After my first 100-mile race, my body was miserable. My ankle was clunked out, my feet were several sizes larger than usual, and I had to use my trekking poles as crutches.
So why did I sign up to run another 100 miler? Fear. I didn’t want to be scared of running 100 miles. I didn’t want my past to determine my future. I wanted to go after it again, like I’ve done other times in my life. When you take on a big goal, you learn more about yourself in the process. Although my body was miserable after my first 100 miler, my heart felt a deep satisfaction that I had finished the race in the face of adversity and left it all on the trails.
With that in mind, I signed up for the Black Hills 100 (a 105-mile race) in South Dakota. It seemed like a scenic course in my mom’s home state. I started this post intending to write a race report, but during the process it turned into a journey of emotions that mirrored the elevation gain and loss of the race itself. This journey helped me to find peace with the fact that I didn’t finish the race. Below are the highlights from the race and my reflections since the race.
My training went well. I did a steady 50-mile training run four weeks before the race, and I paced my friend Brendan in the Bighorn 100 two weeks before the race. Like many runners anxiously awaiting race day, I started checking the weather forecast daily (sometimes hourly…) about 10 days before the race. The forecast was grim: 95 degrees and high humidity. We had a cooler spring in Denver, so I didn’t have much heat training. I signed up for two last-minute hot yoga classes and prayed to the weather gods, but the forecast didn’t change. After complaining about the forecast to Kate, she said: “You will deal with whatever conditions come your way, just as you always have.” Damn, Kate is good!
The Starting Line
Joining me in this adventure were my partner Kate to crew and my friend Mitsu to pace me for the final 30 miles. We arrived at the starting line with 30 minutes to spare. I sat down for a few minutes only to see a couple guys wearing t-shirts from the University of Northern Iowa, my alma mater. I introduced myself and learned that they were a father-son duo who were running their first 100 miler together. I was honored when they said that they were inspired to start running ultras by watching How to Run 100 Miles. I wished them well, and with 7 minutes to spare, I anxiously went to the bathroom again.
The Pre-Race Briefing
With 5 minutes to spare, the race directors began to give a pre-race briefing. Most races have an hour-long briefing the day before the race, but we were on a crash course. I began to make sure my watch, phone, running vest, and trekking poles were set for the race. At one point, Kate gave me a nudge to look up. One of the race directors was holding a sign with a red W, the sign indicating that racers were going the wrong way. In the middle of the briefing, the timer on the countdown clock went off, signaling that it was time to start the race. The race director told us to ignore it, spoke for another minute or so, and then suddenly announced that we were going to start the race in 10 seconds. There was a frenzy of activity as runners said quick goodbyes and dashed to the starting line. Someone fired a shotgun, and we were off!
Miles 0-24: The Heat
The weather was just as hot as forecasted. My strategy was to go slooooooow and steady and to try not to puke. I started at the back of the pack, trotting along and monitoring my body. Ultrarunning is a continuous conversation with your body. At one aid station, I passed a volunteer who said: “Smart man, going out real slow when it’s hot out. All you need to do is make it until the night.” He boosted my spirits – no problem, I thought, I can make it until the night.
I battled up the hills in a haze. The heat had my brain in a fog. Then I passed a couple of runners hunched over on the side of the trail. Shit… would I be next? Every time I thought that I could pick up the pace, the heat and humidity would punch me back. I combatted my nauseousness by eating ginger chews and throwing ice in my hat at aid stations. This strategy worked – I was still moving, drinking, and eating. In ultrarunning, those are musts to finish a race.
Miles 24-31: The Detour
Somewhere between miles 24 and 31, I took a wrong turn and ended up lost on a dirt road. Finding yourself lost on a 105-mile course is a different kind of “oh fuck” moment. As if being nauseous wasn’t enough, now I had my stomach in knots thinking that taking a wrong turn could cost me the race. Luckily I had two fellow runners with me in this thrilling adventure, one of whom was nice enough to share their water with me because I ran out and, oh yeah, it was HOT. We never did see one of those W signs…
I wasn’t sure how many miles we wandered off course or for how long. But I knew that if I wanted to finish before the 34-hour cutoff, I needed to pick up the pace. I tried giving myself a pep-talk: “This is what you do, Jayson. You take on the challenges life throws at you.” I started moving with determination, fueled by “piss and vinegar” and the cooling evening hours.
Miles 31-52: The Night
People often ask me whether I slept during my first 100. I would love to proudly boast that I’m fast enough to take a 30 minute nap and still finish before the cutoff… but that hasn’t happened yet. I simply remind myself of what parents go through. As an ultra mom explains it: “I had my own advantage: kids. Everyone knows they make you tough. And at least I didn’t have to worry about overtraining. Motherhood was my superpower.”
After taking yet another wrong turn that added a little over a mile, I started moving with rocket fuel. I made it to the half-way point about 45 minutes before the 3:30am cutoff. I walked into the aid station on a mission to finish the fucking race. Mitsu asked if I wanted him to pace me earlier than planned – hell yes, please help me navigate this clusterfuck of a course in the dark.
Miles 52-67: The Dawn
Mitsu and I slowly began passing other runners as we navigated through the nark. I was pushing myself mentally and physically to make up the lost time and to finish before the cutoff. Mistu was a great pacer – the right amount of pushiness to make sure that I was eating and drinking. At one aid station, he told me that the potatoes were good so that I would eat one. Only after I ate it did I realize that it was a boiled white potato with no butter or salt. And then… Oh no…
Miles 67-74: Clunked Out. Origins Run Rabbit Run 100. Defined as when a body part loses its normal range of motion or stops working properly during an ultramarathon but you still have the energy to finish!
I started to feel a familiar pain in my right ankle, one that has haunted me ever since my first 100 miler. During Run Rabbit Run, my left ankle clunked out, and for more than 30 miles, I smiled, cried, and beared it. Now I was feeling the exact same pain in my right ankle. I didn’t mention it to Kate or Mitsu, hoping that it would fade into the background with the other discomforts. (Ultrarunning is the ultimate game of trading pains.) But the pain started to intensify instead.
I sat down at an aid station to address a blister. When I got up, my ankle was as stiff as the Tin Man. The clunk was on, and I needed oil. Mitsu and I slowly trekked up a hill in the morning sun. Heading uphill felt slightly better than downhill, and I was thankful for the short break from the throbbing pain. Once we started going downhill again, I admitted to Mitsu that my ankle was beginning to swell and was losing its natural range of motion. Running on trails, you sort of need agile feet to navigate the rocks. I took two Advils and decided to assess how it was feeling at the next aid station.
It’s one thing to have a blister on the bottom of your foot – the discomfort may get worse for awhile, but eventually it will fade away or pop, relieving the pressure. It’s another thing to have one pain that cancels out all other pains and progressively gets worse with each step – then you begin to wonder about your hobby. I found tears streaming down my face. After battling the heat, chafing, blisters, four water crossings, and two detours, I was pissed that I had come this far and that my ankle was screaming at me.
Mile 74: Glass Case of Emotion
Mitsu and I stumbled into the aid station at mile 74 at 9:15 am, about one hour and 15 minutes before the cutoff. We had steadily made up time, and I had been moving for almost 24 hours. Kate greeted us with a warm smile and with excitement that we were heading into the final stretch. Then I told Kate about my ankle and watched the concern wash over her face. I sat down and discussed the options with the team. Even though I was at mile 74, Strava had me at 80 miles, and I had accidentally paused tracking for a portion of the time with Mitsu. We later calculated that I had done about 82.5 miles at that point. Crossing the finish line would mean another 31 grueling miles, for a total of 113.5 miles.
When I told my coach about this moment after the race, she said: “The boy in Jayson didn’t want to give up.” To me, not giving up is the spirit of How to Run 100 Miles. It’s been the spirit of my life. And now I was thinking about tapping out, knowing that I could finish this race. I had pushed through the same pain during Run Rabbit Run for more than 30 miles. But that experience was why I wanted to run another 100 miler – to run another 100 miler without pain, without fear.
As emotions swept over me, I cried my eyes out, this time not at the finish line but at an aid station wondering why. Why did my right ankle clunk out, why did I get lost, why had I come this far… and I decided that I needed to stop, to give up, to get my first DNF (Did Not Finish).
Reflections on the Race
Now that I’ve had some time to think about the race, here are my reflections…
- Commit to finishing AND to taking care of yourself: I know what you’re thinking: running 100 miles is no way to take care of yourself. Some people also think that it’s impossible to work a stressful job with long hours and to take care of yourself in the process. I believe we can do both. Lesson 5 in How to Run 100 Miles is to commit. When I give trainings, I talk about committing to the big scary goal. But I’m going to add something to that piece of advice in the future: commit to that big scary goal AND to taking care of yourself along the way. Which leads me to my next reflection…
- Pain cave vs real injury: Ultrarunners and other athletes often reference “the pain cave.” As one writer describes it: “The pain cave is a place where we take stock of our courage and ask ourselves how much we are willing to give for the goals we’ve laid out.” I’ve danced with the pain cave in the hot yoga room and more recently on the trails. In my first 100 miler, I pushed well beyond the typical pain cave to finish. I was committed to finishing – I would’ve crawled across that finish line if I needed to. But in the yoga room, I would never tell a student to injure themselves to finish a class. Yoga teachers preach the opposite: listening to your body and meeting your body where it’s at each day. I have to practice on the trails what I teach in the yoga room. Finishing a 100-mile race is an incredible experience, but so is being able to walk up and down the stairs when you’re 100 years old.
- All the little things add up – for better or for worse: Before the race, I listened to Atomic Habits by James Clear. The book describes a British cycling team that focused on improving every tiny thing by 1%. It prompted me to think about all the tiny things that I could focus on to help me finish. Knowing how hot it was going to be, I did a couple of hot yoga classes, bought a box of ginger chews to settle my stomach, and packed extra electrolytes. During the race, I put ice in my hat and went super slow, to the point where I was worried about cutoff times. In a 100-mile race, all of the tiny things (the blisters, the wet socks, the chafing, the nausea) can cost you the race and can add a SHIT-TON of unnecessary pain.
- Don’t follow blindly: I know this. I preach this. I tell people never to get in line just because there is a line – check to make sure that you want to be in that line. And then I found myself lost in a 100-mile race after following the runners in front of me. It’s crucial in moments like this to stay calm, to focus on solutions, and to find the silver lining. It takes practice to find the silver lining when you’re full of piss and vinegar, but this practice helped me to find the silver lining when I was on the trail. That’s the state of mind you need to be in to overcome being lost in a 100-mile race… or simply to deal with the moments when life hands you a shit sandwich.
- It’s all about the journey, even in the world of Insta-gratification: I spent nearly 24 continuous hours traversing miles of trails in the Black Hills this summer. The race director posted this message on Facebook after the race: “Holy balls, that was a hot one. Of course, it is quite pleasant today. How’s that for shitty luck? We’ve had hot weather before, and we’ve had wet weather before, but we’ve never had anything quite like that.” It was one hell of an adventure that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, something that I can reflect on when faced with adversity in the future. I still ran 82.5 miles, which leads me to my next reflection…
- We ran 82.5 miles: Big goals require big sacrifices, not just from you but from the family and friends who support you. It’s easy to remember the person who tackles a big goal, but it’s easy to forget all the people around them who made it possible. I’m so grateful to my amazing partner Kate and my badass pacer Mitsu, along with the aid station volunteers, family, and friends who supported me along the way. One of the hardest parts of stopping was feeling like I was letting my team down.
- Sometimes you learn more from failure than from success: Falling short of my goal in the Black Hills 100 taught me more about myself than pushing through 30+ miles of pain in Run Rabbit Run. Having a different mindset on giving up will help me to be better at giving back and helping others – and that’s my work at Right to Shine.
Thanks for making it this far. I would love to hear from you. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, keep taking care of your badass self!