The Wild Sebastian is a unique race in that there are no DNFs (“Did Not Finish”); runners are given credit for each completed 25 mile loop. Of course this only makes the race harder, since the tempation to stop only has the potential to becomes greater. This is really just a “passive-aggressive” DNF because while a runner may not have an official DNF, they will carry with them a deeper source of personal defeat and regret. I had set out to do 100 miles that weekend and the only thing that would prevent me from completing that goal would be injury or death. I flirted with both of them that night.
100 miles seems far, but it is merely a balance between planning and risk. You have to plan, prepare and break it down and then…you just have to do it. I was as prepared as I could be for that distance. I had trained and tapered. My race-day nutrition plan was modeled on successful plans I had used at the 50 mile distance. I had two drop bags, strategically placed, containing essentials such as first aid, extra clothes, and headlamps for night running. “The hay was in the barn.” I like racing for two days because even with all this preparation, you never know whether you’ll finish. The body can only carry you for the first three hours or so. After that — for the next 24 hours or more — it is your mind that carries you. The only thought that you can have on the day is, “let’s see what happens.”
We arrived at the starting line well before dawn. During the drive, I had downed some UCAN and amino acid tablets. The air was cool, and perfect for running. I was a bit anxious, but it was the good kind of anxious, the kind you get upon arriving in a country for the first time. With all of your safety nets far behind and the complete unknown in front of you, with no possibility of retreat or sanctuary. This feeling is both unsettling and euphoric at the same time. After everyone had piled their gear into designated aid station boxes, to be shuttled to the corresponding point on the course, the race director huddled the small group of participants near the main tent. He pointed to the map and noted course changes from what had been on the website. Darn! This meant my bracelet was null and void. We had some time and I volunteered for a couple of experiments. In one, they were measuring pain, it was “The Pain Study.” They took my cell phone number and I was told they would call me at intervals during the race to ask me questions. In another, a doctor and his students were measuring pre and post race EKG readings and foot sizes. One student took my blood pressure lying down and then standing up. Then he took my standing up measurement again, and yet a third time. His eyes widened and he looked at me and said, “Your blood pressure standing up is the same as your blood pressure lying down!” He pulled the doctor over and said the same thing. I don’t know if I should be alarmed or not. I do have a standing workstation at work. Hmmmm….curious.
For spectators, the start of a 100-mile race is anticlimactic. Runners slowly jog or walk off the start line to force themselves not to start out too fast. It has been said that running a race of this distance is like spreading peanut butter over bread; the peanut butter is you and the bread is the race. Go out too fast and you won’t have enough peanut butter when your blade reaches the other edge; you’ll “blow up.” This usually results in a DNF. This is also a puzzle that’s hard to solve without having done it. This distance was new to me. I had only done 50 milers prior to this. How to budget for this distance?
The first loop was all about discovering the course and what I discovered was that the sand was going to be my largest adversary. Every foot-plant lead to a twist of the ankle in any given direction. Every drive forward would slow as your foot would sink further down rather than kick up behind you. Every subsequent knee lift scooped sand into your shoe. At first, all this was a small annoyance. It would have to end and at some point give way to something else to run on. But it never ended. At points there would be grass, but because it grew out of the sand, there was no escaping the twisting. Fighting the terrain was pointless. I assumed I would be better off walking the particularly bad stretches, but I was too stubborn in the first loop.
Others had problems of their own. At about mile 16 or so, I heard someone shouting and yelling in anger and frustration. He was not far in front of me, hunched over and cradling a foot. I figured he’d twisted his ankle and I was prepared to help him until we could get aid. Then, I saw he was barefoot. “What’s the problem…are you OK,” I asked. “*&^% stickers are everywhere!” I scanned the trail and the harder I focused, the more stickers and brambles I saw. They strewn all across the sandy path for at least 15 yards. I scanned and moved forward and told him, “Looks like you are out of luck, they are everywhere.” Someone came by and told him to go around in another direction as it was the same distance. That didn’t seem proper. He could have at least brought sandals or a pair of Vibrams for just such an event. But that was his race, and I was running my own.
While the sun climbed to its zenith, the second loop began strong. I was in good spirits, but it wasn’t long before the heat and humidity kicked in. I knew this was hurting me because my heart rate was faster than it should be at that pace and I could not slow it down. The doctor from the EKG study, who’s company I enjoyed for about 10 miles of that loop, had said the heat index was in the nineties. Unfortunately, I had already lost my heat acclimatization due to a month of St. Louis winter. I spent too much effort in the first 25 miles the when the heat and the frustration of running in place began to impact me. Consequently, I was unable to keep down my food. Though the sun did set during this loop, the humidity lingered and by the time it was pitch, I was running on empty. At about mile 45, my stomach was cramping so badly, that I could not stand, let alone move forward. My phone vibrated, the voice on the other end said, “Hi, this is the Pain Center.” I chuckled, as it sounded like a sales call. “No thanks, we have enough pain already, thank you,” I said. I think they thought I was rescinding my participation in the study and I never got another call. That’s probably for the best. I rushed off the trail to tend to business, felt much better and started running again. I got through the first 50 miles and sat to take in some real food.
It was too late and my body could not catch up. By the third loop, I found myself wandering like the undead until around 1:00 AM, when the palm fronds shifted violently as something thundered through the bushes just feet in front of me. “It must be a herd of wild boars,” I thought. I’d encountered them several times as a kid camping in Florida. What happened next forced me to rethink that hypothesis. A long, rumbling…gurgling sort of growl made my heart stop and the subsequent adrenaline surge radiated into my scalp. “Oh, man. Oh man, this is not good,” I thought as I recalled how just weeks before the race, I asked the preserve if they had panthers. The answer was, “Yes, we have seen a few here.” I asked if I needed to prepare anything that might keep them away, and they just said, “I imagine you’ll want to travel light.” Since running from a panther is fatal, I knew I had to confront it. I put my hands up high to make myself appear taller and started making growls of my own which echoed out into the night. The palm fronds crashed and shook and then there was a powerful hydrolic-sounding hiss in response. I stood my ground and prepared for it to reveal itself. Thankfully, the creature – whatever it was – bulldozed off in the other direction. Needless to say, this incident shook me for a while and caused me to continually stop and turn around, scanning the trail every few minutes for the next hour. Some other runners out there have a story of their own of hearing desperate, humanoid-sounding barks and growls.
It was still humid, I started getting chills and was still unable to eat. Not having seen another runner for hours, I willed myself to make forward progress. There were still 10 miles left in this current loop and my feeble-minded math told me there was little chance I’d have enough time for the next – and last – loop. I finally came to an aid station, and without much reflection on the matter, I decided that I should end my race. The shadow of a lonely, dreadlocked volunteer, rose from his tent. “Hey, you need anything, brother?” he whispered. The rest of his family were asleep behind him. “I’m out,” I said. He motioned me to a cot and started a propane stove. He said he would cook something for me.
As I took off my pack and lay on the cot, my pain started turning into shame. I watched him carefully peel an egg and wrap it in a paper towel. The gratitude with which I took it from him must have been reflected in how reverently I handled it as well. I drifted in and out while he spoke. I felt rude and tried to reciprocate, but I must have passed out, because when I finally felt lucid, hours had passed. Along with this clarity came the realization that I had 10 more miles to go in this loop, and I may not have enough time for a final loop! What the heck was I doing lying there? My blood surged and I was surprised to find myself again standing on the trail. “Are you doing it?” the volunteer asked, offering his fist in support. “Yeah. I’m going to try to get this done.” We bumped fists and I felt strong again. I turned, cursed the evil sugar sand, took a breath….and ran.
Shifting and twisting through the sand, I constantly referred to my watch…could I make it? If I ran all-out for this 10 miles, I’d probably only have 6 hours to do the fourth loop! That would probably not be enough under the circumstances. I decided to turn inward, to not to look at my watch, to accept the pain, and to simply run — to run beyond what my body wanted to give.
The sun was starting to come up and it was getting even hotter than the previous day. Though I felt as strong as I did on the first loop, I knew my pace was much slower and my heart rate was dangerously high. The humidity and the sand dragged on my body. 10 miles later, near the end of the third loop, I checked my watch and realized that it was pointless to go back out. I would not make the cut off for a final loop. I had done 75 miles and my race was over. I arrived at the start/finish to cheers and claps of encouragement. Focusing my gaze on the race director, I held my hand up and stated, “I’m done.” I peeled off my hat, slunk away to a picnic table and removed my sand-laden shoes. When the director rushed over to award me my medal, I accepted it without looking at his face or lifting my head. I had given it my best, but I had fallen short that day.
Abraham Maslow said if “I were dropped out of a plane into the ocean and told the nearest land was 1,000 miles away, I’d still swim. And I’d despise the one who gave up.” I am still trying to decide if I gave up, or if I swam and drowned. Either way, I do believe failure is a good thing. It is a sign to us that we are reaching beyond our limits. It is only the struggle that matters.
I will be returning to Florida in January. The sand and I have some unfinished business.
(Pt.3 “Post-Race Analysis” to follow.)