“you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”- Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
It was dark. In the light from my headlamp I could see two yellow eyes looking up at me from the trail. I waived my trekking pole but it just bobbed it’s head and watched me. Moving closer, I could see the distinct outline of the owl with its gray speckled feathers. I heard two runners approaching from behind. I held up my hand for them to stop and explained the situation. One of them advanced around me and reached down toward the bird waving his hand slowly. The owl quickly moved its head back. I cautioned the runner to be careful and told him that owls are raptors and have very sharp talons. But he kept reaching closer. I kept getting more agitated by his cavalier behavior. I tensed up as I awaited a flurry of feathers. But then I heard the runner say, “There’s nothing here.” I looked again and the trail was empty. Where did it go? How did I not see it fly away? But as a moment of clarity hit me, I knew that it had never been there at all.
I was 32 hours into the race. The hallucinations started about six hours earlier in the late afternoon. I was at about the 80th mile climbing out of “Siberia Canyon” when I first noticed the sensation. I had heard about this phenomenon of long ultra running but I had never run this long before. My previous longest run of just over 16 hours had not created the combination of sleep deprivation and fatigue that makes the mind incapable of distinguishing fantasy from reality. Branches and rocks began to become people in the distance. Stumps became animals. Passing through a large boulder field I saw two beautiful houses complete with front porches and railings. But as water on a hot road disappears so did these structures turn back into rock as I approached.
As much as running 100 miles in the mountains is a physical challenge it is much more a mental contest. A struggle against hallucinations. A battle overcoming aches and pains. A fight against the loneliness and boredom of long periods of solitude. A test of will as sleep deprivation holds one arm behind your back. From the hand numbing cold as you wait for dawn to the heat of the bright sun when you are a mile and a half closer to it, you question how you can endure. Having tried to run a 100 miles the year before and having failed, I was engaged in an epic struggle of self-doubt.
The race began at noon the previous day. When the race director started the run, I was ready. I had been thinking about this race for eleven months. Visualizing it. Planning for it. Training for it. More than any other feeling, at the start of this race I felt a sense of relief. I had made it to the starting line healthy and prepared. I first heard about the Kodiak 100 while watching the finish of the Chimera 100 the year before. I dropped from that race at mile 62. After sleeping in our tent for several hours, Amy and I went down to watch the Chimera finishers arriving. I had a conversation with one finisher who mentioned that he had run a new race a few weeks earlier. He said this new race was much harder than the Chimera 100 (which had just eaten my lunch). The new race was called the Kodiak 100.
I made a mental note of it as I contemplated the idea of anything being harder than what I had just failed to complete. In the face of failure people react in different ways. Many give up. They decide that the task is just bigger than them and always will be. Some try again. A few double down. They don’t just try again, they raise the ante by trying to accomplish something even more difficult. I chose the latter as a type of penance. For some reason I felt that I had a debt to pay and it involved not just finishing a 100 miler but reaching a bit further to make up for having quit. I don’t understand this thought process.
As the date of the race approached I made a promise to myself that I would not quit. If I stopped, I would have to be forced to stop. Missing a timed cut-off or displaying some injury or illness that caused the medical staff to make me quit, these were the only reasons for not continuing. I had run enough long races to know that the pledge of a fresh mind and body can quickly give way to the fully rationalized decision of a fatigued soul to stop. What I learned from previous DNFs more than anything else is that I couldn’t leave room for compromise. I had to convince myself before the start that once I started I would under no circumstance make the decision to stop. So as I finally started the race, I felt relief. All I had to do was keep going. There was no thinking to be done. I had already resolved not to stop. But my resolve would soon be tested.
The one thing I have never had to worry about in an ultra is blisters. I never get them. I wear wool socks and my wide toe box Altras protect my toes. But by the time I reached the aid station at mile 17 I had two large blisters on the balls of my feet and one each on the longest toes of each foot. I could feel the hot spots forming already by mile seven but there was nothing to be done. I was kicking myself for making such a foolish mistake. Instead of my tried and true Lone Peaks, I had chosen to start with my Altra Olympus. The Olympus shoes have a much greater amount of cushion and my thinking was that I would appreciate having avoided some pounding by the second half of the race. I had put a couple hundred miles on the Olympus shoes without incident so I thought that it was a safe bet. Looking back, very few of those miles were on substantial climbs or descents and under those conditions my foot was slipping forward in the shoe and my heal was lifting out. There is nothing wrong with the Olympus shoes. They are great shoes that just didn’t fit me. I had a pair of Lone Peaks in my drop bag but I wouldn’t reach that drop bag until mile 46! So I reached into the drop bag that I had and pulled out two toe caps (thank you Amy for discovering silicone toe caps), some moist burn pads, and some athletic tape and I did the best I could to treat myself. I would know very quickly the result of my efforts because I was about to begin the 10 mile out and back section with a 3,100 foot rocky climb up Sugarloaf Mountain and then a return trip descending to the same aid station.
By the time I arrived back at the aid station and mile 27 it was dark. I could feel that I had a new problem on the top of my right foot. The athletic tape I used to hold the pads over the blisters on the bottom of my feet had wrinkled and did not have the appropriate flexible stretch so it dug into my skin. The Ultra Medic crew was now present at this aid station so they took a look. When they pulled the tape off of my right foot a large section of skin came off with the tape, about the size of three quarters laid next to each other. In my mind I can still feel the pain of that skin being pulled off. They replaced the pads and added a new one and then covered the fore section of my foot with a really strong flex tape. The toe caps were still in place and by now those toes were numb anyway. I was ready to hit the trail again but first they told me that I must weigh in.
I remembered the coming weigh in as I was climbing up Sugarloaf while running out of water. We had been warned that in addition to bottles we should have a bladder in our packs for the long climb out of Siberia Canyon. But Siberia Canyon wasn’t for another 50 miles. So I set out for the 10 mile ascent and descent of Sugarloaf with two full 20 ounce bottles and one completely empty 50 ounce bladder. Half way up Sugarloaf I knew that I had made my second mistake of the race and I began preparing my story for the weigh in to come at the bottom of the hill. At the start of the race I had weighed in at 160 pounds without my pack. After 27 miles I now weighed 150 pounds, a 6.25% drop in body weight.
Many races begin considering stopping people from continuing at about a 5% drop. From what I have read, whether forced to stop or not, most people fail to finish if they have a 7% or greater drop in body weight during the event. This race had no firm number. They used the number in conjunction with an evaluation of your condition to make a decision. I proceed to tell the race officials in dramatic detail all the stupid decisions I had already made and how I would fill my bladder pack now so that over the next four hours I had calculated that I could be completely re-hydrated given the coolness of the night. Thankfully I am good at math and even in my dehydrated state I was able to cipher for them in a way that led to their agreement that I was OK to continue. Surely someone in dire straits wouldn’t be able to do long division in their head. So they let me go on with a stiff warning. (In subsequent weigh-ins I was never less than 155 pounds so I had learned my lesson.)
This would be my first time running through the night. I have never trained at night. My longest run in the dark up to this point had been at the end of my first ultra in January 2013, the Bandera 100K. I had to run about 4 hours in the dark that night. But this would be ALL night and to be honest I was more than a little bit intimidated by the prospect. I left the aid station running next to a guy going my pace. We decided to stick together and we stayed together until the 46.5 mile aid station when he dropped.
This is probably a good time to talk about the course and markings. We figured out during the run that a lot of things were different after mile 27 than what we had studied on the maps provided before the race. We found out at around mile 35 from an aid station worker (actually the only aid station worker at that station if you don’t count his dog) that the race had not been successful in securing a permit to use the Pacific Coast Trail this year. This was significant because the prior year it had represented a large part of the total course. So we were running on an entirely different track. The consensus was that the new track was a lot harder. It was definitely longer. In fact when the leader came to the last section we heard that he was on track to end up running 109 miles so the last section was shortened such that we all ended up running a bit less than 104 miles. Needless to say, this last minute change in plans resulted in a few areas where at night the course markings could have been better… at least for a guy with poor vision like myself. The guy I ran with for much of the night and I ended up getting lost three or four times and wasted about 30 minutes looking for the correct path and probably ran an extra mile and a half to two miles in the process. The other part of the problem at night was that the flags which were supposed to glow or reflect (I’m still not sure which) did neither. They had to be spotted directly with the light by a process of constant scanning. This made it very difficult to go very fast due to the very real risk of missing a turn. (To be fair some glow sticks and streamers had been added here and there to make up for the flag issue and where they were located they made a big difference.)
It was about two in the morning when my new buddy dropped and I left the mile 46.5 aid station. But before I left I changed into my Lone Peaks and felt much more comfortable with the exception that I had now developed blisters on both heals. But these new blisters weren’t slowing me down… yet. The next four hours were very difficult. It was getting very cold (I would guess somewhere around 40 degrees) and by 4am my gloved fingers were completely numb. I was all alone for this entire time and I really wanted some company.
But right before dawn my path merged with the 50 mile racers who had just started at 5am. They were about 5 miles into their race. There were shiny, happy people everywhere! They weren’t holding hands but they were laughing. And more importantly, they were moving at a faster pace. In addition to my spirits, the sun was also rising. Its funny how the mind works when left to its own devices: sun rising… The Sun Also Rises… Ernest Hemingway… quotes from said book… “you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another”… “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing”… french fries.
I latched onto a couple 50 mile guys and ran with them at a relatively fast pace for the next 10 miles until I let them go. I needed to slow down a bit. By now I was at mile 60 and I knew that I needed to be a bit more conservative to ensure that I could complete the remaining 40 miles.
The next twelve miles were serene. It was getting hot but after the long night I didn’t mind. The course wound through some beautiful pine forests and a large logging operation that was removing trees that had been damaged by fire. There were beautiful giant cedars and Ponderosa pines. I let myself be absorbed by my surroundings. Of course approaching 24 hours into the race it wasn’t hard to allow myself to zone out. I wasn’t asleep and I wasn’t stopped but I was somehow resting. And it is a good thing that I was resting because I was about to reach the toughest part of the course.
I came into the Nordic Rim aid station aware that my heals were really hurting now when going up or down hill. Luckily the Ultra Medic team was there again. They were awesome! We removed my shoes and socks to take a look. The two quarter size blisters, one on each heal, were puffed out full of a large amount of fluid. The medic carefully drained the blisters. But then he told me that I had another set of blisters under the original blisters such that he had to stick the pin in quite far and in multiple places to get all of the fluid drained from those deeper blisters. He then treated the surface of the skin and carefully applied KT tape over my heals to protect the area. I lost over 30 minutes getting treatment but it was well worth it as I would have really struggled through the next section of the course.
Now you have to wonder about what motivates a race director at somewhere around mile 75 of a 100 mile course to put in a section that consists of a two and a half mile, 2,000 foot descent on loose rocky switchback, a stream crossing, and then a seven mile 3,000 foot steep ascent on largely unshaded trail. On the course map from last year they described this section as “The Canyon – The Crux of the course. Descend 2k’ to Bear Creek, aka Hades, and then make your way 3k’ back up to the South Ridge. Remember early in the race to save something for this… it’s a BIG climb!” I would say that this was the most accurate thing on the map.
At the stream crossing there were two volunteers manning a water filling station. They were pulling water from the stream and running it through a filtering system they had hanging in a tree. This is where we had been warned many times to make sure we had plenty of fluids for the long, hot climb out. I filled my two bottles full. I filled my 50 ounce bladder full. And I drank about 15 ounces right there. By the time I emerged from the canyon I had consumed all 90 ounces!
This brings me back to where I started this story. After the owl incident, I finished the race in 33 hours and 33 minutes. When I crossed the finish line I was treated as if I had won the race… podium photo and all. I was happy to finish but I was proud of keeping my promise to myself.
I have no misconceptions about this “accomplishment”. It was special to me because it was my very first 100 mile finish. But thousands of people have completed 100 mile races… probably more. My performance was in the bottom half of those finishes. I’m a runner of average ability who happens to work at it. Frankly I’m convinced more than ever that any healthy person who wants to run a 100 mile race and is willing to do the work can do it. I like ultra running because it puts adventure in my life. I like the anticipation of upcoming events. I like sharing a common interest with my wife. I like the structure it helps me maintain in my day to day activities. I like meeting the interesting people who participate in the sport. That outcomes are not certain. I like that it is unpredictable. I like that for that day, in my mind, I am on a grand adventure. I can’t wait for my next.