“Perhaps the real benefit of endurance sport isn’t physical but spiritual. That enduring the ceremony & imbibing the potion of hormones our body releases puts us into a state so receptive to self exploration that it would be damn near sacrilegious to ignore it.”
Let’s get 2 things established right off the bat: one, this buckle belongs to at least 6 people. I may be the owner but if I could cut it in 6 pieces, that would be more appropriate. I could never have pulled this off by myself. Two: the Lake Martin 100 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 55% finisher rate. Why? The course is a deceiving monster. I mean that in the most loving way possible so don’t let that deter you. I have zero regrets about doing this.
Last August I decided I was ready to take the plunge into the deep waters of the 100 mile distance. I made sure the time was right and that I was doing it for the right reasons. You can’t do it simply because all your buddies are doing it. I thoughtfully shopped around and weighed options. My criteria included a course with loops, a race that would allow me to train in cold weather (fellow summer-haters holler!) something within a reasonable driving distance, not an inaugural run, and a race allowing a somewhat generous cut-off time. For your first time doing something so big, you don’t want to set yourself up for failure.
The Lake Martin 100 fit my needs. The fact that it is a David Tosch race sealed the deal for me. David, his wife Marye Jo and the BUTS crew (Birmingham Ultra Trail Society) are always trustworthy. In fact, they kind of feel like a trail Mom & Dad. Having run several of their races before, I knew I’d be in good hands. I voraciously consumed all of the LM 100 race reports that Google would give me and it was decided. It took 3 days of logging in to Ultrasignup, putting it in my cart, drinking a few glasses of wine then walking away from the computer out of intense fear. I finally caved at the urging of my husband. He said what are you afraid of? Just do it. I spent months preparing him for the things he would witness if he wanted to crew and he didn’t hesitate to join in on the fun. Oh boy… dude is about to get straight up thrown into the pool without even getting to dip a toe in the water first.
The course consists of a 25 mile loop on the Russell Forrest Trail System (ever had a Russell Athletic sweatshirt? Yep, it’s that Russell) and you run the loop 4 times. Just 25 miles? No problem! You trick yourself into starting another loop before you come to your senses. Then you do it again. And then one more time. Voila! Just like that, you’re done. Easy, right? There are only two aid stations, the Cabins and Heaven Hill, but with the course design runners hit each AS twice within the 25 mile loop. Essentially that’s 4 sections per loop (7-6-5-7 would later become my survival mantra) and this design makes it easy on your crew. As is typical in most 100s, your pacer can join you at mile 50. I started training last October and began assembling a crew. It astounded me how many friends offered to put their lives on hold for a weekend, drive 3 hours and lose a bunch of sleep just to assist an insane person run circles around the woods for hours. And hours. After rotating crew members a few times (life happens, plans change) the details fell in place. Carrie would join me for some fun night running from 50-75 then Megan would tolerate me from 75-100. Carrie’s husband, Jay, and my husband Donnie would complete the team as support crew.
RD David arranged a course preview run 4 weeks out. I wavered on whether or not to wake up at 3am and make the trip (what if I hated the course!!? Did I want race day to be a surprise!?) but luckily my friend Lisa talked some sense into me and we went. (The words “I’ll drive” are a surefire way to get me to agree to go anywhere.) Smart decision. In fact, it would have been a critical error not to do the preview, as I know retrospectively. We met some of the other runners and made a new friend named Suman, aka MRuns. If anyone knows the course, it’s this man. He’s run every LM to date and was kind enough to provide course-specific advice which would prove to be vital to my success.
Six months of training flew by and before I knew it, race weekend arrived. We packed every square inch of my trunk with food and food and food and other necessities. Cruising down I-65 toward Alexander City, I had myself convinced I had an intolerable toothache and I’d wake up on race morning needing emergency dental surgery and it would all be shot to hell. My mind was kicking and screaming with ridiculous scenarios of every irrational thing that could possibly go wrong. I’ll stumble over a baby root and plummet down a cliff and drown in Lake Martin. I’ll get a pelvis fracture from overuse. After considering all preposterous situations XYZ, it was time to get a grip and focus on all the things I’d done right. Most importantly, it’s time to let go and trust in my training. This is the day the trail gives back to me what I have put in. When we arrived at the pre-race briefing, I held my race bib in my hands and signed the waiver. And shit got real. Real fast. I was a number now…. runner 310.
After a surprisingly decent night of sleep, I woke at 4am before my alarm. As I prepared for battle, I pretended like it was just another 50k. It worked! I did so much stressing the week leading up to the race that I had no craps left to give. I was eerily calm. Donnie, Megan and I hopped in the car to make the 15 minute drive to the race site. Carrie and Jay would arrive later that afternoon.
We arrived at the Cabins, also the start/finish, to locate Lisa and her family/crew among the crowd. After doing the OMG OMG OMG girl I love you squeeling-hugging stuff, we picked our spot. We realized we were facing the wrong direction and were WAY too close to the starting line so we began marching to the back of the pack to get behind the 50 mile runners. As we turned our backs, the gun went off. After an audible oh shizzz, I felt instant relief. I waved goodbye to Megan and Donnie, feeling like a toddler being dropped off at school for the first time.
I had two goals going in. First, to prevent all the bad stuff from happening as long as possible. It’s exhausting work exploring the depths of our darkest emotions and I knew there would be points so low I’d want to quit, or so I’d been warned. Second goal, HAVE FUN. Remember why I’m doing this. I chose this and it’s supposed to be fun! I felt the fun right away. People speak of a runner’s high and I was as high as Rudolph’s tail on Christmas Eve with endorphins. Nothing could stop me. I was having a spiritual experience and soaking it all in. I told Lisa during the long climb up to Heaven Hill that I had a really good feeling about all of this and she agreed. We ran the first 7 miles together and met some interesting people along the way. We unintentionally separated after pausing at the first aid station with Lisa headed into the woods first. It’s an unspoken creed among friends that you run your own race so I thought nothing of it, went about my business and hoped to see her later up the trail. I wouldn’t see her again until 6pm the next day.
All of the pictures of me smiling throughout Saturday, during the daylight hours? That’s all real. As the forecast predicted, we had a light, cooling rain throughout the morning but I managed to keep my feet dry through that and all the creek crossings. I told my crew to skip the first aid station and go directly to the second one at mile 13. I gave them an estimated time of arrival and assured them if I got there before 10:15, I wouldn’t be finishing the race. Guess what I did? I missed my crew. They were there when I told them to be but I’d already passed through. Not a problem since I had plenty of food and felt great but it was definitely an indication that I needed to take it down a notch if I planned on making it to mile 100. With 3,000 of elevation per loop, I was starting to see people unfamiliar with the course running hard and looking rough by mile 25. They attacked the course aggressively and now they were paying for it. 12,000 cumulative feet is flat by some standards but it sure is a lot when you can’t pick up your own feet… I would know later. I walked the uphills early and often, I was eating before I got hungry and doing a great job of staying on top of my nutrition. I also managed to stay on top of Cloud 9 and cruise through the first 25 miles in 6.5 hours.
1:15 pm- Carrie, Jay and their tambourine had arrived! I was getting sandwiches and hugs and prayers. The well-wishers were blowing up Facebook. The crew kept Mom updated at each aid station as promised. I counted my many blessings. My stomach was cooperating, tolerating anything I put in it. As the afternoon began to reveal a beautiful sunset, I realized I’d have to run the last 7 miles of this second loop in the dark. Alone. I didn’t previously anticipate any solo running in the dark. Oh, and did I mention this is the hellishly deceptive 7 mile section that I would grow to dread more and more each loop? I became apprehensive then I though, nope, I accept the challenge! I brought my big girl shorts and I was wearin’ em. Before sunset, I took a selfie of me waving bye, texted it to Mom and assured her that I was happy and doing well. I still felt immense guilt for making her and Dad worry so much. I thought about the text my Dad sent earlier, how he said he was proud of me no matter what. I had to choke back the tears as it was way too early to deal with The Feels.
Miles 25 – 50 took me 7.5 hours to complete. I was pretty happy with a 14 hour first half! I expected to slow down in the second half, but at this point I still thought I was doing a decent job keeping a conservative pace. I felt the blisters growing as my feet would shift around inside my Lone Peaks but it really didn’t seem like a big deal. Blisters….. the one and only thing I hadn’t previously stressed about. My feet were about to change for life.
I got a super special surprise when I rolled into 50… I entered the heated tent to grab some salty Ramen and I found something even better… Emily! Megan knew that she and her husband Jeremy were coming down to surprise me. It was awesomely uplifting to say the least. It was Emily’s birthday and the fact that she chose to spend it with us meant the world to me. She’s the kind of person who would get up from her nap around the campfire at 3am just to pace a total stranger for 6 miles to keep him from dropping out at mile 67ish. I know because that’s exactly what she did later Sunday morning. My friends have big hearts like that.
I planned a wardrobe change for mile 50 and I was ready as the temperature was dropping quickly. I causally mentioned my blisters and before I knew it, they had me in The Chair with an Arby’s turkey sandwich and curly fries to distract me from the pain that was about to happen. With a quickness, my gaiters were up and my socks and shoes were off of my feet. I saw the needle and dental floss come out of the kit. Carrie had my left foot, Emily had my right foot. Donnie rubbed my shoulders, also an attempt at distraction. I looked at Jeremy, laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation and said “I’ll be damned…. I can’t believe it’s ME in The Chair this time!” Carrie cringed…. “I am so sorry, I don’t want to hurt you.” I said “do it. I don’t care what you have to do or how much it hurts” as I gnashed my teeth into that sandwich. Right about now I was wishing I’d spent the extra $15 to get Jon Vonhof’s book “Fixing Your Feet”…. which I have since purchased.
While 3 people wrestled a different pair of Altras on my swollen feet, I watched some of the 50 mile runners cross the finish line. Carrie and I quickly took off into the night to tackle the second half. I knew where I was in the grand scheme of things but I never once allowed my brain to deduct what I’d already completed so that I wouldn’t focus on what I had left to do. I looked at it as another 7-6-5-7 around the lake, except now with company. It was a new race having the luxury of a pacer.
“So tell me about the course.” Huh? My mind went blank as if I’d never run it before. “Uh….. well… first we go up this concrete sidewalk cobblestone thingie then there’s a steep downhill and we take a right and up and down and yea, we’re either going up or down.. 7-6-5-7.” I heard my words slurring. I knew what I was trying to convey, it just didn’t sound right when I’d hear it from my own mouth. Different shoes felt amazing and my feet were adjusting to the “fixing”. Oh but my legs were feeling the hills, the DOWNHILLS. Oh my quads. With a quickness, my legs went from feeling like feathers to feeling like lead pipes filled with concrete. I could still pick up my feet enough to run without tripping but only in small spurts. My super mall-walk still felt comfortable, in fact it felt like I could cover more ground quicker that way. I could still move it like a Black Friday sale at Belk.
The frequency of my nibbling slowed drastically and I had to remind myself to keep consuming. Water consumption was never a problem, in fact I was making pit stops more and more frequently. The amount of time I was wasting leaning up against trees was downright irritating. I was long done with any sweet foods. Tailwind, which I normally love, started tasting horrible hours ago. If it didn’t have salt, I wasn’t interested. I broke down and took Advil. The Ultra purists frown upon that (something about hurting your kidneys and dehydration… ??) but I seriously did not give a flip at this point. My kidneys along with every other body part hated me by now. Everything from my hair follicles to my eyeballs were sore. Every step past mile 50 was a step into uncharted territory as my feet had never carried my beyond that mark before. My body was well aware and reminded me constantly.
Despite frustrations with the physical aspects, I remained in a solid state mentally. The sooner you understand that it’s all in your head, you’re better off. Hours ago I came to terms with the fact that I am madly in love with needless, self-inflicted suffering and I am getting exactly what I came here for. Carrie commented that it had reached 2am yet I was still so amped up I hadn’t yawned once. I may not have been sleepy but my brain started playing tricks on me now. Maybe it got bored and decided to have some fun to pass the time? As we made our way up to Heaven Hill the second time, I saw a shape standing on the side of the trail. Hiding in those short, fat baby pine trees… it was Santa Claus holding a lantern. I knew it wasn’t the real Santa but I had to pause for a minute, doubled over laughing. Silly Santa, you’ve been drinking with the BUTS at Heaven Hill, haven’t you? You’re drunk, go back to the North Pole.
We meandered through loop 3 and the sound of the BUTS partying at Heaven Hill raged on into hour ~18. Honestly, I was jealous that we couldn’t stop and hang out. I heard the sound of Outkast from afar and believe me, I was shaking my booty on the trail. Aaah-ha hush that fuss…. The shots of Dickel were on the table beside the pickles / crackers / Nutella sandwiches and the Dale’s Pale Ale was a flowin’. A swig of whiskey was tempting but I still had lots of work to do. God bless the BUTS and their tables of goodies and their campfire. They are trail angels, comedians, caregivers, guidance counselors and cheerleaders all at once.
For hours, I savored the moonlight and the stars. The lights from the beautiful mansions on Lake Martin reflected off of the water but I knew the sun would be up soon. Again, I dreaded the last 7 miles of this loop and I knew it would definitely take the longest to complete. I grew frustrated with my ever slowing pace. I mistakenly thought we’d be finished with loop 3 before sunrise. I knew what sunrise meant though, I’ve been told by many who have done the 100 mile journey before me that sunrise = instant boost. As I expected, it prompted my circadian rhythm into action and everything felt fresh and new. Except for my legs. They still hated me passionately. I’d at least achieved one goal by now- I saw the sunrise twice on the same run.
We ascended the big red dirt road to the Cabins at mile 75 and Carrie’s pacing duties were complete. I kept the tears at bay up until this point (I suppose I was saving them ALL for the last 25 miles, lucky Megan) but the waterworks started when we reached the top. She looked at me with her big, contagious Carrie smile and said “ok…. good luck!” I started bawling like a baby. At the time I had no idea why. Now I know it was because in that moment, All The Feels hit me like a brick wall at mile 18 of a sucky road marathon. I realized how selfless it is for someone to do what she and Megan (and everyone else) were doing for me. I dragged her in every which direction throughout the woods for the last, I dunno, 7 or 8 hours. She helped dress me, she touched my skanky FEET and drained my blisters for goodness sake. That’s a true friend.
My tears and I hobbled into the tent to look for some protein, or to avoid people seeing me break down, and Marye Jo saw me crying. “Oh honey… are you at 75? Are you going to continue?” I think the sight of my face led her to believe that I was ready to pull the plug. “NO! I’m going back out! That is why I’m crying!” After laughing it off, I declared “there’s no crying in Ultrarunning!!” Megan quickly corrected me. Um… there’s lots of crying in Ultrarunning. I crammed some scrambled eggs in my mouth and washed it down with a Starbucks energy drink that was put in my hand. I knew the next step was to get my head right and get on the trail. ASAP.
With the sun up, I felt more mental clarity than I had in hours. Megan cracked her jokes, motivated me with Facebook messages, played Eye of the Tiger and maybe even sang a little Miss Fat Booty. I’m going back and forth between laughing hysterically and fighting my ugly cry face. I heard my own whimpering and I was annoyed by it. “Why is this so hard?” Yea, I actually said that. Any rational person with plenty of sleep would say, um… maybe because you are running ONE. HUNDRED. MILES? My power walk was powering down like a dead Duracell. Running was a thing of the past. Megan would pick a tree and tell me to run to the tree. I’d give it my best shot but that damn tree was so far away. Every time. Then it got hot…. the devil’s den kind of hot. I still hadn’t experienced real stomach issues but food was downright disgusting. I couldn’t get enough water though. My throat felt like industrial sandpaper from inhaling so many hours of trail dust and swallowing became painful. Somehow we reached late afternoon and on our last trip to Heaven Hill, the AS worker checked his clipboard with the list of runner’s names and said I was one of two left on the course.
Immediately, I felt the need to apologize to my crew for keeping them out there so long. My parents have stressed for hours and the thought of my selfishness made me cry. Again. I had to dig deep and find every last ounce of anything I had left to simplify and put one foot in front of the other. Completely new blisters were giving me fits but when Megan suggested tending to it at the aid station, I declined. With only 17 miles to go, I thought I could tough it out. We didn’t have time to stop and fidget with feet. Bad choice…
We didn’t get more than 2 miles down the trail and an invisible Ginsu knife stabbed my baby toe. Once again, Emily had a meeting with my foot, this time the left one. Never before did I doubt if I’d finish until now, mile 83. I didn’t come this far to let a BLISTER the size of a quarter end it all. I honestly don’t remember what she did but I heard “that toenail is going to have to come off…” there was some squirming and my shoe was back on my foot. When we reached the Cabins at mile 93, the finish line had been torn down and David and Marye Jo were packing up. They’d been awake only God knows how long I don’t blame them for wanting to call it a day. I did too. They allowed us to continue on to complete that last damn 7 miles. Megan told me to get my headlamp “just in case” and the thought of seeing another sunset brought me to tears. Donnie went to fetch my headlamp from the car and I heard someone say that I had to be off of the trails before sunset or I’d be pulled from the course. That lit a fire under my tail and we tore off before anyone could tell Donnie a light wouldn’t be necessary.
My brain raced with runner math. All I remember about the home stretch is that it was the longest 7 miles OF MY LIFE. My knees would buckle more with each downhill. The sun appeared to be sinking lower and lower. It became a race against the clock. What would I tell people if I DNF’ed and got pulled from the course at mile 98? I reassessed the way I ran the first 50 miles and wondered would I still be able to run if I’d done things differently earlier? I’d been on track for a sub 30 and now this??? All coordination was gone. I was stumbling around like a college kid in Panama City on spring break. My mind knew what my feet needed to do but my feet wouldn’t respond. Megan had to hold my hand at every stream crossing to keep me steady. My only concern was moving forward even if it meant crawling.
As we got closer, I told her we’d cross 3 trail/dirt road intersections, ironically we’d pass a sign that said Rock Bottom, and on the third intersection we would see cabins. Cabins = GOOD. Cabins = less than half a mile. With 35 hours of patience behind me, we finally saw cabins. It seemed surreal for the end to actually be here. As we rounded the corner to march up the big red dirt hill, Megan looked at me and said “remember this feeling. Pain is temporary and you’ll see in the end, it’s all worth it. Enjoy what’s about to happen…”
I saw a group of people waiting in the distance, cheering. My vision was blurry but I realized Lisa was there. She ran towards me with her hand out to grab mine and of course, both of us started bawling. Again, the omg omg OMG I love you! happened. I don’t remember specifically what we said to each other, but it’s one of those moments that will be forever etched in my memory. Then the craziest thing happened. All of a sudden, I could run. UPHILL… ???! I hadn’t been able to run for 17 miles but whatever is in that cocktail of brain chemicals, it coursed through my veins and pushed me up that hill.
We reached the Cabin for the last time at 6:09 pm. Earlier in the day, I was embarrassed at the thought of finishing in last place. By now I was owning it. If I was going to be DFL, I was going to be proud of it! I crossed the patch of dirt that had been the inflatable finish line and heard someone say “Donnie has something for you.” He reached in his pocket and my first thought was “is he about to propose?” Then I remembered we got married 2 years ago. What could he possibly have? A cold beer, I hope?!? A shiny gold buckle emerged and you guessed it…. I started crying. Lots of hugging, lots of happy tears and finally, some sitting. I sat for the third time in 1.5 days. I looked around at my crew, at Lisa and her family and I’ve never felt that type of satisfaction before.
I sat on the cabin porch watching everyone gather their things and pack the cars as I thought “what the hell just happened…..??” I felt like I should be helping but I couldn’t move. I thought about my parents and wondered if anyone had called them yet. I thought about a shower and a beer. I thought about a shower-beer. Six months of building up to this moment and it was done. Earlier I said I had zero regrets but actually, I do have one. I didn’t think to get a picture of all of my crew together.
That night at the hotel, I definitely had a fever. My teeth were chattering and my chills were intense. I ached like I’ve never ached before from head to toe. I had to lean on the edge of the bed just to wobble to the bathroom. My ankles felt like they’d snap and crumble under my own weight. Any resemblance of an ankle was hidden under a swollen, puffy mess of tissue. The liner of my slippers felt like they were scraping the skin off of the bottom of my feet when I’d slide them in and out. I was congested and couldn’t breathe out of my nose. I slept fitfully in small increments. I’d wake in the middle of the night and very carefully roll my body over so I could look at the buckle perched on the nightstand beside me. I’d pick it up and smile.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. But you HAVE TO respect the distance or you’ll never make it. Part of respecting the distance is deciding to do it for the right reasons and not just because it’s something people do.
Would I do it again? Let’s just say that out of all the people I know who have 100 mile buckles, many of them are collectors. I once heard someone say that “the repeat offender likely has a predisposition for addiction.”
I believe it.