Throughout the week prior to the race I had been eyeing the Saturday weather forecast for Perryville,AR, 89 degrees, 79% humidity and an Accuweather “RealFeel” of 99 degrees; are you kidding me!?! For some people they may welcome this last taste of summer before the long, cold winter but when you are running 100 miles through the woods these are far from ideal conditions. The Arkansas Traveller 100 would be my 2nd 100 mile attempt this year and hopefully 2nd finish; in fact going into the race I was so confident of a finish that I had proclaimed to all of you that I would beat the 24 hour mark. How quickly I had forgotten the physical pain and mental challenges I had faced at Kettle in June but I would soon be reminded!
My Dad, Andrew Karandjeff and I headed out early Friday morning to make the trek to race headquarters at Lake Sylvia, AR. We arrived there around 1:30 pm, I checked in, they recorded my weight and then we headed over to await the pre-race briefing from Stan and Chrissy Ferguson. We pulled up chairs alongside my good friends Rick Mayo, Gabe Bevan and his wife, Tiffany; Gabe and Rick were running the race and Tiffany was the crew chief. Chrissy went through the briefing filling us in about the history of the race and cautioning us about the heat and humidity we would face the next day; considering that it was about 91 degrees at the time we all knew exactly what we were in for. There was one piece of advice Chrissy told all of us; “Tomorrow is going to be hard, there will be moments when you feel awful and want to quit. It’s during these times that you need a reason to keep going; every year I’ve run the race I've dedicated it to a friend, relative or a cause and when the going got tough I focused on that reason. No matter what, unless you are on the brink of death, DON’T QUIT! Things will get better if you can just power through the rough times and you will finish.” This speech of inspiration would be something that I would remember the next day; at that time I didn’t know how important those few words would be.
After the briefing all of the SLUGs gathered for a group picture; there were quite a few that were either running or crewing for the race this year including Gena Bonini, Jeremy Bolt, Brian Kuhn, Mike Samuelson, Dale Perry, Lee Hess, Andrew Karandjeff, Charles Stroud and Carol Izadi. We chatted a bit more and then headed back to check-in to the hotel and get settled for the evening.
The next morning I awoke at 4:00 am not really nervous or excited, actually I was indifferent which concerned me a little; mentally I just didn’t feel into it which is not good when you’re facing a 100 mile run in 90 degree heat. I met Gabe and Rick and jumped into the car with them to head to the race. On the way none of us really said too much; it was really early and we were all focused on the task ahead of us. Gabe did say how much he really liked 100 milers and then qualified it with “Actually I don’t really like the process but the finishing part is great!” We got to the start, checked in and patiently awaited 6:00 am.
The temperature was around 74 degrees, humidity 97% (like running underwater) and promptly at 6:00 am we were off; as we started heading up the hill out of Lake Sylvia Gabe, Rick and I remained together. I was pushing for a sub-24 hour finish and figured I would try to stay with Rick as long as possible as he was shooting to break 23 hours; I soon figured out he was planning to run as much as he could and even voiced my concerns saying to Gabe and Rick “We shouldn’t be running the uphills, we will pay for this later.” They both pretty much ignored me and I ignored myself continuing to run everything along with them; this was a HUGE mistake which almost cost me the race. Around mile 8 the reality of the humidity, the distance and the steaming temperatures we would face later on set in and Gabe and I let Rick go; unfortunately a lot of damage had already been done. We then entered the Ouachita Trail section where I rolled my left ankle a few times and I already started wondering if I would finish; too early for that! We reached the Lake Sylvia Aid Station (mile 16.7) a little after 9:00 am on roughly a 20 hour pace and already my stomach was starting to bother me. My Dad and Andrew were there and I voiced my concern to Andrew that I shouldn’t be feeling this bad so early on; he encouraged me that things would get better but I didn’t really believe him. Heading out I knew this day would either be really short or extremely long!
Gabe and I headed out and ran together for the next 16 miles; he had been struggling with an injured right foot and now his left shin was in a lot of pain from favoring that foot. He was a bit discouraged and in a bad place mentally; I did what I could and told him he had to keep going. We both talked about how bad we were feeling and how it was way too early to be in this bad of shape; while we both encouraged each other it was also nice to know that we both were suffering so we didn’t feel alone in our battle. I continued to take my S-Caps, drain my water bottles and eat my Hammer Gels but my stomach was getting worse. We powered on and reached the next crew access aid station, Lake Winona (mile 32.2), a little before 1:00 pm still on pace for a sub-24 hour finish. At this point though I was questioning whether I would finish at all as I was feeling horrible and the day was heating up reaching 90 degrees. When I arrived an Aid Station volunteer had my drop bag in hand and asked me if I needed anything; I told her it was for the way back (mile 83.9), that is if I even made it back! Lee Hess heard this and said “What was that!?! We’ll have none of that talk; you will be back!” He came over to see what was going on and I told him my stomach was going south and I felt awful; Andrew and my Dad were there too and both were a bit concerned. We talked through my fueling, hydration and electrolyte strategy as I felt I was doing everything right. Lee gave me some rock salt in a baggy and told me to suck on it while I headed out. I left there knowing that the next crew access aid station was another 15 miles away wondering if I should have just quit there; I figured I could crawl 15 miles if things got bad enough and kept on.
At about mile 34 I knew that I had to eat something no matter how bad I felt and opened up a Hammer Gel; as I squeezed it into my mouth I was unable to keep it down and threw up everything in my stomach. Well, I’ll either feel better now or that would nail my coffin shut because of dehydration. I kept moving forward in a steady walk and was being passed left and right; fellow SLUG, Dale Perry, came up behind me and asked if I was alright. Apparently he could hear me heaving and we talked a bit about how I was feeling and the heat and humidity; he encouraged me to keep at it and moved on as I could only walk. I arrived at the Club Flamingo Aid Station (mile 39.7) and was contemplating dropping out; in addition to the stomach issues both of my calves were completely seizing up so bad that the minute I tried to run I was crippled with cramps. There was no way I was going to go another 60 miles like this plus my kidneys were starting to ache a bit which is also another bad sign; perhaps this just wasn’t my day. I sat down at that aid station and talked to a few of the volunteers about what was going on; I told them I wanted to drop but couldn’t do that to my Dad and Andrew and needed to move on to the next crew access aid station so we could discuss the situation. They wished me luck and I headed back out. It was in the next few miles that I was passed by a runner who was a nurse and she asked how I was doing; I told her not so good and that I didn’t think I was going to make it because of my stomach. She turned around and handed me a Queasy Pop (like a lollipop) which she gives to kids who have upset stomachs; I figured I’d give it a shot and thanked her. Little did I know this would end up turning things around for me. I had already come to terms with a DNF and decided I would drop at Powerline (mile 48.5); in my head I was already writing my blog entry to explain to myself and all of you why I quit. For the first time ever I was OK with a DNF and wouldn't let it define me as a failure; perhaps it was this realization that "set me free" and gave me the strength to continue on. I was no longer stressed or worried as a calming sense of relief and acceptance washed over me. Then, around mile 45, my calves stopped cramping, my stomach felt better and I began to run; soon I was passing people who had earlier passed me! As I neared Powerline I saw my Dad up ahead on the trail. He had come out to see where I was since they were worried; I filled him in on the last 4.5 hours (from mile 32.2 to 48.8) but told him that now I was feeling great. We walked along the trail and then came out on the road heading into Powerline; as I started running he did too! I told him not to run and get hurt, please walk down I’ll still be there as I had to get weighed in and re-stock my supplies. I headed into Powerline, passed the weigh in and told Andrew and Lee Hess that I was about to drop but had a miraculous recovery. I would see them again in 3.9 miles at Chili Pepper; by now I was no longer eating Gels and was living on Coke and soup since that’s all I could stomach. I ran much of the next 4 miles and got into Chili Pepper around 8:30 pm, got my headlamp on, chatted some with Paul Schoenlaub who was volunteering there and headed out towards the turnaround which was 5.1 miles away. Andrew was going to join me as my pacer here at Chili Pepper when I was heading back so I only had 10 more miles to go solo.
I pushed really hard during this section and started passing many people along the way; I was feeling good, strong and confident and knew that a sub-24 hour finish was still possible but that there was no way I could let up. I hit the 50 mile mark 12 hours and 9 minutes into the race and would need a negative split to make it happen (11 hours and 51 minutes in the dark); improbable but not impossible! At around 10:40 pm (26 hour pace according to the pace chart) I returned to Chili Pepper and quickly chatted with Paul Schoenlaub and Stuart Johnson to let them know I was back on track. Andrew joined me to pace, I grabbed some soup and Coke and we discussed our strategy as we walked out of the aid station. We would need to make up some time and couldn’t afford to let up; we would be toeing a fine line between a sub-24 hour finish and a DNF but I felt that I had it in me. Heading into Powerline, I weighed in, grabbed some Coke and soup and talked with my Dad and Gabe’s wife, Tiffany. They said they would see me in about 4 hours at Lake Winona and I confidently proclaimed “More like 3! I’m in a zone and have the Eye of the Tiger!” Tiff teased me and said “Oh yeah, is the music playing for you!?!” She then told me to stop wasting time and get moving; obviously she has a bit of experience at these things with an animal like Gabe for a husband! Andrew and I powered on through the night running as much as we could; we continued to pass people as we moved on and voiced words of encouragement to them along the way. Andrew was great; pacing is an extremely difficult job. You have to anticipate the needs of your runner, be able to read when to push them and when to let off; you must completely run like they feel. Even if you feel like you can’t run anymore and are tired or hurting when your runner decides to run you have to push on with them! In addition to monitoring your own needs you also have to be aware of how your runner is managing their hydration, electrolyte and caloric requirements. They truly are the forgotten heroes of these races and most of us wouldn’t be able to finish without them; thanks Andrew!
We reached the Lake Winona aid station (83.9) around 2:50 am and were in and out rather quickly; we had 3 hours and 10 minutes to finish under 24 hours. At this point both of us were hurting but were still driven by adrenaline knowing that we could do it; my Dad and Tiffany told us that Gabe was about 15 minutes ahead and we were determined to catch up to him. We had our aid station strategy down by now as I was downing a few cups of Coke while Andrew filled my water bottles and at the Rocky Gap station (mile 87.2) we were in and out in less than 2 minutes. We continued to pass other runners along the way and at about mile 91 saw a runner and his pacer up ahead on the hill; as we approached I saw it was Gabe and his pacer John King. Gabe was powering up the hill and as we passed him Andrew and I told him he was looking great and running strong; I knew he was hurting and wanted to try to encourage him as much as I could. We entered the next aid station together and were out in 30 seconds; Andrew and I continued running out of the Electronic Tower aid station (mile 91.4) and looked behind us to see John and Gabe’s headlights disappear in the distance.
During the next stretch we were flying and when we weren’t walking the uphills we were maintaining at least a strong 8:30 min/mile pace. We reached the Pumpkin Patch aid station (mile 93.7) at around 5:07 am and knew that there was no letting up if we wanted to beat 24 hours; we were in and out in seconds and sprinted from the station. We then were running around a 7:30 min/mile pace and as I looked down at my watch which read 5:17 am I knew that I simply couldn’t maintain this kind of pace to the end. I told Andrew this and he agreed; I had given it everything I had during the last 50 miles and was running on fumes; literally! We continued to run when we could and came to the top of the hill where there were 2 volunteers manning a tracking station; they asked my number, radioed it in to the finish line and told us we had 1.7 miles all downhill and on the road. Andrew and I both thought we were closer than that and were disappointed but didn’t say a word; we would just have to push on a bit more. We started down the hill maintaining what seemed like a 7:30 min/mile pace and I knew we had to be getting close; I was hurting and the only thing I said to Andrew was that I was going to puke the minute I crossed the finish line. I didn’t think I could keep running but there was no way I was going to walk this close to the finish! As we saw the lights ahead Andrew said “You did it man, this has been one of the most inspirational experiences I have had!” and I told him that there’s no way I could have pushed like that without him. I rounded the corner, the finish line music started playing as the landing lights were flashing and I crossed the finish line at 6:35 am; 24 hours, 35 minutes and 53 seconds after I had started on this epic journey.
Unlike Kettle I wasn’t filled with emotion at the finish; it was a different feeling but just as powerful. Instead of disbelief and relief at being finished I was proud to know that I had pushed myself to the limit; faced with sickness and mentally coming to terms with my first DNF I dug down deep to continue on when every part of me wanted to quit. There were times out there when I was searching for a reason and I thought back to what Chrissy had said Friday afternoon. At mile 35 I even had a mini-panic because I didn’t think I had a reason and knew that there was no way I’d finish without one. At Kettle I finished for my parents and for Mindy because I wanted them to be proud of me but yesterday I finished for myself. I doubted myself at numerous times early on and thought that perhaps I just didn’t have what it took to truly run a 100 miler; seems I was wrong. When the going got tough I kept going even faster!
First and foremost thanks to God for giving me the strength to persevere, my Dad, Andrew, Stan and Chrissy Ferguson and all of the volunteers for putting on an amazing event. This was the hottest AT 100 in history and had the lowest finishing rate in history (47%); they did everything they could to get us all to the finish line. Without them none of us would have made it! Congratulations to all of the finishers and for the complete results click HERE. You can also click HERE to view the pictures from the race.