• Arabelle Romeo

I buckled....finally

100 miles. I still can’t wrap my head around it. I obsessed over that distance for years and after actually attempting it a couple times and never getting further than 82.5 miles, I wondered deep down if it was even within my grasp. I’m not one to give up too easily on anything I put my mind to, so I was pretty prepared to die trying if that’s what it took. Fortunately this story has a happier ending than that. After attempting No Business 100 back in October last year and dropping somewhere around 60 miles, I spent a few days assessing what had gone wrong and almost immediately went on a search for another race to train for. I settled on Blind Pig 100 in South Carolina, mostly because of the weather history. At the time it didn’t occur to me that running a race in the south the first weekend in March meant training all winter in Cleveland. I was really just concerned with making sure that I minimized the chances of my reynauds squelching my efforts. So I registered and went about putting my crew together fairly early. In retrospect, I had no idea at the time of the amazing choices I was making. I initially contacted my friend Joe in North Carolina who also lives a life of obsessing over trail ultrarunning and writes a pretty great blog about it. He had helped me through some nutritional issues and some emotional blocks about racing in general in the past year and honestly, I chose him because he called me out regularly on my shit and kept me honest about my training and sticking to a plan. He agreed to crew and pace if I agreed to not do anything stupid like throw an extra 50 miler in the week before the race just because... What I really wanted was to assemble a crew of individuals who I wouldn’t dare quit in front of. That sounds silly when I reread it, but if you’ve ever even just stayed up all night, you know that once sleep deprivation sets in, it’s really easy to back down on your resolve. Considering this, I reached out to Byron Backer, a guy I had seen in passing at two previous ultras I had run. We were connected on social media so I was aware of his accomplishments, which included repeated experiences at Barkley Marathons—-there was no way I was going to wuss out or whine in front of a guy who had completed a Fun Run at Frozen Head. He kindly agreed to pace me and we agreed to touch base again after the holidays. On a whim I drove to Georgia the first weekend in December to captain an aid station for the Chattanooga 100. I had been assigned a group of amazing volunteers, among them was Rich Higgins. Within minutes of meeting him, I knew I needed him on my crew. His experience with completing 100 milers and his attitude and approach to running and life in general was exactly what I was looking for...and he made me laugh. He readily agreed to make the trip to South Carolina to crew and pace if needed. So I had someone to keep me honest, someone to keep me from complaining and someone to keep me in good spirits and they all brought a ton experience to the table. Now all I had to do was train and be ready for this race. The winter was long and cold in Cleveland and more than a few of my 20+ mile long runs happened on a treadmill. I ran three 50K’s in the cold, placing 2nd overall female in the last one and I was feeling confident about my fitness level. I was concerned that a few of my back to back long run weekends got cut short as a result of illness or weather, but I was really committed to trusting my training and believing this was finally going to happen. After meeting up in Spartanburg, Rich and I went out to Croft State Park the day before the race and ran a few miles out on the trail before setting up my aid station. The course consisted of a 9 mile loop that then ended in a loop around the campground where the check in aid station was and each runner was assigned a campsite for their crew set up. Rich and I put up a 10’X10’ foot canopy, strung some Xmas lights and set up a table and some chairs and then headed out to buy some food and fill my cooler. I’m vegan and I have a gluten/wheat intolerance so I’m that socially awkward eater who has to lug their own food with them everywhere they go. A lovely friend in Cleveland had baked me a loaf of gluten free bread to take along and we stocked up on peanut butter, Daiya cheese, veggie burgers, vinegar kettle chips, dried ginger, trail mix, hash brown patties, instant mashed potatoes, rice noodle ramen, OJ, ginger ale and cola. We met up for dinner friday night for my traditional rice and beans pre-race meal at a Mexican restaurant and discussed the race and pretty much established that no matter what, I was going to finish. I got a good night of sleep and ate a huge bowl of oatmeal with a 1/2 cup of peanut butter and some honey on it and we headed to the starting line. I passed Byron (who was there to run the 50K) on my way to check in and after a quick hug and “I’ll see you tonight”, I lined up in the cold with the other 34 participants of the 100-miler and the 2 dozen 100K runners who were starting at the same time. 

We headed up the road for a 1/2 mile out and back to even out the mileage before starting on our 11 loops of the trail. I had been uncertain about how I would feel about a repeated loop, but my apprehension disappeared almost immediately once I got onto that trail. It was really perfect terrain. Single track, enough rolling hills to keep my legs from feeling fatigued and enough rocks and roots to keep me busy. There were a couple water crossings, but nothing that required wet feet and there were several short steeper climbs at the end of the loop that of course became the equivalent of Mt Everest by the end of the race. 

By the end of the 2nd loop, Rich had stacked rocks on our picnic table for me to throw one after completing each loop. As the day wore on, my throw got shorter and shorter and shorter, but the ritual was helpful and seeing that pile get smaller every time around was so encouraging. 

My plan was pretty simple...I just needed to eat and run. Nausea having been my greatest problem in past races, I knew I needed to keep the calories coming in and I started eating long before I was hungry and I made sure to eat often. Rich told me later that he had never eaten as much in a 100-miler as he saw me eat during this race...I was pretty proud of that. I carried trail mix to eat at the halfway point and texted ahead to my crew when I was 20-25 minutes out and placed my order for food which they so graciously had ready for me every time. The winner was grilled daiya provolone on gluten free bread with peanut butter, mashed avocado, vinegar kettle chips and ketchup. I was feeling great by the end of loop 5 and averaging around 2 hour loops. My goal had been to reach the 50 mile mark by 12-13 hours and I was hitting it by 11 hours. I picked up Joe to pace me at mile 46 after changing into dry warmer clothes and we headed out with our headlamps anticipating dusk. I had told my crew that I didn’t want to worry about my pace at all and I was leaving it to them- I was trusting them to push me if I was close to a cut off and I had promised to just do whatever they told me to do. Joe said I was running strong still on that 6th loop and as I hadn’t checked the time, I really had no idea the kind of pace I was running. I wanted to walk the climbs at the end of that loop and still ended up with a sub-2 hour loop. Rich had hot ramen ready for me at camp and I sat down to eat and felt the first real nausea starting to kick in. 

We headed out on loop 7 and after a few miles Joe assured me that I had time in the bank and some power walking would be ok. Wild Bill Wagner had preached to me for years that “you can’t train to run 100 miles, you have to train to walk it because nobody runs the whole thing!” So I had trained to do some walking and Joe let me know he was jogging to keep up with my walk pace, so I guess I had trained well. While I ate some mashed potatoes straight from the pan, Rich changed my shoes after loop 7 and gave me some new heat packs, the temperature had dropped into the 30’s and my reynauds was giving me some trouble. Joe and I got through loop 8 with a lot of torturously bad jokes on his end, that admittedly did make me laugh and helped distract me. Around mile 75 I commented that I didn’t think I was in last place and Joe laughed and informed me that I was actually in 3rd place at that point and looking at a sub-24 finish if I could keep up that pace. We got back into camp and I had some more ramen and drank extra broth and found another layer to put on before heading out with Byron. I ran in front of Byron on loop 9, still feeling strong enough to lead although the nausea was getting harder and harder to manage. I was eating candied ginger and sipping water along the way, but within a couple miles it became a jog/hike effort. Byron reassured me that my pace was strong and I was moving well, so I just kept moving ahead and did my best to keep the complaining inside of my head. I was grateful for the time cushion I had managed to bank, it was nice to be able to take my time and not have any concern about the cutoffs. The occasional involuntary groans had started somewhere during loop 8 and I apologized a couple times to Byron who thankfully seemed absolutely unfazed by it. It was helpful to hear from him that he also struggles with nausea in ultra distances. I think it’s easy to see an accomplished runner like him and just assume that they’re immune to the issues and they just run, but knowing that they suffer as well and that what makes them accomplished is the fact that they can push through it was some of the most powerful motivation I had had yet. We returned from loop 9 and I sat again to eat as the struggle with nausea was only getting worse. Rich and Byron followed me to the restroom and Rich told me to warm up my hands a little in the heated bathroom and he’d be waiting outside with some soup for me to drink on my way to the trail head. When I came out of the bathroom stall I walked across the room and sat down on a bench and then heard a knock at the door. I said I was alone and Rich came in and stood over me and I’m sure he said more, but all I could hear was “you have to get up.” It felt like it was all happening in slow motion, but somehow I found myself being led to the door by him and and we made our way with Byron back to the trail head for loop number 10. Byron led the way this time, I knew I needed to be pulled along and he did a great job slowly working us up to a faster pace and keeping me moving. We spent the first miles moving along in silence in the dark cold, I had reached a point when even hearing another voice was over-stimulating and he seemed to know that I just needed the silent support leading me through the woods. The sun started to come up, and just as he had promised it would, it raised my spirits and sparked some optimism. We talked those last miles and I continued to groan on the climbs that now felt like scaling mountains and Byron encouraged me with the reminder that I would only have one loop left after we completed this one. We made the final ascent up the trail head to the main aid station and I checked in and started walking away when the race director called my name and approached me looking concerned and informed me that they had been watching for me- she said I was up against a cut off and only had 15 minutes. Panic and confusion flooded through me, I had been so many hours ahead and I knew I hadn’t moved that slow on the last 2 loops to lose all that time and then it occurred to me that one of my loops must not have gotten recorded. Byron told her I was at mile 91 and it wasn’t possible that I was against a cut off and she walked us over to check my splits. Sure enough I had consistent 2 hour splits with a sudden 4 hour split followed by more 2 hour of my loops hadn’t been entered. She calmed me down and added my loop in and after a moment I was able to breathe again and headed back to camp for warmer shoes, broth, peppermint candies and Rich. We headed out in the first morning sun on my last loop. He let me lead and I managed a little bit of a jog while the calories from my broth were still available, but it quickly slowed down as the nausea swelled up again. From that point any increase in pace resulted in my stomach turning and threatening to expel its contents, my heart would race and I struggled with shortness of breath. We talked about how people say things like you reach a point when you know you’re going to finish, but I felt like point never came. I knew those climbs were at the end and it seemed completely rational to consider that I could die on any one of those climbs and not get to the finish line. It was somewhere in those last 20 miles that the wheels seemed to come off of the bus, at least in my head they did... I was gasping for air and drowning in nausea, but my crew tells me I kept my shit together. I knew all I could do was move forward and Rich reminded me periodically that there was no way I’d quit in front of him. I’ve mentioned in past posts the “trail bonds” that develops during an ultra. You become somewhat raw and suddenly it seems perfectly natural to divulge all the details of your bodily functions with the person running alongside you and to trust them with your deep dark secrets. As I believe Joe phrased it “like girlfriends around a campfire” you pour out your soul, or even just the details of your last bowel movement behind a tree...whatever that magic is out there on the trail, those relationships become deep, even profound, and a trust that can never be explained develops. So Rich was right, there was no way I was going to quit in front of him...or Joe...or Byron...the only option was finishing. Around mile 95 the dizziness set in. When I picked up the pace, the world started spinning and I started gasping for breath. I bent over at one point at the top of a small hill and held my chest while hyperventilating and I blurted out “why does my breath feel this way?” I had felt this way in previous races, but had never had anyone on my crew or pacing me who had ever completed a 100-miler— so RIch’s response of “Like 2 seconds away from a panic attack? yeah I know that feeling...keep going” was somehow incredibly reassuring. He had been there, he had gasped for air, he had crossed the finish line and he was here to talk about it. So I kept going. 2 more people passed me in the last mile, there was nothing I could do, I was moving as fast as my nausea and dizziness would allow, but I didn’t really care. I had reached that point of knowing that the real victory was just in crossing the line alive and it didn’t really matter who had crossed it in front of me. We made it past the sandbag water crossing where I usually texted in my food order. I survived the last 4 climbs, not without many quotes from the old creature of the black lagoon “F*** this and that” YouTube video... F*** this hill, and that hill, and f*** this root and that rock... and then we saw the foot bridge. And then we made the final climb up the trailhead and I turned and looked at Rich and said I think I need to give it everything I have left. He just smiled and said girl there’s nothing else you can do and I ran to the finish in total disbelief. I had been fighting the emotion those last miles and the floodgates opened when I crossed that finish, I sobbed the happiest tears I think I’ve ever experienced. This was honestly the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life and I wish this experience on everyone I push beyond what you ever thought you could do, to believe in yourself when the voice in your head is arguing with you every step of the find your own strength and hope and acknowledge the amazing being you are. I ran 100 miles in 27 hours and 15 minutes, placing 13th of the 15 people who finished out of 35 who started. I’m pretty happy with this and contrary to my thoughts at mile 98 about whether or not I would try it again...I’m already looking forward to the next one :) 

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