Human nature begs a challenge. A person does things to test his limits in body and spirit. Some people live that way, always on the edge, while others, make that adventure run every once in a while. For My Dad and I running an ultra race was the closest thing to test our endurance without putting our life on the line…I didn’t say anything about putting our feet in the line.
My chiropractor is one of those runners like many others who run. Wow. that was profound was it not? But seriously, I mean just that. A runner has much more intensity to its definition. He is not a stroller, who jogs so he can eat that giant meal, or a jogger who lifts his nose to the sky imagining all the people looking at him, or a talker that turns running into a social event jabbering about the latest running style on Lu Lu Lemon. All those things are great! but a runner and a jogger are different. I can not entirely speak for him, but I sense that he runs for the thrill of running. I run to test endurance. We run for that endorphin high. We made a bet.
“If I sign up for the Vermont 50, you have to sign up” he said giving my back an aggressive crack in the process. “We can pace together.”
“Naw, naw you got it all wrong. If I sign up for the Vermont 50 ultra race, you have to sign up. And just for the record, there is no way I could ever run your pace. Just look at me, my body is a twisted pretzel.” He twirked my neck to the right and popped everything down to the tail bone.
“Now you are perfectly in line. Now about signing up.” he responded.
He signed up, so I signed my Dad and I up. While he strictly ran for sport, I also pole vaulted and sprinting does not exactly cater to ultra running.
It’s Sunday morning. I find myself up at four in the morning, pulling on my spanks and pinning number 1320 to my left leg. I self rant, “Kathryn, I hope you know what you are doing.” Does any ultra runner?
Like every crazed runner, I mix together my pre-race breakfast which consists of oats, chia seeds and dates. I set my pot on the stove, dump some oats into the pot of water, and add the food of life– those blessed chia seeds. My oatmeal soon turns a froggy consistency, and I top it off with a heap of raisins and dates. Picking up a spoon, my bowl of slop, and our drop bags, I pull my Patagonia up over my head, zip my feather vest up to my neck and climb into the car balancing a bowl of hot paste. It is cold–too cold to waste energy just thinking about being cold.
Dad and I drive to Skunk Hollow aid station. He hangs the drop bag on a fence post that we forgot to bring the day before. I look out into the darkness. Soon, very soon I would be running through here. When I reach this point, I will be twelve miles into a race of fifty…but I must stop myself from thinking ahead. In ultra running mistakes happen when you think beyond each aid station.
We slip into a long line of trucks and cars. Open bedded trucks flash 20,000 dollar bikes with lightweight carbon frames. Only the best for the most intense mountain bikers. There was a rumor that all 650 bike slots filled up in three minutes. I thought hard-core bikers were insane, but clearly they think the same about runners.
Athletes surround me. We wait as waves of bikers leave the starting line. I look at the long-legged, lanky runners. They have “the runner’s build” and then I see people who try to defy the limitations of their body. Some just have the build for success while others have to work harder to reach that same level. I still feel intimidated. They run to race. Who am I to run against them? In ultra running you can strike up a conversation with 20 people over a twelve-hour race and not learn any of their names. You can give an unprepared runner a pack of shot blocks and never see them again. Any time a person sets out to face the elements or to discover the meaning of endurance, it is a team effort. I answer my own question. I know we weren’t actually running against each other. We are running with each other. Helping them as we would want help.
Standing up I join the long lines for the thirty green “outhouses” stacked side by side. I decide I am not going to be that runner who arrives at mile one desperate for even the trunk of a tree. Runners might be the only people on planet earth to appreciate those stifling, green “houses.” It’s just the way it goes.
Somehow all the bikers leave the line and I find myself on the line next to my Dad and moments later running. “You can’t start too slow. Start slow. Slooooow.” I allow the words of a friend to ring in my head. At 6:30 we left Ascutney base lodge. At 6:30 we would be back. Where the trail led, I do not know. I do not want to know. I would take every four miles one aid station at a time.
The cold fog hangs low, but these kinds of days always burn off int perfect robin blue skies, or so I hope. At roughly seven o’clock we pass through the first aid station. As I predicted, people fight for that first port-a-potty. I go for the food table knowing I have to consume 500 calories at each aid station. Grabbing a handful of potatoes I roll a piece in the bowl of salt. I almost choke. Let’s just say I didn’t touch the potatoes and salt for the next 46 miles. I eat a banana instead. We plod along the dirt roads and make quick steps on the winding dirt trails. The speed never changes, but the surroundings do. Twelve miles pass and I never use the bathroom. I worry. My fingers puff a little, but everything else seems fine.
At Skunk Hollow aid station, I feel right at home in my hometown. Hours ago I sat in a warm vehicle. I said in a few hours I would be here and I am. The fog still clings to earth refusing to burn off. I leave my long sleeve on and bypass the clothes in my drop bag, but I pull out the electrolyte tablets and zip them into my pouch. One more banana, a piece of watermelon, a chia bar, and we find the trail again. The miles ahead sink me into a low spot and my mind turns on me in a moment. All my optimism drained out of my toes.
It always amazes me how the body forgets pain in moments of comfort. In those moments anything seems possible, but at this time dwell on my unpleasant run just two months earlier on this exact hill. The nagging ache persists.
It happened in July. I was training for the Vermont 50 and needed a base run around 15 miles. The day was similar to the Vermont 50. Perfect sky, glorious sun, (although a wee bit toasty) and fresh legs made the pace easy. I made my loop from the Taftsville covered bridge along the dirt road and into town. I felt good and found my groove. I ran past my chiropractor and headed up Hartland Hill, past my Nordic coach’s house, and on. The sun beat down and I looked forward to the cool shade on the dirt roads. I rolled over the top and kept climbing the dirt roads that gave no hint of “top.” A man passed me on the way down. We nodded. It was the subtle greeting of a runner recognizing his own species I ran the final stretch of Garvin and reached the top feeling good about my pace on the way down. It all happened so quickly. Something slowed my legs. It wasn’t the feeling of a piano jumping on my back like in a 400 meter sprint. No, it was more like someone slipped a one pound sandbag around my waste every couple minutes, but I would not stop running. This was my chance to run all 14 miles and prepare myself mentally and physically.
I reached the peak and looked down on the valley below me. I saw a pond large enough to float the titanic and a dock waiting in the middle for a couple children to leave wet foot prints on its sun bleached boards. I could be that person but, no, not now. I contemplated the loveliest yellow house to my right when, from around the hedge, the ugliest pooch decide to mess with me and my run. Around here the only thing to fear on a long run are the dogs. He nipped at my heels. I whirled on him. He chose the wrong person to mess with at that moment. Put out by anything that would keep me from finishing my run and feeling as hot as hell (at least the closest earthly experience can offer), I yelled at him once. He lunged. I recoiled my leg and kicked hard planting a gnarly trail shoe square on his nose. I screamed again at him to go home and stay home as he recoiled to the unleashing of my leg. He barked once more from the safety of his property, and I turned one last time. A witness had seen the whole thing, his owner perhaps? but she watched and had done nothing. She ain’t from around here I suppose.
I kept running. Another hill mocked me. The same runner miles back passed me again, or you could say I passed him. We must be doing the same loop, but from different directions. We mumbled incoherent words to each other. One more mile to go I told myself. At the last turn I couldn’t go on. I stopped and stumbled. “No. not here” I gasped. “Please, not here.”
I couldn’t see. I rolled down the bank to get to the brook not caring if I filled my body with bacteria. I needed water. Dropping to my hands and knees I sucked it in, clambered back up the bank and ran on. “Keep” moving. I walk. I run. I walk. I cross the road and walk the last half mile to the car parked at the rope swing. Yanking off shoes and socks. I meet my brother there, back flip off the top knot and remain motionless allowing cold water to lower my body temperature. Why do I do this? I begin to doubt my ability to run the fifty. I self talk as I am so good at doing. Kathryn, you can’t think like that.
Here I am on the Hill to test what went wrong months ago. A biker walks down looking dejected. He pushes his bike and its flat tire. His race is over. Determination sets in. If I have the power to keep running, I will keep going forward. I take a couple of electrolytes and come out of my “low.” I hope my “high” will last several hours.
What happened next is something I have never experienced before. I have seen it happen when pacing someone, but I know now what an “ultra high” feels like. Within several minutes, I become quite chatty. I say everything that comes to mind and nothing matters. It makes me feel invincible. I can finish this with my eyes closed. One more turn past Richardson’s Farm and another aid station greets us with cowbells and an army of volunteer shirts.
For ten years I wore a volunteer shirt at all the Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports events. I spent over 480 hours volunteering for such determined athletes. I knew one day I would race this run. I would run for those that couldn’t. I focused on the reward of finishing and persevering and challenging my body to do what most people would never dream of doing. I can suffer through the post race soreness with that success.
The next ten miles blur together. I looked back just once at the highest peak in Hartland. A horse and rider trot in a field to my right. They walk the skyline where the green grass meets the blue sky. Dad and I take a photo. I message it to my sister. My fingers trip over the buttons, but I press send anyways. We have to keep moving, but I am happy. She responds and when I sink into another “low” I see her message. “Enjoy being out in God’s creation.” Yes, that is why I run.
I remember running across the greenest grass, winding down the dusty trails, choking down pieces of banana and chewing hard chia bars. I made more dives into the bushes, glancing behind me before dropping behind a tree.
Something happened that made my doubt all the miles behind me, and it was all I could do to keep going.
Silver Meadow came. Mile 31 brought an aid station marked by several upright tents. In a single moment my stomach seized. I doubled over. I refused to submit. I forced myself erect. I followed one foot after the other out of the field and across the road. For the first time since I had seen the tents from afar, I looked up and focused on help.
What I saw in that field flashed memories of the last ten years on the third weekend in July. They impressed themselves on my memory as fast as my stomach had seized. My memory recalled the time I slept in a kitty pool, the trips in a gator to shuttle water to and from a water picket (I ended up spilling more on my pants than in the tub), and the pond that was just out of sight where all the minion volunteers swam during the times that Richard, the minion master, told us to take a break. I knew where I was because now I knew where Silver Meadow was. I could write about the hours spent there in that exact field. That field brought back all the memories from the Vermont 100. Those tents appeared so tiny, but it wasn’t as if I could dwell on the size of the tent at that moment. The pain in my abdomen spread. Only now in the comfort of a chair can I reflect on the emotions I felt from seeing a familiar location I remembered so well, and from the place that inspired me to run this very moment. But at that moment, pain overwhelmed all other senses.
I looked for our drop bag praying it would be there. Yes! Bless Amy, she brought it for us. Restocking my back pouch, I shuffled over to the table trying to eat as much as I could. A volunteer asked me if I was okay. How bad could I have looked? I just needed to keep going.
We walked the first bit mainly for my sake. Dad proved himself surprisingly alert and spry. He bent over which shocked me, picked up an apple which confused me, and took an enormous bite out of it.
“DON’T eat that!” I exclaimed my stomach flopping on me. However, I’ll admit if I was walking past that wild apple tree without stomach pain, I too probably would have picked one up and taken a chunk out of it.
I turned my attention back to the trail and listened as he chomped his apple clearly enjoying its fall flavor and cool crispness. I didn’t look to see if he finished it, but a few moment later he asked me casually in response to my previous exclamation, “Why not?”
**Sigh** “too late now.”
I forgot that my Dad has an impossible digestive system. Years ago Mom left him in charge of the kids for an afternoon. We ate two month old chili from the fridge. Half an hour later the kids spent the afternoon leaning over a toilet while Dad walked around unscathed. But that’s the way it goes.
Aside from random Charlie horses in the hamstring, we kept plugging. All I can do is survive with one foot in front of the other. There is no turning back, no giving up, no stopping. What more can we do but try not to crash and burn? I choke down two more salt tablets and grimace at the taste of yet another cherry shot block.
I heard plenty of stories about ultra runners hallucinating on the trails. Heck, I had paced a couple. It made for good time, but if I have ever hallucinated, I believe I did the last ten miles, but then again If I was really hallucinating I would be the last person to trust.
We entered a particular section of the course that wound through the trees. Back and forth like switch backs it rolled down, down, down and then turned and started climbing again. Music blasted all the way down and I hoped that maybe when I reached the top of this trail a person would greet me with food. I needed food not shot blocks. We began to ascend back and forth across the wooded hill. The switch backs began to drive me insane. As we climbed shuffling and sliding from side to side the words of the song became clear.
“Everybody huuuuuuuuurts….sometimes everybody criiiiesss…..everybody huuuuuuuuurts sooometiiiimes.”
“If you think you’ve had too much of this life…because everybody huuuuuuurts…”
We reached the top. I could barely tolerate the music the house and the trail. Someone shoot me now. Of course I hurt! Any person crazy enough to build a house in the middle of NOWHERE has to have a gun. “Hello right here! Here I am! Yeah that’s right aim it this way!”
Then I heard something else.
“Hoooold onnnnnn…don’t let yourself goooo.”
“No! I mean DON’T SHOOT!” I can do this I thought. I saw the garden hose and we filled up our long empty bottles with water. It was warm, but it was better than nothing. We saw the cooler and the sign. Free beer. We kept going. If that comforts some people great, but for me I tried not to think of a bath, a real meal, and a chair.
If you have read this far. I commend you. Not many people find ultra running a topic of interest and it takes a special kind of person to read the painful outlined details of each mile run.I am sorry but that is how I write. I write for myself.
The next miles stated simply dragged on…..and on…….and on…..and on…..I dreamed of using one of those green port-a-potties with the plush convenience of four walls for security and that white, soft goodness. My chance came. I ran ahead of Dad and set my waterbottle outside the port-a-potty, so he could fill it if he had to wait for me. At last a real bathroom! Never in my life would I have called a 4×4 foot shack a real bathroom, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and when all you have been using for 40 miles is a tree or a fern or the backside of a building then it is by all means a “real bathroom.”
I went for the door. Red. Nooooooooo! I wailed to myself. I waited an eternal 10 seconds but decided to knock and try the door because maybe red really meant green. A voice answered just a minute. Oh boy. I hope that minute is figurative and not literal.
Paranoid about stopping, I begin to walk. “But what If someone else takes it before I get back??” Immediately, I turn from my distant six feet but decide I don’t want to stand nine inches from in front of the door in case that looks too desperate, so I 10 inches but finally resort to walking in circles. Looking down at the ground I follow the traces of my footsteps around and around and around and around and around. “My good God, you truly know how test the endurance of me,” I grimaced.
The door flung open. A women wearing a lovely blouse stepped out. With one arm holding the door wide open and a slight little cock of the hip she stood between me and my potty. She whipped her hair to the side and tipped her sunglasses down ruffling her hair with her “free hand” hand before stepping out and letting the door slam shut behind her.
She stunned me stone still. And it wasn’t her outfit.
“SERIOUSLY? I WAITED ALL THAT TIME FOR YOU?” I self ranted. If you were a runner I would understand, but YOU?????
Nearly in tears, I ungratefully took the door and jammed it behind me. “I hate port-a-potties” I muttered before dropping my pants.
Now just to get to ten miles.
Mile 39 hurt in every possible way. Mentally, physically, and emotionally. Every time Dad picked up the pace, I cried internally. Every time I ran and he walked, I only assume he hated me for it. it’s a vicious cycle. I knew that by running this race with him it would either be the best decision we ever made or the worst. Another emergency bathroom drop, and I told him I would catch up. For that ENTIRE last mile before meeting Nicole, I tried to catch back up. You would think for a thirty-second break, it wouldn’t be that hard to catch up but you have nothing to persuade me with until you try to make up thirty seconds after running 40 miles. Only after you crawl across a finish line will I listen to you.
I ignored the pain and ran. One wobbly squat after the other. I caught up to another runner, number 1417, who told me that Dad said he would wait for me at the next aid station. I walked beside her to gather my efforts. Dad was only thirty meters ahead of me, but like I said in ultra running that is the eternal gap between heaven and earth. She said, “but I think you can catch him.” Dad started to run. I groaned. Here I go.
I stopped looking up and pondered the mileage of my Solomon’s. I thought of my cross-country coaches in high school. They would have said, “look up K-2.” I defended my guilty thought with “I am not out here to look pretty. I was out here to….” Why am I out here? In the words of an aghast friend, he asked, “WHY would you DO that?” I realized I didn’t have an answer.
Before I knew it, a hand reached out and stopped me. It was Nicole, the brightest looking pacer one could ask for. I dropped my water bottle. No more bottles, no more chia bars, no more banana. I can’t do it. Let me just go now and if I break, I break. That would be impossible, so I stuffed my face like a chipmunk and let it sit there. It was too much effort to swallow, so I walked away leaving my cheeks stuffed. We were off once again but this time as a party of three.
I rambled and told Nicole everything that I could possibly think of. You reach a point when the silence hurts and new company is a burst of fresh energy. I remembered reading “the top ten tips for an ultra runner.” It said, “Stay positive in the lows and stay in control on the highs.” I failed miserably giggling uncontrollably about everything I said to her. I told her about the ridiculousness of the last 40 miles and I showed her everything too. Why? I have no idea. I don’t even have an answer for why I was running.
I told Dad to go ahead of me. In a few moments I wished I hadn’t.
Everything I had ever read was right. I found myself in another ditchy low and it was the lowest of lows. Twice I leaned against a tree clutching the bark with my fingers. I wanted to sit. I wanted my bed. I wanted a bath and a real meal. I crammed a shot block in one cheek and a salt pill down the throat. I drained the rest of my water. Three more miles till the final aid station. I didn’t come this far to quit.
I heard the brakes of two bikes behind me and pulled off the side of the trail to let them by. Their thighs must be shot I imagined. Instead of blowing by one said, “hey, you have 30 minutes to run these next two miles to the aid station, or they’re going to cut you off.” Did I mention nor did I come this far to be stopped?
Panic struck me. I have to go faster than this. I have to run. For the thousandth time, I made those quick steps before plunging into a run. I bit my tongue, clenched my teeth and ignored the knife in my stomach. Each step hurt a little less. Either I was dying, or I was going numb. The pace began to improve. I began running hills. I actually jumped over roots and rocks with the nimbleness of a Himalayan mountain goat. I looked behind me once and realized I was alone. Biting my lip, I ran harder. If I stopped I wouldn’t be able to go again. I ran till I was once again behind my Dad trailing in his footsteps. I matched my steps to his steps realizing how much I would have regretted this race If I didn’t finish what I had started with him.
We were going to make it. This year we would finish under the cutoff. This year we had a watch and this year we had pushed the pace TOGETHER. I hated when he found his energy boost and I struggled to wade through my own exhaustion, but when we peaked with a mile to go there was the finish to look on. For a split second on Ascutney mountain the sun waved our victory to us. It seemed to say, I waited all this time for you and now I can go to sleep now. It mingled for just a moment above the opposite horizon prodding us on like a mother encouraging her children to walk through school doors for the first time. I hesitated because I knew what would happen. “You just got here I responded,” but that golden sun vanished. Its light rays lingered in my smile. We had really done it hadn’t we? By golly we had done it.
Side by side, stride by stride, we descended the mountain. I pointed and laughed. There! There I had skied down with my sister all day long. And there! What was the name of that trail? Oh! It was called Screaming Eagle, right? And here. That was the booth where the racers were announced. Mr. Plousteiner always announced didn’t he? And this trail, Daddy, didn’t you design it when you worked here? Oooh and that trail the West Point cadets skied down when they were trying to learn to ski. That was funny. I felt like a little girl delighting in everything.
Over the crest of the hill I knew so well on skis, my feet fumbled to recognize the ground. Like last year, and like the sprinter within me, we sprinted. Yes, 49 miles and 1400 meters later we sprinted.
Words can’t describe an accomplishment like running 50 miles, even 4500 words later. I smiled and asked “where’s the food?”
I dumped potatoes, quinoa, noodles, bread, soup, and rice on one plate and decided against making a second plate just at that moment. I didn’t think I had enough coordination to carry all of it over to a table.
A woman offered me her chair. I gratefully took it, set my plate down, and bent to let my body collapse into it. I stopped myself. Pausing for just a moment, a sweet smile spread across my face as I lowered myself in. It was the first time I had sat in 12 hours. The only issue I knew was getting back up.
That moment came, and I tried to get up. I should have crawled. But I decided I wanted more food. I picked up the world’s biggest apple, a handful of truffles and a carrot for the drive home. Nicole drove us up to our car. Snuggling down into my Patagonia I hugged myself in my arms to make sure I could still feel my upper body. It was a dream for sure. Twelve hours later and we had won? We had won hadn’t we?
On September 27, 2015 a full moon rose into a cool night sky. The temperature dropped quickly and a girl and her father drove down a country road. The girl leaned her head against the car window an untouched carrot in her lap and an apple rolled on the floor. She looked out into the night sky her fingers wrapped around a heavy medal, and she close her eyes. She knew why she ran.
She ran because they ran. They ran together, the whole way. Every one of her high steps was followed by a low step. Every one of his high steps was followed by his low steps. But they ran the race together and carried each other through.
She ran because God showed Himself to her. Each step of the way, the trees became more real, the grass grew greener, and the sky darkened a deeper blue. The sun shone an eternal golden glow, and God orchestrated his symphony in Creation.
She ran because she tested the strength of body, mind and spirit. She ran because to run was to be free.
She ran because at the end of the day she would go to bed with a very real ache in her legs. Some say the ache was the ache of pain, brokenness and suffering, but others say the ache was a longing that came from her heart which sought the trails, the hills, the sunrise, the fog, the freedom, the air, and the silence.
Life is a roller coaster of hills and valleys, of highs and lows, of bridges and rocky streams. Life is…well….it is a 50 mile journey. You never really know when it will end, but while you are in the moment, love the moment. The high and the low, the good and the bad, the quick and the slow and while you are at it, go for a run. You’ll be amazed what you can learn from running one mile or 50 miles.