Deep breaths as the announcer declared, “Three minutes until race start.” I walked from the grassy, dew-covered field towards the faded race-branded graphics that were painted across the road and designated the start line. Finally, it’s here, I thought to myself. It had been 18 months since I last toed a start line. Given the state of the world and its ongoing pandemic, finding the motivation and energy to train competitively throughout this past year has been difficult—racing and training felt insignificant to everything else.
“Two minutes until the start.” Running became a different tool in my toolchest last year: survival. I didn’t have the luxury, time, or headspace to push my limits, lay down big weekend miles, or chase Vert. Running took the role of a friend and helped me get through every single day without putting its own expectations or problems on my shoulders.
“Sixty seconds, runners take your mark.” Within the last six months, as the world was opening back up, the fire inside of me was also waking up and with it, ambitions of pushing my limits, going to the well, and finding out if I still had what it took. It was time to put my body and mind to the test. It was time to race. “Bang” the gun goes off.
The first miles of the race swerved through neighborhoods and walking paths. The field of runners were measuring each other up, as headlamps bobbed along and everyone jostled for positions. I reminded myself of the race plan – go out conservative and crush the back half of the course.
It wasn’t long into the early road miles that fellow rabbitELITEtrail teammate Dustin Mitchell and I were stride-for-stride under the streetlights. After checking the rabbitELITEtrail Team race calendar last-minute the previous night, I saw that Dustin was scheduled to be on the start line. I had never met him, but reached out on social media to wish him luck and poke some fun at our 4 am start time. I’m sure glad I did because the miles flew by as we got to know each other. A Kentucky boy who prefers the harder clean surfaces to the soft and rocky ones, and a speedster who has gone sub-six hours on a 50-mile course, it felt like Dustin and I had been running together for years.
It was already mile ten – I grabbed some hydration from my crew and kept moving, just like a car cruising through the toll booth on the highway.
The late forecast of rain started as mist but turned into a downpour as the early morning darkness continued. The trail turned from soft to sopping wet and made the descents feel more like a slip-n-slide. We joked that rain would have felt much better in the middle of the day at peak humidity, but the truth was, we would take cool weather for as long as it wanted to stay – even if it was before dawn and despite the extra pounds to our shoes.
Quick refuel at mile 15 with some pretzels, chews, hydration, and smiles from the crew.
20 miles in, I felt my legs start to get extremely heavy and tighten up. My quads felt like someone was punching them with every step I took. Panic set in. Oh crap, is it going to be like this for the rest of the race? was my first thought. As I kept moving, I reassured myself: Give it a few miles / this could be temporary / a lot can change with 80 miles left / stay positive. But as the miles clicked away at what should have been an effortless pace this early in the race, my legs continued to feel like lead. With each step I was reminded that there is no such thing as a perfect day and there is a price to pay when setting high expectations of my body.
As I rolled into the next aid station at mile 24, I asked my crew if anyone brought a Theragun, hoping to massage the pain out of my quads. “No, but I can punch really really fast,” my sister Haley offered. I refueled and got myself back on course.
For the next few miles, I found myself running alongside Owen. Our conversation was a welcomed distraction from the increasing pain in my quads. Owen was only 17 years old. 17 years old! Running a 100-mile race! What a badass. He looked incredibly spritely on the trail, and as we chatted it was clear that he had caught “the ultra bug.” Owen, nearly twice my junior, caused me to reflect on my journey as a runner (I have another 12 hours of running left, why not go down memory lane?). I envied that he had discovered so early a sport I only came to love when I was nearly 10 years older than him. Wearied from a collegiate career in middle distance running and fresh off a missed qualification for the Ironman World Championships, trail running provided me with an opportunity to learn something new, which is so rare as an adult. Today, it has become a vehicle that imbues me with a sense of community and gives me ample opportunities to explore the untouched beauty of our earth. Trail running always keeps me young.
At mile 30, after losing touch for a bit, Dustin and I were back stride-for-stride. As we slid through the mud on the moist single track, we saw a few hikers getting in their weekend miles. They were excited to inform us that we were in fourth and fifth place, with the athlete in third not far ahead. Dustin and I were a bit surprised; we hadn’t been keeping exact track of our position, focusing more on conserving our energy through the first 50 miles. The problem with the information that the next runner is within striking distance is that you can’t unhear it and it starts to test your self-control.
Inching closer to mile 40, we entered a long, flat section of the course where Dustin and I found a groove settling into an 8-minute mile pace. With the quads still screaming at me, “Stop, this is a sign you shouldn’t be running anymore,” I fixed my sights on the turnaround point at mile 50.5. The anticipation of seeing my crew pushed the voice of reason down as far as it would let me. Before mile 45, we saw first place, Arlen Glick, running towards us looking like he had a jetpack on. He looked fresh, smooth, and ready to eat his remaining 45 miles for lunch. As we neared the turnaround, we caught up to Gerald in third place and spent time as a pack of three before continuing to push the pace.
My crew was primed and ready for an in-and-out pit stop at mile 50.5, but I had other plans. Given the state of my legs and their annoying whining, I needed a few minutes to regroup. I sat down in the chair and buried my emotions into an avocado. The crew took over. They wiped me down and reapplied sunblock. They took off my waterlogged shoes and dried my feet for a fresh pair of socks and Hokas. They listened to my optimism and fear battle each other out loud as I gave them a rundown of my current state. They did exactly what I needed and that is why they are the freaking best. After three minutes, my dad leaned over my shoulder as I sat stationary at zero miles per hour and shared a stark reality, “You gotta go, you can’t sit here any longer.” I knew it was an act of love and that he knew how bad I wanted to perform well at this race. Parents really do know best.
As I shuffled back on course, it was apparent that I couldn’t keep up the 8-minute mile pace Dustin was pushing for the previous ten miles, but if I wanted to have a shot at the top 5 podium, I needed to push the pace. I also needed to catch up to Gerald, who had maneuvered between Dustin and me in the aid station shuffle. It was clear that the back half of this course would be a grind and not pain-free. This was not how I imagined hitting the halfway mark, but those were the cards I was dealt today and it was only pain, which if not injury-related, is only temporary. With new tires, new fuel, and a new countdown from 50.5 miles back to zero – I was off, whether I liked it or not.
It was not long until I caught up to Gerald, still holding steady at third, and we shared the next ten miles together. His long strides made me wish I was taller. Our conversation was yet another welcomed distraction from the pain my legs had grown accustomed to. As we weaved through the trees, Gerald and I found ourselves off course. We were mid-conversation when we looked at each other, concerned that neither of us had seen a course marking in the past few minutes. We carried on and immediately turned into a five-year-old searching for Waldo. Eventually, we dead-ended into a part of the course with runners marching towards the aid station we had just come from. Yup, definitely off course. In a panic, Gerald and I retraced our recent steps, both wishing there were no steps to retrace and hoping we only lost a few minutes while knowing we lost much more than that. Negativity set in. The pace increased and so did my heart rate. Finally, after a half-mile of backtracking, we hit the self-designated detour.
The undo button was on replay as anger set in: How could I have missed that turn? / How many places did we slip? / How could I have lost focus? / Who wants to run an extra mile in a 100-mile race? Not me! It was clear that we dropped to fifth and sixth, maybe even further. I lost contact with Gerald but caught up to two runners as we entered the aid station at mile 65, where my crew was anxiously waiting.
“I went one mile off course.” It was the first thing I said to my crew. “How many more people are in front of me?” They replied, “Three. Only Arlen, Dustin, and Gerald.” If I could exit the aid station quickly, I could be back in fourth and on the chase. However, I got distracted from proper fueling in my panicked state after the detour. Dehydration and low energy levels were setting in; I needed to get my nutrition back on track if I wanted a shot at the podium. My crew helped me take inventory of my needs and pack the right fuel until the next aid station. I had a Facetime guest appearance from my sister Mandy to give me a boost of energy before I was back on course as the humidity and heat of a July summer day set in.
Refocusing my energy on fueling and pace, I kept my mind void of any other distractions. That is until I found myself running towards what appeared to be the fifth place runner, Eric, whom I had passed coming into the previous aid station. Am I in some sort of inception, is this real life? I had—yet again—missed a turn and backtracked on the same trail running towards my opponents. Great job Drew, really crushing this course navigation thing. Eric informed me I was going the wrong direction (again) and I turned around joining him in the direction from which I had just come (again). Defeat set in, two mistakes adding extra mileage (and time) on top of the excruciating pain of tired legs; I hit rock bottom.
I set a goal to keep Eric in sight. Sixth place had joined us as we entered the aid station at mile 70. By mile 73, I had lost contact with Eric as he moved ahead, but had put a gap on the runner behind. I was sitting in fifth place still wallowing in my “what ifs” and “should-have, could-have, would-haves.”
As I was moving along the trail, I was reminded of my “why.” Your “why” is the deep-rooted reason that often nobody else knows about, even yourself. It’s the reason you sacrifice so much of your time and energy putting in the training. It’s the reason you push yourself past seemingly unexplainable personal limits. And it’s the reason you signed up for this event in the first place. I have a lot of “whys,” but what came to mind at this moment was my grandmother who recently passed away this spring. She and my grandfather were physical education teachers and collegiate coaches for their entire lives, and they instilled in my family a love for sport, competition, and being students of the game first. Together, they pushed us and so many other athletes to find what they are capable of. Nothing truly prepares you for the pain and suffering a 100-mile race brings. You must know your “why” and be in touch with it intimately, aware of the power it has. Without that, you will not be able to reach past what you think is possible.
As I picked up the pace, I told my screaming legs to shut their pie hole and suck it up. It was time to go to war and see what I was made of.
As I approached the aid station at mile 77, I caught a glimpse of Eric in fourth place refueling at the tent. I yelled out calculated needs to my crew and they divided and conquered like the best in the business. Another boost-of-energy-Facetime-call from my brother and his family as I exited the aid station with Eric back in sight. A switch had flipped and as far as I was concerned, fourth place was mine to lose.
I turned on the gas, leaned into the downhill, and decided to make a move. I knew that once I passed Eric, I would need to surge and put some distance on him if I wanted to be out of sight. As we exited the corn fields onto the pavement, I started throwing down an 8:30 mile pace and slowly gained some distance as Eric began to drift further behind. I surged each corner we rounded. For the next 8 miles, the game plan was - push, fuel, repeat.
I came into the aid station at mile 85 with urgency. Unclear how far of a gap I had put on fifth place, I wanted to be in and out as quickly as humanly possible. As I exited the aid station rounding the corner to the trail ahead, I heard cheers from the crowd. Could that be Eric? Did he close the gap? Do I need to go faster?! My sister confirmed it was indeed Eric and that I needed to get on my horse and giddy up.
A long grassy road welcomed me into the aid station at mile 90. It felt like I was Russel Crowe in the final scene of Gladiator, walking through the fields to his Italian countryside home, muddy and bloodied from war, half in this world and half in the next (I think that reference just dated me). My crew welcomed me with a roar matched only by that of six humans from my mother’s loud side of the family. As I drew near, they informed me that Eric had passed through this aid station earlier, quite a bit ago. I was stunned – When did he pass me? Was I the opposite of hallucinating? The theory from the aid station volunteers was that he missed part of the course, which would explain why I never saw him. My heart sank for Eric—I, too, made not ONE but TWO course detours, and I know how defeating that feels. But, the only path for me was forward, and forward I marched.
The next miles were all about walking the line between complete destruction and moving as fast as my body would let me. The pace was volatile based on the degree of incline. I came into the aid station at mile 95 feeling like a zombie and yet still able to move quite well to my surprise. My crew brought the energy I needed to embark on the last five miles. My body was ready to be done and my mind was right there with it.
The sun set and I broke out my headlamp. I played tricks on myself: anytime I wanted to walk, I forced myself to run for one more minute saying you can walk in one minute, I’ll time it. This race is more mental than it is physical. I learned that a long time ago and it has served me well today. With a half-mile to go, my partner Scott joined me as I jogged to the finish, being sure to capture my questionable mental state on camera and my deep, deep desire to finish.
As I crossed the finish line, I collapsed. My crew was there to catch me, as they had been all day. They held me up and supported me like the unconditional givers that they always are. My legs screamed their final battle cry. I let them and the pain consume me. It was over. I did what I set out to do. It wasn’t pretty, it didn’t go as planned, and it was not the perfect day, but I got it done. And for that I am grateful and extremely proud.
A massive thank you to my crew (Mom, Dad, Scott, Haley, Ryan), you went above and beyond and I couldn’t have done this without you. Thank you to rabbit for supporting the dreams of your athletes and helping them become realized. Thank you to Jill, Monica, Mary and the whole rabbit team for creating a really special trail team that allowed Dustin and I to share so many miles together. Very grateful and proud to be a part of this team and brand.