On what feeds the spirit: on running the C&O 100…
The race info claimed the distance to be 101.7, but on race day, Garmins were recording longer distances, and at the finish, the RD said the distance was close to 105.
One thing is for certain: in the end, at least for me, the actual distance didn’t really matter. It is as they say, all about the journey.
By the end of 2012, I had learned to apply one of life’s most important lessons: that in any endeavor, friends–in this case especially of the ultra running variety–are essential. Somehow, they found me. And so it came to be that I started running less often by myself, and more often with these good friends–some of them seasoned toughies. They are jewels–crazy diamonds. They are family. Like good friends do, they inspire by example, and they encourage. They, um, convinced me that I should try for this distance. Always keen on a new adventure, it seemed a realistic bet. A starter “100.” Nice’n flat. Virtually no technical trail. Close to home on a surface my feet already knew. 3 months to train. I had only to sign up, run long, plan, and work up the nerve.
Our start/finish line was a conveniently positioned rotted log on the edge of a field near a pavilion on a hillside in a camp called Manadokin, several feet above the Potomac river, just north of Harper’s Ferry, WV.
From here, we bounded down over the hill, switchbacking through the woods on a newly laid path to the river. The last portion of this was a gully so vertical it required the aid of a rope to get back up, but over-all the whole decent to the river was short, and took about 10 minutes to traverse. (Going back up was a different story, and we did that at the half way point as well as the finish.) From there, it was tow path. Tow path. Tow path. Tow path ad infinitum, it seemed at times. But we knew what to expect in that regard.
The rain held off, and the weather was good, around 40F at the start and climbing to around 70 Saturday afternoon, then dropping back down into the 40s again at night.
It is a newly organized race, and knowing that that meant a crap shoot when it comes to aid, I packed all but the kitchen sink in my drop bags, and carried half a gallon of water, 1300 calories, electrolytes and first aid on my back at all times. This proved a wise move. Though the stations proved well-stocked, and the volunteers stellar in their enthusiasm and helpfulness, there were some long stretches between aid stations, including one particularly long stretch where an only partially manned station ran out of water when the sun was at apogee and the temps were at there highest. This proved problematic for some runners, but was a short-lived problem, and many volunteers quickly rushed to man the station, and by the second quarter of the race, had found it a better location, and restocked it well.
I knew but one other person racing, my friend Tom, and he was too speedy for me to run with, so I had figured I was in for running most of the race alone. Typically I race alone, but for this distance, I thought some company might be a benefit, and hoped to maybe find a pacer later on or at least make some friends along the way.
At first I ran with a group in tight formation. We joked and talked about the course, shared names and tidbits of our lives and race experiences. Many of the names escape me now, but there was a Jim and a Paul and John, and a couple of Marys later on.
Then we fractioned, falling into smaller groups organized by pace, and I ran mostly with John, who turned out to be a neighbor–living but 3 miles away from me and right along one of my regular running routes. He and his wife, like my husband and me, are musicians and we had a lot to talk about. We quickly made friends and wound up running together for around 60 miles.
At the half way, I climbed the hill to the camp where we started, with plans to change clothes, eat, and call my husband. I was making good time, and arrived earlier than I expected. As I climbed the final portion of the hill, I saw Tammy, an amazing runner I knew from the Reston Runners club, and from the JFK. She was there to pace a friend, and to log in some miles in her training for Badwater.
And then another surprise, my dear, dear husband showed up with hugs and kisses and a jeep full of good food. He arrived almost exactly when I did, his timing perfect as usual. He helped me change clothes, and fed me well. I would have never thought I could be lured out of a race, but I was so overjoyed to see him, I wanted to stay. He kindly refused to take me with him, and sent me back out to finish.
From the half, John and I continued to run together for a while, but as night was coming on, he was having stomach issues, and not feeling so hot. And being a night runner, I was just getting a second wind.
Around that time, mile 60+ something, at an aid station, Tammy showed up, offering pacing services to anybody as her friend had had to drop out, so from there, I ran with Tammy. An experienced pacer and seasoned ultra runner, she was extremely accommodating, and soon had me in stitches with crazy tales of the trail. The last 40-some miles are a bit of a blur. I ran strong at first, but my walk breaks grew longer and longer. The temperature dropped rapidly after midnight, and my good pacer made certain I donned more layers, changed my shoes and ate enough calories. My stomach grew squeamish, and I stuck mostly to gels and water, occasionally choking down some fresh fruit or a quarter pbj.
The trail was dark despite the moon, and would have been desolate for long stretches had Tammy not been there. At one point, we saw the headless body of a rabbit, freshly killed, on the trail, and pondered what had eaten it. Then we made jokes and stories about it for miles.
She kept with some silly bathroom stories to keep me focused, light-hearted and smiling. She played a trick on an old running friend at an aid station to conjure laughs from the volunteers.
At mile 90ish, I called my husband with an eta. It was a rough time. There were runners at the aid station who didn’t look like they would carry on. It was cold, and I was feeling it now. One of my gloves had gone missing from my drop bag, and my other pair were over 10 miles back. Tammy gave me hers.
We pressed on, and she told me about many of the things she had learned from the 13 100-milers she had under her belt, about what it takes to be a good pacer or a good aid station volunteer, about training for Badwater and running Western States, about being stocked by a cougar on a training run, and about her mountaineering husband falling off a mountain. The miles ticked off. The night grew colder. Dawn came. I watched it grow lighter until I could take off my head lamp. I hallucinated, seeing furniture and statues in the forest. Once a log became a bronze ram, beautiful and shining. My mind drifted.
“…Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?”
— “Ode to a Nightingale”
I laughed at myself, and ate another gel.
When we rounded the bend into Harper’s Ferry, you could see the road, and just then my husband drove by. He saw us, and waved, pulled off up ahead, and ran down the trail. I still had miles to go, but it was so good to see him. We stopped for a picture, and he left to drive a few minutes to the finish, while Tammy and I would still be running–mostly walking by then as my left foot had blistered up pretty badly–to the finish.
Tammy planned to take me as far as the hill, but she refused to climb it. She’d run Western States, but refused this hill? I laughed. We made jokes about the 100-miler plus tough mudder hill challenge at the end. She would instead, run back to the last aid station to pace another runner in to the end. It made for a good 50 miles worth of pacing duties. I was so grateful for her help, I didn’t know how to properly thank her. She said she usually has people do her laundry. In a final gut-busting laugh, I raced up the hill to be greeted by the RD, buckle in hand, smiling finishers and volunteers, my friend Tom’s family, and my beaming husband.
After enlightenment, the laundry.
According to the race recap, 101 had registered to run and 90 toed the line at the start. 49 made it to the finish line. It took me 25 hours and 24 minutes. (I had estimated it would take me somewhere between 23 and 26 hours, but I was aiming for 101.7 miles.) I came in 18th over-all, and 6th for the women. My friend Tom took 4th place.