It was a dark and stormy night…
Well, actually it was an absolutely gorgeous night. Cool temperatures, clear skies. No moon though…but hey, you can’t get everything you want.
So, on October 16, at 10:00 p.m., 15 souls stood at the starting line of the Pumpkin Holler 135 Mile Ultramarathon. I signed up for this race a month or so earlier, but it’s been on my mind ever since I DNF’d the Pumkin Holler 100M run last year.
Race Director Ken “TZ” Childress signaled the start of the run by smashing a pumpkin on the ground. The Pumpkin Holler 135 miler consists of four loops around the Nickell Nature Preserve and 1 – 4 mile out and back. You do the out and back first, then its just four laps around the world…
I haven’t been able to train as much as I needed to (sound familiar?), but I thought, well, I’ll just toe-the-line and see what the body gives me. The 135 Miler has a 40 hour cutoff time. I didn’t know if I had 135 miles in me, but I figured I’d just run/walk/shuffle/crawl for 40 hours and see how far I could get.
The first 4 miles are mostly uphill. At the end of 4, there is the infamous “waffle-stop” aid station. So I grabbed a waffle and some bacon and headed back to the start/finish to finish the first 8 miles. I’m not sure if it was because it was night or not, but I rolled my ankle a couple of times on the way down, and planted my feet on the tops of some other rocks. When I got back to the start/finish, I felt like stopping. Yep, 8 miles in and I wanted to quit.
But, I haven’t been out here for 40 hours yet, and that was my deal with myself, so I rounded through the chute, got some water and headed out for the first of 4 loops. Each loop is a little over 50K (because TZ believes in value for your running dollar).
As you can imagine, the runners get spread out pretty quickly and over a few miles apart. My hat is off to Jbob Jones and his wife, Bonnie, who drove around the entire night acting as a mobile aid station. Especially since they had to wait on me. My ankle and feet were starting to discuss my decision to continue, which slowed my already slow pace even more.
I’ve run at night before, but I’ve never run all alone, on back roads, all night. There were plenty of coyotes to keep me company, though I wondered a time or two if they were closing in. You know, they always pick off the slow and wounded first…
I was feeling sleepy, which did not bode well for my race, since I wasn’t even through the first night yet, so I drank a 5 hour energy drink. Never had one before. WOW! All of a sudden I felt awake and clear-headed. Glad I packed several of those bad boys.
I also went ahead and started one of the four audio books I had downloaded for the run. So it was just me and Clive Cussler, saving the world, one shuffling step after another.
Then, dawn comes. Which it always does. Ultrarunners will tell you that when you are getting groggy & sleepy, and want to stop, just keep moving until dawn. And you believe them. But until you actually go through a night, into the dawn, you don’t really “understand.” What the sun rising does for your mind is nothing short of spectacular.
So, I made it through the first night. My ankle and feet aren’t any better, but I don’t feel worse (gotta love those endorphins. And ibuprofen).
I finish my first loop between 10:00 and 11:00 Saturday morning. Grab a piece of a PB&J sandwich, some water to mix with my Skratch, and I just keep moving. Nope, hasn’t been 40 hours yet.
I leave my headlamp and my long sleeved shirt, somehow deciding that I will be back through before dark. I’m still not sure how I did that math, but it was so, so wrong. I did, however, pack some lights that go on my shoes, and I have a small flashlight I carry for emergencies (or times when my mind fails to do the math correctly).
And so, loop 2 begins. At this point, I know there is no way I have enough time to make the 135 miles. So, I adjust my goals. I think I can still get the 100 miles done. But my deal was to move for 40 hours, so I head back out. By this time, all of the aid stations are fully functioning. And Pumpkin Holler has the absolute best aid stations of any race. Most of them are staffed by runners, so they have a pretty good feel for what you need. And they’re all a little different with what types of food they offer. And just the absolutely nicest people.
The other race distances (100M, 100K & 50K) all started @ 8:00 a.m., so they are all out in front of me. The day is gorgeous: mostly sunny, and fantastic temperature for running. No place I’d rather be.
Except, the sun sets.
When the sun drops behind the hills, I still have 3 hours of running left to get back to the start/finish and my headlamp (and my long-sleeved shirt). But no problem! I have these tricky new lights that go on my shoes and they have a 2-4 hour battery life. I “assumed” this meant 2 hours on high beam and 4 hours on low beam….hmmmm. Well, that’s what I get for assuming.
Not to mention, the shoe lights do really funky things with trails and shadows. So I pull out my trusty emergency flashlight, thinking that maybe if there is some light shining down that it will light up some of those shadows. This worked okay. It would’ve worked better if my emergency flashlight had more power than one AAA battery! But, at least I had it with me.
I think I was within 3 miles of the start/finish when one of the shoe lights went out. Then it was sort of like running with a real slow strobe light. But about 10 minutes later, that one went out too. Which left me running in the dark with a penlight with one AAA battery. After a few minutes of this, it dawned on me that I had my phone with me, and it has a whopper of a light! So I ran most of the last three miles of this loop with my iPhone for a flashlight.
I roll through the start/finish area, and figure now would be a good time to change socks. I’m at mile 70ish, and somehow this seems to be important, though I wasn’t having any problems with blisters. Now, I’m not a very flexible person to begin with, and after 70+ miles, even less so. So I’m trying to take off my shoes and socks, all the while my lower back is screaming at me. I’m flopping around like a fish out of water and finally manage to get socks and shoes back on. I try to stand up and realize that during my sock changing episode, I strained/pulled a groin muscle. I can now barely freaking walk. But…it’s not 40 hours yet.
I hobble to the aid station, refill water bottle, grab some kind of sandwich, and start on my 3rd loop. I really, really wanted to stop after that second lap. My body hurt, and I was tired and sleepy. At this point, I’ve been “moving” for about 27 hours, and been awake for going on 40 hours.
But, I have time to get one more lap in, if I don’t poke along. If I get one more lap, I’ll have completed 100 miles. If I get one more lap, I get a buckle. So here we go…
I don’t seem to have another 5 hour energy shot in my bag. Strange, I thought I had one more (found it later, but I wanted it then). I have another one in my drop bag, but I have to run 17 miles to get to that aid station.
31 miles left. Whoa, I can’t get wrapped up in that. It is 5 miles to the next aid station. All I have to do is move for 5 miles. I’ve got my good head lamp and a long sleeved shirt now, so I’m shuffling along. I’m trying to stretch out my groin by taking long(ish) strides. Seems to help some. After almost 2 hours, I stagger into the Mad Dog Aid Station. Kevin helps me with some soup and coffee. I feel better. Only 3-4 miles to the next aid station. I can make 3 miles.
I make it to the “Out and Back” aid station in reasonable shape. Now I have to run a little 1.5 mile out and back (you can see how catchy some of these aid station names are). I don’t think I have ever run a longer 1.5 miles. Unless it was the 1.5 miles back to the aid station. This little segment seemed to take me forever to complete. I would find myself standing at the side of the road, and having to re-orient myself because somehow I had gotten turned and was perpendicular to where I needed to be. I don’t know if I fell asleep while walking, but I know I walked while incoherent. But, I made it back the the aid station.
The next aid station is Savannah Corner, where my drop bag and energy shot are. 3-4 miles away…I can do 3-4 miles…I’ve already come 11.
This next segment of the run is really fuzzy. I remember one time I was standing in the middle of the path, looking around, and I have no idea where I am or what I am doing. I’m standing in the woods, in the dark, by myself, and I’m yelling “MIKE…WAKE UP…FOCUS…FOCUS.”
I’m thinking, okay, look around, where am I? I am on a path. Okay, I’m on a path…now, what am I doing? I. am. running. on. the. path. Right! That’s it! I am supposed to be running on the path. So I take off, running on the path, yelling “RUN. ON. THE. PATH!!”
But wait…”why” am I running on the path? These rocks all look out of order…why am I jumping over rocks?…why don’t I stop and organize them (just in case I thought I “wasn’t” OCD, this puts that to rest). Coherent moment. So I’m arranging rocks on the path, sort of like putting a puzzle together…
“MIKE! RUN. ON. THE. PATH. You are not supposed to do anything else!” You are trying to go a distance on the path, not fix the path! Now I’m yelling again “RUN. ON. THE. PATH”…now I’m running uphill and downhill. At least I “think” I’m running. I’m pretty sure it was more of a “quick shuffle”. But hey, a guy’s gotta believe.
This stretch of the course takes me through the rest of the night. When I approach the Savannah Corner aid station, the sun is starting to come up, and we all know what that means. New life.
After drinking a 5 hour energy drink and some Coca-Cola (or its equivalent), I take off running, heading toward the next aid station. After all, I’m over halfway finished with this loop! I actually had an 11 minute mile in this next stretch, which I know isn’t fast, but I had been averaging 22 minute miles…
I talked myself into slowing down, because I was pretty sure I couldn’t hold that pace for 15 more miles, and I fell into a shuffle for 4 minutes, walk for 1 minute. At this point, my life existed in 5 minute segments of time.
I knew at the next aid station “East of Eden,” that Ed and Kate would fix me some hot tea and a quesadilla (man, did that sound good!) I made it in, got some grub. I heard the story about Travis falling into the fire (that’s Travis’s story, not mine), and headed out. Only a half marathon to go. Yippee!!
At about mile 92ish, Jason Bement came running down the road to meet up with me and run the rest of the way. I really appreciate that he did this, because I was getting really, really tired of just me and the voices in my head.
But something was going on with my vision…
Not only was I seeing people in the bushes (who weren’t there), it also appeared that anything laying on the road was moving slowly toward me. Sort of like it was being carried by ants or something. Just a slow, gliding motion. No clue about what caused this, other than the sleep deprivation thing. At this point, I’ve been moving for over 35 hours, and have been awake for 50ish hours.
But with Jason to help me define “reality” and keep me moving, we puttered along, shuffling and walking. Around mile 97-98, some other muscle in the back of my left knee started hurting (what didn’t at this point), so I couldn’t run much at all. The final 3 miles was some combination of shuffle/jog/walk/stop to stretch (repeat). And then…there was the bridge!!
My running buddy Jana met me on the bridge and ran part of the way to the finish. She had already finished her 100M (darn fast people), but had hung around to see me finish. Anybody that has the patience to wait around for me to finish, has to have the patience of Job.
But now, I’ve only got to shuffle about 3/4 of a mile to the finish. And I “must” run (though I know it was a shuffle), because that is how you finish a race!
I crossed the finish line with about 30 minutes or so to spare. Not sure of my exact finish time, because that doesn’t really matter to me. I finished 100 miles. Sure, it took me almost 40 hours, but hey! I got a buckle!
I can’t say “Thanks” enough to TZ and everyone involved with this race. It remains my favorite event of the year. But next year, I may just work at an aid station.
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