I stopped. The air was still, the forest around me as quiet as a cathedral on Tuesday. The trail wound through white pine, hemlock, and maple stands that blotted out the sun and made the heat of the day feel unusually cool. I listened for the footfalls or breathing of another runner, but heard nothing. I was alone, though for how long I did not know. To my right, on the mound of earth surrounding an old maple tree, as though it had been placed there just for me, stood a wooden chair. It was of simple construction, four legs and a straight back, stained mossy green from moisture and mold.
I sat down.
I had been running for seven hours and was more than halfway through the inaugural Twisted Branch Trail 100K, and my right knee was unhappy. For the past several miles it had gotten progressively worse so that when I ran along any off-camber trail or downhill part of the course I felt sharp, searing pain just below my knee. Sitting down I hoped would allow me to give it a slight respite, to bend it (which it doesn’t get to do much during a 100 kilometer run) and take some of my weight off of it. I allowed myself a moment of self-flaggelation.
At the start at four in the morning a sports physiotherapist named Pam had given my legs a warm up and put my mind in fright mode when she touched my right leg and said, “Ooh, are you having work done on your IT band?”
I’ve never had IT band issues, and certainly never considered it to be a problem, but I knew how untrained I was for this race. I had finished Massanutten in May, but since then my longest run was 12 miles through Brooklyn in August, and my longest week was 30 miles. Also, the beers of summer had added a few pounds to my slight frame, pounds my knees might not be strong enough to bear.
I had been relying on my existing fitness, and my sisu, to get me through this race.
But as I sat on that chair, in the middle of the forest, I considered, for not the first time on that Saturday, whether I should go on.
The First Third
My nerves were apparent as the race began and I started my usual singing. I had made up a few new songs on the bus, including “Why Are There So Many Songs About Running?”, “I Want a New Trail”, and “Lucky Old Trail.” Behind me someone remarked that I would not be singing still at 60 miles, to which I responded, “You bet I’ll still be singing!”
For a while I ran with my headlamp off as there were so many other headlamps around that I could see the trail fine. Soon, though, the runners spread out and I found myself running mostly alone. I clicked on my headlamp and regretted not putting fresh batteries in it. The light was weak. I could see, but I would have liked to see better.
The first part of the trail was easily runnable, with a few roots nestled among the leaves as we went down a shallow grade. Soon enough we hit our first climb, and I took the opportunity to empty my bladder and slow down, breathe, and just try to relax and enjoy the trail. I hit the first aid station, mile six, after the sun had emerged from behind the hills in a too-fast 80 minutes. I danced a little jig as I approached the table to boost my own spirits and give the volunteers something more than a dour face to gaze upon. I filled my bottles, took some orange quarters, handed over my headlamp to be picked up later, and continued on my way. The RD was there, said, “Hey, one of my Maryland runners.” We shook hands and I told him how beautiful it was up here. “Have a good run,” he told me.
I felt I needed to void my bowels (isn’t that a lovely term?), but since I had no wipes or towels on me I figured it could wait until I got to the next aid station where there would be a bathroom. The trail continued it’s beautiful course, though the climbs and downhills were steeper than I had expected. The trail was not so technical, a few twisted roots crossing the trail to contend with, and though I stubbed my left big toe on a few of them, I was thankful that at least the course did not have the rocks that the Massanutten Mountains throw at runners.
I was wearing a nearly brand-new pair of Altra Olympus 1.5 that had come in the mail just a few days before. I’ve run two of my last three hundreds in Olympus, and the one thing I haven’t liked about them is the tread which provides little traction for the trails. The 1.5 has a slightly deeper tread, and I noticed better grip on the trails. However, the shoe seemed to be slightly larger than the original Olympus, and I found my foot slipping around inside the toebox more than usual. I stopped three or four times to tighten the laces, pulling the toe box tighter but trying to keep them loose on the top of my foot.
I came into Naples Creek, the first full aid station, feeling great still. I was singing, and as I approached I heard someone yell, “Hey, it’s the dancing man. You gonna dance this time?” And so I danced into the aid station. I was starting to feel hungry so I filled a small plastic baggie with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bacon, and then I grabbed another handful of orange wedges. I was running aid station to aid station, so all I asked was how far to the next one. Less than six miles. I could handle that.
What I didn’t know until this morning: I completed the second section, half a mile longer than the first, in 75 minutes–five minutes faster than the first section. I still felt great, physically and mentally, but in hindsight I may have been going a bit too fast.
I walked out of the aid station, one of my entrenched strategies for making sure I keep up my nutrition—walking gives the food time to settle in my stomach—and wound up another steep climb. The trees seemed to close in around me, and as the morning coolness burned away I began to feel some of the heat. Still, the canopy kept the sun off me, and the shade was cool. I ate the oranges first, then the bacon, then a few bits of PB&J, but my stomach still felt unsettled. It was too early in the race for all food to be unappealing, but already that’s where I was. The sandwich was dry in my mouth, like eating wet plaster, and I swallowed half a bottle of water getting it down. I realized I had neglected to use the port-a-potty at AS#2, but again didn’t feel the pressing need. Still, I wondered if that was having an effect on my gut.
I played leap frog with another runner for a time, before he pulled ahead of me. He didn’t speed up, but I slowed down. Barely a quarter into the race and my legs were feeling heavy. No matter, I told myself. Now was the time to slow down and enjoy the day in the woods. I turned on my power walk and settled in for the long haul. At the Brink Hill aid station I met a VHTRC runner, Dean, who helped me with my drop bag. His wife was running today, and he would pace her later. We talked about the trail, how runnable so much of it was, especially compared to MMT, but the twists and turns, and sharp ups and downs, made it hard to get a good stride going. The trail, it seemed, was slowing everyone down.
The Second Third
Coming out of Italy Valley AS I was still feeling good. My stomach was still a bit unsettled, but mentally I was feeling strong. Here the course turns on a partially paved road, up a slow, steady hill, until the trail starts again through a mown path of goldenrods and other wildflowers. In the distance to the west a dozen windmills twirled in the morning breeze. I snapped a picture with my phone and sent it to my wife, figuring she and the kid would be awake by now. A giant black fly began buzzing around my head, and as I took off down the trail he followed me, chasing me past the flowers and into the trees again. He stayed with me for the next half-mile, and no sooner had he disappeared than another took his place. I’d had this problem at MMT, and then I thought the buzzing would drive me crazy. This time I let the fly buzz and used him as motivation to simply keep moving forward.
Coming out of the trail again I hit the top of a paved road. A sign directed runners to run to the end of the road, a much longer distance than it seemed at first. The road went on and on and on, and as I made my way down the low grade my knee began to show the first signs of wear. Rather than run this downhill, I began to walk, saving my knee. I hoped this was only temporary, and decided that I’d sit down at the next aid station for a minute or so just to give it a rest.
Once again I danced into the aid station, which did not hurt my knee any more. A volunteer found me a chair and filled my bottles with water. I ate some watermelon and mandarin oranges which I had in my drop bag. I also had a can of Starbucks Double Shot with protein, eleven ounces of calories, caffeine, and protein. I needed the first two more than I needed the third, but I drank it all. I asked the volunteer if I could have some papertowels, and I stuffed them into a pocket. I joked with the volunteers, told them this was just a training run for my big race in the fall. “What are you running?” they asked. “A half-marathon,” I said flatly. One volunteer remarked, “You’ve got to get your miles in somehow.” While one of the other runners laughed at my lame attempt at humor.
I told them, too, that since this was not technically the halfway point they would not get to hear my traditional halfway song. “Can you give me a preview?” one of the women asked.
“It starts with ‘Johnny used to work on the docks,’” I sang, doing my best Jon Bon Jovi.
Soon enough I got up and kept moving. “Best aid station so far!” I told the volunteers, something I tell them at every aid station. Because they are. “You’re the reason we’re here,” volunteers often said. But without you, I tell them, we runners would be lost on the woods.
Somewhere along the trail, around the halfway point, I heard the trickle of a stream. I ducked into the woods, hid behind a tree, dug a small hole, and finally found relief for my stomach. Those paper towels came in handy, as did the stream. And now, halfway through the race, I felt great. Light as a feather, my stomach not bothering me, my knee pain seemed to fade away. And I began to run again.
Soon the trail veered through a cornfield, which the RD had mentioned during the pre-race briefing. I had expected to see a trail that led through the corn, a path formed by the wheels of a tractor, perhaps. But no, this was literally a cornfield. Pink ribbons tied to the stalks marked the direction we were to travel, and despite the fact that at least a couple dozen people had come through here before me I could see few places where the corn had been stomped down by feet. If you build it, they will come, I thought as I pushed six and seven foot tall stalks of corn out of my way. “Until I found the trails, I’d never done a crazy thing in my whole life,” I heard myself say.
The excitement of the corn field lasted for another mile or so when the sharp pain in my knee returned, this time with a vengance. I didn’t twist it or land funny, but it began to hurt in a way that I haven’t felt my knee hurt since I was seventeen and I blew out my ACL. The scars on my knee are a reminder that my surgeon told me I’d probably never run a marathon, and for the first time since my first marathon in 2002 I considered that maybe he was right.
I slowed down, walked, stretched, squatted. The pain got progressively worse. That’s when I found that chair next to a tree and I took it as a sign. I sat down and massaged the knee and the leg. I knew that I couldn’t just sit in the woods, though. I had to go on. So I did. I forced myself not to limp, but it was hard. Putting weight on the leg with every step I feared would cause it to buckle beneath me. Finally I saw a long straight sapling that had been cut, lying by the side of the trail. I broke off the narrow end and used it as a walking stick. Taking some of the pressure off my leg helped tremendously. I was able to walk at a steady clip again, and pushed the pain away. When I got to the Patch AS, a small hunting cabin in the middle of the woods, I sat down and tried to evaluate.
I knew I couldn’t drop here even if I wanted to, so the goal was to keep moving. I asked if the AS had a first aid kit, which they did, but only a small roll of first aid tape. Then someone produced a roll of gray duct tape. I tied my Buff headband around my leg just below my knee and then wrapped the Buff twice in duct tape. The pain seemed to be focused on the area below my patella tendon, and so I figured if I did something to provide some measure of support to the patella and tendon then that might help.
I drank fifteen ounces of Coke and filled my small baggie with PB&J quarters, potato chips and Fritos. I grabbed a handful of Peanut M&Ms, filled my water bottles, grabbed my walking stick, and continued. The makeshift knee support combined with the walking stick seemed to be doing the trick, but the trail mostly went uphill at this point and the knee only bothered me on the downhills. When the downhills finally came, as eventually they would, the pain returned. I found another stick and walked with two, moving as swifly as I could but feeling mentally defeated with every step.
I was in a dark place. I fought back tears as I chided myself for being foolish enough to run 100K with no training. I considered calling my wife, but I knew hearing her voice would simply bring more tears to my eyes. As I neared the next aid station I began to think of a plan. I needed to find out if the pain was an actual injury, or if it was nothing more than muscle fatigue. If resting and eating would help ease my suffering. If I could not push the suffering away, then I knew I would not be able to go on. I determined that I would call a friend, R, who paced me at MMT in 2014. She has had her share of DNFs due to physical discomfort, often discovering in hindsight that had she taken in calories and rested she could have gone on. But the pain was so seering, and nearly debilitating, that I was reminded of my first 100 miler when around 90 miles my knee swelled up so badly that I could barely put weight on it. Then I laid down on a cot and slept for nearly an hour, my crew worried about where I was. If my knee was an injury, if it started to swell, then I would drop. If I could manage the pain with calories, if the pain was my body’s way to trying to get me to stop, then I would go on.
As I hobbled into the aid station at mile 46 I saw another runner limping towards me. “You too?” I asked. He nodded. “I dropped,” he said. “My knee.”
I could do that, too, I thought. No one would fault me.
As I approached the aid station table I heard someone call, “It’s the dancing guy!” And so I danced. I used the stick as sort of a cane and did a little toe tapping two step, and then I collapsed into a chair. A little boy, probably about eight years-old, asked if I needed anything. I gave him my water bottles to fill, and he brought me watermelon. I thought of my little girl at home, and how far I had traveled to come to this race. Too far to drop, I thought. Someone else said, “You’re still moving!” And a song came into my head. “I’m still standing, after all these miles. Looking like a true survivor. Feeling like a little kid.”
I ate six or seven wedges of watermelon, coated in salt. I ate more bacon, and downed two cups of mandarin orange slices. The kid brought me Coke. I stuffed a peanut butter cup in my waist belt and took out my apple. It was three o’clock, and another runner mentioned that we were now chasing cutoffs. Suddenly I worried about being pulled from the race. I gave this some thought. Nothing wrong with being timed out in a race. If that happens, I thought, so be it. For now I knew I could still move, even if it was with a slight limp. Sitting down the pain was less, and my knee wasn’t swollen. I told myself, as long as I can keep moving forward I will keep moving forward.
So I stood up, stuffed food in my waist pack, grabbed up my walking stick, and headed out onto the trails. “Happy trails to you,” I sang to the volunteers. “Until we meet again.”
Somewhere along the trail I picked up another walking stick. I could still feel the pain, but the suffering was manageable. As long as I could keep moving I would.
The Third Third: Racing the dark.
My knee did not get better, but neither did it get worse. Dual makeshift trekking poles helped my tired legs on the inclines, and relieved some of the pressure on the downhills. I trudged along, my head clearing as I ran. Maybe it was the caffeine or the calories. I began to feel better mentally. A race of this distance is more about mental toughness than physical ability. Sure, one must be somewhat physically prepared, but the run itself is about more than just covering 100 kilometers on your feet. It is about willing your body to continue moving even when the body itself would seem to say stop.
On the drive up to the Finger Lakes I tried to define the Finnish term sisu to my friend Steve. “It means determination, grit, a stubborn willingness to go on even in the face of insurmountable odds,” I told him.
“Kind of like running an ultra,” he said.
Yes, I thought, then and now as I trudged through the forest using two sticks to support me. It takes a lot of sisu to get one through a race like this.
Then something remarkable happened. I was moving through the forest, walking, when quite without knowing it I began to run. And in running I found that my knee didn’t hurt. I forced my gait as normal as possible, forced myself not to limp. In finally being able to push away the suffering, to ignore the pain, I discovered the cause of it. My right hamstring, with each step, felt strangely tight; it was pulling up my knee like a rider pulls the reins on a horse. I stopped and stretched it, then kept moving. The stretching helped. I focused my thoughts on my right leg, willed the muscle to relax, to stretch, to ease the tension, and before I knew what was happening I was moving on. Carrying the sticks in one hand, I ran through the forest.
That section of course was the longest between aid stations—eight miles—and felt it. The trail, however, seemed to float by as though in a dream. I longed for caffeine and lamented that somewhere along the way I had lost my remaining Vivarin. Still, before I knew it I was rolling into the eighth aid station, Club 54, at the end of the Bridle Hills Branch trail. Signs posted proclaimed that Guinness would give me pep, and when I entered I briefly considered drinking half a beer. I asked the volunteer what the time was.
“Seven-oh-two,” he said.
I had made the eight mile run in two-and-a-quarter hours. During the dark moments it had taken me longer to travel six miles. I had turned a corner, and felt great.
“Where are the headlamps?” I asked. It would be dark in about an hour.
“At the next aid station,” the volunteer told me.
As I have gotten older my twilight vision has gotten worse. Running with a setting sun, through a canopy covered forest, would be worse than running through the total darkness. I had to make it to the next and final aid station, five miles away, in an hour. There was no time to spend here drinking beer and singing Irish folk songs, though I would have loved to do that. The volunteers were wearing green caps and proclaimed this station the Luck of the Irish. I grabbed a handful of orange wedges, drank two quick glasses of Coke, and announced, “Before I go I have a little song for you.” There were a few other runners grazing at the table, and they turned to me, exhaustion in their eyes. They, too, had been moving on their feet for more than fourteen hours, and they were as tired as I. But suddenly adrenaline was kicking in, my knee wasn’t hurting, and I still felt like singing. It was a song that had been stuck in my head all day, put there by the liquid fuel I found at every aid station, Tailwind, and inspired in part by my daughter who loves to listen to classic cartoon Christmas songs.
“You never will get where you’re going,” I sang. “If you never get up on your feet.” I gestured to the cooler full of electrolyte drink then swooped my sticks towards the trail. “Come on, there’s a good tail wind blowing.” I began to move out of the aid station, singing the final line as I walked. “The fast-walking man is hard to beat!” I raised my hand in a final wave goodbye and then sang the chorus. “Put one foot in front of the other. And soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floo-oo-oor! You put one foot in front of the other! And soon you’ll be walking out the door.”
I followed the white blazes, and the trail soon entered a dark pine forest. To my right the trees blotted out the sun. To my left the trail edged onto a deep gorge, a nearly vertical drop. Below I could see light hitting the tops of trees, but nothing else. Normally I would have loved to have stopped and looked, but tonight I felt the pressing need to move and move fast. The sun would set at about 7:50pm, which would give me until shortly after 8pm before darkness was nearly complete. Meantime I had to contend with the thick canopy which made the trail a continual run through twilight.
Soon I emerged out into a field and I thought I had made it until I looked at my phone. I may have been moving fairly quickly, perhaps four-miles-per-hour, but it was still only 7:45pm. I knew I had not run that quickly. I entered the forest again, and this time I turned the light on my phone. Now I was slowing down, not because I couldn’t run faster but because I didn’t want to trip by moving too fast. I could see nothing beneath my feet, could barely see the trail. The light from the phone was faint, but it was better than the near total darkness I was running through now. I still had my sticks, though I wasn’t using them much. I told myself I would get rid of them when we entered the final stretch, a brand new trail that would take us down to the beach at the southern end of Lake Keuka in Hammondsport.
Finally I emerged from the woods onto a grape orchard. There was still light, and the grass was smooth and easy to make my way across. I put away my phone and moved quickly with another time goal in mind. Not only did I want to make it to the final aid station before dark, but I also wanted to call and wish my daughter goodnight with a song. Bedtime was eight, and I didn’t know if my wife would keep her up later with a movie. As soon as I got to the aid station, announcing myself like Michael Buffer announcing a WWF match, I tossed aside my sticks.
“You’re the guy who was singing,” I heard someone say. “What happened to your song at sixty miles?”
I said, “Just wait.” I turned to the crowd that was gathered around the aid station. Some were volunteers, some were crew waiting for runners. I asked for help, and though I was too tired to wait for a response I dialed my wife’s phone. When she picked up I asked her to put my daughter on. They were watching a movie. “Now,” I told the assembled crowd.
“Buzz, buzz, buzz,” they shouted.
And then I sang the only song I sing to my daughter at night time, an old Huey Lewis and the News number called “Buzz, Buzz, Buzz.”
Buzz, buzz, buzz goes the bumblebee,
Tweedle-deedle-dee goes the bird.
But the sound of your little voice darling
Is the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard.
I got through the whole song, finishing with my own version of the words, and then I held up the phone. “Good night, Miralena,” the volunteers and crew said in unison. I put the phone back to my ear. “Good night, sweetheart,” I said to my little girl. “I love you.” I heard her giggle and imagined her cuddling up next to her mother, thumb in her mouth. Then to my wife I said, “I love you. I have to go. I still have to finish the race!”
I collapsed in a chair and tried to regroup. I had used a ton of energy getting here, and had made the five mile leg in about 80 minutes, pretty remarkable considering I ran about half of that through near darkness. I wanted some calories to get me over this last climb, which I knew would be hard. Thankfully it would also be dark so I wouldn’t necessarily see it. From my third and final drop bag I downed a can of Doubleshot with protein, a pint of chocolate milk, a cup of mandarin oranges, and drank three cups of Coke. My stomach felt a little full, but I figured I would walk a bit out of the aid station and up the hill, and by the time I got to the top the food would have settled.
I got a headlamp and set out. The darkness was complete now, and the climb was as bad as I had expected it to be, about 800 feet over a couple of kilometers. My steps were slow, which was strange because I was usually such a good climber. But the calories I had taken in seemed to be sitting heavily on my stomach. I realized halfway up that it was too much—forty-five ounces too much. By the time my body processed the food I’d be done with the race! Still, I trudged on, up steep switchbacks. I seemed to be climbing towards the rising full moon which shone over the top of the ridge like a beacon of light. I passed two runners and a pacer who were slowing down. Soon I got to a less steep incline, and I felt my stomach lurch. I stopped, stepped off the trail, and everything I’d just eaten came up in three full and throbbing heaves. I simply opened my mouth and let the liquid pour out of me. The runners I’d just passed moved silently past me. Seeing someone vomit up the contents of their stomachs was expected on the trail. One of them said, “Looking good.” To which I snarkly responded, “While throwing up? Thanks a lot.”
Finally the vomiting was over, and I felt better. Lighter, freer. I was still exhausted. I had used so much of what I had left in my legs to get to the last aid station before dark that it felt hard to get them to go on. But go on I did. Soon I came to the pacer who had stopped to take a picture of the moon. “If it makes you feel better,” he told me, “that was an epic vomit.”
I smiled. “Thanks. Tell your runner I’m sorry if I was a little short with her.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
And on we went. Soon enough I came upon that same runner, who had begun to walk very slowly. I told her, “Almost there,” and then apologized for being so snarky while I was vomiting. I don’t know if she replied. The finish line beckoned us both.The trail seemed to go forever, and soon I was on a road again. The blazes on the trees went from white to blue, and it was there I left my sticks, bidding them a fond farewell for having seen me through the race. It was time to finish on my own. For the last dozen miles or so they had been mental crutches more than helpful tools, though they were useful in getting me up that last climb. Down the hill I ran, looking with each step for the switchbacks that would take me to the finish. The trail was brand new and steeply cambered, and I was thankful with every turn that I could give a different leg the chance to be uphill. I heard the cheers at the finish line and focused my energy on each step. Don’t fall now, keep moving.
And then I was at the highway, and a volunteer told me to watch out for the last bit of trail, it was a steep drop into the culvert next to the road. Cross the road, he said, and follow the flags. In the darkness I could not see them, and I didn’t look up to see the brightly lit finish line. I was looking down. Someone screamed, “Over here,” and I followed the voice. I thought I still had a couple hundred yards to go, but the finish was right before me. I ran and raised my hands. Other runners and volunteers were lined up applauding. Someone said, “It’s the dancing guy.” And I danced. Then I dropped onto my hands and did ten pushups.
“You need to go back out and run another forty,” someone told me. I jokingly turned around to do just that, but thought better of it.
“Another day, perhaps,” I said.