[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
"I really don't like this," I said out loud, to myself, around mile 47. The Nevada heat was getting to me, my skin was turning a deep shade of red, and I was s-t-r-u-g-g-l-i-n-g. I was in the pain cave, but I'd been here before, so I knew that the best thing to do was to keep going. Bad things (and good ones) don't last forever and I knew I'd turn a corner eventually.
"You are strong," I told myself. "You are capable. Nothing can bring you down."
"You're awfully red," a woman at the aid station told me. "Hold still while I spray you down." She grabbed a tube of sunscreen and applied it generously to my shoulders and neck. Luckily, the day was short and the heat wouldn't last long.
The race started at 4 a.m. and almost immediately, many of us were lost. The course markings weren't reflective and myself and three men ran the wrong way less than two miles after the gun went off. When we caught up with another group of runners, they looked at us and said, "Where do we go??" a question none of us could answer. We eventually found our way, shining our headlights around the dark desert looking for the next marker, and the next.
The course was comprised of 6 ~16 mile loops and then a weird out and back to finish. I liked the loop because my crew/pacers were there every 16 miles, and (this is important) I knew what to expect. Knowing the course and aid stations relieved a bit of my mental fatigue. I didn't have to think about where the next aid station would be, what the terrain was like, or where to go.
Laps 1 and 2 were easy and a little bit boring. I wanted to run faster, but knew I shouldn't. I chatted with some runners, thought about nothing, and made sure to eat every 45 minutes. Lap 3 was during the hottest part of the day, and I started to struggle mentally and physically. I needed more fluids, more electrolytes, more salt. I was running in short, quick bursts and then walking, which annoyed me. I was frustrated with myself; instead of slowing down and keeping a consistent pace, I was struggling against myself, which is why I said, "I really don't like this," a sentiment I would abandon and return to many times over. Toward the end of the third loop, I saw a man with long black hair taking a video of something, so I looked to my left. A bighorn sheep was sprinting up the side of the ridge, and I watched it run down into a valley and then up a cliff side. "Did you see that?!" the man asked, "we are so lucky to be here."
"Damn," I thought, "we are lucky to be here." I held onto that sentiment as I returned to my crew/pacers at the start/finish line. My friends Alex, Andrew, and Amanda were there, and each would run a loop with me. Andrew ran with me for loop 4, helping me slow down and move consistently. He gave me salt, forced me to eat, gave me ibuprofen, and by the time I started loop 5 with Amanda, I was feeling good. The sun had also set by then, and we chatted happily as we ran through the night. I noticed that many runners weren't running by then, most were walking and that gave me a bit of a boost. By the time I started my 6th and final loop with Alex, I was incredibly tired of food. I never wanted to see another gel in my life. I never wanted to drink Gatorade or ginger ale. I hated everything.
It was getting late by the time we started the last loop and I was a little cranky. "Dude you're crushing it," Alex said, more than once. My response was, more or less, "cool, man." I was feeling okay, but I was sleepy despite using caffeine. By the time we got to the little out and back section, my spirits were high. I was only five miles from finishing, "Holy shit," I told Alex, "I'm really going to do it!"
By the time I finished, I'd ridden a few highs and a few lows, drank a bunch of coke, and changed my socks once. I finished the race with my friends by my side and a renewed respect for the people who organize/support ultra endurance events. I finished in barely over 23 hours, surprising myself. Only a few days after the race, it all feels like a dream. Pain is not forever. Hard things get easier with time. We are not here forever and each day, each moment, is such a genuine gift. We are so lucky to be here.
I've wanted to run a 100 miler ever since reading Born to Run way back in high school when I didn't know not to wear blue eyeshadow or how to properly deadlift. A lot of time has passed since I told myself I'd run a 100 miles, but I've been preparing for years: racing and training, hurting and healing, learning and making mistakes. Resiliency grows incrementally, and this race made me just a little bit stronger; just a little bit wiser; and hungry for another, bigger challenge.
P.S. Check out the Valley of Fire event organizer Triple Dare Running Company, read an essay about the parallels between running and writing here, or watch ultrarunning legend Courtney Dauwalter on the Rich Roll podcast here.