"But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2Cor 12:9-11
The drive through Kentucky is a white knuckle drive. You are driving on the winding roads through the Appalachian Mountains.
We drove separately from mom and dad, but surprisingly ended up at the church for the 6pm meeting at the same time.
This was our second time at the church. we picked up mu bib and packet at 4pm. Packet pick up was a bit behind. There was a lot of tension in the church. The R.D. had me as a late registrant therefore he didn't give me a shirt, a raffle ticket or he didn't put my name on bib. We did not dispute it, he was not in a happy place.
We all arrived at the lodge after 8pm. I gathered my running bag holding all my necessities to go over with mom.
I had a CREW. I felt so spoiled. "Team Harless".
"Mom, You are going to have to LISTEN to what I am speaking, not what I am saying." She looked at me intently. "Mom, I am not going to be able to articulate what I need, I am going to need you to know what I am saying..." I could tell her nerves were rattled.
It was a 15 minute drive from the church in Virginia to the lodge we were staying at in Kentucky.
The Breaks Interstate Park is one of 2 interstate parks in the US that run through 2 states. I would be running in both Virginia and Kentucky.
Together, we held hands on the ball field, 10 minutes before the start line. Circled up, Andy prayed over me before I would take off to not just run my first 100k, but the hardest race of my life.
Shockingly, I wasn't afraid, I knew it was going to hurt. I was confident I could run the distance. It was the unknown elements of the mountain that would test my mind, body and spirit.
A young boy shot a musket into the air and with the loud "BOOM" into the mountains we were off.
I positioned myself towards the back half of the runners, what appeared to be significantly more than I expected. We had overheard the R.D. mention that this year had over 300 runners registered compared to the 100 runners they had the previous year.
We ran through the small town of Elkhorn. For about a mile, we started our ascent to the ridgeline.
The beginning is where the majority of the climb begins. Let me tell you, it was no joke. The path was straight up, with rugged rock and ruts. We were all laughs until we couldn't run and realized the reality of this race very quickly.
It was damp and cool out. I had a light weight jacket and compression socks on to keep me warm without heating up. Even though it was only 52', it was going to heat up to 75' and very soon drop back down.
I thought that initial incline was never going to end. I even joked yelling "Are we there yet?"
One of the reasons I positioned myself in the back of the pack was to try and "buddy" up with someone.
After a few miles, my calves were burning and I knew I was no where near "Whining Time". We were ascending with slight descents that gave you a little relief and the opportunity to actually pick up your feet and run.
It gently spit you out amongst tall trees and foliage.
At mile 6, there was a lady in front of me. We were on a single track part of the course. "HEY! LOOK, There's a BEAR!" Without thinking I looked. Sure enough, I saw this black fur ball running above us across the mountain. It was a speedy little cub. I was enamored more than I was scared.
I thought "Hmm, Well I got that out of the way early enough!"
Adrenaline pumping we continued on. We were soon running on this mammoth rock. The sun was shining above us as we continued to move across rock. There was no path. They had spray painted the rock green to let you know you were running in the right direction. The rock was angled and smooth making it difficult to fasten your feet.
We came out on the top of the mountain. It was breathtaking. You could see Kentucky and Virginia. The mountains spread as far as you could see. I was on top of the mountain looking DOWN on mountains, it was then that it occurred to me I RAN UP A MOUNTAIN!
We continued moving, the ridgline was cantered and my piriformis was screaming. My right leg was starting to cramp up every step I took. I could feel my hamsptring wanting to engage a Charlie Horse. The guy in front of me stopped to show me how to stretch it. I did everything he said. I would run a few minutes then I would have to stop and stretch it again. I just needed to get to Birch knob tower where my family would be. That would be 15.6 mile in.
Birch Knob Tower.
The pain in my butt was shooting down my leg. It was NO JOKE. The guy helping me made the obvious and slightly embarrassing question/answer "You know what that is from? Its a weak glute muscle."
Ok.. great, I know, I don't have BUNS of STEAL! It is so funny to have this conversation about my weak butt to some random runner. Nothing is embarrassing between runners.
I could hear clapping before I could see the Aid Station, Birch Knob. People were cheering and shouting "GOOD JOB!" With a big smile I yelled in humor "WORST CHRISTMAS PRESENT EVER!"
Suddenly it was like the crowd just woke up with laughter.
Mom and Dad were waiting for me. I didn't want to stay long, but long enough to let Andy know I needed prayer.
He laid me down and put my leg in a figure 4 position stretching my butt. It hurt to stretch and it hurt even more when Andy drilled his thumb into my right butt cheek. He added pressure while he stretched me making tears come to my eyes.
I was there a little longer to have mom pull off my compression socks and remove my jacket leaving me in a tank top and fresh socks.
And like that I was back on the trail.
The temperatures heated up. I kept reminding myself to drink and take salt tabs. One of the guys I was running the first 15 miles had already decided he was going to drop down to the 50k. And so it began. I had to stay strong. Quitting WAS NOT AN OPTION. I reminded myself multiple times.
I told myself to just get to the next aid station. From this point I was running with Jesse and a few other guys. Together we all traded places in the front and the back.
A local did not like the idea of a couple hundred runners near his property, so a last minute trail had to be made. I was really glad that I was with these guys to help me navigate my way through a trail that looked and felt like they had just bushwhacked it. If they had not done such a good job hanging pink ribbons on the trees every FEW feet there is NO DOUBT that there would have been a lot of lost runners.
|Jesse and I|
I had ran many miles with JESSE. Jesse was great conversation but as we trudged through this make shift trail he was getting more and more quiet. The trail was cut in the mountain with nubs of trees sticking out of the ground. We were tripping and landing on the tops of these. Again the almost invisible trail was cantered. I could feel the inside of both my knee and my foot pulling. "When was this going to end?" I asked Jesse.
Finally, we came out of it unto a wide portion of the trail. The ridgeline was capped with large, loose rocks. It was very difficult to run this. I was in the lead. The guys were scattered close behind.
As I ran down the hill I looked up in defeat. Back up again. Only it wasn't that easy. I came to a dead stop and threw my arms in the air. "WHAT DO WE DO?" I yelled back at the guys as they came one at a time down the hill. We were all looking at a large fork in the road. On BOTH sides of the two paths "NO TRESSPASSING" was spray painted down the trees.
Between the 5 of us, we all confirmed we did NOT miss a turn. We all just went with out gut and took the ascend up to the right in hopes we could still trust out instincts.
I just wanted to get to Mountain Life church. This would be the turn around. This would be the half way mark. This would be the FIRST time I had peed in 8 hours!
After almost a half of a mile, we discovered a very faded pink ribbon followed my a GREEN blaze letting us know we were brilliant and NOT LOST!
We were almost to the Church. I couldn't wait to see my family again. Jesse hadn't spoke very much and looked really pale. He too was looking forward to sitting down and seeing his pacer.
I saw Alec running down the road towards me. I was so happy to see that floppy haired kid. "HI MOM! How are you doing?"
"Good Alec, I am so happy to see you!" I smiled trying not to cry in front of him.
The road opened up to this little church full of smiles and cheer. Andy came right over. I needed the bathroom. Dad says "Nita, what can I get you?" I respond "DAD, ICE, do they have any ice chips?" He walked we me to the bathroom. He never left me as we walked through the church and he chauffeured me. I looked up at him before I entered the restroom. Tears welled in my eyes, I tried so hard to stuff it down. "DAD, DON'T tell mom, I'm Ok, this is just the hardest thing I have ever done..."
I went pee and washed my hands. The water was ice cold. Like a dog, I just started lapping water out of my hands. A lady from the church was next to me. I realized how pathetic I must have looked. Drinking and bathing my face in the sink. I attempted to regain my dignity as I smiled at the lady and walked out.
Andy and mom sat me down. It was 4pm at this time. The temps were going to be cooling off again. Mom got the bag out and asked me what she could get me. Arm sleeves, my buff for my neck and my headlamp, it was going to be dark the next time I saw them. Mom grabbed my bladder out of my hydration pack and filled it up for me. Andy assessed my body. I was not able to disguise the pain from Andy. He could tell I was weakening. I was paler, my quads were tore up and my knee was distressed.
I had to get going. I had some hot soup, pickle juice and I got up to go before I got to used to the idea of staying. Mom looked so scared. I smiled at her and tried to cheer her up. I heading back to the trail solo. Jesse was still sitting, and in no hurry.
When you entered each aid station and when you exited you had to give them your bib number. I forgot to tell them my bib number as I was leaving. I heard all this commotion. "WHAT'S YOUR NUMBER?" Realizing they were talking to me and many people were yelling at me, I stopped, turned around with my hands on my hips, dancing, and I sang real loud "876-5309"!
I had no one to run with. I had seen a guy hitting the trail about 5 minutes before me. It would be getting dark in the next couple hours. I REALLY did not want to be alone. My watch was not going to have enough battery and I was really scared to run in the dark with my trail judgment.
I was going to catch that guy. I would run steady.
It took an hour to catch him. I wanted to give him a big hug and kiss when I did.
I had ran with him the first 13 miles. David reintroduced himself to me. He was running with trekking poles. I really wished I had borrowed Kens when he had offered. So many runners were running with them. Every time my feet hit the ground it was like a shock went through my quads.
Humbly I started looking across the mountain path for any kind of a walking stick. Each time I picked on up they crumbled in my hands. They were wet, soggy and rotted. "God, Please set out a walking stick that I can run with." I pleaded.
I saw a light colored stick in the middle of a patch of mud, stick and ground covering. I picked it up and tapped it on the ground, it was thin but very sturdy. I wrapped my fingers around it and ran to catch back up to David.
David shared many stories with me. I shared that I really was going to do my best to stay with him so I didn't have to be alone in the dark.
He replied "I was just going to hike this and try to get in under 24 hours, but I will stay with you, I wont leave you in the dark."
David had a photographic memory. He remembered every inch of the trail, reminding me what lied ahead. I was so happy to listen to his running history and have his companionship. He was polite and asked me about mine but I really didn't feel like talking. I explained that 2 of my running partners are always telling epic ultra recaps and I just listen and try to keep up. I was very comfortable not talking.
And he was very comfortable chatting. It was a match made in heaven....
As we came onto a aid station, we saw a guy that had been running with us several miles back. He looked like hell. He was very pale, disheveled and proceeded to explain he was really sick with terribly dark urine. Hearing this I drank more. I grabbed a cup of boiled potatoes and I grabbed a Dixie cup of Heed and gulped it down.
We also continued to be arriving at the aid stations just minutes behind these 2 small Mexicans. But when they saw us they quickly finished up and headed out ahead of us.
I had taken my arm sleeves off and wrapped them around my stick. David called it my Moses Stick. I wished it could part the trail and make it easier to run. The sun was going down and the shadows were coming down off the mountain. It wouldn't be long before we had to turn out head lamps on.
Even though we were going down the mountain it was no easier. David found a snake on the side of the path. We looked closer. It appeared to be a baby copperhead. I was close enough.
We saw several deer coming down the mountain and the noises in the woods kept you moving.
I started adding how many miles I had ran. Then I started adding up when I would pick up Andy to help pace me. I thought of the things that make me SMILE, Ken, my running partner back home had taught me to do when I am struggling.
"It sure is PRETTY though." I found myself laughing. This had become my mantra when I was tired, sore or both. I told David I was going to have a shirt made:
"Run a ULTRA they Said, It'll be fun." FRONT
"It sure was PRETTY though!" BACK
Darkness came on us like a blanket. "Anita, Turn your headlamp off."
You couldn't see your hand in front of your face. It was as black as the ace of spades. This made running really difficult. The trails with getting wet and the rocks felt like daggers as you landed on them.
David explained that we were averaging 2.5 miles an hour. We had to maintain a sub 20min/mi to get in around 20 hours.
"OK, Ok, we can do that."
I was tripping more frequently. I fell very hard at a section that we were running across a large stone. David looked behind and joked "Hey, what are you doing planks now?!" I had almost landed on my face. I was thanking God for my upper body strength that caught my fall just centimeters from face planting.
It was pitch black when we entered Birch Knob Aid Station again to pick up Andy. I sat down as mom grabbed me some warm potato soup and chicken broth. My stomach was tore up. I asked mom if she could get me some ginger ale. I wanted to vomit but that would not be a very good welcome to Team Harless.
Mom took off my shoes and we switched them out. I also took off my tank top and put on a fresh shirt. My skin was clammy and cold. I was starting to shake from the inside out. I wanted more soup but I was afraid of the cream base. David was finishing up as we gave mom and dad hugs.
"MY Stick! Where is MY STICK??" I knew I would never find another stick in the dark. I couldn't run with out it. It was my life line, My Moses Stick. It really was parting the path for me.
With Andy next to me I grabbed David and we headed into the dark abyss. I had no jokes and only broken smiles. We didn't get far before I had to take my shoe off to get a rock out of it. Only it was not a rock. It was a series of blisters. They were angry and ticked off. We duck taped them and took off.
Andy had no idea what he was in for and I just needed to run, I was shaking so bad.
I kept Andy in front of me. I am used to running behind. David lead the way. He was a power house with his trekking poles.
Andy would be just a couple feet in front of me and within minutes I would be trailing 25 feet behind.
"Anita, stay on my heels, stay close."
"I'm trying," I would respond.
David had introduced a plan I started calling "50" You run counting 50 times your left foot as it hits the ground, basically counting your cadence.
"Anita, You want to try 50?" David would ask.
"Yes, lets go." I responded. I never, not once told him no.
I would try to run and catch up with them so I didn't fall back to far. But when we would have a ascend I would fall way back. I couldn't get my legs to move. My feet would slip and I would stumble.
I would drive my Moses Stick deep into the ground and lift my body up and surge forward. I would gain ground doing this using my arms and upper body to carry my depilated legs.
"Your doing good Anita, one step in front of the other." Andy would encourage me.
Andy started tripping. "Pick up your legs Andy" I reminded him. Fog was setting in and our headlamps were not working well.
We hadn't seen anyone on the path in hours. It was so strange. The Green Blazes lit up very well in the dark, reminding us we were on the right path.
It was almost 1am. My watch was dead. I was chilled, tired and pass the quitting point.
I was going to FINISH.
What made me smile?
- That I had been running for over 17 hours.
- I had ran UP a stinking Mountain.
- I was still running when many had already quit.
If I had to crawl across the finish line I was going to.
With less than 3 miles to go, I turned my head and spotted a light. Even though I was running on fumes I knew it was a runner coming. Minutes later she was on us and minutes later she was beyond us. We had just been passed by another runner and I could not catch her.
Andy was very patient and encouraging. "Your doing good Nita, One step in front of the other."
Then David and Andy were talking. I couldn't hear what they were saying. I ran the best I could on the rugged trail to catch up.
David laid out the plan.
"Anita, do you think you can get in a couple 50's in a mile? If you can increase your pace we can get in under 20 hours."
I so wanted in under 20 hours. "YES, I can, Lets GO, Give me 50."
Pain surged down my legs but I just ran. I got used to flipping my Moses stick around and running like a Indian Warrior.
When David set the pace we were RUNNING, faster than I wanted. When we finished, I was out of breath.
We came down that last massive hill towards the road that lead through town towards the Ball Field Finish. The descend was treacherous. The rocks were slippery and loose.
I wanted to kiss the ground when we stepped off that mountain. I was so grateful God had kept me safe and upright.
"David, lets do 50." I shouted to the front.
Together, the 3 of us picked up our legs and ran.
We would run until we came to a hill. I knew David was sneaking more than 50 on me but I never complained, I appreciated the pacing and encouragement.
David and Andy were so incredible. David could have left anytime but he stayed right next to me.
You could see the Ball field to our right. 50 here and 50 there. One step in front of the other. Beaten, bruised and confused we ran.
"Anita, You are going to finish well under 20 hours, if you want to walk it in you can?" David commented with a smirk.
"NO WAY, we are RUNNING this IN."
Andy dropped back as we entered the ball field. David picked it up, I picked it up next to him. With my Moses Stick in my hand I ran all the way in.
I left more than just a toenail out there. I left tears, sweat and my pride out there. But I left that mountain with more than a medal. I came home humbled, grateful and victorious. I was reminded God provides, He takes your fears and he gives you strength.
Many, Many times I recited "IN MY WEAKNESS HE IS STRONG."