If you want advice on how to finish a 100 mile run you could very easily find several thousand sources more reliable than me. I do know a few things about getting a middle age body to a finish line though and I believe that the most important thing that a runner can do…more important than nutrition, more important than shoe selection, even more important than training or fitness…is to maintain an optimistic mind; an even-keel mentality. A 100 mile participant should prepare for tough times but hope for the best. They should have an easy, light feeling of confidence augmented by a bottomless cup of hope. A 100 mile buckle-seeker will be alone on the trail with their own thoughts for a long, long, long (LONG) time. And so it is necessary that their mind, their companion, be a good traveling mate. No one wants to drive across the country with an individual who does nothing but bitch about the heat, or about the traffic. Or about the government. No one wants to be reminded over and over again that the gas tank is running low, or that the “check engine” light is on (Its probably just an oxygen sensor thingy, so try not to get too upset right?). And no one wants to ride along in a body for one hundred miles with a mind that is being an annoying jerk.
I know all of this. But as I headed into the Buckhaven aid station I couldn’t shut my brain up. I was worried and, in all honesty, probably a bit irritated.
So far everything was going OK. I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep the night before. Terri and Mark Lemke hosted several of us at their house. The hospitality and friendship calmed me and the headlamp-lit excitement of the starting line made me smile.
I wonder do lemmings have a feeling of camaraderie in the moments before they plunge over the cliff? I ask this because I know of no other species that seems as peaceful, happy, and excited than a group of runners heading out into a day that will bring a 50% chance of failure and a 100% chance of pain. The tension is wonderful. Any joke brings laughter and all exchanges bring sincere, heartfelt wishes of wellness. I feel certain that the mechanics of our day-to-day culture are faulty. I feel equally certain that the culture that exists on the starting line of a 100 mile run is some kind of solution. In fact, I believe there is a thread to all of this; the running, the growth, the friendships, the care. It might be that if we think about who we are long enough, and appreciate it, and analyze it, we might have some sort of large-scale answer to our world’s troubles. Could the answer to the world’s problems be born in the light of headlamps on the trails of North Central Ohio? Something is afoot. I have suspected this for a while now.
But heading into Buckhaven I was starting to get irritated. Physically I was doing fine. I was in the best shape of my life. I was an experienced Mohicanite (Mohicaner?). I had all of the correct types of tape, shoes, and lubricants. I had a medicine bag that would have put a shaman to shame. I had a special hat that was designed to suck the heat out of my head (that’s what the advertisement said), and just in case it didn’t, I had it loaded with ice. I was doing everything right…but my chances of getting to the finish line were being reduced nonetheless, and for no noble reason.
This year’s course included a section of largely open road from miles 19-42. You will never hear me complain in any meaningful way about heat, or hills, or mud, or bugs, or river crossings. But I’m going to say it here and I’m only going to say it once: putting a group of individuals out onto largely open roads in the middle of a day that would reach 92 degrees, for 23 miles, is the wrong decision and, on the surface, seems to lack an element of care. I will complain about it because I can. I finished this year’s race and so my concerns should not be misconstrued as sour grapes. Call me a wussy if you want to but I’m a wussy who finished. I finished due to the grace of God. So many others did everything right and did not finish. Their complaints could be misconstrued as defensive.
I was fortunate.
I heard no one complain about the heat and pounding sun during the race. Ultra marathoners are a notoriously tough breed. Complaining brings along its own heavy karmic baggage and so it should, and generally is, and was, avoided. In fact one would have been hard pressed to find an individual to complain ABOUT. Don Baun designs the race course and he has designed it every year since the inception of the race. This year Don faced a problem. The race could no longer start at the Mohican Wilderness Campground and the road sections had to go SOMEWHERE right? Don should be applauded and credited for his efforts regarding the race over the years. I hope that some day a statue of Don will be placed at the base of the North Rim trail. He deserves the recognition. This year he saved things by hastily redesigning the course. The problem is that last minute changes that occur when relationships erode rarely allow for creativity. There were other ways in which the course could have been routed that would have helped to prevent the mass implosion that occurred at this year’s race. But such planning takes time, and communication, and I believe that Don worked through his solution without adequate access to either.
It was hot this year. That’s a fact and heat is never anyone’s fault. But it has been 92 degrees and sunny at Mohican before. In fact it has been this hot several times. And the race never faced the crisis (I know it’s a harsh word but I’m using it anyway) that we faced this year, because in a woods one has an ability to slow down, regroup, get the core temperature under control, and move on. No such ability exists under an open sun. And for those who might sniff and point out that “This is nothing compared to Badwater” I will point out that Badwater, a race through Death Valley in July, requires its runners to have unlimited personal aid in the form of a vehicle that must stay with them at all times. The vehicle can be air conditioned and provide shelter and respite and easy access to ice. At one point on the road section of this year’s course runners were required to go more than 14 miles with only one aid station (and no other access to water). Furthermore they were banned from accepting aid from crews or vehicles during that section. Badwater also ADVERTISES itself as just exactly what it is…a race of survival. Does Mohican need to be a race of survival? Is that the race’s mission? And, if so, is it advertised as such? It is generally described as a very tough but wonderful choice for a first-time 100 mile experience. And as I ran down the hot roads, equipped with a hat filled with ice, 55 ounces of fluid, and a head full of the type of experience that 14 one-hundred miles starts (and several failures) can bring, I wondered how our first-time friends were doing?
Stephen Zeidner was a first timer. He was doing…OK. He should have been doing OK. After all, he was young, strong, fast, well trained, and had a personality ideally suited to this sort of adventure. He finished in the top ten in a prestigious 50K race a few months ago. Furthermore he had respect for the distance. He was running well but not doing anything stupid. The same could be said for his friend, David Huss. Dave finished Mohican last year as did their buddy, Michael Patton. All three were, in a word, ready. I did a training run with all three of them a few months ago on the Mohican course and severely strained my right quadriceps. I didn’t jar it, I didn’t trip, in fact I didn’t do anything to it…other than try to keep up. My connective tissue could not hang with these guys on a short training run. If they are the future of our sport then our sport has a fun, fast, strong future ahead of it. Despite this, by the beginning of the road section Michael was suffering from nausea, and by the end of this section Steve was feeling hints of the same. David had knee surgery in January and the knee was holding up fine. But his OTHER knee was aching a bit. Strange stuff. Rob Powell had more experience but only a bit more success. He could be found along the road, naked except for running shorts, sitting submerged in a drainage culvert trying to cool down.
Others suffered quietly.
According to a volunteer at the Rock Point aid station, the end point of the road section--the 42 mile check in, saw dead-eyed runners slumped in chairs, ill, considering dropping out. The volunteer told me “This was the type of stuff you would expect to see at 3 O’clock AM, not three in the afternoon”.
As for me? I was saved from my own mind by the sudden appearance of a friend who has developed a recent habit of saving me from my own mind. Suzanne Pokorny and I trained together for this race. We were in similar shape and so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that we would run a similar pace on race day. But 100 mile races seldom turn out that way. Runners leap-frog each other. Suzanne and I SPECIFICALLY decided, before the start of the race to NOT run together. Our reasoning was that any agreement to stick together would be a detriment to both of us. If Suzanne stuck with me during my inevitable bad patches, and I did the same for her, then simple math would dictate that we would be slowed by TWICE the number of bad patches. So the deal we made was “no deals”. Harsh but caring; that was our agreement.
Fate stepped in and made our agreement moot for a while. We happened to be moving at the same pace. We each had mini-bad patches and mini-good patches but were within hailing distance of each other for many miles. We tried to ignore the elements and instead challenged each other to name the worst song ever written. There were many candidates but the winner was “We Built This City on Rock and Roll” by Starship. The decision was based more upon the shameless sell out of the artist rather than the quality of the song (Shame on you, Grace Slick! I hope you spent the money on something that produced some good : )). We also talked about life, and past Mohicans. We visited with Roy Heger as he passed by and connected briefly with Ron Ross at an aid station. We learned that Fred Davis was somewhere behind us. We had a wonderfully long visit with Joe Jurczyk. Joe is a past race director of Mohican and the current race director of Burning River. I have known Joe forever and it was uplifting to see him back at his sport, in the event that he helped to make great. I wondered aloud about these legends being way back here in our part of the pack but chalked it up to some sort of wisdom on their part. We wondered how our other friends were faring. Neither of us spoke aloud of our fears that the race was eating its young. We didn’t know for sure and we didn’t want any confirmation if it was true.
Suzanne and I stuck together through the road section and into the green loop, past Rock Point at mile 42, and into South Park at mile 46. The trail into South Park was difficult for me. Suzanne moved out a bit ahead of me. I caught her and then she slowed a bit. Our bad patches were no longer in sync and my heart began to hurt. We would soon spend less time together. We would likely continue to leap frog each other but it would be at increasingly longer intervals. We had both danced this dance before and we knew that we were going to soon be disconnected. Neither of us spoke but, instead, as she passed me on a long downhill after South Park we decided to take five minutes and pretend that we were not in a race of any kind. We decided to be simply two friends walking through the woods on a beautiful summer day. And it was peaceful. And for a few minutes there was no worry. And we allowed ourselves to believe that this is how it would be. But soon the running started again, and then the leap frogging. We were separating and it was lonely. Like George and Lennie in Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ the partnership was the only thing separating us from the other desperate, solitary, individuals around us. And it would end soon. To my absolute amazement it was Suzanne who dropped back first.
I arrived at the Fire Tower and walked into the heart of the Lemke family. They were gathered around Terri. Terri Lemke is the strongest runner I know; mentally the toughest runner I have ever known. And she was cramped and heaving and desperate. She had done nothing at all wrong. Its just how things were. I spoke with her. I wanted to do some good. I failed. I knew that she would recover so I felt empathy, not sympathy. But I also felt fear. If Terri could hurt like this what hope was there for me, really? When would it hit? I also saw the Pokorny family. They were ready to revive Suzanne. That was good. And Suzanne was a much better night-runner than I am. I told myself that she would pass me in the night and that it would be nice. I told myself these and other things. But mainly I just missed my friend.
The Fire Tower and the Covered bridge aid stations brought the first real news in a while and none of it was good. Horror stories were everywhere. So many of my friends were out of the race, others were alive but dying.
The sun was starting to fade and I was alone. It seems I’m always alone when the sun starts to fade. My own brand of nausea began at the 60 mile mark. I was alive but only because I had gone so slowly. And that meant that I had far less cushion than usual on the time cutoffs. The race basically had three types of runner left; the elite runners, the runners who had imploded and were marking time until their DNF, and runners whose conservancy led to time cut-off pressures. I was firmly ensconced somewhere between the latter two types.
And then I began to see ghosts.
And then I wasn’t alone any more.
And then it turned beautiful.
I began to see unexpected appearances of runners who had dropped from the race; individuals who had eschewed a shower and a meal for a bag of ice and a pair of sandals. They began to appear on the course. They cheered. They advised. They walked with the alive but wounded for a while. If the esprit-de-corps at the starting line signaled a solution for all that is wrong with the world then this behavior must be a symptom of everything that is already right in the world.
Runners on the course were caring for each other as well. No one seemed to ever pass anyone else without a solid conversation and a clear commitment from the runner being passed that everything was OK. I saw one runner give ALL of her water to another who was struggling. I saw food change hands. I overheard soothing talks, and uplifting messages from runners who were, themselves, in the depths of despair. Someone produced a piece of lamb’s wool and another produced a pair of scissors to cut it with. Together they fashioned a cushion for a third runner’s blistered foot. I saw Michelle Bischell at the Hickory Ridge Aid Station. She was getting her 2nd wind…or possibly 3rd or 4th wind…of the day. We exchanged encouraging words. Everything that might have been wrong with the race was being corrected by everything that was right about the race.
Running the last couple of miles into the Mohican Adventures aid station at 65 miles I was in dire straits. I was hours behind schedule, night was falling, and I had lost my light. A runner by the name of Karen Ray appeared. She invited me to call her K-Ray, and so I did. She was running powerfully but slowed to my pace and shared good advice, companionship, and a light with me.
My crew was there. I knew they would be. Before the race I told them to meet me at the Bridle Staging Area, another ten miles up the path. They correctly ignored me and made a plan to form a relay to pace me from this point on. Scott Wolf. Casey Clark. Nick Longworth. Holy Cow do I have good friends or what? We stood in the dark for a few minutes and for the first time ever I realized that I can no longer run 100 miles….by myself. I need help. Lots of help. And there’s something very beautiful about that.
We had no time to spare and so we quickly set out. I was too nauseous to eat or drink anything but seven-up and the aid station had run out of that. Nick was dispatched to buy some and meet us at the Bridle Staging area. I saw Mike Patton leaving the aid station as I walked in. He had a look that suggested that thoughts of stopping had invaded his mind. He was, however, accompanied his pacer, Kevin Martin, a recent MMT finisher (!) who wore an equally intense look that seemed to say “No way in hell!” My money was on Mikey buckling. What a tough tough dude. I tried not to listen to news but what I did hear was horrendous. I was informed that Steve was dropping out at the bridge. I also heard that Dave’s knee had locked up. There were conflicting reports about Dave. Some said he had left the aid station and was on his way to the bridge. Some said he was done. But no one seemed to believe that it made any difference. Dave was as tough as they come but he was a dead man walking. And his only real hope, the only person who could possibly motivate him to the finish line was stranded at an airport in Minneapolis.
I’ll post part three in a few days. This is very long but I will like reading it when I’m 70. If anyone is still reading you are welcome to come back. Some of the endings in this story are happy ones. I promise