The All-Night Curry Run or Port-a-lets and Why They Matter
I drove up to Meg’s house on Friday. We had dinner out and then headed home to catch up. It had been a month or so since I’d been up her way, not since the Yeti Beer Mile Ultra, and my race wasn’t until 9pm Saturday. I could stay up late with Meg while she worked.
I have known her for almost 30 years. Her home has been my pre-race home away since I started racing up around Atlanta. These last few races she has even been my ride home. Meg is family. “Sister” isn’t the right word; it isn’t big enough for how much I trust her. I trust her like I trust Mrs. Baker.
Saturday morning I went on the job with Meg where I spent the day hot boxing and then we grabbed some Indian food for lunch. We bought Meg a kayak and drove home for a nap. The race started at 9PM but we needed to be there at 830PM for packet pick-up and a race briefing.
I hadn’t planned on running the Midsummer Night’s Dream Ultra. I had planned to run a 40-miler in Alabama. It had been 30 bucks to enter, plus a bomber of craft beer, and involved four ten mile loops that only three people had ever finished.
The runners all get shirts and the finisher’s award is one of the bombers, selected by the runner, from an ice filled kiddy pool. The sooner you drop or miss a cut off, the better your beer selection becomes. I reckon most people drop when they’re ready to start drinking.
The Alabama race was the week I needed to go to Texas though and I had emaiedl the Race Director I was bagging on the race. I really wanted to run an ultradistance event in June so I found Midsummer. It’s a timed event where you can run for whatever amount of hours you signed up to run, trying to accumulate the highest amount of miles in that amount of time.
Midsummer is run on a 1.2 mile loop in Canton, Georgia at Boling Park, a small pretty French style park with wide pea gravel covered foot paths that roll slightly. There’s limited tree cover and multiple intersecting loops. Everyone set their chairs and tents at the first curve next to the aid station. The start/finish was a good 100 meters down the trail.
The mile tally board was out of eye shot of the start/finish so that if you wanted to know your distance, you had to start a new loop or drop. It’s kind of devious the way it forces people to keep moving the full length of whatever distance they were committed to run.
It gets really sketchy if, like me, you don’t wear a GPS and get loopy in the later miles forgetting your studiously kept mile count along a the trail somewhere during the night. I might desperately want to rest, but I also desperately need to know how far I’ve gone.
I came into the race set to go 24 hours and had worked out a sub 24 hour 100pace; I reckoned that if I could run 1 mile at a 13 minute pace, I could walk 0.2 miles in 4 minutes. This pace gave me time to eat and drink and use the port-a-let without sacrificing my 100 mile goal. It seemed fool proof.
It is fair to say that I made all the mistakes. Let’s start with Meg. I love Meg like a Sister and her council is precious to me, but I think I mentioned she’s a stoner and that I ended up hot boxing all day long in her car. I might have survived the Indian food otherwise.
I love Indian food. Channa Marsala is my comfort food. And I do believe that capsaicin is a magic runner fuel; like beer. It makes us wild and dangerous. I also believe I have no idea what I’m talking about. It was 90 degrees when the race started.
The decision to eat Indian food, much the like BBQ incident at Mad Marsh 2013, comes back up, literally an hour or so into the race. While I hit my time goal for the first twenty miles; 17 minute loops, I also puked three times. The first two times I puked in my mouth and up my nose.
The third time I hurled was mostly in the bushes, and mostly the entire box of Vienna Fingers I ate on the drive to Canton with Meg who, while I was apparently hot boxing. I think the nausea distracted me from my bowels that I only noticed once my gut was clear and quivering.
I spent the two hours running loops and hitting the port-a-let to evacuate everything I had already digested, loop after loop, sprinting in the last 50 yards to make up the time I would lose sweating it out in the blue plastic box I was now calling my home away from home.
I had hit my time goal for twenty miles and, after 4 ½ hours of dysentery, I decided I needed a nap. I laid out my woobie; a quilted Army poncho liner, and went down for a nap in the dirt. I had planned on setting an alarm but instead I woke up with a terrified start. I think I slept for about two hours.
I got up and started running. I needed food badly. I started eating watermelon, kept on ice, in a huge Tupperware vat. I would reach around and fumble, picking up a few pieces with sweaty grimy hands, remembering my time in the blue plastic port-a-let.
No one had hand sanitizer. Each chunk of watermelon I ate became a kind of Russian roulette I was playing with bacterial infection. A Bacterial Infection is a thing that, if you have ever spent days in bed with a burning fever and pounding headache, should terrify you.
Also, I had had this idea I would go to the race with as little as I could pack. I brought my headlamp, my chair, my woobie, body lube and extra batteries for the lamp. I panicked in the last moments and brought packets of Justin’s Nut Butter, but the heat made that sound like swallowing spackle.
All the drinks were served in tiny green and white Dixie cups. Do not get me wrong; I believe in cup-less races. I just wanted to see how little I could bring to a race though. I ended up sucking down a cup of PowerAde, chugged three more and then slammed a cup of coke; at one stop.
This happened loop after loop. I could see how many cups I was wasting. I could imagine the aid station running out of cups. This did happen in the morning when they switched to much larger Styrofoam cups. I was drenched in fear and guilt every time I ate or drank anything.
I need to tell you about The Grunts, but first I need to tell you about the lights. They decked out the course in multi-color Christmas lights, flowers, and butterflies. There were also girls dressed as fairies who danced around the course, occasionally following runners.
The fairies left around midnight but the lights stayed with us until sunrise. I think they were supposed to be enchanting. They made for good lines when I decided to run lightless later in the night. They had set up a portal of lights around the entrance to a trail that went to the creek.
I’m not sure why they did that except that I believe many runners used that trail as an extra toilet being that it was at the opposite end of the course from the actual race supplied toilets. You know who you were and dude that was just gross.
The Grunts were ROTC or National Guard. They might have been real Army, but I doubt it. They had set up a base in the middle of a back loop and were running with us but carrying 50lb rucksacks in full combat dress including combat boots.
They were required to run ten miles, going from a fast march to a trot as fast as I was going and sometimes faster, discussing strategy for finishing on time. Everyone has cut-offs. I believe theirs was four hours.
Now this trail was run-able in the dark without a lamp. It was broad and even, pale in comparison to the grass and trees on either side of it. The trail felt very safe except for one tiny curve that dropped eight feet down to the creek that lined the park’s southern edge.
This one Grunt, toting a 50lb pack and completely exhausted in the morning, missed the road and stepped off into the black nothing right before the creek and whatever lay in it. You could hear the Grunt howling as he slid down the embankment, momentarily halted by a large bush to the groin before he tumbled pack and all, ass over tit into the creek below.
We all stood watching as he clawed his way up the dirt wall from which he’d bounced down. Two of his brothers gave him a hand up and dusted him off. His sergeant asked him if he was alright. He mumbled a, “Yes sir, I think so” to which his sergeant asked, “Then why aren’t you hauling ass, boy? You’re still on the clock.”
We all shook our heads and got moving too. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to us, but I for one, wasn’t going to stick around and find out. Their sergeants ran out to run them in for the final quarter mile, yelling a variety of “encouragements.”
There is that place in an Ultra where everything starts to hurt. It is not just tired or sore. You get an “empty soul” feeling; everything hurts straight to the bone. All this time slow pounding hard packed foot paths covered in pea gravel had taken their toll.
This leads me to my shoe choice. I had the idea I would run for 24 hours and so I settled on Hoka Clifton 2’s. I had worn them at the Yeti 100 and they’d done me right. I figured the aforementioned pea gravel hard packed paths were practically pavement and the maximal Hoka cushion would save my legs.
Let me back up a minute; the big lesson I learned at Yeti was that there is no putting miles in the bank going fast in a 100-mile race. You are floating a check you will never have the cash to pay. That said, going slower might save resources for later but, pummels your legs worse and earlier on.
Also, I’ve been running in Altra Lone Peaks which have a super wide toe box which has allowed my toes to splay more natural when I run. The Hoka’s have a significantly narrower toe box and my little toes had become hot spots and then paper sharp cuts trapped in my Injinji’s toe socks.
After 6 more miles, I rolled into the aid station and ate some cookies and started walking. I passed the start/finish and chatted a minute with the RD about dropping to the 12 hour. I know the old maxim; Just keep moving because the bad will pass. I get that.
I looked at the prospect of running into the next afternoon. It was going to get to 97 degrees again. If you add 20 degrees as your body temperature spikes while you power through the 30 plus laps ahead, it was going to be a real death march.
Meg had told me she would have her phone on her in the morning. I finished my loop and texted her to meet me at nine am. I had posted on Facebook about a 12-hour quitting time earlier in the race but that was me kidding around after puking on my t-shirt a few times.
Something really nice happened after I stopped racing. I met a Southern Lady named Gina. I mean Maybelle-on-the-porch-sipping-a-sweet-mint-julep Southern Lady trying to decide if she was going to quit. That is a terrible place to be. My friend Del, who convinced me to run the 24 hour, dropped at six hours.
Del can run. He’s smooth and long legged and elegant. He’s fast. A year ago Del got hit by a car while running a charity run and it busted his pelvis. It was amazing to see him out killing it for 6 hours, but I’m sure it hurt his pride a little to have to call it early.
I have found that when it comes up that a runner might quit, and that runner’s not me, it is best to keep one’s damn mouth shut. You don’t want to help someone along on their way to shuffling off to Denny’s. You also don’t want to convince them to injure themselves or to possibly shuffle off something more permanent than pride.
You just listen and nod. Say something like, “Okay” or “I understand.” Allow me to take that back, just nod. Gina, the nice Southern Lady runner, pulled off the trail when we got to her and her daughter’s chairs. They were gone on my next trip around.
I also walked a few laps with an Alabama runner named Miles; yes, his name really is Miles. He had run a 5 ½ hour 50k and then he ran out of gas and then his knee went out. We walked a few loops, trading race stories and swapping gossip about people we both knew. He needed to sit and so I dropped him at his tent and kept walking.
There were two East Asian runners wearing Indian Air Force t-shirts. Their people had opted not to set up on the strip with everyone else. They drove their car out to the opposite side of the trail, twenty feet from the start/finish, and parked next to a bench.
The Indian runners both looked ominous in the dark. They seemed draped in shadows, staring into the distance transfixed on their goal, singular in their will to stay on track. I mention this because as the sun came up, they actually had the same miserable “about to weep look” all the other 24 hour runners had pushing their miles into the daylight.
I can’t say if that was always the case, maybe the night hid that from me, or maybe they were settling into running another 12 hours and as the sun rose, the heat rose with it and the impending swelter sat on their shoulders, grumbling and picking at their will to continue.
Miles jumped back in and he and I walked the last few laps together. He had come with a team and two of his runners were actually still running. One was set to tie Miles’ eventual distance and one was set to run 50 miles. There was another Alabama team there, his team’s rival, so that he narrated both team’s final laps as we watched both teams try and make the most of what little time was left.
Even though we had quit with twenty minutes to go, and would not have finished a loop in twenty minutes, we shouted and hooted for the last runners barreling to finish, one man coming in at the exact last available second.
I stood opposite the long stretch of trail leading to the finish watching him cover ground, watching the seconds tick by as he dug in and doubled down for the last 25 feet, fighting for his life. It is the kind of thing you dream about doing. It is just as glorious to watch.
I was sitting down now, a little glazed and sore, watching the 24 hour’s grab a few things at their chairs and wobble back out. Seven people started off on the 24 hour race. They were the ones, I thought, who actually made commitments to stick to it for the day.
I imagine they made those commitments days or weeks or months before. I hadn’t made a commitment, even if I told myself I had, because I was sitting down and not getting back up to walk into the afternoon. I heard later that all the rest quit soon after that and there were no 24 hour finishers.
I choose to believe that they pushed on and were only pulled off the course when the RD decided it was just too dangerous to continue. I choose to believe that they fought and cursed him, maybe even sobbed at how all their efforts seemed wasted. It mattered that much to them.
I packed up the little bit of gear I had, watched the awards get handed out and collected my medal. There is an argument about collecting a medal for a race you didn’t do. Juan, my Peruvian running soul brother, would say I DNF’d the 24 hour race. I had signed up for the 24 hour but only finished the 12 hour.
I understand why Juan wouldn’t want that medal and frankly, it isn’t as meaningful to me as say a Torreya 25k finish medal or my first 50k medal–but why not? Lessons were learned, suffering happened and a good time was had by all. I will, for Juan’s sake, engrave “24 Hour DNF” on the medal’s back.
Meg was standing by her truck, redheaded and barefoot wearing a blue flowered sundress. She was barely awake. We drove home. I got a shower and we went and got some lunch at the Atlanta Highway Fish Market. I drank three ice cold cokes and ate some gumbo and fish tacos.
We took her new kayak to Lake Lanier for her first test run. Meg paddled out and around an island. I watched her on the lake’s horizon as she paddled back to me. I waded out into the ice-cold lake, submerging my body into the chop and then stood, baptized by the water and all that came before it.