It was July 8, 2018 and I had been running for 24 hours and more. I had covered close to 135km. The pain in my feet was excruciating. My second foot felt like it had just split open. The balls of both of my feet were now on fire.
I still had about 5 miles before the next checkpoint. Nevermind how far I had to go before the finish line.
But the finish line wasn’t something I could even think about at this moment.
Relentless forward progress.
I had to make it to the transition area 6/7 before noon if I did not want to miss the cut off time and stand to be pulled from the course. The blisters on the balls of my feet were killing me.
I had been moving so well through the first five legs it was devastating to see how dramatically my progress had slowed. It was about 10km into leg 6 where the wheels really fell off. I had stopped to adjust my left sock and shoe to see if I could deal with the blister that now felt like it was opening up.
I had been doing the mental math on the timing since the disco rave party aid station at checkpoint 5b at about 2am this morning. I was in good shape to make the 30 hour cutoff at that time. I knew however that at the rate I was travelling now my chances of finishing within that time frame had all but evaporated. My feet felt like I had been running on broken glass for the last few hours. I could imagine them bleeding into my socks. I knew they weren’t but based on how they felt I could certainly imagine the raw flesh oozing bodily fluids of all nastiness. Things were starting to look bleak.
I needed a new mission. I needed a new destination, a reason to keep moving forward. Something, anything that I could grab onto and hold out hope for. As I grappled with the reality that the 30 hour finish mark was outside of my reach I also realized that once I was out on leg 7 I would be allowed to finish the race no matter how slow. The guys at CP5b had mentioned the noon cutoff for transition area 6/7 and that became my new goal. As long as I was out on leg 7 by noon I would be ok to finish at my leisure.
After pausing to take in the beauty of the surrounding mountain scape and snap a quick picture I dialed the phone to call Michelle. As the phone started to ring my resolve crumbled and I broke down into tears. The enormity of the disappointment sinking in. Her first reaction was to ensure that I was OK, that I was safe and free from harm. I assured her that I was and resolutely stated “New plan. There is no way that I am going to make the 30 hour cutoff. You are going to get me off leg 6 by noon. I need you to bandage my feet and get me back out on course so I can finish this fucking thing.” She acknowledged the new plan and I hung up and continued on my way.
This is why I run. This is why I do what I do. It is not for the moments of triumph for which I run but rather for the moments of adversity. I do it so that I can practice pushing through.
As I continued to slowly move forward I received a few texts from Michelle encouraging me not to give up on the 30 hour dream. Shortly after, I received a note from my friend Steve Baker who had obviously been chatting with Michelle. He encouraged me to keep moving and not drop the dream. He told me there was still hope.
I cursed him.
My feet were on fire! I could barely walk, let alone run. I was starting to get annoyed with their insistence that I still had a shot at making it in under time. Did they not understand? These were some of the most painful moments of my life. I had to walk on my heels lest the balls of my feet make contact with the ground and send a bolt of pain through my body.
Then it happened. The text that set me over the edge. Michelle says “Ok, we’re going to come cheer you on at checkpoint 6C.”
All I could think about at this moment was “What the fuck do you mean you are going to come cheer me on?? I don’t need cheering on. I need you to bandage my fucking feet.”
Fortunately I lost cell reception right about this time and rather than send back an asshole-esque response I was left to stew in my own misery for a while. I vacillated between the anger of “WTF?!? Cheer me on???” and “Mike, settle down. She’s been out here crewing your sorry ass for the last 25 hours.”
I wasn’t thinking clearly at all and knew this all too well but I could not figure out why she had suggested that she was going to come “cheer me on” when it was clear that I needed her medical skills as an RN to bandage my badly blistered feet.
I persisted in spite of the head trash.
I finally pulled up to check point 6 Charlie to see Michelle and Steve there. I immediately started with the “I don’t need you to cheer me on, I need you to bandage my feet.” to which Michelle calmly replied. “You know I can’t give you aid on course or you will be disqualified.”
Cue the shame gremlins.
I guess I did know that. Now don’t I feel like a giant ass. Fortunately for me there was a medic at the checkpoint. So I sat down and asked him to have a look at my blisters and see if there was any way he could bandage them.
After removing my shoes and socks he and Michelle both looked at my feet. I watched him look at her with a puzzled expression. He said quietly “Those aren’t blisters… that’s trenchfoot.”
I continued to insist that I simply needed a bandaid for my blister.
Michelle just looked at him and shrugged “Well, let’s put a bandaid on it and send him off then”
Which is exactly what he did. He put some kind of bandage on which surely provided no relief as my feet were complete hamburger but at least it made me feel as if something were being done. The scene was surreal. I remember watching another runner, Rachelle, who I had taken training camp run by as I was putting my shoes on. Our eyes met briefly but both looked vacant. She carried on and I wondered if she still had a hope of making cut off.
We put my socks and shoes back on and I took the last of the nutrition offered at that checkpoint and off I went.
Huh, nope those bandages did not do a thing. My feet were still on fire and the ground was not getting any smoother. I felt every pebble and rock underfoot. Each stone felt like little razor blades shredding the bottom of my feet even further. To distract myself from the pain in the bottom of my feet I turned my attention to what I assumed was my big toenail now removed from my toe and floating haplessly in my sock. Yes, I would go on to lose four toenails that day.
I had roughly an hour and a half to cross the remaining 7 kilometers to get me into the transition area 6/7 before the noon cutoff. Again, not the end of the race but simply a milestone that would allow me to keep going. Leg 7 was only about 8 miles and the easiest leg to complete by far. I had run it at training camp so I knew that once I got out on course for leg 7 I would be able to finish the whole 100 miles regardless of the time.
The pain in my feet was unignorable. My mind started telling me stories. You know, that little devil on your shoulder that looks for the easy way out? I can picture that little demonic Mike standing there whispering in my ear. “You know Mike, if you just move a little bit slower you will miss that noon cut off and you will be done. You can sit down, have a beer and no one will think any less of you. You put in a valiant effort.”
I have to tell you that little fucker was tempting.
Fortunately my better angel on the other side was equally as vocal. “Dude! Are you kidding me?!? You didn’t come here to run 92 miles and get pulled off course! Move your ass!!”
I kept willing the transition area to appear but it never did. I ran (well, hobbled) the long road that weaved up and down over rolling hills. I had run the same section earlier as it was a shared section of trail coming in off leg 5. I knew it was longer than it appeared. And then I saw it. I wasn’t sure if it was a mirage or if it was reality. I saw 3 silhouettes up on top of the next ridge. Wait, was it really three? I thought it was but now there is only one. Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me. I have been running for over 28 hours now so that is quite likely.
As I got closer I realized that it was Michelle out on course walking the course in reverse to come and find me. I feared that she was going to tell me I was done.
She did not.
She walked along beside me as I hobbled and I remember saying “I’ve got nothing left” to which she replied “yes you do. It’s only about 250 meters up the road then we turn down the hill into the TA (transition area). You’ve got 15 minutes til the cutoff. Let’s go.”
As I wrestled with my mental discipline I recalled a conversation I had with Dave Proctor earlier that year. Dave is a world record holder, ultra marathon runner and someone who has become a friend. In one of our conversations Dave had said “The mind only knows two things… the words that we tell it and the pictures that we draw for it.”
As those words came to me I realized that the only way I was going to complete this thing was to drop that story of “I’ve got nothing left” and turn that into “I’ve got a little bit left”
I sighed and kept moving. After I walked what must have been a good 500 meters with still no transition area in sight I said “This isn’t 250 meters” Michelle simply said “Well… you know I’m not that good with distance…”
Instantly deflated I said “I’ll never make it in time”
“Well, here’s the thing. I kinda lied to you about the time as well. You’ve got 22 minutes left as of now so MOVE YOUR ASS Cameron!”
So I did.
Over the ridge and down the last hill into the transition area. I came in with 9 minutes to spare before the cut off. Eager to take a seat and get some rest I started moving toward a nearby chair. Before I got there I was intercepted by my run friend Steve Baker and Michelle who stripped off my pack, wiped me down, refilled my water and loaded me back up. Maybe 2 minutes total in transition Michelle said “Steve is going to pace you in on the last leg”. Just like that we were out on leg 7 moving toward the finish line. The leg that took me one hour and 45 minutes at training camp took me over 3 hours to complete that day. Poor Steve has never moved that slow in his entire life.
The pain in my feet was immense however the feeling of crossing that finish line was incredible. I was almost two hours over the cutoff time but I had finished. I had completed my very first 100 mile race.
As I came down that final stretch I looked out to see that Brian, the race director, had left the finishers arch up for me and was standing there at the finish line. There were also close to a dozen of my run friends that had also made the trek back to the finish line 2 hours after the cutoff to cheer me in.
The feeling was incredible. I had recorded a lot of video footage that day and Michelle made sure to have someone capture the finish on camera. She also had the presence of mind to ask me how I felt on camera. My reply was a jovial “I feel like I just ran 100 miles!”. It is pretty amazing to be able to go back and revisit that moment caught on camera.
I had struggled, I had suffered, I had persevered.
Ultimately I had endured. I have never put myself through anything more challenging than those last 10 miles or so. Frankly I really did not know if I would be able to do it at the time. But I did. We did. Michelle and I had done it together and it was now time for a beer! There is no question in my mind that this was a team effort. This was not something I could have done alone.
So when you ask me why I run stupid long distances, the answer is two words. “Controlled adversity” I put myself in these circumstances of discomfort in order to practice resilience in environments where there is an out. It is about practicing in the calm to prepare for the storm. No matter how calm the waters at the present moment we know that at some point in time there will be a storm.
Our ability to weather the storms that life throws us is directly related to how much effort we put into preparing when the seas are calm. For me ultramarathons are a fantastic way to build not only physical fitness but to really practice that mental resilience that we don’t always get challenged.
While you may not be prepared to run 100 miles to practice your resilience I suspect that there are many small opportunities that life provides you to practice resilience that you may not be leveraging to their full potential. So my question for you is this. Where can you use your everyday challenges as opportunities to practice in the calm to prepare for the storm?