If I could explain all the reasons, I would. Why would I want to run 50 miles? Well, why would anyone want to run even ONE mile…ever? It’s a challenge, and there is something inherently primal and simplistic about running that lends itself to the never-ending “what’s next” mentality that tends to rule our race calendars. I’ve run a lot of races both long and short but I’ve dreamt about running a race like this for a long time. This year, I was just going to DO it…plain and simple.
I showed up at the Berryman Campground on Saturday May 19th in Potosi, Missouri at about 6am with my wife Beth, and my friend and training partner, Jenny J. My parents also met us down there, and it was nice to know I had a crew to count on. My training said I was ready, but who can really be “ready” for this? I got geared up, gave my bag to the team to take to the drop at 16, and I left my other one at the start, which would be the halfway mark as I made my 2 25-mile loops to make the full 50. I knew it was going to be hot (90 degree forecast high)…I kept bringing it up, but then again, I KNEW it was going to be hot, so I had time to process and try to just let it GO. We toed the line and after a measly “uuh….GO” from the starter, and we shuffled as a big conga-line into the woods. There were about 50-60 racers doing the 50mile at 6:30 and another 50 doing the marathon distance at 8:30.
I had thought a lot about the shoes I would pick for a spring-time of trail training and racing, and I finally settled on the Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes. They felt extremely comfortable right off the bat in the store, and they didn’t seem to get in the way of my natural walk/stride. I had broken them in on a couple LONG trail training runs, so I was ready to roll in them to see how they’d do over the 50 mile distance. The Grits have a lower heel drop, roomy forefoot, structured lightweight mesh construction, and a springy and responsive ride. They lend to a healthy (but not forced) forefoot strike, and the soles have GREAT traction lugs that are moderate but purposefully placed. Nothing on this shoe feels overdone or heavy, and they hug the feet exactly where they should.
Let’s get rolling
The trail at Berryman is mostly single-track, rolling hills and winding switchbacks. We started on light pine-needles that quickly shifted into dry/gravelly trails…but better than the sloppy mess it had apparently been in years past. We went through a few miles and before I knew it I was at the first aid station at about mile 4. I was carrying a water bottle in each hand, I had a fuel belt on with double bottles and a zipper pack, and I had a big pocket on the back of my singlet. I was stocked with various bars and chews, Hammer Gel packs, Hammer Almond Raisin bars, Endurolytes, and Anti-Fatigue Caps (Hammer). I’m never very good about knowing what to eat and WHEN, but this was going to be a long day, and I was STOCKED.
We plodded along and I tried to latch onto little groups or just random guys to stay focused and paced. I chatted with someone for a while, then moved on up ahead when they’d walk and I’d latch onto the next person for a while. These ‘ultra people’ are methodical. For the first half you walk the hills and you run the flats and down-hills. It was odd in a line of 5 runners (single file, on the single-track) to just STOP all of a sudden to walk, but I knew it was the way to go and I knew I’d be thankful I took it easy later. The temps were actually pretty cool and breezy in the early morning hours.
I passed through the 8 mile aid station and saw Jenny J! She was working a station in my support but also to secure her spot in this race for next year. It’s always great to see friends and family out there, and it certainly was a good boost. I didn’t spend much time at the station. Just enough to fill up, grab what I needed, or adjust my gear. I was back on the trail. Some spots on the trail were absolutely picturesque with eerily burned out grounds covered with low-lying mist, pine needle trails, and tall trees just standing by themselves. But other parts of the trail were straight-up UGLY. It was almost as if the course was a canvas, and the brush that was easily meandering to paint the trail suddenly turned on end and splayed and clumped. Some spots literally were “un-run-able.” You just had to walk/shimmy/scoot/prance until the ground smoothed out again beneath you. Even so, the trail the VERY well marked with clear signs saying, “Straight this way” or, “Do not Enter”.
Creeks and Creaks
Mile 16 was the creek crossing at Brazille Creek! I saw my parents and wife for the first time and welcomed the cold creek water! Most people went around the creek but I went straight through it…the water felt great on my feet and I had found that these Pure Grits dry quickly and feel fine when they are wet. Instead of feeling looser when wet, they formed around my feet with sock-like performance on my way out of the creek. (The laces did come undone twice, and both times after getting wet) I hit up the aid-station after the creek, got some chips, grabbed some Ibuprofen as a preventative, and headed back out! I could tell this day was going to be a lot about just ‘heading back out’. If you let doubt seep in, you won’t want to keep going, and at 16 miles you are still fresh enough to do the math in your head and go, “Holy CRAP…. It’s getting hot already and I still have 34 miles left to run…what am I doing out here?” But that wasn’t an option…it was time to move I’d do the math later.
When I hit mile 20 at the top of a huge hill I had left behind the “conga-line” I was with, and I started feeling good, given the circumstances. I cruised down the hill on the other side by myself in the middle of nowhere, and started getting goofy. I think it was the caffeine high, but I was darn-near air-guitaring, singing the solos to Rush songs, and humming Europe’s, “It’s the Final Countdown” OUT. LOUD. I had no headphones on..it was just in my head. Who cares? Nobody was around, and it was keeping me entertained, so screw it! I knew the halfway mark was only 4-5 miles away, and even though I could STILL do the math at that point, that was a good feeling to know I’d be back out on the course to finish up.
I hit the 25.4 mile mark in 4:55 and rolled into the aid station. It was getting HOTTTTT! It was 66 at the start and at this point it was well above 80 with 60% humidity. People were dropping out left and right, and those that hadn’t paced well early were done for the day and sitting in the grass. The contents of my back pocket were somewhat melding together, and I didn’t know what supplies I had anymore. I restocked all my bottles and pockets, laughed and joked with the aid-staff to keep my spirits high, and literally just didn’t look back. I headed back to the trail head where I had started nearly 5 hours ago and cruised back in!!! I knew it was time to get serious, so those tunes I had saved came in handy. I put on my Oakleys that have the Mp3 player built in, and started jamming to tunes.
I felt pretty good mentally and physically through about 29 miles but a few things started to bug me at that point. I really started to fade and feel bad between 29 and 33…when I pulled into the aid station at 33 miles I was greeted again by Jenny J and my fam/crew! It was great to see them, but we were a bit worried as I quickly discussed that I was having urination issues, and wasn’t sure I should keep pushing. I was just loosing fluids faster than I could replenish. That was not good, and it made my mind RACE with ‘DNF’ doubt. This was the first and only time in the race when I truly thought I may have to drop out. I was just afraid of pushing myself into the hospital. I took a few extra minutes at this station to put back MEGA fluids and I think that helped. I started back out there and I felt much better within a mile.
The miles between 33 and 40 were ROUGH. My body was dragging, my fluids were low, and it was getting hotter and hotter. I was in no-man’s-land until I connected with the lead woman at an aid station. It was great to just TALK to somebody and not feel so bad about feeling so bad. Everyone was suffering, to some degree. Misery loves company. Mile 40 was the creek crossing again (remember mile 16 from the first loop?) and that water felt GREAT! Something happened here at mile 40 and I got a 2nd wind. I knew I’d finish and my mind latched onto that with a vengeance! My shoes felt great still, and were really doing the trick. I had saved a pair of MP3 headphones that my dad loaned me for this very point in the race. I needed a new playlist, new music, anything to distract me. It helped, and as I got that extra mental energy I was BACK! I was flying, just like it felt in training. When I say, “flying”, I mean sub 10min miles…by the way. That felt like FLYING after 9 hours of running in the heat! I really pushed and found that I had gained time from 41-47.
As I approached the 3-miles to go mark, my body just couldn’t keep up anymore. I was just absolutely drained. Part of it was from that last big push, and part of it was just the nature of the beast. I shuffled, walked, hobbled, jogged, slipped, nearly fell, talked to myself, looked for other people…I even kept thinking I was seeing snakes, but it was just the tree roots. (I HAD seen a snake early on, so I wasn’t totally crazy) That last 3 miles was a BRUTAL MARCH. The last aid station was at 48 miles and I could barely converse with the staff. I remember them filling my bottle while I shoved handfuls of Lays potato chips in my mouth. They said only 10 runners were in front of me, so I just grabbed my bottles and shuffled back out there. The last 2 miles literally took me over 30 minutes….at least. It was the longest half hour of my entire life. I was really pushing into those gritty reserves of nearly swaying left to right on the trail as I tried to grunt my legs into a full-blown jog/run. It wasn’t happening. I felt like I was 80…I couldn’t muster it.
Then at 49.5, FOUR people passed me…they were all in a line, all suffering, but I had just mistimed my push early at 42, and I had nothing left to hang onto them. They encouraged me to go with them and I tried…MAN did I try. But I just literally couldn’t do it. I popped out of the trees suddenly, and then across a road where I saw parked cars…back into the woods and then BAM……………..I heard the cowbells. You know what that means if you’ve ever run one of these in any way. I shuffled until I heard my crew cheering and then I popped out with 200yards left to the finish line. I pushed whatever I had left all the way to the line. I was DONE. My ‘crew’ helped me stagger over to their pavilion where I collapsed into a lawn-chair. 10:49 and some change was my time at the end, and I finished in 15th place out of 45. I was just simply happy to have crossed that line. I was proud that I stuck it out on a day when veterans of 50 and 100 mile ultras had called it quits. Maybe they KNEW the struggle ahead, and maybe my naivety gave me an edge…. But either way, it was a bucket-list day. So happy, so sore…so incredibly freaking sore…hah! Big kudos to the S.L.U.G.S for putting on such a well organized race. I am thankful for my family and friends for putting up with me and for being SO incredibly supportive!
This is what we do. It just…IS.