The 2003 USATF 100 Mile Championship: Putting the Mind to Work


Gary Griffin


You’ve seen those lists of inspirational quotes that have been written and spoken over the years that have served to motivate nations, armies, teams, and individuals to reach beyond their perceived limits. When I checked my e-mail this morning, my friend Jeff Bryan had posted some that were intended originally to encourage and inspire those facing some sort of competition or test of the human spirit. I enjoy reading those words of wisdom, for they truly remind us that we do not know our limits until we go to the very edge of them. I remember the poet Robert Browning’s words that were posted in the meteorology wing of the Love Building at FSU during my days there – ones that I have never forgotten and have always loved:

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

As an ultrarunner, I have grown to understand the vitally important role that the mind plays in achieving my running goals. Furthermore, I have come to realize that it is this aspect of the sport that has now so entwined itself into my life that it is virtually inseparable from anything else that I do. The mind is a massively powerful tool and the manner in which we train it to encounter the world about us truly determines who we are.

Running 100 miles has been on my mind for a long time. Since engaging in the sport of ultrarunning back in the early 90s, I have known that inevitably, my date with that distance would arrive. Looking back, I am surprised that it didn’t happen until now. My thoughts of entering the Umstead Trail 100 in April 1999 were scuttled when I had the chance to go to the Comrades Marathon that year. That remained my longest run until I ventured out to the 100K distance in the spring of 2001. The lasting memory of that day was the feeling that I could cover 100 miles and do it well, but it would require taking my training to another level to adequately prepare to run for upwards of 20 hours. Based on my ultrarunning experience, I felt that mentally, I was ready. Physically, I had my doubts.

The fixture of my training program to that point had been fairly constant for years: back-to-back of what I then called “long runs” of 10-15 miles every Saturday – Sunday, with a midweek 10 miler thrown in, and maybe one other shorter run, for a total of 45-50 per week. This was adequate training for ultra events up to 50 miles, but it would never get me through a 100 with any dignity. I’m not sure that I would have stepped up the training if not for the small band of ultrarunners that have now become both my support, and inspiration to reach beyond that grasp that Browning wrote about. I knew for sure that there was something else out there and I had the capability to reach – and not just grasp! My life and running has been enriched by these folks that have inspired me to go beyond the point of comfort: from day one there was Dana, but then along came Jeff and Fred, and then amazingly, Scott. Dana, Jeff, Fred and I would have ended up together by necessity. Scott on the other hand, was a gift. Whereas my local friends hold me to task with the physical preparation, Scott is my constant reminder that no distance is too far, and that goal setting is vital to get to those distances. Observing his mental and physical preparation for his date with the Badwater 135 this summer was a case study in readying oneself for the journey beyond the limits of normal human endurance. The opportunity to witness that first hand and to personally have survived it just more than ever before gave me the confidence that I was ready for 100 miles. “Don’t delay this anymore,” my mind told me. Go do it. Carpe diem!

Sylvania, Ohio is home to Olander Park, which bills itself as the “Yankee Stadium of Ultrarunning.” For the past 10 years the Toledo Road Runners have hosted the USATF 24-Hour Championships, but with the ever-growing number of 100-mile races, the decision was made to this year stage a national road championship for the first time in a very long time. It was a great opportunity for me to not only run my first 100, but to witness some of the best in the US that had assembled at Olander Park. The venue consists of a 1.1 mile paved, mostly-shaded loop surrounding a lake. Scoring for the 100 or so participants in 5-year age groups was determined by computer chip. My friend Scott Ludwig and I flew out of Atlanta on Friday afternoon, made contact with some old and new acquaintances at the dinner that night, and were ready to run at 10 A.M. on Saturday.

In spite of my confidence in my mental and physical readiness, I went to the line with trepidation stemming from a fairly serious bout of knee pain that had restricted me to only 3 days running in the previous 3 weeks. I had been dealing with it for 6 months or so, pretending it wasn’t serious, and that all it needed was rest. I continued to bike and walk without pain, but every attempt to run was met with disappointment. Nonetheless, I went to Olander with hope and the idea that I could be there to support Scott and walk if I had to.

From the onset, there was pain in the problem knee but not to the point that I felt I was doing any long-lasting damage. After four hours it had worsened, but after a bit of walking allowed me to run again. I was feeling strong and with the renewed confidence, was able to run through the 9 hour mark that found me at 52 miles. I began to think that the knee would not be a factor, only to have the pain return and worsen after about 11 hours. It was at this point that my running basically ended and my hiking began. I had spent a lot of time in my training for Olander down at the St Marks Trail simply walking hard, and felt confident that I could walk four loops (4.5 miles) every hour. That pace would have resulted in a finish at under 21 hours. What I had not anticipated, however, was the extent to which I would develop blisters and feel the effects of sleep deprivation. The blisters were bad, I knew, but I was wasn’t going to deal with stopping and treating them because I am believer – to a fault, perhaps – in the “relentless forward motion” adage of ultrarunning. The same mentality dictated that I never even stopped to sit or change shoes for the entire event – the exception being one brief pit stop alongside the track in the middle of the night. The Sunday dawn did wonders for my fatigue, and managed to dispel the inevitable thoughts of “You’ve done 85 miles – it is OK to quit now.” By just before 8 o’clock, in a time of 21:52, it was over. The expected emotional wave that had hit me in other “goal races” did not occur. I was just tired and sore and glad to be through. Interestingly, I had picked up my cell phone to call Peg when I crossed the finish and got a call from one of the reasons for my success when I was 100 yards out! Fred Johnson was calling, probably wondering if our already small local ultrarunning community had deceased by one. Fred had intended to toe the line at Olander as well, but his duty at work dictated otherwise. His day will come, perhaps as soon as next spring at Umstead. Jeff Bryan was also primed for his date with the distance at the Arkansas Traveler 100 Mile Run in October, but an unrelenting Achilles problem has only delayed this journey. Like Fred, his day will come. As for Dana – he was doing 24-hour runs on a quarter-mile track when I thought a long run was around the lake in Killearn.

The aftermath of Olander is still unfolding. My feet are a mess and I have no clue where the knee injury will lead. I do know this, however: when I read or hear the wise and inspirational words of Robert Browning, Steven Prefontaine, Sojourner Truth, the Biblical writer of Hebrews, or even Dana Stetson, I will be able to relate in a way that I could not have two days ago.