The Bigfoot 200 was the culmination of almost two years of planning and training. In my head — finish or fail — my participation in this event was going to be my victory lap.
In November 2014, I found myself in the middle of a surprise divorce.
Shaken both emotionally and financially, I was forced to reevaluate my plans to run the 2015 Grand to Grand Ultra, a unique multi-day challenge that was going to be the farthest I had traveled for a race. Instead, I sent a painful email to the race director and donated the non-refundable portion of my entry fee.
The day of the race, I woke up at 3:30 am for the 5:30 start. I got up, put clothes on, and went down to the kitchen. My breakfast that morning was the left over spaghetti I had during dinner the night before. I tried to not think about what my day would hold and just act as though I was preparing for a weekly long run. After eating, I went upstairs and woke my fiancé, Sara, up. The plan was for Sara to drop me off, hang out for the start of the race, and then go back home and get ready for the day. She would then meet me at Great Falls aid station. After she was ready, I grabbed my drop bag (gear the race will pre-position for you at an aid station) and headed for Algonkian State Park.
Sara picked on me for how much stuff I packed into my running bag. I normally am the most unprepared person in the world. One year, I made it all the way to the starting line for the Marine Corps Marathon before I realized I didn’t have my bib. Luckily someone in my family was able to get it to me before the start of the race.
My drop bag for the North Face Endurance Challenge included: extra running shoes, three packs of Nuun, two pairs of sock, two pairs of running shorts, extra headphones, two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a pack of batteries, bandaids, and a ton of safety pins. I really did not want to leave anything to chance.
At the starting line everyone gathered in tight. The big concern was the amount of rain we had the night before. The field we were standing in was thoroughly saturated. The day before it had rained over an inch and I was actually concerned the race might be canceled as it had been the previous time I signed up for the North Face.
I was talking with Sara trying to contain my nerves when they made the announcement to head for the starting line. I turned on my light as Dean Karnazes gave a pep talk. The runners were awesome. There was so much energy as people bounced and stretched. Then the race started.
The course had us start by running around a field, by a golf course, onto something like a fire road, then down onto single track. The trail would take us 14 miles to Great Falls State Park. At Great Falls we would take 3 loops, which on the last loop I would be able to pick up my pacer, Josh.
About 2 miles into the race, I almost started laughing as I went waist deep into a stream that was over flowing from the day before’s rainfall. Not 20 minutes before there had been a huge pile up of runners as we encountered an extra soggy bit of field and everyone had made efforts to go around. Now there was no choice but to wade into the cold deep stream
The other runners were awesome. I spent the majority of the first 14 miles getting to know some of the others who ran my pace. There were runners who had finished the Umstead 100 (which is on my bucket list), runners who had done over 20 ultras, and ones like me who were out for their first 50 miler. It was awesome to be around a group of people who had put themselves through the same hours of training I had. Who knew what it was like to run at all times of night just to get a few extra miles in. They were just an overwhelmingly positive group of people.
Through the first few aid stations, I avoided food. I did however drink some Gu Brew, an electrolyte supplement. I normally would have had Nuun, my electrolyte drink of choice, but the aid station did not have any set out.
As the sun came up, I was able to see how beautiful the Algonkian trail was. It runs next to the river and has some breathtaking views as you roll along through the hills. The trail’s condition itself definitely slowed the runners though. With every foot strike, my feet would dig into the mud about an inch and then slip out from under me slightly. It took a great amount of effort to not fall and a much slower pace. Every half mile or so, we would run through ankle deep water.
By the time we made it to Great Falls, I was in great spirits and running with an awesome group of people. When I made it to the aid station, I was excited to see Sara and stopped for a moment to tell her how great things were going. After a small catch up, I put some Gu Brew into my hand held and headed back off through the trail.
Great Falls is an awesome park with a variety of trail types. The race routed us through a significant portion of the park with varying terrain and a few significant inclines. This included a breathtaking view of the falls on a part of the trail where one wrong step would send you a few hundred feet off a cliff, and into the falls. The course had the 50 milers, taking 3 loops at Great Falls.
It was during my second loop that I started having real difficulty. I was mentally off. My pace was falling. I was having more difficulty than I had previously had in any race. Gu Brew? I am not 100% sure that’s what caused my issues, but it was the only new factor which I could point to. As I made my way to the aid station where Sara and Josh were waiting for me, I was at mile 28 and I was shot.
Sara was concerned for me. I walked to my bag, grabbed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and started stretching. I said hi to her and Josh and just preceded with my normal stretching routine. My intent was to act like I was just starting my run for the day. Josh and I have been on 100s of runs together, I was trying to tell myself this was just the start of a normal run for him and I. I also stopped drinking Gu Brew and started drinking just water.
Having Josh really helped me through that period of the race. He provided some humor and trash talk. Enough trash talk that I began threatening to throw him off the cliffs. And we actually had a guy run with us for a while to see if I would really do it. He also allowed me to walk him through what I had been doing fuel wise and come up with a game plan for how I could get back on track.
By mile 35, we were on our way out of Great Falls and I was feeling myself again. I think leaving Great Falls was the point when I really thought I could finish the race.
The quality of the trail was significantly worse than it was on the way into Great Falls. In addition to the 50 milers, a 50K, and a marathon were being run on the overly wet trails. The footing was just horrible. I have been running with Josh for years, he is one of those guys who trips every 20 yards. I have no idea how I didn’t end up having to carry him out.
The longest gap between aid stations is on the Algonkian trail. On the course map I think it said it was 6 miles, but according to my GPS it was 8 miles. This created a little concern. Not only was I significantly fatigued at this point, but I was low on water. Josh didn’t carry any water on him, and so we shared my bottle.
When we reached the aid station, I pigged out on skittles and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. By now I had learned to request Nuun from the awesome staff that was working the stations. My legs were more than killing me, but I had run 45 miles. Worst case, I could walk it in from that aid station and would make the cut off.
Josh and I didn’t walk it in though. We ran. Slowly but we ran. As we came out of the woods, we were greeted by little kids who had run the kids running Challenge. I congratulated every one of them I passed. I love seeing kids encouraged to be active and it inspired me to pick the pace up a little.
The last 30 yards to the finish was pure mud. I crossed the line in 10 hours and 57 minutes. I believe that in a better set of trail conditions I could have performed significantly better, but I am damned proud of that time.
In hindsight, the race was everything I wanted it to be. I loved meeting ultra runners and how supportive everyone was. I cannot say enough or give enough thanks to the volunteers at the aid stations. Sara is awesome. She made it to so many of the aid stations and gave me so much support not just during the race but in training for the race as well. She even turned the hose on me when we got back to the house so I could go inside for dinner. I could not have picked a better pacer than Josh. It was not only my first 50 miler, it was also the longest Josh had ever run in his life. I am hoping that he now has the same sick desire I do and will do a few more ultras with me.
The first time I attempted to train for a 50 mile ultra marathon was back in 2008. That year the Washington, DC North Face Endurance Challenge was scheduled for September and I had decided early in spring that instead of running a second marathon, I would make the huge jump and give it a shot. I have to credit Dean Karnazes for much of my motivation. I had read his first novel, “The Ultramarathon Man,” and instantly had the bug.
My training predictably put me in a bad place. A month out from the race I could have probably PR’d for a marathon but I knew that I was in no way ready to attempt a trail 50 miler. I also had started to suffer from an IT band issue. I had never had the joy of ITBS and it wrecked my running. However, all the way up to a couple days before the race, I was dumb enough to think I could have run the full 50 miles. It didn’t help that my friend Kat had also signed up. To say that she was in beast mode during college would be an understatement. She was one of the few people I knew at the time that could show up on any given Sunday and a run sub 4 hour marathon. Committing to running the race and knowing that she could, definitely added some pressure.
I lucked out. A horrible storm rolled through and canceled the race that year. North Face stepped up and impressed me by having a banquet dinner for the runners. They gave out free North Face swag. Mr. Dean Karnazes signed books, stood around and talked with fans, and took pictures with all the runners in attendance. The race organizers for the Endurance Challenge went out of their way to try to provide the obviously let down runners with a quality experience.
Fast forward to November 2011. I had the privilege of cheering on my good friend Melissa during the Savannah Rock and Roll Marathon. A race I had signed up for and failed to train for. She was awesome and I had a blast cheering her and the other runners on. I also was dying to get out there with them. I signed up for the DC Rock and Roll Marathon before we left Savannah. When I got home, I bought a new pair running shoes.
Inspired by multiple people on twitter I began a running/beer streak. Every day I ran at least a mile and drink at least one beer. The theory being: how horrible can a day be if I was able to enjoy two things I love? Also, even though I had not been running much in 2011, I began researching races for after I finished the DC R&R. I noticed that the DC North Face Endurance Challenge had moved to the first weekend in June. I felt like it was an unfinished opportunity. It was a good month after I registered before I told anyone.
Training through winter may have been the best thing for me. I have always hated running in the cold, but there was something relaxing about going out in the cold dark evenings and pushing myself. It was also awesome that I was the only one running through my neighborhood. When I was able to hit the local train, an awesome 7 mile loop around a large man made lake, the only sounds that kept me company were crunching leaves. By the time that it started to warm up, I felt like the returning runners where invading my privacy.
I used the 10% rule (slowly increasing my mileage by 10% per week to prevent injury) until I was regularly putting in over 50 miles per week. I celebrated the first time that I ran over 50 miles in one week. I did not focus on the speed as much as focused on the miles. Sara and I also bought a treadmill. I had intended on using the treadmill to work on speed walking. While I had never walked much during marathons, I had read many times that it was imperative to walk the inclines to conserve energy. I had to admit that I did not use the treadmill nearly enough.
In March, the DC Rock & Roll was a strong performance. I managed to PR by 4 minutes running a 3:52 minute marathon. I also stopped around mile 6 and drank a beer with some friendly local Hashers (On-On). I did not taper for the marathon. I ran a total of 67 mils that week, ending with the personal best.
By the time late May came around, I was in the best running shape of my life. Additionally, I have never been more happy in my personal life. I felt like running was able to center me and allowed me to put everything into balance. Knowing that I was going to run at least a mile and normally an hour or more everyday forced me to prioritize everything. I made time for Sara, time for myself, was more patient at work, and felt awesome.
The North Face allows any 50 mile runner to have a pacer. I had never run with a pacer before, but then again I had never run 50 miles before. While I believed that I could finish the race unassisted, I reached out to an old running friend, Josh, for a little help. I have run more miles with Josh than anyone else. We were on the cross country team together and meet regularly to put in a few miles. He is one of those people that not only knows me as a runner, but will put up with me at my worst.
Sara and I would be stayed at her parents house, which was significantly closer to Algonkian State Park, which would be the start and the finish line. The night before the race I had a good beer, ate some pasta, and felt really relaxed. I can remember goofing off with Sara and being really relaxed. More relaxed than I had been for any other race. I was ready to attempt my first 50 mile ultramarathon. My first ultramarathon.