I am the sum of all of these layers upon layers, that have grown and evolved over time through my experiences. Together, these layers comprise the totality of who I am, what others know me as. But, at the very base, at the core beneath the mantle beneath the crust, there is the base layer...the innermost me, as it were. It is in these rare and fleeting moments of utter exhaustion, sleep-deprivation, and internal exploration that this fundamental "me" finally may surface and is exposed. Those few other runners who may speak to me during those times, will see me and know me, as very few ever have, or ever will. It is an incredibly surreal and almost liberating feeling to exist in this state, even for such short periods of time. All the proverbial layers are stripped away, and I can simply be my true self. It is really magical and I find that when it is all over, and days later (such as now), that it often brings a sadness to me. I want to find myself in that state again, but I cannot simply will it to happen. Perhaps that is why I keep going back to these ultra events. I pine for those few moments of self-clarity like I had during Vol State, or Barkley, or my thru-hikes. Moments when simply opening my eyes, and breathing in the air, can give me goose bumps.
Like I said, this is all very hard to verbalize, and I imagine by now it seems as though you are reading some Undergrad philosophy major's pseudo-self-transcendental rant on existentialism or some nonsense. I can assure you...that whatever it is, it is beyond description and the clarity I achieve is worth all of the pain I may go through.
The final morning would progress well, the sun would rise and wake me up further, and then the hours would tick down to the final few. At some point with about 70 minutes left, I decided to put on my favorite running music and was overcome with a burst of emotion. I ran hard for all 70 minutes getting in 3 more miles than I thought I would giving me a total of 246 at the Finish Line. I ended up running one entire lap with Joe Fejes...which in itself was quite surreal, and then 4 of my last 5 laps with Marylou. I watched her top 271, breaking her own Canadian Record by another 5 miles. I pushed out one final 9-minute mile by myself coming in with less than a minute left on the clock. When it was finally over, I was entirely depleted and would not have wanted to run another loop.
Whatever pain I feel today, whatever hardships I will endure tomorrow....it was all worth it for that lucidity I was able to achieve late into my third night.
Marylou and I finishing a quick lap together late on Sunday morning
Backing up a bit....
While my numbers certainly indicated a better running than last year, the weather was most certainly worse. Thursday, while dry, was ridiculously humid....and it rained for nearly 12 hours on Friday. Saturday was much improved, but only the last morning (Sunday), was truly perfect weather. The humidity on Thursday didn't really hit me too hard, but the rain on Friday was downright miserable. It was so hard to stay motivated during the downpours because all day the rain would tease us into thinking it was done, only to open up again and re-soak us all. Keeping up on chafing protection was a challenge, and we were all constantly pushing each other to get up and get out there. Still many of us lost precious hours of time by sitting out the rain, and the inclement weather likely cost the quick guys their chance at breaking the 48-hour record too. But despite this, people like Marylou were still able to top 271 and set a new Canadian record, and Joe Fejes managed 230 in the 48 (7th place on the all-time list).
Last year I did 95 miles on day one, and then 70 and 66 the following two days. This year I told myself I wanted to get closer to 100 on that first day to build a slightly better cushion. I knew I could run 100 comfortably in 24 hours on a relatively flat course. I had done 114 back in November at the One-Day as well. This would allow me to plan for roughly equivalent days 2 and 3, and come out near 240 miles total if all went right. But as I knew (along with many others), many things can go wrong, and any plan that I came up with had to just be a template....that would likely be altered many times as the days progressed.
Day 1 started well. I got a good night sleep the previous night, had a hearty dinner of pancakes and eggs at the local greasy-spoon diner with fellow runner Jim Lampman, and was all ready to get some miles under my feet. I was a little worried about muscle fatigue as I had run a rather fast-paced 12-hour event last weekend (Mind the Ducks) and pushed out a respectable ~73 miles. I had only run a short 3 mile recovery jog since then though and given my legs 4 solid rest days to recover. I was ready as I would ever be I had figured.
I made the rounds, saying hi and catching up with friends. At 9:00 am we were off and I settled into a smooth and very comfortable 9:30 minute-mile jog. I figured I could easily maintain this for a long while. I had just sort of told myself I wanted to get through as many of the early miles as I could before really breaking or resting for any significant amount of time. I knew I'd eat a bit, stop for salt, stop for bottle refills etc, but no big rests. All morning and into the afternoon I plugged away, maintaining sub 10-min mile pace. When I crossed 19 miles I got to stop and ring my 250th mile bell. Because I had accrued 231 miles last year, this meant I now had 250 total miles on the course. The next big milestone would be at 500...which I would most certainly not achieve this year. When I finally hit 50 miles, I still felt fantastic and was pleased my body was holding up well. The humidity was high, so I was stopping for water a lot, but I hadn't once checked the leaderboard. The real race doesn't even begin until the 2nd night in my mind, so there's no sense in getting worked up on stats. My only concern was 240 miles in 72 hours, and 100 the first 24.
My station set up in the same spot as last year
My sheltered tent spot up behind a nice tree
Before dark I was well into my 60's and was prepping for my first night out on the course. By this point I was giving myself short sit breaks every ten miles (which had started at 50). This allowed me little mental breaks to look forward to, and time for me to elevate my feet. I had told myself I would start elevating my feet earlier this year. Getting through the first 100 is mentally tough when you know you are shooting for 200+. There's just something about knowing you are over 100 that makes the miles come easier. It's almost as though 0-100 are the preface in a novel you are really excited to read. You just want to get to the good stuff, but have to get through the front-matter first, in a sense.
The night went by rather quickly though, and the miles racked up. I was still on pace to make my 100, and by this point I had instituted little walking break sections along the course. Walk to the bathroom, run the loop and straightaway, walk the little hill up to the big loop, run the big loop to the 2nd cone, walk to the gravel...etc......." Each lap was taking about 11-12 minutes now, which was perfectly fine with me. At one point I had glanced at the leaderboard and did see I was somewhere in the top 5, but again wasn't really worried about it. A lot would change.
I made sure to talk to as many people as possible while I was still cogent and in high spirits. I wanted to take in as many stories from fellow runners as I could. I obviously caught up a lot with friends like Dave Lettieri, Melissa Huggins, Brad Compton, and Jim Lampman, but I also made sure to say hi to new folks and random people I had never met before. I wanted to learn about people's goals for the weekend, and their motivation for doing the event. And I wanted to laugh and smile a lot .... which I was. It was already turning out to be a great weekend.
As the sun came up on the second morning, my mileage was in the 90's, but I hadn't really slept yet. At 9:00 when the 48-hour runners started, and my first day ended, my odometer rolled over to 104 miles and I was content to sit in Dave's reclining chair for a 30-45 minute power nap. I had achieved my goal of 100 miles. Things were going well. The nap was entirely too short, but I told myself I wouldn't take more than 45 min sleep breaks until the final night. I got up slowly and stiffly, walked over to the kitchen and put as much food and coffee in me as I could. It would take me a loop or two of walking to warm back up and get my running legs back on.
As I passed Keith Straw's tent, I saw he was tearing it down. I was sad to learn he had decided to go home and that the multi-day venue wasn't for him. He is always a fantastic individual to have on course and chats with him will most certainly leave you smiling or laughing.
Then the rains came.
Day 2 is notoriously the roughest in most people's opinions. You are deep in the mid-section of the race, not half-way yet, but with many miles already under your feet. It's equivalent to mile 120 at Vol State. You feel like you've come so far, but yet have an impossible way to go yet. With the rain, it would only be harder. I turned to my ipod for solace and began listening to a lot of music. I need as many distractions as possible, and a lot of people weren't out on the course. I layered up in rain gear and began slogging wet mile after wet mile. Every ten miles I would gloriously sit under my dry canopy and enjoy a beautiful rest. I would frantically check my phone's weather apps to see how much longer the front would be dumping rain on us and it always seemed to be in the same place. No matter how much time passed, the rain just kept coming. It was extremely demoralizing. The 48-hour runners were powering through it, but even the fast guys weren't doing as well as they would have liked. Still, with all this said, everyone was still making miles one at a time....even if slow, and that's all that matters. Forward progress.
The mid-100's were endless, and my 10-mile breaks seem to take hours and hours. I was walking a lot at this point and taking short rain breaks under the main pavilion. I even took another 20 minute power nap in Dave's chair at one point as well. Reports finally started coming in at dinner time that the rains would stop around 10 pm. By this point I was at about 150 miles and ready to sleep for real, but decided to push on to 160. It was a very long 10 miles, and by the last 5, I was beginning to stagger quite a bit. At 160, I walked up to my tent, and took my first real nap of the race....setting 4 alarms. Immediately my hips began screaming at me and I couldn't get comfortable. When I finally did get into a position that worked, it seemed only moments later my alarms were screaming at me. I had slept almost an hour, although it only seemed like 2 minutes. I got up and walked a couple of slow miles to get warmed up, noting that the rain had finally indeed stopped. I could even see a few stars. I had hoped to get to 180 by the 48-hour mark. In the end, I hit 177 (or 178?) as the 2nd day ended, so was content. I was getting quite fatigued by this point and I was trying to mentally prepare myself for the 3rd day...a day notoriously filled with a lot of power hiking....and not much true running.
Day 3 last year I hit my 200 miles sometime right around sundown. This year, I had 12 hours and just 22 miles to make that same milestone. I knew I was well ahead of the pace, I just needed to keep moving. The day would prove to be long. Despite a whole slew of new runners on course (24-hour runners, 12-hour runners, and 6-hour runners), I was in a constant battle with fatigue. There comes a point when losing time to some much-needed sleep actually ends up making you faster in the long run....because walking while extremely exhausted is just so darn slow. I plodded out many a slow mile, but finally creeped up on 200 around 5 pm. When I did eventually hit it, I decided that in a tribute to last year I'd walk one additional mile before taking a long break. This way, I'd have 201 in case for some reason I couldn't get back up. Unlike last year, there was no fanfare associated with my 200. I simply ran it alone, popped across the timing mat and Rick announced "200 John! Nice!!". Just like that, I was in the 2's again. I had just 31 miles, a 50k, to tie my miles from last year, and over 15 hours to do it. I felt pretty confident I'd hit 240, but was still cautious about my optimism.
It was at some point around here that I finally started checking in on the leaderboard regularly. I was surprised to learn I was holding a solid 2nd place standing. Most people had shifted around quite a bit, several were lost to the rain and sleep...and others were plugging along steadily, climbing ever-so-slowly up the board. The 48hr speed runners were all off record pace now, although Joe was still putting up ridiculous miles and would most certainly top 200.
I was already starting to think about sleep again, but desperately wanted to get up to at least 220 and a good ways into the night. I didn't want to have too many dark/cold hours after waking up before the sun would rise. Getting to 210 was ok, but it was around mile 211 that I finally found myself descending into the abyss and when my final "layer" came off. For 10 lonely and peaceful miles I trotted around the course in a rather surreal state of existence. I had finally found that feeling again and it was magical. I enjoyed every second of it knowing that it would be fleeting and could fade at any moment. I had decided that my goal mileage would be 242. It seemed like a good random number. This meant I wanted to get to 222 before sleep so that I'd have an even 20 left to do. It seemed totally reasonable in my head at mile 216 when I came up with it. The problem was that the next 6 miles would be the longest of my entire life. It's funny how a 10k can seem like an eternity, when I'm running 200+ miles. Each mile was slow and extremely labored as I became more and more exhausted. People would try to talk to me and I would only make a soft and abbreviated noise in response. I was incapable of true speech. I had one runner ask me if I wanted her to walk with me to keep me awake, I grunted out, "i'm ok", and she ran ahead. At mile 220 I truly did not believe I'd make another two miles. I drank a little coffee and sat on a bench not sure I had 2 more miles in me. I got up convinced that I would just walk to my tent and surrender 2 miles early, but when I got there, I was so out-of-phase, that I literally forgot to stop. Soon I was halfway around the loop before I realized I passed my tent. I finished 221 and said well shoot, I can tough out one more, no?
It was mile 222 that would herald in my complete collapse...and where this race report began. Thankfully, moments before my demise, Marylou rescued me....twice.
The final morning was cathartic. The first few miles after my 2 hour sleep went by quickly and before long the sky began to lighten up. I hit 231 miles very early and celebrated my first few steps out onto mile 232 as new ground. Each new mile was now uncharted territory for me and I was thrilled to get in as many as I could. Brad Compton (Fellow Vol Stater), who had been down in 5th or 6th place for most of the race, and steadily moved himself up to a solid 3rd place just 15 miles behind me. He exemplified the slow-and-steady adage, by plugging away consistent miles with minimal sleep. With about 70 minutes left in the race I finally hit 240 miles and let out a hearty yelp of excitement. I knew I would also hit my random goal of 242. It was then that I put on my favorite tunes and starting running. I had originally planned on simply hitting 243 by walking in 3 slow miles, but I decided that was no way to end an event like this. I wanted to end like last year. I hitched on to Joe Fejes for a mile and it got me fired up as I ran an entire mile at his pace. It was a blast. Then at the end of the loop I caught up to Marylou and we ran 4 miles together. It was probably my favorite miles of the entire race. I had great music blasting, goose bumps for all 45 minutes of it, and an enormous smile going. It was bliss. During our last mile together we had just over 20 minutes left at the finish. I told her I was going for 2 more and she said that she wanted to just do an easy-paced victory lap. She had earned it for sure...as it would be a total of 271 miles and an outright win. I burned on ahead finishing my 245th mile in just over 10 minutes and went on to push for that last mile of 246.
I looked behind me and there was no one. I would be at the very end and I needed to keep it moving or I wouldn't make it. My entire body was aching and I had to stop for short walk breaks...but by the half-way point of the loop I still had 6 minutes left. I knew I would make it. Dave Lettieri shot out of nowhere pulling out a 6:30 loop and passed me in the final few hundred yards. I smiled as my watch counted down the final two minutes and I rounded the corner crossing the final timing mat with 30 seconds to spare and 246 miles under my very sore legs.
I collapsed on the ground for a very long time with an enormous grin on my face. It was all worth it. I had bested my previous run by 15 miles and nearly achieved 250 total (perhaps a goal for next year...)
Many thank to Rick and Jennifer (and all the volunteers) for this great event, and allowing all of us to come out and find each of our own little moments of clarity.
My 2nd place prize and 250-mile coin
Napping...feet-up, at a rest-stop on the interstate drive home
Sunset over Seneca Lake just before getting home
Day 1: 104
Day 2: 72
Day 3: 70
Total 246 miles.
3rd place overall, 2nd men (Darren Worts had 254 Miles)
Lifetime Miles at 3 Days: 477 Miles (Just 23 more for my 500 coin!)
More photos and detail to come as they become available.
hike on my friends,