“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
~ Steve Prefontaine
Pre has been an idol of mine since I started running. Maybe it was because he was a bullied, scrappy kid like I was. Or maybe it was because we shared the same birthday. Whatever the reason, whenever I run I think of Pre; but it wasn’t until I attempted my first 100 miler that his words really meant something to me.
The Ghost Train Trail Races are held at the end of October at Camp Tevya in New Hampshire. This seemed like a good venue for a first 100, considering the mostly flat terrain and the out-and-back course. Laura and I arrived on Friday in Nashua to check into our motel for the weekend, and it became clear very quickly that we probably weren’t staying at the Ritz. After meeting with our crew to set up our camp, we headed out to dinner and then back to the motel. We were awoken not once, not twice, but three times during the night by the, um, colorful clientele. Loud exhausts, drunken screaming matches in the parking lot, and yowling cats (yes, apparently someone living at the motel had a cat that wanted to be let into the room at 4am) all added up to not much sleep. Oh well – who sleeps well the night before a race anyway?
Brad and Carolynn picked us up early Saturday morning and we headed off to the race venue. They had picked out the BEST site…right next to an outbuilding that apparently had outside electrical outlets. This meant that we could have lights and boil water for food during the night. Perfect!! We had picked up our packets the night before and dropped off our bags at the Milford aid station, so all we had to do was wait for the race start. It was such a low-key, friendly atmosphere that I really didn’t feel nervous at all. It would be fun to get out on the course.
The YETI yell went off at 9:01am, and we were off down the trail. The plan was to do a 5:1 run/walk ratio until we couldn’t do that anymore. The trail was a mix of single track, old railroad bed, and a little bit of road. It went through people’s backyards, by picturesque ponds, and over a nice little technical hill that was just enough to keep it interesting. We also had to navigate a steep set of stairs and a tunnel under the highway. Not bad for the first few times, but obviously these little landmarks were going to be tough in the later miles.
The first 30 miles went by so fast that I don’t actually remember much about them – except for coconut bra guy. At first I thought I was already hallucinating, but no – I wasn’t. We laughed, got a photo taken with him to prove that we weren’t hallucinating, and started on the return trip to Camp Tevya.
When we arrived back at Camp Tevya at the 30-mile mark we were able to pick up Brad for his first 15 miles of pacing duty. The first 7.5 miles we kept up the 5:1 ratio but on the way back to camp we had to reduce that to running every other run segment. Clearly reality had started to set in, as well as fatigue. It was going to be a long night. It was at this point that I lost Laura, as she was starting to have blister issues. Brad texted ahead to Carolynn that we were two miles out and asked her to get some noodles ready. I was getting cold and the hot food would hopefully help me feel a bit better.
I left Camp Tevya with Jamie (who was doing her first 7.5 miles of pacing), leaving Laura with Brad to address her blisters. It was getting dark and colder and I hadn’t put on enough clothing, so all I wanted to do was get to the other aid station and my drop bag. Jamie took off her long sleeve and put it over me, and I felt bad but she assured me that she was ok. When we arrived at the aid station I added more layers of clothes and filled my camp cup with coffee, planning to walk the next couple of miles (which included the hill) and sip some hot coffee. I told Autumn of this plan, as she would be doing the next 7.5 miles with me. She kept me laughing when I hit my low points and kept me moving when I wanted to stop.
We had passed Laura on the out and back and discovered that she was moving well and not very far behind us. We arrived back at Camp Tevya and now it was my turn to have a blister taken care of. While Brad dealt with bandaging my foot, Laura arrived and I was happy to see that we’d be able to go back out together. We had run so many training miles together that it just didn’t seem right for us not to finish this race side by side. She waited while I finished up changing socks and getting some food, and we headed back out on the trail with Brad (now doing his second 15 miles of pacing).
The wheels had seriously come off the bus by now. We were 60 miles in and about to enter uncharted waters. It had been dark for hours, we were cold and tired, and there wasn’t much running involved. One foot in front of the other was all I could muster, and it was frustrating to have each mile take so long to pass by. I felt like we were getting nowhere fast, but I just couldn’t run anymore. I had succeeded in shutting out the demons for 60 miles, but they finally got a voice. I started saying how done I was, how hard this was, and how much I wanted to stop. It was WAY too early for that, but I couldn’t help it. What kept me going was remembering that I had so many people supporting me and tracking me, and letting them down was not an option.
Earlier in the day I had seen Amy Rusiecki on the trail and she had given me a big hug and told me to never give up. It did my heart good to see her again, this time volunteering at the Milford aid station. We were at mile 67.5 and all I wanted to do was sit by the fire and get off my aching feet. She listened to me whine, filled my cup with coffee, and sent me back out on the trail. I knew she was right to do that, but at that moment I hated her just a little bit. The good news was that this was the last leg we’d be doing in the dark. OK, I could deal with that. It has to get better in the daylight.
Arriving back at Camp Tevya and mile 75, we took some time to rest and eat. It was so cold. I kept thinking that I just wanted to be warm again. I had known that this was going to be hard, but it was still so much more difficult that I had ever imagined. I saw other people suffering out there too, so I knew we weren’t alone. We passed a guy dressed as Fred Flintstone several times, and each time his “yabba dabba do” got weaker and weaker. He was clearly having a really hard time. We cheering him on each time we saw him. It’s amazing how a bunch of strangers become like family when you are going through the same ups and down together.
We left Camp Tevya with Jamie on our last full out and back, and it was starting to get light out. Our spirits were lifted slightly by this, but I was still in a very low point. We had been walking for 15 miles, and it didn’t feel like that was going to change. I was exhausted, freezing, and my feet were throbbing. Luckily I had only the one blister (a small silver lining). I was well-fed and well-hydrated and amazingly alert, but I still didn’t want to walk anymore. Again, the thought of everyone tracking me made me leave the comfort of camp and go back out onto the trail.
As we approached the Milford aid station, Jamie said Autumn had texted her and told her she had hot chocolate for us. Nectar of the gods, as far as I was concerned. Amy was still at the aid station so of course she wouldn’t let me stay by the fire and enjoy the warmth. I hated her a little bit less this time; maybe because it was light out, maybe because we were headed back over that dreaded hill for the last time – whatever the reason, I knew that she did the right thing by encouraging us to keep moving. We shuffled back out of the aid station with Autumn and our hot chocolate and headed for home once more.
Carolynn was our pacer for the last 10 miles, and she was ready to go when we arrived back at camp. I didn’t want to spend any time here at all because my motivation to continue was seriously flagging and I knew if I didn’t just go back out there, I might not go at all. I shed most of the layers I had put on during the night, refilled my water, and we left camp. Brad decided to go with us as well (I think he realized that both Laura and I were completely shattered and Carolynn might need backup on the trail).
It was shortly after that that Brad got a text from my husband, Joe. He had been unable to come up due to work issues, but now had decided to make the two-hour drive from CT to see us finish. Brad assured him that he would arrive in time because we had been reduced to 20-minute miles. The thought of seeing Joe at the finish is the one thing that kept my feet moving for those last 10 miles. I wanted nothing more to do with the trail, the race, my food – I just wanted to stop. It was the most hollow feeling I’d ever experienced. Even at the turnaround mile 95, I felt like those last five miles might as well have been a thousand. I began to understand how people can drop at mile 95, or even 97. The slow pace of our footsteps made those miles drag on for what seemed like hours. Not even the knowledge that we had turned around for the last time that day helped get me out of that low.
I don’t think I let myself believe I would finish until my feet hit the pavement of Camp Tevya for the last time. We had less than a mile to go, and my feet had been screaming for almost 40 miles. I looked at Laura and told her that I thought this would be my first finish line walk. My feet hurt so bad that the pavement was just excruciating. As we approached our camp, I saw Joe and heard everyone cheering for us. My eyes filled with tears and I said “not yet. We haven’t finished yet. Everyone has to finish with us.” So Brad, Carolynn, Jamie, and Autumn joined our little caravan as we headed for the last time through the covered bridge and to the finish line.
We hit the little covered bridge and had 500 meters to the finish. Suddenly nothing hurt anymore. I swear my feet didn’t even hit the ground. Laura and I picked up the pace and we sprinted towards the finish line. I saw 29:03 on the clock as I mustered everything I had left and jumped over the timing mat, smiling like I’d just conquered the world. Holy shit, I thought. I freaking did it. The tears came as my husband handed me my buckle. Ghost Train 100 mile finisher, it read.
We went back to our camp and finally sat down for celebratory beers and to get off our poor feet. About 15 minutes after we finished, we saw our buddy Fred (who is really Benjamin Manning) pop out of the woods and onto the pavement. We gave him a standing ovation as he passed us, and hollered out our best yabba dabba do. So glad to see him make it after all the suffering he’d been though as well.
It really does take a village. None of this is accomplished on our own. I had the support of Honey Stinger (my fuel of choice in between the bacon and sweet potatoes of the aid stations). I had the most supportive and unbelievably crazy training partners (thank you Laura L, Laura B, Crutch, Donnie, Liz, Beth, Nancy, Eric, Jamie, Autumn, Courtney, Tracy and countless others). I had the best crew EVER (my deepest, most heartfelt thanks to Brad, Carolynn, Jamie and Autumn for keeping me going and for mostly ignoring my shenanigans). And of course, I could never ever have done this without my awesome husband Joe, who not only continues to support this crazy journey I’ve chosen for myself, but who also continues to surprise me by showing up unexpectedly – usually when I need it the most.
I learned so much about myself in those twenty-nine hours and three minutes that I was on the Ghost Train trail. It wasn’t always fun, but it was a blast. I dredged up amounts of perseverance that I never thought I had. And at the end of the day, I gave nothing less than my best to this race. I hope I made you proud, Pre.