Sunday, April 21, 2013

100 Miles NEVER

That's my conclusion, after spectating at Kamran's first-ever 100-mile race and pacing him through a middle-of-the-night lap (actually beginning-, middle-, and end-of-the-night lap, as it turns out, if I'm being technical). It's not the distance or the pain or the cold or the nausea or anything else that makes me say never, it's the realization that you have to STAY UP ALL NIGHT to complete one of these, and staying up all night is not something that I like to do, not ever. Even when I was younger I did not really like staying up all night. I just did it because that was what you did when you were young. But I've always felt more myself waking up at 5 a.m. ready to get a jump on the day. Staying up all night now makes me so tired it takes a week to recover from it.

But enough about that! I was really looking forward to this event. It's called the Indiana Trail 100, and takes place in Chain O'Lakes State Park, outside the adorable small town of Albion, Indiana, about three and a half hours from my house. The course was six laps of a 16-mile loop. The park was beautiful. Inside it there are nine little lakes, created by glaciers, and strung together by little waterways. The trail, though advertised as rolling, would be considered flat by any Tucson trail runner. It had just enough small rises and falls to keep your legs from getting bored on a true flat. Under better conditions, I believe it would have been an ideal first 100-miler, just because of the scenery, the cushy trail surface, the lack of any significant climbs, the nice spacing between aid stations, and the number of runners (180 in the 100-miler, enough so that you could always see a headlamp somewhere after dark). Unfortunately the whole Midwest had just been dumped on with rain for a couple days, 2-4", and much of the trail was flooded out. The race was going on as planned and people would just have to get their feet wet. Oh well -- it's a trail race, right? What are you going to do?

On race morning I drove from Michigan to Indiana. The race started at 6 a.m. and I had told Kamran that I would try to be there at 10:00 in hopes of catching him at the start/finish line aid station. Four hours looked like about the right length of time to finish a 16-mile lap, although of course that was just a guess. There was snow on my car and it was icy cold outside, in sharp contrast to Thursday which had been 80 degrees, and when I stopped to get gas about 40 miles from the race, the icy wind ripped through my clothes like they were made of Kleenex and there was a dusting of snow on all the fields and farm buildings. I shivered thinking of the runners starting in this cold, and hoped it would get warmer but was not hopeful. The predicted high temp seemed to drop every time I checked the weather, from 55 to 50 to 47 to 42 and at that point I decided to stop checking because, really, what was the point? Clearly it was going to be cold and miserable.

The park is out in the middle of farm country. It was beautiful. Once I arrived there, I drove around aimlessly for a while. I stumbled upon an aid station but by the time I found the start/finish aid station, Kamran had already been through, finishing up his first lap, and I had missed him. The start/finish line is on Sand Lake, one of the bigger of the nine lakes. There was a freezing wind blowing off the lake, so I did not want to hang around there any longer than I had to. Instead I drove around the park until I found the Schoolhouse aid station, named for a one-room schoolhouse originally actually used for school teaching but now used for housing exhibits on the park's history. I walked Frieda around and let her play with sticks, her new favorite toy. (And mine. They are free and numerous, and it's easy to stick one in her mouth if she looks like she might bite someone. Can't bite with a stick in your mouth.) It was more comfortable here because the trees provided a nice wind break, but it was still cold. I could see into the woods where the trail emerged onto the road that the runners had to leave the planned trail and push through bushes because the planned trail (I could still see the flags) had turned into a mini-lake itself. I did see one girl, the eventual winner of the 50-mile race, run right through the mini-lake and the water was, I kid you not, nearly up to her hips. Now that was a Trail Runner magazine cover photo if I ever saw one.

I somehow missed Kamran here too (the runner tracker online was not working properly, just as it has not at any race ever in my experience where anyone was depending on it) so I finally headed back to the start/finish and decided I would just park myself there and not move until he came through to start his third lap. It was freezing and windy but I had no choice but to bundle up and sit outside, because otherwise I was afraid I would miss him again and we really did need to communicate about what our plan was for the pacer lap.

Finally he showed up an hour later than I thought he would be. He did not look pleased. He told me how crappy the course was and mentioned that he thought he might drop after the third lap. I never know what to say in these situations. Do you insist that the person keep going, thereby making them feel bad if they really need to drop? Or do you tell them it's okay if they drop and then risk having them hate themselves for dropping when they could have kept going? I never know. I try to strike a balance between the two. Our consensus was that he would definitely do the third lap, which would bring him to 50 miles, and then reevaluate whether he felt like continuing or not. Personally, at that point I thought he would drop. I was not entirely upset at this thought, envisioning a nice dinner and me NOT having to go out and run through mud in the middle of the night, but I tried to conceal that from him.

At the end of the third lap, which he finished so fast I almost missed him, he said he had got his second wind and was going to keep going. He looked pretty good at this point. We decided I would go back to the hotel for a nap while he ran the fourth lap alone, and then I would meet him for the fifth lap.

The hotel was almost forty minutes away, so by the time I got there, ate something, and showered I only had time for an hour nap. I woke up afterwards wanting to cry at the thought of driving back there and going out in those conditions. I held on to my secret hope that he would drop and I could just go back to bed.

I got back to the race at 11:00. If he had finished at 11:00 that would have been a 4-hour lap. It was dark and freezing, of course. I waited outside the aid tent and every time a head lamp came bobbling up the dark hill I looked at the number to see if it was Kamran. DNF's were piling up on the board; every time I looked there were a couple more of them. Already more than 70 DNF's out of 180-something registered for the 100-mile race. The winner of the race, a local girl, came in around 11:30. She came into the tent, had some chicken noodle soup, had her picture taken with the plaque she won, and then left. Right after that Kamran showed up. He was tired but didn't look too bad, and was definite that he was going to continue. He changed from wet socks and shoes into dry ones and then we headed out. Since I knew I was doing it now, I was excited again and looked forward to seeing the course.

The first leg wasn't too bad. Mostly downhill, some patches of mud and water but nothing horrible. There was enough moon that we could turn our head lamps off and run by moonlight. I was warm after a couple miles and even splashed through puddles that I probably could have gone around. I was surprised Kamran was doing as much running as he was after that many miles. (These were miles 68-83 for him.) He didn't look like he'd been running for 18 hours already. We chatted and the first four miles zipped by.

We didn't linger in the first aid station. The trail left the woods and went into a beautiful farm field. No trees and it felt like you could reach out and touch the stars. Then it went back into the woods and we started hitting the major mud obstacles. The mud filled the whole trail and you could not avoid it unless you wanted to walk through the brambles on either side of it. These feel just like catclaw and I would rather suffer in mud than be ripped to shreds by the Indiana version of catclaw. The mud was icy and had plenty of standing water in it. It sucked at my shoes with every step I took, like quick sand. Suddenly it wasn't fun anymore. My feet slowly turned to ice as we went on and I could not feel them at all. I felt something rubbing against my leg and thought maybe I had brambles sticking to me, but when I reached down I found that, no, it was not brambles, just my track pants which had frozen solid in the shape of bell bottoms. (I was planning to wear just tights but threw the track pants on over them at the last minute because of the cold.) My shoes and socks were also frozen. Literally frozen, like with ice. I couldn't feel my feet or toes at all. Kamran couldn't either and did not seem overly concerned, so I decided to stop worrying and keep going. Our water in our packs also froze and so did the valves on the tubes. Oh well, who needs water anyway?

This was a long stretch. As we jogged into the aid station, I could feel something in my shoe that was getting bigger and more uncomfortable with every step. I had no idea what it was. Maybe I had broken a toe and not felt it because of the cold and now it was swelling up? At the aid station I sat down in front of the fire. After five minutes of struggling with my laces, which were frozen, I got the shoe off and found a ball of ice in there. Glad my toe was okay. But I could not for the life of me get my shoe tied again. I held it over the fire and the lace remained encrusted with ice. I could see that Kamran was getting ready to leave so finally I just stuffed the lace into the shoe.

After this aid station there were sections of runnable trail but many more sections of freezing mud. The water was deeper over here. At two points they had rope strung across the water because it was so high and/or the mud bank was dangerously steep. We got through those places and then slogged through the most miserable miles of the night. Kamran stopped talking and I knew he was in yucky ultra-runner space. I've been there and it sucks. I knew there was nothing I could say -- if I forced light-heartedness, he would be annoyed with me for being falsely cheery; if I complained or said anything negative, he would feel worse. So I said nothing at all and just kept walking. The trail went on and on. We both felt like we had been walking forever and the trail would never end and we should be at the aid station by now and blah blah blah. Finally it appeared.

At the aid station an EMS guy asked Kamran how he felt as Kamran flopped into a chair and he responded, "Bad" and offered no further information. The EMS guy asked him if he was feeling unusually bad and Kamran did not answer. The EMS guy prompted him: "Nausea? Dizziness?" and Kamran agreed, both. He had a cup of soda and then got up and walked back towards the trail. I went with him. The EMS guy shrugged and let us go. "I do not think I'll make it," Kamran said, but I didn't respond to that because I figured he was just saying it because he felt bad and it might go away soon if I ignored it.

Back on the trail Kamran said his biggest problem was that he was dizzy. We decided he would take a short nap at the start/finish aid station, which was only three miles away. Suddenly he felt better and five minutes later we were discussing religion and I knew he was going to be okay. We did have one scary moment when we couldn't see where the trail went and he became convinced we had lost it. I almost believed him although I knew we had been following flags and there was no way we were lost. To make it worse, another runner had lost the trail and was blundering around in the woods to our right, calling to us for help in finding the trail. Once he got back on trail, he found the real trail -- through a small lake of standing water, naturally -- and soon we were dragging into the start/finish aid station.

Kamran took his nap while I held his shoes in front of the space heater to dry as much as possible. When ten minutes passed I woke him up and got him out the door. He looked a little better. It was about 6 a.m. which gave him six hours to finish the final lap. I knew he would do it. I went back to the hotel for a shower and another nap. I rinsed my socks and pants in the sink -- shoes went straight in the trash; they were old -- and could not get the water to stop running brown. It looked like I had dunked everything in coffee and squeezed it out. I finally decided to deal with it at home.

I made it back in time to see Kamran finish, looking pretty good, smiling and even jogging. I cannot tell you how proud I was to see him finish! So many people dropped and he did not, despite being exhausted and freezing and wet and muddy all night. (The race director was at the finish line and he said they were only expecting about 30% of the registered 100-mile participants to finish, a DNF rate higher than anything I had ever heard of before.) Standing at the finish line, exhausted and excited and proud, I naturally thought of Boston and the finish line there and how messed up it was to have something so horrible happen at such a wonderful place. But even thinking about that could not ruin the joy of the finish line or the feeling of excitement when he showed up almost an hour earlier than I had been expecting him. I love finish lines and always will! Crazy people, you can't stop me or any other runners I know...

So that was that. I am glad I did the pacer thing in an ultra but have no desire, ever, to do a 100 of my own. Not unless I get so fast I can complete it without staying up all night. Ha.

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