It was 3 in the morning on a crisp Ohio day in June 2016. We heard the chatter of conversations about amount of sleep and strategy, and we saw the glow of car trunks and head lamps as runners geared up for their journey to cross under an arch that was erected just a mile down the road. …but it would take them 100 miles to get there.
My runner munched on Doritos and sipped on an orange Fanta. He got only 3 hours of sleep. The race director called all runners to the starting line. He went over logistics, gave some encouraging words, and then the gun sounded. My runner was gone. I was on my own, in charge of his maintenance and sanity. I exhaled all my doubts, took a bracing breath, and started my 100-mile journey as sole crew member and pacer.
I just needed to focus. If I fail, my runner fails. ‘Focus.’
Let’s step back for a second. How did I get here? I had just run my first marathon 8 months prior. I had just started running trail 2 months prior, with 12 miles being my longest run on trail. So why was I now crewing a runner at Mohican 100 with the agreement that I would pace him anywhere between 24 and 48 miles? Am I crazy? Yes. Is my runner crazy? Yes. But that’s not what got me here. It was the call to adventure. A call I never miss.
Let’s give my runner a name: Wes. I met Wes in March 2016 at an unofficial race called Devil Takes the Hindmost. (That’s right, we met just 3 months before Mohican 100.) Wes was one of the race creators and directors. He was wearing a pair of Skora, a brand of minimalist, zero-drop running shoes. I had come across Skora while researching to move into zero-drop minimalist running. So after taking second at Devil Takes the Hindmost, I asked him about Skora. He happened to be an ambassador and gave me a discount code (instant friend). After receiving my first pair and falling in love with the brand, Wes said they were great on trail and invited me on a night trail run. I had only been on one trail run before about 2 years prior that was a disaster of rolled ankles and wrong turns. But I agreed. We did just 5 miles and I had worn my borrowed headlamp too tight, but I was hooked. I wanted to live out on those trails. After a few more runs, Wes asked if I would want to crew and pace him at Mohican 100. He broke down in a few words what that meant: trails, food, like-minded crazies. And that was it. That was the call. I was adventure bound, telling my boyfriend at the time that I was running off to Ohio for a night of hallucinating in the woods with another man. (Ok, not in those words. But in hindsight, that’s basically what it was.)
Back to the race . . .
The first 18 hours of this 36-hour race, I played crew for Wes. He would send me text messages from the trail, telling me what he needed: water, tailwind, Aquaphor, GU, hot food, shirt, socks, ice, hugs, whatever.
I just had to make sure I found the crew spots and didn't crash Wes’s car. Simple enough, right?
Let me paint a picture for you: I got lost every day when I first moved into the city of Philadelphia. Philadelphia is a grid. SO, I was leaning heavily on Google maps. (I love you, Google.) Unfortunately, reception wasn’t the best. (Verizon was trying to come between me and Google.) I followed cars that I thought were surely going where I was going, but I was often wrong and made quite a few illegal turnarounds, almost driving into ditches a couple of those times. Fortunately, Megan came into my life.
Megan is the ultimate crew person. Both of her runners’ supplies were organized in their own special bins. (That’s right, she was sole crew person for TWO runners!) She knew what they needed before they knew it. And she had the directions to each crew spot down, having driven around the day before to find them. Megan is smart. Megan is a dream. I love Megan. So, I linked up with Megan. She helped me anticipate Wes’s needs. She let me follow her from crew spot to crew spot. And she gave both Wes and me the encouragement we badly needed.
I wish I could say that despite my poor crewing, Wes was thriving. But halfway through his very first loop, he was doubting himself. The heat was suffocating on the trail. He was losing water quickly. He was already talking about picking me up earlier, which meant 48 trail miles for me as pacer. *Gulp* If I fail, my runner fails. ‘Focus.’
When Wes finished the first loop (26 miles), he felt defeated. He was moving slower than he anticipated. The heat continued to beat him down. I never saw his spirits so low before. I didn’t know Wes could have low spirits. He was always laughing, making jokes (often crude), and bringing people up into the positive realm of unicorns and rainbows. I gave cool towels for his neck and hugs for his ego. He asked if I could pace him when he finished his second loop. I swallowed my doubt and said, ‘absolutely, whatever you need.’ I was eager to get on the trail, but I was scared. Could I go the distance? Could I push him to the finish line? I had to. There was no other option.
He had 48 miles to go. I had 48 miles to go. The second half of this adventure.
As the sun started to set, Wes started to fold into himself even more. He wanted to lay down on the trail, rest his eyes, just for a moment. But I pushed him onward. We played word association games for as long as his mind could handle it. But then the hallucinations started. He asked why there was a pickup truck in the middle of the woods. He would point out runners up ahead. He asked if we got off track because he heard running water and didn’t remember a stream. There were no pickup trucks, no runners up ahead, and no sound of running water. Eventually, he started to keep these hallucinations to himself. He fell silent, his brain sleeping without his body. He just followed the reflectors on the back of my Skora Fits while I told him my life story, my greatest fears, and my most embarrassing moments. (He wasn’t supposed to remember it all. Darn you, Wes.)
While Wes’s brain was signing off, my stomach was doing the same. I was using tailwind in my hydration pack. (Apparently my stomach does not like tailwind.) I was bloated, nauseous, and severely dehydrated. My mind and body were tired and did not like that I was out on the trail, feeding it a strange liquid. They had not been trained for this and so were on strike. I’d take tiny sips from my pack to keep my mouth wet, but each sip would lead to even greater bloat. I started having sharp stomach pains and would seek out the porta-potties at each aid station. But I couldn’t even go to the bathroom.
My fingers had become swollen, barely able to bend, because of the dehydration. I could feel my body shutting down. I was scared. But I pushed on. I had to. There was no other choice.
It was still dark when we finished our first loop together: Wes’s third. I had 24 miles under my belt as pacer, and Wes was now 76 miles into this race. Wes insisted that he needed just 20 minutes of shut eye. He said he’d done it before at another 100-mile race and that it revived him. I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to get it over with. I didn’t want to waste any more time, since I already cost us a lot of time at aide stations trying to go to the bathroom. But Wes said it was what he needed. So, we stole off to the car and napped for 20 minutes. Wes snored while I stared wide eyed at the night, praying that my body would push through. I just needed to get Wes to that arch, then I could collapse. If I fail, my runner fails. ‘Focus.’
Dawn had broken as we headed back onto the trail. They told us we were running right up against cut offs, so we needed to keep the pace up. Wes’s energy seemed to be back up. He even stopped to take a picture of me when I logged my 27th mile as pacer, stilling the moment I became an ultra runner. My stomach pains had worsened. I stopped attempting to take sips of water because it just made me nauseous. But whenever Wes looked at me, I’d put a big smile on my face. He couldn’t know I thought I was dying. If he did, he might stop. And he couldn’t stop. We needed to get him to that darn arch.
We came to the next aide station with a few minutes to spare. Wes grabbed some candy, and we were right back on the trail. We were barely keeping a 25-minute pace. Wes could no longer run. But we kept moving—slow but persistent. This was the last loop. He was so close.
We arrived at the next aide station with just seconds to spare. They had already packed the food away. If we could keep a 20-minute pace, then we would make the cut-off time at the next aide station. But Wes called it: a 20-minute pace would be a sprint for us at that point. Wes took the DNF (did not finish) designation for the first time ever. At mile 88 (yes, just 12 miles to go), we sat our barely functioning bodies down on a picnic bench, leaning against each other, and confessed our true physical and mental states (decrepit). Wes took a pic, capturing the moment of our defeat and the moment I knew he’d be a forever friend.
I had failed. But my runner did not.
He ran 88 miles, accepted his first DNF with grace, and brought the whole experience back into the positive realm he lives in. He immediately started to note where things went wrong, identifying weaknesses, and mentally preparing to strengthen those areas.
One of the aide station workers gave us a ride back to Wes’s car. We drove the mile down the road to watch the last runners cross under the arch that we had been pushing for. I tried a couple more times to go to the bathroom. (If you haven’t caught on, there’s no such thing as TMI in ultra running.) And then we left in search of food and sleep.
To keep awake while driving, I talked to Wes who was dead asleep in the passenger seat. First stop was Cracker Barrel. We got some odd looks as we dragged ourselves into the restaurant. We ordered an obscene amount of food for take out. And then we waited for what felt like FOREVER for our food. I started to shiver uncontrollably in the air conditioning and was on the brink of a mini breakdown. I was so over this adventure. I just wanted to be in a comfy bed, surrounded by food. In that moment, that was paradise. (But let’s be honest, a comfy bed surrounded by food sounds like a dream in any moment.)
Finally, we were back in the hotel room. Wes passed out before even touching his food. And I fell asleep in my burger and tater tots.
Wes continues to refer to Mohican 100 (2016) as a sh*t show. And I agree. But he said that he needed the kick in the teeth, the boot to the balls, the scourging of his confidence (ok, so he didn’t say any of that exactly, but something of the sort). He was bummed. His ego was deflated. But he wasn’t defeated.
I learned SO much, including the obvious lessons of testing nutrition before race day, training for the race you’re running (or pacing), and avoid dehydration! But the biggest lesson I took away from this experience was to never bite off more than I can chew when it can mean the difference between the success and the failure of someone else’s adventure. This was Wes’s first ever DNF. And although he will tell everyone, and maybe even believes it himself, that he would’ve DNF’d sooner if it weren’t for me, I believe that the extra time I took at aid stations because of my gastro issues really hurt him. I am certain that if he was given that time back, he would’ve made the cut off times and finished. It wouldn’t have been pretty, but he would’ve hobbled away with a belt buckle. And maybe he would have even been the Last Mohican! (They give out a special medal for that.)
We will be back for you, Mohican 100. And Wes will walk away with that belt buckle.