“You there, with the light!” a voice rang through the forest, deep and southern.
It was 5:20 a.m. and I had run 43 miles. I was squatting next to a mossy tree off to the right of the trail, ready to drop my drawers and release a burden when it was sucked back up by this call.
How dare he, I thought.
I had been running for a little over 13 hours and finally when I was just about to . . . this hoozit with his trigger-happy light bursts through the darkness.
I groaned and stood up again, hoping I can coax it back later.
“Hi,” I called back.
“What are you doing?!” he shouted.
“That’s the goddamn stupidest thing I ever heard!”
I didn’t respond to this. Yeah, you don’t have to tell me.
“Just wait til it gets light out, run then! You’re wakin’ everybody up!”
I passed on shouting the first words that came to mind in case he had a gun, and settled for sending a middle finger his way.
“Getting there!” I yelled through gritted teeth. I am a freaking noiseless spider, hoozit. It’s your bloody dogs that are waking up everyone.
I put in headphones, hit the Hamilton soundtrack and decided to do some choreography while I ran towards my parents and the dawn.
Back in September I was eating at a little cafe in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. The sky was pouting, and as rain pounded the windows, I thought to myself:
I want to run something hard.
My ultra-running debut had been the summer of 2016 when I signed up for a 20-mile race around Lake Perry and halfway through the first loop decided I wanted upgrade to the 50k.
Kinda swindled the race directors out of a few bucks, there.
Since then I had moved to Austria and my love for trail running increased as I bounced happily through the mountains. When I came back to the States, I hadn’t much of a base, as traveling dampened the consistency of running. But I still had my mind. I still had all the mental techniques I had worked on. I ran a half marathon 5 days after my plane landed, and that didn’t kill me.
As I sat in the little cafe, munching on my crunchy biscuit, I thought:
100. I wanna do that.
I chose the LOViT (Lake Ouachita Vista Trail) 100 mile run in central Arkansas for three reasons:
first, it was only an 8-hour drive from where I live in Kansas. Secondly, it was February 23rd, which would give me 22 weeks to train. Finally, it was advertised as being only for those with “ankles of steel…iron will”.
I had neither “ankles of steel” nor “iron will”, but I knew that if I signed up for this, I would make sure I developed both during the weeks of training.
For those 22 weeks, I trained as hard as I could. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to get a run in before going off to student teach. I ran hundreds of hill repeats. I ran back-to-back weekend long runs. I did a 4 x 4 x 48 weekend (4 miles every 4 hours for 48 hours) twice in a row.
Some of it was teeth-gritting chow, but it wasn’t all work.
I run really slow. That’s why I had to get up so early. And most of the time I looked forward to running. To disappear with a podcast or an audiobook–not to perform, not to look pretty, not to be controlled by anything…this is heaven. To come home after a frosty long run, draw a bath, let the blood drain from my ankles and soak in the endorphins.
It’s a privilege to get to run.
I kept in mind that an ultramarathon is 1/5 human vs. nature and the remaining 4/5 human vs. self. When going into a battle such as the 100, I knew it would be beneficial for my present self to bring in my past self as an ally for combating the grouchy future self.
My preparations included a handful of letters, designated for different checkpoints in the LOViT 100 Mile run. It’s harder to say, “you just don’t understand me!” to me then it is to say to someone else.
After 22 weeks of stumbling outside in tights and sweaters, finally–breathlessly–it came Friday, February 23rd.
5:00 a.m. – wake up, last minute packing, parents, Josie and border collie Makenzie drive to Mountain Harbor Resort, Arkansas.
2:30 p.m. – arrive, check-in to the race
5:00 p.m. – begin the 100 mile race
3:00 a.m. – finish the 100 mile race before the official cut-off time of 34 hours.
5:00 a.m. – wake up, last minute packing, drive to Mountain Harbor Resort, Arkansas.
2:00 p.m. – get an email from the Race Directors: the Forest Park Service pulled the LOViT 2018 permit because of flooding on the trail and a damning weekend weather forecast. Race is canceled.
2:30 p.m. – arrive, check-in with race directors. Yes, the race is cancelled. Tornados predicted, flooding storms, lots of rain.
2:40 p.m. – Josie goes to the car. Parents and Makenzie take a walk and leave her alone. Wet, blubbery, noisy car-sobbing.
2:45 p.m. – Josie gets out of the car. Walks over to Parents and Kenz. Head down. Slumped.
2:47 p.m. – Josie: “So . . . now what?”
2:47 p.m. – Parents: “Jos, the course is still marked. If you . . . wanted to do this anyways . . . we’d support you.”
2:48 p.m. – Josie: “F**K THE PARK SERVICE. Let’s do this!”
We clambered back to the race directors, asked for directions, jacked some of the food, and met three other crazy runners who were interested in joining me for a 20-mile leg.
At 4:15 p.m., I took off with Robin, Rachel, and Shannon.
The first 20 with them was quick and seemingly effortless. I enjoyed the company of these three beautiful souls who had flown from Washington for the race. Rachel was practically an ultramarathon legend in her own right, and Robin was running ultras in all 50 states. These were the runners I had imagined running with–way, way more qualified than I–but the difference was we became friends, instead of me feeling as small as I had imagined.
After tight hugs and excited “good luck!”s, I refueled and took off into the dark woods at 10:30 p.m. on my own.
I thought it would be good to run on my own pace for a while, maybe lose myself in The Return of the King I had downloaded to my phone.
Not to be.
Here comes the first low.
I got about a mile away from the girls and my parents and suddenly all of the gears in my mind shattered.
Who says you can do this?
Who told you you were qualified?
We are sore.
Let’s just stop.
Forget this. No one is expecting this of you.
I couldn’t take this mind-chatter. It was as heartbreaking as the race being canceled. I shook myself. I put in headphones. I put the song “A Cigarette and a Silhouette” on repeat. I began counting. My special tactic for moments like these.
I counted from 0 to 50. At 50, I walked until I got to 70. Then I counted to 100. Started over and counted to 50. Walked until 70.
If this memory only clings to me
I wont regret being blue
For I can forget with a cigarette and a silhouette of you
I wasn’t running 100 miles. I wasn’t even running the 6 miles to my parents. I was playing a game with myself. Seeing how many times I can keep running when I would rather stop.
I got to mile 26 and cried when I saw my parents again. Ate a Lara bar, drank coconut water, took a salt pill, restocked. Gave fluffy Kenz’ a squeeze, hugged my parents, and just kept going.
“We’ll see you in 4 miles Jos,” my dad said.
There was no doubt in his mind. There was no question. They would see me in 4 miles.
Shoot, I thought. Guess 26 miles is too early to quit.
I put in a podcast and walked for a while; after listening to Tom Bilyeu emphatically repeat that I can apparently do anything, I felt locked in. I was in this crazy mood, skipping and making jokes in my mind. Even playing through the conversation I would have with my parents when I saw them next.
Part of that was because I remembered: who else is doing this? ALL of those runners are more qualified than I am–faster and with more experience–and yet YOU are the crazy sonuvabitch out here doing this!
I met my parents 4 miles later, restarted the Tom Bilyeu podcast and began climbing the back of Hickory Nut Mountain. My happiness was fuzzing at the edges, being in the dark wet woods, alone, in the middle of the night. But a mile before I reached the top of the mountain, I saw a light shining down the trail in front of me. The light cast my father against the dark forest–for I can forget with a cigarette and a silhouette of you–and I felt another surge of energy.
He walked the last mile up Hickory Nut with me while I chatted his ear off, and when we got to the top, there was my sleepy mother holding out a peanut butter sandwich and a cup of cold brew coffee.
I power-hiked straight from mile 35-60.
After all, where did I have to be? What race was I running anymore, except against my own fatigue? And with what better support! I knew that without fail, either my sleep-deprived mother or sleep-deprived father would walk out to meet me, never complaining, never doubting that I could do this.
So I stopped my hurry. Stopped thinking I had somewhere to be. That I had anything at all to prove. If my parents got too tired, they would leave the car unlocked and a sandwich or two pre-made. I was on holiday, damn it, swishing through the gorgeous Lake Ouachita mountains of Arkansas in late winter.
I listened to podcasts. I sang songs to myself. I counted aloud to 2,460. I went 4 miles. Then 4.5. Then 4. Then 6. Then 6. Never 100. Just the next stretch.
I walked towards peanut butter sandwiches and coconut water. I walked towards chocolate covered banana chips and salt pills.
I walked for my faithful parents. For my snuggly wet dog. I welcomed every single creek crossing for how badass it was making me.
Then at mile 43 my body gave me the chance to poo and it was stripped from me by an angry southerner who chose–by his own accord mind you–to live in the woods and own sensitive dogs.
The dawn broke over me like the first sip of IPA after a winter long run and I had choreographed the first 4 songs of Hamilton. I think my obliques were more sore from the swagger than the hills.
I changed my socks for the first time at mile 50, which was pointless because they were soaked not half a mile later.
Around 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, the sky opened and the thunderstorms the Park Service insisted on happening began and lasted the next twelve hours.
I came upon quite a few runners during the day. A wonderful, breath-taking woman named Tabatha Park who had laid the course markers–God bless her–and was running the trail to see how it had all fared. When she heard I had been running since 4:00 p.m. the previous day, she shrieked:
“You’re my hero!”
That felt good. Really good. Really really good.
At mile 59, a fast yellow-shirted man with black compression socks passed me from behind. I was listening to The Return of the King because I had hit another low point, and since I had headphones in, he scared the bejesus out of me.
I had a really . . . dramatic reaction to this. I shrieked and my right hand fell to my knees while my left hand thumped at my heart. He looked back and smiled sadly at me, gesturing to my headphones.
To this yellow-shirted black-socked man: I am so sorry. That is what I thought about for the next 10 miles in a row. How much I believe that trail running is better without headphones, just you and nature, and how rude it can be when runners are zoned out from the rest of the world on the trail.
I was low though, to my credit, and at that moment I really needed something between my ears. I hope you are reading this, O Fast Yellow-Shirt Man, so you can accept my apology.
Thunder and psycho lightning dominated my world from mile 62-75 and the extra swollen creek crossings made me feel so freaking cool.
At each checkpoint, a parent and a pooch would walk out to meet me to herald me into clif bars and avocado sandwiches.
At mile 72, I was running back down Hickory Nut Mountain at the height of the storm, trees thrashing around and water pouring down the slope, uprooting rocks and making footing even trickier.
Suddenly I heard a hoot! It was Robin, Shannon, and Rachel! Back for another run! They cheered me on as I flew slowly down the slippery mountain.
At mile 73 something within me chunked and I no longer felt any pain. I began to count and as I counted, I ran. Fast. Effortless. For the first time in hours and hours.
I ran effortless for the next 15 miles until my right ankle swelled suddenly and rendered me unfit for running more than a minute at a time. But I was at mile 88. For the first time I felt certainty wash over me: I am going to run 100 miles.
I ran a minute. Walked a minute until my ankle felt better. Ran another minute. Walked. Ran. Repeat until I got to my parents at mile 90.
Jos: “Dad, I think I sprained something? I don’t know why I can’t run on this.”
Mom: “Want an avocado?”
Jos: “Yes, please spoon-feed that to me.”
Dad: “Jos, it’s okay, nothing is sprained. It’s just sore. You’ve been running for a while, stretch it out a bit and run until it feels numb.”
Jos: “Swell. Banana?”
I took off again. Mile 90. The sun was out for the first time and setting liquid flame against the pruny sky. Mile freaking 90.
Mile freaking 91.
Then the sun set and darkness crept into my soul. My very very soul.
I hit mile 91.5 and suddenly 8.5 more miles translated into hours and hours. My ankle refused to grow numb and every step I took reminded me how long it would take to go 8.5 miles. I got cold–really cold–and I was shivering, shaking, cursing this trail and every creek crossing I crashed my pruny, wrinkly, poor feet into.
Maybe it sounds crazy. Eight more miles! What’s so hard anymore? But it felt like taking five Uni-level exams in a row and then coming upon the sixth exam. And by this time, you’re broken in so many places you can’t even hold the pencil.
You can train as much as you can handle. You can go as slow as you can bear. But at one point, and there will come that point, you will be more broken than you have ever been before.
My dad came out to meet me at mile 92 and walked me into the second-to-last aid station.
“Dad, I don’t know if I can finish this,” I said, eyes down at the dark ground. I felt snapped in half, at every joint, at every fiber.
He didn’t say anything for a minute. I couldn’t bear to repeat myself, so I was quiet too.
“Jos, I can’t imagine running 8 miles. I can’t even run a 5k,” he began. “But you can. You can do it. You do it. You’ve been doing it. You wake me up every morning at the butt-crack of dawn with your stomping around to go out for a run. 8 miles? That’s not even a long run.”
Doesn’t feel so easy right now, I told him telepathically.
“That’s because it isn’t easy. That’s because you don’t do the easy things,” he said. “You do the hard things. This is what you do.”
God, this is the hardest thing I have ever done. These last 8 miles.
“When the race was cancelled, you were given a unique opportunity. You were given the chance to determine your future. You were handed the question: Who are you going to be?
Are you going to be someone who gets sad when things don’t work out? Because that’s fair. The sadness is justified.
Are you going to be someone who gets mad when things don’t work out? Because that’s fair, too. The anger is justified.
Are you going to be someone who makes excuses? Blames someone? Quits early? Your excuses are justified. Quitting is justified.
But that’s not what you did. You said: I am going to choose to do it anyways. I am going to choose to not be justified. I am going to choose suffering because I also choose greatness.”
I nodded through my sobs.
We got to the car. My mother, my beautiful mother handed me a honey sandwich on wonderbread.
“We will see you in 5 miles Jos,” they said.
There was no doubt in their minds. There was no question. They would see in me in 5 miles. And then I would run another 3. And then I would be done.
Shoot, I thought. Guess 92 miles is too early to quit.
So I stumbled back on the trail, my ankles the size of a pregnant elephant.
I counted to 50. I walked to 70. I hobbled to 100. Repeat. Repeat. Head down. The pain is strong, I am strong, the pain and I are strong. Count to 50. Walk to 70. Hobble. Repeat. Strong. Strong. Strong. I am not dead yet. I am not going to die. Count. Walk. Hobble. Repeat. STRONG.
“STRONG!” I shouted at mile 93.
“STILL STRONG!” I shouted at mile 94.
“LESS STRONG!” I shouted at mile 95.
“THANK GOD!” I shouted at mile 96.5 as I saw my mother’s light on the trail. I ran towards her. Cried, shook, hypothermia making me tired.
I got to the car at mile 97. I had two options: I could either run back down the stretch of trail that I just had come up and finish at Tompkin’s Bend–which would technically put me at 101 miles–or I could run this .5 mile ATV trail ahead of me back and forth until I got to 100.
I was not going to run a single extra mile, that was for goddamn sure.
My parents walked with my shaking, hypothermic, completely trashed self back-and-forth until my watch read 99.9 miles.
They made me stop while my dad dashed to the car and grabbed a roll of toilet paper. Mom held the camera, dad stretched the roll across the trail and latched it to a metal stake.
I ran that mo’fo in, man.
30 freaking seconds.
My parents–the race directors after all–awarded me with a Toilet Paper Certificate reading: “LOViT 100 Mile Male and Female Champion”.
I got in the car, wrapped myself in a sleeping bag that smelled like wet-dog, and we headed home to examine what nearly 32 hours of wet running will do to feet.
It wasn’t pretty.
I’ve got three things to say, and then I’ll let you go.
It doesn’t have to be justified.
You don’t have to be fast. I am not athletically gifted. You don’t have to run farther than everyone else. Every runner was prepared to run 100 miles. ALL that it takes is a willingness to do something hard.
I have the best damn parents in the world.
Peace and blessings,
For the Curious:
- Wonderbread and honey — (3 slices)
- avocado and bread — 3
- Pickles — 2
- Blueberry coffee cake
- GU Salted Caramel — 6
- potatoes — 1
- Peanut butter cookies — 7
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich — 2
- Oranges — 2
- Bananas — 2
- Chocolate pudding — 2
- Lara Bar – 7
- Clif Bar — 1
- Cornbread and Honey — 2
- Poptart (cherry, strawberry, blueberry) — 3
- Snickers Bar (at the halfway point, for a reward) — 1
- Muffin — 1
- coconut water
- cold brew coffee
- Heed Cafe Latte
- Naked smoothie
- Scratch Labs emergency rehydration mix
- salt pills — 8