by Lynn Ballard [photos]
Huntsville State Park
4 February 2006
Last Saturday (Feb 4th, 2006), I had the privilege of toeing the line for my first 100 mile attempt. The build up was surreal, using races for my long runs beginning back in September. Anyway, I set my first goal on simply finishing within the 30 hour time limit. My “I’ll be really happy if” goal was to finish in under 26 hours, and my “I’ll be ecstatic beyond my wildest dreams” goal was to finish with a time that read something lower than 24 hours…ANYTHING less than 24 would suffice!
The course is all trail and fire roads in Huntsville State Park, near Huntsville, TX. The trails were in excellent shape, having had some pretty good rain in the preceding week, but the ground there drains really well. Basically, they were dirt trails, laced with roots, padded with the trimmings from the canopy, a good mixture of hardwood leaves and pine needles sprinkled in just the right quantities over the path in the weeks leading up to this magic day. The race director had a fine crew of volunteers from which we would pull encouragement and energy for the duration of our effort.
An accomplished ultra runner (almost 20 100 mile races, the Grand Slam of Ultra Running, etc, etc) from my area pulled me aside on the evening before the race to share her thoughts about my attempt. “I’ve been watching you and I know you have a sub-24 hour race in you” she told me. My eyes widened like a kid on Christmas Eve… Sub-24…it was out of the bag, the gauntlet was set. These words from this incredible runner were a huge confidence boost for me, but it also put a little extra weight on my shoulders…now there was an expectation.
I began my race conservatively, fully aware of what can happen to a runner five hours, ten hours, even fifteen hours on the trail, wanting to avoid any first timer mistakes that would reduce my effort to a slogging death march, or at least delay it as long as possible. Finishing the first loop in a bit over four hours, I felt good and was comfortably settling into MY race. I had been able to visit with several others in the race with similar goals as mine and felt good about where I was at this point. I made some adjustments on the second loop, nothing major, finished it maybe a little under four and one half hours. I am taking advantage of great support from RR volunteers, lots and lots of encouragement from friends working and running. The course format offers several out-and-back legs per loop where you get to exchange greetings with others in the race, a great way to gage where you are relative to others.
The third loop is more of the same, I am beginning to get really familiar with the course and very comfortable with the race overall. I see Thorbjorn Pederson at an early aid station on loop three (approx 44 miles). He has agreed to pace me for my last loop and we have a quick logistics discussion about where I am relative to my goal. A check of my pace card has me comfortably on my 25 ½ hour schedule. OK, maybe not a 24 hour race, but not an embarrassment at this point. As I push on through the loop, mentally, I go through the checklist…feet – GO, stomach – GO, warm/cold – GO, hydration – GO (still peeing), nutrition – GO. I move into the aid station with my drop bag (approx 53 miles) and re-gear for the night. Drop the handheld bottle, change shirts, apply body glide, pick up hydration pack and light…all systems are GO for the night. It is still 30 minutes before dark and as I leave the Dam Road aid station outbound on my third loop, the leader, Gorge Pacheco comes in…with only the out-and-back to Far Side aid station between him and me (six miles with thirteen to go in his final loop). Now I realize he has already lapped me once during the day (averaging under 8 minutes/mile) and if I didn’t get my rear in gear, he was going to lap me a second time. I took off determined not to let that happen.
I make it around to the start/finish area for the third time (60 miles) and find Thorbjorn and his son, Trevor waiting for me and they announce that Thorbjorn has made some schedule changes and will be pacing me for TWO loops rather than just the last loop! I do a time check and realize that I have not slipped much in pace, finishing the third loop in just over four and one-half hours. We head out to begin the fourth loop, the one I have been most worried about. This is the loop where the wheels fall off, full darkness has set in, legs are tired, not the last time around…if it’s gonna go bad, it’s probably gonna go bad on the fourth loop.
We head out of the start/finish area as Gorge comes blasting down the trail to finish in 13:16:56, missing the world record for a 100 mile trail run by less than a minute! Thorbjorn jumps in front and begins a thorough but subtle check of my major systems. With his gentle questioning, he is assessing not only my physical condition after sixty miles/thirteen hours on my feet, but I understand that he is also forming an opinion of how strong I am mentally at this point in the race. Lots and lots of questions, “how does this pace feel?” he would ask. “a little fast” I shot back, “but let’s keep it up for a while and see”…I think he sped up…Lot’s of chit-chat and we are moving smartly through the nice single track out to the jeep road for the first out-and-back. I am getting lots of coaching. “Walk with a purpose”, Thorbjorn would say. I have never been a strong walker, have always meant to do something about that. “Grab hold of the imaginary bungee chord attached to my back”, he tossed over his shoulder on an early uphill. We settled into a nice rhythm, although I felt a bit rushed…on the faster end of my comfort zone…but still IN my comfort zone. I realized that we had surely passed the 62 mile point and pondered “do I get to count this as a 100K PR, it is the fastest (about 14 hours, 20 min) I have ever run 62 miles (were past 64 at this point)! I declared that I was now in new territory, first time I had ever ventured over 100K. Accolades flowed from Thorbjorn and I felt like a kid who had successfully tied his shoe for the first time!
I was able to mentally check out for a while, as I was on Thorbjorn auto-pilot. He was constantly providing positive reinforcement and encouragement, all the while seeding in suggestions for more efficient movement, quicker pace, drink, electrolytes, etc, etc. It was nice to let down a little from the mental perspective. We moved around to the Dam Road, tackled the out and back to Far Side and I picked up steam for about a mile out of Dam Road headed toward 174. Thorbjorn asked “what’s gotten into you?” I replied “you remember in Back to the Future III when they were using different colored logs to make the steam train go fast enough to warp into the future?” “Yes” he replied. “I just put a red log on” I laughed over my shoulder. Minutes later, we were on our way around to 174 Aid Station when I started to slip, to fall back…I had let go mentally and lost focus. Now I could feel the pain in my toes, feet, calves, thighs, back, neck…you get the picture. My pacer would pull away from me on the climbs (mind you these were but small rises in the trail, but seemed quite steep at 75 miles!). I was slipping…no sense of mission, no walking with a purpose, I was just executing relentless forward motion… but why?
The three miles from AS 174 into the start/finish were hard, but the time passed quickly. I had begun to refocus a bit and asked Thorbjorn to remind me to call my wife when we got to the start/finish area. It would be late, about 11 pm, but I thought she would want me to wake her up to tell her I was OK. Somewhere in this part of the race our conversation covers many topics. We discuss how we met our spouses, our kids, our work and BANG! I get a revelation! While talking about possible scenarios for finish time, he mentions something about a special buckle. What? I had no idea that there was a “special” buckle for a sub-24 finish! As in so many other things that night, my pacer saw to my needs and desires. Sitting at the aid station, 80 miles on my tired legs and body, Thorbjorn puts a phone in my hand and reminds me to call home. A sleepy, sweet voice on the other end answers and I immediately start hammering her with “Hibabeifinishedeightymilesandimfineionlyhaveonemoreloopandithinkihaveachancetobreaktwentyfourhoursa ndthingsaregoingwellthorbjornwasabletopacemefortwonotoneloopsanditisreallyhelpingandandandblblblblblbl lbbll…ILOVEYOUhere, talk to Thorbjorn.” I hand the phone over to my trusty pacer who translates that we are well and I am running well and safe and, really, I have only had two chocolate-covered espresso beans. I jumped up, energy anew and grabbed a few provisions and headed out of the station to start my fifth and FINAL loop.
I was a couple hundred yards out of the station before I realized I was running alone. I stopped, looked back and thought, oh well, Thorbjorn will catch me in a minute…let him enjoy his soup. Half a mile out and still no Thorbjorn. I felt bad as I realized that I had not made sure he knew I was leaving, I just assumed… I yelled out his name, thinking that he was right behind me…the silence roared in my ears. I continue on…it is what he would want me to do. Feeling absolutely great at this point, I pick up the pace, really pushing the flats and downhills, walking with purpose on the uphills, passing runner after runner in the night. I keep looking back to see the right combination of lights that would define my pacer, bright green handheld, white headlamp…nothing. A single coyote begins a lonely aria, but is quickly joined by the choir, the bright quarter moon and I being their only audience. While I am worried about my pacer not being with me, I realize he is still with me. I can still hear the gentle instruction, walk with purpose, grab the bungee chord. The image of the bungee cord did more for my posture than for my speed. I didn’t feel the tired, but upon hearing the words in my head, could imagine the bungee connected to my chest with something pulling it forward…forward…relentlessly forward. This forced me to stay upright, chest protruding, and ultimately good running posture. I compared it to the runners I was passing, heads down, bent…yes, this was a good thing.
I reached the Highway aid station still with no signs of my pacer. I quickly fueled and headed back, not getting far before I hear him call out. We are reunited, although I reassure him he never left me. I explained how I heard his words, how he was with me every step. He reminds me that I covered the four plus miles in the same amount of time as the fourth loop. The excitement is building…I believe I can get done in 24 hours and set my jaw to put as much in the bank as possible to protect against the death march! I am in front now but Thorbjorn is constantly attentive, always checking the dashboard to make sure there is enough gas, the temps are right, the oil pressure is at the right level, etc.… we make quick time to the Dam Road, where the special is spaghetti…good stuff! The out and back to Far Side seems quite long, but we are reeling runners in, many have slowed to a permanent walk…I feel like I am flying and get a real charge when I pass one guy who turned to Thorbjorn and asked “what are you feeding him?” Thorbjorn replied “he put on a red log” and hustled to keep pace.
At the Far Side aid station for the last time, I overhear a runner say “we can break 24 hours if we hold 20 minute miles the rest of the way in from here.” I ponder on it for a few hundred yards out of the aid station. It sinks in that we have really put a lot in the bank against the 24 hour finish and I am energized again, running the ups and charging the downs at what felt like “George Pacheco” speed. In and out of the Dam Road aid station for the last time and the energy is still building in me. Shortly out of the aid station we come up on the levee overlooking the lake. From this vantage point, we can clearly see the start/finish line, although it is still about six miles away by trail. I do a quick check of my watch and do a double take…3:30 am. “Thorbjorn?” I call. “Can we get around there in an hour and a half?” He replies, “Maybe, why?” “Because that is a 23 hour hundred” and I take off again. I am pushing hard, really hard now. For the first time in over 20 hours I am aware that I am working in oxygen debt, I am breathing really hard, contemplating how long I can hold pace. Thorbjorn warns me about staying focused on what is important. You have 95+ miles on your legs and could jeopardize the sub-24 if you get injured by trying to push too hard…I push on.
We move in and out of the 174 aid station quite efficiently, only 2.9 miles left and I charge up the first hill, pull away from my pacer on the flat and a few minutes down the trail find myself charging up yet another hill. The tired legs are barking, the right one protests by dropping my toe just enough to miss clearing a root and I go down for the fourth time in the race. Thorbjorn was at my side immediately to make sure I was OK, yes, I was OK. Landed softly, but got the message…hills were for walking…WITH PURPOSE!
We move quickly to the interpretive center and I do another quick watch check. About a mile out and my watch reads 4:52 am…I’ve got to turn in an eight minute mile to have any chance at 23 hours…I threw another log on! Flailing down the trail from the Interpretive center, I give little thought to anything, not having to worry about footing on this part of the trail, only breaking stride for the one or two steeper parts (99+ miles, remember!…steep is relative). I hear Thorbjorn call to me “GO ON LYNN, GO FINISH!”…shortly, I make the turn that leads down to the lodge where the finish line waits and find good footing, again, chest out, back straight…RUNNING with purpose now. There is some stirring up ahead, well-wishers offering sleepy golf claps. Then there it is! FINISHED 13:02:25 the clock says. AAAAAARRRGGGGHHH! I scream. I am both disappointed and elated! How both of those emotions, big as they were, fit inside me at the same time I’ll never know. AAAAAARRRGGGHHH! I repeat, now striking a Hulk-like pose with fists clenched and veins a’poppin! I couldn’t stay disappointed for more than 10 seconds, elation took over. I ripped off my Camelbak and gloves and turned to look back up the trail. By this time, Thorbjorn was coming in to the finish area, so I ran back out to meet him about 10 yards in front of the finish line and we gave each other bear hugs! FINISHED WITH PURPOSE!