Though Traci had bought a new outfit and insoles for the occasion, her shoes were well over a year old. My shoes, more than twice as old, had gotten a last-minute makeover with screw-enhanced tread and pink-duct tape uppers.
Did we really belong here? We tried not to dwell on that question as we were herded out to the start.
I was curious what sort of pre-race festivities race director Mitch Harper had in store for us. As a politician (currently running for mayor of Fort Wayne), he’s prone to speech-making, and this race — billed as one of the nation’s largest ultras – is surely one of his best opportunities to play host. It certainly had the feel of a giant party, from all the cool giveaways to the gourmet food, with trail running as the chief entertainment of the day.
But it was also cold, with temperatures in the low 20s. Mitch apparently realized we were freezing, because all he said when he took the mic was “Ready, set, go!”
Traci and I expected to be instantly left in the dust, but we were in a tight pack through the first couple of miles. Our strategy was simple: Just run, taking walk breaks up every hill. There’s enough of them throughout the course that just when we’d start feeling gassed from our overly enthusiastic pace, another hill would signal an impending walk break. We found ourselves saying things like, “Oh good, a hill!” And we weren’t even joking.
That strategy worked perfectly for the first 15.6 mile loop. Even after a long stop for refueling, a bathroom break, and duct-taping Traci’s foot – we’d taped our feet before the race but she’d developed a nasty blister in an open spot on her heel — we hit the timing mats more than half an hour ahead of our goal.
Loop 2 was another story. Though we got a boost as we spotted Ben and Colleen driving up just as we headed back out on the trail , it was clear Traci was hurting. Besides that blister, her achy knees and hip were flaring up big time.
“I can’t wait for that Ibuprofen to kick in,” she muttered.
Though the early miles of the loop are the easiest terrain, with wide grassy paths, Traci could now hardly bring herself to run.
“If you’re feeling good, just go on,” she said. “I’m just going to hold you up.”
“Are you kidding me?” I said. I was feeling decent. Tired legs, yes, but everything still worked OK. I wasn’t just being loyal, though. I knew this would be a very long lap indeed if had to do it on my own. If she was determined to finish – and she was – then we were sticking together. As long as we came in before the 9-hour cutoff, our time didn’t matter.
About this time we encountered a man and woman carrying heavy backpacks in support of someone who has cancer. Their strategy was the opposite of what ours had been: Walk at a brisk clip, running down every hill. This still built in plenty of running, but with a built-in gravity boost.
Given Traci’s struggles, we adopted their strategy. But as we got closer to the School House aid station – where we knew Bob, Ben and Colleen were waiting to take some photos and offer moral support — she perked up and we ran for a longer stretch before the big hill leading up to the station.
Seeing Bob and the kids, and grabbing some Gatorade and a gourmet turtle, lifted our spirits immensely. It also helped to move into a new section of the course, knowing we were making progress, even if the toughest sections still lie ahead.
During this section we kept encountering a woman who’d earlier apologized for her “sloshy” Camelback. She’d set an alarm to go off every 15 minutes to remind her to take a drink. We’d been limiting liquids out of concern for needing bathroom breaks, but now we realized we were getting low on fluids. That would have to change.
Meanwhile, Traci’s duct tape had fallen off her blister. I called Bob, who was waiting at an upcoming road crossing to shoot pictures. He agreed to go retrieve my duct tape from the gear tent and meet us at the next aid station.
Shortly afterward, we ran into Chad, a local 5K director and race enthusiast I’d met at the back of the pack at my first triathlon. He’d struggled in past attempts at the Huff, and so this time he’d arranged to start early to give himself more time to finish before the cutoff.
Good natured as always, he overlooked the brain fart that had me yelling “Hey, Jeff!” several times before realizing I’d retrieved the wrong name from my nearly half-century-old brain. (Have I mentioned a big part of my motivation for doing this race had to do with my impending 50th birthday?)
At any rate, Chad downplayed whatever personal struggles he might be having and cheered our progress.
“Hey, we’re in single digits now!” he said, noting we had less than 8 miles to go.
Up ahead, we could hear rollicking Christmas tunes booming from the next aid station. At least a dozen volunteers touted their offerings: Grilled burgers, salted potatoes and chicken noodle soup, in addition to drinks and a wide assortment of cookies and salty snacks.
“Do you have any Band-Aids?” Traci asked. Bob had been held up at the gear tent and was still 5 minutes away. Traci decided to make do with the Band-Aids and we pressed on, after guzzling three glasses of Gatorade apiece.
This is where my sister began to show her infamous stubbornness. I knew she was hurting just as much as before, if not more. But she could feel the momentum of the finish line drawing us on. Now instead of being content to just run down hills, she began to suggest other running points. These weren’t long, about the equivalent of telephone-pole intervals except we ran from this tree to that tree. But we were moving much faster now, even when we were walking.
For the first time on Lap 2, we began passing people again. One of them, a young woman, was crying.
“Are you OK?” we asked.
“No!” she wailed. “I just want to be done!”
“It’s not that much farther,” we said. “Six miles – that’s nothing compared with what you’ve done so far!”
More runners approached, and the presence of other humans seemed to console her somewhat. We moved on.
We knew the hilly 3-mile lake loop would be the toughest of all, and it was. The steep climbs were killing Traci’s hips, and we began walking more again. But the finish was getting closer. Three miles to go. Then 2. Traci wanted to save her energy so she had something left to run across the finish line, but we began jogging the downhills again, and even a couple of tree-to-tree segments in our giddiness.
Finally we crossed the road to the final stretch around Sand Lake to the finish.
And it was here, of all places, out in the open with about half a mile to go, that I fell. My feet somehow got tangled up in a long stick lying in the grass. But it was a soft landing. I got up and we kept going.
Up ahead, we finally saw the backpackers and the woman with the Camelback from earlier. They’d pulled ahead after our long aid station stop. It would’ve been fun to finish in that group, but we weren’t going to catch them now. Still, it made us smile to see them close in on the finish and hear the cheering that accompanied them.
Finally it was our turn to approach the finish line. We grinned as we spotted Bob and the kids, then gave a whoop as we noticed the clock: Seven hours and 31 minutes. We’d hoped to break 8 hours, and thanks to that fast first lap, we’d done it with plenty to spare.