I arrived at mile 55, just as night set in, around 6 pm. It was there that I would pick up my pacer, my old high school running buddy Mike McCarthy. Mike's a strong personality, and I was hoping his energy would give me a boost for a while. I tended to the blisters in my feet, put on a few layers, and headed out back on the course. Mike was in a fun mood, and he was feeling it, so we moved uphill onto a dirt road for a few miles, and I started to feel better again as well. I was running the ups and the downs, making good time, and by the time we hit mile 60, I knew that I had about 11 hours to run the last 40 miles, if I wanted to get under 24. I knew that the singletrack sections would be slow in the dark, but if I could muster 16 minute miles on those sections, I could get it done. Easier said than done.
I ate an egg over easy and was back on the trail. Around mile 63, I asked Mike to take out the course directions. I had a vague memory that we were supposed to turn back onto the trail about two miles after the aid station, and we were closer to three miles past it. Sure enough, we had missed the turn off. One more extra bonus mile. 15 minutes lost. Oof.
We headed back onto the Pinhoti trail, and immediately again, I smashed my left toe into a rock. It was sheer agony. Hunched over, I drew some deep breaths, and decided that sub-24 just wasn't going to happen. I just couldn't take 20 more miles of smashing my feet into rocks. Pushing the pace on this trail was only going to lead to incrementally more severe agony with my feet. I could push through the muscle fatigue, but this pain was different. It was structural, and getting worse by the minute. I could still jog the easy uphills, but I would have to walk all downs with any grade from here on out. Anything else would jeopardize my ability to finish at all.
Shortly thereafter, Mike twisted his ankle and began to doubt whether he would be able to continue. We were a right pair. Every five minutes one of us would kick something or bump into a tree or step into a hole and let out a yelp. Over and over again. It would have been funny if it weren't so damned painful.
We arrived at the 68 Aid Station in a foul mood. Monica stayed super positive, told me I was doing great, even though it wasn't really true (white lies), and ran to the car a half-dozen times to get everything we needed. We put on a few layers, and told her it would be a long while before we would see her again at Aid Station 85 (the next one with crew access).
Mike decided to continue on, and we limped out together back on to the Pinhoti, which by now we had dubbed "the Devil's trail." I had developed a full appreciation for East Coast trails. No serious hills, but holy crap are they gnarly.
The next six miles were uneventful. Lots of walking. Nice and easy. We prepped ourselves for the big climb up Pinnacle -- about 900 feet in a mile. But when we got there, it wasn't bad at all. We actually kind of enjoyed it. The uphill was easy on the feet and we made good time, pushing a 19-minute mile to the summit, despite the grade -- which allowed us to pass three or four runners. At the top, we ate the best egg sandwiches we'd had in our life, chatted with volunteers, and then headed back out for more miles of walking through the single track.
At this point, I was kicking rocks even while walking. Just before the mile 79 aid, I smashed my left toe into a rock and then just spiked my water bottle into the ground like it was a football. I was so fucking sick of kicking rocks. I wanted the trail to be over. Mike said nothing, but just picked up my water bottle and reminded me how close we were to the next aid. It hurt. Like nothing I had ever felt in my life. But we were getting closer.
At the 79 aid, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Crazy winds were bashing into the tent, and they had a heater set up. For the first time at an aid, I decided to sit without any particular need for doing so. It felt good. We sat there, drank coke, ate oranges, and chatted with the wonderful volunteers (everyone, and I mean everyone, was super friendly). There's something about one group of people totally stripping themselves down to the core, and another group people engaging in acts of total unselfishness to assist them, that makes for great company and heartwarming memories. It's what makes the sport so spectacular. It's hard to express the gratitude you feel for the generosity that surrounds you, but it's a wonderful thing, and I'll never forget it.
Just as we started to feel comfortable, Shawn, a guy we had been leapfrogging back and forth with all day long, announced his departure, "Well," he said, "This race isn't gonna finish itself." A clever line, to be sure, and one that struck me with its simplicity. I knew that I was going to finish the race, but there were moments that you'd almost forget that you still had to run another 21 miles to do it. And with that, Mike and I followed him down the trail. Once we hit the Pinhoti, we never saw him again (he finished about 15 minutes ahead of me).
From mile 83 to 85, we had our last section of technical singletrack. Mike and I were walking at a leisurely pace, because if we tried anything faster, my toes would have been in agony, and I simply couldn't take any more of it. At right around mile 84, out of sheer exhaustion, I dropped my water bottle. Mike looked around to see if it was another incident of me smashing my bottle into the ground out of frustration. "It's ok, man, I'm not mad." I told him. "I just dropped it." We laughed for the first time in a while. We felt what might have been lakefront winds next to us, but it was so dark, we couldn't tell if there was a lake there. We enjoyed the stars and the night. Each moment was fun again.
When we got to mile 85, I felt as if I had already finished the race. I joked with the aid station volunteers. I observed that my left toe had gone from purple at mile 40, to black at mile 55, to a pussy, marble-esque white color at mile 85. I ate a half of a piece of cold domino's pizza. The volunteers were good about shooing me out of the aid station.
And with that, I began to run. Not jogging or trotting, but running. From miles 85 to 95, I ran seven of the ten fastest miles I ran all day. I was done with the singletrack and feeling like a new man. We passed another half dozen runners. I was exhausted from not sleeping for two days, but besides that, I felt like I had just started. And in a sense, I had, because it's not like I had done much running from 68-85.
At mile 95, Monica joined me for the home stretch. We enjoyed the sun coming up over the local dam and then a smooth, non-rocky stretch of singletrack for the next couple of miles. We made it out onto a local road for the final push into Sylacauga High School. The road stretched on forever, and again, exhaustion set in. I took a few quick walking breaks, but for the most part, I was still running 10-12 minute miles, even uphill. Monica talked and I occasionally chimed in. We ran past my old elementary school -- Indian Valley -- on the right. And then, in the distance, we saw the lights of the local stadium, Legion Field. I gave Monica a hug, picked up the pace a little bit, and just soaked it all in. Before I knew it I had made my half-lap around the track, and I was laying down on the grass, with a beer in one hand and a belt buckle in the other.
I finished the last fifteen miles in 2:50, which was the fastest 15 miles I ran all day (and night and day before).
Well, I didn't quite run the time that I wanted, but I had every bit the experience I wanted, and then some. I know that I ran the best race I could have given my fitness, the conditions, and all the things that happened to me that day. I would like to think that I can run a 100 miles much faster than 25:27, and perhaps one day I will. But on Saturday and Sunday I accomplished a life-long dream: running 100 miles in one fell swoop. That's plenty accomplishment enough for now.
Last note to this long post: I am eternally grateful to my crew -- the patient, kind, and beautiful Ms. Monica Gutierrez and the totally impatient, intense, and impetuous Mr. Mike McCarthy. I probably couldn't have done this without you, but even if I somehow had, it wouldn't have been anywhere near the experience. I had so much fun all weekend, even when it hurt, and I look forward to doing it all again in the near future. Yes, Mike, you are going to run a 100 miler of your own one of these days. And I'm going to be there to see you do it.