by Thorbjorn Pedersen
February 1-2, 2003
An ode to a pacer.
What a humbling experience! So much had I tried to prepare for my first hundred miler, that I thought I had most of it covered, but how wrong should I prove to be. A year ago, before I had even run my first 50 miler, and for sure before I had dreamed about running a hundred miler, I was just running road marathons. Nevertheless, I met my turning point in March, 2002 on a rainy, muddy and slippery course in LBJ Grasslands northwest of Fort Worth, Texas. The trail running sport had hit me as hard as it could and I loved it. However, it still did not tell me much about what a hundred miler would be all about.
When I later in the year I watched the Western States 100 movie, I saw what energy people would put into a race. However, the film never showed what it really takes to complete, like all the stuff behind the scenes and inside the runners’ heads. They showed runners with and without pacers, and the pacers were portrayed more as good friends who were allowed to be part of the fun.
Since the Grasslands 50M 2002, Letha Cruthirds had acted as my distance mentor, preparing me for my first attempt on a one hundred mile race. And at one point I asked her in an email, what differences a crew and a pacer would make for a hundred mile runner. I never really received an answer, but I guess she planned to show me. And I am glad she did, because words could not have described the full depth of what difference it really makes.
And here it was, the Rocky Racoon 100, February 1-2, 2003 in Huntsville State Park, Texas. For months and months the planning had taken place. Loads of mileage had been logged and food, drinks, medications and equipment had been tested both during day and night runs. With all this preparation, nothing could go wrong. Nevertheless, I was so excited and nervous at the same time. Why was that?
This race was at a location where I had run numerous training runs and raced both Sunmart 50K and 50M. But maybe that was it: 50M was the longest I had ever run in one go. Now I was attempting twice that in one race. One hundred miles, suddenly it’s not a nice round number but a sleeping bear that was ready to wake up and growl at me. On the race day, I almost wished I had stayed in Europe and the metric system. There, a one hundred race means 100K, just measly 38 miles shorter than a 100 miler. But I should learn the hard way that it is during those last measly 38 miles, that you get a chance to prove yourself and see if you can work outside your plan. And that was something I had not prepared for, how to improvise when things fall apart and land outside the script. At least I should have had a plan B, maybe even a plan C. But I had only one and it was not even labeled
On the other hand, one of the luckiest things that I had managed to work into my script, was getting a pacer for the last 40 miles. Not just a pacer but the right pacer, and one of the best around, something I would learn later that night.
A pacer is allowed for the runners on the last 40 miles for safety reasons. And boy did I get to learn about safety as I ran out of fuel between two aid stations around mile 89. I had heard about people falling asleep while running/walking at night. I did not understand what they could be talking about, but now I do. I also ended up hallucinating, seeing things or people not belonging there on the trail. Had it not been for my pacer, I would have ended up running off the trail and seriously hurting myself. Instead I fought through the next four miles and arrived to the following aid station, where food, fluid and rest made me recover enough to make it through the last seven miles and finish in 27:42 hours.
But before I got that far many things would happen, since a hundred miler is not a race you just turn up to, run and then go home. The day before the race we were registered and weighed in for the race. We received a goodie bag and eventually sat down for the mandatory pre-race meeting. The race director Mickey Rollins gave us the final instructions and conditions of the course. This would be Mickey’s last year as RD. He founded the race and had been RD all its 11 years and was now passing the job on to Joe Prusaitis for the RR100 2004. After dinner I rushed off to my hotel to get a good night’s sleep before the race start.
At the race morning I must have been one of the first runners there. I only saw one or two names checked in for the race when I arrived. I had parked my car near what I assumed to be the NTTR tent, no sign and no people though. Well, I assumed it was their tent, but it was bigger than anything around. The start/finish area tarps on poles looked very shabby in comparison. Soon Letha, my pacer and Mark would turn up and they helped me and my gear get situated in the tent. They were attending to other runners as well, chatting with friends and so forth like this was a just a daily gathering at the coffee shop. Needless to say, that was not how I felt. I had had a plan but now I could not remember the details. I knew what to wear at the start and what to stuff in my pockets, but all I could do was to be irritated over bringing a chair with foot rest, which was in everybody’s way including my own.
As I was fussing with myself, Letha introduced me to Chrissy Ferguson who got her stuff situated next to mine. I continued spinning around myself, to make sure everything was ready according to my plan. Plan, plan, what did it say? I had forgotten it and I was basically brain dead!
I kept looking at my watch and now it was three minutes to start. I better get to the start line hundred yards from the tent, but why were Letha and Chrissy just chatting away. Didn’t they know what time it was? Chrissy was still in her warm-up cloths. Didn’t she know that the race was about to start. I saw her get out her warm-up cloths and put on her running shoes. Gosh how could she be so relaxed, she did not even stop chatting with Letha. It’s all routine to her. That was not the case for me, I was glad I was not wearing a heart monitor, since the alarm would have gone off all the time, so fast and nervous was my heart beat. Finally I started moving out toward the start line for MY FIRST 100 miler. It echoed in my head. Letha followed me to the start line and I walked into the start area from the front and found myself next to Ann Trason. She looked very tense. Oh good, at least one experienced runner who was tense too.
“Jeg elsker dig”, I heard a male voice say from behind. And I spun around looking into a grinning face. Philip, I think his name was, had lived in Spain for a few years and had from a Danish friend learned a few sentences to impress Danish female prospects I guess. When he had seen my Danish flag sticking out of my CamelPack, he had decided to see the effect if said “I love you” in Danish. I should see Philip many times later that day and night.
Letha was giving me the last set of tips as Michelle Burr turned up and Letha introduced me to her. She was like Letha, sending off a friend also running his first 100 miler, who she would pace later that night. I sure was in good company from the start and that was comforting.
Then with no further fanfare the RD called out an informal “runners ready – – GO”, and my first 100 miler had started. I took off as slowly as I could. I was holding back the horse power as I had planned. After a mile I had about 10-15 runners ahead of me and I was running much easier than I normally would do, so the pace felt correct. But the math did not add up, I should be much further back. Oh, well as long as it felt right, it could not be wrong. – Wrong!!!
Near mile six, I could hear a chipper conversation come closer from behind. Chrissy had found a runner to keep her company for a while. As she passed me, I was reflecting to myself: “Oh shit, you have goofed. You should never have been in front of her”. That was a signal to slow down further. Little did I know that Chrissy would become an important part of my efforts later on loop four.
Aid station #2/3 came up easy and this was where I had located my mid loop ‘drop bag’. I would quickly come to realize that a big and deep, though water proof duffle bag was not ideal for a ‘drop bag’. It was basically a pain to get into and all the small stuff would fall to the bottom, when I rummaged around for things. It should become my nemesis on the last loop. This aid station would be where all the good and bad seemed to congregate for me, as the race carried on. But during loop one everything looked good and I felt on top of the world.
The aid station #2/3 was a double hitter, separated with a dreaded 5.5 mile total out and back. I made a truce with the tree right behind the yellow turn around dish, that I would touch it a total of five times that day.
Things were feeling great and I approached aid station #174 where Linda Hurd was keeping track of runners coming in. I was ahead of my own schedule and knew I had to slow down. Linda followed me out a little stretch and we talked about pace and strategy. As I eventually got to the start/finish line, I had done it in the time I had thought was a good plan. But after weighing in and heading for my ‘drop bag’, I got the sudden signs of trouble and I could not get to the restroom quickly enough. Dang, that was the start of a steep down turning roller coaster.
Eating had become a major problem now. I knew I had to continue eating to be able to finish the run. However, when I ate something I would get nauseous and would have to stop running or walking to avoid throwing up. I just had to keep the food in me or otherwise the race would be over in no time.
So loop two was bad and did not have the sure signs of a first time finisher written at the end of it. It slowly got worse and worse and the energy got zapped right out underneath me. I was beginning to doubt that I had started something I could finish. But one thing that kept me going, was that I knew I was not alone. I had a promise from my pacer and I knew Letha would be there and I could not let her down either. She had driven all the way from Dallas and was ready to help me finish my first 100 miler. I could not quit now, so I just had to keep those feet moving and focus on getting to the end.
On the second time on the dreaded out ‘n back from station #2/3, I was passed by a group of five runners. I guess I must have muttered something about stomach problems, because the last guy slowed down and pulled out two Tums from his pouch. “Take these and ask for more anti acid at the aid stations. You are NOT going to finish with stomach problems, these might fix it”. Mr. Tums had start number 39, Lee Topman and his help resulted in saving my race. This was ultra running at its best. A fellow runner helping another, and I would end up seeing more of that. And the advice of Tums was probably passed on from someone else. The chain could be long. Ultra running is about sharing pain and experiences, and make the best of it, to enjoy the highs of completing tough races.
With Tums as pre- and post tracers, I could now start to consume more food and still keep moving but slowly. And by the middle of loop three (mile 50) I had managed to find a balance and found the energy to really run again. I caught up with people who had been up to five miles ahead of me, and I caught them by surprise and they cheered me on. That really made me feel better.
As I rolled into the start/finish area after loop three, my body weight showed I was doing OK. After some quick cloths change as the night was getting cool, I took off with Letha for loop four and five. She got the details of my stomach problems and planned that I should try oat meal broth at aid station #1, a trick she had learned from Scott Eppelman. Unfortunately they had no oat meal at the first station. But I got some antacids, potatoes and soup before hitting the trails again.
A mile out from aid station #1, we saw Chrissy Ferguson come toward us. She was now only two miles from lapping me. And now the real race was about to start as Letha apparently had had several races against Chrissy and was not ready to see Chrissy pass us yet. I was feeling much better by then and I felt ready for the game. Hey, it would help keep my mind focused on moving forward anyway. So the pace was increased and I was in for some fun hours. We arrived at aid station #2/3 and they had oat meal. Master Scott Eppelman prepared his “life elixir” of oat meal broth and it lined my stomach for more real food. Things were going well now and we took off to the dreaded turn around. It was only a little over two and a half mile out but it seemed longer and longer as the race day dragged on. On the way back to aid station #2/3 Chrissy came towards us and I realized she had gained much less on us than I had feared. That made me feel real well.
More oat meal broth at #2/3, and hey, I was going to like this stuff. Potato soup and fluid and my stomach was not too upset. This was much better. Off, off fast, we can’t let Chrissy catch us yet. Letha was just great. She knew the ropes and she read me perfectly and kept me right at max of what I could handle. Without her support, I would not have been able to keep the focus and pressure going. This was the way I loved this sport. Keep pushing right at the edge of my capacity. Plus having experienced people around me was so inspiring and boosted the motivation.
Especially running with Letha as my pacer was a blessing. She knew most of the runners on the trail and was sharing hugs generously with many of them. Not that I had time to count them as I had my own quest to take care of as I pushed on. But she never left me alone, even for quick visits to the “bushes” she would be back behind me in her quick, light antelope steps. The comfort of having someone there with experience and knowing that Letha was not as tired as I was, meant more that words can describe.
Now the trails were winding on the section toward the marshes with several wooden bridges and we could hear Chrissy pull closer, so we did not allow for a short stop to enjoy the beautiful night, with bright stars reflecting in the black lake water, flat as a mirror. But eventually Chrissy caught up with us and whoosh, she was gone too. Needless to say, Chrissy had more than me to go for. It was one thing to lap a newbie paced by Letha, but Chrissy was going for the second place female in this race. After Chrissy had left us, it was dark and quiet. Like something was missing and I started to sag, at least mentally. I needed a new focus. My feet were hurting, and I started to wonder how I would keep tolerating the pain. My new focus became survival to the FINISH LINE.
I had by now covered nearly 77 miles and I couldn’t throw away all that hard work. Also, I had mobilized Letha to help me. No way was I going to let her down. We pulled in toward aid station #174 and Letha called out for oat meal as we ran in. Paige Krekeler jumped out of her seat at the aid station and pulled out a poster saying “Thorbjorn – you da man”, and what a mental kick that was to have someone from “home” cheering me on. While I consumed my soup, Paige took my picture. And then off again toward the start/finish area.
The night had become really cold and I planned for a quick change of cloths to get something warm on. But I was still concerned about my stomach condition. This fourth loop had gone well in many ways, but I had not peed a single time in twenty miles. I had been drinking though, but would my weight be off track one way or the other. At the scale were Young and Ralph Collins now in charge, and again great to see faces from home. Yes my weight was OK, I had lost only a couple of pounds from the last loop, and I was still above my Friday night weigh-in weight. This was one thing less to be concerned about, as long as I kept warm and kept eating and drinking.
But my mind was fading at this point and I have had a hard time remembering much from the next many hours. I know we pushed on, but my feet were in very bad shape. Letha told me how she had walked the last loop during her first RR100. We had plenty of time before the thirty hour cut-off time, so a finish should not be at jeopardy as long as we just moved on. How wrong could I be, – again. But I do remember feeling optimistic. This was the final loop, like a victory loop. And I felt I could walk pretty well, however, Letha she proved awesome walking on the hills and could easily have left me in the dust. She made it look like she could extend her legs for each stride going up the hills as if she was flying. I just had to keep on pushing harder. We arrived at aid station #1 and I received some oat meal broth made up especially for me of instant oat meal we had brought along.
And on we pushed. It was dark and it was monotonous because the feet would not tolerate running. I hated it, I keep wondering if Letha would think I was a wimp and below her standard. No, couldn’t be, instead she was in the same league as Michelle Burr who also was out there on the course, helping another first time 100 miler guy. He and I were the lucky ones, who tonight reaped the fruits from great people who loved this sport.
We made it to aid station #2/3 and the Eppelman family was still there and I received my stomach saving oat meal broth. But in my faded state I forgot to get more food as well. I think I was too tired to deal with my stupid duffel bag to get out my cans of Boost. With only additional water in my CamelPack it was off for the last dreadful trek to the turn around and a last touch of the tree. As we were moving ahead I started to feel really dizzy. My vision turned into a slide show with one frame at a time. I had to shake my head to see a new spot of the trail. I was falling asleep running. Had Letha not been there, I would have been off and into the bushes and bumped my head into the first tree in my direction. So this was what it felt like to hit “the wall”. We saw Monica Burt with Joe Prusaitis as pacer heading back toward station #2/3. I had been introduced to Monica at the NTTR tent that morning and she too was running her first hundred miler. “She is looking good, but I wonder what she thinks of me, I must be looking like a mess. Oh, who cares, this is my race, my 100 miler. Move those feet, idiot, come on”. My mind was all over the place as the slide show flickered on.
This was the time when I realized that have done 89 miles and I still have almost four miles to go till I could get food and fluid at the #2/3 aid station. Before that I would need to meet with my turn around tree and touch for a last time. I do remember getting to it, because I can still fell the raw bark against my lips as I kissed the tree. I did not want to see that tree again so I had to kiss it goodbye. From there to the #2/3 aid station it was all a big blur. The slide show was now showing pictures of brick walls, ladders and stairs. Who had moved the trail to an obstacle course in the city?
Suddenly I had this vision of a flaming, orange oval hanging in front me on the trail. The oval moved forward with my progress along the trail. In the flames I saw Roger Boak’s face. Roger was one of the guys at the aid station that I wanted so dearly to get to. He was also the one who took me on my first training run on these trails in Huntsville SP. The oval flickered and disappeared. It was quiet and dark and I was alone with my pacer. Her ever close presence at my back kept me going. Nevertheless, I was scared of what was going on with me. I needed food. My blood sugar must have dropped through the floor. I think Letha was scared too. I would have been, just like I was scared when I helped a marathon runner in San Antonio, who suffered big time from dehydration.
Finally we strolled into aid station #2/3, where I found a chair with a blanket near the warm fire they have had burning since nightfall. Letha dug out my supplies from ‘drop bag’ and brought me some oat meal broth. By now I had fallen in love with that stuff and I also consumed some soup and drank a couple of Boosts as well. I slumped into the chair, actually trying to sleep. Luckily the chair was not too comfortable for my height. Daylight was braking and my brain was clearing up. Of we were again with seven miles to go. I had covered 93 miles and I had survived “the wall”. The short rest and the food at aid station #2/3 had given me enough energy to bring it home. The feet were now the only concern. The legs felt fine and I tried to break into a slow shuffle jog, but the feet screamed NO. The balls of me feet were just too painful. SHIT, this was supposed to be a victorious final lap. Victory it would be, but the gloriousness seemed faint and distant. And now my bladder also started to function extremely well. Opposed to loop four, where nothing passed through, I now had to nourish the bushes every ten to fifteen minutes. It broke up my walking rhythm, but at least I was making progress and I was not dehydrated.
We actually managed to pass a few runners and kept up with a few others. I was not completely at the back of the pack. I put that on as a bandage for my pride. We arrived at aid station #174 just to say hi and press on.
The finish line was now just a quarter mile away and I asked Letha to pick up my Danish flag from the NTTR tent and with Letha in one hand and the flag in the other I could jog across the finish line. I had done it, finished my first 100 miler. The feelings were overwhelming, but I was too numb to fully grasp them. I was shell shocked over what I had just accomplished and I wanted to be back on the wood bridge and enjoy the stars again. A super hug from Letha reminded me of the enormity of the event and her strong arms told me how little I would have been had she not been there for me.
Letha carries the nickname Lethal Letha. And to competitors that may be true, but as a pacer she means LIFE not death. And I know several runners who would back me on that statement. On that out ‘n back, around mile 89, she cared for me as a parent and pulled me out of the slump and back to food and nourishment at station #2/3, so I would be able to make the last seven miles. Running a hundred miler had been a team effort and I am proud to have had Letha on my team, the “Team Gr8 Dane”.
The Gr8 Dane