The Arkansas Traveler 100: My first 100 mile run

(This report is from my first 100, run in 2004. Given that I am now signed up for a 100 in 2024, seems like a good time to put it back on the internet)

“How the hell did I end up here?” This is not hyperbole. This was what was ringing in my mind as the shotgun blast echoed, through the chilly predawn darkness out in front of Camp Ouachita, and we began to roll off down the hill. It had been just nine months since my first race longer than a marathon and in that time I’d done one such race a month. The Arkansas Traveler 100 would be the tenth. Since early summer, all my runs including the ultras were aimed at making this race a possibility. Three weeks before I’d run the Superior 50 bringing to close about three months of training with my weekly mileage averaging about 55 miles and peaking at 73.

Allison, my wife and life-partner, can tell it better than I, but from the time I first heard of the 100 mile race, soon after I started running, I’d been fascinated by it. The vast distance covered on foot, running the sun down and back up again–all of it seemed so epic and so utterly beyond my ability. As I flicked on my LED flashlight (given to me the night before by SLUG Jim Stroup! Thanks again Jim!) and watched the runners spread out in front of me, the realization that I was here fully trained and ready to take this thing on nearly brought me to tears. How did I end up here? Can I really do this?

By the time we turned from the mile of pavement onto our first, smooth trail I was near the back of the pack. My goal was simple: I wanted to finish. My plan was to hold to a 26 hour pace as long as I could. Steve Bagwell, my friend who I’d cajoled into crewing for me, would meet me along the way to provide support. Allison would help Steve out until my return visit to Powerline aid station (67.7m) where she’d pace me the remaining miles. My eating, hydration and electrolyte strategies were the ones I’d developed over the preceding few months in training and in races–the dry run at the Superior 50 went without a hitch. I have a pretty iron cast stomach, so usually I do just fine eating what looks good at stations. I did add Red Bull to my stuff that Steve would have, though I’d never tried it at a race. I figured that I’d need the caffeine later on.

I chatted a bit here with Susan Robinson about our shared interest in philosophy and neuroscience. Before long it was light enough to see without flashlights, and we were greeted to the warm smell of pancakes and eggs. The first aid station! I loaded up with a healthy second breakfast of pancakes, and hit the trail full and content.

I’d been expecting the shift from dirt road to the only stretch of single-track trail in the race, and when it arrived I pulled ahead of the group I’d been running with. This was the terrain I train on and love: nice hilly trail with trees close on both sides. As previous race reports promised, it was indeed a beautiful stretch of the Ouachita Trail complete with nice views of the Arkansas countryside in warm, ruby-like fall color. As I reluctantly neared the end of this 8-mile stretch I caught up with Bonnie Riley and Donald Clark, who were the course sweepers at the Superior 50, and we chatted away the last few miles of trail. I really enjoy talking with Bonnie and Don, and the time passed quickly. Somewhere in this section I managed to roll my ankle. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence for me, and nothing really hurt, so I continued on.

At the Lake Sylvia aid station (16.7) I met Steve and Allison at the first crew stop. They said lots of nice things about how fresh I looked as I downed my Snappy Toms (my tried and true yummy way to get my electrolytes) and a Red Bull. I was ahead of schedule, at about a 25 hour pace. As I headed up the hill out of the station, Donald stopped to wait for Bonnie, and soon I was alone. I passed a sign declaring “95 miles.” Sometime the next day I hoped to be seeing that and being cheered at the thought of only five miles to go. At that point, though, it only drove home how much work lay in front of me.

Being honest with myself, I realized that I wasn’t feeling as good as I usually was at this point in a race, and that really worried me. I had just the tiniest bit of a stomachache, something I’d rarely ever have in an ultra, and I could feel the beginning of a hot spot on my right heel. To continue being honest, I didn’t have my Montrail Integrafit insoles in my Hardrock shoes, as I’d forgotten to bring them. I’d been training in these insoles, which are a hard, orthotic-like plastic, for months and I’d never run more that a 50k without them. Instead, I was now using the stock montrail inserts I happened to find in the trunk. “At least they were new,” I told myself, but a hotspot at 20 miles…

I pulled out my ipod for the first time in the race, and within a very few minutes, the music began to do its work. Up until then, I think I was almost paralyzed with the fact that here I was facing down 100 miles to be covered on foot in less than 30 hours. Now as I began to run with the music I realized that this was indeed an epic event, and no epic that I’d heard of happened without a bit of conflict. “If a sore stomach and foot were going to be my challenges at this race,” I thought, “so be it.” I gathered myself and headed directly into it. Looking back now, I think of both how important psychologically this was, as well as how damn simplistically silly. Looking through the immediate pain and problems to see the event as a cohesive whole, ending with me at the finish line 100 miles later, was what saved me numerous times in the next 80 miles. I did have a few other challenges to face that I didn’t include in my list at that point, however.

In any case, my new resolve was soon tested. It began to get warm and my stomach problem began to grow. I was already beginning to slip into a pattern of counting off miles rather than enjoying the nice views: lots of this section was along a ridgeline with the vast Ouachita forest stretching to the horizon. As I pulled into Lake Wynona station (31.9) Allison and Steve clapped me in and tended to my food and electrolyte needs. I think it was here that I first noticed how good it felt to see them and hear their supportive words. I’d never had a crew at the 50-mile races I’d done, but there was something uplifting knowing that there was someone out there who thought I could do this.

After swilling my Snappy Toms and Red Bull I left Wynona trying to get down a pimento cheese sandwich. At 50 milers, the 50k mark is when I usually really pick up an appetite and put down some food for later in the race, but now I could barely eat. Within a few miles I hit the lowest point in my race. The stretch between Winona and Powerline aid station was the longest in the race without a crew stop, so I’d put a drop bag out at the infamous Club Flamingo station. By the time I reached Flamingo (39) my stomach was cramping badly enough to make eating almost impossible, and I’d entertained my first questions about whether I was going to be able to make it another 60 miles without being able to eat as I normally did. I managed to get down a single Snappy Tom and supplemented it with a Succeed cap washed down by a Red Bull.

Within minutes of leaving Flamingo, I began to have trouble running down hill as the jarring was shooting waves of pain through my gut. I knew that not eating was a timed bomb waiting to explode, but if I couldn’t run down hills this was going to cease being a worthwhile endeavor pretty quickly. Perhaps it took this level of pain to finally wake me up to what was going on. At one of my first ultras I found out that I could tolerate nearly any food or drink except non-diet cola: it causes me to get huge stomach cramps. I can, and do, guzzle the diet variety with no ill effects, so I suppose it has something to do with the fructose syrup. I’d even recently had a reminder of this at the Voyager 50 when I drank 20oz of Coke at mile 42 to pep me up for a strong finish. I ended up cramped the whole way. Now the connection finally made its way into my ultra-fogged brain: it was the damn Red Bull.

On my way up Smith mountain, I kicked in my dusty macrobiotic knowledge and reasoned that I needed something very salty to balance out the extreme sweet of the fructose syrup. I topped the long rocky climb up Smith (passing James Kerby already on his way back to an eventual record-setting win in 15:37), and at the Chicken Gap aid station (46) on the mountaintop; I ate several boiled potatoes rolled in salt. Almost instantly I began to feel better, and by the time I emerged from the woods onto the long smooth dirt road leading down to Powerline, I was running at a good clip. I was cured!!

Powerline aid station (48) was a welcome sight down the long dirt road. I pulled in around 5:30 as the long shadows of the afternoon were beginning to gather. The dusk was beautiful with the azure blue of the sky slipping into paler evening colors. Steve met me up the road with an open Snappy Tom and Red Bull. I waved them off and instead ended up with a nice cup of chicken broth as I stepped on the scale for my first weigh-in. 165, or exactly what I started at. The span without food and reduced drinking hadn’t done too much damage! This was the first time that I’d intentionally eaten meat in about 15 years, but at this point I knew it was those chickens or this race, so I opted for the latter. The soup was delicious and I followed it with several cups of Ramen provided by Allison. These guys were NASCAR-crew efficient! I told them of overcoming my stomach problem, and how my foot was getting somewhat more painful. They wanted to take a look at the blisters, but I really wanted to run–at last free of my stomach pains. I was still hovering just under a 26-hour pace and I though I had a chance at that now. I tied a jacket around my waist, grabbed my LED flashlight from Steve, kissed Allison and promised to hurry back so we could have a nice romantic evening in the woods together (LOL!!), then hit the trail.

The next 10 miles of the race until the Turnaround aid station (58) are nearly all downhill, so I moved quickly–nothing like overcoming stomach problems to make one bold. Before long the sun set, and I began to encounter the runners already coming back from Turnaround. This was a really pleasant stretch of the race. I’d been looking forward to the night run since I’d decided that I’d try a 100. Since early trips across country with my family, I’ve always found it magical to see the sun set and rise again while still traveling. With the night came a quick drop in temperature. Now I was frequently seeing runners coming up the hill, and I managed to pick out several of my friends we waved “good job”s and “good evening”s as we passed. I passed Chile Pepper aid station at (52) with a brief stop for a water bottle fill and pushed on to the turnaround.

As I neared turnaround I caught up with fellow SLUGs Jerry Frost and Stewart Johnson, a really nice surprise. We chatted and ran together as the darkness sank. The moon, due out later in the evening, was absent, and the stars were really gorgeous. Soon we were pulling into the turnaround. Steve was there to meet me (Allison was back at Powerline taking a nap in advance of pacing me) and he suggested that maybe I ought to try some potato soup. It didn’t sound great, so I declined figuring I’d just munch some chips on the way back. In what might have been the crux of the race he insisted, and I relinquished. By the end of the night I was going to get used to eating what people told me to simply as the easiest way to shut them up. Now though, listening to Steve was the best thing I could have done. By the time I finished the first cup Steve had another and I was more than ready for it. Then there was another, and another. By the time I waddled out of the station I’d put down 6 cups and some other stuff on top. I was feeling like a champ.

I felt so good that the wonderful 10 miles of downhill, now a daunting 10 miles back up to Powerline, didn’t seem so bad at all. For the last time in the race, I put on my headphones, cranked up the tunes and powered up the hill. As usually happens late in an ultra, my heart rate began to dip lower and lower for the same level of exertion. I had no idea how it was going to work out later, but I figured that if I could run uphill at 70% of my maximum heart rate, I probably ought to do it. Sometime during this stretch I saw someone up ahead lying in the road with another runner hovering over them, and I began to work out what I’d do if it was a runner down. I quickly determined that it was actually a woman helping another woman stretch. I said “as long as its consensual” as I passed and we all laughed. I also ran into Susan again not long later. She was sitting by the side of the road with her shoe off–she was having some toe problems. She waved me on and before long I heard the generator buzzing letting me know that Powerline (now 67) was not too far off.

Before I got there, I realized that all along I’d been dividing the race into two portions split by me starting to run with Allison at Powerline. We’d talked about this moment for a couple of months and we were both looking forward to it–how little we knew! Powerline was a bustle of warm activity. I was ushered over to the scale–again no change! All the SLUG supporters were there and I chatted with them as Steve got me more potato soup and ramen noodles. God bless my crew! I was complaining to fellow SLUG Lee Hess about how my right ankle (that I’d twisted early on) was starting to hurt more. “I’d be happy to kick you in the other one so you have a pair” he suggested. “Lee,” I responded, “that’s what my grandmother always used to say!” “I am your grandmother Joe” was his reply. Lee doesn’t know it, but he was one of the solid rocks of motivation for me both during and before this race. Thanks Lee. Allison was there in her running clothes, excited to be hitting the trail together. I grabbed my headlamp to supplement my handheld, pulled down one last cup of soup, and we were off into the night. It was just about 11pm–a bit off a 26 hour pace.

The long downhill into Powerline was now the long trail up Smith mounatin, so we took it very easy and talked. I related lots of the high and lows of the race so far and Allison asked lots of questions. We worked out quickly how we worked best together with lights and all. The next couple hours, in my memory, were probably the highpoint of my race. It was a gorgeous night with the moon rising, and I was well past the half way point in my first 100 mile race! The end seemed as simple as following one glow stick after another for just 50k. 50k! We could do it!

We reached Chicken Gap shortly and Allison got her first experience of the magic that is an aid station out in the middle of nowhere at night. They had grilled cheese and I grabbed a couple as we got back on the road. I began to notice here the first signs of real fatigue starting to set in. Running was becoming very difficult even on smooth surfaces and my body was beginning to feel pretty heavy. The trail over Smith Mountain, though, is really rocky so we tiptoed from one rock to the next. I told Allison of how already I could see how much different a 100 was in terms of how you approached it mentally. I felt that I’d already had to dig deep to find the strength to keep moving even with pain and exhaustion. In this search for strength, I’d already begun to learn things about myself that I don’t think I knew before. It was good to be talking to Allison about this here on the top of a mountain with the vast darkness below on all sides and the giant moon and star filled sky above.

Not long after we began to come down from Smith, I began to enter my own “night” as I’ve begun to think of it. Liz Walker, who came in 14th overall, gave me some really excellent advice at dinner the night before. She said to take it easy it the beginning, as the real race begins when it gets dark. How true. I would add, though, that the real struggle begins when you enter your own night.

I first noticed that I was starting to hallucinate around 1AM or so–about an hour before reaching Smith Mountain aid station (73). I thought I saw a dead deer lying by the side of the trail, and I jumped to avoid stepping on it. I was prepared for this to start happening, so I made the best of it I could–Allison and I got a good laugh out of some of them. I seemed to be on an animal kick with lots of frogs and mice running over the path. At one point I thought I saw a two inch black square in the path that I was sure was 10 feet deep. I realized that I was beginning to fall asleep on my feet. Allison sensed the change now, too. Our quiet conversation became fits of me talking about something followed by long periods where I could barely make affirmative grunts to her questions. She struggled with whether it was better to talk to me even though I didn’t respond, or to leave me quiet. I couldn’t help with an answer. At times I found that I’d been walking for what seemed like a long time staring at the stars. Moving had suddenly become very difficult and the pain in my feet, now both very blistered, and my ankle was very bad.

I began to stop wanting to eat and would drink only water. Allison, demonstrating incredible savvy, was ready for this and began to make it her job to keep me eating. Sometime in this stretch, I turned into a real ass. I remember at some point yelling that she didn’t understand that the body shuts down at night so you can’t possibly eat then. She responded with an implacable “How about a saltine?” I began to eat to get her to leave me alone, which at the time seemed like a real stroke of genius to me. I’d asked her to stay beside or behind me as it bothered me when she’d get 20 yards in front of me and then stop to look back to see if I was coming. I know I told her this at least a dozen times, and yet I’d keep coming-to to find her up ahead looking back at me. I’d get so damn angry that I’d charge ahead, my feet rolling off rocks and blisters screaming. Then we’d do it all over again. I think it was two days later that I finally realized she was doing this on purpose, and it may have been all that kept me going.

Aid stations passed in a blur, many of them with people wrapped in sleeping bags, waiting to drop. I tried not to look at them. The idea of a chair and warm blanket was something I was working almost constantly to keep out of my head. My world seemed to have always been nothing but this rocky road, and the stars and one foot in front of the other with Allison finding the path. I wanted to lie down and cry or sleep. I wondered over and over, if I just lowered myself to the ground which one I would do.

By the time we reached Winona again (83) around 5am I was pretty disoriented, and for once Steve didn’t tell me how great I was looking. On the way in I was sure we had much farther to go than we did, and when Allison began to point out signs of the station I’d told her she was crazy. Now there’s a bit of irony for sure. We’d run the last mile into the station pretty hard (you can see it from the hill above and we were ready to be there) and the sweat I’d worked up became icy in the pre-dawn chill. The temperature was in the low 40s. I piled on a capilene shirt and ate what Steve and Allison made me. Fellow SLUG Paul Schoenlaub was a saint here and impressed on Allison how much I really needed to eat to make it through the final miles. She packed an accursed back of saltines and pretzels which she’d work on me to eat for the next 17 miles. As we left the station I began to shiver uncontrollably and I went back to add gloves.

Once back on the trail I soon plunged back into cycles of awareness followed by periods where I could barely grunt. At one point soon after, I found myself in a moment of razor clarity and I suddenly saw how incredibly inconsequential this whole damn undertaking was. I was laughing out loud. Allison didn’t think it was as funny as I did. The rocky trail is brutal in this section and I found myself cursing the rocks as they pushed into my blistered feet. On the long hill out of Winona, hunters on their way to the woods began to pass us. It was nearly dawn.

The ultra-wisdom is that once the sun comes up you get a new surge of energy as you return to the land of the living. By this point my feet felt, as Allison undoubtedly tired of hearing me say, like fresh hamburger, and my ankle was shooting pains all the way up into my shins. While I didn’t end up moving much faster, I did get a bit more energy and the sense of being asleep while moving went away.

Just before that settled in, I sat down for the only time during the race. It was inadvertent though: all night I’d been convinced that there was something in the side of my shoe, but each time I searched for it with my finger, I’d find nothing. Now I could feel the rock under my foot, and I was crouched down, digging in my shoe through my gaiter trying to get at it. I suppose I was probably somewhat hysterical. Allison suggested pulling off my shoe to get it, and I screamed that I didn’t want to sit down, and that if we took off my shoe I’d never get it back on. Allison pushed me over, and within a second of hitting the ground I put my hands over my face and started to cry and fall asleep at the same time–I suppose that answered the question I’d been wondering about all night. This was probably mile 89 at 7am or so. I’d always wondered how people drop 90 miles into a 100. I know now. That last 10 miles can seem longer than the previous 90 given the proper circumstances. Allison got the rock out, put my shoe back on, pulled me up and we went on. Crying was cathartic, and I felt a weight had been lifted.

That was the last real despair I felt. It was a cold, beautiful morning and the birds were out. The trail was familiar from the day before. Allison and I started to talk again about what we’d do after we finished, and about how lucky we were to be there. The trail was still very rocky and we walked a good bit. I tried to run when I could, and a few times we ran a couple miles at a good pace. We passed E Tower (91) and ran a bit on the nice graded dirt road. Before long we pulled into Pumpkin Patch (93.7) for a bit of well deserved pumpkin pie. We left for the final stretch.

During these last miles we were passed by 10 or 12 people, many of whom we’d run with during the night. I was beyond caring at this point: I knew now that short of catastrophe, we’d finish. I’d pick up the pace as each person passed only to slow down again a few minutes later. Okay, maybe I did care a little about being passed, but only a little. I got to see Jerry looking like a real champ fly by, followed not too much later by Stuart and Carol Izadi pacing him. We waved and cheered them by. I could feel the run coming to a close and not all of me was ready for that. Finally, though, we reached the road and the last mile. We saw that there was another person approaching, and I asked Allison if she wanted to really run. She said “yeah” (though I know she thought it was a bad idea), and we cranked out the last mile in just over ten minutes. We came across the finish line to the sounds of triumphant music and a voice saying I’d just finished the Arkansas Traveler 100! I was finished! My first 100 mile race finished in 28 hours and 31 minutes!

There were lots of hugs from the SLUGS who’d finished and those there to support us. There really could be no better way to end a run, I think. I proceeded to eat a whole lot of wonderful breakfast while clapping in the remaining 20 people over the next hour and a half. Many of these were also people I ran with during the race, and I hobbled over to greet them as I could. Soon we gathered up for our awards. Each of us was called up for a congratulatory hug from Chrissy the RD, and to be presented with our buckle. Exhausted, buckled and having had enough running for awhile, Steve, Allison and I piled in the car for the ride home.

I feel like I should say something about the way in which running a 100 really changes your perspective on things, but I’m not sure what it would really accomplish. Perhaps it would be enough to say simply that this sort of race demands, unlike anything else I’ve done, a real confronation with yourself. I’m very lucky to have had the chance to have undertaken such a journey.

I think it should be evident from this report, but it bears repeating over and over: I absolutely could not have managed this massive undertaking that I’d been working for without the assistance of Steve crewing or Allison pacing. While I was out gallivanting in the woods or brain-dead, they were doing the work of making sure this thing happened. In the end I get the shiny belt buckle and bragging rights, but they get nothing more than my thanks. So thank you guys, so much.

Thanks also to all the SLUGS who came out to the race to cheer us on. You guys were fantastic!

Gory Detail: When I finally sat down and Allison peeled off my shoes, we were treated to quite a sight. The entire heel of my right foot was one big blister with an already popped blood blister on the side, and I had an intact plum-like blood blister on the side of my left heel. The skin on the bottoms of all my toes was blistered and loose. What I thought was pain from a twisted ankle was actually a bracelet of utility cord that I’ve had around my ankle for 10 years–a relic of my rock-climbing days. Somehow it got under my sock and the knot in it rested on one of the tendons on the top of my foot, pushing the tendon out of line. I never saw it, nor felt it because of the gaiters I was wearing. The bruise it made is now the most painful reminder I have of the race. Mental note: ignoring pain isn’t always the best idea.

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