Getting What We Paid For and the Other Lies We Tell Ourselves:
Ancient Oaks 100 Miler – 2014
The Ancient Oaks 100 Miler is a 3.46-mile loop through the Enchanted Forest Park in Titusville, Florida. You run it 29 times, crossing five timing mats that verify you didn’t cut a loop inadvertently, or worse, on purpose.
There is a tiny section at the very end of the loop where you aren’t on a trail. You’re running through the utility area behind the park main building and then through the outdoor theatre where the race started. I heard Chrissie say, “You’re done.” I told her, “Not yet. I’m not done yet.”
I remember thinking that I would throw down my walking sticks as I came up on the finish line so that I could finish the race on my own steam. I remember realizing I might not finish if I threw down my walking sticks and, stooping over hard to the right with sticks flailing, I hobbled across the line.
I had been using sticks, a tree branch and a stiff dried palm frond, since mile 85. I had been making good time up until then when my back, always a fragile enterprise, went out causing me first to lean to the right and then to stoop. I was too exhausted to hold myself up for long.
Stretching didn’t help for more than 25 feet. I tried that for a half mile. The sticks just came to me. It was exhausting and slow but I could keep moving over the course’s varied terrain: the sugar sand mile, the snake roots and then the blessed boardwalk.
I prayed for the boardwalk. It was easy to navigate in the dark, or now having to use the sticks, more importantly it meant Mt. Mahoney was nearby. Mt. Mahoney was trench that lead down to a gulley with the Mount part being old rail timber stairs, too wide to easily ascend, that lead toward the finish.
I say toward the finish because once you scaled Mahoney, you had to cross the sand pit which was exactly that, 100 meter sand pit. You could go around it but with my limited energy and the clock ticking down, just like Moses – I crossed the desert all three loops to the finish.
Chrissie said I looked like a beetle in the sand, hunched over, extra arms swinging out in lazily sideways rhythm. I scurried into the theatre and couldn’t even remember the cold morning the day before when all of this started. There was just the grind, loop after loop.
If they had told me right then that they had made a mistake and then I needed to go again, I would have started again and then dropped dead moments later. It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything left. It’s just the idea of having to go back out one more time was more than I could bare.
Mike Melton came up to me at the finish, shook my hand and gave me my award, a piece of paper with a drawing of a tree, colored in, the words Ancient Oaks 100 above the tree and the date 2014 below the tree. The 4 is handwritten on top of a 3. The award is laminated. There is no buckle.
I stood up straight to pose for the mandatory picture with Mike and everybody said that it would make a better picture if I stayed hunched over. It was funnier that way. I think, at that moment, I hated everyone taking pictures and cheering. I thanked Mike and kept walking.
All I wanted to do was sit down. I had been on my feet moving for a day and a half. I still had 300 feet to my car and my chair. People were still whooping it up behind me. I passed other runners in their chairs, glazed and oblivious.
I made it to my seat. This is where the race really ended. I sat, unsure what to do next. I couldn’t put it together. Mostly, I was glad to be not moving. Early that day, day two, I had stood crying on the boardwalk section of the trail, begging Chrissie to let me stop when Dusty came up behind me.
Dusty gave me the biggest best hug I’ve ever gotten and then told me it would get better soon and to get my ass moving. She was right. I got moving again and understood I would finish under the cut-off time. Everything was exhaustion and pain but there was no more stopping.
Sitting there in the chair finished, feeling crushed by all the things that had happened, I just couldn’t put together. Chrissie and Lynsey took off my shoes. It’s a strange thing to have someone remove a garment of your clothing because you are unable to remove it yourself.
It’s how being dead might feel if the dead could feel. I imagined looking down at my own numb feet as the Mortician pulled off my shoes and socks. I was grateful to be done or dead, whichever was the case. I’m not sure if that makes any sense.
My feet were caked in trail dust, my big toes were black with blood under the nails and there was necrotic flesh on the side of my toe where a blister had come and gone. It’s been over two weeks and that spot still has no sensation in it. It’s just dead.
I asked about Sandra, my other pacer, who I was told had left in the morning. She had to get to her son who had been on his own since the morning the day before when she had gone to work. She worked a full day, drove to the race, and then paced me. She had told me goodbye herself earlier. I’d forgotten.
I think I was sitting in the chair for about fifteen minutes when all the muscles in my back knotted into a wretched ball of agony and I told Chrissie to lay out my sleeping bag near the chair, just seconds before my body gave out and I fell, face first, into it.
People in the real world would be prone to ask questions like, “Are you okay?” or “Do we need to call a doctor?” People in my world took video and asked questions like, “Are you ever gonna do this again?” and “How chafed are your (insert delicate body part) right now?”
I rolled myself over and began cussing. I also imitated Richard Pryor having a heart attack. It made sense at the time. I think it had something to do with God punishing me for the sin of my hubris at thinking this was even a good idea. No one got it but everyone simultaneously laughed and cringed.
People only saw me lurch up from the waist, twisting my fist into my chest and growling, “How’s that feel now (insert long expletive)” and then collapsing back onto my sleeping bag. There is video of this on the internet.
Lynsey and Chrissie loaded the aid station back into my tiny car. Lynsey made us all get to the race at 4:30 in the morning to get good spots for our aid station set up. I ended up sleeping between two cars and then restlessly pretending to sleep, in my tiny car, until race time at 7am. I have many hateful thoughts about Lynsey.
Chrissie, sometime after packing up my car, wished me well and headed back to Tallahassee. She too had worked all day and then drove down to Titusville to be up all night and run with me. Please take a moment right now to recognize how awesome Chrissie and Sandra are as human beings. Just do it.
Lynsey got me a driver and dropped me off at the hotel. Walking and standing were almost impossible. Driving myself to the hotel was something worse than impossible. It actually seemed like a good idea. I wanted to get to the hotel real bad.
The girl Lynsey finally got to drive me had finished much earlier in the day. She told me she had been training for the race for two years. I told myself, I was twice her age and had only trained six months for the race which I hadn’t even expected to get into.
The race is by invitation only and I had made the wait list. I was so low on the list though I doubted I would make it and for my sins, I made it in. I slow shuffled to the front desk and then to my room. Lynsey and my driver carried my clothes bag and the folding table into my room for me.
I don’t know why they brought in the table. I stripped off my clothes, after they left, and shuffled to the shower. I mention that they had left before I stripped down as earlier, still at the park, when I finally stood up I, shuffled over to the tree line behind the car and pee’d.
This was only in my head though. I actually shuffled over to the road, where runners were still trying to finish their 100 mile race and pee’d into the road, pulled my shorts back up and then got into my car and waited for the ride to the hotel.
Now standing naked in the bathroom, I negotiated getting into the tub and then managed the shower by slathering my (insert tender parts) with Vaseline and then biting down on a wash towel. I really didn’t need the wash towel.
I was just worried one of my “not at the race” hotel neighbors would call the po-lice after hearing me scream and curse as boiling water ripped into my very sensitive skin. You always think you got everything covered with Vaseline until you get into the shower. Hand to God, every time.
I grabbed the ice bucket on the way out of the bathroom and headed to bed. Look, this is the hard reality. Once I got into bed, I wasn’t getting out for a few hours whether I had to go or not. I felt sorry for the next resident of the room but a boy got to do what a boy got to do.
I fell immediately alseep. I slept for five hours. I woke up and texted Sherry. Sherry is a long haul trucker who also runs ultras, who had finished a couple hours earlier than me. Once, a few months back, Sherry’s truck broke down in a town without a Wal-Mart.
Sherry put on her go fasters and ran 20 miles to the next town which had a Wal-Mart, bought some sundries, had lunch and then ran 20 miles back to the previous town where her truck was being fixed. She takes tough to places you will never understand unless you do this.
Sometime late during Saturday night, during the race or early Sunday morning, Sherry and I were on the road section between the start/finish and the mile of sugar sand trail running. Sherry just sat down in the road. She said she was fine. She had her slice of pizza and would eat it there where she sat.
She said her legs apparently had stopped working. She told me later that when she stood up, her left kneecap had moved to the side of her leg. She hobbled; stiff legged until it righted itself and still beat me by over an hour to the finish line.
Sherry and I met down stairs at the IHOP, the evening after the race, and had some dinner. I’m a vegetarian but right then all I wanted was a cheeseburger. It wasn’t just that I needed protein, or that the idea of a cheeseburger was sumptuous. It was that it was a big California howdy to the universe.
It was a “Look at me. I’m still here.” Mike Melton, the race director, rolled in with his son, a German couple everyone knew but me showed up, Lynnor who I knew by reputation sat next to me and introduced herself again. They were all lively like the previous day and a half never happened.
It was like they’d all just had a nice hot sauna, a good rub down, and a pedicure instead of running a 100 miles. I sat dumbfounded and listened. I’m shy with people I don’t know but practically catatonic around people I admire.
Sitting there at the table having dinner, I surfed the web on my phone, looking for my next race, and listening. They were all telling the little bits of their race that they could remember, telling me about Vol State, laughing at the disasters of the last hours of their own runs and what they saw of mine.
I told them how earlier that day, after the race was over and my so-called friends shot video of my cussing and groaning in the dirt, I swore I would never run another ultra. I swore to God. They thought that was funny. Someone asked which 100 I was doing next.
Here I was sitting at the grown up table at Christmas, still wearing my short boy pants, and no one said I had to leave. It was a real uneasy feeling. See, I’ve done a ton of 50k’s over the last three years, maybe fifteen. I’ve done a couple fifty milers.
I had even run Ancient Oaks the year before, DNFing at mile forty one due to severe chafing of the (insert none of your business), but I had never completed a 100 miles until that day. I’d done it but there was this thing that kept tugging at me like maybe I had faked it.
I had a crew chief, Lynsey, who I shared with two other runners. I had pacers. Jimmy and Juan ran a bit with me during the first fifty miles and Chrissie and Sandra ran a big bit in the second fifty. And I can tell you without reservation that I wouldn’t have been able to finish without them.
I needed them because I needed it to be about something other than myself. I remember looking at my watch around 3pm on Saturday, thinking, If I’m gonna quit, I need to do it now because I didn’t want Chrissie having to drive all the way from Tallahassee.
I kept telling myself, all these people showed up for me. I could not break. I could not stand the thought of facing those people at the end as a coward. And that is the only thing that got me to the night or the first fifty miles. Once everyone showed up, I had no choice but to finish.
Everything, by the way, before the second half meant nothing, that first fifty miles, you just get through them. The race starts at the beginning of the next fifty miles. You won’t believe it until you get there. Just trust me on this. I finished the first 50 and realized I had 50 more to go and I was already dead meat.
You just have to keep moving. I remember at one point in the night, I stopped and shot gunned a cup of coffee and ate two ibuprofen and two Tylenol, I got real light headed, grabbed the folding table of my aid station and tried not to drop on the pavement.
I steadied myself and started staggering toward the sugar sand mile. Later in the night, I had another one of those blood pressure drops somewhere along the snakeroots, which were actually trees grown sideways in the dirt across the trail.
Its dodgy running there in daylight because the roots come a full 10 inched up off the trail. Running through there at night, you actually have to stop and will your leg up and over the root. I was running through there at night and I got dizzy.
My heart was pounding like a bass drum. I thought I was going to die, actually die, and I had to say to myself, You can die but keep moving just in case you don’t die. Die moving. Please no one tell my Mrs. Baker that happened.
I am not a fast or talented runner by the way. My very best 5k is 20 minutes and 44 seconds. It isn’t bad but it isn’t fast. I had to hobble myself with all kinds of runner-induced injuries to get there. My trail 50k PR is 6 and half hours. It was a hilly course and it was August. It isn’t bad but it isn’t fast.
My first complete 100 mile race took 30 hours and 40 minutes. Sitting at that table at IHOP with all those people who ran faster than me, smarter than me, who did not have crews assisting them, who had finished on their own steam.
I never had that moment, during Ancient Oaks, runners are supposed to get where you see how amazing you are for finishing. I felt like a fraud. Over the course of the week after the race, I got surlier and surlier. I got in a disagreement with someone in a store and decided to walk home, 14 miles away.
I was up near Lake Jackson, five miles from my house, when someone I know stopped and asked me if I needed a ride. They thought my car broke down. They had to drive me back to my car which was unlocked with the headlights still on.
This part may only make sense to runners. My daily pattern changed. My nutrituion and hydration is usually dialed in most days, right, I started eating holiday food like a beast. The week after the race, my diet was all over the map.
I wasn’t running so the triggers that usually directed my habits were off. Some days I was only drinking coffee and beer. I drove 14 hours to Texas, the next Saturday after the race, with Mrs. Baker. It was cold everywhere in Texas. It turns out I had a cedar allergy.
I went from surly to manic. I decided I needed to run some and ran with an old friend on Tuesday and Wednesday of the next week. Wednesday was New Year’s Eve. I finished my run then, after my shower, walked down stairs and blacked out on the tile floor.
I had to pick myself up and staggered to the couch where I collapsed a second time. I lay on the couch all night as every time I tried and stand, I got dizzy and nauseous. That is when it hit me, when it finally came together.
The finish line wasn’t the finish line. My chair that I hobbled to after the race wasn’t the finish line. There is no finish line for me. There is no enough. It wasn’t what I thought I needed to do a 100 miler to call myself an ultra distance runner or how I did it.
Someone asked me why I ran Ancient Oaks and my response was, “There is no reasonable explanation for doing this kind of thing.” I was being funny at the time but the truth is until I figure out what’s missing, I could run a thousand miles and find it wasn’t enough.
It’s like Gary Cantrell says, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will only find what you have always had.”
This morning I was driving to work and I was thinking out the logistics of running from Pensacola to the Keys on old Florida back roads. I thought about John Price and Bill Schultz as they made their individual trips across America on foot.
We have, in this life, two possessions: experience and memory. Everything else that comes our way passes with us or by or we leave it behind. Life moves. It’s funny how little the finish matters to me in the end.
There was the time I spent with Chrissie, Sandra Juan and Jimmy. That matters. Seeing all those tough SOB’s laid bare in their own struggles to finish. And there is the day before the race start, before everything changed.
Ancient Oaks is scrubby sandy trails, filled palms and oaks, tropical and pretty. Juan and I decided to run the course the night before the race. The night was cool and we plotted out how the race would work for us. We finished running right before sunset.
A volunteer was putting things into the back of her truck on the other side of the parking lot when we got to the car. She was across the parking lot. She yelled that the park closed a half hour ago. We yelled that we loved the park and thanks.
We left the park and headed out looking for dinner. We were giddy talking about the race, at the thought of what was coming. Lynsey would be getting to the hotel soon. There was beer we needed to drink and gear that needed to be sorted out.