This is an event where failure and success are very fluid. There is only 1 winner (sometimes no one wins) and everyone else is a DNF (did not finish). There is no set end to the race, it’s all up to the competitors.
Why run a race with no chance of winning or even finishing really?
The answer is different for everyone I guess. To some just a couple loops are a success. To others, 48 hours is a failure on at least some level. This race has a way of making you contemplate many things. The runner contemplates the reasons they run it – before, during, and after. The crew contemplates their runner’s needs, mental and physical state. The thousands of observers who follow the race online, staying up for hours to see just a once per hour update; they contemplate our sanity, how they’d stack up, the human spirit.
On such a basic level this is just a footrace like any other. It’s a 4 1/6 mile long course on trail during the day and paved road by night. You put one foot in front of the other just like any other race, perpetual forward motion. Then it gets a bit wonky, as some of the foreign runners would say. This loop must be run within 1 hour and the next lap started exactly 1 hour from the previous loops start. The faster you run the loop, the longer you have to rest but the more energy you expended. The other key difference is that it’s a last man standing format, meaning that the last person to finish a loop on their own wins the event. This means every other person must have quit before there is a winner. And ultrarunners don’t like to quit.
I’ve known about this race since it’s beginning and even could’ve gotten in years ago off the waitlist but it was only a couple weeks before the race so I turned it down. This year I applied again and was accepted right away. There really isn’t much to prepare for this race different from other ultramarathons. I usually have a fast turn around in aid stations and you just need to think through things before you get there. It would’ve been nice to have a crew but I didn’t realize just how helpful one would be until the race started but I’ll get to that later.
I drove to this event since there was a lot of stuff to bring and I had no idea how long I’d be there. I was trying not to get sick from my loving children the entire week before the race. I went to bed 2 hours early every night, etc. Sure enough though my nose was running by Wednesday and on the drive there Thursday my lymph nodes in my neck were swollen and I was just sore everywhere. I hoped doing basically nothing that day and Friday would help speed recovery.
My legs were still somewhat off from Barkley Fall Classic which I was surprised by really. Honestly though there have been very few races I started where I felt everything was 100% normal. The races are held when they’re held, not when you’re ready for them. Now you need to sign up almost a year in advance for most big races, so really you’re just betting on yourself to stay healthy when you sign up.
I arrived at the race site Friday which is the race director Laz’s property. I would’ve been able to set up my stuff in the “contender” area since I was planning on over 24 loops but I had a 4×4 foot shower tent and that was too big for that area so I set up behind the flagged off area. Also it wasn’t allowed since it had a rain cover and you couldn’t have tarps or coverings in that area. It wasn’t that much further away, probably 20 seconds added to each lap total. Plus even though I’d go over 24 hours, I had no chance to beat the people who did set up right next to the starting corral. Everyone knew the 10 or so people that would still be going 36+ hours into this and let them be close.
We could walk the course that day as well. Here are the pictures of the course I took. These are in order of how the course goes but not all areas are represented.
I left whatever I didn’t need at the hotel in my tent and took off to get supper and go to bed. I stayed in Murfreesboro which is pretty close. I taped my feet even though I knew it would be a little wet in the beginning of the race. I’d never have time to tape them during the race and I didn’t want to have to make time to reapply lubricant every 12 hours during the race. I decided on starting with my Altra Timps for the early wetness and mud.
The race starts at 6:40AM so I got to the parking area around 6. Then there is the half mile hike to the starting area. I haven’t taken an Imodium before a race for a while now but I did take 1 before the race just to make sure I didn’t time out in one of the first loops. I wore my GPS watch even though I didn’t really need to keep pace. Like most everyone else I just picked landmarks and what time it took to get there. There were 70 of us that started the race. Laz stated rules that we couldn’t hear because people kept on talking and then he painted a line around us which was now the starting corral. I’m pretty sure we started a minute late so I’m not sure if we just started every hour after that late as well or not. Since there were so many people, it took a good 10 seconds to even get to the start line.
You go on about a 0.42 mile road loop to spread people out a little bit. There is a cone in the ditch you need to go around. That got real old. There was a do not trespass sign we all had to stomp over to get to the cone as well. It’s all downhill to the cone and then back up a fairly steep hill to the start. Towards the end of the day everyone walked this hill but most people ran up it the first hour. Then you get to the actual single track trail and start the conga line for the next 3 miles. It seemed everyone enjoyed walking downhill and running uphill. Very frustrating for me. I didn’t even see any of the landmarks I planned on using the first loop because all I saw were feet and butts. Therefore the landmarks I did use were quite few and things I couldn’t possibly miss. They were: End of rock wall 14ish minutes, split tree (1.5miles) 22ish minutes, walk-through rock 33ish minutes, end of loop 38ish minutes, rock wall 45ish minutes, finish 54 minutes.
My favorite portion of the trail was the section of walk-through rock which was immediately followed by the rocks you had to slalom through, and then the downhill prairie section. I usually passed people on the prairie section to get out of the conga line.
I won’t go over how many were out every hour but 1 didn’t make the first hour and 1 didn’t the second hour. Most of the initial day loops had drama every hour with someone either just making it in time or just coming up short.
It rained on and off the first few hours and the course got nice and muddy. Joe Fejes fell down the first hour since he had road shoes on but never after that I don’t think. The mud didn’t bother me too much although it does strain different muscles. Really it was the constant conga lines down hill that drove me nuts. Finally on the 4th hour I lined up towards the front and took off from the get go to get in front of most everyone by the time I hit the trail. Oh what sweet joy it was to finally be able to have a normal stride length and to run downhill and walk uphill. I certainly was using more energy than I’d like but I decided it was worth it to have extra time back at camp. I had originally planned on changing shoes the next hour but thought it foolish to have 2 fast loops so I decided to change into dry socks and shoes that would last the rest of the race. That loop took 49 minutes which ended up being plenty of time to do what I needed plus have some time to check my phone and take photos.
So a couple funny things happened during those early loops. On loop 4 there was a guy a couple people in front of me that slipped, which isn’t the funny part. Just as he was about to land on the ground he farted and shot right back up. Perfect timing! The other thing which is probably a had to be there kind of thing was around the 6th loop a man asked Courtney (Dauwalter) if she changed clothes. She answered with a confused “No”, which was immediately answered back from the man with “Well, I can see your knees now, you must’ve just hiked up your shorts.” Everyone within earshot laughed pretty hard at that. I probably have the exact words a little off but you get the gist. Courtney is famous for not only being an awesome runner, but that she only wears long basketball shorts while running. Like I said, you probably had to be there.
Eventually the group thinned out and I found the 56 minutes area to be less crowded where I wasn’t constantly on someone’s heels. I had long discussions with Joe and Kelley Fejes, my favorite running couple. They were keeping pace really well so it was nice to kind of let my mind leave the race and just have fun. I even caught them holding hands during the race. By this time my legs were getting kind of sore already. My calves were getting tight. Something with the constant slow uphills plus the mud just made my calves work harder than you’d think. Thinking back on the race reports I’ve read, it seems like Achilles pain is one of the main reasons for people quitting, which would go along with tight calves. Anyway, I didn’t ever have time to stretch stuff out so I just had to deal with it. This is where having a crew would help. It would save at least 2 minutes every loop with a crew which doesn’t seem like much but that’s 30 extra seconds a mile I could take, and that’s not nothing.
I was soaked from rain all morning and then soaked from sweat all afternoon. It never got that hot really but it still affected me towards the end of the day. That and I tend to slow down around 25 miles so loop 7 and 8 were kind of hard. Chaffing was starting to set in as well due to all the salt. I had to wash up and reapply lube often during the day. I was eating and staying hydrated but I never got as hungry as I wished I would. The course had 494 feet of elevation gain per loop which with the technical nature of the trail made it somewhat challenging. By the end of the day I was having issues maintaining pace. The last daytime loop was dark so you need a headlamp. I finished that loop officially in 57:43 but I though it was over 58 minutes. Either way I didn’t even go to the tent. I just tried to catch my breath and was so happy that the night loop would be starting.
The night time loop is much easier. MUCH easier! If you’ve followed the race, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “If you make it to the night loop, you’ll make it to the morning.” While not everyone who started the night loops made it to morning, that is still a very true statement. It’s not flat by any means (165 feet) but it’s flatter and not at all technical so you can kind of relax a bit more. That is as long as you don’t get scared of the screams and chainsaws you hear from the haunted hayride you pass by every loop.
I finished the first loop in 53 minutes and felt so much better. It had cooled off a lot already and I was loving it. The second night loop felt even better and I finished in 51 minutes without really trying to go fast. Of course the leaders were still done 8 minutes before me. It took awhile to figure out where exactly I would walk and where I would run. There were half mile markers painted on the road which was really nice to help gauge your progress as there wasn’t much else along the road. 1 bridge, a couple turns, and 1 house. The rest was just fields or trees. The next day I drove the course and I was surprised how some areas I thought were flat where actually sloped one way or the other.
We got to hear cheers from what some of us called “doomleaders” since they weren’t really cheerleaders. Here’s a clip from the start of I think loop 17. I’m in the white t-shirt towards the back of the pack. It was finally getting nice and cool. The loop before this one the wind picked up a lot from the North. By the time we got to the haunted hayride around 10pm it was shut down, I assume from the cold since it seemed pretty early to close on a Saturday night. I think I finally put a long sleeve t-shirt on around loop 21. I wore my gloves and buff into the wind and took them off on the way back as I’d get too hot. Most others had on down puffy jackets. Of course we had had 2 inches of snow at home just 6 days earlier so I was used to this weather already.
There was a meteor shower that night. Well certainly not a shower as I only saw 2, which is pretty much what you can always see on any given night. The difference is that these were the nice long ones that explode at the end and give off some decent light. Bits of Halley’s Comet ending their long journey for our enjoyment. I suppose I would’ve saw dozens had I been able to just lay down and look straight up at Orion.
Throughout the night I was towards the end of the group. Maybe 5 or so people behind me the first few loops. Then 4, 3, 2 as people started to drop. A few times I started to think I was the last one as few people used their headlamps with the bright moon. I’d usually catch up to Marcy Beard just at the end of the loop. Towards the end of the night, I’d see a few people that usually finished in front of me start to be running with me. While I enjoyed the mostly silent company, it was a sign they were hurting and would soon be out. I’m sure the people in camp noticed the decaying loop times as well but to see it out there first hand was interesting. I had no clue what to say to them about their situation to help them. Yes, despite this being a race, everyone wants the other runners to do well. It’s odd really and I think has more to do with the fact that almost everyone there was a veteran of the sport and can empathize with anything someone might be going through. Sure the competitor in me was glad there were people dropping, but for some reason I always wanted the person right there with me to succeed. If I never saw the person all day, I didn’t care if they were out.
Really there is little to no gamesmanship until the end of the race and that’s just for the elites and I think mostly just for show to the spectators. Having been out there now, it’s much easier to know how your opponent is truly doing if you are running together. You can hear their breathing, cadence, foot placement, etc. You can mask and fake those things at the end of the loop for the crowd and they’re none the wiser. To look at all the comments on Facebook about how people looked when they came in at the end of the loop and making predictions based on that is kind of comical to me now. About the only thing an outsider can look at is decaying finishing times and even that doesn’t necessarily show anything. There are highs and lows in ultras and this race just makes them more obvious to an outsider.
Most of the night was silent for me. I put headphones on and listened to music for the first time all day. I actually got really hungry one loop and ate a fair amount but it did nothing to give me more energy even hours later. I put on a thermal shirt on loop 23 in case I got hurt or something and had to walk back. That was a bad idea looking back. I got way to warm and sleepy. I found myself sleepwalking and weaving all over the road. I finished that loop in 57 minutes which is bad for the road. Joe and Courtney convinced me to continue which was nice. I decided I needed to just run faster and get colder to stay awake. I took off my buff and gloves and I quickly changed my iPod to my 177 bpm playlist to quicken my pace and took off right off the line. The other reason I was slowing was I was getting pretty sore in the quads and hips. I ended up kind of straight-legging down the hills which I knew in the end wasn’t good for my body but I just wanted to go a bit further. It worked and I finished in 55 minutes. Enough time to change back into a t-shirt and get some fluids and fuel for the day loop. I was surprised how many people changed shoes from road to trail shoes and vice versa. I’ve never found a road shoe that I’m comfortable in for more than 30 miles so I just always wear trail shoes.
The other issue that cropped up the last few loops was the wonderful gift of sickness my children gave me before I left. I was mouth breathing all day and night since my nose and sinuses were plugged. That wasn’t too bad in the beginning, but now that the air was much drier and colder it started to take it’s toll. My throat was on fire. I wasn’t looking forward to how sick I was going to be after all this stress.
So 34 (out of 70) us made it through 24 hours and 100 miles. No other year has been even close to that amount. Some years going 100 miles made you close to winning it. Getting under 24 hours for a 100 mile race is generally considered quite good. Here it was just average! Plus you couldn’t bank any time when you felt good like in a normal 100 mile race. I’m not sure how many started the next loop. I know only 30 of us finished. Fairly often people would start the next loop and just quit when they got back from the short road portion of the loop.
I was more awake now as the sun was starting to come up and I was back into cooler clothes. I was determined to finish at least one day loop. It was clear I wasn’t going to reach my ultimate goal of the race but I needed to see how I’d do on a less muddy version of the trail loop. Basically I only ran this loop because of competitiveness and stubbornness. It was surprisingly somewhat easy. That’s somewhat easy. I was having to straight-leg off the rocks and downhill which was a clear sign my race would soon be over whether I liked it or not. The trail was much easier to run on today though, with nice soft non-muddy dirt. There was also no one in your way to get slowed down by. Towards the end of the loop I caught up to Marcy again and she had me pass her which was kind of funny. I knew she was pacing herself perfectly and I was planning on just following her in. Why pass someone anymore, they just catch up to you at the start of the next loop right? I did indeed pass her and tried to enjoy the last portion of the trail.
I finished the loop to much less fanfare then the previous day’s finishes. There were always people clapping and cheering you in to the finish. Now many people were gone or sleeping. The small amount was still appreciated though as it always is in an ultramarathon. I crossed the line in 56:04. Plenty of time to reload for another loop if I wanted to. I did want to in a way but I knew the inevitable end that was to come. If I continued, I could probably finish a couple more loops but would also make myself not be able to work for a week. I immediately turned in my timing chip to a chorus of “Noooo”. The crowd wanted more carnage. Courtney and Joe tried to get me to continue when I came over to wish them good luck. I had already turned in my chip because I knew they’d probably convince me to continue and I knew I needed to stop to prevent more damage.
I ran 104 1/6 miles in 25 hours. The total time I was on the course was 22:38 out of those 25 hours. That’s too little I think. I’d much rather have just 1 hour of down time for that distance which means I could’ve ran about 45 seconds a mile slower the entire race. That would probably only be possible with a crew but as this was just my first race in this format, I still have a few things to learn.
I got my dog tag for
finishing, quitting, giving it my all. I took my blanket and made the painful half mile walk back to my car to sleep on a nice air mattress in the back. I slept an hour or so with ice on my ankles to keep swelling from showing up. I woke up and drove to town to take a shower at the gas station. I also got some food there. I parked back at the parking site and started to make the trip back to the race site. I think it was Marcy’s crew that drove by and picked me up and drove me to the race which was awesome! I ate some food and slowly packed up my things. I watched one more start of the remaining runners but decided I wasn’t going to stay to the end.
I made one last trip to the timing tent to see if Big would finally say hi but he was still in hiding mode. What a rude host!
I drove until I was tired and then would sleep in the car. That was repeated until I finally got home. I couldn’t talk anymore. In fact I couldn’t talk somewhat normal for 8 days. I could kind of whisper and then would squeak like I was in puberty. Even 2 weeks out now I still have a stuffy nose. My ankles swelled up on the drive home but I just stayed off my feet for a couple days and they improved. I am happy in my decision to quit when I did. Things would’ve only been worse had I not.
I kind of like this race format. It seems geared just for me so if I don’t do this race again I will likely do another in the same format. There are more of them every year. I was already home by the time the race ended which is weird in itself. 68 hours was the winning time this year. Humans are truly amazing!