NY Times writer Kirk Johnson begins his book entitled “To the Edge – A Man, Death Valley and the Mystery of Endurance” (in which he describes his year of preparation for the 135 mile Badwater Ultramarathon), in this way:
“At 4:30 on a Sunday in mid-June 1999, I was sitting on the shoulder of a two-lane blacktop near Ellerbe, North Carolina, flat-assed on blacktop, legs stretched out in front of me, staring into the dark woods that pressed up to the lip of the pavement. I was beaten and about as alone as I’ve ever been in my life……I was scared to death. I’d gone, by that point, about 43 miles in an oddball footrace called the Bethel Hill Moonlight Boogie….”
Scoot over Kirk, and make room for one more, because last night the Boogie brought me to my knees as well.
How do you begin to write about the dreaded DNF? It is the demon that lurks in the minds of all endurance athletes and which can be counted on to whisper in your ear at some point in time during every long distance event: “Why don’t you just quit? You’ve gone far enough for one day. You can make up for this next month or next year ….” Up until last night, it had been 15 years and 61 ultramarathons since I had given into the demon, and it happened in the dark of a North Carolina night, the woods ablaze with fireflies and the serenade of whippoorwills. It was not exactly the setting for such inauspicious an ending as I would have expected.
Ultramarathons are rather scarce in the SE US in the summertime, for obvious reasons – most notably the fact that sitting in one’s air conditioned home is a whole lot more fun than running long distance in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity. Nonetheless, the Bethel Hill Moonlight Boogie had been on my to-do list for several years, even before reading of Mr. Johnson’s encounter as a prelude to crewing for Scott Ludwig at Badwater in 2003. The Boogie seeks to beat the heat to a small degree in that it begins at 6 PM in the evening, but strange as it may seem, all this does is somehow work to stack the deck against those who choose to toe the line at this affair. Let me explain.
Let’s say that you were going to do a little survey of your running friends and you were to ask them, “What are you usually doing at 11:30 at night?” My guess is that most of them aren’t watching Letterman or Leno and I’ll guaran-dang-tee you they aren’t at mile 25 or 30 of an ultramarathon. Most of them will tell you they’re usually asleep and will soon be getting up for their early morning run. I’ll never forget my first experience with this nighttime running thing. It was at the 1992 version of the Tropical 50-Miler, an insane affair that began at 7 PM on an August night in Miami. Being a young man of 43 at the time, one would think that being up at 3 o’clock in the morning in Miami on a Saturday night would be a real treat. It wasn’t so. By 11 o’clock I was ready for bed but somehow stumbled through it. I returned the next year, and when 11 p.m. rolled around and I had finished 30 miles or so, I did what most normal people do — I went to bed. In other words, I DNF’d. I don’t think it purely happenstance that until last night, that had not happened again. My body clock is not programmed for running once the moon rises.
Anyway, back to the Boogie. The long ago failure at Tropical never entered my mind. I made the 8 hour drive to the metropolis of Ellerbe and was brimming with confidence. Truly, I have not felt stronger or healthier in years. I noted the remarkably low finish rate of the Boogie (something like 60%) and the seemingly slow times, and thought to myself ….. hmmm ….. I just might be able to steal one. Confidence is a strange, double-edged sword. It can be the greatest gift when used wisely, and can be your death knell when it becomes all-consuming. I was joined at the starting line by two talented Florida ultrarunners I had met at Wakulla in recent years — Helen Cox of New Smyrna Beach and Amy Costa of Jacksonville. Both ran sub-8 hours at Wakulla, and Amy was our women’s winner in 2006. Since then, Amy won the women’s division of the 50-miler at the March Croom Trail run, and Helen set the master’s women’s mark in the 50K at that same event, as well as the women’s marathon mark at some whacko affair called the Wickham Park Marathon — you don’t even want to know about that one (trust me on that — it is not your basic rails-to-trails marathon). Together the three of us made up the south-of-the-Georgia-border contingent at Bethel.
In advance of the run, I had sought counsel from several Bethel vets and had noted the advice of the race director. All dispensed the following advice about this 5 loop course: run the first two laps easy because it will be very hot. If not, you are in for either a very long night or a very short one. Team Florida discussed the strategy in the parking lot and figured that something around 1:35-1:40 for the first two laps would be smart, figuring that if we could hold that through the next 3, we would run sub-8 hours and likely all finish in the top 5 of the 75 or so entrants. So, the gun goes off and we do too – at far too fast a pace given what we learned of the course on the first trip around. The Boogie is anything but flat. Truth be told, it is never flat. It has an abundance of long, long downhill and consequently long, long uphill. In fact, the loop is basically 3 miles down, 3 miles up, 2 miles down and 2 miles up. We ran the first loop in 1:23 and the second in about 1:30, at which point the fireflies came out. Helen and I crashed and burned and Amy took off. By mile 28 the two of us were a mess. Our quads were trashed to the point that the downhills required a shuffling pace as opposed to any aggressive running and the uphills became the proverbial hike. With another 20 miles to go and the 11 o’clock hour approaching, the front seat of my truck began looking mighty good. Helen – who is as tough as they come and who had never dropped out of a running event – was a wreck. As I write, I have no idea how Amy did, but it would not surprise me if she won the whole affair. We saw her at mile 36 as we were packing up, and she was running like it was mile number 1. Amazing … By that time probably half of the field had dropped, including last year’s women’s winner and a two-time overall winner.
So, I got my hat handed to me and a good dose of force-fed humility. Strangely enough, I am not troubled by it. You’re supposed to be, I think. DNFs are supposed to gnaw at you to make you doubt your toughness and your training and all that stuff. I look at it as a simple case of failing to hydrate and failing to heed the advice of those who had been there before me. For 23 miles I felt great. For the last 7 I felt as if I had to die to get better. And when the demon spoke and suggested it was time to call it a day …. errrr, a night, my hand went up in a hurry.
The real fun was the 8 hour drive home immediately after that. Like Helen said, “It was fun. It is all part of the adventure. You learn from it and you move on.” How true.