A 100 mile journey

I haven’t decided if what I write about is to speak to the public, to self talk, to educate, to reflect, or to rant. Maybe it is all of those reasons. Maybe it is none of them. No matter what reason, everyone loves a story. And so I write to tell one.

Some may wonder what it feels like to not sleep for 36 hours. For me in 36 hours I not only learned what it feels like, but I also learned my limits, and It was an experience that took me from waitressing at three a.m one morning to scraping my life up against a guardrail at 3:00 p.m. the next day–36 hours and like every ultra runner, I found the next level of “pushing through.”

I was surrounded by ultra runners, ultra as in ultimate hardcore runners. I spent the last 36 hours breathing their energy, serving them food, and walking one through the last 30 miles of the VT 100, through the fog and rain, under starry skies, and cloudy darkness.  That’s where my story starts, at the VT 100 ultra race.

Three hundred sixty days later and I was back there. Back on the dirt road where the race begins and ends. I was back in the fields where for the past ten years at this event I had driven gators to go get water for runners, worn volunteer shirts that went to my knees for lack of “kids” size shirts, slept in kitty pools because all the cots were taken up by the runners. Their feet, which poked through wool blankets, revealed swollen feet and blistered toes. I sold merchandise with VT 100 plastered all of it, and passed the lulls in between volunteering doing somersaults and flips with my sister. Some say it was more entertainment for the others than for ourselves.

Every year, first thing, my siblings and I would look for the minion master(s). AKA the race director. Richard and Julia Hutchinson would put us to work. We put up tables. We took down chairs. We unpacked bagels and poured coffee.

Standing there, beside the two enormous white canopies, I spotted Richard doing what he always does, non stop go, go. Every year it cracks us up to see the other person: the changes, the similarities, Richard’s outfit that he wears all weekend, the fact that his birthday is on the VT 100 every year. He won’t even let me joke about that…and Julia with her now two year old daughter Isabel. The VT 100 is not just a fundraiser for Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports. It is a family. And once those two peaks of the giant white tents come into view, you’re back at one GIANT family reunion.

This year my volunteer work is a little different. I am going to pace. For eight years I was one of Richard’s and Julia’s minions (back in the day before I knew what minion meant), back when I set up infinite numbers of chairs, and camped out in the frigid Vermont nights. I didn’t have to worry about resting before a night of pacing. I miss doing those ridiculous things as their minions, but it is equally rewarding to help a runner push to new limits, to help him/her through to the night, through the mental barriers, and over physical stone walls.

A pacer is confidant, cohort, and support. One might go so far as to say the runner’s new mind. It is the pacer’s job to take control of the situation and become the runner’s conscience. The new conscience tells the runner, “Your body lies. Don’t listen to it. Whatever you feel is only temporary.” Optimism is key.

And so I look for him. I know I will eventually meet him at the pacer meeting where the runner and pacer meet for the first time. But I am still excited and curious, and I look for Wayne asking myself as I see each runner, “is he him?”  At the meeting my Dad matches the racers shouting out names. I watch my friends talk with their runners about details, times, goals, and food. I did not meet my runner. My curiosity would not be quenched until out on the dusty dirt roads.  Number 38 was still just a number.

I joined the long line of runners, crew and volunteers at the dinner line, the world’s longest dinner line. Every year as soon as the race meeting is over people jump out of their chairs in an effort to make it to the front of the lines. The runners are eager to eat their pasta and hit the tents for the night.

The evening is short. The day will be long. Who knew 36 hours long?

At 3:20 the next morning there was no roll out of bed, no groan, no rubbing of the eyes in the dark. Just sit up and step out of bed with full force. My 36 hour day began.

For the next next eleven hours my brother and I wait on people at the little Diner in Hartland. Crew members come direct from the start of the 4:00 race to eat. Inside, the windows only reveal darkness while from outside the small diner glows with activity. I will meet these people later out on the trails. They are the crew and they too would be up all night supporting their athletes.

What we do at the diner is not a small thing. What we do is big. What I say is well ingrained in my understanding of my job there. It is go big. Go big or go home. It is go big outside of work. Go big in life. The runners know it well too. They came to Vermont to complete a 100 mile race. But what they don’t know, what they keep coming back to, is the VT 100 community. It’s a one of a kind. Hartland is big of heart. We open the door at 4:30 so every crew member can be part of the bigness of community and have a meal that will last them the entire day before they have to eat again. Our town diner goes so big that we paint “VT 100” on our faces at work. We drop pancakes in front of them 16 inches in diameter that make eyes pop out and smiles spread like heaps of butter on its golden surface.

But at the end of the work day, my day keeps going. Four o’clock in the afternoon rolls around, and I am back at those white peaked tents to catch a shuttle to meet my runner.

For a little while I am back with the family volunteering my services until the shuttle comes to pick up my sister and pacer friends. We go to Ten Bear. The pacers are nervous to meet their runners in time and so Richard takes his rental truck to fit all the pacers in.

It feels good to sit. It is the first time I have sat all day.

Ten Bear comes. The shuttle goes. We all arrive hours early after checking on our runners. Mine won’t come until 8:30. It’s 4:00 now. Alongside other impatient pacers, who are eager to hit the trails, we wait. We putz around the food and drink tables, hoping we have eaten enough. We stretch out a blanket to sit or catnap. I try to sleep some, but Mike Silverman is doing too good a job with the microphone almost glued to his hand.

Every year he keeps traffic flowing through the overpopulated triangle in the middle of a three way intersections. It’s like a raft that holds ten times too many passengers. Mike’s job is to keep the locals happy, direct delirious runners into the weigh station, to crack jokes and to stand in the pouring rain to do the job.

At first the wind picked up blowing in the dark clouds. The temperature drops and the rain sprinkles down. In less than a minute tents overflow with people. The rain pours with such ferocity that those under tents twenty feet away looked like a watercolor. The road streamed the water in foamy masses, but Mike stays rooted to his post, his red traffic directors still flashing, his voice drowned out by the merciless drumming on scrawny tents.

I give up on trying to steal some sleep and allow the hours to pass by. It’s enough to stay dry. The clock reads 8:45. I am impatient. Runners come. My pacer friends are matched. I help with their runners eager to do something useful.

10:00 arrives and my sister’s runner dropped. Has Wayne done the same?

I crouch down and stand up. The ache from standing on my feet for 18 hours settles into the feet. I turn around and notice a woman talking to my sister. Lisa! It must be she. Yes, It was Wayne’s crew. Something about seeing her face gave number 38 personality. I had not yet met him, but seeing her gave me peace that Wayne would indeed come. The words on those emails were coming to life. I ask how Wayne is doing. He had some knee issues but miraculously ran through the problem.

We continue to wait. Numbers pass. I swear every number surrounding 38 came through but that mysterious number still ran the roads of Vermont unknown to me. Head lamps bobbed and flickered as runners with sore shaky thighs wobbled down the hill. Lisa jumped. My eyes follow to where she approaches a man. I can not read the number. I approach. I see an eight. I came closer and smile. I found my runner.

Within ten minutes we were out of there and faced ten hours through the night began. I soon realize the shape of the runner I am pacing. He hurts as any runner should after 70 miles. Where I picked him up didn’t help. It carries us straight up a climb that lasts for 45 minutes at our pace. Fog floods the night. Slick mud underfoot makes the going slow. Soon we pace our way on the down hills, talking on the flats. We crawl the hills, shuffle the trails, scuff the dirt roads, and wade the fields. We descended into clear darkness and rose into misty fog. Light sticks eerily guided the way…sometimes we go some time without seeing what appear to be willow the wisps hung low in the trees and I worry we lost the trail. Sometimes my eyes slump and I try to shake the heaviness from my eyes.

Hours pass into heavy feet, but it is not my job to complain. Did I mention optimism is key? May I ask who signed up for this? I did. Who would rather spend ten hours in a warm bed? Alright let’s be honest. Who wouldn’t? But runners get asked this all the time. Why do you run? It is intrinsic to who we are. We want to know what the next level is.

There are many times on the trail that silence lulls my brain into thought. When the ache screams at me to sit down, when the darkness funnels me through a never ending labyrinth, or when I hear a groan in the darkness, I asked myself why do I run? Why does he run and go through so much pain? Here I am at mile 23 and he has run 93 miles. I hurt, but he hurts so much more.

I am lulled back into a sleep run. I go back to MVL’s senior year of 2014. The day was perfect. There was a slight breeze, a few scattered clouds and good energy. I pulled over my head my Hartland Diner T-shirt for a two mile warmup. I headed out by myself. I needed to think. I assessed my body language, my breathing, my cadence, my mental attitude.

I had talked with her. We spent hours on Facebook analyzing my capabilities. What she saw in me was not what I had ever thought was in me. I decided then to trust her. Coach Tracy told me “the will to win is meaningless without the will to prepare~Juma Ikhanga.” Her husband Coach Hank preached it. He made us memorize it. I kept running down the trail thinking. I reflected on the hours spent with my sister training over the summer. Why? To get better. Why get better? Because I will not take anything less than my best. Why not take anything less than your best? The questions, although simple, were deep and complex. I knew what was ahead of me. I turned around and faced the start. It was one mile back on the trail.

I said, “Kathryn, what are you doing here? I said, I love to run. I love to be free. I love to feel like a horse unbridled, to pound the earth. Back across the dam I skirted the hills. I was running out of time. I had to make it back. But there she was. I stopped and looked deep into her eyes. We had a heart to heart. There was no plan except she reminded me that this was going to be the hardest race I would ever run if I let it be. She took me by the shoulders and looked into my eyes. That was all. I turned and ran stripping my T-shirt, grabbing my bag of spikes and pulling on my uniform. I found the line and my team. “Kathryn, they held the start because of you! Why didn’t you come?” It was only then that I realized how close I had cut my race. It was only then that I realized what a woman was asking me as I was deep in conversation. “Oh, you aren’t running today?” My response was, “Oh yes I am running!” She heard the shouts for me. I didn’t.

Jerking off my shoes, I knotted them and took my place beside my co-captain. I looked behind me. My green sneakers lay in the grass. I looked down, tipped my body forward, and leaped off the line.

The first mile hurt. The second hurt worse. Second place. That is where I stood. Is that what I wanted? My eyes locked onto what I needed to do. Hold on and don’t let go. The cheers drowned out. It hurt, but to give anything less than my best was to sacrifice the gift. Someone said, “Go.” That was all. What happened that last mile is beyond what I have the power to share, because something happened that had never happened before. I lost all thought and control. It was surrender to the mind. It demanded something that was only possible through surrender. My whole being was fighting. I was suffering, but I knew the hurt of giving up would hurt far worse than the physical pounding of the heart.

She rose above the last hill, but she was not alone. I rose behind her. We were not alone. Two bystanders sat at the peak as if placed there by angels. They said, “You can do this.”

The throbbing chilled me, my vision came in blurs, moisture hit my eyes. Were they tears of pain or droplets of perspiration? I no longer felt my legs, I was flying, I was flying on the wings of eagles, the last 50 meters, and I was carried. I remembered no more.

I stumbled from my dreamy half conscious sleep as my foot strikes a pot hole. My mind returned to my body. The darkness lifts. Turning I see Wayne. His head slumps, his body only moving rhythmically. It knows what to do. I let him lumber on unaware of his surroundings. Dawn breaks gloriously as we run past a field. The sun sends angel rays through the clouds. It is Sunday. Aid station after aid station passes by and then the next. Within hours of the sun showing her glory we reached the last unmanned aid station. Jugs of water scattered over a table are for desperate runners. Wayne and I were desperate to finish. We passed by, but one runner ran his head under a stream of clear liquid. He came out dripping, choking and sputtering. Instead of water, he had poured tailwind on his head.

A calm came over me. We had 2.5 miles left. Nothing could go wrong at this point. Wayne lays out the plan. At mile 1/2 to go I would find Lisa. Mile 1/2 came. I went.

Feet pounding the earth I stretch and feel the thrill of a powerful run. I am back in the last half mile of my MVL race. I run past startled struggling runners. I cheer them on as I whiz past. I am on a mission.

“Runner 38 coming i,n” I call! “Lisa! Wayne wants you to cross the line with him.” I plant her across the finish line and retrace my steps to find my runner. The sight stopps me at the top of the last hill. I am spell bound. I cannot go forward. I don’t need to. For the first time I truly see his agony. He was struggling neck tipped forward and eyes half closed. What I really see is what stopped me still. He is coming up the hill to make that finish. There is the locked vision of determination in his eyes. I know the look. It is the look I gave myself up to. It is of surrender. It is the cry for the end. It is pleading, but it is also one of pride, of fight, of going when the tough gets going, of struggle, of pain, of strength.

“Come on Wayne! You can make this time goal!” I stood at the top. He plods on. I feel desperate to make in the time frame. Part of me wants to do the work for him, but this is not my battle. We reach the peak. Tears try to choke me. I continue to run ahead of him. The words on my back read in black ink “whatever you do, don’t do it halfway.” “How much farther?” he pleaded. “Fifty meters you can see the finish line. Look ahead.” He throws his headlight and bottle down like a pilgrim at the end of his journey throwing off his baggage. I go for it, but he is going to cross the line as a team hands raised high.

This is why we run: to taste victory, to smile at a battle won, to triumph over impossible feats, and to find freedom in surrender. Wayne found it, and I was part of that journey. That is why I pace.

Thirty hours passed and I am still going. Well sorta. I slump into a chair and joke with Jeff that I escaped without a single blister. Got to love those Solomon shoes. Moments later I find myself waste deep in cold pond water. It soothes my muscles.

Thirty-four hours and I am back in the tent trying to pull on compression socks over swollen ankles and wet legs. That was a feat in and of itself. Dressed I turn to join the long lunch line. Sore runners waddled back and forth like penguins with stiff muscles. There were those who were not part of those lunch lines though. They were those who had dropped, whose bodies or minds were unable to sustain them to the end. Their bodies lay beneath blankets. Cots stretched in long rows of exhausted runners with badly blistered feet and other ailments. Medical staff bustle around them. I contemplate the rows. Wayne could have been one of them. At any point he could have said enough is enough.  Like those runners on the cots he could have felt a much different emotion–defeated, hurt, or wounded. But he didn’t and victory is his.

The award ceremony got underway, but before any celebration took place, Zeke said, “many of you finished the race this morning, but let’s not forget that many of you didn’t finish.” Defeat is an emotion that burns deeper than the festered blisters. It torments the soul like an augmented music chord. It demands completion. That is the addiction both for the champion and the broken. It says finish this, or remember that runners high?

Thirty-five hours and I am fading. I find my minion masters. Hug them good-bye and slide into the driver’s seat of the car. I am alone. Nothing seems unusual. Sure I have mud caked to my legs and shoes, but I have a clean shirt and shorts on. I pull out of the field that I see but once a year and follow a cop to the main road. It is slow going for whatever reason. I wish he drove behind. I should have seen it coming. I should have seen the physical signs. A mile further and I hit Rt 12. The feeling of being overcome by sleep is a curious sensation. As an athlete I have a rigid bed time. I do not test the limits of rest. I give it whole heartedly. The feeling now is such. I jump. Why? My head is heavy and eyelids sag. Delirious I turn on the radio and let the window down. That is sign one and two. I startl myself twice more. Please God get me home. What is going on I ask myself as a jolt that feels like electricity connects me back to earth. I round the bend. Almost home…to my bed, a bath, clean clothes, rest………………….THUMP. The sound of metal on metal sickens me. It is every driver’s horror. Whatever I did it stops, but the tears come anyways. I know I had just scraped up my life against a guardrail. After driving over a wheel barrow with my grandfather at 80 miles an hour I am not ready to encounter a second near death experience so soon. I am awake and will stay awake for the next hour. I am a wreck, but at least I am an emotional wreck and not a physical wreck along side the car. I pull into the driveway and put my head on the steering wheel. Thank you God.

Thirty six hours later. And I am done. I had done my duty. I had found the next level of pushing through at quite a price. I went up to my room and sat on the edge of my bed all the exhaustion drained to my feet and out my toes in pure relief. I was home but I was home with a story to tell. My eyes closed for the first time in 36 hours, but I regretted nothing. I may not have run 100 miles, but I ran a one hundred mile journey. I may not have completed it in the cutoff time of 30 hours, but I did it in 36. Sometimes completion is the sweetest victory of all.

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