One Hundred Miles...Ghost Trail Ultra, NH
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
One Hundred Miles
I can’t say I awoke, not truly, because that would imply having been asleep before that. Certainly, not for a lack of trying but between the heavy winds pushing around my makeshift tent infrastructure loosely fixed in the bed of my truck and the anxious pre-race jitters I can’t say I slept too restfully. I sluggishly pulled myself out of my cozy warm sleeping bag the way that one lugs themselves out of their burrito blanket wrap on an early chilly Monday morning. Ahead of me lied one of my greatest challenges yet, my conscious – willing- decision to embark on my first 100-mile attempt. 20OCT18 I fully intend on suffering through 100 miles of pounding on my feet through some course of the next 30 hours. The catch? I run maybe once or twice a week on my own accord and have only just signed up a week before. I live and endure off the principle and training philosophy that with intense and diverse enough training setting stage for a sound fundamental overall fitness- one can, with strong mental tenacity, accomplish anything. It’s a strange decision, to fully and whole heartedly know that you will endure some extreme force of suffering – and yet, simultaneously, enjoy every aspect of it. Grit is an interesting thing, some might define as a quality of character employed by two sub qualities: willingness and optimism. The optimism to know that all human feelings and experience is impermeable and is finite- to include all good or bad, every beginning is some other beginnings end. The Willingness to endure said suffering – to know that it is inevitable but so is the joy and accomplishment of intrinsic fortitude and internal success. Ultimately, isn’t all true-genuine success only self-defined? – and for me I seem to define success as being able to half hazardly sign up for events that would hospitalize even some of the most versed, dedicated athletes. As such, I don’t have many friends that share this philosophy and find myself driving to, racing, and suffering the drive back on my own often in a very rapid weekend warrior timeline. This race was no exception and after a six-hour post-work road trip I parked the Dodge in the first available space I saw at the race packet park. I’ am rocking some tights overlapped with some crazy design kickboxing shorts, an Invictus Cross Fit T-shirt, some shin compression socks, and a North face beanie -pulling a Patagonia middle-weight puff jacket on over my wind chilled skin; it’s a brisk 37-degree morning. I drop the tailgate and begin dawning my gear for the next 30 hours- extra socks, shoes, my race vest, GU’s, cola, and an assortment of snacks. I light up the MSR jet-boil and begin my morning Oatmeal and coffee, pinning my bib to my ninja shorts- very fitting since I was planning on kicking some butt, even if it was only my own. “You’re a pro- look at you” a friendly voice remarks on my tailgate-top cooking set up. I laugh, I do have quite a bit of truck camping experience and am proud at how far I have come from fearing lighting the fuel to my now almost nonchalant propane to match work. We continue to exchange some words about todays intended aspirations, training, and overall expectations. It’s his second time on the course and is aiming to get his first 75-miler. His transparent stuffed gear boxes messily arrayed out behind his Subaru; a common fung-suey of an ultra-runner- a strangely organized disarray. The countdown for the start is radiated by the corner length line in front of the porta johns; racers pacing their warmup traditions, guzzling their pre-race concoctions, and taking their Facebook -Instagram selfies.
The crowd begins its shift to the starting line; the array of support tents lining the only pavement our feet will touch for the next 24 hours. A brief speech welcomes and thanks everyone for their attendance and support; the race gun fires and unlike your typical 5k it’s a snail’s pace on our concrete carpet forward.
A mere half a mile into the course my soul is as warmed by the tree line swallowing all the racers whole- as is my body by my jacket. I almost, embarrassingly, pull to the side of the dirt track the way I’d pull my car over with the hazards on an interstate; awkwardly and hesitantly just trying to stay out of the way. I peel the layers off and trudge back on my course. The thing about these kind of races – the allure and captivation of them comes from many intrinsic motivations and accomplishments but so to am I perplexed by the overwhelming friendliness of the people doing the race. Who’d think that willing bodies enduring an excruciating amount of pain on their bodies would take the energy to talk, share, and help others- when we can barely salvage a smile from a stranger in passing on most days. The course is divided into three parts; it’s important when getting into these sorts of strange adventure challenges you find milestones, as a fellow triathlete once told me on a particularly difficult swim course, “ just swim buoy to buoy put your head back in the water, drive on, and look at the next one…” . The first aid station just a short 3 miles in was a the half way point on the course for the out and back ; overall it was a magical and well-articulated 15 mile loop; 7.5 out, with the 3 mile middle man, and back with an exquisite aid station at each end- the race was simple: do as many laps as you could in a 24 hour span. My goal was simple too; see what I could do- how far could I push my body.
The first five miles always have the highest hurdles as if my body just isn’t ready and is giving my frontal cortex every rational reason to halt this delirious idea. My knees and ankles ache and I feel so tight despite the dynamic warm up and rolling dedicated to my pre-race ritual. Maybe today just isn’t a good day? A 10-mile run is more than sufficient lets just go ahead and call it. I push to the next aid station – I’ll quit there, that’s totally acceptable, I have done enough… my ankle hurts…my knee hurts… Then I get there, and the magical euphoria of the aid station rejuvenates me, and my moral is boosted just enough to make it past the aid station to the next one I can quit there… and the cycle continues.
I couldn’t possibly give an accurate assessment of the preceding 70 miles. It happens so fast and so slow all in one packaged memory; like the bits and pieces of snacks eaten at each rest stop the fragments of time saved in my minds photobank flash precarious moments that occurred between start and finish. The pounding in the pads of my feet- the swelling in the nail beds of my toes from the blisters; the compounding physical ailments encapsulated with triumphant moments of cyclical fists of food shoved back into my mouth. Around 50 miles I reached the halfway point in the dark of night; the tree line and grappling roots in the gravel only seen by waves of light projected a mere 20M into the abyss by my Petzl. I took a seat around the warm fire at the aid station content in ending my journey there; a successful 50-mile race on a random Saturday in the ghostly trails of New Hampshire. My breath cutting into the cold air, I sat on a log cut chair, and sipped on a pipping cup of vegetable broth; the only thing I could any longer stomach and agonizingly visualized the remaining 3.2 miles to my “warm” truck. Among the towering trees and pitch black your mind travels. It takes you on a journey far from where you are, in space and time. I reflected on life choices; the this then that’s; the if, ands, or buts. Who am I? What am I doing here? No, like what am I doing here? How old was I for that laser quest bday party? That was the best birthday ever. What are these people doing here? What’s their life like. It’s scary out here; I hope these hills don’t have eyes…what am I supposed to do if I come across a ravenous animal on this trail…..
Like a beam of light igniting a funnel of water beneath its surface I honed in on the dots in the distance. I circled the aid station and limped to my vehicle set on unveiling the white flag; it was midnight after all. I cranked the heat up and wolfed the box of soft sugar cookies- the amazing frosted Walmart 200 calorie a piece cookie: no shame in the running game. My feet ached in a way I couldn’t describe; I popped each of the blisters under my 1-3 metatarsals nails and the ball of my foot for each. Changed my cloths and crawled my way into my sleeping bag in the bed of the truck with no alarm or intent on pulling myself out anytime soon.
I opened my eyes to permafrost coating the exterior of my sleeping bag and droplets frozen to the orange Marmot tent shell. My watch had died from using it in GPS mode, but I felt amazingly refreshed. Shaking from the chill in the air- I pulled on some fresh socks, put on my running shoes and climbed out over the tailgate. To my surprise it had only been 3 hours since I shut my eyes, but I felt great; great being a very relative term considering. I decided to challenge that feeling; l holstered on my racing vest and took steps back into the void; it was 3:05 am.
The suns rays began to flood through the vegetation and warm the trail. I was finishing my first loop of the day putting my feet at 65 miles; a personal record. Though I often feel most energized by the rising of the sun the toll of trudging my feet step by step was finally out pacing my spirit. My feet didn’t have the appropriate ruggedization in them for another 2 loops, but I was set on reaching the midpoint one more time, and so I did. In the most sluggish, unimpressive two step- pause-walking kind of way I made it to the halfway point, looked ahead into the bending trail beckoning for me to follow its call just one more buoy and crushingly turned around. I have a big belief that we must know ourselves and the difference between pushing ourselves to a point of growth and the pushing to injury and self-destruction. It’s a hard line to differentiation between especially when ambition and pride relish in the mix, but it’s imperative to define and understand for ourselves in everything: from races to relationships we have to know that boundary and when, where, and how to push it, if at all.
At the end of it all, my feet looked like dysfunctional disformed pieces of meat- blisters compromising every toenail and most of the anterior portion of both my feet. Relatively speaking my legs felt strong – a testament to the rowing and squatting regiment. I did not complete 100 miles; it was by definition a failure, but that’s the best part. My failure was 73%- by most academic standards a passing rate, but my recollection of the event a true achievement of grit in a new austere challenge that fundamentally and radically tested both my physical and mental persistence. Victor Frankel said, “ between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”. I grew – literally new toenails… and a new perspective on my own ability to push my limits and really, isn’t that the only way to truly grow and ultimately find true, meaningful success? One painful, radical step at a time into the void; consuming us whole without loosing ourselves in it.