I’m not going to lie and say this was easy, nor am I going to tell you I ran the whole way with a smile on my face. To be fair, there were moments that found me smiling, especially as I crossed that finish line. But this race was all about determination and redemption, as are a lot of ultras for most of us. We kick, scratch, claw, bite at, and gnaw our way through countless miles of insanity for the exhilaration of the finish line and the feeling we get of accomplishing what we set out to do. For most of us, it is a battle against ourselves and no one else. For me, this was the NUT.
Mentally speaking, I went into this race with a score to settle. In July, I failed to finish a 50 miler, which really hit me hard, because I knew going into that event that I was in top form. But when you make stupid mistakes, there are consequences. I rebounded with a great team effort in early August at the Elkhorn Relay and then really set my sights on the NUT, with the goal of finishing, and then hopefully cracking the top 10. Those were my goals, which my coach and I seemed fairly certain I could achieve. We knew the NUT was going to be tough, and it would take a solid effort, but I remained confident. Leading up to race day, I ran all the miles, lifted all the weights, and ate all the food. I went so far as to plan out my exact caloric intake per hour, which included carrying as little as possible while utilizing both drop bag spots. Even though I am usually a planner by nature, this level of pre-planning was a whole new level of geek-dom for yours truly, as I poured over the smallest of details. Bring on race day.
Not everything went according to plan for race day, however. Originally, my wife was supposed to join me for the weekend, and had planned to drop me at the start, then see me finish. But things came up which forced me to reconsider how that would work. I ended up driving to the finish line/shuttle pick-up on Saturday morning, leaving my house at 1:30am and arriving at 3:40am. The shuttle was a Roseburg Public Schools bus, equipped with heaters strong enough to cook your legs while still attached, but driven by the nicest man. We boarded the bus at 4am for what seemed like a 60 minute ride to the start. Once there, it was time to stretch out, suit up, shake out the butterflies, and enjoy a little coffee. I stuck to my routine of doing a short warm-up run, then getting some dynamic stretching in. Yes kids, even before a 100K. The sun was not awake yet, so headlamps were donned. Todd, of Go Beyond racing began giving us announcements and pre-race info, including a last warning about the hills to come. I heard him, but I mostly let it dribble on through my brain. I was focused on my game plan, which was to start slowly, aiming for mid-pack, then hoping to find myself near the top 10 at the halfway point. I had very realistic time goals (for me) per aid station and I was poised to stick to them. Then came the announcement to move up to the line. No one moved. Todd began counting. No one moved. Finally he looked at me and said, “get up here”…so I did. I felt concerned for my plans but I also knew that I was ready for this. So to the front I went. Todd counted to zero and we took off, with me leading us into the dark. It was not what I wanted, and yet it felt right.
Interestingly, my first 5K goal went as I had hoped. By the first aid station, however, I yearned for someone to run with, so I waited for runner #2 to come in. When Kenneth arrived, he seemed a little rushed, as if he had to hurry through the AS, but I made eye contact with him and told him I wanted to run with him for a while if he was OK with that and he agreed. Off we raced, getting a little faster than I intended, but not by enough to cause alarm. We talked about life, about our recovery stories, about past races and successes in those events. We talked about strategy and about what we were aiming for in the NUT and before long I realized this could be a guy that I might stick with for the rest of the way. But then he started talking about how he had won a 100 miler earlier in the year and how he had done really well at a big 100K in Texas, and I accepted the idea that he would soon blow by me. But I was OK with that. In fact, I had been telling myself that even though I had started out in the lead, I fully expected about 4-6 guys to go by me and maybe even a gal or two. And I was OK with that! The goal was to finish. So we carried on, with me thinking all these things and still enjoying a nice conversation with Kenneth. Until mile 21. Unbeknownst to me, Ken was struggling. At some point, he stopped running behind me and I glanced back to see him bent over, hands on his knees. I yelled back asking if he was OK. He didn’t answer. I told him to walk for a bit and catch me. I think he yelled OK. That was the last time I would see Ken. When I came into AS4, at mile 30, it was reported to me that he was over 15 minutes back, but still working through it. I hoped he would regain his composure and finish. I pressed on.
At mile 33, which was also AS5, I was slightly ahead of my schedule, and was feeling pretty good, although I could feel a blister forming on my right big toe from having gotten my foot wet. And yet, to that point my hydration and nutrition remained spot on, as did my gear. The hardest thing I fought for the first half of the race was the constant feeling that I had at least a half dozen people hot on my butt. Perhaps it kept me going, but I also knew the toughest part of the course was about to hit. Starting at mile 35, I came upon the first of the steep hills; a 1/2 mile affair at close to 20% incline. Still feeling fairly strong, I hiked my way to the top and continued my run, but those hills kept coming. Mile after mile ticked by and the hills were relentless until about mile 46, where the hills eased up a bit. I ran well until mile 54, which was where Karen awaited at AS8. She gave it to me straight, that the next section, called Dread & Terror, was the hardest part of the race. I needed her to be blunt. She was. The next 8 miles were a barrage of hills that were all fairly steep. There was no real break from them, they just kept coming. You would get to the top of one, flatten out for a 100 yards, run around a corner and then bam, find another hill. In a way, it could have been demoralizing or defeating and I could easily see how people might consider dropping. But not me, at least on this day. I wanted that finish, and I could almost taste it.
Aid station 9 is kind of a weird one. It’s a mere 1.3 miles from the finish but it has a purpose. First, it sits at the top of the last tough climb of dread and terror. Second, it was being run by the sweetest woman who wanted nothing more than to get me in and out and onto the finish. I thanked her as I left, profusely, as I had with all the amazing volunteers out there that day. She grabbed my arm and insisted it was her pleasure. I started to run off, yelling thank you again and she yelled back, “nice legs”!!! I laughed and thanked her again. She made me smile at mile 62. I knew the finish was mine now, but even then, I still kept expecting a bevy of runners to come up behind and pass me.
The trail ended near a road that took us into the park at Lemolo Lake. The road took us over the dam on the west end of the lake and up one last little hill before returning us to single track. It was at that point that I was afforded a fairly clear view behind me. Up until this point, the trail was so windy that I could never really see very far behind. I looked back, able to see across the dam and around the corner of the road I had just run up. It was at least 1/4 mile. There was no one. My heart wasn’t sure what to think, because I honestly did not expect to be in this position this late in the race. But it kind of hit me at that point. I was 1/4 mile from the finish. I was going to win this. Even now, as I write this, I remain blown away that this happened. I carried on that trail as it followed the northwest edge of the lake. There was a sharp right turn and one last little hill. I could hear cowbells. A young boy was there to high-five me. A photographer got my picture. And then I could see it. The finish line. I charged. I crossed it. I stopped moving. I pointed skyward, thankful for the gift I have to run. I got hugs from Todd & Renee. The crowd cheered. It was surreal. It still is.