• Arabelle Romeo

It ain’t over til it’s over...

It’s been a while since I’ve written a race’s been a while since I’ve written anything. This whole working full-time situation has taken a minute for me to adjust to and I find that other than running, most of my hobbies have found a place on a shelf for the time being...but this one deserves a few words and hopefully will offer others the encouragement I sought for so long. All of you who run are familiar with the sort of scenario I’m about to describe: It was a gorgeous sunny July day in Georgia and for whatever reason all of the stars aligned and I had an incredible run on Coosa Mountain. I felt unstoppable and all it took was a couple glasses of wine that evening and a conversation with Rich that went something like “I’m pretty sure you’re ready to attempt a sub-24 100-miler”—- that was all I needed to hear and within seconds Ultrasignup was open and the search for a race was on. I knew it wasn’t going to happen at No Business- I was already prepared for how much the water crossings slow me down with my reynauds syndrome. Rich suggested One Epic Run. I was already familiar with the terrain from running Blind Pig 100 there earlier in the year, and having the same race director as Blind Pig, I knew it would be a well organized race. So there it was. I was going to run my first timed event. I was clueless as to what that meant...I thought it was pretty straightforward- it’s a 3.1 mile loop and I had 24 hours to run 100 miles on it. Little did I know the craziness of timed events. Training went well. I finally finished Barkley Fall Classic and I had probably my most successful DNF to date at No Business- I woke up sick the day of the race and decided to badass it and took some Sudafed and ran anyways. I made it 80 miserable miles in rain and 40 degree weather before missing a cutoff. It left me believing that if I could suffer through that, I could certainly push myself for 24 hours to get 100 miles done. Pretty much everything about One Epic was a mindf***. Beginning with the forecast that seemingly got better and better everyday until the day of the race...and then it rained. And rained. And then it rained some more. For 24 hours that water fell from the sky. I had spent a couple months training in some waterproof running shoes, just in case. Generally anything with more drop than a Minimus causes me back pain, but I knew that regardless of whether it rained or not, it was probably going to be cold at night and my feet had taken a bit of a turn for the worse in the weeks following No Business, so I knew I couldn’t risk letting them get cold and Minimus just weren’t going to cut it. So equipped with a pair of waterproof Sauconys and a pair of regular trail shoes and some extra wool socks, I thought I was ready. My crew consisted of Rich and my dear friend Tracy who drove down to South Carolina from Cleveland Ohio to meet us the night before the race. We all went to dinner together and we briefed Tracy who had never crewed before on how ugly things can get and that there’s no quitting. That woman earned herself crew of the year status by the time this race was over. We had set up our canopy and tables near the timing table and arrived in the morning to get everything arranged before the start. My friend Liz had driven from Charlotte to run as well and my good friend Byron joined our little aid station as well. 198 runners started the race at 9:00am. The rain started at 9:01. The first loop went as well as could be expected- everyone needs a minute to get spread out on the trail, but despite the crowded conditions, the first loop went fairly well and I came in a few minutes before my intended 40 minute per loop plan. I got rid of some layers, one of them being the rain jacket just because I was too warm, in retrospect probably not my wisest decision in this race. The next 4 loops were pretty consistently around 36 minutes, but the mud was starting to appear and the puddles were forming. I really just wanted 100 miles, but Rich had planted the seed in my head that if I stay out there the longest and keep clicking off the miles, I could possibly podium this thing. I was trying to be honest with myself about my abilities, and I knew who was in the field- out of admiration for these amazing women I’m giving all the credit that’s due…. Lauren Jones holds the women’s record on this course. She’s the only woman to ever get 100 miles at One Epic. If I were her I would find a way to surgically attach that buckle to my body- she’s a beast for getting that far in a race that historically has miserable weather. She came back this year to beat her record and when I heard this, I knew that I was going to at best land in the 2nd place spot. And then the lovely and talented Cassy Aslani showed her face and I decided I needed to focus on a 3rd place finish. My saving grace for the hopes of 3rd place was learning that although Ann Trason was there, she had a distance goal of 50k and was taking it easy to avoid falling and exacerbating a shoulder injury. I had no idea that there were others lurking playing the “timed event game” ugh… I had no idea the strategies that go into winning these races.

It had been my intention to get at least 14 or 15 hours of running in before Rich came out to pace me. I came in to the aid station around 11 hours and told him that the only chance I had of buckling this thing was to get faster and the course was just getting slower by the loop. We had agreed after No Business that it was simply time for me to accept that I can’t register for races with water crossings, that race had done damage to my feet that I’m still struggling with more than 2 months later….and by about 6 hours into One Epic the whole course was a water crossing. I had switched from the waterproof shoes after the water got higher than my ankles and they were filling up and not draining, but now I was dealing with the reynauds issues that came with soaked cold feet on top of trying to navigate a slick muddy trail...I wasn’t getting any faster. Rich offered to come out with me at the start of the next loop which would put me at 36 miles. He had been hearing so much from other runners about the conditions out there and was really anxious to see for himself what was really going on. Ann Trason summed it up nicely when she said that in all her years of racing these were the worst trail conditions she had ever was seriously the worst mess I’d ever seen on a trail. I completed the next loop and Rich was there waiting to leave with me when I arrived. I let him know within the first few minutes that we had to push on the first stretch of puddles we were running through because that was the most runnable part- I think at first he thought I was kidding. We then crossed the bridge that took us out to the loop after navigating the lake that had developed at the base of it and then the real fun started. At that point I had run the loop a dozen or so times and I knew where the problems lie...and they just got worse with every loop.

My 36 minute loops were getting closer to an hour at this point and I was getting colder and colder as the evening progressed. Rich told me that Lauren had called it done at 50k and was getting warmed up and ready to go home and that Cassy had gone to her car with hypothermia and was finished. We checked in with the race director at the completion of that loop and learned that one woman was in front of me but hadn’t been seen in a while so she was possibly out of the race. This fired up some new motivation in me to get back out there despite how cold I was. It had become clear that the likelihood of anyone accomplishing 100 miles in this thing was out the window and I decided if I wasn’t going home with a buckle, I was going to leave with a victory. Like a classic timed-event rookie, I thought I had it in the bag and all I had to do was keep going until there were no more women out there. Then Cassy showed up again...I had gained 2 loops on her while she was recovering and getting warm. So now my excitement of thinking I was winning turned into stress of knowing I had to stay ahead of her. I pushed on for another loop, but as we were approaching the end of it my shivering became uncontrollable and I knew I had to stop. We came up with a plan- I would have Tracy come to the restroom with me to help me change into dry clothes and get warm and Rich would take my shoes to the men’s room to try to dry them under the hand dryer. I was stuck in my body hurt from the shivering and everything was becoming foggy for me. We got to the restroom and I couldn’t stand any longer, I laid down on a bench while Tracy tried to get my feet warm under the hand dryer. I was shaking from the cold and having trouble not falling off the bench and panic was setting in. I believed my race was over and I blinked back some tears. I had Tracy get Rich and all I could think was that I was going into shock and I didn’t know how to stop it. I’ve never dealt with hypothermia and I really didn’t know much about the symptoms. I told Rich I was scared and in pain and I didn’t know what was happening. In perfect Rich form he bluntly said “You have a little hypothermia and you seem to be having a panic attack. I know how to fix the hypothermia but I don’t know what to do about the panic so you’re just gonna have to calm down.” This is one of the things I love about Rich, and a huge part of why I’ve become a stronger runner since we started running together — Rich has a matter of fact, no sugar coating, rub some dirt on it attitude that somehow brings out a strength in me that I never knew I had. He picked me up off the bench shaking and teeth chattering and carried me to the car and got the heat on. It took another 15-20 minutes before I felt like my body was calming down from the cold, but even then I couldn’t even think about going back out there until Rich asked if he should start tearing down camp. He knew how I’d react…I looked at the clock and saw that I had more than 11 hours to turn this around and I told him I needed to fix things and get back out there. I took off all my wet clothes and we put everything on the heat vents to dry it and Tracy produced a pair of compression injinjis like the soaked ones I had taken off that she just happened to have brought along. I knew the shoes were an issue. I couldn’t get my feet wet again and even if we had been able to dry my shoes, they’d be soaked in 2 minutes again. Tracy mentioned my rubber boots in the backseat and I had totally forgotten they were in the car...this was the beginning of how I did 50K in rubber boots. We put heat packs on my feet and got me into the boots. I ate a bowl of hot oatmeal and decided it was time to get back at it. We headed out, now only a half loop ahead of Cassy and unaware that another woman was out there quietly catching up to me. I realized quickly that the boots were an amazing choice. My feet were dry and warm and I was able to plow through the puddles and mud without wasting any time trying to navigate to the shallowest spots. By the time we came in at 50 miles, I was told Cassy had finished and was genuinely going home this time. I was cold and nauseous and knew I needed to get warmed up and get some calories in me. The other two women I had perceived as competition had also called it a day at 50 miles. It looked like I had enough of a lead to take a break. The guy in the camp next to us said his wife was out there still and she was only a loop and a half behind me and there was one other woman who seemed to be catching up with her, but I was being realistic- without getting warm and dry again I was going to end up where I had been hours before and I wasn’t willing to go there again. We all got in the car with the thought that I would nap for 30 minutes and get warm and then get back out there when the woman who was catching up came in from her loop, that would keep me one loop ahead of her. After 20 minutes Rich left the car and went and talked to the race director about where things stood. Our car was facing the trailhead and the timing table, so anyone finishing a loop had to pass us as they came to the aid station...unless they just came to the trailhead, yelled their number to check in and took off again without aid—which is exactly what she did. Rich came to the car and told me “she’s out there now trying to beat you”. With less than 5 hours left in the race, that was all I needed to hear to pull myself together and get out of the car. I had really believed when Cassy stopped that I could be done. I had thought both times when I got in the car that it was going to take a miracle to get me out there again...I didn’t want to go back into that rain. I didn’t want to be in the cold and the mud anymore. I was still nauseous. I hadn’t eaten in a couple hours and couldn’t stand the thought of food. I had been chewing on mentos and then spitting them out for a while, but even that was no longer an option. I asked for a cup of coffee and that seemed to help so we headed back out into the night. Rich did calculations of how far ahead I was by miles and minutes and what I needed to do to win...I couldn’t think anymore, I just kept focused on moving forward and trying to move fast enough to stay warm. The next few hours were spent hoping as we approached the end of each loop that I would come in to find she had dropped. No such luck. I maintained a loop lead on her and then as we came to the end of my 2nd to last loop she came toward us down the middle of the trail with trekking poles flying side to side heading out on her next loop and pushed past us saying “sorry, I’m going for place!” We just sort of looked at each other and agreed that she either couldn’t do math or had no idea of what loop I was on. There was enough time for me to complete one more, which would mean I would still be one loop ahead of her when she finished this one- she was heading out to complete the loop I had just finished. There simply wasn’t enough time on the clock for her to do a loop that would catch her up to me even if I quit then, and I still would have completed it before her, so the game was over...or so it seemed. I came into the aid station and told the RD I was going to go for one more loop even though I knew she didn’t have enough time to catch up to me. It was finally light out and I was just ready to be done and sitting in a chair with a beer. I was afraid to talk about winning while we were on that last loop- I didn’t want to jinx anything...I had thoughts like I might fall and not be able to get to the finish line, but what really happened wasn’t even on my radar as a possibility. We came up the last climb to the finish and the RD had this look on her face like she was about to deliver bad news. There were 35 minutes left on the clock.The 2nd place woman had been taking 1:15 to complete a loop- even if she had gone back out, there was no way she could catch up to me and she’d need one loop more than me anyways. “So there isn’t time for another loop and some of the runners who are left are running the .3 mile loop around the campground road until the clock runs out...and 2nd place female is on her 2nd time around…” I felt like this was bullshit to be honest- because if that woman had time to run 3.1 miles around a road in a campground to beat me, then she should have had time to do it out on the course and put in the same effort in the mud I did to be one loop ahead of her….but I simply looked at the RD and told her I didn’t wake up to come in 2nd and I took off down the road around the campground. Still in rubber boots. 2nd place turned at one point and headed the other direction so she was coming at us each time we came back around. I might of been guilty of some stink-eye at the time, but I have to give that woman a lot of respect for keeping going to the bitter end even though she knew she couldn’t win. I managed another 3.1 miles in 34 minutes rubber boots on that road loop and I finished with 68.2...which made me the winner by 3 miles. After thinking I had won 3 times before that only to find I was wrong and had to keep going and thinking I was out of the race twice and managing to pull it together and get back out there, it was finally over...Rich is always telling me that even when it feels horrible and you think you can’t take another step, it can still turn around. It ain’t over til it’s over...and I admit to being really grateful that this one is over ;)

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