This past weekend I had the privilege of heading down into the Massnutten Mountains for some quality trail time. This trip was focused around the Massnutten Mountains Trails 100 mile run. Francesca has been a close friend, confidant, and coach, to me throughout the 6 years I have known her and Gill, but I had never had the opportunity to crew for her at a race before. After not being able to make it to Charlottesville to volunteer with either the Charlottesville Marathon or the Bel Monte 50 mile this spring, I basically told them there was no option but to let me come down and help 🙂
The drive down to Woodstock is actually very quick from Baltimore – about 2 hours – so I headed down early on Saturday morning. Gill and I went out to mile 33 and began the “hurry up and wait” that crewing is all about. Frannie came through and looked great, but it was clear the temps were rising and the heat would factor into the day. She moved through the next section quickly and was looking strong. At the next aid station, 59 miles, she was about 50/50 on how she felt, and mostly just wanted to eat popsicles. Unfortunately even I know that popsicles aren’t the most calorie rich foods!
On to the next aid station where we noted that this was the first one where a pacer can join the runner. Initially we planned for me to begin running with her around mile 69, giving me 30(ish) miles of running. We opted to start me at the earlier point though (63), in hopes of keeping her spirits up; if i needed to stop earlier that would be an option for me. We had about 90 good minutes of daylight and made it up the first long climb ahead of us without needing headlamps. Slowly the darkness set in though, and despite having saved up conversation topics for weeks, eventually the hours gave way to nothing but the sounds of the whippoorwills around us, the dull roar of trucks miles below us on I-81, and the occasional snake (yes, I saw a copper head, and yes, I thought it was a rattlesnake because it was definitely rattling!) In the first few segments the climbs were strong and I was barely keeping up on the flats and downhills. Slowly the time on her feet began to take its toll though and things shifted to a more gradual, deliberate pace.
It is not hard to tell the moment when the runner begins to enter the “dark place.” I haven’t approached this subject much because the words to describe both entering into it, and coming out of it, always seem so illusive. But perhaps because on this trip I was not having to focus on my own race, it gave me some more time to ponder the subject.
Initially when I began running 100 milers, I thought it was special because of the number. I thought man, 100 miles. In one day. That is just freaking cool. There is something about that number 100 that can trick you into thinking that it IS about the number. As I have come to know now though, it’s not the number 100 that’s significant. What is significant is that the distance of these races is enough to ensure that you will have to dig deep. You will have to find motivation in yourself or else you simply won’t succeed. Not that this isn’t true for an Ironman, but I do feel that it is easier to feed off of external motivation in an IM. The crowds, your fellow competitors within arms reach, the cheesy signs from the fans – taking these all in throughout the day offer distractions and are quick and helpful reminders of why you’re out there. From my experience, the Ironman has its dark moments. But in a 100 miler, you have your dark hours. An Ironman can beat you down mentally. A 100 is going to beat you down, cover you in mud, make you step in horse crap on the trail, have ticks crawl in your hair, make you jump over snakes, let you slip into icy cold river water, and then tell you that if you make it through the next 6 miles in 3 hours that will be a *fast* time. When you deal with the low moments of an Ironman, you are constantly surrounded by people, by stimuli, who can help you trigger thoughts which will allow your brain to function through a thought process of how to make things better. Or, at the very least, to remind you that as long as you keep moving you will arrive at the finish. I have a had moment in every 100 mile where I have done where the (somewhat) irrational thought crosses my mind that no one may ever find me ever again out on the trail – I’ve gotten lost and am so many miles from where I should be that they will never find me again. It’s that ultimate moment of self pity and sadness and overwhelming exhaustion, compounded by the feeling of isolation and believing that there is no one within reach.
But, this post isn’t meant to be a comparison of sorts between the two sports. I am simply hoping to offer my own general experiences between the two. There is no doubt in my mind that the tools I have developed from running ultras has helped me become more successful in triathlon.
One of the biggest tools to success in both races is that you have to develop an awareness of yourself and your body to identify key moments that can make or break your race. Throughout all of the physical activity, you have to be able to perform mental checks on what is going on, remove yourself from it all, and evaluate. Are you setting yourself up for failure or success with your nutrition right now? Are you pushing the pace you should be? Are you listening to your body? Being able to separate yourself from the physical pain of the competition for a moment, answer those questions for yourself, and then go on to make the necessary changes is part of being successful. At the end of the day, you knew at the start line that 100 miles wasn’t going to feel good. So expecting that when you’re 80 miles in is slightly delusional.
One of these key moments for Francesca happened sometime after mile 83. We had about 6 miles to go to the next aid station where Gill would be. I knew it had come to a point where no matter how many stories or cheesy jokes I told, getting her to turn her mental state around was only going to be able to come from her. I was just along for the ride, and to make sure she didn’t fall off the trail. Those six miles were very, very long. I think the only words that were really spoken were “I need to stop for the bathroom”, and “how much longer do you think it is?”
I didn’t know what would happen as we trudged down into the aid station and she sat down. But, Frannie did. She looked at me and said “Thank you, but I need to go on my own now. I need my music. And I don’t want to see either of you until the finish line.” (There was one more potential crew stop). Gill and I looked at each other, shrugged and nodded, and proceeded to make sure she had everything she needed to go on solo. It didn’t need to be discussed, but it was clear to me now that she was going to make it to the end. Whether it was competition, pride, or anything else, her reason had been found and she used that to overcome everything else.
Gill and I took the opportunity to grab a couple hours of sleep, shower, and head to the finish line where we arrived just in time to see Frannie cross the line, just over 26 hours.
Thank you to everyone at the aid station who helped us along the way!! It always brings a smile to my face to see my ultra “family” and the outpouring of support from everyone is just unbelievable. See you on the trails!