20 isn’t really even that cold. That’s what I kept telling myself in the days leading up to the Tunnel Hill 100. The start temp was predicted to be around 20, with a high barely cracking freezing on Saturday, then back down to 20 Sunday morning. The reason I kept telling myself that 20 isn’t cold is that I was genuinely scared. By mid-winter, running in 20s weather would be pretty much the norm. But even the cold 50ks I’d run were just a few hours long. I had no idea how we’d deal with 24+ hours of frigid temps.
This was to be Allison’s first crack at a running a 100 miles. I’ll get this out of the way right now: I don’t presume to offer her experience of what happened after Steve Durbin said “GO!” and we all ambled off down the road in Vienna Park. This is my account — maybe we’ll hear hers too.
We know the Tunnel Hill trail well. We lived nearby for years and ran it often. Additionally, we’d run the 50 in 2017 so we were particularly aware of how the aid station layout worked. The whole 100 uses only ~25mi of trail in total, with major aid stops just short of each end (allowing you to hit them twice each out and back) and the start/finish in the middle at Vienna Park.
The first marathon of the race, out and back to the south, was under bluebird skies with a bitter edged breeze. Somewhere in there we saw a bald eagle, never a bad sign. I played a continual game of clothes shuffling, trying to keep warm but not overheating. I’m an avid sweater, so this proved impossible. Normally on cold runs I’d just button up and not worry about getting soaked as we always ended up at home, the car, a brewery etc. That tactic wasn’t going to work on a 100, and I knew it. I was having trouble finding an alternative.
Vienna at 26 miles, sometime after noon, was our first significant aid stop. We did not have a crew, and I noticed then how much of a difference that makes. Without a crew, if you need something from your drop bag, you go get it yourself. There’s no chair magically popped out for you, and no food pressed into your hands the moment you arrive. Luxury support aside, without a crew it just takes longer to get into and out of a major station. Allison and I helped each other as much as we could. We wolfed down some hotdogs and (thanks to Shannon who was out crewing Billy Gubbins) a tasty cheeseburger, shuffled some more clothes, and hit the trail north toward the great Tunnel Hill tunnel.
Despite the time at the station, we were about 30 minutes ahead of our last year’s pace, and we were moving strongly. The next 10 miles, though, were nowhere nearly as idyllic as they’d been the year before. The breeze was picking up as the afternoon faded on, and it was obvious that the night was going to be cold. The worst thing I can do on an an extended run is fret. I know from experience that one worry has a tendency to spark the next and then it snowballs.
It was in this stretch that Allison took her asthma inhaler for the second time on the run. One inhaler puff over a daylong effort, I barely even notice. Allison has had asthma her whole life and it’s been well controlled for years. A second puff, however, was somewhat unusual. Thus my fretting about the impending cold night found a very compatible friendly fret in the inhaler puff. Despite the golden sunlight in the late fall leaves, and train trestle after trestle as we wound (very slightly) uphill toward the Tunnel, my mood turned dark.
I could hear Allison wheezing at the end of every period we ran. Then she hit the inhaler for a third puff. We’d gone through the tunnel, skipping the large aid stop until the way back, and headed down the hill to the northern turnaround. As the day was fading, and the cold was setting in we began the discussion which lasted the next 15 miles: “should we drop at 50 miles?”
If you read my previous 100 reports, you’ll see that they both have something in common: by far the best part of both of those runs, and the part I looked forward to, was when I picked up Allison as a pacer heading into the night. I am not sure why it took so long to occur to us to just run the whole race together, but that’s another matter. We’d come to Tunnel Hill to run it together. While sitting in a hot-tub after an epic training day in the mountains weeks before, we’d made half-hearted contingency plans for what we’d do if one of us had to drop. Somewhere along the way those had morphed into a shared agreement that this began and would end as a shared endeavor.
As we trotted along heading back toward Vienna, still making good time, I argued that any sane person would see that the cold was exacerbating her asthma, and that the situation wasn’t going to get any better with the now plummeting temperature. Allison reminded me (again, and again) that she was very adept at assessing her asthma. We agreed that whether we dropped was her call, and that she’d make it at Vienna. She hit the inhaler a few more times.
The brilliant autumn evening darkened under a 2 day old horned moon. We watched the moon slowly work toward the horizon, becoming orange. Finally it hung just over the top of a hill, and Allison said “I can’t believe it’s still there.” A moment later it was gone.
Meanwhile, cause and effect began to switch places as they often in 100s. Dropping was smart because Allison was having asthma issues? Or did I keep bringing up her asthma because dropping was sounding better and better?
A mile out from the Vienna stop, was my lowest spot of the race. I was late to take electrolytes and I was dimly aware that I was starting to bonk. Allison asked a simple question “what besides me having some asthma that’s not getting any worse is wrong with us?” I had to answer “nothing.” I took electrolytes, ate a Gu, and took ibuprofen for the first time in the race. We arrived at Vienna almost 30 minutes faster than we did the year before. This time, instead of being done, we were only half-way.
Allison had not decided if we were going on.
She made her way to bathroom while I sat down on the concrete next to our dropbox which was now covered with frost. Not for the last time, I missed our crew: Steve, Angela, Steve Sr. I washed my own feet, a thrilling sensation, and changed socks. My feet were tired but in good shape. I was only sitting for a couple of minutes, but I quickly upgraded to my heaviest jacket. I noticed that the sandwiches we’d packed in the drops were getting hard to eat at this point. We’d used a dill mustard that was tasty but was quickly growing cloying. By the time I was done with the drop box, Allison was out of the bathroom and we made our way to the big aid tent.
The tent was warm and the tables were full of people who were either done with the 50 or were dropping. We got bowls of delicious potato soup and grilled cheeses. We sat there, listening much more than we talked. Around us people were telling the stories as to why they were dropping. Most boiled down to some version of “I don’t want to spend the night out there in the cold.”
I wasn’t ready to tell that story and I don’t think Allison was either, because what a shame it would be to stop just at the best part of the whole thing. I didn’t really care just then if we made it to the end or not, but I felt warm and I had an idea that we could just keep moving. We nodded at each other and stood up to go.
As we walked out of the tent Allison stopped me and said “We don’t need to do this. We can stop. There’s nothing we have to prove, right?”
“Let’s walk for awhile and decide, okay?” I said. She nodded and we set off south into the night.
I realized that I’d forgotten my trekking poles in the drop box (oh to have had crew at that moment!) so I ran back and grabbed them, then ran to catch up. That would be the last running I’d do for 26 miles.
The next 26 miles were quite possibly the best miles I’ve spent on the trail with Allison ever, and we’ve traveled many wonderful trail miles together. They’re also not something I think I can convey well so I am not going to try very hard.
We’re fast walkers so we kept a pretty good pace: about 16 minutes per mile. With the small moon long since set, the stars were brilliant. Mars, in the constellation Aquarius was like a still red jewel hanging just above the endless path south. The Milky Way stretched over us. Orion rose — fitting as the breeze made it feel much more like a winter night than autumn. The trail, so full during the day, was empty now. Sometimes there wasn’t even a headlamp visible in front or behind us.
We talked about big things, and when we got tired of that we sang songs. We sang a whole bunch of songs. We realized we didn’t know the words of most songs we thought we did, so we sang the parts we knew over and over.
We sang this one the most: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9aN4ks6GVU
Ring a bell that’s broken
That sound is loud inside us
Flowing farther away, far away
At Karnak (60mi) a big stop, Allison suddenly got cold enough to start shivering. She got back into her Patagonia Micropuff (which I’d never taken off) and warmed up. A few minutes later we were serenaded by a little collection of owls. Allison is a pro owl talker and managed to get several of them to answer her back. For the only time on the race we chatted some miles away with another runner, Ron.
A few miles out from Vienna (76), the brilliant stars were covered by clouds and our voices got quieter. At the last aid station before we reached Vienna I found Allison standing and staring blankly at the table. She’d begun the descent into what I always think of as the real “night.” Our conversation became slower and slower. Sometimes I’d ask a question and she’d answer me minutes later. I’d been worried about how things would go when we both checked out to the land of Nod, but oddly I wasn’t feeling at all tired. I described to her how you can actually let yourself fall asleep while moving. That might have been a bad idea. Somewhere in that stretch, I saw little snowflakes in the beam of my headlamp.
The last mile into Vienna seemed to last forever, and I suggested to Allison we needed to make the stop quick. She, on the other hand, wanted to do a repeat of our stop at 50. We might have bickered a little then but it was very slow speed bickering. There was no discussion of dropping.
At Vienna, I grabbed more soup and sat down to check out my feet. They were getting fairly sore, and in retrospect I should have cared for those developing hotspots. Bathroom visited, refueled and restocked, we got back on the trail.
The next few miles were tough. We’d come into the 50 at a 24hr pace and leaving Vienna at 76 we were barely under a 28hr pace. The long walk had likely saved our race, but we still had to finish it. I was ready to get back to running, but Allison had plunged into full zombie mode. If I wasn’t starting to worry about our slipping time, I would have found her hilarious (and I do now, thinking about it). She walked off the trail several times (note: this is a WIDE trail), and she was doing a fine job of practicing my advice about how to fall asleep while still walking (albeit very slowly). At one point, she came to a sharp halt and yelled “Oh my God, look at the carcass!!” while staring at her feet.
As the sky lightened, we realized the cloud cover had finally caused the temperature to rise. And as it usually happens, with the impending dawn suddenly Allison was awake. We began to run again. The hot spots on my feet were now blisters, and I tried to decide which hurt worse running or walking. Somewhere soon after dawn, I think we realized that barring something catastrophic happening, Allison would finish her first 100. This realization is always a mixed bag as it leads (in me anyway) to a false sense of an impending finish line. There’s a thing that happens when you cover 85 miles on your feet, where you look at 15 additional miles as being “almost there.” Except you’re not almost there, you’re a solid weekend long run away from there, and you’re now moving at a snail’s pace. Or I was anyway. Allison could honestly probably have shaved an hour off her finish time if she would have dropped me there, but as noted earlier that’s not what we came for.
So we toughed out the seemingly endless descent to the northern turn around (seriously, they must have moved that thing back a mile), and then back up to Tunnel Hill. Meanwhile, the marathon held on the trail had begun, and speedy runners began to whizz past us, often offering encouragement and smelling like clean laundry. The 10 miles from Tunnel Hill became five at the Breeden Trestle, where we filled our bottles for the last time. Sometime in here I realized that I was running or walking from one leaf to the next on the trail, not even looking around. I reminded myself to think of this when picking a race for its natural beauty.
With just five miles left, we figured it was okay to discuss what exactly we were going to do when we finished. The words “pizza” and “beer” figured prominently. Finally, we had a mile left. I could see that if we picked it up, we’d go under 29 hours. Allison said “screw that” and I agreed, so we shuffled on in for 29:00:46 and :47 (she beat me). We were 184 and 185 of the 204 who finished. Because of the liberal distance drop policy (basically if you stop at 50 it looks on the results as if you actually started as a 50 runner), it’s hard to tell how many people actually started in the 100 field. 422 numbers were issued for 100 mile entrants.
I’ll be thinking about this race for a long time. Thinking back about the Arkansas Traveller I dropped from at 80, I’d say we were not in much danger of stopping at any point. At that race, I actually tried to drop for what seemed like hours, so there was no doubt of my intentions.
Those few moments at the end of our sit in the tent at 50 miles were the crux, though. We didn’t ever really decide to finish it, I don’t think. We just got up and kept moving. I am building layers of lacquer over the memory of walking out of that tent and back onto the trail, hopefully preserving it like the pearl it is. That preservation of motion, the inertia that pulls you back out under the stars to sing, is life.
The cold sucked. Our gear saved us. We were both wearing Outdoor Research mittens which are for hardcore cold weather, and we kept them warm with a steady stream of chemical handwarmers. Cold, numb hands quickly lead to a host of other problems. We massively overpacked and because of that we could switch out wet clothes and we could turn our last resort thermal layers into hiking clothes for the middle of a cold night. Wind chills were in the very low teens Sunday morning. People were being pulled and dropping because of hypothermia, and more than one left in an ambulance.
Besides the cold, the extensive walk was the other x-factor. We’re good at keeping a quick walking pace, but 25mi was still more than I’ve walked in a single go in some time. A week later, the only thing that still is sore are my hip flexors, and that’s the walking for sure. I tend to think that the walk allowed us to treat the cold as we normally would: as not much of a big deal. But maybe it kept us out there longer that we had to be? I am pretty sure my blisters were at least partially caused by the long walk.
Finally, the things we learned (some of them for the umpteenth time):
- Glove and hat selection at a cold 100 is critical. We loved our mittens that opened to allow you to use your fingers or vent some warm air.
- Take care of hot spots on your feet early. I learned this a long time ago and unfortunately ignored it this time.
- Dill pickles and mustard can be lethal. Seriously, though, test the exact food you’re going to pack beforehand (preferably after a bunch of miles) lest you find it inedible while underway.
- Without a crew, the finish line of a 100 is not quite the end of the race. Gathering your stuff and getting back to the hotel is no small feat when you’ve been running for a bunch of hours. Next time we’ll have a better plan for this.
- Gu and Snickers can save your soul. Or at least they can redeem it for short periods of time. Recently I’ve begun to develop a reflex that goes like this: feel like crap? Eat a Gu. Such a large percentage of feeling bad in ultras boils down to low sugar, the chance of this making you feel better is pretty good.