Last weekend I had an experience that I have had a hard time putting into words.
My friend Tara was running a 100 mile race, the Heartland 100, and I volunteered to be on her support crew and pace her for some of her run. It had to be one of the most inspiring things I have ever witnessed. I knew I was in for an experience I wouldn’t forget, but I had no idea just how memorable it would be.
Before I get started, I want to link to Tara’s race report here. There’s no need for me to rewrite everything she’s already said.
I’ll start with the obvious. Tara didn’t finish the race. But, this was not her first 100. In fact, I think it was her fourth. She had never had a DNF (Did Not Finish) in a race before. But this wasn’t like any race she had ran before, either.
The race weekend started with a pre-race briefing the night before the race. When the pre-race meeting includes instructions to the runners on what to do in case of severe lightning, torrential rain, strong wind, hail, and TORNADOES, you know you’re in for an interesting race. (And really, when you’re running a 100 mile race, with aid stations spaced 15+ miles apart, what exactly should you do if there is a tornado??? Apparently just get down in a ditch and pray.)
Tara started out and rocked the first 50 miles. She was in a groove, the crew was loud and boisterous, (and soaked, and coated in mud), and we were having a blast. We were the loudest crew on the course. It was so much fun every time we saw that gold shirt and pink skirt on the horizon, we’d shout and yell as loud as we could for Tara. The weather alternated between fair, bad, and horrible. She ran through torrential rain (as promised), sky-to-ground lightning (as promised), and 25+ mph winds (as promised). I’m not sure where the hail and tornadoes were. I guess I’m glad they didn’t show up.
But when she came in after 64 miles, we knew there was something wrong. First of all, she was walking. Second, she said she had never felt this bad in a race before. What we didn’t know is that she hadn’t been able to eat (I would find that out in a few more hours). It was my turn to head out, and I was planning to pace her for 11 miles. We got her changed into dry clothes, tried to get some food into her system, and when she said she was ready, we headed out. For the first hour we jogged when she felt like it and walked when she didn’t. I kept up a running conversation as long as we could, trying to keep her thinking of anything other than the race. An hour into the segment, she started to tell me her stomach wasn’t feeling right. I figured that it was something we could work on at the next aid station, so we plugged away until we got to the Teterville aid station. In retrospect, we should have never left, but I knew she wasn’t ready to quit and I did not want to be the reason for her quitting. Again we tried to get some food and fluids into her. Although I had originally planned to stop after 11, at the pace we were going I figured I could walk 8 more miles, then Joanne could take over to get her the last 17 into the finish. We were still planning to finish.
1.5 miles later, we were talking about whether to head back to Teterville. Tara wasn’t feeling good, and wasn’t sure whether to continue. Knowing she was so competitive, I told her we’d go another quarter mile and if she wasn’t feeling like continuing then, we’d head back. When we hit that point, she told me that we would keep going, so we did. A mile later, I think we both had started to regret that decision. Tara couldn’t eat anything, and she was starting to not be able to drink any water. I gave up on trying to distract her from the race, and just continued to talk to her about anything and everything, including how much the race sucked. We were at the point where we couldn’t turn back, and we couldn’t stop, so we just had to keep moving, no matter how slow, and so that’s exactly what I told her. I kept telling her we’d just get to Lapland and the aid station, and we’d regroup there, try to get some help from the medical staff, and then decide what to do. Although I knew we’d probably never leave Lapland, I felt it was important to keep that thought alive.
Four miles into the 8 mile segment, we realized it wasn’t going to happen. We weren’t leaving Lapland. The focus shifted from getting through Lapland to getting to Lapland. We both knew that once she stopped moving for a length of time, Tara would be done. But we also knew that we had no choice but to get there, because we were three miles from any support.
Once we both realized that the race was over, I asked Tara if I could use her cell phone to call our crew chief, Tracey, and see if we could get a ride. I thought there was no sense making her walk another four miles if she didn’t need to. Sadly, the race officials at Lapland wouldn’t allow Tracey to drive out to pick us up.
While I was talking to Tracey, Tara sat down in the middle of the gravel road, in the mud. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get her back up. But I gave her the bad news that we weren’t getting a ride, and sure enough, she got up and we pressed on.
About a half hour later (at least it seemed like a half hour), both Tara and I noticed what looked like a flashing strobe light in the distance. This white flashing light was like nothing we had ever seen before. I even asked her if she saw it too, and commented that if we could both see it then at least we weren’t delusional. As it got closer and closer, we even started to laugh at the absurdity of this bizarre light in the Kansas prairie. And sure enough, as the light got close enough, we realized it was a person with a super bright handheld light. When this person yelled out “Hey Ladies!” was one of the best moments of the night. It was Joanne, she had headed out to join us for the last few miles.
Joanne took Tara’s pack (as I wondered why on earth I hadn’t thought to take it from her already), and we pressed on. A few minutes later I noticed headlights in the distance. Thinking it was probably one of the race officials, I wondered if they might stop to help us. When the car finally got up to us, the windows rolled down and Tracey yelled, “Need a ride?” Our journey was finally over. Tracey had called the race director and told him that she was going to pick up Tara, and he finally allowed it.
Now this could just be a story of another person who got into a hole and didn’t finish a race. If you read Tara’s race report, that’s pretty much what she says it is. But that’s not what it was.
Anyone who attempts a 100 mile race already knows, before the start, that they are in for a hard time. It will be a painful race, and many of them will not finish. Tara knew this. She has already finished several 50 and 100 mile races. Tara knows what it means to hurt, to break a bone in her foot and keep running, to crawl just so that she doesn’t have to quit.
Tara is not a quitter.
But Tara was in a hole. She hadn’t been able to keep any fuel in her system for 9 miles. She was feeling (in her own words) the worst she had ever felt in a race, and yet she still went out and covered 18 more miles, over 6 hours. That’s 6 hours of feeling worse than she had ever felt before, yet she still pressed on.
When she could no longer even keep water down, did she quit? No. She covered at least 5 more miles.
When she couldn’t walk a straight line, did she quit? No. She pressed on and held onto my arm for support.
When we realized she wasn’t going to be able to finish, did she quit? No. She pressed on and kept walking until help arrived.
Tara never talked about quitting. When we realized she wasn’t going to finish, we didn’t talk about quitting, we talked about making it to the next aid station. It was my suggestion that we call for support, because I didn’t want her hurting herself more than she had to.
Tara has guts.
Tara has heart.
Tara deserves glory. Since she didn’t finish, she didn’t get an award. But she has my respect forever.
Tara, I said this to you at about midnight on Saturday night, and I’ll say it again.
I’ll death march through the pitch-black Kansas prairie with you any time.
Name the time and place. I’ll be there.