It’s been just about a month since I started my 100 mile journey in Damascus. I felt that it was important to take time to reflect exactly what this race meant to me the past few months and even more importantly what it will mean to me in the coming months and years. I think the best way to do that is to first recap the race itself, then go back before the race to talk about what I expected and finally talk I about what it was really like.
As for the race itself, it was everything I hoped it could be. Despite the existence of Covid, everything pre race went great. We got into Damascus Thursday afternoon and I was able to pick up my packet right away. The volunteers were amazing and answered any questions we had. None of these races would be possible without the people who volunteer their free time and work the races and aid stations. There’s a certain lack of pretentiousness in trail racing that makes it beautiful. For the most part, everyone wants to see each other succeed and are willing to talk and share tips and secrets.
After a quick dinner, I got all my stuff together and attempted to try and get some rest. I think I finally fell asleep about midnight, which is not uncommon. Many runners, including myself have a hard time sleeping the night before a race. I did finally fall asleep and was back up and ready to go at 3am for the 5am start. Most runners have their pre race rituals and mine includes pancakes and syrup. Next thing I know, it was 4:55am and Jason Green was yelling at everyone to get the fuck out from under the tent since they were going to get wet anyway. After his customary 2 minute speech we were off into not only the darkness of night, but also a driving rain that would continue on for the next 12 hours straight and for myself 20 of the 23 hours I was on the course. The first 10 miles were pretty routine and consisted of me telling myself to stay calm, go slow and dig in for the long haul. Most people were doing the same and with it being pitch black with the exception of the light off your headlamp, slippery conditions and a steady incline it was pretty easy. After hitting the turnaround at Whitetop, it was time to head back down towards the starting line in Damascus. At this point, my phone had already gotten wet, despite being sealed in a ziplock bag and glitched out. I couldn’t get it to do anything except play the Joe Rogan Experience, which isn’t the worst thing. All told I listened to 5 episodes including Lex Friedman, Tim Kennedy, Jenny Kleeman, Ron White and Douglas Murray. The good news is that I can pretty much answer any question you may have ranging from sex robots to special forces operations. After a brief stop near mile 28 to meet up with my crew, I was back on my way to the starting line.
The next part of the race consisted of 4 trips up the trail just past the Alvarado Aid Station with a turnaround on what was described as the big ass bridge and back down to the starting line for a check in. Near the end of end of each trip, you had access to your crew who were camped about 2 miles from the starting line. I actually loved this setup. It made it easy for the crew not to have to switch positions and I found it gave me a little boost mentally knowing that I was going to see them soon. The next 40 miles or so were pretty uneventful. I felt great and just kept plugging along, continuing to work my walk breaks in. Around mile 62 is when my first bit of trouble crept in. What I thought was a fold in my sock that was annoying me turned out to be about 4” of the skin on the bottom of my foot being split open and folded under itself. After a quick surgery at the crew area, I taped some moleskin on it and headed back out.
Coming in around 80, I actually still felt strong. My pace had slowed, but overall I felt pretty good. I opted not to stop by my crew and instead went out to turn around and decided to stop at mile 84 instead before heading up to Alvarado one last time. I don’t know what the hell happened, but in those 4 miles the wheels came flying off. I really don’t remember much about that pit stop except after dry heaving for a few mins on the side of the car, I was able to get down some watermelon and potato chips. Apparently I also spoke to my brother on the phone, but don’t remember much about it. According to my wife and mother, I was completely glazed over and out of it. The watermelon and chips did me some good and a few mins later I was stumbling my way out of the crew area and on my way back up the trail. I came back to it a little bit and felt pretty good at the aid station, which was just under 2 miles away from the turnaround on the big ass bridge. After a slow, but steady pace over the next 4 miles I was back at the aid station and in pretty rough shape. I walked in with the cold sweats and thought I was going to pass out. I took a few mins to compose myself. After a couple of deep breaths and a brief internal conversation, I had one of the most honest and real moments I’ve ever had with myself. I was 92 miles in. Was I committed to finishing this race no matter how bad the pain was? Was I willing to die out here before I quit this race? The answer to both questions was Yes! I don’t mean that it a symbolic sense, I mean that in as real as a way as possible. I was really willing to lay it all on the line out there no matter the consequences. I needed to finish this race!! The next 8 miles I can only describe as a foggy realm of pain. My ankle was swollen over my shoe, I was sleep deprived. My left hamstring was shot, but I was moving. Runners describe this as the pain cave and I was deep in. It’s a weird state of mind that I can only describe as ‘trippy”. You’re not really here anymore. Your body is, but it’s on autopilot. Your mind is somewhere else. It’s a weird dark place. You think of weird shit. Stuff from your childhood pops in, weird meaningless things, that were buried. You think of your wife, your kids, family, friends, people that have passed, people that are no longer in your life, Connie the Crossing Guard from elementary school, Mrs Hughes, the school nurse. All of your fuck ups and mistakes come crashing down on you. Has everything before this even mattered? How fucked up am I that I need to run 100 miles in the woods to find peace? Have I lived a good life? Am I a good person? I wonder what happened to that kid in the HBO documentary on gangs in DC I watched 15 years ago. Andre Bruno, that’s his name!! Why do I remember that? Will my kids be proud? Will I see the world clearer after this? Has all this training and this pain of stripping my soul down to its bare bone been worth it? What is my purpose? Why didn’t they make the Irishman 15 years ago?
BOOM!!! What’s that? Who is calling me? Is that my mother’s voice? DO I hear Danielle? I see lights and signs of life. I see Jason Green. I give him a high five (no hugs this year) like I have seen so many other people on Youtube do. I’m handed two buckles. I have done it. I can’t fucking believe it. I did it, I put my mind to it and I did it! There’s a brief moment of pure glory and then nothing but pain. Everything is swollen and I’m dry heaving at the side of a car at 4am in the middle of Damascus,Va, but I’ve never been better. I’m alive!!!
The months before this race have been filled with unknowns, angst and major life changes. We didn’t even know if the race was going to happen until a few weeks before. As far as I’m concerned this race was everything to me. It drove my training. It’s the reason I got all those miles in. It kept me healthy and focused. In a world that is more divided than ever and filled with bad news and separation, I’ve made it through the past few months by clinging onto and focusing on the good things I have in life. My job of 20 years at The Met Opera was gone on a Thursday in mid-March like it never existed. That’s ok, I was ready for a change anyway. I’ve gotten to spend more time with my kids than ever before. I’ve found pleasure in silence and solitude. I don’t need nights out at bars and expensive dinners, I just need a roof over my head and a place to share food with the ones I love. I realized that working 80-85 weeks is not in the cards for me anymore. It’s not what I want my life to be. I’ve learned you can’t put a price on time. I’ve learned to value my friendships and appreciate the quirks each person brings to our group. I celebrate our differences. I’ve missed my friends during Covid. Not only that, but we made a major move and relocated to Hilton Head Island, SC. It’s the first time I’ve been away from my friends since sophomore year, some 28 years ago. These people aren’t friends, they’re not even family. I don’t have a word for it, but they are something even more special. There’s a bond amongst us that no one outside of our crew will ever understand. We’ve been drunk together, we’ve been stoned together, we’ve seen each other at our highest and at our lowest. We’ve celebrated weddings, hugged at funerals and watched each other become fathers and middled aged men. It’s out there all alone on the trails that I realized how much they mean to me and how lucky I am to have them in my life. That I treasure all these beautiful memories that we have made together. Without this race I don’t know if I could’ve stayed so positive. This race represented life to me. I knew it was going to hurt and there would be rough times, but I also knew that if I could just persevere and come out of it smiling at the end that’s all that mattered.
I’ve had a month to think about this race and if it was everything that I expected it to be. In a word, Yes! I don’t know why running 100 miles meant so much to me, but it did. There’s just something so fucking mind numbingly cool about that number. 100 miles on foot in one day. Most people can’t comprehend it, in fact when it comes up, I can tell that most people think I’m full of shit. That’s cool, I didn’t run it for them, I ran it for me. It’s rarified air. There’s only a small percentage of people in the world who have done it. I don’t feel like it makes me special. I’m just a guy who learned to keep moving forward, but it does make me special in the sense that it makes me part of a beautiful community. Trailrunners and in particular ultrarunners are a special group of people. We encourage each other, we pick each other up, we’ll stop for a few mins and talk to each other and make sure if someone is ok, even if it means losing a few mins of our own time. Society can learn a lot from this community. I didn’t expect to come out of this race with all of my problems solved, but I did expect to come out of it changed person and that did happen. I will never be the same person I was when I toed that starting line. I know things about myself that I could’ve never known before. Things you can only know when you have pushed yourself to the absolute limit. I know that no matter what happens in life I am mentally strong enough to keep moving forward. I have gone through many changes the last three years. I’ve reevaluated my life’s priorities, gotten healthier in all aspects and have learned grace and humility. I attribute a lot of those improvements to ultrarunning. I don’t know why, but it silences all my insecurities. It makes me feel whole. There is a beauty in the pain and suffering. I’m thankful for having it in my life every day. I’m more comfortable in my own skin than ever before. This who I am, I’m at peace with myself and I couldn’t be happier. As I told my kids, all the buckles and awards are awesome, but they mean nothing in relation to what they think of me. I hope they look at me and see an example of toughness and perseverance. I hope they know I wasn’t perfect, but I tried my best and never stopped trying to be a better person, husband and father. When all is said and done and hopefully many years from now, when I’m surrounded by my family, I want them to say ”Man, he did some cool shit. That was one tough motherfucker!