We were somewhere around Machell Hollow on the edge of the forest when the pain began to take hold.
I saw Bearded Dave again. He wasn’t looking good when I passed. We were together earlier, but I hadn’t seen him since the first quarter of the day. This time, later, I reluctantly left him behind in the dark, his headlight receding in the tree skeletons of November. I continued around the bluffs and through the hollers–unless you’re on a river, these are your only options for travel in Missouri–and a different pair of headlights was gaining behind me. Down, over Billy’s Branch, up the opposing bluff, on and on. I passed another racer who had stopped, stepped into the trees, put his head down, and tried to understand where it had all gone wrong.
The chasing headlights finally caught me, and kept going. What relief. I let them go, following for a few minutes before pulling over, putting my hands on my knees, and trying to understand where it had all gone wrong.
What time was it? How many more miles? Was the sun ever going to rise? What brain chemicals had caused this, and how might they be neutralized in the future? How long could I maintain?
Everything had looked good until Hazel Creek, five or six miles ago, mile 68 of the 102-mile Ozark Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run, 18 miles farther than I had ever run, approximately equal to my longest week of running ever. I had been riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. A sub-24 hour finish was unlikely, but possible–until it wasn’t.
Why had I signed up for the thing? Curiosity. I had read Born to Run by Chris McDougall, and gone down to The City to see him and a cast of related characters from the barefoot and/or long distance running cult talk to their people. What was it like to go 100 miles in a single effort? There was only one way to answer the nagging question.
November 5: It was a cold morning, and I had slept in the cab of a pickup truck. Away we went, eighty-some runners in a pair of yellow school buses, rolling down the lettered Missouri highways for an hour and a half to the start line, a banner slung between trees in the dark in a place remote enough that not even the banjoists dared duel. Away we went in a line of flashlights and headlamps, rolling down the leaf littered Missouri hills for an hour and a half in the 6am darkness until the sun dared shine.
The first 50 miles were a breeze. I haven’t worn a watch while running since four months ago. Without any reference point, there is nothing but trail and trees punctuated by an occasional aid station and passed or passing runners. The sky was overcast most of the day–there was no time, only light. There were no expectations of pace or pain per mile.
But the sun did arrive, finally, sometime between Gunstock Hollow and Brooks Creek, between miles 35 and 44. That was pertinent. The light in the treetops above was my measure of how worried I should be. I stashed my headlamp in a drop bag at Highway DD, mile 51. Beyond that, the world was full of firsts. Every step was the furthest I had ever gone. Also, I had never run on the trails in the dark with a headlamp. The world shrank to the reach of the light, bits of reflective tape glinting on the trail markers ahead. It was very strange. There were no dimensions. No watch: no time. No horizon: no distance. The race was point-sized–located, effectively, in my mind only. As my mind went, so went the race.
The next segment, Martin Road to Hazel Creek, mile 68, the two-thirds mark, was the longest segment of the race. Nine point three miles. It was a smooth run. It felt quick. It needed to be quick. I was breathing plumes into my light, and the drop bag with my long shirt and stocking cap were at Hazel Creek. After Hazel Creek, the world unraveled. Or did it? Did my knees feel like bags of broken glass around mile 74, or did I lose my will and think that my knees were smashed? I could put together bursts of running, but nothing like the previous smooth miles that were punctuated only by occasional uphill walks.
I walked out of Machell Hollow, mile 76, and when I was out of sight of the aid station I experimented with running. It was awful. My body had become two halves. In the upper half, my chest tried to pull my body upwards in some anti-physical denial of gravity. In the lower half, my feet tip-toed on the trail, trying daintily to keep pressure of my knees. I stopped, put my hands on knees, and figured it was time to call it a day–or night or morning, as it must have been near midnight by then.
Along came Bearded Dave and Purdue Ryan and his pacer, Tony, a local runner who was in charge of maintenance of this section of the trail–talk about a fortuitous intersection. They convinced me to tag along with them as they speed-walked to Berryman Campground at mile 81. There, I stalled and sent them off without me, and tried to drop from the race. The aid station volunteers campaigned against it. I couldn’t manage the shame of (a) quitting and (b) trying to convince people that I wanted to quit, so I went on, determined to show them they were wrong, which is the kind of logic that gets employed when one is cold, tired, and frustrated.
The next seven miles, from Berryman to Billy’s Branch, were feverish and ugly. The body felt crystalline and fragile. The mind looped the desire to drop from the race. The wind made the air feel cold. The batteries in my headlamp faded, and I replaced them in the dark.
Strange memories on that nervous night in the Ozarks. Five hours later? Six? It seemed like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era–the kind of running peak that never came again.
I tried to drop again at Billy’s Branch, mile 88, this time fully from shame. Twenty-four hours had passed, and the sky’s barely perceptible change meant that twenty-five hours, the latest I had ever imagined as a finish, must have passed as well. The aid station volunteers told me that it would be easy to walk the last fourteen miles and beat the thirty-two hour cutoff time and get a finisher’s buckle. That thought that must have been compelling to some, but to me it was a reminder of a great disappointment. Finishing the thing had never been interesting to me. I never had a doubt about that. The precipitous fall at the end was the frustrating.
No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride . . . and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well . . . maybe chalk it off to forced conscious expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.
I swished through the fallen leaves. I yelled at the trees. I sat and napped for a few minutes when sleep turned predatory. I had a homemade cookie at the final aid station. I swished through the fallen leaves. I brooded on the humiliation of walking a run. I discovered that the last seven miles weren’t a vanity cruise to the finish, but a trail coursed up and down the bluffs. But the mind–not my mind, but the mind, for I had ceased trying to own the thing–punished me more than any hill ever did.
And that’s the way it ended as I walked through the finish line, not even bothering to fake a run or to unscrew my face out of the disgusting mask it had become.
All very disappointing. A year of losing that was supposed to end triumphantly ended, instead, ambiguously. But a good race is still Out there. Or maybe it’s In. Having this enigma of a race means I might have to go out and vindicate myself–for good or ill.
Final time: 29:34.
I wanted to write something original, but I copped out and twisted a few (too many) lines from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. and one from Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.