Runnin’ down a dream

If you’re reading this, I assume you know that I attempted my first hundred mile race in December 2018 at the Daytona 100 where I came up 38 miles short. Although I set a new personal distance record and learned a lot from the mistakes I made, I went home with a heavy heart instead of that coveted finisher buckle. That race reminded me that desire is a fickle mistress and although I wanted that buckle, I didn’t really want it. When the pain, loneliness and mental battle became too much to bear, I had chosen relief and reprieve and that bothered me. I’ve heard it said that quitting is a stink you can’t wash off and the smell that clung to me after Daytona was one that turned my stomach. That DNF haunted me but I was determined to make amends.

I entered 2019 with a resolute spirit set on avenging my shortcoming and trained harder than I ever have before. I ran more miles in that calendar year than ever and set personal bests in distances all the way from 5 to 100K. I finished two of the hardest races in the southeast in the form of the DoubleTop 50K and Blood Rock 50 mile and spent time racing in a variety of unsavory conditions with everything from sleet to hours of rain and even racing through the night to help callous my mind. When I boarded that plane in Atlanta to head to the Across the Years 100 miler, I felt I was in the best shape I had been since high school and was confident that if I could win the mental battle, my body would handle the rest.

On the morning of the race, the sky glowed bright orange against the desert landscape and I felt the dawn of a new day calm the butterflies that I had been battling all week. As I pinned my race bib on, I silently swore to myself that I would not take it off until the deed was done. If I did quit, I wasn’t going to go home to face my friends and family. I would simply slink off south over the border and begin a new life there. Maybe I’d even take up golf…

At 8AM, I began the first of 96 laps around the 1.05 mile track that circles Camelback Ranch on the outskirts of Phoenix. 31 other aspiring runners surrounded me as we began our journey that would test the limits of our physical and mental fortitude. My girlfriend joined the many others who walked the first lap with their respective runners and then left me with 10 small sealed envelopes. I was to open one every 10 miles and the anticipation of reading her encouraging words was something I looked forward to throughout the race.

I soon settled into a steady rhythm and the first 30 miles went by in a blur of casual conversation, laughs and getting to know some of the runners out on the course. Not only was it a 100 mile race but there were relay races, a last man standing event, a 200 miler, a 6 day and even a 10 day race all happening simultaneously on that 1 mile track. People were everywhere – running, singing, laughing and enjoying a beautiful, sunny day under a a dark blue sky. The first 7 hours seemed to flow by. I felt good and my spirits were high as I worked my way through the first 1/3rd of my event. When I stopped to grab some water at the 50K mark, I opened card #3 and was reminded of one of the reasons why I had taken up this grueling and often unpleasant sport in the first place.

“When you start feeling uncomfortable, just remember that your dreams don’t sit inside your comfort zone.”

I stared at the card. I was still in my comfort zone. I felt great. But I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew that at some point it was going to get harder than it ever had before. I tried to brace myself for the storm that I knew was beginning to form off the coast of my sunny day.

Those words on that card helped to solidify my resolve and I pushed on to the halfway point. 50 miles in, I was beginning to feel the physical and mental toll adding up and knew it wouldn’t be long before the demons showed up with their temptations and easy excuses. The sun set, the air began to cool and the thought of moving around that dusty track for another 12+ hours was more than I was willing to entertain. Instead, I tried my best to take each lap one at a time slowly watching the numbers creep north.

At mile 62, I entered uncharted territory having never ran farther than 100K before. I found myself simultaneously excited and terrified. On the one hand, I had matched my previous best in record time and had not thought about quitting even once. On the other, I had nagging fears about what the unknown held in store for me. I knew the pre-dawn hours would be some of the hardest I had ever experienced and I tried to brace myself for the physical and mental breakdown that I would have to overcome if I wanted to earn that beautiful buckle.

As I slipped over 70 miles, the demons began to softly sing their siren song and they recruited my body to join the chorus. I lost the manual dexterity needed to open my water bottle and instead started drinking from the paper cups at the aid station. My feet were beginning to swell and I could feel them pressing against the insides of my shoes. Worst of all, my left hip flexor joined the revolt and over the course of the next 5 miles slowly shortened its range of motion until it was almost completely locked up. This reduced me to an awkward stumble and I moved around the track at what basically amounted to a fast walk. This wasn’t how I wanted it to go but I was still moving. I knew that was the most important thing.

Just. Don’t. Fucking. Stop.

At that point, I decided to pull out the pocket aces I had kept hidden in the hopes that they would help see me through the literal and figurative darkest parts of the race. Music and caffeine. I dug out my headphones and chowed down on chocolate covered coffee beans. The tunes lifted my spirits and the caffeine helped me to stay awake as I approached 24+ hours without sleep. Unfortunately, the reserve weapons did nothing to ameliorate the straightjacket hip flexor and I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to walk the last 25 miles of the race. The wheels were coming off and I could only watch them go. So be it. No way was I going to accept defeat again and return home empty handed only to tell my friends and family that I had quit because the pain and mental exhaustion had become too much to bear.

And so I walked as fast as my limited mobility would allow and tried to talk to anyone on the course who would entertain what I perceived to be as my own incoherent ramblings. I knew I wasn’t making much sense at that point but I figured I was in good company for such a thing and I received no judgment; just smiles and encouragement. Somewhere around mile 85, I stopped to adjust my socks and thought I heard something in a nearby tree. Glancing over, I noticed the tree start to shimmer and then stared in awe as I watched one of the branches slowly transform into a raccoon. The friendly animal waved at me, turned around and promptly morphed back into the limb of the tree. I was cognizant of the fact that what I witnessed was simply the combined effects of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion but it made the experience no less real. I saw what I saw and it rattled me. I knew my body was shutting down and that one by one the systems were going offline. I needed to hurry up and finish while I still could.

Shortly after 7AM, the sun rose and the warmth lifted my sagging spirits but my hip refused to budge. So, I plodded on and willed myself not to think about the hours and miles remaining. I figured I had at least another five hours to go swinging that leg around the course and the thought made me nauseous. I did what I could to ignore it and instead focused on simply putting one foot in front of another.

Approaching the final miles of the race, I knew I was in 6th place thanks to the continually updated screens located at the start/finish line. I found perverse solace in the fact that despite my slow progress there were more people behind than in front of me. I knew that many of those individuals would be on the course long after I had taken a hot shower and gone to bed and that some would simply have to resign themselves to living to fight another battle another day. I felt it an honor to be among them all.

Around mile 90, I pulled my phone out to change the music and noticed a text from my buddy who had been following the live race tracking. Since I was moving at such a glacial pace, I didn’t even have to slow down to read the words-

“10 to go DonJon. Push. Push. Two guys in front of you are fading.”

I cannot begin to remotely explain what happened next. The closest I can come is to simply say that those words flipped a switch in my mind that I didn’t even know was there. “DonJon” was my nickname at CrossFit Grit in St Simons and I flashed back to all those days I spent toiling in that hot, humid box. I thought about the guys from that gym who had stood beside me at the finish line of our first ultramarathon so many years ago. I thought about the dozens of races and thousands of miles between then and now and how they had all led me to this place – this dusty track in the middle of the desert where I was facing the greatest physical challenge I had ever undertaken. At that moment,I found an untapped reservoir deep inside and was amazed at what I discovered within. Not only was there a sub 10 minute mile in that well, I found the strength and courage to pour out everything I had knowing that if I blew up, at least I would know that I left the tank on empty. I passed those fading guys in a blur of bewilderment. Even now, it is hard for me to grasp. It was like watching someone else fly around that track. I ran the 96th lap faster than I had the 95 that preceded it and overtook third place less than two hundred yards from the end.

When I crossed that start/finish line for the last time, I stumbled and collapsed in the dirt beside the track. I felt a wave well up inside of me and even now as I type this, I can feel the emotions that threatened to overtake me at that moment. I managed to keep them at bay until I got behind the aid station tent and it was there that the dam broke. I thought about all the sacrifices, all the early morning runs, all the pain and all the lessons that running has taught me over the years. I thanked God for the strong and capable body He blessed me with and for hiding some of life’s greatest pleasures in some of the most difficult places. I felt an abundance of profound appreciation for the amazing life that had led me to that point and stood there alone soaking it all in. I then got my shit together, grabbed a picture with Jamil Coury and took a nap on an army cot in a hot, musty aid station tent. It was all as glorious as I imagined.

A week later and I am still riding the high from that race. It was so much more than just a race though. It was a spiritual/mystical experience. It was an end and a beginning. It was a life changing moment. The hours I spent at Across the Years showed me things it might have taken me years to see otherwise. “Life in a day” as some say. I have a newfound appreciation of the strength of my will, a sense of gratitude for the physical strength I have been blessed with and a deeper appreciation of all those people in my life who played a part in helping to make this dream come true.

Thanks to everyone who made this happen! You know exactly who you are. Huge hugs to Aravaipa Running and their amazing crew of volunteers for an over the top experience complete with the most delicious race day food I had ever had. Big props to Chad for giving me those ibuprofen at 4AM and thanks to William who regaled me with stories of his ultra running adventures late into the night. If you guys are seeing this, understand that you helped me more than you may ever know. To everyone else, thanks for reading and come run a few miles with your boy sometime. I would love to see you!

Happy trails,

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