On Sunday I set out to run 50 miles, but, as most of you know by now, I only made it through 37 of them. Even though there’s a slight taste of disappointment in having fallen short, I do feel like I accomplished a lot that day – I raised awareness and almost $1,000 for an organization about which I feel strongly, and I covered 37 miles of trail on a stiflingly hot and humid day.
The setup: Running 50 miles is the next big item on my running to-do list. After running four “short” ultras and a trail marathon this spring, I felt like the time was right to make my first attempt at 50. I hadn’t thought about it until recently, but this season’s ultra-distance runs – including three in a four-week span – actually came together nicely as training for a 50-miler. But the lack of organized 50-mile events in the area meant that I would be attempting this on my own.
Tackling a run like this by myself would be no small task. Aside from the logistics involved – planning a route, putting together aid stations, making it work with the family schedule – running alone in the forest for 10 or more hours can be a huge mental challenge. I remember how badly I longed for human interaction after four hours of solitude at Promise Land in April. How would I fare on a run of this length?
Then an idea struck me – to make this run more meaningful, and to make it about more than just myself, I would turn it into my first-ever fund-raising effort. The first organization I thought of was Operation Enduring Warrior, since I know a few people involved with that effort and am confident of the quality and sincerity of the group’s mission. Within a day or two of hatching the idea, I made it official (you know, by posting it on Facebook and DailyMile) and began the two-week countdown to game day.
Shortly after unveiling my plan, my fears of running 50 miles alone were put to rest when several friends offered to come out and support me during my run. (They wouldn’t be running the entire 50 miles, but would run shorter segments with me and hook me up at aid stops.) I guess I should stop being surprised at the generosity and selflessness of the ultra-running community, but I was still very touched that they would offer to spend a Sunday helping me out.
The cast of characters included Nebs, a very talented runner who had just come off two 100-mile races just two weeks apart; Tab, the magical unicorn of ultra-running who not only has the uncanny ability to anticipate your every need on the trail but also has a personal distance record of 80 miles; Mike, another very talented athlete who has run more than 75 ultra events, including the Western States 100; and my brother, Stephen, who has been focused on elite military training for the past several years. A tough crowd to impress, for sure.
The run: The plan was to run four loops of the 13.5-mile Fendley Station trail at Pocahontas State Park – a route that has been very good to me on previous runs. But instead of covering four consecutive loops, I would break up the loop into three distinct out-and-back sections that I would run twice each. This would allow me to access my support vehicles more frequently.
I knew going in that the weather was not going to be particularly favorable on the day of the run. The forecast called for an afternoon high of 90 degrees and 100 percent humidity in the early morning. And I felt it as soon as I made my very first steps at 5:07 a.m. on Sunday. I felt it in the air, and I felt it in my stomach. I’m no stranger to stomach issues during long-distance efforts, but this was the first time I had felt the symptoms from the outset.
The easy part: The morning air was thick and heavy, but I was relieved to finally be running after two weeks of building anticipation. My headlamp lit the dark trail, and as the sun crept up in the sky I was bathed in heavy, damp gusts of air that emanated from the quiet forest, as if it were exhaling its muggy breath on me. I wasn’t sure when I would first see my crew, and anticipated it would be around 11:00 – six hours after I started. Six hours of rolling dirt track, of time alone in my head.
The first segment of trail was the hardest and I wanted to get it out of the way. I covered close to 13 hilly miles in a little over two hours, keeping things at a very leisurely pace that almost felt too easy. I made it a point to drink every time my watch signaled another mile, knowing that proper hydration and nutrition would be critical on such a hot, humid day. I called my wife at the first check-in and told her things were going well but that it was going to be a tough day. It would still be four hours before I would see anyone and I was already feeling worn down by the humidity. I wasn’t really thinking about the mileage at all, but it just seemed like there was so much more of the day ahead of me.
I set out on the next segment and, for the first time in my life, I popped in the iPod and listened to a running podcast as I ran. Oddly, the topic was running hydration, and how we apparently don’t need to drink as much as we thought. It seemed to help take my mind off the present effort, and so did the text I received from my wife a short time later that said she was bringing the kids out to meet me right then, just to say hello. I met them around mile 16 and happily visited with them for a few minutes.
After a few more miles I received another welcome text, this time from Nebs, who had just arrived at the park. It was around 10 a.m. – an hour earlier than I had expected anyone to arrive. I found him and Tab waiting for me when I arrived back at my car around mile 23. It was a great boost to see them, and an even bigger boost when they offered to run the next 4-mile out-and-back with me. These miles passed quickly, thanks to the company and conversation.
In fact, I was probably so distracted that I didn’t really notice the growing lump in my stomach until we returned from that leg. I think they noticed something was off, too, because they started offering me things from their ultra bags-o’-tricks. Ginger chews. Salt tabs. Magic blue pills. These guys are ultra pros and I felt comfortable in their hands.
The hard part: After resting a bit (and chatting with Meg, who stopped by to say hello), Nebs and I headed off for the next section. We started out fine but it didn’t take long before my stomach started to get worse. I told Nebs I was going to have to throw up – it wasn’t a question of if, but when. I preferred to get it done with so, hopefully, I could empty things out and keep going. After a few miles of mostly jogging with a little walking on the hills, it finally happened, and I felt better at first. Nebs – a great guy to be with on the trail no matter what the situation – was exceptionally understanding and encouraging. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew that day. But there was no question things were getting rough.
Nebs and I finally cruised into the parking lot where my family, Tab and my brother were waiting with my aid supplies, around mile 34. I immediately went for the unfolded lawn chair that beckoned me. The rest is a blur. My kids were happy to see me and I was happy to see them. The adults started tending to me, offering all kinds of food and drinks, knowing that I had already had some trouble and that I hadn’t been eating or drinking in a while.
Then the vomiting really started. I got up and tried to stumble to the edge of the nearby woods for just a little privacy, but it came before I could make it there. And it came again and again and again. I recovered, I sat back down, I ate a few bites. And then it came again, as soon as the food hit my stomach. I rushed back over to the edge of the woods, very conscious that my 5-year-old daughter was nearby and not wanting her to be alarmed. But she’s not easily shaken, and provided the line of the day when she came over to me and said. “Daddy, why don’t you bring your chair over here so you can sit down while you throw up?”
Afterward I felt so weak that I couldn’t imagine walking to the edge of the parking lot, let alone setting out on the next 7-mile out-and-back section under the midday sun. It was here when it first hit me that I might not be able to finish.
Tab tried more magic – Shiatsu pressure points, magic blue pills, some liquid out of a dropper. (It’s amazing what you let people put in your mouth during an ultra.) (Wait … what?) After resting a little while longer I stood up and felt like I could walk. Mike, who had recently arrived, suggested that I change course and set out on a nearby 3-mile loop, just walking as far as I could. He and Stephen would accompany me. I filled my CamelBak and a bottle with plain water and we set off, slowly trudging back into the forest.
The end: I was already spent, not having taken in any nutrition in many hours and wilting under the heat and humidity of the day. My walking immediately slowed and it was useless to try to ingest anything. I tried a tiny sip of water and it sent my stomach back into convulsions and I threw up along the trail. Stephen tried, without success, to get me to eat something – a single grape, a salt tab – but I wouldn’t. My stomach was completely wrecked.
Mike and Stephen saw me fading and tried some tough-love tactics on me. They reminded me of the veterans for whom I was running. They told me I would regret quitting once I was home and recovered. They didn’t need to remind me of those things – they were already prominently on my mind. I knew why I was out there. I knew there were many people who had donated money with the expectation that I would finish. Of course I knew that there were soldiers without limbs who would trade troubles with me in an instant.
But I was empty. I was beyond pushing. I knew with each step that this would be my last loop, if I could even make it through. I slowed even more, to a stumbling shuffle, while Stephen and Mike walked farther ahead, immersed in their own conversation. When we finally returned to the parking lot after covering the 3-mile loop in over an hour, my wife saw that I had only sipped an ounce or two of water from my bottle in that time (and had thrown it back up immediately). Although I had already made the decision to stop on my own, she affirmed that my journey was finished.
I felt a little better about the decision when I couldn’t eat a proper meal for more than 30 hours after I had stopped running. It’s not like I came home to the AC and a comfy chair and perked up behind a big bowl of pasta. I sat and slept through the rest of the afternoon and evening, and could hardly take in more than a sip. I wasn’t sore or hurt, but so completely drained that I could barely move. I was so incredibly hungry and thirsty, but my stomach would just not allow anything. Continuing on the trail for five or six hours that day would have been impossible.
Now what? So what’s left? I’ve done seven ultra events now and have faced major stomach issues on five of them. This is obviously something for which I need to find a solution. It’s even more frustrating because my body is fine otherwise – I’m not sore or injured, I don’t have any blisters or chafing. My weakness is my stomach. I’ve tried many different products and foods with middling success. I’m wondering if I need to go so far as to consult with a sports nutritionist before I consider attempting another ultra.
But there’s no question that I will do another. It’s in my blood now. When things work, it’s an amazing and cathartic experience. At the very least, I feel like I owe a lot of people a successful 50-mile run after the way this one turned out.
Before I end this novella, I want to thank everyone who joined me along the way, whether it was with a donation to Operation Enduring Warrior, a kind word before or after my run, or stopping by the park that day to say hello. I am indebted to Nebs, Tab, Mike and Stephen for joining me on the trail to see me through. I wouldn’t have made it as far as I did without them. And, of course, my biggest thanks goes to my wife, who encouraged me to take on the project and helped with planning and logistics, and is my biggest supporter every day.