Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Hundred Miles

If you start snapping your fingers now and continue snapping 98,463,077 times without stopping, the sun will rise and the sun will set, and the sky will grow dark and the night will deepen, and everyone will sleep while you are still snapping, until finally, sometime after daybreak, when you finish up your 98,463,077th snap, you will experience the truly intimate awareness of knowing exactly how you spent every single moment of a single day of your life.
—Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

There are some things you can only learn by running 100 miles. I'm not yet sure what those things are, exactly, but maybe I'll figure them out next time I run 100 miles. All I know is that, even now, sitting at my desk, when I think back to that final stretch, my throat chokes up and I can feel tears welling behind my eyes. So, something happened here, but it might be a while before I figure out what.

I'm currently working on my Fulbright Student Research Fellowship application, and my personal statement is centered around (1) running and (2) my family. Because of this, I've been thinking about both these themes a lot, and how they intertwine.

I started running after my mom signed herself and most of my siblings up for a 5K at the county zoo. Before training for that, I'd never run more than a mile (before college, I could never even run an actual mile). And that wasn't too long ago—just 2010. I don't know why she signed us up, and I don't know why I took it so seriously, but I suspect it had something to do with finding a way to bring our family closer together after a long string of estranging events. Running has brought our family closer—along with the wider family of the ultrarunning community, but I'd be hard pressed to believe my mom could see exactly where that little neighborhood 5K would lead us.

Tropical Depression Bill came to Ohio to make
the Mohican 100 as depressive as possible. Photo
by Nasa. Finder's fee of $0.00 goes to Mike Massie.

Camping in The Middle of Nowhere, Ohio, in the rain. My family and some of our friends were sprawled across four campsites. Things weren't going exactly well, and I couldn't help but feel selfish for dragging everyone along for such a dismal "vacation" just so I could do something stupid. There was plenty of tension: I tried playing a board game with some of my siblings, but my tent was leaking and I didn't want it to get ruined so I made us stop. The first night we almost couldn't eat because the rain precluded making a fire and all the restaurants in town closed rural-early. Setting up a canopy, I accidentally smashed my sister's French press with a propane tank.

I was plenty crabby, too, but not because I was stressed about the prospect of running 100 miles, per se. Rather, I was on edge because we couldn't manage to come up with a plan for pacing me (we had an assortment of people who offered to pace for segments of 4 to 24 miles, but the details were all TBD up until the night before). Also, we faced a deadline of leaving at noon on Sunday, which was an hour before the cutoff for running the 100 mile. I had initially agreed to this plan because I didn't think there was any chance I'd need that long. I figured 24 hours at the most. But especially after I got started and saw how slow going the run was, trying to finish in time for everyone was a key stress point for me. I was frustrated because I couldn't get my body to move any faster, and I knew that the longer I took the more I'd be stressing everyone else out. I thought about quitting countless times—which is normal, I hear. If I dropped out, then they wouldn't have to wait for me to take forever to finish, and I wouldn't stress them out. But they'd probably be disappointed. If I continued, at least I'd finish, but at what cost? Again, running 100 miles seemed like the most selfish thing to do. I came really close to quitting a few times.

When it really came down to it, none of us knew what we were getting into. Zach told me to imagine a 100 Mile as more like three 50 Miles in a row, but I guess I didn't really understand what that meant. Maybe I was imagining a nice jaunt through some casual trails, only for an extended period of time. Running 100 miles in 24 hours is like 14-minute miles. Anyone can do that, right? So I was pretty casual about the whole thing. Until, a few days out from the race, I relented to look at the weather forecast. Here's what it said:

Indeed, the weather was about as bad as seasonably possible. It had been raining in Loudonville all week, and it was slated to continue through Saturday (the race was Saturday to Sunday). This would be a problem for many reasons: First, camping in the rain is the worst. Second, rain meant muddy trails, which meant there was no chance of me finishing if I were to wear my Luna Sandals. They're great for almost everything, but mud is their kryptonite. So what was I supposed to do? I ordered a pair of shoes and a raincoat.

Before I knew it, I was standing at the start of the Mohican Trail 100 Mile, wearing those shoes and that raincoat for the first time. What was that thing they say about trying something new on race day?

A few minutes before the start. Photo by my mom.

All things considered, I felt pretty serene. I found starting a 100 Mile less stressful than starting a marathon, because in a marathon you need to put in a more acute effort. I guess because the effort in an ultra is distributed over such a long period of time, there's less performance anxiety. Probably not so for the elites... I was just looking to finish. (Although I did have some notions of being a breakout and placing in my age group; these notions were quickly dashed.) I think I was also calm because I had already put in the pre-first-100 jitters at Lake Martin 100, where I DNF'd. Anyway, I waved past my mom and sister, who had lovingly dropped me off at the starting line, and tried not to think about all the hours ahead. Just think about now, I told myself. By the time we left the camp ground and entered the trail, I had settled into my place in the conga line and just relaxed.

The first few miles were calm. And, because the race started at 5 a.m., dark. I used a handheld flashlight through the first two aid stations, by which time it was light enough to see, even beneath the forest canopy. Not that you needed light, necessarily, to tell what was there: mud—sloppy and slimy. Boy, was I glad to be wearing shoes. Until a few miles had passed, when I realized that my feet were going to be soaked, sloshing and wrinkling, for a very, very long time. I had a couple of changes of socks (as an all-weather sandal-wearer, I have very few socks to begin with), and I changed them when I could and simply wrung them out when I ran out of fresh ones. Either way, the relief didn't last long—there was ankle-deep mud waiting around every corner.

My feet were quickly converted into misshapen, white raisins. Not appetizing. Maybe I will never eat raisins again. Blisters sprouted as decorations and then popped with painful flourishes. That's when I gritted my teeth and pretended that it wasn't happening. Same with the pain that smacked of a stress fracture coming from the top of my left foot. Same with all the times I stubbed my toes.

A good look at the bottoms of my feet after the run.
Photo by Mike Massie.

Never thought feet could look this good. Voyeurism by Mike Massie.

Now, about 48 hours after taking my socks off for good, my feet have mostly de-wrinkled, but each toe is still hanging onto the two or three blisters that have called it home. Some are your classic oval blisters, and others are shaped more like the hat of a garden gnome. Overnight some blood seems to have seeped out from around the corners of a few of my toenails. My left foot has been slightly numb. Wearing sandals, I never had to deal with any of this stuff before—but maybe, to some extent, it just comes with the 100-mile territory.

"So that'll be like... an hour and a half maybe. And that's the first loop done. Can't imagine doing three more. But I'll just go a little bit at a time. So, yeah." (Voice memo at 4 hours, 46 minutes)
My running didn't go as well as I'd hoped. I had gotten over my calf strain that plagued me for the first third of this year, thankfully, and I'd gotten in all my training. So I had high hopes. But it just wasn't there for me. Maybe I pushed myself too hard at my half marathon the previous Sunday. I was sore for several days afterwards, after all, which isn't normal. I might have also had some sort of infection; I had some sort of blistery rash on one of my feet that looked like poison ivy. In short order, it spread to my other foot, my arms and my hands. That was four days prior to the race. I was feeling overly fatigued (I needed a nap every day, which isn't normal for me), and my muscles were sore. I don't know if poison ivy can cause fatigue like that, but who knows. On top of that, I had moved the previous week, which was an insane few-days workout and a lot of stress. Anyway, even though I felt fine on race day, I probably wasn't at my 100%. And it quickly showed. After only 25 miles I started cramping up, which was basically my worst nightmare—way too early for that to be happening. After mile 60 or so I basically couldn't run anymore. Oh, also, my ears plugged up somewhere around 3 hours into the race—again, way too early for such alarming things to be happening—and they stayed plugged up for 9+ hours after that. All that time I felt like I was underwater. I couldn't hear anyone that well, so I didn't want to talk to other runners, which didn't help the situation. (Talking on the trails usually helps cheer me up.)

"I had a scare a little while ago. I had what Michael Massie would describe as a slight stabbing pain in my lung. So that was a little scary because I was like, 'Well, I might die. And then on my grave they would have to write DNF.' But then I was thinking that that's funny because, when you're dead, you kinda did finish. That's, like, the definition of finishing." (Voice memo at 9 hours, 18 minutes)

The experience of running 100 miles was, in a word, humbling. In the most literal sense: lowering one's estimate of his own importance, dignity and ability; feeling decisively defeated. I'm not sure if I can describe this in a manner sufficient for a reader who has not done this to imagine it. When you run 100 miles, you break yourself down so far that even going as fast as you can you're going slower than you ever imagined possible. It's not that you're in all that much pain, but you just can't make your body do what you want it to. I got a sense of this in my first marathon, but that was only five hours. This time it was almost 32. That number is only two digits long, so you can read it in an instant. Maybe it doesn't seem all that long. But stop and think about that: Thirty-two hours. Thirty-two hours and you're getting slower and slower, getting more and more broken, just trying not to think about how much farther you have left to go, wondering if your body will really hold out that long. It was the longest I'd ever been awake in my life.

Half a mile from the finish line.
A jovial spectator: Hey, now! That doesn't look like running! I thought this was a run!
Me: (Laughter) I—
Jovial spectator: But it feels like running, he says. (Laughter) Sure feels like I'm running! You're almost there, just keep going. 

The biggest problem I faced during the run was being overwhelmed by the number of miles I had left.  For example, it took me about 14 hours to finish the first two loops, meaning I had run 52 miles. It had been raining for the first 9 hours, but it finally stopped. I was exhausted. I'd already run so far. And I had another 50 to go. Everything I had just done, I had to do it again. It was too much. To quell these feelings, I tried to think of the event not as a race, but as a sort of stone-age migration. Something that was normal for early nomadic humans. I just took it one step at a time. I looked for distractions—trains of thought, looking around at the natural beauty. When it got really bad, I put on some music; I didn't have any headphones, so I just played it from my phone's speaker, which may have annoyed some other runners but at those points I just couldn't care.

The course brought me past our campsite on every loop. This is me
climbing the steep hill toward the end of my first loop. Photo by my mom.

Aid stations were 4 to 7 miles apart, and passing them really reinvigorated me. Hopeless though I might have been, I almost always felt like a million bucks once I left an aid station. The feeling tended not to last long, but at least it was there. The best was when I passed an aid station where I had a drop bag, which meant I could change my shirt or shorts. After doing so, especially while it was raining, it felt like I had just scored the most decadent luxury imaginable. When you're running an ultra, it's the simple things.

The climbs were killer. The course has about 12,000 feet of elevation gain (and equal elevation loss). That's over two miles, straight up, and then over two miles, straight down. Think about that. It's the same elevation gain/loss, roughly, as the Leadville 100, the granddaddy of punishing 100-mile events, but this one had the added fun of every climb and descent being a mudslide. I wasn't prepared for this. Even though I got some hill training in the Wissahickon leading up to the race, you just can't find those sorts of climbs in Philadelphia. And I hadn't run in mud since my last trail marathon in January 2014.

"Climbing that hill is really hard. It makes me think of having to do it again, and that makes me want to quit." (Voice memo at 14 hours, 6 minutes)

Toward the end of my second lap, I was looking forward to meeting my sister at the aid station. That's when we could begin having pacers, so she was going to run with me for about 9 miles. Then I'd have to make it 14 miles by myself, and finally Mike would join me for the last 24. Looking at it like that, it didn't seem so bad. Au contraire.

Nearing mile 60, hiking up a hill.
Photo by my sister Kim.

When my sister joined me, the sun was starting to set but we still had an enjoyable run. It was a pleasure to share with her my world of ultrarunning, and we got to talk. She also gave me some coffee and peppermint oil, which helped reawaken me a bit. Even with her there, though, I was starting to get overwhelmed and really crabby. I shudder to think of what it would have been like to be alone for that time.

"I'm going so slow. And it's so hard. I feel vaguely nauseous. And then I stopped, and then my head was spinning when I stopped." (Voice memo at 15 hours, 19 minutes)

Eventually my sister left me. I continued on shortly behind an older Irish guy and his Irish pacer. Listening to them talk was a pleasant diversion, and they also gave me a lot of good tips on night running and running ultras in general. They told me that if I could finish this course, there were loads of other 100s I'd have no trouble with. Apparently it wasn't a very gentle course to choose for one's first 100 Mile. Ah...

The night. Photo by Mike Massie.

But soon the Irishmen had a shoe issue and told me to go on ahead. (They went on to finish about 10 minutes after me.) I ran alone then for a long time, and it wasn't easy. By then it was pitch black. Ultrarunning in general is characterized by unknowns, and night running epitomizes that. Imagine spending six hours alone at night in the forest, trying to run through the mud, with only the little light of your headlamp to see by. Not only that, but it's foggy, so you can't see that well even with the light. And not only that, but you're wearing glasses and have poor night vision to begin with. And not only that, but you've been running for 17 hours and you are so, so tired. More than once I fantasized about going to sleep under a tree until sunrise. I didn't do it, but only because I didn't want to get wet. If I wasn't going to sleep under a tree, I thought, I should at least drop out. Then it would all be over. Then I could stop running. The nausea would pass, the disorientation would pass, my feet could get out of their sopping prisons... Everything would be better. But for some reason, I didn't stop. I just kept shuffling along, mostly in misery, looking forward to sunrise. Everyone was telling me that when the sun came back up, it would get better.

More than once I had the fleeting sensation that I might fall asleep right there, still in motion. Something was wrong. Moving, I felt sick. When I stopped, everything I saw was still in motion, and I felt dizzy. I thought I was going to puke. I was tripping on all kinds of things—even air. Sometimes I stepped sideways instead of forwards. I felt like I was slowly fading away. That's how I passed the final two hours or more of the third lap. Not fun. It was a long time coming, but eventually I finished my third loop. Only one left. It was about 3 a.m., and I was feeling dismal and nauseous. I didn't know if I could go on like this, so I determined to get myself better at the aid station before setting out on my final lap. I ended up spending over 90 minutes there. I changed socks, tentatively ate some potatoes and ramen, and waited to feel better.

I was also waiting because this is where I was supposed to meet Mike, who would pace me through the final lap. But there was a communication snafu and I was taking much longer than anticipated, so he wasn't there. The aid station volunteer helped me look for his car in the parking lot, which he was supposedly sleeping in, but it was nowhere to be seen. So this all made me feel worse. And I just sat there. Should I stop, I wondered. I wasn't feeling great, and I didn't want to go out there alone and risk passing out and falling down a hill somewhere, never to be seen again. I waited, hoping things would get better. Eventually my sister appeared from nowhere, and that was a relief. She brought me more coffee and we talked a bit. That cheered me up enough to get off my butt and back out there. I still wasn't feeling great—I was still lightly nauseous, very disoriented, and very tired. I left with a small group of other runners who were starting their final lap, and we sort of leap-frogged each other for the ensuing 24 miles, which took about eight hours.

"Okay, we're at 27 hours, 14 minutes, and I'm actually feeling good. Right now we're just bringing it home. Can't really run anymore, so I am sort of hobbling. I call it hiking uphill, power-walking downhill and gremlin-running the flats." (Voice memo)

The hallucinations. I wasn't prepared for that. It started during the night, when I would look ahead and see, for example, a life-size Nativity scene or a little crouching Chinaman. The illusion would last a second or two, and then I would see that it was just a fallen tree or some foliage. When the sun finally rose, the hallucinations got worse. At that point, and through the remainder of the race, virtually everything I saw was actually not what it looked like. I saw aid stations and phantom runners, but I also saw concrete walls, garbage cans, carriages for Medieval Japanese royalty, lots of crouching people... Even when I looked down at the mud, I saw toy soldiers, tiny medallions, wooden toys, swords... Usually the illusion would only last a second or less, but there were several times when I saw someone up ahead leaning against a tree, and I'd say to myself, "Okay, that for sure is a person." As I got closer, I'd be about to say hello or something, and then it would turn out that they were just a tree stump. It sounds funny, but it was more frustrating than anything—especially when it came to seeing aid stations. I couldn't trust my eyes anymore. As I mentioned, the hallucinations lasted to the very end. In the final quarter-mile, I thought I saw a little kid crouching along the path, watching me run. I waved, but the little kid turned out to be a fire hydrant.

After the race, my sister revealed to me that she, perhaps unwittingly,
added some Essence of Spider to my coffee. She thinks this might have
contributed to the hallucinations.
It took absolutely forever, but the final miles approached. The stretch from the final aid station to the finish was particularly brutal; it was mostly downhill, and going downhill hurt the most at that point. Those last seven miles felt like the longest marathon of my life (well, probably because they took about as long as a marathon...). Approaching the finish line, I could feel my body trying to cry, but it couldn't. I was almost there. Almost there. Finally.

I saw Danijela when I passed by our campsite, about a mile and a half from the finish, and then my mom and brother were waiting at the bottom of the next hill. I was happy to see them, but I probably snapped at them because I didn't know what was going on.

And then, finally, I turned down the finish chute, into a final stretch of mud, along some lawn, and across the finish line. That's when I stopped running.

Crossing the finish line. By Mike Massie.

Oh, look. Another one of those thingies to put in that box in my closet...

I lay down, put my feet up and drank a few bottles of water. The last few runners came in, the 32-hour time limit passed and the course closed. Only 45% of the runners finished the 100-mile course. I'm glad to count myself among them. Only the top ten finished in under 24 hours (the winner was just under 18 hours).

About an hour after I finished, my body had had enough, and it involuntarily shut down into a long, dreamless sleep.

At the finish line. Photo by Mike Massie. Sculpture
presumably by someone who was not running.

Running 100 miles doesn't really register on a scale from easy to difficult. Nor can I say that it went "well" or "poorly." Words like that don't even begin to describe it. In some ways, it wasn't hard at all. I was never in terrible pain, really, and there were only a couple of times when I questioned my physical ability to cross the finish line. But in other ways, it was the hardest thing I've done in my life. I thought of quitting more times than there were miles.

I got through mostly by thinking of my family—to make them proud (as proud as someone can be of a pathetic and hobbling brother/son), but also to make good on my promise to run 100 miles and thereby make their trip to Ohio worthwhile. (Since, given the weather, I'm sure it wasn't all that pleasant for anyone. But maybe it was. I didn't get much of a chance to talk to them after the run.) It also helped to recall how upset I was with myself after dropping out of the Lake Martin 100 back in March. And sometimes I even thought about that stupid buckle.

I wish I could give a big hug to all the volunteers who helped me, especially during the night. The care and personal attention I received during this race was unlike anything I've experienced before. I know I wouldn't have finished without them. And also a huge thank-you to my family who came to Ohio to support me—before, during and after. Especially to my sister Kim for bringing me some well-timed cups of coffee and staying up throughout the night, beyond the call of duty.

Finally, super kudos to my little brother Ricky who ran his first marathon at this event! He did the entire thing in the rain.

There are plenty of things I can improve upon for next time. Here are a few:

  • Not taking so long at drop bags and aid stations. If I plan and organize my things better, I could save a lot of time. I calculated that I spent over two hours at aid stations (not counting the 90 minutes before my final lap), doing things like changing socks and rummaging for things. Having a crew would also expedite all that.
  • Not consuming only acidic foods. I think this was a big cause of my stomach issues. Along the way I was drinking fizzy ginger ale and Heed, and I was eating only chocolate and oranges. I guess I should have balanced out the acidic stuff with some more alkalinizing foods, which would have helped the nausea. 
  • Getting more caffeine. Every time I had some coffee, I felt better shortly afterwards. Immediately for the warmth, and then for the effects of the caffeine. I wish I had some more at some of the mid-loop aid stations. For this race, I cut out caffeine in the days prior to the race (though I usually only have one cup of coffee in the morning), with the hopes that caffeine would be more effective during the race. I'm not sure this was very helpful. And, worse, it threw off my digestive cycle, so things were not off to a good start. (Not having to take so many bathroom breaks would also save time.)
  • Better course-specific training. Well, to the extent that it's possible. 
  • Practicing night running. Or taking some measures to improve my alertness and vision.
  • Avoiding muddy courses at all costs. Or figure out a better footwear situation.


  1. These are clearly the ramblings of a mad man.

    However, congratulations. You did what the ancient Athenians could not do without dying.

    Very impressive and a fun read.

  2. Wow! Fascinating account! Gripping read. It all sounds kind of awful to me, actually, but I am amazed and impressed that you stuck with it. Quite an achievement.