“The secret to success is often in the ability to accept how long it may take to be successful.” ~Richard Schick
“To complete a marathon, runners must traverse 26 miles; battle mental and physical fatigue and sometimes-extreme weather conditions, and probably be in the best shape of their lives. Are you exhausted yet? No? Then try running two marathons, or three, four and five, nonstop. Now add freezing temperatures, blustery winds and a course full of mud, fallen tree branches and whatever else Mother Nature can conjure up.” ~ Local Pekin, IL paper.
Hans Bauer and I flew into Peoria, IL together where we met up with race volunteer Mike Halovatch. Mike brought us to McNaughton Park on Thursday night where we met up with Race Director and good friend Andy Weinberg. We all went out to eat before Hans and I tented out at the Start/Finish to keep watch over the race equipment all ready present. As Friday came, many runners began showing up and setting up their tents, campers and tarps for the weekend. It finally began to sink it what I was about to take part in.
The McNaughton Park Trail Runs is a series of runs of varying distance that all take place on the same 10-mile loop in McNaughton Park in proud and gorgeous Pekin, Il. 150 Mile runners were to begin running at 6pm on Friday evening while the 50 and 100-mile runners were to begin Saturday morning at 6am. A few 100-mile runners began Friday night in order to give themselves some extra time to finish the race that officially ended at 6pm on Sunday night. Each 10 Mile loop sported 1,600’ of elevation change per loop with hills of varying distance and difficulty (mostly short and steep). Each loop also had two 20-yard creek crossings. One crossing was knee deep the other was shin deep. Ten ten-mile loops adds up to 16,000’ of elevation change in all the hills you can handle plus 20 cold creek crossings.
As we all gathered around for the pre-race meeting, the 150 milers began their final preparations and took to the starting line. I had the opportunity to meet many of them over pasta dinner and pre-race festivities. Brad Compton is a runner who looks like Jesus and we’ve both run to Wakely Dam in New York. David Goggins came in 5th place in the 2006 Badwater Ultra-Marathon, this supremely chiseled man appeared to be a completely impenetrable machine. Phil Rosenstein, Jeff Heasley, Ryan Dexter, Uli Kamm and many more. The cast of characters in the 150-mile was not only impressive but intimidating, to be in their company and share the same trails as them was a privilege and an honor.
These runners have accomplished great things as individuals. In the crowd of 150 milers was a 48-hour champion at Across The Yearswho ran 177 miles. A mother who ran 270 miles across the frozen tundra of Alaska. Runners who have run across the Gobi Desert and recovering addicts. Everyday people, who have jobs and families yet had pushed themselves to the limits of LIVING and accomplished great things. They now toe the start/finish line of the longest continuous distance race in the entire western hemisphere. What a thrill it was to be a part of something as great as this single event.
Just before the start of their race, all of us present from Team Sherpa Ultra-Running gathered around for a group photo. Hans had flown with me from New Hampshire and was ready to go on his 150 mile adventure. Chrissy Weiss from Los Angeles flew in to run the 150 also. Jeff Genova drove up from Arkansas to run the 100 with me and as we stood arm in arm at the start line, we smiled gleefully in thinking of the journey we were to take.
A surreal electric feeling was in the air as the meeting ended. People cheered and whistled. We clapped and jumped around as the start was given and these warriors were off on their personal journey to persevere. As they bounded down the first hill, the crowded shifted to an adjacent field where we cheered the runners on at mile 1.38 of the loop. As they ran through the grass they gave high fives to spectators and small children. Everyone had a smile on his or her face and a few “faster runners” had a look of extreme seriousness. God bless them as they disappeared into the woods.
Back at the start/finish, Jeff and I met up with Karl Meltzer. I had been e-mailing with Karl in the weeks before the race seeking advice. As we stood and spoke Friday night, we talked about race strategy, nutrition, and life in general. He was by far the coolest guy and a real class act. But even more surreal was the fact that here I was talking to the “Tiger Woods” of Ultra-Running, it was a moment in my journey that I will never forget and I take his advice to heart. I even got to speak to 2nd place finisher of the 2006 Badwater race, Akos Konya and he too was one cool and funny guy. As the day came to a close, Jeff and I had prepared for race morning as the 150 milers went round and round and round.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Saturday, April 14, 2007 – 6 AM McNaughton Park 100 Miles
I woke up and finished my pre-race prep. Socks, shoes, gaiters, band aids in trouble areas, body glide, bundle up, and watch the snow flurries fall in the pre-race air. It was a crisp morning with fresh first on the course. 150 Milers were coming in after a few loops on the course and looking good. But as we prepared for the run, snow flurries quickly turned to light rain showers. We were warned about what rain would do to the course, we would now simply pray for the best.
It all happened so quickly. I hardly even noticed I was about to run in a race. I continued to mingle with friends new and old, joking, laughing and having a great time. After another quick pre-race meeting and glancing over the 50 Mile runners, we all huddled behind the starting line and the signal to GO! Was given. “Oh my god… I’m going to run… HOW FREAKIN FAR?!”
Loop 1 : Miles 0 – 10: We bounded down the first hill of the course which was a mess of slick mud and an area of washout. It emptied us out in a large field of what we did not know, but we did know we had to run around the circumference of the field. Back into the woods and up a short steep hill, we come out into a grassy area where a bag piper played. His song was enough to choke me up as many spectators and crews cheered us on, it finally sank in. Sank in that I was going to be running a distance that not too long ago, I never knew humans considered running. We continued to feel out the course as mile 1.5 through 3 led us through a myriad of steep ups and downs. This section of the course ended up being the toughest in my mind with very few run able areas. And at mile 3 was the totem pole Aid station 1. Special thanks to these volunteers for putting on their smiles for 2 days straight and supplying us with a great aid station.
From here we headed out down trail towards the first river crossing. Course markings led us over a 2 foot embankment jumping into 3 feet of water, which rumor has it was what Karl Meltzer did. The rest of us took a 20-foot side path to an area of knee-deep water to cross in. No matter what I tried, my feet got drenched here and I was thankful to have caked Vaseline on them to try and protect them from damage. The water was cold, but if you kept moving on the other side, they were quick to warm up. After some flat run able sections, we come to the “rope hill.” This short steep “hill” was equipped with a rope for runners to grab while climbing. I saw it and giggled a little at how silly it was. After all the hiking I’d done in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I thought of all the trails could use this rope. But I decided to make a personal challenge to myself. See how many loops I could do without grabbing the rope. Up I went and across to the ridge, we then ran along another section of steep ups and downs.
We then got dumped out into more fields of what… we still did not know. The tight grooming and row placement made it evident that it was a farm of some kind. After running down hill and past the cemetery that Jeff mentioned he’d be in later… we arrived at Heavens Gate aid station. These folks were super. Fellow Ultra-Runner Tracy Thomas did an awesome job of keeping me in the game and making me feel strong. I loved her support as it kept me fueled. From here we did a quick 1 mile loop in the woods along the creek, head back out through the farms, back into the woods for some more hills, back out into the farms… one more ankle deep stream crossing about 20 feet wide, followed by more hills and back to the start finish. The course had been checked out and was soon to be memorized.
Loop 2 : Miles 10 – 20: The second loop got interested. After the first mile and a half was ran into David Goggins and Ryan Dexter who were on their 5th or 6th loop. These guys were running the 150 and were in rough shape. The trail had turned into a horrendous and torturous mud slick. It was in rough shape… nothing I had ever seen. Those who were short could navigate the mud just fine.. but those who were 6’6” like Goggins couldn’t lower his center of gravity enough. In effect he began slipped all around the place. The man that is a machine.. was now being revealed as human. But he still very much had machine qualities in him as he plodded along in mud caked shoes. Ryan Dexter teased him as they went along by saying, “Come on Dave, we have to run when we can.” No Ryan… there was no running right now… just sliding all over the place. We ran into Chrissy later who, like many others, was now dropping from the 150 to the 100 given the new course conditions.
Jeff started to get frustrated. When we could run we got too warm and when we walked too cold. The mud messed him all up as he had a tender ankle he hadn’t fully healed. He told me to screw my 22-hour finish goal and my 24-hour as well. I wasn’t happy with that but knew either way I had to just keep going. We entered totem pole and got some food, we left together then he stopped to pee… I never saw him again for quite some time. Karl Meltzer lapped me and we gave each other a quick nod as he went by. Very cool.
Loop 3 : Miles 20 – 30: The trail was now all out Armageddon. The massive influx of runners from only forty 150 milers to now over 200 runners on the trail with light showers caused the trail to turn into pure mud the entire way. Runners had to get off the single track and run in the moss and wild flowers to get ANY traction. Mud in most places was anywhere from 8 to 12 inches deep. Runners were losing shoes. ON the hills, every 5 steps up equaled sliding 3 steps back in the mud. I saw Akos Konya as he breezed by me. Bundled up and muddy I asked him, “Akos, how ya doin!?” His reply was funny, “I no like, very cold, too much mud, hilly.” Akos is a very funny guy and I hope to see him again.
I ran the first 2 loops in 2:20 but this loop had turned into a 3 hour nightmare. As I pulled into the start finish at mile 30, I stopped to re-grease my feet and change my socks. They were pruned and not looking good.
Loop 4 : Miles 30 – 40: There aren’t many folks my age running these ultra-events these days. And even fewer as young as 18 years old Steve Halstead. Steve was the youngest entrant in the 100 miler and I knew at last check that if he dropped I’d be the youngest out there. But as I rounded a corner before Heavens Gate, I saw him bent over on the side of the trail. He started the night before, and after 14 hours of running I asked him how far he’d run… 45 miles he said. One hell of an effort. I asked if he was ok and he told me he was done and waiting for a ride. I shook his hand and tapped his shoulder. After a hell of an effort I couldn’t believe he was dropping. I told him to keep going if he could, or go lay down and come back out… word had it he went home, hopped in bed and couldn’t move. I have a tremendous amount of respect for his guts and determination to have run through the night.
We noticed that quite a few folks had dropped out of the race after 2 or 3 loops and by loop 4 it was rather lonely out there. The masses were now gone and unfortunate for them, fortunate for us, the trails conditions started to improve. The mud was now no longer slick in many places but sticky. Getting down some steeper slopes still proved to be a trick yet, easier than before. But please don’t be fooled… we still have sections of 8-20 inch deep mud that would stay until the very end.
Loop 5 : Miles 40 – 50: Back at the start finish, every time runners would come in, they’d get our number and our name would be announced over the loud speaker. Andy would yell, “Sherpa John, From New Hampshire, 40 miles and still going.” We would later begin referring to the start/finish as “The Game Show.” It was great to run in and get a huge hug from Andy, high five and some smiles. He was such an inspiration to me. His energy is contagious.
Back out on the course I ran into many of the 150 Milers. Chrissy Weiss was still hell bent on going only 100 miles but after the last time I saw her, rumor had it she dropped at 90. Phil Rosenstein was still going strong and he told me Hans was a lap ahead of him. At totem I ate some twizzlers and ran off angry. A fellow runner asked me what was wrong and I explained how I was pissed to have to chew my food… too much energy is wasted in chewing. I was grumpy yet laughed after listening to myself go nuts.
Then I ran into Corey from the Adirondaks of New York state. He knew who I was yet I had no clue who he was. We talked, “So your training for the 48 record has brought you here, very cool Sherpa.” I had no idea how he knew about my ambition to break a record in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but in talking to him, I learned how he had similar ambitions to break Cave Dogs record in New York. We had great conversation about hiking places in the Northeast and even giggled over the Illinois “hills.” It was great to have his company for a time as I began to feel like I was at home. As I made it back to “The Game Show” it echoed through the woods, “Sherpa John, halfway done his 1st 100 miler.” Andy stuck the microphone in my face, “How does it feel to be doing your first 100?” and I replied, “Awesome!”
Loop 6 : Miles 50 – 60: I continued to run around the loop and wondered where Jeff was. Would I lap him or see him at all? Where the hell is Hans? The sun will set soon and I should have stayed with Jeff since it’s going to get mighty lonely out here. A small bout of depression began to fall over me and I prayed to god. It was now that I finally started to dig deep down inside me, to find what it is that I’m made of. I’ve never run more than 60 miles before. Before I set out on this loop I received a call fro my friend from home “Mt. Drew” who called as I changed my socks. At home my hiking friends were receiving their awards for hiking all of New Hampshire’s 4,000 Footers. I was missing the celebration and them. I have many fond memories of them all and wished I could be there. Instead I was in Illinois, alone, wet, muddy and searching for inner hope.. and then, I was taught a lesson from above.
Before the rope hill I saw a German couple squabbling in German. It was Uli Kamm. His wife had joined him for a loop. As they talked he video taped the course with his camera explaining he was here for the gorgeous wildflowers. (they were not out yet). They let me pass and as I went up rope hill (still no rope use), he said, “you should have washed your legs to make them look better!” I had a good chuckle.
As I kept running I ran into a young man wearing a pair of brooks and a white bandana. He was walking with a group of friends when I heard him say, “Gee, I thought I was the youngest out here, what the F$^!” I turned back to look at him and he said, “Hey, how old are you?” I told him I was 25 and I thought according to the registration page am the youngest out here in the 100 since the 18 year old dropped. “No.. I’m 21, I’m the youngest,” he barked. I was taken a back by his tone. Of course in various races I have taken some pride in being the youngest to finish the given race. Though I’m sure it wasn’t his intent, his tone came off as boastful and in a rather attacking manner. I responded with, “Oh.. ok.. well.. hey, good luck man.”
Shortly after, he ditched his friends and caught up with me. He told me, “this is my first 100. I’ve never run more than 9.8 miles in a training run. I ran 33 here last year as a pacer and thought I was going to die. I’ve yet to change my socks shoes or shorts for that matter.” He went on and on about his greatness of the day and I simply listened. And then he came out with, “my first lap was a 1:20!” WOAH! I responded, “Karl Meltzer didn’t even run a 1:20 for his first lap. What are you thinking? You’re going to blow up!” “Well, I had a crappy pacer and one of my other loops was 4 hours because of him. I was pissed.” Now I was truly puzzled by this guy and I said again, “You’re going to blow up.” “Well… if I was gonna blow up I’d have done it by now I’ll be fine.” I ran ahead of him and began to think to myself if this was a hallucination. I saw no bib number on him and he was running fresher after 50 miles than anyone else on the course. Was god trying to teach me a lesson in humility, boastfulness and humbleness?? I chalked it all up as yes and this young man didn’t exist. A simple hallucination and a lesson from above. I felt terrible and finally learned what so many had been trying to teach me. I left him by saying, “Good luck kiddo, I think you should have done your homework though, it’s a long race and strange things happen at night.”
Shortly before the sun set I found Hans! We ran together into Heavens Gate and continued on to the finish area. Hans said, “I hope we see some more wildlife!” I replied with, “Yeah… I’ve seen 5 deer so far.” Hans – “Really?! I Saw a giraffe!” I was now well aware that Hans was way beyond the realms of sanity. As we reached the start/finish area, we found Jeff in the tent laying down feeling like crap. We all gathered our stuff, and headed out for another lap.
Loop 7 : Miles 60 – 70: My feet had been growing progressively sorer since about mile 30. As they wrinkled they started to form chasms near the ball of my feet that felt as if they were splitting open. I could feel some huge blisters on the bottom of my big toes. My pinky toes sore as hell.. things were going down hill fast. We all headed out for loop 7 which quickly turned into a death march. As we walked together through the night, Hans ran ahead with a fellow 150 runner he knew. Jeff and I suffered behind. I finally used the rope on the rope hill. My feet progressively worse, running turned into a shuffle. My shins hurt and my hips. I was tired, spent, and emotional and even shed a few tears. I started getting tunnel vision and felt like the darkness of the world was crashing down around me. Even though I was with Jeff and Hans up ahead, I was very alone. I was broken. At Havens Gate.. Tracy was gone as I looked for her motivation. I sat in a chair around their fire and drank chicken soup. I felt reenergized and we tried to run.. but Jeff hurt now and was feeling terrible. I carried on down the trail and started hallucinating. I saw a bush baby on the trail… and they are NOT native to Illinois. Things got very cloudy, I forgot where we just were and had no clue where we were now. I just kept moving. Took a few wrong turns and then Jeff started to vomit.…When we got back to the start finish I felt as if we’d been walking for 6 hours on the last loop… and it was really only 3 1/2. It was 1 am… I had gone 70 Miles in 19 Hours. The only part of my body that hurt was my shins and feet. I took my shoes and socks off and remained in agony. I had never felt so much pain in my life.
Jeff laid on his bed and fell asleep in less than 2 minutes. Hans told me to lay down and re-stock myself and head out again later. He’d be back. I hobbled around to the fire, dried my feet, put new socks on and crawled into my sleeping back with all of my clothes and 2 jackets on… I fell asleep.
When Hans returned it had been 3 hours. I told him to tell Andy I was done.. he went to find Andy and told him to get my ass out on the course. Andy came over to talk and asked what was wrong. I told him my feet killed and I could barely walk on them they hurt so bad. I cried… he left.. and came back with a pair of Injinji Toe Socks.
At sun up I woke up and I put them on with my old running shoes. As I walked around the start/finish area, I saw what looked like a battlefield. Runners had dropped all through the night. Many others had slept, many had packed up and gone home. Larry the chef cooked me an awesome ham and cheese sandwich. I walked over to the time clock and saw the buckles…. There was no doubt what I was going to do now.
I had been broken down to the absolute lowest point of humility and sanity. I was going crazy, scared, cold, tired… and I woke to a new day, a new rising. I told Jeff… “Hey… 3 more laps… lets go.” And this, is when I learned who I was.. and what it is to persevere. 5 miles across the course Hans was still running when he heard echo through McNaughton Park, “Sherpa John, 70 Miles, heading back out to finish his first 100 Miler!” Hans told me later how excited he got ad he kept running. We were off… for 3 more laps.. the clock still rolling.
Loop 8 : Miles 70 – 80: It felt so great to be back out running on the course. The toe socks worked great and my feet felt fine. Jeff and I ran together laughing and cracking jokes all around the park. “Have you been to McNaughton Park??” Yeah.. and we’ve seen ALL of it and then some. More mud please, more hills please. I hadn’t had enough. I felt so alive and I choked up thinking of finishing this damn race. As we neared the start/finish we heard “The Game Show” and knew we were the next contestants. We ran this lap in 2:40
Loop 9 : Miles 80 – 90: Before we head out I see two young guys standing together looking at me with their arms crossed. I was having a hard time seeing but as I leaned forward and focused in on one of them I asked, “Hey… weren’t you the 21 year old I saw last night!?” He was wearing jeans and looking rather clean. “Yeah, I dropped at mile 72.” I stood up and smiled… and asked, “So you blew up?” “Well basically what it came down to is I started too fast.” I commend this young man and if he ever reads this report, I hope he will take some time to learn about this sport and what its about. I commend hi for his courage and his ability to have run as well as he did for 70 Miles. He should have finished the race as he had plenty of time. Perhaps he will return and try again. But now I knew… I was aiming at being the youngest finisher of the 100 miler.
As we left the start we saw David Goggins down in the first field. The man who I envisioned as a machine was now a walking mess. As he shuffled along the course with Mike Halovatch as his pacer, he looked like hell. I looked up to Goggins for his amazing abilities as a runner and because he is indeed a machine, but he inspires me more now than ever since I have seen that he is indeed every bit as much a human and a man of courage. As he shuffled along, I thought for sure I may have seen some drool.
We saw Ryan Dexter out at Heavens Gate.. another 150 miler who was delirious and on cloud nine. Bundled up wearing a balaclava I ran up to him and gave him a huge hug. His encouragement is a large part of why I continued to run. Thanks Ryan, I owe you big time. We saw Phil Rosenstein and judging by his slurred speech, we were glad his race was almost over as well. We ran a short distance with him before pulling away. We began to slow a bit near the end, yet still made it back to, yup, “The Game Show.” And all we heard was, “Sherpa John… he was down and out last night… 90 Miles! ONE LAP TO GO! Jeff and I refueled and got ready to go out for the last lap in McNaughton Park. Running around in circles, through all that mud that was STILL there and after 18 creek crossings… it was all ready way beyond a bad nightmare… just one more time.
Loop 10 : Miles 90 to 100: Jeff and I stripped off some layers as the sun had begun to warm up the course. Many places were now dry but soft and there were still some huge mud pits around. But it was as we were preparing to leave the start finish for the last time that I began to feel at peace. Andy Weinberg came up to me and said over the loud speaker, “Sherpa John… I’ve got two words!” He leaned over and whispered them into my ear. No.. they weren’t expletives, but what he said lit a fire under my ass like no other… It was time to go. As Jeff and I smiled at each other, we headed out to cheers and applause, and then.. we saw Karl Meltzer. Karl won the race, he ran 100 Miles in 17 Hours and change setting a new course record by more than an hour. Karl had risen to his feet as he clapped us and he yelled, “Come on, lets go! GO GET EM!” Man… we were dumb founded. What a class act. He finished the race, went home, showered, slept.. and instead of golfing the next day, he returned to the course to cheer everyone on. It was a proud moment for Ultra-running to see this display of sportsman ship and this single gesture.. Is why I love this sport so much. Karl is one of my heros, and he was cheering me on. An awesome moment in time.
Jeff and I ran out onto the course pumped up and way too fast. We quickly blew up. I couldn’t run anymore. My shins and hips hurt bad. My feet sore once more, we opted to power walk the last 10 as fast as we could. It didn’t matter, it was almost over. We enjoyed the last loop on the course. There was no one left at the 1st aid station. The guys at Heavens Gate were all but packed up. We waived and yelled for Phil Rosenstein, who was on his last lap of the 150, to finish! We stood in the creek crossings to cool our burning feet down. The trail was starting to spin again, tunnel vision slowly returning, I was glad to be finishing. Jeff and I talked about how proud we were of each other.
Across the last creek crossing, through the mud, up the last hills and into the home stretch. I broke off into an all out sprint. Adrenaline took over and I could run again. I wanted to cry but couldn’t get the tears out. Andy Weinberg over the loud speaker at The Game Show, “Sherpa John, 100 Mile Finisher! HERE HE COMES! IS HE FOR REAL NOW SJ?! Youngest finisher!” I crossed the finish line and hugged Andy. A HUGE hug followed by my first Belt buckle. I lifted it high and smiled proudly. Jeff and I hugged… we did it. 34 Hours and 15 Minutes later.
There was no “places” in this race. Karl and Akos came in first and Second, but the rest of us simply survived. The course was a mess, a horrible nightmare of mud and cold. I personally learned a lot about the science behind energy during the races. I need to look into this more so I can better fuel myself during the race. Also, how to care better for my feet.
But the biggest lesson was what I learned about perseverance. “Perseverance is the ability to rise again after all is lost and realizing that in the end, you can do anything.” Hans said it best with, “You are the ultra until the ultra is over.” I still cannot believe I ran 100 Miles. And despite all of the torture, the pain, the mud, the cold, the wet… I cannot wait to do it again in Vermont in July. Which reminds me that this journey is hardly about me.. its more about the 7,000 people who were diagnosed with diabetes during the time it took me to finish McNaughton Park.
So now I rest my swollen feet and try to re-collect myself from within. I learned a lot about myself and truly believe that I was changed this weekend, forever. Life is good, but of course, many will never learn how good, until they have died.
One year ago to the day my grandfather died from cancer. He was my best friend and the most influential man of my life. He lived the last 14 years of his life in a wheel chair. I live my life for him. Thanks Moe… the buckles for you.
Notes: - A little over 40 people started the 150 mile event, 9 finished. - Over 70 peopler started the 100 mile event, 21 of us finished. For one of the lowest finishing rates in ultra-running history. I'll post the exact numbers as they come available. -Thanks to RD Andy Weinberg and his army of volunteers for an amazing race. -Words cannot really describe this experience, I left a lot out I know. It was the best adventure of my life. Disappointed I slept for so long, wished I had finished quicker. But overall pleased.