“Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.” – William Barclay
3 days ago, I sat on the edge of a hotel bed scared out of my mind; afraid of the task that was ahead of me. Laying out equipment and gear in preparation for a 62.1 mile trail race through the Kistachie National Forest, I tried my best to fight back my fears of failure.
My brother was across the room looking cool, calm, and collected. He had been through this process before and now I needed his guidance and his confident spirit, both at that moment and for the next 16 hours.
I knew there would be countless physical and mental obstacles in our quest to conquer a seemingly impossible feat. The mental hurdles would not wait for the start of the race, they had already started their unrelenting assault on my mind.
Our plan was to get a few restless hours of sleep the afternoon before race day and then try our best to sleep the night before, which we both knew would be next to impossible. Wake up time would arrive with a energetic beep of the alarm at 3:30 AM.
The next two hours were a blur of coffee, running attire, bags of gear and food (that could have kept us alive for at least two weeks in any wilderness setting), a 45 minute drive into the woods of NW Louisiana, and enough pre-race jitters to fill an ocean.
Getting to the starting line would soon prove to be the easiest part of the journey.
The best piece of advice that I received was to picture the start of the run as the entrance of a long tunnel, and the only way out was through the other side. I pictured that tunnel in my mind at least a dozen times during our run.
The difference in the advice and reality is that the tunnel has several escape hatches along the way; it would be our own determined choice to resist the urge to open them and continue pushing forward.
As a small group of fellow Ultramarathon hopefuls gathered at the starting line, I could literally feel the residual adrenaline rolling down my skin. The moment that we had all trained for, sacrificed so much time and energy for, and ran thousands of training miles for, was finally here.
The clock struck 6 AM and it was on. It was time to attempt the unthinkable; to test my mind, body, and spirit, and ask them to take me much farther than I had ever asked before. If they weren’t up to the challenge, it would fall on my shoulders and nobody else’s. My brother was with me, but completing this race was up to me.
For the first hour and a half, we would be running in the dark while awaiting the arrival of daybreak. Headlamps in place, off we went. We knew that we would encounter around 5,500 feet of elevation gain via a varied terrain of soft sand, hard-packed red dirt, rock, and multiple water crossings.
The weather was perfect for running, with temperatures rising from the mid-30’s to around 55 degrees by the afternoon. Our first goal was to finish, just don’t quit. Our second goal was to finish in under 16 hours.
As light pierced the treetops, we were hitting our stride nicely and feeling good. Making a conscious effort to maintain an easy pace – power hiking the up hills and running the downhills and flats just as we had planned. The sandy uphills were by far the biggest challenge of the first 31 mile loop. Treading soft sand takes a toll on your lower legs and fatigues them faster than usual.
Our shoes and socks were taking on sand likes sinking boat takes on water. At the 18 mile aid station, our drop bags awaited us. We quickly scarfed down as many calories as we could, emptied the sand from our shoes, lubed our feet, changed our socks, and off we went.
Each 31-mile loop had around 2,800 feet of elevation gain which was mostly front-loaded in the first 20 miles. This was a welcomed relief for the last third of the loop because we were able to run most of it. We made up quite a bit of the time we lost trudging through the sandy uphills.
Our sights were set on finishing the first loop, getting another round of calories down, taking care of our feet, and getting through the first 10 miles of the second loop before dark.
Then, at around mile 28, my brother’s IT Band flared up and began causing him a great deal of added discomfort. I silently worried if it would be too much for him to deal with, but he kept going. He would have to fight through that grueing pain for another 8 plus hours to finish.
We made it through the first loop mostly in tact. We topped off our water bottles and stuffed our race packs with as many calories as it would hold. One side note: Ryan grabbed a bag of mini-snickers bars as part of our stock-up trip before the race. What a godsend that was! Nothing is more delicious and energy-packed than a mini-snickers bar in the middle of nowhere.
Mis-remembering the first 10 miles of the loop as being all sand and uphill, we were actually surprised to find that this section was a bit easier than we recalled. Then…we found the difficult section. Having already covered 41 miles, we were feeling the painful burn in our legs and the hot spots on our feet more than ever.
Everything ached and the miles were not going down as quickly as before. Now the hills and terrain came at us with a new intensity. One that the trail had not shown in the beginning. This was hell.
Our only focus became making it to the drop bag at mile 49 before we lost daylight. We began moving with a hurried intensity of run-hike-run. My toes were numb, my legs were screaming, and my mind was fighting me with everything it had.
We made it to the drop bag 10 minutes before dark. It was a good chance to get some carb-loaded calories down. Again, we changed our socks, threw our headlights on, refilled our water bottles, and we were off. 13 miles to go. We weren’t racing the clock, we were racing our will to succeed.
This would prove to be the longest 13 miles of my life. As the darkness set in, so did the thoughts of quitting. Your mind is such a powerful tool that when it’s working against you, it becomes a struggle of internal fortitude.
Thoughts of “how bad do you want this” get replaced with thoughts of “why are you doing this?”
It all begins and ends in your mind. What you give power to has power over you. – Leon Brown
As we began the last stretch of the race, there was dark calm of nothingness surrounding us. I would look to the woods in hope of finding some sort of strength, only to find a blank expanse of uselessness.
My mind was pleading with me to stop moving. I became quiet, fighting an internal battle of self-discipline and self-loathing. This was no longer a trail race, it was a fight.
As I looked at my brother, he was wrestling with his own demons – his IT Band was screaming in full throat but he was moving with an unwavering purpose. He wasn’t going to quit, no matter what. The look in his eyes and the purposefulness of his steps gave me the strength I was searching for.
A wave of emotion washed over me at mile 54 and tears were flowing down my face, only I had no idea why. Maybe it was a silent victory over my mind, a reminiscent feeling of always looking to him for guidance and direction – and realizing that after 37 years, that he was still there to give it.
8 miles to go and we now we exchange a silent gaze. Let’s do this. Power through. Everything you have.
We began to shuffle our feet, and then we’re running. We’ve got two hours to the finish. God it hurts! It hurts to run, it hurts to walk, and it hurts to stop. Keep moving. One foot in front of the other until it’s over.
As we round a corner, we begin to smell the familiar fragrance of a campfire. Hope returns and our faces both express smiles. The crowd at the finish line can see our headlights making their way through the forest and they begin to cheer. We crossed the finish line! 62.1 miles of agony and 62.1 miles of sweet glory!
We stared fear in the face and we kicked its ass. To my brother; thank you for always being there to shoulder the load. To my wife; thank you for letting me do this crazy shit. To everyone reading this; don’t ever back down from fear. You’re stronger than you could ever imagine. Don’t ever be afraid to challenge yourself!