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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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