Today kicks off my November series discussing the crazy world of ultramarathon running – from crewing to training to racing!
Part 1 is long…kick back and relax!
To be honest, being out of the running world for so long, I somehow missed hearing about the ultra world. To me, if people wanted to run long, they ran marathons. When I first started running with Jeremy, he told me about his awful 1st time experience at the JFK 50 miler in 2015. He described how he felt, how he had come to terms with quitting after the marathon mark (technically making him an ultra runner) and how he continued on thanks to some running friends. Listening to his story, it certainly didn’t seem like he’d do it again. Yet, a couple months later, he shared how he signed up again. 2016 JFK went a little smoother; which seemed to cause him to seek out a new, crazier challenge – the Yeti 100. Here I was, still thinking it was crazy people ran 50 miles, now 100? Who are these crazy running friends I’ve met?
So, you can read here how Jeremy and Josh talked each other into not only entering the Yeti 100, but attempting to finish under 24 hours to be rewarded with one of these fabulous belt buckles.
Race was on the calendar and of course, the rest of us jumped on board to help crew/pace J+J, not quite knowing all what we got ourselves into.
The Virginia Creeper trail is 33 miles from point to point and the race would go out, back and out again. Seven aid stations were set between Abingdon and White Top and we decided to travel to each one for as long as our runners needed; giving additional aid and someone to run alongside them providing company, maybe distraction from the discomfort and a mental pick-me-up as needed. Sara created a spreadsheet to help the rest of us have some sort of idea of when each of us could jump in and how many miles we would run, based on the run/walk strategy created by Sanders and Ilnicki.
Showing up at the starting line in the dark with all the other runners, support crew and friends was very exciting. I felt like we were part of a crazy cult. A few words were spoken by the race director and off they went (and so did we!).
We were all worried before the race we wouldn’t have cell service for GPS; thankfully this didn’t pose a problem. We easily navigated from stop to stop (most of the time) to await our runners. Each stop, we listened to our runners’ needs – we were ready and waiting with food, water, extra clothes/shoes, headlamps, jackets, etc.
One of the important tips I would tell an ultra crew it to make sure you eat, sleep and drink as well. In the 24-30 hours we were out on the course, I think maybe the most rest any of us got was 1 hour. Yes, we aren’t running nearly as far as the racers, but the ultra still takes a toll on you. We had been surviving on bars, PB&J and other snacks, but Mario, Sara and I knew we needed some real food before we jumped in as pacers. The options between two of the aid stations didn’t bode well for running after eating – fast food and gas stations. However, we found a Kroger and ran in to see what ready-made healthier food we could find. We headed towards the deli and AHA! The sight and smell of a rotisserie chicken caught my eye (and nose!). I think Mario and Sara thought I was crazy, but they quickly agreed the chicken sounded better than a pre-made sandwich which had been sitting in a cooler all day. We added a few snacks to our order and out to the car we went!
Lisa and Mario hiking down from one of the trestles.
We pulled up to mile 33, crossed the bridge and noshed on our food as we awaited the guys to complete their first point to point. Some runners had already dropped out, or were considering to drop out at this time. The guys had been way ahead pace, and I knew we were concerned they were going too fast up front. However, they looked strong coming into the turnaround point. No pacers were allowed to join until right around mile 42, so Jeremy and Josh stayed together until then. At this time, the weather was pretty warm – the guys were sweaty and I was hoping they were hydrating well. First pacers, Vernon and Mario jumped in from Alvarado to Damascus, a 7 mile jaunt. As we waited by the caboose, we saw Mario approaching with Jeremy – unfortunately Josh and Vernon were not with them. Thankfully, we had a pacer assigned to each, so we keep moving forward with the plan. We heard Josh was hurting and hoped to see him along the way.
I was slated to hit the trail with Jeremy around mile 56. I confess, I did not look at what elevation we would be gaining in the planned 10 mile run when I agreed to this pacing slot. Jeremy came down the trail with Jen; we refilled his water and checked his other supplies and off we went. The trail was beautiful; the surface was softer than I expected and the natural surroundings were just stunning. Unsure how Jeremy’s mental state would be at this point (especially hearing about his 50 mile experiences), I was quite surprised. He was in the game. Funny to hear him still processing the fact he was running 100 miles. For the ascent to White Top, we started off with switching off running and walking – and as we went further, we definitely started to be walking more. I encouraged Jeremy to eat and drink. He was hydrating well but he was starting to walk a little crooked. He tried to eat a waffle, but his stomach was not wanting food. I started to worry a little as we continued our trek as day turned into night. We talked about getting some liquid calories if he wasn’t able to take in much solids and climbed the last couple of miles.
When we came to White Top (mile 66), he was definitely still feeling a bit off but downed a mug of soup. After more Nuun refills and adding another layer, we headed out of White Top. Literally, it was all downhill from here. I kid you not, there must have been something magical in that soup because Jeremy was on fire! The combination of calories and a descent gave him the ability to run and run much faster! Seeing bobbing headlamps coming at you and exchanging words of encouragement to others helped the miles click by. All the way down to mile 69, Jeremy was still in a great mental state. He was tired and hurting, but was so positive to everyone in the race – I think the reciprocal positive energy kept him moving forward. We cruised into mile 69 where Lisa would take over. I could not believe we had been running together for over 3 hours – it was so peaceful and therapeutic, I just felt in the zone and had no idea of elapsed time.
At this point, I switched teams. Mario and I jumped in my car and headed back to White Top to see Josh and Sara. When they arrived, Josh was in bad shape. Shivering. Tired. Hurting. As he struggled to add layers, he was having difficulty so I jumped in to assist as Sara helped him with other tasks. And then the tears came. As a friend, I felt heartbreak. As a runner, I understood the mental anguish and the physical exhaustion (somewhat since I definitely have never pushed myself this far…yet!). As part of the aid crew, I worried about his well being. Seeing him hurt, I hurt. Internally, I struggled thinking maybe I should say, “Josh, you’ve made it 66 miles. You are an ultra runner. It’s okay to quit.” But, I didn’t. I knew he would know if it was time to quit. He sipped down some broth and just like I had seen about an hour or so before, a magical change!! Sara and Josh took off down the hill and when we saw them at the next stop, he was doing great!
Mario and I drove between stations, aiding as needed and catching a few Z’s (I did not – Mario fell asleep so quickly and snored so loudly). The exhaustion were starting to get to us. We missed Sara and Josh at one station and we quickly drove to the next. In my somewhat tired state of mind, I ended up at the wrong station. Crap. What to do? We quickly made a decision and I think I took a year off Mario’s life with my NASCAR-style driving on curvy country roads. We sailed into Taylors Landing with fingers crossed they’d be here. THANK GOODNESS! There they were, at the tent – eating and resting. Whew, minor crisis averted. Off Mario and I went to the next stop and then onto Damascus. At this point, it was about 2:40 in the morning. We had cell service again and had a few updates on Jeremy. He was plugging away still and expected to reach his goal of sub 24 hours – AWESOME!
At this point, we realized we would have enough time to make it to the finish line to see Jeremy cross and then make it back to Alvarado for Josh and Sara. A quick coffee stop for Mario and we met up with Lisa and Vernon at the finish line. Yeti is not your typical finish line. No big blow up arch, throngs of people, after race parties. No, just a couple dozen people waiting in the dark; anticipating bobbing lights coming down the dark path. We didn’t have to wait long. Jeremy and Jen came around the corner. So freaking exciting. He crossed, got a hug from Jason the race director, received his TWO belt buckles and sadly, that was that. Check off the box. 100 miles in the books. Wow.
Unfortunately, at this point, I needed to get ready to head back home and Jeremy needed to go relax/chill/shower/sleep, so the crew split up to get Jeremy home and get back out to see Josh finish (in a little over 25 hours!).
Before I finish with a few thoughts from the other crew members, I wanted to share a few tips if you are considering being part of an ultra team:
– Make sure you are part of the plan prior to the race. Know what is expected from you. Pack food for yourself and extra clothes.
– Be ready for the plan to change on the fly. Remember: the goal is to get your runner safely to the finish line. Focus on them and their needs. Communicate clearly to everyone involved of any changes.
– If you can, take a power nap. You will be exhausted and a few minutes of shut eye can help work wonders.
– Have fun! Yes, it was a long day. Yes, I was tired. But, so many fun memories were made.
– Celebrate with your runner! What an accomplishment!
Without further adieu, here are a few comments from the crew:
Mario – “Good experience. I recommend anyone thinking about doing an ultra to crew first, so you can see what is like to run an ultra and what to expect when your time comes. I will do it again any time.”
Vernon – “What is it like to pace a runner for 100 miles? I thought the runner would be the one tired, hungry, exhausted? Little did I expect that all of those would apply to me, they person occasionally running/walking and just riding around in a car chasing our runners. But with that said it was an experience unlike anything else I have ever been part of. Watching 2 guys run 100 miles was truly inspiring. From the highs to the lows these guys pushed on and finished! An accomplishment a small percentage of the population can say they have. If you ever decided to pace I recommend the following. Plenty of layers of clothes, plenty of food, lots of good spirit, and the mindset that you won’t sleep. You will go through many of the same highs and lows the runners are experiencing. But the reward will be amazing!”
Sara’s Story (Josh’s wife):
“Being a pacer for Josh was one of the best experiences, and I would do it again in a heartbeat! When Josh signed up for Yeti, I knew right away I wanted to pace. The week leading up to the race, thoughts started flooding my head with the responsibilities of a pacer – can I physically do it and would I be able to watch him struggle, and not encourage him to stop? I actually googled tips – the dos and don’ts for pacing an ultramarathon. Some takeaways were – Do you know you can handle the distance, checking in on nutrition and hydration, don’t talk the runner’s ear off, offer moral support, don’t complain…
Tip – Review the course map! I learned the day before the race, that I had signed myself up to pace Josh going up Whitetop, gaining ~ 3,000ft in elevation. My stomach was in knots.. Could I do this?
The morning of the race was a whirlwind, the race started around 7:30 a.m., and Jeremy and Josh were off on their journey. No time to waste or worry, for the first 41.9 miles the guys could not have a pacer. We had 2 vehicles driving to each waypoint to crew the guys. At every stop, I would carry a bag full of Josh’s preferred snacks, med kit essentials, shoes and clothes. After mile 41.9 they would pick-up pacers until the end of the race. Mile 56 is when I would be joining Josh, at this point I knew he was in rough shape, it took him about 80 minutes to run 4 miles. And, Jeremy had gone ahead with his pacer.
As I waited for Josh, I started to strategize what I needed to do – head lamp, sandwich bag full of potato chips and water to fill his bottles. When I met up with him at Taylor Valley, it was dusk. He stopped briefly to sip on some broth, then we were off. All of a sudden it was dark, I was able to get a recap of his day and state of mind – no bueno. He picks on me now, but I honestly repeated a handful of phrases for the entirely of 43 miles – “you’re doing great, excellent job, proud of you, and I love you!” My thought was don’t talk too much but those phrases will let him know I was okay. At this point you can tell we were climbing, he couldn’t even run. I kept thinking one foot in front of the other. We basically walked the 10 miles up to Whitetop, and it was freezing! And, I had to use the restroom but it was too far away. We were suppose to switch pacers at this point but I wanted to stay with him. Josh hit a tough point, it was hard for me to swallow. Miraculously, he stood up and off we went. And, I didn’t get to use the bathroom! I kept it to myself, I was shocked he was moving onward.
Josh found his inner strength, and we picked up the pace going down the hill. I was pumped! The next 33 miles was a remarkable accomplishment for Josh. Eventually, he would lose some of the momentum he found leaving Whitetop and his body started to become tired. He stubbed his toes a million times and fell twice. I kept reminding him how cool this experience was, in the woods of VA, running in the dark of the night together to chase the 100 miles. Over the course of the night into morning, I wouldn’t let him rest much at the waypoints in fear his body would totally cramp up. When we hit Mile 80 in Damascus around 3 a.m., I started to become sore and tired, but refused to stop pacing. We carried on, it was a 7 mile jaunt to the next way point. We ran, stopped, walked and repeat. He fell asleep on me twice!! I just kept on reminding him, he could sleep at the finish line 🙂 We made it to Alvarado then to Watauga Trestle – the last point before the finish. The sun was coming up, it was breathtaking – absolutely beautiful. Josh started to change gears and we were running again knowing the end was near. We passed about 8 runners. When we closed in on the finished line, we booked it down the hill, and all I remember is stepping aside and watching Josh cross the line. It was incredible.” Read Josh’s story here.
Next up, is a recap of a great ultra event I was able to attend with Josh and Jeremy – stay tuned!