Only two people knew how much I had riding on this race. I had kept the secret from everyone including my family and my best friends. Two weeks before I was to run the Burning River 100 mile endurance run, pain in my left leg would not let me get in my planned training runs. I confided in Adam and Kara Goucher and told them how I had gone “all in” on this and I was betting on myself. They offered words of encouragement and gave me a boost. I had to reach the finish line. No matter what occurred, I had to finish. If I failed in this challenge, more than just my pride and reputation would suffer.
When the alarm went off at 2:00am, I knew the day had finally arrived for me to attempt my first 100 mile ultra-run. Even though I had only slept three hours, I felt energized and ready to take on the distance and all the challenges it would bring. I reminded myself of two goals. First, I would finish the race. No matter what happened, if I could keep moving forward and make it across the line before the 30 hour cut off, I would not stop. My second goal was to finish in under 24 hours. This seemed like a realistic goal even though my longest run before this day was just over 30 miles.
Two bananas, some Nutella, and a piece of bread helped my morning coffee go down easy before Laura and I hit the road to drive 45 minutes north from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio to the starting line. I was committed to eating and drinking as much as possible all day and all night to give my body the fuel it would need to keep going.
Just before the start I reached back to feel the reminder I had placed in the back zipper pocket of my half tights. “This is why you are here,” I told myself. “You can do this.”
The start of the race was amazing! Nearly 400 runners in head lamps set out on the trails. I was so mesmerized by watching the bouncing parade of lights that I was not watching for trail markers. Neither were the other 100 plus runners around me. “Has anyone seen a trail marker recently?” shouted a voice in the dark. Everyone stopped. Great. Three miles in and we are off course. Lost. After a few minutes of confusion we backtracked a quarter mile and saw glowing lamps heading away from us at a 45 degree angle. We were only slightly off course. A few minutes later we were all back on track and vigilantly watching for the reflective markers in the dark.
Squires Castle Mile 6.2
Daylight was beginning to illuminate the trail so I gave Laura my headlamp in exchange for an energy bar and a fresh water bottle. I also let her know I had peed five times in the first 10K. Considering the amount of pee stops and getting lost in the woods, I was happy to be at this first aid station in just over an hour.
Polo Field Mile 17.2
The next time I saw Laura was right at three hours in. I was happy to get a dry shirt, dry shoes, and socks and to have some snacks. Unfortunately, the biceps femorus muscle in my left leg had tightened up. This was my biggest fear heading into the race and I was trying not to panic. I knew I still had 83 miles in front of me and could not afford leg pain this early. I shook the doubts from my mind, thanked Laura for the fresh shirt, socks, and shoes, and jogged back out to the trails. They were beautiful. Steep ups and downs mixed in with some rolling hills all under a canopy of green treetops kept us in the shade most of the day. My dry shoes lasted almost a mile before we hit the first river/stream crossing. The water came up to my mid thigh at the deepest section in the middle. Several more crossings would ensure we were running in wet shoes for the next twenty miles.
Shadow Lake 26.2
I hit the first marathon well under five hours. I was happy with my pace but not happy with what was happening in my lower body. I had been limping from the pain in my left leg. The limp caused my right quadriceps to cramp. When I tried to even out my gait, my left thigh joined in the revolt. I had not been this sore in any of my training runs and I was worried that if it got any worse it was going to be a very long day. As Laura urged me to eat some food and helped me change my water bottle, I felt doubt working its way into my mind. I wanted to cry from the frustration. All these physical issues cropping up so early would be a heavy burden. I reached back to feel the reminder in my back pocket. “You have to persevere.” I told myself. “It is early. You have all day.” At mile 31 I surpassed the longest run of my life.
Station Road Mile 40.3
My pace had slowed considerably as I continued to limp along. I was right around eight hours and fading hard. I felt sick to my stomach and overheated. The thought of eating made me want to vomit but I knew I had to force something down. I stuffed half a turkey sandwich in my mouth and swallowed. It came back up less than a mile later. Here is where I started feeling sorry for myself. I knew this moment would come and I was ready. “It will pass. It will pass.” I repeated over and over in my head. I just had to make it to mile 46 to see Laura again and feel her support.
Ottawa Point Mile 46.7
Pain in my right shin just above my ankle made running down the steep trails excruciatingly painful. Each step I could feel a sharp twinge radiate up my leg to my knee. Now I was walking any hill steeper than a gentle grade. Laura was waiting with a smile and some helpful snacks. She also encouraged me to take my ipod nano and listen to the “mixed track” she had been making me for the last week or so. After I wrapped some athletic tape around my calf and shin to take some of the pressure off, I traded my hand held water bottle for the larger Camel-Bak to wear on my back. I would need to travel 19 miles before I would see Laura again and I was dreading the distance. “I will try to make it in four hours,” I told her. But it took me nearly five.
My heart warmed and my confidence swelled as soon as I put on the 43 minute mixed track on my nano. I was expecting to hear music but instead I heard the voices of my best friends and closest family members. Laura had contacted each of them and convinced them to record words of support and encouragement for me to hear during my run. It was just the medicine I needed as I picked up the pace before the 50 mile check point. My parents, my brother, his girlfriend, Adam, Kara, and several of my best friends, spoke directly to me. They made me laugh and gave me courage to keep going. Somehow Laura knew exactly what I would need and when I would need it…Wow!
Snowville Mile 50.7
The surge of confidence and energy I got from the recordings vanished when I sat down at the Snowville aid station. I looked down at my right ankle and could see it bulging out above my sock and below my compression sleeve. “This is not good,” I said out loud to nobody. I knew there was intense pain in my shin but I did not expect to see it this swollen. I looked at my watch and started to do math. I was at 10 hours and 33 minutes. My pace had slowed dramatically but even at the pace I was moving, I would easily finish in under 24 hours. “Just keep moving. Run when you can. Walk when you have to.” This didn’t help. “Remember why you are here! You will not stop. You will make it.” I reached back for at least the fifth time to feel the hard metal reminder in my pocket. “You have to carry this to the finish line no mater what happens. Don’t be a wimp. Get mad. Get going!” I got to my feet, grabbed some snacks, a full Camel-Bak and jogged off back to the trails.”
Happy Days Mile 65.4
Desperation. When I finally reached this aid station, I wanted to thank Laura for making me that audio file. I also wanted to quit. But wanting to quit and contemplating quitting are two different things. Quitting was not an option. It never was. I was only 14 hours and 25 minutes into the race. I had another 15 and a half hours to finish the last 35 miles and cross the line. Everything was riding on me getting there. It was all or nothing and I could not afford to give in. I put on a brave face and thanked Laura with a kiss and a sweaty hug. I was dying inside but just needed to make it to the next aid station. I refused to look down at my leg. I didn’t want to know. It would be dark before I reached the next aid station so I grabbed my headlamp and did my limp/run combo, shuffling back to the course and big hills ahead. The next section would be brutal.
Pine Hallow Mile 71.1
By the time I reached Laura at Pine Hallow I was a fraction of the man I was at the start. I had been reduced to barely a walk. I laid down in the grass and refused a massage from Laura. My legs were too tender to touch. I felt the urge to vomit but didn’t have the energy. It was completely dark as I used my headlamp to search the bag for pain killers and salt tablets. I looked around and every runner was in the same shape as me. The last section, with its steep climbs and ruthless descents, had taken its toll. This aid station looked like a triage center. I could have fallen asleep if I allowed myself to lay there any longer so I sat up and ate a small cup of ramen noodles. Laura lifted my spirits by saying she would do the last seven miles of the race with me from the aid station at mile 93. She would leave our rental car there and taxi back to get it in the morning. I had a new goal: Get to mile 93.
Covered Bridge Mile 80.1
Somehow I managed to run about three miles of a flat section before the checkpoint at mile 74 but when I got there and realized I had a marathon to go, I died a little inside and began to walk. The constant companion in my back pocket was all I had as I walked alone for over two hours before reaching the covered bridge at mile 80. It was 12:36 Sunday morning. I was starting a new day. Laura was there waiting. She was steadfast in her encouragement and decided to walk the last 20 miles of this race with me. She would get me to the end. I covered the blisters on the bottoms of my feet with tape and changed into new shoes and dry socks. I had to look at my ankle again. What I saw would have scared me a few hours ago but now I was too tired to care. I jammed my swollen foot into the shoe and stood up. With a little lean forward I started to move again with Laura at my side doing 90% of the talking. We headed away from the aid station to walk all night long.
O’Neil Woods Mile 88.6
The night was so beautiful. Perfect weather, the sounds of coyotes, owls, crickets and frogs, combined with my fatigue to create a surreal world. I started to hallucinate. My friend Adrian told me that you can get so tired it is possible to fall asleep while you are running or walking. I didn’t believe him until now. I was getting the head-nods as we walked, nearly falling a few times. I did some more math in my head. Even at 30 minutes a mile we could still make it in before the 30 hour cutoff. I told Laura I needed to lay down and sleep. She set her watch for 10 minutes. As soon as my body hit the road I was out. Ten minutes later Laura woke me and got me to my feet. Miraculously my head had cleared and I felt better. We limped on. Each step I felt a knife like pain in my shin but each step was also one closer to the finish. I felt my pocket again. It was still there. Twelve miles to go.
Merriman Road Mile 93.1
Not counting my ten minute nap, I had been going 25 hours. The sun was creeping up and I thought how cool it was to see two sunrises on the same run! My spirits were high but the pain in my leg was getting worse by the hour. I mused to Laura that on a normal, easy, day, a seven mile run would take me less than 50 minutes. But this seven miles would last over three hours. As other runners passed me, we continued our forward progress.
Memorial Parkway Mile 96.1
What a cruel joke to make this race 100.9 miles! Instead of four miles remaining, we had five. Two volunteers helped me sit down in a chair to eat some more noodles. This was all that seemed to go down for me. I sat and contemplated the last five miles. “This is going to suck!” I thought but smiled at the camera anyway. The same volunteers and Laura helped me back to me feet and leaned me forward. They warned me about the stairs at mile 98 but said once I reached the top it was all easy going to the finish. Honestly, I was too tired to care. As several more runners passed me, I mentioned to Laura that I need to do this race again. I know I could do so much better if I didn’t have leg issues so early in the run. As always she supported me and tried to understand why I would even want to do this again!
Finish Line Mile 100.9
Even when I could see it, the finish line looked like an eternity away. Laura went ahead to film the finish. I broke into my finishing kick with about 60 meters to go. It was honestly as fast as I could go as I felt dizzy from the pain in my leg. Crossing the finish line (28 hours 45 minutes) gave me permission to do the only thing I had been focused on for the last 10 hours.
After I received my giant belt buckle, I hobbled over to Laura and took the camera. I asked a kind stranger to film my interview with Laura. I shook the cobwebs from my head and tried to remember what I wanted to say. I thanked Laura for being so supportive both before and during the race. I told her I wanted to give her a present as a way to say “thank you” for being there for me.
I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the reminder. I explained how I had carried this present every step of this 100 mile journey. It was there through the good and bad times. It lived every moment of this race with me and now I wanted her to have it. I wanted it to be a reminder that I will follow through on what I set out to do. I will finish what I start. I will be as supportive and loving as she has been for me. These are promises I will not break just like I would not stop in this race. When I finally got the ring out of the protective wrapping and placed it on her finger, I already knew her answer. But I said it anyway. “Will you marry me?” This next ultra marathon has no finish line.
I love you Laura!!
***Here is a short video of some of the race including the proposal at the end.***