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Veterans Memorial 150, Part 3: Bringing Home the Buckle

Concluding my Veterans Memorial 150 race recap: It’s early Sunday morning on the Pere Marquette Trail, finally cooler after a beastly hot Saturday. I’m running well, but another hot day – and trouble – lie ahead…

The Field Thins Out

I arrived at AS 8 (mile 80) around 1:00 a.m. and eased gratefully into a chair. Ruth was there, which meant she’d dropped. “I’m sorry to see you here,” I said. Awkward as that sounded, she understood, admitting to not feeling well from the start. So she’d switched to aid station volunteer.

Kurt arrived and asked how I was. Fine, I told him, how were the other runners doing? “Lots of them have dropped,” he said, which he’d expected. Dean, who I’d met at Baldwin, had been taken to the emergency room with heatstroke but had recovered.

Other runners taking a break. (From the race’s Facebook page.)

Kurt said my nearest competitor, Rebecca, was about 2-3 hours behind me – a bit too close for my comfort. Heading back out, I picked up my pace to take advantage of the cool night and hopefully extend my lead.

A Ghostly Picnic, the Non-Breakfast, and Running Scared

On to Farwell for a crew stop at their park pavilion – a 4 a.m. “picnic” in misty artificial light in a dark, empty town. It was a bit surreal, even spooky. I can only imagine what any passersby would have thought.

An hour later I arrived at the Moose Lodge (AS 10, mile 92) outside Clare. A pancake breakfast would begin at 7 a.m., but nobody showed up early just for me. (Well!). So my crew made me instant oatmeal. Isn’t it wonderful to have people who care?

We checked in with Kurt and heard some startling news. Out of 32 solo runners who started, only eight were still on track for the entire distance. And there’d been some wildlife excitement on the trail overnight! One runner had spotted a black bear and been literally “scared sh**less.” Another had been so spooked by howling coyotes she’d climbed a tree, where race staff found her and talked her down.

Not the same bear, but you get the idea. (Video from Roscommon Fire Department. Click to see video.)

I’d enjoyed an uneventful night, seeing only deer and being cheered on by a chorus of bullfrogs. Nature soon made up for that. As I ran through Clare, lightning lit up the predawn sky. Hard rain soon hit, and I ducked into the van. I tried to appreciate the extra rest, but wanted to get more miles in before it got hot. So I got back on the trail as soon as it let up a bit.

After an hour of intermittent rain, the clouds broke up and the sun was peeking out when I arrived at Loomis (AS 11, mile 102). My running coach Paul and his wife Colleen were there, ready to begin pacing me. And Charlie, my pal from Body Specs, had taken over crew duties from Joyce and Sue, who went to catch a few hours sleep.

Another long, hot day loomed ahead, but only fifty miles to go!

Paul and I hit the trail. Dave and the crew van in the background. Charlie is behind Paul.

Stage 3: Loomis to Bay City

Pacing, Passing, and Pseudo-Napping

“You’re an hour and a half ahead of my time last year,” Kurt told me at Loomis. “I needed two naps during my race. I recommend you take one.”

I thanked him but declined; I was wide awake and had good energy. And I wanted to keep a good lead over Rebecca, who had just left Clare. Paul and I agreed a nap could wait. But as we approached Coleman (AS 12) it was already hot and I noticed reality blurring briefly –instants of fading out and snapping back. I told Paul maybe it was time.

“Lie down and cover your eyes,” he said. “Part of sleep is shutting off the input we get from our eyes. Even if you don’t fall asleep, this will help.” So at Coleman I lay down in soft grass in the shade with a cold towel over my face. It felt glorious. I remained awake but was relaxed and comfortable. Fifteen minutes of that, plus another five minutes a bit further on, was all I needed for the rest of the race.

On this stretch we caught up to Dick West, who was attempting 100 miles and had started at the 50-mile mark. A longtime ultrarunner, Dick is still out there competing at age 76. We exchanged handshakes and encouragement. (I’ll spare you the suspense: he finished!)

I want to be this guy when I grow up.

Paul and Colleen tag-teamed me until Sanford (AS 14), keeping me at a safe pace and entertained with conversation. (What do runners talk about while running? You have one guess.) It was my first time being paced, and I quickly appreciated its value. The miles were hot and miserable, but company made them pass more easily.

How am I doing? I’m fresh as a daisy. Why do you ask?

On the trail with Colleen.

At Sanford we waved goodbye to Paul and Colleen (who’d brought me a milkshake – aren’t they great?), and Sue and Joyce rejoined us. I was surprised to find Charlie ready to pace. I hadn’t expected him to start until Midland (mile 127, ten miles ahead) and even then I was a bit worried, since he’d never raced more than a half marathon.

“Dude, it’s thirty-two miles to the finish,” I said.

“Yeah,” Charlie said. “Let’s go.”

Crisis Afoot

The miles to Midland were among the hardest I’ve ever done. It was mid-afternoon, the temperature well over 90, with fewer crew stops because they had trouble finding places to meet us. But more troubling were my burning feet. All the hours spent on hot blacktop were taking their toll. By the time we neared the end of the trail, every step was extremely painful.

Charlie’s presence was invaluable. He knew I was struggling, but remained easygoing and relaxed, keeping me moving forward without the need for direct encouragement. We swapped Aikido stories (he’d also trained under Kushida-sensei), pondered the weather, anything to take my mind off the long hot slog.

Finally we reached downtown Midland – and my crew couldn’t locate the aid station. I spotted a bench next to a pretty glockenspiel and collapsed onto it while we called Kurt. He said the station was being set up a mile farther down. Oh, God, another mile of agony, I thought. And how the hell was I going to do 23 more after that? For the first time in the race, I wasn’t sure I could continue.

“We need to do something right here, right now,” I said to my crew, rather plaintively. “I can’t finish the race with my feet feeling like this.”

They sprang into action. An icewater foot bath put out some of the fire. I took two Advil. Charlie checked the bottoms of my feet – nothing cracked or bleeding, just some swelling – and applied some moleskin. I slipped thin foam insoles into my shoes for extra cushioning. I found a large blister and treated it. Finally, a fresh pair of socks. All that done, I stood up and took a few steps.

My feet still hurt, but it was a manageable hurt. Charlie and I walked to the aid station while the crew cleaned up. By the time we got there and checked in, I was physically and emotionally back on track. “We’re gonna finish this puppy,” I said to Charlie. (I may have used a slightly stronger phrase.)

Motivation

From Midland the course wound through an industrial park, then onto Midland Road and due east to Bay City. This road was five lanes wide and busy with traffic, even on Sunday. Sometimes there were sidewalks, and sometimes we had to hug the shoulder. I was grateful again for Charlie being there. I’d expected to be exhausted at this point and running in the dark, but even awake with the sun still up I felt much safer with a pacer.

And as the evening slowly cooled, I was able to run again! We began with jogs of a hundred yards or so, and worked up to half miles. My legs felt surprisingly strong, and running was actually less painful than walking. Charlie even had to rein me in at one point. “No sprinting!” he called out as I pulled away at a blazing ten-minute mile pace.

At 8:00 p.m. we reached the Auburn aid station (mile 135) and I checked on runner status. A few had stopped at Loomis, earning a 100-mile belt buckle. Only four were still on track to run the full 150. “Is Rebecca one of them?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” was the reply. “We expect her to arrive around 9-9:30.”

I couldn’t believe it. My lead had shrunk to an hour, and 45 minutes of that was due to my early start. Charlie looked at me. “We’ve got to win this by at least an hour,” he said. “For moral justification, at least.”

Charlie and I on Midland Road, ready to rock to the finish.

We took off running, and kept up an aggressive pace into Bay City. (11-minute miles never felt so fast.) We reached the final aid station, the Cops and Doughnuts store in downtown Bay City, as darkness fell. In hindsight I should have asked about Rebecca, but I was so anxious to finish the race I didn’t even buy a cookie (or three) to carry me through the final six miles.

The last stretch on Henry Street / State Park Rd. also had heavy traffic. Charlie had on a full light vest, so we were very visible. Still I was grateful when the streams of headlights diminished as we approached the park. And although I was pretty sure Rebecca couldn’t catch us, I kept looking behind me, unable to shake the fear of seeing an approaching headlamp.

Kurt had checked regularly on our progress so he could be at the finish when we arrived. And at 11:20 p.m. Sunday night, the finish line was lit up and he and other staff were there to welcome us in. I jogged across the grass, up a sidewalk, and after 40 hours and six minutes, crossed the finish line. I’d led it (nearly) wire to wire – and won it.

Finish! Kurt hands me my 150-mile belt buckle.

Aftermath

Relief, Disbelief, and Unnecessary Grief

Kurt was amazed. Despite the oppressive conditions, I’d finished over two hours faster than his time last year, and five hours ahead of my original schedule. “How did you handle the heat so well?” he asked.

Past experience mainly, I told him. I’ve run enough hot ultras, and learned the hard way from them, to know what I need to stay cool and keep electrolytes in balance. And a terrific crew and pacers. No way I could have done it without them.

We hung around for an hour, and then got ready to head back to our campground in Empire. I asked Kurt when Rebecca was due to arrive, as I’d hoped to cheer her in. “Oh, we expect her around 3:30,” he said – three more hours away. WTF?

The Auburn aid station had either misunderstood or been misinformed. She hadn’t even left Midland until after 9 p.m. We could have walked it in! I was happy to have finished strong, but I could have been spared a lot of anxiety knowing the actual situation.

On the other hand, who was really to blame for that anxiety? Charlie said it best during our trek down Midland Road, when I’d pushed too hard and thought I’d hurt my knee. “You lost your focus,” he said after I’d stretched it out. “You were worried about Rebecca instead of running your best race.” Amen. Lesson learned.

I couldn’t sleep on the drive back because someone kept moving my legs and sticking needles into my feet. When we got back to camp I considered going into Empire for breakfast, but decided to attempt a nap in our camper. I was out instantly. Nearly 48 hours after I woke up Saturday morning, my race was over.

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Lighthouse 100 Recap, Part 2: The Long Night of the Sole

When last we left off, I had resumed my attempt to complete the Lighthouse 100 at mile 65 after coming within minutes of dropping out. A wonderful lady named Laura, crewing for another runner, had helped me recover enough to continue and said she’d see me again in 2.5 miles…

I made it the two and a half miles. It was a slog, but I was in good company. The wind was blowing so hard in our faces that running was a futile waste of energy. Laura was waiting for me. “How do you feel?” she asked.

I wasn’t well, but feeling better than I had. The Gatorade had revived me. And the sun and wind, having wreaked their havoc, had high-fived each other and were getting ready to call it a day.

“I think I can do this,” I told her.

“You can do this,” she replied firmly.

And with that, I was on my way again.

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Aid stations 5 and 6 had been pretty quiet, with runners straggling in one or two at a time. AS7 was busy with staff and crew tending to runners taking an extended rest and dealing with injuries and stomach issues. Ultrarunners are generally stoic when asked how they are doing. I heard a couple respond, “Not good,” which meant they were really suffering.

By contrast, I was starting to feel like myself again. I found Laura and thanked her profusely for her assistance, and said I could go on by myself. Then I called my wife to let her know I’d be mostly walking the last thirty miles. I calculated to my surprise that even at walking pace, I still had a shot at finishing in 24 hours. So she could meet me at the lighthouse around 6 a.m., just like we’d originally planned.

Thanks again, Laura!

It was just starting to get dark as I stepped onto the TART trail to begin the remaining ten miles to downtown Traverse City and the turn north up the peninsula.

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When you gotta go, you gotta go. – Common knowledge

It’s amazing how the mind can focus on a single subject, regardless of how one tries to suppress or divert it. Such was my case as I reached the suburbs of Traverse City. I needed to attend to a certain bodily function. Peeing in the woods is standard for ultrarunners, but number two, not so much.

Some runners don’t mind playing “bear in the woods” but I prefer an actual restroom, and I’d forgotten to bring along toilet paper anyway. The race organizers had not arranged for porta-potties because, we’d been told, there were gas stations and other places with toilets along the route. While true, their frequency did not meet expectations. And two factors complicated the issue; it was the middle of the night, and the trail ran along residential and industrial neighborhoods.

For several miles I carried on, hope rising when I saw lights ahead only to face disappointment when their source was either not open, or inappropriate (for example, the Burger King drive-thru). Civilization was everywhere, but – let’s just say the famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner quote came to mind.

Finally the trail reached a road with a Speedway station a few hundred yards away. My physical and mental relief belied description.

The salvation station!

And my stop provided an unexpected benefit, for as I rejoined the trail I met up with five other runners. For the next fifteen miles we walked and jogged together, providing support and companionship very welcome on a dark trail late in the race.

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When you’re going through hell, keep going. – Winston Churchill

“Do anybody else’s feet hurt as much as mine do?” Joe asked.

Our group had just left AS8 (Mile 80) and we had turned north at last, up the Old Mission Peninsula. The night hadn’t lowered the temperature much, but at least the wind was now at our backs.

Our unanimous answer to Joe’s question was, of course, yes. In a 100-mile race, every runner has sore feet by this point. Anyone who says otherwise is, to put it politely, a lying bastard. This was Joe’s first 100, so he was forgiven for thinking he was a weakling when in fact he was anything but.

There is Absolutely Nothing that fully prepares you for your first 100-miler. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve trained or how tough you think you are. It will push you physically and mentally well beyond whatever your limits were before. Just finishing, even five seconds before the cutoff, is an accomplishment well worth celebrating. And if you fall short? No shame. Lick your wounds, learn from it, and git ‘er done next time.

I didn’t know it when I took this photo, but I think this refers to the same Joe.

And for many runners it’s the first time they’ve run through the night. This can be intimidating and for some, claustrophobic. It’s hard to see very far, nothing looks familiar, and every noise is amplified (was that a raccoon, or a mountain lion?). Distances stretch out; one mile can seem like five. And even on clearly marked routes, an uneasiness sits in the back of the mind. Am I lost? How come I haven’t seen other runners? Where’s that damn aid station?

I usually enjoy night running, even solo, but I was very grateful for the company this time. I think we all were. For we all kept going, despite the pain, the lack of anything interesting to see, and that we still had many miles to go. We bitched and moaned, but we kept putting one foot in front of the other. Misery not only loves company, it needed company at that point. We broke up as the aid station approached, but we’d given each other the support we needed to get through the worst part.

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All good things must come to an end.  – Wait, how does this apply here?

“You’re flirting with the top 10,” Dave the race director told me as I settled into a chair at the mile 91 aid station.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “I melted down back there.” And so had everyone else, apparently. Only two runners had finished under 20 hours, and only a few more were ahead of me. My energy had returned around mile 85 and I’d been able to start running again. I’d passed a few people and was ahead of the group I’d been walking with.

“To hell with the top ten,” I said. “I’ve been looking forward to this chair for eleven miles, and I’m sitting in it a while.” And I did, chatting with the race staff and sipping iced Vernors. Almost heaven at that point.

When I finally stood up and jogged out of the aid station, an amazing thing had happened. The stomach trouble I’d had since early on was gone, my legs felt good, and I was full of energy. To top it off, there was a long downhill stretch ahead. Go time!

I went from a jog into a full steady run and held it. The course continued on downhill and then onto a gently curving road with hardly any intersections or residences. No one was visible either ahead or behind, adding spookiness to the dark, lonely Smokey Hollow Road – which sounded enough like “Sleepy Hollow” to do the trick.

Light finally appeared in the sky, and I emerged onto an open road and one of the final turns. I was almost home! But oops – the turn-by-turn directions I was carrying were wrong, indicating a right turn where going straight was correct. I spent 10-15 frustrating minutes figuring this out, but finally I saw the mile 95 water jug up ahead and just past that, the final turn onto US 27 leading straight to the lighthouse.

I covered the final miles in good time, and with no one around me, could enjoy them with no competitive pressures. I got to the lighthouse and crossed the finish line in 23 hours 53 minutes. And there was Joe! Sore feet and all, he’d finished the race and beaten me by over a half hour.

Even with the wrong turn mixup, I’d achieved my original goal of under 24 hours, and even won the male Masters division! Of course, the real accomplishment was finishing, given how close I’d come to dropping. Being able to come back from such a low point and finish strong tapped into a reserve I hadn’t known was there. What a great takeaway from the experience.

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I’ll wrap up with a brief race review. Based on my story you might not believe this, but I’m going to recommend the Lighthouse 100 to my fellow ultrarunners. As with the first edition of any race it had challenges, but this event has the potential to become a classic.

The course is well marked and has some beautiful sections. The long stretches on US-31 and Elk Lake Road were hot and miserable, and I hope they can find alternative routes. Aid stations were okay, but did not have as much substantial food as other ultras I’ve run, and that plus the ten-mile separations were tough on the uncrewed runners.

I give the race director and his staff full marks for effort and attitude. They were on the course the entire time we were and remained supportive and upbeat. There was also a lot of communication and opportunities to ask questions before the race. They wanted very much to provide a great experience. The weather threw a monkey wrench into the works, but they had no control over that, of course.

Some changes for next year have already been announced. The biggest is the reversal of the course, a great idea that will allow running the Old Mission Peninsula in daylight and to finish in Petoskey, where it’s a quick trip to your hotel or a restaurant instead of a long shuttle ride back. And by popular demand, porta-potties will be at the aid stations.

I think next year’s Lighthouse races will be much improved and definitely worth considering for ultrarunners who enjoy, or want to check out, northern Michigan..

Thanks for reading!