The reunion began on race eve, when we poured into Marsh Landing, a local Fellsmere restaurant, to pick up our race numbers. I had a long and intense work week, and something about driving up late on a Friday afternoon knowing that my weekend would involve no sleep and completing a 100 miles was not the most appealing thought. And yet seeing all of the familiar faces huddled around the table that night—the camaraderie, the good cheer, the heightened energy of the runners—my mood shifted. This was going to be fun. This was what I had signed up for – a 100 miles to figure out my life. This is what I needed: a 100 miles to go through heaven and hell, a 100 miles to be with nature and for fun and games with one of my best buddies.
Loop 1 – Miles 1-25: Why oh why
It was drizzling early Saturday morning. The forecast had called for rain, and having run a number of ultras in torrential downpour, dismayed and yet hopeful, I had succumbed to Mother Nature: what would be, would be. I was thrilled to see so many friendly faces at the race start: Jodi Samuels, Bambi, Melanie, Zsofia, Wayne & Cheryl, Bob Becker. Right before the non-chalant you-are-about-to-kill-yourself countdown for the race began, I hugged my dad, told him to have fun, and we were on our way. The first few miles passed as they always do for me in a 100 miler: there’s panic, then there’s the am I really doing this phase, followed by the why am I doing this again phase, following by the realization that 100 miles is a long way to go. By mile 5, fatal nausea had set in for me. I would like to say this was a first, but actually it seems to happen to me pretty often in ultras. I could tell this would be a difficult-to-get-food-down ultra from early on. Which was the case until somewhere between 10 and 12 miles, when I started to feel better and by mile 20, I was in high spirits, full of determination and had claimed my I’m- in-it-until-the-end attitude.
I was sweat soaked early on, so that I felt as if I had climbed out of a swimming hole. At first, I thought something was fatally wrong with me, until at AS 4, around 17 miles in, I noticed that all of the other runners were drenched, too. Someone mentioned the humidity and lack of wind and I realized, right, it’s actually pretty sticky out. The amazing crew at AS4 saved me early on in this race when I could not get any food down: Haley handed me some baby food in a squeeze pouch and instantly, I went from depleted to functional. For the rest of the race, I would stick to baby food, vegan treats, and maybe 3 gels total.
This was the race of the snake, as in slimy, slithery creatures cutting through the trail. First there was one little black and yellow snake, and as the race progressed, there were many: big fat black snakes, and a coral snake. Chip used his Tennessee childhood experiences of picking up the snakes on sticks and sending them far and away into the wild weeds, perfectly situating them for unsuspecting runners who were likely to go out to the weeds to take a bathroom break.
During this loop Chip had his trail acting debut, dramatizing a scene from a movie for me over and over, until I told him it was actually making me feel more nauseous. Then there were the few random gunshots, as in hunters out there on the trail were likely taking aim to put us runners out of our misery. Luckily for us, that was the only time we heard those gunshots in proximity. We would live to make it to the next loop. During this first loop we became fixated on Jenny, I Got Your Number, as in 867-5309, and sang it again and again, dramatizing certain parts of the song in a way that was only typical of long-run insanity. Then there was the infamous p-cup, which only those who intercepted us on the trail and Chip shared the story with will know about. The good news is that we ditched the p-cup at some point, leaving it on the trail (in a garbage bag).
The entire beginning struggle seemed to be a thing of the past as we approached the end of the first loop, which I knew for me, was going to be the most difficult loop. Once I commit in an ultra, I commit till the end, but until that mental shift sets in, my mind is not always happy with me. Then we were at 25 miles, only the loop didn’t seem to end until a little ways after that, and then finally, life was looking up: one loop down, only three more to go.
Loop 2 – Miles 25- 50: Approaching halfway
I’ve gone over the demographics of this course before – likely in my race report from last year–but I’ll divert to go through them again. There’s a reason that this race has so few 100 mile finishers (11 this time around), and it goes something like this: uneven terrain for the first 5 miles, followed by sand imported from Mars for a few miles (Mars sand is an optical white tint, with black flecks throughout it, reminiscent of tar, with random high weeds and sometimes mud or grass spurts in it; Mars sand is not the same as sugar sand, but sometimes it overlaps with sugar sand), followed by uneven soil trail that makes you dart from side to side, followed by high grass that has a hay quality to it, so that you feel as if you are trudging forward, but not getting far; followed by pure Mars sand (this is all optical white), followed by weedy trail, leading out to Mars sand (sugar sand style) mixed with grass, followed by grassy trail, to a small mud crossing on a log, leading to uneven trail, back to pure Mars sand, back to sugar sand, back to uneven grassy trail. Along the way there are wild hogs that sometimes dig holes for runners to bypass, slithering snakes, dashing deer and little hoppy frogs: 25 miles (plus a little more) Wild Sebastian style.
I felt great miles 30 through 50. I even told Chip at one point that I was feeling amazing: I was thrilled to be running, thrilled to be in an ultra, thrilled that I was out there on the course with so many folks whose company I enjoyed. It was during this loop that Suzanne Becker broke out the vegan fare and we hung out for a while (25 minutes), with her feeding Chip quesadilla’s, tofu and rice, tabuli on lettuce endlessly. Chip proved early on that he could easily win a food eating contest at a 100 mile race.
One of the highlights of this loop was intersecting with Melanie and Thomas. Melanie was going to be done at 50 miles, while Thomas was attempting his first 100 miler. Falling in line with them, we climbed on board Melanie’s 6 and 4 train: 6 miles jogging, 4 miles walking. We had employed this technique a few months back when a bunch of FUR ran from Miami Beach up to Deerfield Beach. I was a believer in 6 and 4. We shuffled along, talking and catching up on our lives along the way, enjoying the company. Then there was the pop tart wrapper incident: Melanie thought that she had dropped it from her knapsack’s trash compartment, and we spent some time backtracking for it. Later, after she had completed her 50 miles, she discovered that she had it with her all along: littering-the-course catastrophe averted.
When night fell and it was darkness all around us, Chip and I were compromised by having only one head lamp between us and a hand held flashlight that didn’t illuminate anything. I remember him and I talking about his leaving his headlamp at AS 3, which we would hit at mile 35 and again at 45 (it was where I left my headlamp), but somehow we had forgotten to make sure that his was there, too. We shuffled on, alternating jogging and walking and when we hit 50 miles, I felt hopeful and secure – finishing felt within our reach.
Loop 3 – Miles 50-75: When this is over, I will still have 25 more to go
After I visited with my dad, who was busy with his aid station duties, and I helped Chip with his brewing blisters and got his feet back in order, and waited for Chip for roughly 30 minutes at the start/finish area while he did a bit of this and that, not that I was clocking time, we started out this loop feeling great, optimistic, upbeat. Chip and I were jogging now that we had our headlamps on and were able to actually see the path. And in addition to headlamps, this was when we picked up our music: an Apple shuffle with a speaker, which meant that anyone and everyone around us got to partake in our makeshift concert/disco/sing-along. Thomas came along with us for a bit, but as Chip had decided to put down the hammer, taking 6 & 4 to the next level: 6 minutes of racing, followed by 4 minutes of speed walking at heart-pounding speed, after a few miles, Thomas told us that he couldn’t keep up, that we should keep going.
What goes up, must come down. And so was the case for me at mile 60, when I bottomed out. I was sleepwalking, could not imagine what would keep me awake, until Bambi, part of the FUR-tastic folks at AS 3, shared a Starbucks Expresso Shot with me. Instantly, I was giddy, high, ready to go. Life seemed wonderful, music, trail and all.
Some on the course say we played Daft Punk’s Get Lucky 38 times, others say it was more. The truth is that we lost count, but it was the song that we played over and over, to get us through the sleepwalking hours. At one point Chip jogged ahead to Milly and her pacer, Juan, and he and Juan boogied on through the trails, leaving Milly and I to laugh at their grooving silhouettes. The best news about our music was that the hogs did not seem to like our music choices, as they stayed away from us all through the night. Sorry to have missed you hogs!
My phrase of the race was calm it all down. As in, it’s time to calm it all down. At a certain point, I probably told Chip five times an hour that we needed to calm it all down, and it’s funny, as we couldn’t have been moving faster than 16 minutes an hour at certain points. But calming it all down was a way for us to catch our breathes (it’s true – you can actually get winded moving at 16 miles an hour in the middle of the night), and to get back to the comedy of what we were actually doing – making our way along a dark and lumpy trail in the middle of the night when most normal people were warm and safe in their beds, sleeping.
Our second time at AS 3 during this loop, I discovered an unknown treasure for ultra-runners: unreal bars. I ate a smushed one and marveled over how unbelievably delicious it was. Literally, it was unreal. Little did I know how lucky I was to enjoy and crave food at that moment, as hours later, food would once again become the enemy for me: thinking about it would set waves of nausea flowing through me.
On and on we went: jogging and walking and sleepwalking at times, talking about this and that, and that and this some more, not talking then singing along to the music and then dancing when a good song came on, and then talking a bit more and somehow, someway, we were almost back to the start/finish line. For all of the hardships of that third loop, for me, being out there with my buddy was such an amazing experience. Having trained with Chip for years as he accomplished ironmen events and I plugged away at the ultras, sharing the adventure of his first 100 miler with him made it so much more worthwhile to me.
Loop 4 – Miles 75-100: What goes up, must come down
It was daylight and my dad seemed to be happy and having a good time as aid station extraordinaire. That was the best I could say about loop 4. And the fact that I would be done with this ultra somewhat soon, if a 9 hour range could be considered somewhat soon. But I was closer to being done than I was to having started. Chip lingered at the start finish long enough (about 40 minutes), so that I was angry at him the first hour we were back out on the course. To make up for lost time, he decided that we needed to run for long stretches, which we did, silently, my plotting how I would get him back for a bit, until I got over it and was back in it with him.
25 miles left that far into the race was an incredibly long distance. It seemed impossible, and then there were the voices that told me that I didn’t have to do this – that there was not one reason that I had to finish this. That I was able to move my body seemed impossible to me. But, I reminded myself that I was more done than not. And I knew the course, but somehow knowing that course filled me with more trepidation than confidence: we had a long, long way to go. Mars and all.
Around mile 7 into this last loop, Chip’s triathlete buddies intercepted us on their mountain bikes. They stayed with us for a bit, taking in the course, enjoying the uneven terrain and sugar sand as their tires skidded on it. They were definitely boosts of energy to us; suddenly, Chip and I were able to pick up the speed, to make some progress, to move! We darted in and out of aid stations, kept ourselves going, even through the hay grass. As we passed through it that first half, I told Chip, “once more and we will never need to go through this again!” Joyful thoughts. Everything seemed to be going fine, great in fact, until around mile 90, when a fatal bout of nausea set in. It wasn’t about my stomach so much this time as it seemed to be about my head and vision: I was dizzy and things started to seem out of focus to me. Focusing on anything overwhelmed me. I was drinking enough, staying up on my hourly endurolytes. I was baffled: surely I had some fatal ultra running disease. I sat at AS 3 and complained to the sleep-deprived Sue Anger. I told her that I couldn’t go on, and then she reminded me that I had to, that I was almost done. I think she called Bambi over to go through the last 10 miles of the course for me, but it was too much for me to bear: I couldn’t deal with thinking about the miles ahead. Onward I went, the AS 3 angels rooting me on.
At mile 92, it was clear to me that 8 more miles to go can be a lifetime. I was walking real slow now, with Chip walking ahead of me. He kept looking back to make sure I was okay. I knew I was holding him back at this point, and that began to weigh on me, too. But my sickness took me hostage, and sometimes I didn’t care what was going on with Chip. I was nauseous and hot. Hot and nauseas. Baking. How didn’t everyone know that I was dying? These were my last few steps. I didn’t think I could go on. This was the death march for me at a whole new level. Dizzy, delirious and near tears. I remembered being happy once. I remembered enjoying running once. I remembered laughing a few hours ago. It was fascinating how quickly I could fall, how far.
And then, as if by a miracle, the last two miles, I was able to push again. Jogging and walking. Chip let me lead the way. If academy awards for perseverance and friendship and kindness were part of ultras, I would likely nominate everyone on the course for some award. This race, Chip won the kindness and friendship award: he didn’t say a word about my 8 miles of slow slogging and the minute I chose to push on again, he was at full speed, which made me know he had it in him all along to get it done. We jogged and walked and then at some point, I told Chip to go – that I had it, that I wanted him to sprint it in, and then he was off, and I stayed steady, every inch getting me closer to that incredible place: the finish line. 100 miles: done!
For me, these races are about living a life in a span of a day plus some hours. They are about laughter and friendship and hardship and sometimes pain. They are about knowing that you can push yourself when it seems impossible to keep going. With each race, it’s as if you learn a secret about yourself: that you can survive. You can persist. That you are stronger than you ever gave yourself credit for. That you actually do have the strength in you to keep going and pushing forward when it seems like every part of you is breaking. “When do you get to the other side of the pain?” Milly, a first time 100-miler asked me when we had about 11 miles to go. “You will get there,” I assured her. “It will happen.” It always does.