The trail disappeared into the darkness. My vision was blurred and it felt like I was floating. I was vaguely aware of Wilson trying to crack jokes as we made our way through a single track section of roots and rocks. I was struggling, no doubt, but that didn’t explain the odd sensation of what I knew had to be an out of body experience. Or maybe my body was just shutting down. Whatever was happening was bad. My level of despair went up ten fold as I ran off the trail into the underbrush. My heart rate spiked and my head was pounding as I went over all the possible scenarios of my impending doom.
Despite all the horror stories, myths and legends, nothing weird or mystical really happens during the late stages of a 100 mile race. I have never seen a giant elephant suddenly appear on the trail. Ghost like visions of Bigfoot have not chased me in the middle of the night. Unicorns have not magically guided me to the finish line or the next aid station. The trees do not move. Or talk. Rocks do not turn into giant frogs and hop away. These things supposedly happen to other people but I have never experienced anything even close. Until now. Something was definitely wrong.
Let’s back this up a little…. Rocky Raccoon 100 in Huntsville, Texas. This was the race I had been training for since last February. I had pushed everything else to the side for a chance to run a sub 19 hour 100 miler. There was no doubt that my training was there, the miles and long hours of training had been logged. Everything was in place, all I had to do was show up. It was not only a race that I was comfortable with, having completed it the past 3 years, it was also the setting for the USATF National Trail 100 Mile Championship. Of course, I had no dreams of winning but I did register and agree to run under the rules set forth by the USATF just to say that I was a part of it. Seems silly but how many opportunites does an average runner like me get the chance to “compete” in a National Championship race?
So there I was once again in Huntsville State Park getting ready to run all day and night for the chance to “win” a belt buckle. Jon Wilson had agreed to crew and pace for me for the 4th year in a row. This time he would have a little help. Several members of the Idiots Running Club and Team PRS Fit had made the journey from all over the U.S. to either crew, pace or run the race. It really is an awesome feeling to finally “meet” friends that I had only previously had relationships through facebook and twitter. With three other PRS Fit teammates running their first 100 miler and all the support from our friends the outlook was promising and I was certain that we would all have a great race.
The pre race jitters began about 15 hours before the start. I’m pretty sure I only slept 22 minutes all night. I was ready to go. As we gathered at that starting line everybody seemed anxious to get started. The race director began the countdown and I couldn’t help but laugh at how much we look forward to running for 20 or more hours straight and how easy it is to forget just how hard that really is to do. With a lot of smiles, backslapping, handshaking and fist bumping, we were on our way. The first 3 miles went very smooth and we hit the first aid station right on time. Cruising through I started thinking how easy this day was going to be.
Never judge a 100 miler by the first three miles. Never. I should know that by now but naturally I got caught up in the hype of feeling really strong. The next 17 miles were uneventful other than the fact that I had kicked up my pace and was going slightly faster than I had planned. The temperatures remained cool but the humidity seemed to increase as I closed out the first 20 mile loop. My shirt was completely soaked as I hit the start/finish aid station 15 minutes ahead of schedule…. that should have been a sign for me to start thinking about my hydration and electrolyte situation. Should have been…. Instead, I just changed my shirt, sucked down some GenUCan and took off for the second loop.
I was feeling good but decided that I really needed to settle down and find a smarter pace. So I slowed down and tried to find the groove. Another 20 uneventful miles passed as the temps rose and the humidity really began to make the air thick. I was not prepared for this. I am not the best runner in hot, humid conditions and usually try to avoid long distance races in the summer time for that very reason. Determined to find that sub 19 finish time, I plugged along, putting one foot in front of the other, flying through the aid stations only refilling my water bottle and completely ignoring everything else. I was feeling good… why would I want any endurolytes, salty pretzels or Gatorade? Just keep running baby…. #EyeOnThePrize.
I was really starting to feel it at the mile 40 aid station. Of course I told everybody I was doing great. “Just need a dry shirt and I’m good to go.” Another 20 ounces of GenUCan and I was off. This time the loop was much tougher. The temps peaked around 75 but the humidity was a ridiculous 90% and the overcast sky made the course feel like a greenhouse. I was zapped by mile 50 and really struggled to finish this loop. My time was slipping but I was still within striking distance of the sub 19 finish. It wasn’t likely but I was still telling myself that I could make it. At this point, Coach Jeff made me stop at the crew station and drink some pickle juice. Yes, I said pickle juice. I slammed down at least 20 ounces because A.) I love me some pickle juice and B.) I knew that I was behind on my electrolytes. I had failed to take care of a very basic and fundamental part of endurance running. It was a stupid rookie mistake but it happened. Thankfully my crew recognized the mistake and set me on the path to correct it before it became a problem that I couldn’t come back from.
Coach Jeff ran with me for the next 12 miles and it was good to have somebody to talk to. By mile 65, I admitted to myself that my goal had slipped away. I told Jeff that there was no way I could make a sub 19. He confirmed that I wasn’t going to make it but reassured me that I still had an opportunity to finish around 20 or 21 hours. I really appreciated his honesty because the last thing I wanted was to be fed a line of bull. Things were tough enough without clouding my head with unrealistic expectations at this point. The humidity had zapped the energy out of me along with the usual lighthearted enthusiasm that has helped me persevere through the hard miles in the past.
I had been looking forward to nightfall because I really thought it would cool down. In the past years, Texas was like another planet during the nighttime hours as the cold would set in and chill me to the bone. Not this year. My headlamp struggled to shine the path through the humidity and it was tough to keep moving. For most of the day I felt like I was swimming through the thick air but at night it felt more like I was trying to kick my way through Jello. I have never actually kicked my way through Jello but I can only assume that’s what it would be like. At mile 72, Wilson took over and we ran the next 14 miles together.
When I say we “ran the next 14 miles” I really mean we “slowly proceeded along the trail for the next 14 miles”. I can honestly say that I have never felt so defeated in my life. I could sense the time slipping away and had become content with the idea that a 23 or 24 hour finishing time would be okay. I hate to admit that I became that weak mentally but it’s the truth and it’s something I can learn from. At mile 80 my friend Norene wanted to get a picture to send to my wife. She told me to smile and I let her know that I was not going to smile because I wasn’t having fun anymore. This really disappoints me as I look back because running IS FUN and I should have been more thankful of the fact that I was on the course doing something that I really do love.
Wilson relayed a conversation that we had around mile 82. Apparently, I was talking in the third person and telling him that “David Murphy don’t be messin around. David Murphy is an ultra runner” and other nonsense like that. Now… I know that Wilson is a man of impeccable character and I’m not calling him a liar but… I don’t remember any of that. Not even a sliver of it. How is David Murphy not going to remember David Murphy talking about David Murphy in the third person? Re-donk-u-lous.
So there I was… floating. My out of body experience. I was certain that I was going blind. I told Wilson as we approached the mile 86 aid station that I was going to stop for a few minutes and figure out what was wrong. I made a promise to my wife and kids back before my first 100 miler that if I ever felt like it was too much that I would quit. This seemed to be the time. At the aid station I found a chair and sat down. Sat down. That’s something I really don’t like to do. Especially this deep into a race. My crew gathered around and I began whining about not being able to see anything. Maybe I was going to die. I’m sure I sounded like Fred Sandford… “This is the big one, Elizabeth! I’m coming to see ya!” Thankfully, Wilson is really smart and realized that my headlamp was very dim. He changed the batteries, double checked to make sure I wasn’t going to die and told me to get going.
Changing the batteries in the headlamp made all the difference in the world. I instantly felt better as my new pacer, Ellen, took over. I figured that I would be okay even if the miracle battery thing didn’t work out because she is a doctor. Doctors save lives and stuff…. they also trip runners and blame it on “the one armed man”. As we slowly made our way around a 6 mile loop we passed a couple of runners. As soon as I went around them… .BAM. I was on the ground. In the dirt for the first time in two years on this course. I instantly accused Ellen of tripping me and she quickly blamed it on one of the runners we passed. It seems silly, corny, whatever but it was exactly the laugh I needed to bring me back from the dead.
At mile 92, Wilson rejoined me and we made our way through the final 8 miles. It was slow but much better than the previous miles we had ran together. I thought about the events of the day as we closed in on the finish line. I had truly experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. This was new for me. I had, in the past, encountered some low points but never anywhere close to the lows I felt that day. The dreams and expectations of a solid sub 19 finish and a new PR had evaporated and I was disappointed. In fact, I’m still disappointed but it’s much easier to digest when put in proper perspective. I am very lucky to be able to compete in these events that I enjoy, and I do enjoy them, even a bad day is a good day in the big scheme of things. I met “new” friends and bonded with them in a very short time, making memories that will last forever. I finished in 50th place overall with a time of 21:27, earned a 5th sub 24 belt buckle, placed 25th in the Championship division and even managed to smile at the end of it all. Almost half the runners that started the race were not so lucky and had DNF’d. Definitely not the worst day of my life.
This was a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society and I am proud to say the WE raised over $1,200 for this event. I am very aware that the struggles I had that day were nothing in comparison to those that have battled the beast that is cancer. They are the ones with true endurance as they continue the fight. One day we will find the REAL finish line together and that will be cause for true celebration. Thank you to everyone that participated, donated and supported another one of my big, dumb stunts.