by Carla Halpern
The idea of running 100 miles made me really happy. Whether the reality would make me happy remained to be seen. I had no idea whether I’d be ready for 100 miles when I signed up for Ghost Train 2018. But as I stood on the starting line, my heart said it was time to try.
The Ghost Train Trail Race, which runs between Brookline and Milford New Hampshire, is a good choice for a first attempt at a “hundo.” It’s an October race (so generally not extreme weather), on a gentle, well-maintained and fairly flat trail. The aid stations are no more than four miles apart. The fact that it’s an out-an-back route that makes it very likely someone will find you if you collapse. Plus it’s put on by a great group of people: the Trail Animals Running Club (TARC). With all these appealing reasons to try Ghost Train, my ultra running-buddies Francia and Nan signed up as soon as registration opened on January first. Naturally I waited too long and this very popular race filled up. I was shunted to the waitlist. As the summer progressed, I waited to see whether I would “do or crew.” But I guess some greater power wanted me to go for it, because in late September I finally got in. That same greater power then smiled again, as our favorite “running wives” Carol and Rebecca stepped up to crew all night, and my sister Susannah promised to join us in the morning.
So was I ready? I had put a lot of miles on my body that summer. No official training per se, but lots of races. Long races. Long enough? I had crawled to a 70.3 mile finish in the Notchview 24 Hour. I had sprained my ankle in the first lap of a 50 miler but gritted my teeth to the finish.
Hmm. Just in case crawling and spraining didn’t count as training, I had decided to have some back-up motivation. To do 100 miles at Ghost Train, one needs seven laps (six 15 milers and one 10 mile). Lucky seven, right? Let’s see, I thought, what else is lucky seven? Hey, how about a rainbow? Yes, I thought, I’ll Run the Rainbow: a different colored change of clothes for each lap. Oh, and of course I would need a rainbow pallet of scrunchies and tutus! Because who prepares for an ultra without at least one tutu?
Stowing the Gear
The night before leaving for New Hampshire, I picked out coordinated running clothes and sealed them in labeled gallon Ziploc bags: “Red”, “Orange” etc. Some of the shirts I chose had emotional weight: first marathon, lots of Rabbit Run tees, a Delaware race I did with my sister Kay. Seven hair scrunchies of course. My rainbow scheme was coming along great until I realized that I had no indigo running clothes. Weird. Well, ultra running is pretty much about modifying your race plan over and over, so it was a good time to get a start on that. What could I do instead of indigo? Hmm. Let’s see…it was fall, there was an election coming up…I could make my penultimate lap a patriotic one! Yes, I decided:the Indigo lap would include Pissed-Off Resistance Bleeding Heart Marathon t-shirts and a Captain America tutu!
I tossed a few extra things into my primary race bin: first aid supplies, headlamp, batteries, snacks, garbage bags (a.k.a. rain gear) and extra socks. Lots and lots and lots of extra socks. Then I packed a second race bin to be dropped at the Milford aid station with a copy of all the gear in the first, just in case I needed Bandaids or batteries or bars at the turnaround.
My only other preparation was to post on the Ghost Train Facebook page that I was looking at this race as an opportunity to expand my repertoire of foul language and that I would love to learn any new curse words that people wanted to share. Bonus points for foreign languages!
I refrained from ordering a commemorative Ghost Train 100 Mile belt buckle. I was hopeful, but not that confident.
We staked out our campsite with Nan’s pop-up tent as our base and smaller one-person pup tents for everyone else. I didn’t bring a tent because I didn’t plan to sleep. Ever since my friend Shari told me, before my first 24-hour, that you don’t need sleep because adrenaline will kick in, I haven’t needed sleep during a race. But this was a 30-hour, so I had a sleeping bag stashed in my car just in case.
As soon as we had finished setting up I went off to check out the aid table. Hey, any excuse to be around the food, right? But before I could get there, a streak of gold glitter and faerie wings came barreling at me. Praneeeeeee! I squeezed my old running buddy and then brought her back to our basecamp so we could all hug her. And then we saw Shari! And Tek! More hugs, high fives, shouts of encouragement. We all mugged for pre-race selfies.
I had one more mission before shit got real. There was a tutu in my race box that had not been designated for any lap. This was the coveted rainbow tutu, and I had promised it to Alex for this race. I located said tutu and walked down to Alex’s campsite. There were plenty of racers and crew and volunteers in costume and as I’m not one to shy away from whimsy, I crowned myself with the tutu. I found Alex’s husband, Mark. What was I supposed to bring for Alex again? He grinned. And then there was Alex. And Tara. And Marie. I’d found the campsite of the Vegan Power Superstars! More hugs and high-fives and fist-bumps and runner love. Then I gave Alex the tutu and did my best to switch into Race Mode.
Because it was Time to Pick Up my Bib.
The volunteer asked me how many miles I planned to run. “One…” I said. She looked at me. “…hundred” I gulped.
Ready in Red
100 miles. This is crazy. This is hilarious. This is wild. This is going to make me happy?
Let’s find out!
This being a TARC race, we start off with, of course, a Yeti Howl: Owoooooooooooh!
The first lap is full of promise and excitement. Nan and I run shoulder to shoulder, occasionally exhorting each other to go slower! “It’s not a marathon”, we remind each other. I’m wearing a bright red Vegan Power t-shirt and she has layered on a long-sleeved Dr. Who 100 Mile Club tee that proclaims “Keep Calm and Go 100 Miles.” We get lots of props.
“Go Vegan!” says a runner passing me, seeing my shirt. Already it’s gotten too hot for long sleeves and Nan ties her shirt around her waist. The motto inspires everyone behind us.
And—check it out—there’s the One Mile mark! The novelty of attempting a 100 mile race is still pretty thrilling as we realize we are 1% of the way done. A kind local resident has put out a self-service aid station with lots of Halloween candy and bags of mini pretzels. Although we don’t take any treats on this first loop, we all cheer to see the table.
Nan and I frolic through the first half of the first lap, introducing ourselves to other runners. We find that Ghost Train attracts a remarkable number of people named “Alex.”
I tell the Alexes and others my name and some of them recognize me as the one who wants to learn new swear words. I’m surrounded by shouts of “Puta!” “Putain!” “Merde!” “Scheisse!” Then the young fellow next to me starts up a conversation in ASL:
Bitch, please, he signs to me.
Go to Hell, I tell him
Oh shit and then I’m out of ASL curses.
Not to worry. Around the next bend, I hear more shouts of “Vegan Power!”
We run for a time with the Faerie Posse, five folks in bright colors and gauzy wings. Pranee is among them. The winged crew poses for animal crackers around one of the race marshals, a scarecrow dressed up like a ghost, and we join them. Then it’s up and over the one major hill.
The hill is fun. We go slowly because of the steep grade and the myriad roots, but it feels great to change up the muscles after running on flats for the first six miles. There are pie plates with funny or inspirational sayings posted on trees all up and down the hill, so you can’t help but smile as you cross. At least on this first lap.
Shortly after The Hill, we come to The Tunnel. The faeries tell us to grab sticks and scream at the top of our lungs as we run through the tunnel and whack the sticks along the sides. It’s a blast!
Nan and I split at the Milford turnaround. She goes off to seek a porta-potty and I do my best to stuff my face. I’ve been told that I should eat as early and as much as possible, so here I come for a handful of pb&j squares and a pile of tortillas with hummus.
I leave at about the same time as the faeries, but I can’t keep up with them.
As I run solo back to basecamp, I take stock: what do I need for the second lap? Orange clothes, of course. But it would also be a good idea to re-grease the feet. Heck, why not re-grease all the trouble-spots? The rest of the body feels pretty good except for my knees, which have been twingy for months and my ankles, the right because of the sprain and the left because it is my perpetually weak side. The left ankle is already burning. Actually, now that I think about it, both ankles are burning. Uh-oh. Do I need to wrap the sprained ankle? Do I need to wrap both? Should I wrap my knees? Did I pack enough ace bandages for all my joints?
And then an amazing thing happens. As I listen to my body’s signals, my body speaks back to me: Oh, were you worried about our knees and ankles? Nah, we’ll be fine. Just give us a little acetaminophen and we’ll get you through this race, no problem. “What? No bandages? No tape?” Nope. Two little pills and you’ll be fine. Promise. And just like that, my ankles stop burning. Wow.
So I finish the Red Lap with a mental inventory of what I need: Orange clothes, Vaseline, Glide, Desitin, acetaminophen, fluid refills.
I run into basecamp and Rebecca jumps up and starts banging a cowbell. I throw my fuel belt at her and scream my list. She catches all of it.
The loop isn’t over quite yet though. The last part is a paved hill down to a covered bridge. The route goes through the bridge, around a pumpkin, and back up to basecamp. Cute. When I come back up the hill from the covered bridge mini-turnaround, Rebecca has taken care of everything: clothes, lubes, meds, re-stocked fuel belt—all laid out.
I love my crew.
Orange is the new Red
Fifteen miles in and time to get very comfortable with my old ultra friend Pain because we will be companions for the next 24 hours or so. Pain is not doing anything fancy today. She just wants me to acknowledge her presence. Hi there Pain, thought you might join me here.
On the way out, I see Francia running past the row of porta-potties that marks the division between camp and trail. We are teammates, adventurers on this wild ride together. I want to give my teammate something as we pass each other so I call out: “Do you need pretzels/Tailwind/water?” She smiles, nah she’s good. Hmm. There must be something I can give her. What else is in my jacket pocket? “Desitin?” At first she shakes her head but then changes her mind and holds out her hand. I slap the tube into her palm, baton style.
I divide the course into landmarks: Camp Tevya sign, self-service aid table, lake, jack-o-lantern alley, Power Lines aid station, last loop turnaround, Hill, Tunnel, Milford turnaround…
Past the rows of jack-o-lanterns I see Pranee, who is doing 30 miles today. She has decided to walk her second lap. I sit down on a stump to get a pebble out of my shoe and as I get up I see the tendril of a poison ivy vine that has grown across the stump. I sprint away and catch up to Pranee, hoping that her company will distract me from itchy thoughts. It does. Thank you Pranee. We spend the next couple miles catching up.
We split off after Power Lines and again I run solo for a while. Or rather, I run with Pain. She is still calm and quiet, content to be in the background.
Eat as much as you can, as early as you can I remind myself at the Milford turnaround. I grab a grilled cheese sandwich and dunk it in hummus. A little messy, but a lot worth it.
On the way back through Power Lines I select a hard-boiled egg from the aid station and munch on it as I head out. Oh, there’s a couple of the vegans, Tara and Mark. I say hi through a mouthful of food and comment that I need to go and get that yellow tutu. As I pass them, it occurs to me that maybe it was rude to be stuffing my face with non-vegan victuals right in front of them.
I run into basecamp and see the Faerie Posse on their way out. There’s only four of them now and I miss Pranee already.
I don’t have red or orange tutus. But I have a yellow one! Even better, the yellow lap gives me my first pacer! I light up to see Kathie at basecamp. I change into yellow clothes that Rebecca has of course already laid out. Then I re-grease my feet and change socks while she re-stocks my fuel belt. Kathie grabs her windbreaker and headlamp and we’re good to go.
Running with Kathie is literally a change of pace. She keeps me going much faster than I would have on my own. I can’t afford to slack off this early on, but still—thirty miles is thirty miles and I’m a little tired (Yes Pain, I see you). We run/walk at a pretty good clip, chatting and enjoying the scenery. (A few weeks later, after the Monson Half, Kathie will comment to me that this 15 miles is way easier than Monson’s 13.1. Yes indeed.)
We’re on our way back after the turnaround and we see more teammates: Nan, with Tom pacing her! Again with the hugs and squeals of joy. A little later on we see Francia with her pacer, Cara. Francia is in some pain, battling sciatica. But Cara has gotten her out for one more lap. They are both grinning as we exchange hugs in the fresh night air.
Back to the dark trail, past the ghost marshals, over the hill of roots and alongside the jack-o-lanterns, now lit up with goofy faces and inspirational messages like “Run Fasta” and “100”, Kathie gets me running home to basecamp.
Green Around the Gills
Ultra-athlete and Jill-of-all-Trades Aleks has decided that it’s a great idea to drive out to southern New Hampshire in the middle of the night and run fifteen miles with crazy people. And my Blue Loop pacer, Chris, has come out early, even though his shift does not start for hours. I ask Aleks whom she is pacing. “Whoever shows up first” she says. Lucky me! “I’m here!”
Aleks has seen me at my worst, having paced me in the last lap of the Free to Run 50 a month ago. She has seen me pout about injuries, heard me whine about food, and endured my foul and off-key rendition of the Drunk Scotsman Song. Aleks is in the pantheon of Pacer Gods because she can deal with this crap like it’s nothing. Also, she calls out roots and other course hazards and has the uncanny ability to MacGuyver anything. So out into the dark with Aleks and I’ve got no worries.
Two miles into the Green Lap and my stomach suddenly notices that it is not getting its share of blood for digestion because everything is going to my legs and lungs. Pain smirks at me and then CRASH! Here comes The Wall and I’m dry-heaving over the jack-o-lanterns.
Uh-oh. Mile 48 is awfully early for The Wall.
I whine for Aleks to save me: “Help! It’s a wall…help me through it, Aleks…” Tears and snot run down my face. Aleks stays calm. We walk and she reminds me to breathe…easy…
I am grateful for the October cold. Bracing cold, I tell myself. Thank goodness we’re not trying to do this in the heat. The cold actually functions as a brace to hold me up. It helps me keep my head up, helps me keep form. Fake it fake it fake it ‘til you make it. Running makes me too dizzy but I hold my head up and stride as though I feel okay.
We reach Power Lines and Aleks fetches me a cup of broth. I manage to sip it and find that there are noodles in the bottom of the cup. I tentatively slurp at the noodles and then swallow them too. “I ate a noodle!” I brag to Aleks. “Every little bit helps,” she responds.
We make it to the ghost marshal pointing the way up The Hill. Aleks stops to snap a picture of the ghost and I lean into the shot, faking a smile. Then we start climbing. I go slowly, trying to be precise about where I place each foot. Woozy, nauseated, tired…on a steep serpentine trail littered with roots, painfully conscious that if I misstep the race is over. We reach the top as the queasiness crescendos. I think I might have another fit of dry-heaves, but no–this time I go for more drama and actually paint the foliage with last aid station’s broth and noodles. Oh no, precious calories and electrolytes escaping! Now bile drips down my chin, joining the tears and snot. I imagine I look positively ghoulish. Well, at least it’s a Halloween-themed race.
But then, with the stomach turmoil resolved for the moment, I feel a bit…better. Aleks and I ease down the hill and actually run for a bit. Yes, this is better. But it is temporary. I need to find a way to get calories in because there’s almost 50 miles still to go.
As we head towards Milford, a volunteer rides by on a trail bike, asking if we need anything. “Salt pills?” I inquire hopefully. He hands me a pack of citrus-flavored chewables. Aleks tells me to take two. “Can I do one at a time or do they have to be together?” She tells me one at a time is fine. I put a tablet in my mouth and suck on it. Lemony. Okay.
We approach the aid station and I go into hyper-cautious mode while crossing the narrow footbridge. As with the hill, this is NOT a place you can afford to trip.
At the turnaround, Grumpy Carla emerges. I don’t feel like food. I don’t feel like fun. I take off the green tutu and fling it angrily into my drop box. I sulk over to the fire and sit down, telling Aleks I am taking five minutes to stare into the fire and get my shit together. I imply that it is her job to get my ass moving after the five minutes are up. Aleks brings me half a banana, some potato wedges, chips. The banana looks gross and I reject it. She tosses it into the fire. For some reason I find this darkly comedic. I nibble a chunk of potato. I chew up the second pill. As I sit there by the fire acting pissy, I hear another runner talking to a volunteer. “I’m done; I’m dropping. 52.5 miles is what I’ve got today.” The volunteer is kind. “52.5 miles is pretty amazing!” Yes, it is. I think about it. Is that all I’ve got today?
Nope. I’m still grumpy but I WILL do this. Aleks is gonna have to deal with me for another 7.5 miles. We head back out and again I am too dizzy to run. The salt pills are not helping. The queasiness grows until we’re back at the top of the hill and then yes, again, I hurl into the bushes. Good bye salt pills and potato.
Aleks tries to distract me by playing “I’m going to an ultra and I’m bringing…” It’s a child’s alphabet game, a fun time-passer where each participant lists something she would bring corresponding with each letter of the alphabet, along with all the previous letters. It’s a decent distraction until I’m stuck on “U” and all I can think of is “upset stomach” and “upchuck.” Nope. That’s one game I won’t finish today.
Running makes me queasy. Talking above a whisper makes me queasy. I am still grateful for the cold but now calorie deficit is starting and I actually feel cold.
Aleks stays by my side, keeping me going through the dark. The polyglot cursers pass us and somehow recognize me. They shout out: “Putain!” “Puta!” “Merde!” “Schiesse!”
The swears rejuvenate me a little.
I crack a smile.
Aleks gets me safely back to basecamp. We run the last tenth of a mile because no matter how I feel, I always want my crew to see me running in. Suck it, Pain.
Welcome to the land of Calorie Deficit. Time to dress for it. Rebecca and Chris hold up a blanket so I can change my clothes but I don’t really care who sees me. I’m a mother and an ultra-runner and I’ve just gone 60 miles. Any thoughts of modesty can just fuck off.
I peel off the green compression sleeves and pull on tights. Two long-sleeved shirts, including Hartford 2011 with that sweet First Marathon mojo. Rabbit Run ’16 short-sleeved on top. Re-greased feet and clean socks. Ear band. Thick gloves.
I must have said that coffee with milk might settle my stomach, because Rebecca or Carol brings me a coffee with milk. Have I told you how much I love you guys?
And here come the faeries, finishing their Green loop. Somehow, in the midst of vomiting and complaining, we got ahead of them.
It’s time to go Do the Blue. I don’t have a blue tutu. But I have Chris.
This is not Chris’ first rodeo. He knows ultras and he knows pacing. He knows desperate runners. So when I tearfully confess to Chris that we will be walking and not running because of my stomach issues, the first thing he does is tell me how good my form is. “What?” “You’re looking strong.” He is not patronizing, not trying to flatter me. “Your stride is good.” He’s just matter of fact. He points out the positive. And what do you know—yes, I AM standing up straight and moving forward.
The next thing Chris does is take my coffee cup (I have long since given up any pride in not letting pacers be mules). “You just focus on moving forward.” He teaches me his mantra: Relentless Forward Motion. I get it. Stop for too long and it’s over.
Then he says something irritating: “You need to eat and drink.”
Well duh. But I CAN’T.
But he makes me. Chris makes me stop every minute or so to take a tiny sip—soda, coffee, Tailwind, water—anything. He makes me stop every other minute to take a tiny nibble of a pretzel. I hate stopping every minute. I try to drink extra when we stop, but he won’t let me. “No, don’t overdo it. You need to keep this down.”
Ugh, it’s so annoying. Walk. Stop. Sip. Walk. Stop. Nibble.
Teeny sips. Tiny bites.
Little itty-bitty calories.
But they add up.
And they stay down. Oh my God, I’m taking in fuel again!
By the time we get to Power Lines, I feel significantly better. And when we leave Power Lines, we run.
We run gently at first, a little “shuffle.” But we run/walk all the way to Milford without incident. The calories are going in. My strength and confidence are returning. At the aid station, I take another five-minute break by the fire, feeling much better than I did last time I was here. I grab a pb&j, secure in the knowledge that I will be able to eat it and keep it down.
We leave Milford with a nice run/walk rhythm. I feel the onset of “almost there” joy, even though I still have a third of the race to go. I ask Chris why people say “good job” and “nice work” to runners when it is clear that we are playing, not working. He explains to me that this is just race etiquette. So I join him in saying niceties to other runners as we pass. This also helps the miles go by more quickly.
“Looking good!” we tell two runners as we pass them right before the tunnel. Remembering how exciting it was to run through screaming on the Red Lap, I say to Chris, “Let’s run the tunnel!”
Oh, the joy of scampering through the dark with abandon. The first few steps in the tunnel are such fun! I am sprinting with glee!
Then the sandwich flies out of my hand and all those new curses fly out of my mouth.
What the !@#$%^&*????
Stars. I am on the ground and I see cartoon stars. My right arm is stretched out in front of me and I can’t even process how much it hurts. I have birthed three babies and I never been in this much pain. I can’t see a thing except stars; I can’t figure out what happened. My shoulder is on fire and all I can think is Did I just ruin my 100-miler at 68 miles by tripping in a stupid tunnel? I hear vague sounds of “Are you okay?” Chris reaches for me but I scream something at him. There is nothing but pain and stars.
But maybe they are lucky stars, because my humerus slides and I hear a soft “pop” and suddenly my vision clears and the pain goes from agony to ordinary. I sit up. Chris and the two runners we just passed are hovering over me, concerned. I let Chris help me up and out of the tunnel. He thanks the other two and they go on their way.
I am SO angry at that tunnel. It tripped me and hurt me and it TOOK MY FOOD. I want to run away from the tunnel as fast as I can.
Chris vetoes that plan. He gently pulls me to the side of the trail and gives me a once-over: I’m standing on two feet (check). No obvious cuts or bruises (check). My shoulder hurts, but I am no longer clutching it in desperation. My pupils are the same size (check). I am shaking, but mostly with rage because I dropped the sandwich: now I have to wait two more miles for fuel.
Chris okays us to continue Relentless Forward Motion. I want to run and leave that stupid tunnel far behind. But running while exhausted and angry is a recipe for another accident, one that could take me out of the race for good. So Chris makes me walk for at least a half mile until my rage has abated somewhat and my breathing is back to normal.
“Good job,” we call out. “Nice work!” We pass runners, walkers, some racers weaving and limping. As long as they acknowledge our platitudes, we don’t worry. Then I see outlines of bodies in the woods, horizontal, some curled on their sides. I look at Chris. “What the…?” We query one of the bodies: “Are you okay?” “Resting…” responds a slurred voice. Wow. Last thing in the world I would want to do. If I lay down in the dark and cold, I would be dead. Or at least DNF.
We run/walk back to the relative light and warmth of Power Lines, where I take another five minutes by the fire. I have to warm up after seeing those forest sleepers.
One more pit stop before we leave the aid station and, oh hey, looks like I’ll be dealing with some blood flow issues. Being that I am woman “of a certain age”, my period can go MIA for months at a time, but of course it chooses this race to make a special cameo appearance. For a moment I wonder whether the volunteers have any tampons but then I just shrug. My tights are multi-colored and I’m wearing shorts over them. I’ll get my next tutu in four miles. If anyone’s going to be offended by a little blood, they have no business being in an ultra.
As we make our way past the jack-o-lanterns, it starts to rain. Or maybe sleet. It’s only light precipitation though, so my windbreaker keeps me dry enough. The drops feel refreshing and we chat about how pretty they are. Maybe it’s even snow?
Gentle flakes, and our gentle footsteps, into the last mile of the Blue. We pass the porta-potties and run into basecamp, smiling at the familiar faces of Karin and Ann, extraordinary athletes who have come to crew their own runners.
It will be dawn soon, but it’s still really cold so I keep the tights. Rebecca fishes my compression sleeves out of the dirty laundry and I roll them on over the tights for extra warmth. One is inside out. I don’t fucking care.
I keep the Hartford Marathon shirt and layer my two Pissed-Off Resistance shirts over it, finishing off the look with my Captain America tutu. I ditch the headlamp.
Rebecca or Carol has gotten me a pb&j square and refilled my fuel belt. Nan is awake and resting on a chaise lounge, wrapped in her sleeping bag. She’s going to go for one more lap as soon as it gets light. I cheer for her and then head back out because I can’t wait.
I grab my sandwich and start walking. Chris calls that he will catch up. At first I nibble the sandwich, but it actually tastes good and I end up gobbling it. Chris runs up next to me. “Where’s your sandwich?” he asks. “I ate it!” I proudly reply.
The aid table is still out at the first mile and—oh joy—they still have pretzels! I tuck a bag of mini pretzels into my coat pocket.
Chris shifts our gears into running mode and when he wants to shift back, I don’t. I want to keep running! That has to be a good sign, right? Chris, ever rational, notes that we have almost 25 miles to go. He suggests that if I want to run more we can shorten our walk breaks. I defer. He has more than proved that he knows what he’s doing.
We happily run/walk to Power Lines. My mood gets lighter and lighter. Yes, there’s over 20 miles to go, but this is still the penultimate lap! The volunteers indulge me as I show off my Pissed-Off Resistance regalia and crack stupid jokes that I think are funny.
Chris tries to leave Power Lines with me and I remind him to turn around. He has already gone 19 miles and he still has four to go to get back to basecamp. “I’ll be okay, really!”
And I am.
Pain occasionally pokes me just to remind me of her presence. But at this point I can tell she’s all but given up. She won’t take me out of this race and she knows it.
It’s officially light out. I pass the five-mile point that will be the turnaround in the Violet Lap and head north to Milford for the last time, ticking off landmarks in my head: ghost, hill, pie plates, tunnel, turns, road crossings. I pass a volunteer and tell her I’ll see her just one more time on my way back through this loop.
I am cheered by another runner heading the opposite way. He’s got a Mohawk and is wearing a lavender bodysuit with a bustle in the back. And…I may be delirious, but it appears that he’s also sporting lavender elbow-length gloves. He is rocking the look from head to toe.
At the Milford turnaround, I step over the timing mat, wave to the volunteers, and about-face without going through the aid station. I am DONE with Milford. Good bye for real, Milford landmarks, now I am going south. Good bye nice volunteer! Fuck you, tunnel!
And…there’s Nan! Paced by…Rebecca! Rebecca has been taking care of everyone and everything for nearly 24 hours without sleep and now she’s out pacing Nan for fifteen miles. Wow. They are bundled up, rosy-cheeked and giggling. I throw my arms around them in a lovefest of puffy coats and laughter.
We are all grinning when we split off. We got this. We all do.
One last time over the hill. No dry heaves. No vomit. Not even a trip on a root. And the hill is HISTORY!
Good bye ghost marshal!
And now it’s only 15 miles to go. Is it just me, or is getting from the last 15 to the last ten taking an awfully long time? I play games, seeing how far I can run before walking (answer: not very.). Can I do a quarter mile? A thousand steps?
How many north-bound runners will I pass before I have to walk? (answer: not many.)
“Nice job!” “Good work!” “Keep it goin’!” “Almost there!” (Ugh, did I actually just say that last one?)
Finally, finally, the edge of the lake is in view. This is the very beginning of the home stretch. Back on pavement now, I walk, cheering inwardly as I pass the pretzel table, the Camp Tevye sign. But once again, here come the porta-potties and it’s time to pretend I’ve been running this whole time. Carol, Francia, Chris! I throw my fuel belt at Carol, take the lap through the covered bridge, and come back up the hill for one final change of clothes.
And there’s the Faerie Posse, now just a duo, heading towards the bridge.
I get to basecamp and realize: I am shaking.
Forget Calorie Deficit; this is Calorie Depletion. I fumble, trying to change clothes. My hands no longer work. Somehow I get out of the Captain America tutu and into the lavender one. I was supposed to change my bra this lap, but with my shoulder situation and shaking hands, I know that isn’t going to happen. Freshly tutu-ed, I sink into the chair. Chris has been keeping my purple shirts warm in his jacket. I strip off the Pissed-Off Resistance, leaving Hartford on for warmth. I pull on the beautiful purple Don Maynard Memorial 2017. On top of that goes Rehoboth Beach with thoughts of sister love. I sip a cup of veggie broth that Carol gives me. Chris cups handwarmers in his hands and holds them over mine, over the cup of broth. Oh I love you, Carol and Chris, purveyors of warmth! Carol takes a picture because now I know I’ve got this. Someone tells me Susannah is on the way with her dog Willow. I grease my feet and change my socks one last time. And I try to wait for Susannah but I can’t. It’s time. Time to SLAY this beast!
I am heading out when Shari catches me and asks whether I ordered a belt buckle. I tell her no. She holds out her own buckle. “This is for you,” she says. “I’m going to leave it for your crew and it will be here when you finish.” I have no words; I just hug her.
Eyes glistening, I stride into the Violet Lap. Just past the pretzel table, I hear a shout from behind. I turn, and it’s Susannah, loping up the trail to meet me! I can’t bear to lose any ground by running backwards to meet her, but I want to hug her as soon as possible, so I stand still with my arms open. Relentless Forward Motion can wait half a minute.
And then she catches up and I squeeze my beautiful sister in a hug. Susannah is emphatically not a runner–she’s wearing hiking boots and jeans–and still she tries to run next to me. I reassure her that I am walking this part. Susannah is actually on double-crew mode right now because her son Ben has been through-hiking the Cohos trail this weekend, up on the Canadian border. One hundred seventy-five miles and carrying his own gear and supplies. Puts this little race in perspective! We walk together to the jack-o-lanterns while she catches me up on Ben’s progress. Then we hug again as she turns back to basecamp to get Willow. She says they’ll meet me on the way back.
I think of my nephew’s adventures and how complicated his quest is. All I have to remember is: Relentless. Forward. Motion. If Ben can bushwhack into Canada and camp in the snow, surely I can run just a little bit more. Two more miles to Power Lines. One more mile to the last turnaround.
The Last Turnaround. There it is. I literally kiss the sign. Then I head back towards Power Lines, grinning wide enough to rival the happiest jack-o-lantern.
I accept a final cup of broth from the heroic volunteers and then head towards the finish.
Whoa. I am going to finish a hundred mile race. For real. I think I might cry but instead I chuckle as a big yellow dog bounces up the trail and there’s Susannah and Willow, coming back to meet us through the last few miles. “Hey Will-ow! Who’s a good girl?” I wish I had a biscuit for this sweet doggie. I’m down to my last few pretzels.
Back onto the grounds of Camp Tevya, Susannah and Willow and I walk past people packing up their gear and tents. We are chatting and smiling, strolling along. But then we pass the porta-potties, and, as always, I have to show my team I can still run. And so, for the last time, I run into basecamp. Someone calls out to Susannah and so I make my way alone down the hill to the covered bridge. There is a group of near-finishers getting ready to go through the bridge. I join them and run. And when I come out of the bridge, prepared to walk back up the hill, something makes me keep running. Pain has left the building. The Power Switch is ON!
And I can’t stop. Exhilaration!
And I speed up. Mania!
“Wow, she’s running so fast!” someone says. And I keep speeding up.
The uphill feels amazing. I have been holding back my pace for over a day and a night and now nothing can stop me. I sprint up the hill and into the chute. Each step is as light as air. I fly across the finish line.
One. Hundred. Miles.
They are around me. Francia and her family. Nan. Rebecca. Carol. Susannah. Willow.
Hugs and sobs and more hugs. My running family, blood and heart.
The RD offers me spray-painted railroad spikes in a variety of colors. I choose green. Because that was the loop that showed me The Wall and I got through it.
Back at home, I peel off my layers and took a critical look in the mirror:
I look skinny and a bit haggard. My eyes are red and underlined by purple streaks from lack of sleep. My hair is a mess, tangled with bits of twigs and leaves, stiff from sweat and spilled soda and God knows what else. But…no part of me is swollen or bruised or broken. No blisters. No chafing. My shoulder does hurt, but it doesn’t look or feel irreparable.
And mostly, I look…
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Original artwork by SMAC member JoEllen Reino. Originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of The Sugarloaf Sun.
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