The watch beeped and my eyes opened up revealing darkness and the nylon tent above me. I said aloud “I believe,” three times. Then I got up and ran 100 miles.
To fill in some more details, it was the 3rd hardest day of my life (next to Cons Marathon and Khan Tengri summit), and one of the very most satisfying. There are not a whole lot of 100 mile races. For my first, I had picked the Badger Mountain 100 in Eastern Washington State because my friends Ryan and Skye, who had agreed to be my crew and pacers, lived there. Having good support would be crucial in finishing such an endeavor.
I flew into SEATAC thursday night (March 24), met Ryan, we picked up Skye, and drove 4 hours, arriving by midnight to the race starting line in Eastern Washington. We set up tents and went to sleep. The weather was projected to be torrential rains. Luckily we got only wind and some spitting overnight, and I woke up feeling exactly like I should after six hours of sleep in a tent with a huge athletic event looming. That is, I felt a bit lethargic and sick.
At the start line I met my friend Garret from high school, an accomplished ultrarunner and distance hiking celebrity who has hiked all 3 of the PCT, AT, and CDT twice, totaling well over 10,000 miles. When the gun went off, I quickly moved to the front of the pack, and then I realized I had forgotten my water bottle. The first in a series of small mishaps that thankfully did not destroy the race. I ran back for it and four minutes later I started the race a second time.
I worked my way back up and joined Garret in 3rd place. Here we cruised for a few miles until the first aid station where the volunteers directed us onward. A couple miles later, running on asphalt in a subdevelopment the entire front half of the race realized that we were well off course. The race officials directed us in error. So by the time we turned around and got back on course 5 miles later, we were again at mile 3 of the course, having run an extra 5. I was at that point in last place: all of the front group had picked up the pace; all of the back group hadn’t taken the wrong turn.
I tried to stay calm; a lot of the other runners picked up the pace to make up time but I kept telling myself that it was a long race and to just relax. I kept plodding and picking up places. At around mile 10, my plantar fasciatis started to flare up. At mile 15 my right knee, then my left. It was looking like it was gong to be a long day until, about at mile 20, everything stopped hurting and I felt great.
Around then I met Nick, a tough college student who was running in the New Balance minimus- essentially with as much cushioning as bedroom slippers. We ran together for a while, helped each other negotiate an unmarked portion of the course (there were many more- this one only set us back about 1/2 mile off course) and chatted about metal. I pulled ahead and into the first crew aid station 25 miles in. I had moved all the way up back into 4th place and it was great to meet Ryan and Skye; they were super encouraging.
I asked for my rain jacket despite Skye’s prediction that it wouldn’t rain and I stuffed my face as fast as possible with Pb+ J. It was a steep 1500′ climb next, up to a ridge that we would run on for the next 60 miles. This was part of the 19,000′ gain during the run. It started to spit rain. So Skye was unfortunately wrong. Eventually there were some torrents and a little bit of hail later in the day. But for the most part, the gusty winds on the ridge were the only issue. And at the end of the day, the cold temperatures and mostly overcast skies were perfect for my 200 pound furnace of a body to keep its temperature from boiling over.
I sighted the 3rd place guy a mile or so up the ridge and began zeroing in; his lead was down to about a minute when I myself was caught-by Nick! We together caught up to the 3rd spot but unfortunately the trail was poorly marked. We ended up wasting 2 more miles as we collectively- with the first half of the field now caught up- worked our way down to the 30 mile aid station. By then we had run more than 37 miles. Garret yelled at the race director; I was just worried about nightfall- the course was hard enough to follow in daylight…thankfully the way back roughly retraced the steps so once we learned the course we mostly know if for the return.
After that aid station Nick and I ran together in 3rd place, and vowed to stay together to help not get lost. We were the same ability level; I said that if we made it there, we’d cross the finish line together but he could have the 3rd place prize…the great thing was, we were still on pace to go under 24 hours- even with all the extra mileage. In fact, it seemed we might run way fast, as I crossed my 50 mile mark (note: about 43 course miles) in 9.5 hours.
There were no more major wrong turns and Nick and I pulled into the turnaround aid station feeling good but very hungry. Amy from Garret’s crew gave me a jelly doughnut, and I gorged myself with all kinds of the real food the aid station was preparing. My first real warm meals of the day, and I was really in need of it. I actually overate, making the next couple of miles pretty painful, but I think it was a good long-term decision to make sure my body was nourished. I also met a women whom Tim and I had met during our Grand Canyon run last fall. She was a race volunteer.
I changed socks and got ready for the last 50 miles, which started back up to the ridge. 100% off trail and off road. We ran the next bit along the ridge in the setting sun, pulling into the 60ish-mile aid station just as the sun went down. At this point, Skye had bought some burritos, which I was consuming voraciously. Ryan joined as a pacer for the next 8 miles. This lifted our spirits as we ran across the fallow corn fields.
We again dropped off the ridge to the aid station, grabbing some more burritos and a hot chocolate. It was pitch dark at this point, and Nick and I would do the next 15 or so miles alone before Skye paced us to the finish. We made our way back up the hill, the last huge climb of the race. There was no trail at all, and I sometimes even had to put my hand down for balance it was so steep. I was twisting my ankles and actually starting to hurt them. This would come into play a few miles down the road…they got swollen, especially the right so I adjusted my stride for the last dozen or so miles of the race, leading to tendonitis in my knee…
Those 15 or so miles took us close to four hours. The trail was very hard to find at points, we were exhausted and hurting. Sometimes Nick would speed up and I would try to hang, and sometimes vice versa. We made a good team. When we got to the 80 mile aid station, we realized we were no longer in 3rd place. A handful of people behind us, as well as the two guys in front of us, had all cut the course. We felt that they had done it intentionally to try to make up for some of the other wrong turns because the part they missed was no more difficult than anything else we’d been doing, and it cut 7 miles off.
But the main goal was not a place but a time. We had four hours to do the last 20 miles.
I told Skye that whether I broke 24 hours would be up to him. I told him to run slow enough that I could keep up, but to always keep pushing the pace. We started off quick but soon again became lost in the plethora of poorly marked trails. Without Skye there is no way I would have made it through there. At times, I was totally disoriented and thought we were running the opposite direction than we should be. We ended up running cross country between trails, tripping and falling with exhaustion on the bad terrain. Eventually, we made the correct mileage, though not always on the correct route, to the 88 mile aid station.
At this point, we called the race director and asked if we could cut off a 5 mile loop. At this point we had already run 95+ miles, and would go well over 100 by the time we got to the finish line. Nick’s hip was really hurting him and he didn’t even know if he could make it. The race director said, no, that we had to go on the course. So Skye and I took off to do that 5 mile loop. Nick continued talking to the race director and eventually convinced him to let him drop that loop. We were unable to follow the trail for that 5 mile loop, but with the aid of Skye’s GPS, I did run those 5 miles, in the meantime crossing my 100 mile mark at around 22:30. But the race still had 7+ miles to go. I was already running sub 10 minute miles in order to make 24, but Skye kept pushing me. I was constantly on the verge of hyperventilation and had to occasionally relax, but he kept encouraging me, saying “Ben you can do it.”
We made it back to the back side of Badger mountain with 5 miles to go and only an hour left, and we had to go up and over Badger mountain. I was completely spent from keeping up with Skye to this point, but he would not relent. He told me we had to keep pushing over Badger mountain, that every minute mattered. I’d run 100 miles in 22:30, but unless I finished the race director’s course in under 24, I wouldn’t get the belt buckle. I hurt and bled for this race — I was gonna go home with the belt buckle.
Skye pushed up Badger mountain, and I kept at his heels. I begged him constantly to walk, and he occasionally relented on the steepest switchbacks. He kept saying that if we didn’t push the hardest, we’d get 24:01 and the efforts would be futile. I mentally focused- it’s all so hard to focus mentally at this point- and knew that it would be worth it for a sub-24.
Finally we crested Badger mountain, saw the gorgeous sunrise, and I only needed to descend to the finish line. However this part of the race was by far the most painful. My entire body was screaming — quads, knees, calves. It was very mental — whenever I was able to mentally focus, I picked up the pace. Skye kept laughing at my constant grunts and noises as I tried to find one more gear. My goal was 24 hours, and to make this goal, I needed to dig deep, and to have help from my friends. It would have been truly impossible without my crew, especially Skye with his coherence, pacing and encouragement. I crossed in 23:48, something on the order of 108 miles, and much of it entirely off trail. I was fourth, Nick having finished 1/2 hour ahead- still well over 100 miles, but without that extra 5 miles.
Yes, I could have “just finished”, less fatigued, by taking it easier but that’s not ever how I’ve approached running. I wanted to finish well. I was racing only my own weakness, and by pushing through, I was respecting myself and the entire idea of running 100 miles.
As Pre said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
Even now, more than two months later, I am not fully recovered. The drain of such an endeavor, when you run it hard, is huge. But pushing your body so hard for a goal and to achieve it, is immensely satisfying.
NB, the original inspiration and quote for this is by Ovid:
“First thing every morning before you arise say out loud, “I believe,” three times.”