Pine Hollow #2 to Covered Bridge #1 (6.6 miles, 80.8 total)
This section started innocently enough. I drank a Red Bull at Pine Hollow, and it definitely picked me up! Within about two minutes of leaving Pine Hollow for the second time, I felt a surge of energy that I hadn’t felt since mile 20. I felt very good physically and mentally. My legs were still stiff, but the only pain radiated from my left Achilles.
Jesse and I were making great progress. I don’t remember if I ran at this point, but I was definitely hiking faster than I had over the last few sections. I’m pretty sure this was about the time Jesse and I started discussing his Mind the Ducks 12 Hour performance. At the end of the race, Jesse ran one half-mile loop at a blistering 5:20 pace. It was the fastest lap anyone ran all day… after he had already run over 64 miles.
I have also witnessed Jesse exhibiting this kick on some of our long training runs. On our now-famous 68 mile training run, he stopped to take a leak. Mark Robillard (the same Mark now played by the Ken doll) and I continued on. We covered about a quarter mile before Jesse sprinted to catch up to us. This was at mile 60.
Anyway, we talked about the body’s ability to squeeze out more performance even when you think you are on the brink of death. I have always been fascinated by the idea. Dr. Tim Noakes talks about his “central regulator” theory in “The Lore of Running“. The idea is simple- fatigue is merely a mechanism your brain employs to prevent maximal effort. It is your brain’s method of keeping something “in the tank” in the event of an emergency. Even at the end of a 100 miler, your body should be capable of more than a slow shuffle.
That conversation planted the seed. At this point, even though I felt better than I had for hours and hours, I could not fathom the idea of a fast run to end this race. Still, I knew I should be capable of a kick. This idea brewed for the next 25 miles.
Just as I was silently imagining what it would be like to cross the finish line in a sprint, my Fenix handheld died. Since it is a regulated light, it doesn’t dim before dying… it just dies. At first I thought I may have accidentally clicked the on/off button, so I clicked it back on. After ten seconds, it died again. I stopped and fiddled around with it. Jesse tried the same. No luck. It wasn’t a disaster; I still had my headlamp. Jesse was also sporting to lights, and he had both of his. We continued on.
I was silently questioning whether I had reminded the crew to change the batteries after the start. I brought the handheld with me way back at the beginning and dropped it off at Polo Fields. I was supposed to tell them to replace all batteries to make sure they didn’t die during the night. A sense of dread slowly built as I realized I had said nothing. My Red Bull-fueled train of thought went something like this:
“Okay no problems I still have one light and Jesse still has two the aid station is only about five or six miles away let’s see at this pace that works out to be about two hour damn two hours is a long time if one already died oh my god what will happen if they all die how will we navigate to the next aid station in complete darkness shit shit shit this is how it could end Jesse and I will be lost wandering around the wilderness for hours…”
Maybe the Red Bull had something to do with the paranoia. Maybe not. About five minutes later, Jesse’s handheld died. This was a bad omen. I could see his headlamp was dimming, also. Okay, this was about to get really, really bad.
My headlamp was still fairly strong, but I knew the batteries hadn’t been changed since my last 100 miler last September.
It was then that I remembered my impulse buy from a week earlier. Shelly and I were buying some race supplies at a Meijer (Midwest department store/ grocery store). While waiting to check out, I saw a display of LED keychain flashlights that were reduced to clearance prices. I immediately thought back to many race reports I had read where a runner’s light had died. I remembered harrowing tales of wandering through the wilderness by the light of a cell phone or attempting to navigate via stars while surrounded by complete and total darkness. I picked one up. Sometimes I over-prepare. Sometimes it saves me.
I had clipped the keychain light inside the pocket of my water bottle sleeve. I dug it out and gave it to Jesse. It was a bit of a nuisance to use as it required continually pressing the “on” button, but it was surprisingly bright. This three dollar life saver would be just enough to allow us to make it to the Covered Bridge aid station.
The rest of the section was uneventful. I believe we continued talking about a lot of ultra-related topics, including Jesse’s own 100 mile race he plans on running very soon. The time went by faster than it had in previous sections, and our pace was better than it had been in a long time.
After some time, we came to a field with parked cars in the distance. I remembered the layout from my previous attempt in 2008. Rich, my pacer, had paced someone else after I dropped out. Jason (my other crew member) and I had slept in the Covered Bridge parking lot. Anyway, we ran through the parking lot and into the actual covered bridge.
This aid station was quite a sight. it was illumined with Christmas lights. It appeared to be heated, though than may have been some sort of psychosomatic effect. About half of the thirty people in the bridge were sleeping, the others looks a little like zombies. My crew still looked alert. We gave Art our lights to change the batteries, and Shelly immediately rattled off the food available at the food table.
I stopped drinking the Mike’s at this point as I was worried it would make me too sleepy. Instead I drank the chia with only water. Note- water-only iskiate… not good. I also drank another Red Bull hoping to capture the magic from the previous section. I think I may have eaten some solid food, too. Art gave us an update on our pace and relayed what to expect on the next section. This was a 4.7 mile loop, then we will end up at Covered Bridge again.
Jesse and I re-affixed our lights, grabbed our water bottles, and headed out. The last section was fast; I wanted to continue that trend. We were momentarily held up by a group of people at the end of the covered bridge. They were asking for pictures of Jesse and I. Being polite, we stopped. I vaguely remember our crew physically pushing us out onto the trail.
Section pace: 18:15
Covered Bridge #1 to Covered Bridge #2 (4.7 miles, 85.5 miles total)
Someone at the aid station mentioned this section was easy. By now, I should have learned to ignore such advice. We were immediately met with a fairly large climb. This section essentially contained three substantial climbs and three equally-large descents. The climbs were no problem; the descents continued to be painful crawls. I’m sure Jesse grew tired of my incessant complaining and my vow to solve my downhill running issues.
This loop was fairly uneventful. It was relatively slow compared to the last loop. We ran with Rachel Sterk and Phil Stapert, our friends from Grand Rapids for some time. Rachel seemed to look much better than I did. Eventually we lost them when Rachel stopped to stretch.
We also ran with an older gentleman that was being paced by his daughter. We caught him at the top of a large climb. He was vomiting at the top. Jesse asked him if he was okay. He responded with some nonsense. He was clearly in rough shape. As is the case with most pacers, his daughter feigned concern and kept him moving forward. She was playing music through an iPod, but was not using headphones. We could hear her music from a considerable distance. It was odd to hear music playing in the middle of the darkness.
About this time, I started hearing frequent footsteps behind us. I would turn and we’d be alone. Ah, the joys of auditory hallucinations! I would also hear occasional voices, but Jesse assured me he heard them, too. Either our hallucinations were syncing up is some strange shared sleep-deprived state, or there were actually people on another part of the trail just out of our line of sight.
After what felt like an especially long section, we came back to Covered Bridge. I was feeling better than expected, but still very tired. I spent a little longer in the chair than planned, but it was a welcome break. I ate my usual aid station fare, re-taped my hands, applied some lube, and rested momentarily.
My crew informed me that the rest of the course would be very easy. Their source- our friend Phil. He had finished the race the previous two years. I learned a valuable lesson in the next hour or so… Phil’s idea of “easy” is significantly different than my idea of easy.
Section pace: 23:50
Covered Bridge #2 to O’Neil Woods (3.3 miles, 88.8 total)
This section started on an asphalt road. In the first few hundred yards, I think I stopped to pee twice. This is a trend that started a few miles back. For whatever reason, I see to urinate frequently late in 100 milers. The urine frequency and volume seems to be out of proportion to the amount being consumed. The urine is clear and I have no other symptoms of dehydration, hyponatremia, or other kidney issues. It’s a bit of a mystery…
Anyway, the section started with a sweeping climb uphill. The road then flattened out as we passed multiple horse ranches. About half way through the loop, I had to stop to take a #2. It was a little tricky as there was no good cover… only a few bunches of trees in the ditches. Luckily I found a bunch that offered decent concealment. I left a little lighter afterward; I’m sure it helped my performance.
With about a mile left, he hit trails. Hmmmm…. I thought it was supposed to be easy. As it turns out, the trail section of this loop sucked. It was comprised of several large climbs. Our pace took a beating, but we finally came to the O’Neil Woods aid station.
We arrived to blaring music and glow-in-the-dark jewelry everywhere! It was a pretty surreal atmosphere given our state of fatigue.
The aid station volunteers took the reverse route of the other aid station volunteers. They immediately noticed our attire:
Girl at aid station (to Jesse): “Are you wearing a dress shirt?!?”
Jesse: “Yeah, it’s like a fancy Nathan vest. See? It has pockets.”
Girl (to me): “Are you wearing sandals?!?”
Me: “Yeah, the course was to gravelly to run barefoot any more.”
Girl: “Is that a kilt?!?”
Me: [I have no idea what I said here]
After spending too much time eating and procrastinating, Jesse and I prepared to head out. I asked the girl about the section ahead. She said “It’s pretty easy. You’ll start on some easy trails with a few steps, then hit the tow path.” Perfect.
Section pace: 19:41
O’Neil Woods to Merriman Road (4.5 miles, 93.3 total)
I was very confident heading into this section. With only a little over 12 miles left, I knew I could slowly walk to the finish. All I had to do was keep moving. It sounds easy, but this is the point in a 100 miler where your body has long-since rejected the idea of responding to your demands to move. The pain is analogous to getting a tattoo. At first, it hurts as lot. Then you get into a groove and just accept the pain. Eventually the persistence wears on you. The pain builds and builds. You cannot ignore it. You cannot embrace it. You simply tolerate it.
Fatigue grips your body in ever-increasingly violent waves. Even routine tasks like avoiding pissing on yourself become arduous. Bouts of sleepiness hit you like a hammer. You will be alert and fully wake one moment; catching yourself falling off the side of the trail the next. Sleep comes in quick, involuntary spurts.
This was my state heading into the trek to Merriman Road.
The girl at the aid station lied. Or wasn’t a runner. Or had never run this section after previously running 88.8 miles. After exiting the aid station, we were immediately treated to a very long decline. According to the elevation charts, the decline was only 400 feet. It felt like a mile plunge into the depths of hell. It started with a series of stairs. I gingerly sidestepped each one. At the bottom, we were lulled into a false sense of accomplishment as we hit flat ground. That lasted about twenty feet before we plummeted down another steep downhill section.
Eventually we hit flat asphalt. I think. My memory of this section is very blurry. Jesse was obviously as sleepy as I was. We met up with two other runners for awhile, and three of us missed a turn onto the tow path. Luckily the fourth saw it and we were saved the pain of having to backtrack.
The towpath was very surreal. The sky was lightening as dawn crept in. I could not wait as I knew it would help ward off the overwhelming sleepiness that was taking control of my psyche.
Even though the tow path was only about two miles long, it felt like ten. I was wavering in and out of consciousness. Our conversations ceased. Jesse would be running ahead of me on the left. The next instant, he’d be on the right. At one point, I opened my eyes a fraction of a second before crashing into a rock retaining wall that ran along the path. At another point, I saw what I thought was the bridge that marked the end of the tow path. I blinked and the bridge moved 100 feet down the path. Shit. A hallucination.
The only solid memory I have from this section is the compost plant. Everyone warned us about the smell. Having grown up in close proximity to a dairy farm, I was accustomed to offensive odors. Or so I thought. As we neared the plant, I smelled a slightly offensive odor. “Hey, this isn’t so bad!” I remarked. I’m not sure if that was a thought or I actually said it to Jesse. As we advanced, the smell grew. It was as if you started with decaying plant matter, added some spoiled milk, maybe some turkey shit, then a dead body, and finally you tossed in a pile of vomit that crept under you car seat in the summer after a weekend keg party in college. It caused immediate and uncontrolled gagging. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t vomit; I wish I had. The good news… it only lasted about an eighth of a mile.
Eventually the tow path came to an end and we wandered into the town of what I was assuming was Cuyahoga Falls. Since it was Sunday morning, the town was deserted. We passed a gentleman taking pictures. We saw the car wash that served as the aid station. We saw Art and Shelly. Finally, we could rest for a moment.
This aid station went pretty fast, or so I remember. I drank some Slim Fast and Red Bull and ate some ramen noodles. The Red Bull magic never returned, so I will likely use it as a one-time booster for future races.
Later Shelly said both Jesse and I looked like train wrecks. Shelly asked Jesse if he wanted her to pace me. before she got the words out of her mouth, Jesse enthusiastically yelled “YES!”
Shelly would be pacing me for the last two sections, so we quickly got ready and headed out. As we were leaving, I couldn’t help but think about that kick. How could I possibly have the energy to move faster than this slow crawl?
Section pace: 19:06