I DNF’d my first race. At 4:30am, mile 75, I finished my sixth loop, sat on a chair, and took off my shoes. I knew, without doubt, I would not be going back out.
The Hitchcock 100 starts in darkness on a Saturday morning in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I’d been excited, and curious, about this day since June.
The day after my first 100 miler, Kettle Moraine, my husband watched me hobble around our house like a marionette, grinning at me. Brent has been at almost every race, always waiting proudly for me at the finish. “It’s so inspiring,” he said to me, “watching you all finish. I want to try it.” I pulled up a list of ultras on the iPad for him and puppeteered my legs to the shower. When I came back, the credit card was out on the couch.
He choose the Hitchcock 100. In Iowa. In December.
Brent’s not a typical runner, let alone ultramarathoner. He’s done couch-to-marathon-to-couch, yes, but he’s never enjoyed the discipline of training. As the months went on, Brent’s training was.. lacking. My plans to crew him and pace burned down slowly over the next several months passed. Finally, they rose from the ashes as a second registration. I have faith in Brent, but I also know what that distance demands. Since it’s an eight loop course, we knew there would be plenty of opportunity to check in with each other and stay in touch.
Our friend Ben was joining the 100 mile party too. We met at packet pickup We picked up our packets Friday night (at the Hitchcock nature center, which is the only indoor aid station we’d have each loop) and went out for Italian.
At 5am, we switched on our headlamps and shuffled with 65 other runners dow the hard-packed sandy trail. Each loop is 12.5 miles.
Hitchcock boasts of elevation change; as a Minnesotan and midwestern-er, I took it with more than a few grains of salt. I’m still dreaming to cross Hope Pass, still eager for the day I summit Mount Whitney. When I think of elevation gain, I think of alpine air and acclimatization. However, I underestimated Iowa. Each loop had hills so steep I could reach my arm out front and touch the trail. When you emerged at the top, you met a severe drop off. Often times I found myself trying to turn my feet sideways and sidestep, but it was useless. The downhill was worse than the up.
The first loop made me re-think my strategy. I wanted to race and race hard, but I realized immediately that the course would wear me out. Nothing about the loops was straightforward. Rather than racing ahead, Brent and I stuck together and reigned our energy in.
I was glad of the company. I was worried he was starting too fast, but it also helped me to go slow, and the camaraderie boosted us both. In my mind I didn’t imagine quite how spread out and lonely the race would turn out to be, especially when people started dropping by the dozens.
As we rounded the first loop, the sun rose. It was beautiful. The orange and brown woods was displayed beneath our feet and the shadows grew long where our headlamps weakened. The sun hit the trees behind us in a vibrant orange. I’ll never forget it.
The trees were bare but held a mysterious beauty. A few times the netting on the trails snagged my shoes. Once, a coyote snare interrupted our trail (a fellow runner hid it beneath a log). The sun washed over the woods and the day was fine. No, it wasn’t balmy, but it was tolerable. The wind died down and our spirits were high.
On the occasional flats, I pushed us along. Brent pushed, too.
As the loops went by, we started learning the landmarks. One spot of a controlled burn still had embers glowing and stumps sending up smoke. The cattle trail next to barbed wire.My favorite tree. The triple-tiered hill. The boardwalk at the first mile.
The geological survey marker.
The course is all ridges: climbing them, riding them, down climbing them. For how small the map is, Hitchcock leaves you always lost in its maze.
When you sign up to go 100 miles, you realize what “in it for the long run” means. Because of how high your expectation is, the first dozen, two-dozen miles pass easily. Brent was amazed when we finished a marathon. In a strange way, it doesn’t matter that you’ve already run for twelve hours. You know that you nearly twice that to go.
Brent pushed through a third loop (37.5 miles) and, with a lot of calories, even completed a fourth loop. I couldn’t believe his stamina. He hung in there despite blisters, fatigue, soreness, and the shock of doing something so unfamiliar to his body (which he paid for dearly later when he couldn’t sleep because he was burning up, freezing, and his legs wouldn’t stop buzzing).
The day settled into routine: the start/finish (where our belongings were) complete with warming house, aid station one (which we usually skipped), aid station two (“Oasis,” where they knew us by name), and the final long 6 mile push to the finish. The final six miles back to the start was deceitfully winding. Even before I felt fatigued, it was a long time back.
We looked for Ben but didn’t see him; soon we found out that he had also caught his foot in that tricky netting and it had caused him to fall downhill and badly twist his knee. He couldn’t walk on it, let alone run 75 more miles. He was disappointed, but there are always factors that come into play no one can control.
The course thinned and we found ourselves leapfrogging with another Minnesotan, Travis, off and on. We joined together and the company was more than welcome (eventually we would meet his wife Stephanie, too, terrific folks).
As Brent realized that he would finish with a 50 mile credit and call it after the fourth loop, I realized that I’d need company. 12.5 miles started feeling longer and longer. I knew I didn’t have a pacer waiting for me. I didn’t think I’d need one.
The finish is a climb out of something nicknamed “The Chute.” It’s where kids go sledding in the winder. The sandy hollow passage boasts steep walls at a huge incline. Apparently Iowa doesn’t believe in switchbacks. It’s a wicked way to finish the loop, but par for the course. We found Ben inside nursing his knee and the boys decided to pack up and try to recover.
I headed back out with Travis and his wife, who was pacing him (terrific people). The sun was well below the horizon and the temperature started to fall. I felt great still – my legs were turning over well, my energy level was strong, I was chatting with my new friends, and I felt I had a lot of resources left. I did find that it was a huge challenge to try and run in the darkness. It felt better to hike efficiently and try to kill the time than how much energy felt extracted trying to shuffle. I haven’t yet conquered the nighttime part of ultras.
We had a plan after the fifth loop to get what we needed and get back at it. I went to look for my friends and found him asleep on the floor. The day had taken its toll and I’d underestimated how much he was pushing through. I envied him a bit. He was fast asleep.
I headed back out alone, armed with hand warmers and opting to skip poles (possibly a mistake I won’t repeat in the future). Everything hit me. I realized how damn tired my legs were, how relentless the hills were, how sick of seeing everything for the sixth time I suddenly felt. I wasn’t emotional, crabby, or crying. Just tired. The first aid station boosted me up and fed me, but twenty minutes later I was having the same struggle.
My thoughts became circular and I grew bored and lonely. I couldn’t see straight and started feeling paranoid. Things caught my eye that weren’t there and I’d suddenly feel that someone was rushing up behind me when I was actually very alone in the wilderness. When I did see others on the course, they had pacers and mostly we grunted at each other.
I needed company. And fast. The second aid station gave me the same boost up and I left confident (again) and it dissolved instantly (again). The wind picked up and I tried to promise myself to stick with it until. The last few miles were slow, very very slow, and I was now seeing full animals and shapes standing in front of me and jumping out of the shadows that I knew weren’t there. In a panic I’d whip around and notice my eyes weren’t really focusing on anything, just grasping at flecks of light. I felt intoxicated.
I came into the nature center with plenty of time – more than 10 hours and only 25 miles to go. I knew I had gas in my tank. I knew my legs were ok. I was alone at the race that wasn’t even my race (I’m still not sure if that’s valid justification or an excuse). I wasn’t having fun anymore. I would have to stumble around bluffs for at least eight more hours. I couldn’t shove the thoughts out of my skull.
I untied my shoes.
I know I would’ve made the same decision again if I was in the same position, so I can’t say I’m disappointed in myself. I was relieved to drop down to a 50 mile finish. I can say I learned a thing. Ultrarunning is a team sport. There’s a reason we are a family, a community, bonded together. A friend from Minnesota who was there crewing and pacing other runners voluntarily cleaned my feet and re-taped my big toes after 50 miles. Who does that?
The sport of running may seem like individuals competing with other individuals, but it’s not to me. I’m there to push myself, yes, but to also push others and be pushed. I am in the big middle herd of the non-winners who are there to kick it and work hard. Together. It’s one of the happiest places I’ve ever been.