“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7 NIV
One hundred and thirty five miles.
Thats a really long way. And thats the best way I can describe it without using expletives.
But I did it. With all sorts of help, with decimated legs, with about half of a functioning brain, with no time to spare, through the grace of God.
This race is a game changer for me. Not only is it a big step up in distance, but it was a true odyssey. I learned so much about myself that I can apply both in ultras and elsewhere. But lets rub all that glow off for a second and just acknowledge that it was also three dozen hours of absolute torture.
I hate the grind. I love the grind.
I don’t remember my splits, or the exact chronological order of events, or anything like that. This race was really the intersection of two plot lines for me:
First, that I was broken to the point of quitting for the first time ever.
Second, that I was awake for 56 hours and I basically went batsh-t crazy.
We’ll get to that. First, lets start with why I wanted to run 135 miles in the first place.
Why I wanted to run 135 miles in the first place.
Seriously though, its because I’m in the same place I was four years ago when I discovered ultras. I’m in love with the idea of going longer, with pushing yourself to the brink. Today, I can run 100 miles without much doubt. I did Cruel Jewel and it was really tough, but I did it, and now I have my sights set on new goals. I’m not into speed, so the goals are all around going farther.
I want Badwater (bad). I find myself researching 200’s. That sort of thing.
So Pumpkin Holler found its way onto my radar because of the 135 mile option in a good time of year on a relatively benign course. Plus it has a 46 hour cutoff, which is very achievable for the first attempt at this distance.
Its actually a 40 hour cutoff.
Wait what? Why did I realize I was doing my math wrong all summer just five days before the race? A 40 hour cutoff…well, that could be harder, but should still be doable as long as the wheels don’t completely fall off.
Welcome to Oklahoma.
Yeah, I was nervous heading into the race. 135 miles was intimidating, even though I know I’m solid and can do it. I was also dinged up though with sharp pain in my right hip and ankle. I’d probably overtrained. I think I was actually a little scared because of this. I’d either come up short or finish by tolerating a lot of pain – neither option was comforting.
I flew in to Tulsa Friday morning and got set up with my rental car, which I think was like a 1992 Dodge. It did not have a USB charger so I had to go to a CVS to get a lighter charger thingie. From there, I picked up some last minute supplies, ate a huge meal at Arby’s, caught some Pokemon and then headed to Tahlequah for the pre-race dinner.
Random: In Tulsa, I was at a random park and a guy remarks on my Cruel Jewel shirt. Bumping into another ultra runner in public is rare enough, but this gentleman, Earl, was also running one of the Pumpkin Holler aid stations. It truly is a small world. I’d see him later.
At the pre-race, one of the RDs named Stormy gave an extremely impassioned speech about DNFing. I’ve never seen a moment like that at a race briefing before. Stormy told a story of a woman who quit her first hundred attempt at mile 99 (and her crew let her). While the moral of the story was about awful crews, the clincher is that once you quit, YOU CAN’T TAKE IT BACK.
They also asked for a show of hands from all the people attempting the 135. About 15 hands went up (there were 21 official 135 entrants along with dozens of other runners of other distances). We got a small round of applause. Everybody knew that we were basically screwed.
Night One: The Easy-ish Part
Within a couple of hours, I threw together three drop bags and arrived at Eagle Bluff Resort for the 10pm start time. I made small talk with a couple of other runners as we waited. A couple people were just aiming for 100 miles but wanted more time; others like me were really going for 135.
There was just a skeleton crew of race volunteers out to help us since most of the distances, including the hundred, started in the morning. They had set up roving aid stations – basically cars that positioned themselves on the course – great idea.
When the gun went off to start the race, I was literally the last person out of the chute. Quite a few folks went out running. Tempting, but no thanks.
The first section of the race was a 16 mile out-and-back, after which we’d do four 30-mile loops from Eagle Bluff and back. I settled into a run-walk groove and met a couple of other runners. Gradually I pulled ahead of a few and found a place mid-pack. I ran a bit with a woman named Jenni who was going after her first hundred – she had trained hard but not yet gone beyond 50-60 miles. I reminisced on my first hundred and told her all the fun things she had in store. Looking at the results, it appears she did it, which is awesome.
Around midnight I met Bill Edgar. At first Bill kind of started me because he rode up on me on a bike, which meant he wasn’t a runner or a volunteer. It turns out that he was a reporter from the local paper who was pitching a story on the race. It seems that although Tahlequah kind of knows that the race happens (its on year six), it doesn’t get a lot of attention. Bill and I talked for a bit, and I answered some of the normal Why Are You Doing This kind of questions, and I told him that if he was out for a story to stick around until Sunday. Thats when the stories happen in these things – when you see normal people do extraordinary things. Little did I know just how much foreshadowing that would be – more on Bill later.
Time flew by. My goal for the out-and-back was 4 hours but I did it in 3.5. Its good to bank some time, right? I was feeling positive, listening to music and mentally strengthening myself. I have added a lot of Christian music to my playlist and in races I like to listen to the song Oceans (the North Point version) on repeat in the night with healthy doses of caffeine. I thought a lot about God and I was determining to honor Him with this accomplishment.
Then on to the first loop. Although the pack got really strung out, I still saw several runners frequently through leapfrogging and aid stations. One of the runners was Jodi Weiss, who I stopped to walk with for awhile. Jodi is a multiple-time Badwater finisher and I’d read several of her blogs and articles. Jodi had decided a day prior to do the 100, and to start at night so she could get back by Monday morning, and it would be her 25th hundred. Badass.
Jodi and I were talking about teaching, or living in Florida, or something when a furry creature ran out from the brush on the side of the trait right in front of us. A skunk. Wow. I think we kind of freaked it out because it turned tail and ran from us, but thank God it did not spray. What would do you if you got sprayed by a skunk at mile 25 of a 135 mile race? I don’t want to ever have to find out.
I learned during this loop that Tahlequah, Oklahoma is the snake capital of the universe. Countless, countless small snakes of various patterns on the trail at night. Kept things interesting.
Day One: The Anatomy of Quitting
Here is where things get serious.
First off, Night One had a lot of the same affects as the nighttime normally has in 100’s, even though I had a lot less miles on me than normal morning starts. Meaning, I was really tired and my mind was losing it a little. Small scale hallucinations, no biggie. But given that by sunrise I still had 90 miles to go, I was not pacing well in terms of mental fatigue.
On top of that I already had a bad quarter-sized blister on my heel. I was forced in the night to stop to drain the blister, put a patch on it, and desperately mummify my foot in tape. Again, not a good place to be with 90 miles left. I traded out my Bondis for an older pair of Stinsons when I finished the first loop.
So, my second thirty mile loop (of four) began after sunrise. There were a lot more runners on the course – specifically, I was in the middle of a wave of 25k runners who were doing an out-and-back on the first half of the course. There was also a van full of college cross-country runners. Needless to say I was not the fastest person on the course at this point.
With all of these other runners around, I was driven to keep up a strong pace. I ran as much as I could, but truthfully it was so much more comfortable to walk. I had pushed pretty hard the first night and my legs were starting to feel it.
The miles went on. The hours went on. The physical pain grew.
The afternoon started to get really hot. If you have ever run awhile in the heat, you know how miserable it is. Its soul-sucking. My legs hurt with every step, I had blisters stinging my feet, and the heat just added to the misery. And I was not even halfway done.
By the time I had gotten to the East of Eden aid station, where I had the option of doing the Great Gourd challenge, I had seriously began the process of settling for a 100 mile finish instead of 135.
Well, I did the Great Gourd challenge, which is basically a massive half-mile hill, and that hurt.
So the wheels started turning in my brain. I did a lot of math to project my next two loop times. I’d likely finish my third loop by 2 or 3am, which meant I’d need almost the full 40 hours to finish the 135. That was approximately 24 hours of suffering from where I was in that moment, in the middle of loop 2. I could easily cut that suffering by over half if I dropped down to the 100 mile race.
I quickly found other supporting arguments to justify dropping down.
Plenty of other runners were doing it; in fact it seemed like many runners who started the 135 were more realistically shooting for 100.
I’d still get a buckle.
Dropping down isn’t quitting per se.
I’d be able to get a full nights sleep the next night, making for a much kinder re-entry back into the real world – maybe I could even rebook my flight to get home earlier.
100 miles is still a great accomplishment and no one would fault me for not doing 135.
God probably has other things to worry about, so even though I committed to honor him through the 135, He’d still probably be cool with it if I did 100.
This thought process continued for hours and I went back and forth, but the momentum was carrying me towards dropping down to 100.
I considered how it would affect my Badwater entry. Could I still say I never quit in a race? If anyone knew I didn’t have the mental toughness on this day, would it impact how I’d be considered for Badwater? I never got to a comfortable place with these questions – I think I just tabled this conversation knowing that no one would know I gave up on my original goal, and that technically this wasn’t quitting (or so I told myself).
I texted Candace to let her know I planned to drop down. She was really supportive, which helped ease my fear of doing it. I sank farther into acceptance that I wasn’t going to finish the 135.
I even began rehearsing what I would say to the race officials after my third loop. I did not even really know what words to use. I did little dry runs on aid station volunteers – when they told me I was ‘looking great’ or whatnot, I’d say something like, “I’m moving pretty slowly and I don’t think I’ll be able to make the cutoffs for the 135.”
Now, a couple of things I want to make clear about this.
First, I was in really bad shape. Physically my legs were basically in agony and I could not fathom 24 more hours of it. Mentally I wasn’t much better. I was slogging through the heat after over a day without sleep. I was very tempted by the idea of a hotel room.
Second, this was a very difficult and prolonged decision process. Its difficult to express properly in a race report, but I logically debated dropping down to the 100 for about 5 hours. Thats a long time, especially when you measure it by steps taken in pain. It was not an easy decision though, and I only really came to grips with it by the end of day one and towards the end of loop 2.
I found peace. I was going to drop down to the 100. One loop left.
And then I got to Bath Tub Rocks.
Night Two, Part One: Reversal
The Bath Tub Rocks aid station was situated at the end of a paved road next to a creek that ran off of the Illinois river. It got its name from large rocks that sat in the creek, creating splash pools.
When a runner approached Bath Tub Rocks, they were greeting by a cheering committee and lots…and lots…of cowbell. To say that the volunteers at this aid station had energy would be an understatement. Every aid station in this race was incredible, and run by incredible folks, but Bath Tub Rocks grew to be my favorite.
As I came in late in the afternoon, having decided to bail on my goal of 135 miles, I was at a low. The heat had done a number on me and moving forward was a big effort. Just like at the last few aid stations, I battle tested my excuses…”I don’t think I have enough time to make the cutoffs for 135.”
But here something different happened and I don’t know why.
One of the volunteers just plainly laid it out for me. “Nah, you have plenty of time. If you just keep moving you can make it, easy.”
Which was correct.
I don’t know what was going on with my mental capacity at that point, but the simple, optimistic logic of his statement made complete sense. I could easily make the cutoffs for 135, even by walking. It was a revelation, and the previous 6 or so hours of agony just seemed to vanish.
They say this gig has highs and lows, and at Bath Tub Rocks the volunteers just did the right things to get me out of a low. So at that moment, I decided not to not finish 135 miles. And I went forward with a completely different mindset. I was almost guilty for mentally throwing in the towel before.
But I wasn’t out of the woods yet.
Night Two, Part Two: Batsh-t Crazy
As the sun was going down on day one, I crossed the bridge across the Illinois River and marveled at the majestic submarine sliding through the emerald water below. It moved slowly, but powerfully, with dozens of red and yellow cabin lights making it look like an underwater city. I was so surprised and blown away by the submarine that I literally stopped on the bridge to watch it for a moment.
While the water under the bridge looked deep enough for the vessel, I know that the river was much shallower in other places so I wondered for a moment where the submarine was going to go. Assuming it was a military ship, where did it come from and how did they even get it in the water in a river this shallow to begin with?
And then, in the space of a breath, the submarine’s cabin lights dispersed as autumn leaves across the water, and it was gone.
So, lets talk for a second about hallucinations in races.
For me, its very common to have what I’d call ‘minor’ hallucinations in the later stages of a race. Typically, I’ll see something on the side of the trail and think its something else. For example, I’ll see a large rock and think it’s a car or something. Its actually pretty common for me to see a flower or bush on the trail and think it’s a puppet or a little kid (yeah yeah that’s pretty weird). These hallucinations never last more than a couple moments as my logical mind can yank me back to reality pretty quickly…but for a moment, they look pretty convincing.
By the time I started my third loop at Pumpkin Holler, I had been without any sleep for about 38 hours. I had been through a full night without sleeping. I’d already started to fade off mentally and had been seeing these minor hallucinations almost all day, but it was no big deal to this point.
I didn’t know it yet, but going into the second night and facing miles 76-106, I was about to have my mind take things to the next level. Having a very convincing vision of a massive submarine enchant me for about 30 seconds was just the start.
I got back to the aid station at the S/F line and did some minor gear upkeep. I also had some hot food, but I did not stick around long…at this point I was determined to finish the full 135 and wanted to keep moving.
So now it was dark and I was back out there alone on the trail. Unlike the first night, there were very few other runners around.
This is where my story gets unconventional.
It started with just being tired. Within 5 miles of the loop, about 8pm, I was started to close my eyes while running, waking up when my head dropped down and then snapping it back up and having a couple of seconds of alertness to realize I was falling asleep. I tried to manage that as best as possible, but it was impossible to completely overcome. So I just accepted it for the most part and tried not to stumble into a river.
Even with a moon it felt so dark out, and so remote. Snakes would wander through my headlamp constantly. My body was still in a lot of pain. I knew I just needed to keep going forward; it didn’t matter how slow.
The first aid station came and went. I took a caffeine pill, which gave me about an hour of mental energy. I listened to loud music. The hour went by and I went back to being mostly asleep. I started to see things on the side of the trail that weren’t there – people, animals, other things.
Every so often my watch would beep. I would look at it and see the number. I knew that the number had to be below 20 to be good. 20 minutes per mile. 16….18….21….the numbers were getting bigger.
I did not know how the numbers on the watch came to be. I knew that I was in my body looking at the numbers, but just as an observer. I was just observing at that point. The headlamp created a path, I was on the path, and the numbers would happen.
Sometimes my mind went somewhere else, not even on the path. It would float off into another world and begin to live a different experience. There were different colors and everything was like vapor. Then, the watch would beep, and my being would rush back into my eyes and I would look at the number. 22…not good.
Sometimes I would hear things, voices. Sometimes the voices were other people. Other people frightened me a great deal. I knew that if they knew were my mind was at, I could be in trouble. When they talked to me, I would apply a great deal of concentration and talk back to them and try to make sense in their world, the world of the race. When I needed it, my mind would be there for me and I could have brief conversations. Then, when I was alone again, I’d fade back to those other worlds and see those other things.
“SIT DOWN RIGHT HERE!”
A volunteer was talking very urgently, very close to my face. So I sat down.
“What’s wrong with your feet? They told us you were having foot problems. We’ll take your shoes off, I’m ready to fix them up, we can rub them down…”
The man was wearing gloves. Someone had reported that a runner had bad foot problems and the aid station was ready to help. But it wasn’t me…my feet were relatively ok
“I’m cool, my feet are ok,” said I.
But I was out of my mind and he didn’t believe me! I thought I was about to get a foot treatment whether I wanted it or not, but I was not in my right mind and I did not want to be there. So I tried again.
“My feet are fine, seriously, I think they must have been talking about a guy I passed back there. I tried to talk to him but he wasn’t much for conversation.”
“ARE YOU SURE?” said the volunteer. Yes, I was sure. I just wanted to get back on the trail. I did not want to have people talking to me, because I knew I was unglued.
Note: That aid station volunteer was awesome and those guys were really about to help me out…but I really didn’t need it – must have been someone else that did. Hope he found them.
The miles kept clicking by. I don’t have an order of things happening, but I wasn’t really in it for most of the time. It was like I was existing differently, watching myself from afar. I did not know that I was running, and I did not understand that how hard I ran dictated what the numbers on my watch reported. I was just observing it all from some deep recess of semi-consciousness.
And I was also fighting a battle to stay awake. Caffeine pills would help, but briefly. There was no true solution, it was just a constant struggle. Walk forward, close your eyes, keep walking, zone out a little, stumble, suddenly pop wide awake, don’t fall over, gain a couple seconds of being alert, and repeat. Constantly thinking things that didn’t make sense, constantly seeing things that weren’t there.
This went on for about eight hours. I think I saw Jodi Weiss a couple more times, and I possibly Bill Edgar once. I met a couple of new people – a brother/sister who were running their first hundred. I don’t remember much more. I was really out of my mind. And I was so paranoid of being discovered that I tried very hard to avoid other people.
Somehow I finished the lap. I don’t know how. I know that at the start/finish, I asked Stormy, the race director who had given the speech about quitting two days before, if I could use trekking poles for the last lap and he said yes. It was 4am and I had been awake for 46 hours. I had 30 miles to go.
Day Two: A Long Hot Hike on a Hilly Dirt Road
I pushed through the last two hours of dark, still mentally decimated and half asleep. There were 10 hours left in the race but I expected to make it in eight, so I wasn’t worried about time. If there were other 135 or 100 mile runners on the course at this point, I was done seeing them.
Around 6am the sky started to lighten, and the sun began to illuminate the woods and fields around me. It was very beautiful. On cue, my mind woke up and I was coherent again. I made it through the night.
Despite hard effort, I was moving slowly. I did my best to attempt a trot as often as possible. The trekking poles helped – bringing them was my smartest decision of the race. My legs were screaming for the most part, completely broken down. I had been Ibuprofen every couple of hours, but there was a lot of pain. My ankles were so swollen that I cut my gaiters off with scissors at an aid station, as they were beginning to constrict me and hurt.
My attitude, on the other hand, was great. It was probably the happiest I’d been in the entire race. I was taking time to soak in the scenery. I listened to music and sang at the top of my lungs. The cows in the pastures probably have never had seen a guy hobbling along singing ‘Shake it Off’ to them before. They gave me a lot of strange looks.
But just like that, dawn was over and the sun sat high in the sky. By the time I was ten miles into the lap, it was hot out. There wasn’t much cover at times. Cars began to drive by me, kicking up clouds of dust. I just kept walking.
I went through the Savannah Corner aid station for the last time. Earlier in the race, I had sat in a chair there and a volunteer immediately made me get up. Yeah, I was THAT runner. He made the right call. I did not repeat that mistake this time, I just got some fluids and kept going. I also got some Skittles. I ate Skittles whenever possible on that last lap. They were amazing.
About a mile after that, a truck pulled up to me with a race volunteer inside. I did not realize it, but he was the sweeper. He asked me if I needed anything, but I did not.
The miles from Savannah Corner to East of Eden and then Hard Up Ahead (about 12 miles) were just long and hot. I was broken down. At times, I just stopped and rested my weight on the poles, and bent my legs at the knees. It felt good to stretch them but it also hurt so much I would practically scream. At East of Eden they told me that the closest runners to me were about 40 minutes ahead.
At Hard Up Ahead I saw Earl for the last time. He was the man I met randomly in the Tulsa park the day the race started. He was packing up the aid station.
Earl told me that he’d been waiting for me; that I was the last runner.
What? I was midpack all race, what about all the other people behind me? Earl told me that they must have quit or dropped down.
It took a minute for that to sink in. For one thing, it made me feel really alone to know that I was the last one on the course. I was sad that other runners that I was out there with – possibly people I’d met – had fallen short. And also very greatful that these volunteers were still working the race basically for me.
I thanked Earl profusely and moved on to Bath Tub Rocks. That section is asphalt – it was very hot and lonely – but the cowbell reception was still in full effect when I got there. There were a handful of volunteers, who made sure to add a lot of luster to my DFL (dead f-cking last) status. As I left, they were kind enough to wrap ice towels on my neck – my GOD that felt good.
After that there were six miles left. That was a long six miles. I thought it was never going to end. I began to curse whoever designed the dirt roads…why did they have to be windy? Why did they have to go around fields – why couldn’t they just be straight and lead directly to where I was going? It made me angry.
I began to search for the last aid station after every turn, every clump of trees. But it never came. I just walked and walked in the heat with my broken legs.
Eventually I got to it, and felt so bad for the volunteers who had to sit there in a cluster of bees waiting for me. Thank you, thank you thank you. “What time is it”, I asked? (My watch and phone were both dead). It was 1pm. I had been going on that lap for 9 hours. I had one hour left, and 2.5 miles to go.
All the sudden I felt a little pressure.
So, I hustled as hard as I could. It was comical really, as I was basically limping along. I would try to run but that idea would get shut down by my body pretty quickly. I focused on using the poles to walk efficiently – one foot in front of the other, big fluid strides. The progress was very slow, the heat made things miserable.
After countless steps I made it to the bridge, which I had crossed nine times before and where I had seen a make-believe submarine. A car drove past me, just like countless others had. But this was different – the car stopped. Someone got out and ran towards me.
It was Bill Edgar.
When Bill first surprised me in the middle of the first night by pulling up to me on a bicycle, I had no idea that he would also end up being there at the end of my journey. He had been following everyone’s progress, including mine, and knew that I was out on the course still with not much time left. When word got back to the start/finish that I was on my way, he drove out to meet me. He knew I was without crew, that no one was waiting for me at the end, that I wouldn’t have help. So, he helped me, just by being there.
That was friggin’ awesome.
Bill and I walked across the bridge and made conversation. His daughters were actually there also – they drove back past us in their truck. They wanted to see how awesome ultras were, firsthand, just like their dad.
Bill told me it was 1:45 on his watch. I panicked. Was his watch the same time as the race clock? I only had 15 minutes! Granted, I just had to go about half a mile, but there was no way that I was missing cutoff. Bill told me that the race director had already declared that if I missed cutoff, I could get a buckle but not an official finish. That wasn’t going to be ok with me…I had been through too much. I was going to finish that damn race.
So I tried to run. NOPE. Wasn’t happening.
So I walked as fast as possible. A car drove past – I think it was Jodi Weiss and her friend Chip – and he yelled “One more lap!” Uhhh NO.
And then we came to the camp – to the finish line. It was so empty. For the past two days this was the center of the race, abuzz with energy. Now there were just a handful of people, mainly the race officials and some runners who were recovering from earlier finishes.
I passed through the finish line with an official time of 39 hours, 47 minutes. I ran 135 miles and finished with 12 minutes to spare. I had not slept in 55 hours.
Bill had to leave to get back to his family. I cannot express how much I appreciated him being out there.
The race directors surprised me with a trophy. Being the last finisher of the race was good for third place. I packed up my gear, and with Gwyneth in the car seat behind me I drove out of Talequah. We searched a little while for the highway to Tulsa. Oh wait, I realized that Gwyneth wasn’t actually with me. I decided it would be a good idea to pull over and take a nap.
Epilogue: What I Learned in Oklahoma
When Paul wrote that letter to Timothy, shortly before his martyrdom, he was doing more than just expressing contentment for his life. He was acknowledging something we all intimately feel: Life is a struggle. He fought the good fight against evil, in constant conflict. He kept the faith through hard times and uncertainty. And, of course, he finished the race – he held steadfast and persevered until the very end, with joy and satisfaction on how he lived his life.
And its not just Paul who has to do this – its all of us. Every day. It’s the role we have as people in an imperfect world – we have to be fighting a fight, we are absolutely in a race.
I came so close to giving up in this race. Closer than I’ve come before. But I came back from that. In life I’ve come close to giving up to.
But just like an ultra, life is just putting one foot in front of the other, all the time, and choosing not to give up. Just like running 135 miles. You just decide you are going to do it, and then you persevere. And it absolutely can be done, no matter what. It sucks – life sucks sometimes – but its supposed to suck – and it can be done.
And guess what? You are not alone. God is with you. Other people are with you. You are not alone.
Whatever your ‘race’ is, please choose to finish it.
Because it is SO FRIGGIN WORTH IT.
And you can’t take quitting back.
BONUS: 135 Mile Foot Destruction Aftermath (24 hours later)!