At Happy Days, I was surprised to find that Heather had not been by herself through the night. Instead of going back to a hotel bed to get her sleep, Michelle had opted to get to the next aid station with my sister and catch her forty winks in her car while they waited on me. She and Heather had been trying to keep track of my progress and when I called ahead, two miles out of the station, they both started to get really antsy.
Several runners passed me in those last 5 miles and one of them reported to the girls that I had been lying on my back on the ground when they saw me. They both started doing a lot of quick math in their heads. I still might get to Happy Days ahead of the cutoff, and then they’d have to see if they could patch me up enough to keep me going and take a shot at the next station 4.8 miles further down the trail.
They were trying to figure if there was any way I could possibly get to mile 75. However, I was just trying to figure if there was any way I could possibly get to mile 70. I found I was only able to keep going forward for two reasons: Heather was waiting for me at Happy Days, and Mike.
When I completed the Boston Store Loop, darkness had just begun to set in, and I was still losing time to the cutoffs (I was down to 1hr, 40min). The mole skin padding the podiatrist had glued on had helped a little, but by the end of the loop, every step burned with pain. I’d only been able to average a gentle walking pace on the loop.
Heather greeted my arrival with excellent news, though. She very excitedly informed me that Michelle’s friend Mike had decided to run with me from mile 60 until we met up with Michelle at mile 81, where they would trade off. He’d never paced anybody before, but wasn’t committed to running with anyone else, and rather than sit around with nothing to do, I think Michelle convinced him to head out with me.
They called Heather while I was out on the loop to let her know they were coming back so Mike could join me when I returned to Boston. Apparently, they arrived only a few minutes before I pulled in, dressed and ready to go. I was really happy to have some company. Truly, an unexpected gift. It says something about a person that they are willing to give up a weekend and run around in the woods with a complete stranger for 20 miles in the dark, and not get anything for it except some aid station food and an earnest “thank you.” I was to be the beneficiary of an uncommon kindness, not once but twice.
I had one bit of business to tend to before I was ready to leave Boston again. It was time for a wardrobe change. On Thursday before the race, I went out and bought myself a plain, yellow tech shirt. When I got home I pulled out a fresh black Sharpie and set about inscribing the front with a motto I’d come up with for myself as I considered the race in the weeks before: “I AM NOT TALENTED, BUT I AM STUBBORN.” Once I thought of it, I just felt really connected to that sentiment. I planned to save the shirt until the wee hours of the morning, pull it out when I really needed it, and wear it all the way to the finish line. It was earlier than I thought it would be in the race, but I needed it. I was thinking like this was my Superman suit and it was time to try ducking into the phone booth.
After that I was ready to go, and Mike and I got started. I apologized to Mike right at the start, telling him I knew he’d signed up to go for a little run, but the best I could offer him right then was maybe a brisk walk through the woods. We wouldn’t be moving along very fast, but we’d be moving.
I quickly found out that Mike had long been a runner, but he’d never done more that 8 miles at a pop until this year. He’d quickly gotten hooked on distance running, though, and was already making plans to do multiple marathons and ultras in the coming year. It also turned out, just a few weeks before, he’d run his only ultra on the very portion of the Burning River course that we were currently on.
He had bad news for me, though. A piece of this next 4 mile leg was littered with twisty, toe-stubbing tree roots. Once we got there it was even worse than I expected. There were no flat spots in the trail big enough to put my foot down into. Every step was into a nest of pine tree roots. Every couple of yards I was, literally, wincing and seizing my breath with pain as I inadvertently placed my blistered foot directly down onto a protruding root. It was like walking on a pit of spear tips.
That extra struggle zapped me of far more energy that I ever expected. I must have been running a little clinched for awhile already, especially once I started my Boston Store loop. The pain in my feet was making every part of me tight, as I gritted my teeth more and more and tried to run through the mounting irritation. It all had grown up so gradually that I hadn’t even noticed. I must have unconsciously adjusted my stride and my footfall as well, because I began to feel hot spots on both my heels, and I’ve never ever had any inkling of trouble with blisters on my heels before. The problems were mounting very quickly.
My pace slowed yet again to nearly 23 minutes per mile, and I found myself apologizing to Mike more than once for the lazy forward tempo. I fear my verbal output slowly began to resemble a stream-of-consciousness catalog of my worries and aches and pains. I hope that I sounded coherent, but suspect at times I did not.
Mike, though, was never fazed. If he was ever bored, concerned, annoyed or overly worried about me, he never showed it. We talked about most of the usual topics, running, races, work, school, girlfriends, more running, work, and so on. He graciously took my advice on a number of running and relationship topics. He laughed when I told him to just take one look at me for some anti-advice on the proper way to finish a 100-miler, and he wisely kept both of us talking at a steady, gentle clip so as to while away the hours.
By the time we reached Pine Lane Aid Station (Mile 64.7), I had officially run farther than I had ever run before. Other than that, though, the news wasn’t great. My legs and my knees were stiff and more swollen than I’d ever felt them. I felt like there were knives embed in the sole and heel of my right shoe and the left wasn’t too far behind. And I’d lost almost another half hour to the cutoffs. The toll it took on me to absorb the shocks of pain running up through my body with every footfall on the trail was more surprising that it should have been.
I leaned on a chair for a minute, but we managed not to linger at Pine Lane for too long before we headed out again. We were only 100 yards down the trail, though, when I suddenly came to a complete halt. All day long, no matter how I’d been doing, one simple given had been driving me forward. I was going to finish the race. I didn’t have to go fast, I just had to keep going. Through the speedy start, through the heat of the midday, on the monotonous Tow Path and the little mountain climbs, and even on blistering feet, I was just going to keep going. All I had to do was keep my legs moving and somehow I’d get there.
Just beyond Pine Lane AS, some 65 miles and 18 hours into my day, for whatever reason, something intangible just clicked. Deep down in the darkest and most stubborn parts of myself, I simply laid down my burden. I wasn’t going to finish, and it was okay, I didn’t mind. I just wanted the mercy of stopping, of sitting down and not needing to get up again for a very long time.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t just stop on the trail, I also turned my body around so it faced back off in the direction we’d just come from. I could just walk back, tell the station chief I was dropping, and then wait for a ride out. Mike waited for me silently – at least I don’t remember him saying anything. If for some crazy reason he had decided to hug me at that moment, I think something else in me would have released and I would have started sobbing with my exhaustion. (What a strange sight that would have been to come upon.) I think the entirety of my pause lasted 10 or 15 seconds, me slumped over, my hands on my knees… And then the other voice in my gut gently took over again and I turned and began moving forward on the trail again.
If Mike hadn’t been with me and I’d been alone, or if Heather had been at that Aid Station, I believe I’d have quit right then. I would have gone back. I would have given into the second voice. Instead, I never thought about going backwards again, and we pushed forward to Happy Days.
I’d like to say that the little revival of my spirits inspired a revival of my body as well, but that would be far from the truth. The bulk of the next 5.6 miles was on paved roads and paved bike paths, but the weary, burning wobble in my steps had progressed to the point that, at times, it was difficult for me to walk in a straight line. I eventually became so desperate to relieve the pressure of gravity from the bottom of my feet that on three different occasions, I did, indeed, stop to lie down on the ground. The problem was, even though I didn’t stay down too long, my legs grew stiff and throbbing and painful every time I stopped, such that the pain of stopping began to rival the pain of going.
Throughout it all, Mike remained the picture of encouragement and steady optimism, and without overdoing the sunny cheerleading. (Heather must have passed along my basic instructions.) I like to think that I impressed him in one way at least: I never lost my sense of humor. I never got angry or depressed. I never set off on an emotional rollercoaster. Even when I was lying on my back on the ground in pain, I was still cracking jokes with him and making him laugh with me.
I did though, keep talking about the time. About how far we must have come, how far we had to go, how long it might take us to get there and how that might play out in relation to the cutoffs. He listened to me talk about it over and over, until finally he said: “I think I’m going to take that watch away from you. All we need to worry about is getting to the next station, forget about the clock.” I understood his point very well, but there was something I needed to explain to him: “It’s a little like being stuck in a traffic jam – you look ahead of you and there’s no end in sight; it feels like you’re never going to get there. But if you turn around and look behind, you can see all the cars that are stuck behind you and how much ground you’ve covered that they haven’t. So long as I can see the time, and see that we have covered a lot of ground, that we are covering ground, then the next station will keep feeling like it’s getting closer, and I’ll be able to keep moving.” I don’t know if he believed me, but he didn’t argue.
I also started to tell him that, unless something dramatic changed soon, I didn’t think I’d be continuing on after Happy Days. And every time I said it, Mike gave the best answer: “Let’s just get you to the next aid station, ice you down, give you a break and then see how you’re feeling.” He never got upset with me. He never lost his patience. He never came out from under his calm demeanor. Whether he really did or not, he absolutely made me believe that he believed we’d be able to take a shot at moving on beyond Happy Days. If you ever find yourself being paced by this guy in the middle of the night somewhere, consider yourself lucky.
What it all really boiled down to was this: A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations. I’d simply found mine on that day – and had already pushed myself about 5 miles beyond them. I wasn’t going to be able to move fast enough to stay ahead of the next cutoff, and it was nearly 5 more miles to Pine Hollow, the next aid station at mile 75.1. It might take me another 2.5 hours to get that much further. The whole aid station crew might have been closed up and gone by that point. There was just no need. Now it really was time to lay down the burden.
It was Michelle that jogged out to greet us when Mike and I emerged from the trees. She and Mike both paced me in that final 100 yards to the aid station tent, and I did, indeed, muster a wobbly trot as a symbolic guesture as I crossed what would be my own, personal finish line at the 70.3 mile point.
Heather was waiting for me there. The three of them knew it might be over, but they were still moving around to prep me to go back out again. I gave Heather a hug, asked for the chair, and then officially let them all off the hook. “That’s it. I’m done.” And I sat down while a wave of joy and contentment washed over me. I have never been so satisfied with a failure in all my life.
I came to understand two things in the following day: It was the right thing to stop. The blisters were really bad, and they were very deep beneath the thickened skin on the bottom of my foot. They were, for me, an unforeseen complication, and being ignorant to the problem before the race, there was little I could do about them. In my relatively untrained state, I cannot say with complete certainty that I would have finished, but I do believe I would have gotten to mile 80 or 85, and after that, anything may have been possible.
The other thing was the way in which half a dozen people voluntarily took it upon themselves to be responsible for me, my sister, my race and my well being, most of them having been complete strangers before that weekend. Sean and Amy, who befriended us, asked my sister to join them for dinner between aid stations and then summoned a pacer for me in the night. Mike and Michelle who volunteered to run miles and miles with a man they’d never met, and then both lost sleep on the trail with me or sitting company with my sister in the dark while she waited nervously. (I should mention that neither of them left the Happy Days station until I was in the car with Heather on the way out. Another runner had passed through just before me, running alone in the night. I encouraged Michelle to head off after her and help her through, but Michelle insisted that I was still “her runner” and she didn’t plan on going anywhere until she was sure I was taken care of. Only after I was done and gone did she head out to catch up to that other runner.)
And most of all, my sister, who is, after all, my sister and perhaps on some level is obligated to help her big brother out in these ways when she can, but who nevertheless, didn’t hesitated once in any way, never gave me any friction, never complained about boredom, or all the waiting, and couldn’t have been a better support system for me through 70 miles, 20.5 hours, and beyond. Once I’d thrown in the towel, she drove us back to the hotel in the middle of the night, hauled all our bags back upstairs, fetched buckets of ice for me, even helped me into bed and tucked me in before I passed out. I could scarcely believe that I had ever entertained the notion that I would just come and run 100 miles alone. I absolutely COULD NOT have covered the distance that I did without all those friends I made, and certainly not without my sister.
Heather and I crawled out of bed the next morning just in time to head back to do the finish line to see the podiatrists one more time. As we drove into the finish area, just minutes before the final cutoff at 11:00am, we saw the last runner in the race crossing the street and heading to her finish line. Others were huddled and hobbling around the finish area, waiting for the awards ceremony to begin. (ALL of the finishers received their medals one at a time at the ceremony.)
I plopped down in an open chair at the podiatry tent and waited my turn. I felt a little strange there in the tent with several finishers, kind of like they deserved attention before me. A woman across from me looked really bad. I couldn’t tell, but it looked as though her pinky toe had somehow been sliced in half length-wise and was dangling by a piece of skin. I am NOT exaggerating.
When my turn came up, two of the volunteers set about snipping my blisters open and draining the fluid. Two on my right heel and then the massive one under the ball. It was as big as an old half-dollar coin, more than a third of the width of my whole foot. And it was very deep under the surface of my skin. It took the volunteer several minutes to finally make a cut with her scissor deep enough to reach the fluid and allow it to drain. Then, as she watched the volume of fluid escaping, she told me she had seen ER patients with puss-filled infections that hadn’t drained as much fluid as my blister did. (Just in case any of you still thought I was just being a wimp.) They also looked at the ball of my left foot and decided nothing was there, but it, too, was revealed the next day when it began to work its way to the surface. It was nickel-sized. That’s how deep each of the blisters had formed.
Heather went to fetch a little bit of food for us from the post-race brunch. She returned with other news, too: some of our new friends were settled on the edge of the awards pavilion. After I was bandaged and taped and said my thanks to the volunteers, we made our way down to say good morning to Amy and Sean. Amy was wearing a new ring on her finger.
“I heard that questions were asked and affirmations were uttered,” I said to them both with a big smile on my face. We all shook hands and I took a gander at that stand-in ring on Amy’s finger. Sean had finished the race after 28.5 hours, and, hand-in-hand with Amy and all the friends who come to help crew, they crossed the finish line. Shortly afterwards, he took a knee, produced the ring and popped his question. They sat now, both of them ginning and weary, trading with me the stories about how the rest of our nights had gone. (Sean told me that covering the last 20 miles was the most difficult thing he’d done in his life.) Neither of them were very lively – indeed they both looked like they could have drifted off to sleep right there in front of me – but Sean had a goofy smile that he couldn’t wipe away and Amy quietly held his hand and didn’t let go.
As for me? I learned a lot. I’m very optimistic that gluing mole skin to the bottom of my feet before a race will help stave off the “creases” and the blisters that follow. I learned more about fueling myself in the race (those Ensures really were a good idea). And I learned just how big a difference it makes to have a good crew. I’ve managed 50 miles unsupported without any trouble. I found that 62 miles (100K) was just about as doable. 100-Miles though, is a totally different animal. You’ve gotta have help to keep you going. 70 miles of distance run, and 20.5 hours on my feet were both new PRs for me, and I was extremely pleased with both, but I learned that I’m capable of finishing 100-miles. I know I can do it now, and when I employ the things I learned at Burning River, I’m sure I will.