Of all the things that could almost break me during a race, I did not expect a lack of caffeine or temps in the 40s.
When I picked up running six years ago, the idea of running a marathon was crazy but running 100 miles was simply unfathomable. However, as a national commercial said recently, “It’s only crazy until you do it”. So as my long runs grew longer, the line between crazy and unfathomable shifted. I don’t remember exactly when it happened but a couple years ago, I noticed that the 100 miler was trying to sneak into the crazy category…and I can do crazy.
My first time covering the distance was my self-supported trail run last spring which I finished in just under 30 hours. This proved that I could cover the distance and planted another “crazy” in my mind: 100 miles in under 24 hours. I decided that 2021 was the year to check this off the list and when MMT100 was postponed by COVID for the second year in a row, I went all in and signed up for not one but two flat 100 mile races. First up: C&O Canal 100.
C&O Canal 100 takes place on a 20-mile section of the canal near Harper’s Ferry. Starting at Camp Manidokan, runners drop down about 300’ of elevation to the towpath, do an out and back in both directions, and climb back up the short steep hill to the start line. Rinse and repeat. Twice. The format makes it very approachable and COVID friendly…but the devil lurks underneath. With a very long cutoff, fantastic aid stations, and mostly runnable terrain, C&O Canal 100 lures you in…then crushes your soul.
When I had signed up for C&O, I was pleased to find out aid stations were stocked with Tailwind and Honey Stingers which are my current fuels of choice. This allowed me to pack light with just a single drop bag mainly with different gear at the start line which I would hit twice during the race. Everything else would come from aid stations along the way. I didn’t even need to mix my own Tailwind. (Unfortunately, I didn’t anticipate that early aid stations would not have caffeinated Tailwind…or how much I would need it.)
Under the coaching of Mike Fox (Excel Rocktown), training was relaxed and scaled up perfectly. However, as I started my usual spreadsheet nerd-ery a new “crazy” started to emerge. With Mike’s guidance, I knew that I would hit sub-24:00. However, as I started to set goals and make predictions, it seemed like I should be able to do much better with a sub 22:00…or maybe even sub 20!
Race day logistics could not have been easier. I borrowed my brother and sister-in-law’s truck camper and drove up Friday night after supper where I parked 100 yards from the start line. That’s when I noticed my first problem. I had grabbed my stuff to brew some quality, pre-race coffee using the camper’s propane stovetop. Unfortunately, my coffee grinder wouldn’t work since the camper wasn’t plugged in. Rookie mistake but I didn’t figure that it would matter…oh how wrong I was.
7 am is a relatively late start for an ultra. Took my time getting up. Started my pre-run routine (minus the coffee). Almond flour banana muffins and UCAN for breakfast. Multiple trips to the port-a-john. Short walk to the self check-in. A masked starting line. And Wave 1 was released from the gates.
Loop 1 starts with a lap around a field to spread out before dropping down to the canal. Settle in. Hold back the pace. Find a rhythm. Start checking off the miles. The first marathon rolled by without incident as I chatted to a couple of the other runners. Mile 30 found me running solo and the rising heat started to lull me to sleep! I have never been tired during a run but as the lack of caffeine caught up and hit hard, I started to imagine how embarrassing it would be to fall asleep 35 miles into my 100. Somehow, I managed to drag myself up the climb back to camp with my eyes half closed, ditched my cold weather gear, filled both soft flasks with caffeinated tailwind, and downed a couple Cokes.
Jolted back to consciousness, I headed out for lap number two (miles 40-70). This was by far the best lap of the three. I put on my headphones and checked out. Before I knew it, the sky started to darken as the sun started to drop and rain clouds started to roll in. At this point, I took the first look at a pace card that I had set with splits for 20- and 22-hour finishes. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was less than 30 minutes off 20-hour pace despite the rough first loop! This might actually be possible but I also know that implosions can happen fast in 100s and I didn’t want to lose 22 hours in the pursuit of 20. I decided to let it come and check back halfway through loop 3. The second climb back up to camp brought the first drops of rain and the darkness of night which would both accompany me for the final loop and the remaining eight hours.
Fortunately, they would not be the only company as my pacer for the final 30 (Jon Nyce) was also waiting at the top! We refilled my vest with a few packs of peanut butter crackers (only thing not at the aid stations), grabbed my rain jacket, and headed into the darkness. I had packed a dry compression shirt in my drop box but decided it was too much work to change. Afterall, why do you need a dry shirt 70 miles into a rainy 100 miler?!?...oh how wrong I was.
Jon and I chatted through the next five miles while I still had the mental faculties to make coherent conversation. I gave him the outline of our course and what had been working for me up to that point. At mile 75, we hit the first turnaround of the lap, clocked my last sub-11:00 mile, and the real work began.
“Be Calm. Be Strong.”
I have never leaned on a mantra as hard as I did over the next 20 miles as I employed every trick in the book to keep moving at some kind of reasonable pace. I discovered that repeating my mantra as I counted my breaths (yep, you read that right) helped distract my brain just enough to keep going. I’m pretty sure that I counted to 100 exhalations at least 7-8 times over the next 10 miles. I also had Jon keep me accountable for my run/walk intervals. I’d set the interval out loud and let him tell me when it was over to keep me from staring at my watch. We start running in ¼ mile…we’ll run until the end of this mile…or… I’ll run until I meet the next runner going the other way. As the temperature dipped below 50 and the steady rain continued, my rain jacket and soaked compression shirt became less and less effective at keeping me warm. I don’t usually have issues with being cold on a run but I didn’t anticipate how cold 50 degrees and rainy could feel when your body ceases to generate sufficient heat. I was fine while running but that was becoming harder to sustain for any period of time. My walking pace was still very strong but that didn’t keep me warm. As I hit the aid station at mile 87, I legitimately started to wonder if I could actually finish the race. Within 30 seconds at an aid station, I was shivering so we would grab what we could and get moving as quickly as possible. At this point, my run was the same pace as my walk (and hurt way more) but it stopped the shivering. So I continued to alternate. Shuffle…walk…shuffle…walk. Mile 90 brought the final turnaround. With nowhere to go if I dropped and no heater to keep me warm (thank you aid station for not having a heater!!!), I grabbed a cup of soup and headed toward the finish line still wondering how I was going to do the final 7-mile segment to the end. My walk was starting to faulter and the cold was seeping in deeper and deeper.
At mile 92, a ray of hope. As I approached the final aid station of the race, my walking muscles loosened up and the rain lightened just enough that I could stay warm as long as I kept moving. We restocked at the aid station as quickly as possible to avoid seizing up and started the final segment. As much as I hated “walking it in”, this time it made sense as my walk was actually faster than my run. Any hope of a 20-hour finish had been chased off by the rain, but a 22-hour finish gave me 2.5 hours to cover the last 7 miles. If I could hold my walking pace of 15:00/mile, I should be fine.
The next 2 hours took FOREVER!! Pacers definitely don’t get enough credit for putting up with their runners and Jon got to listen to a whole lot of grunting, muttering, and cursing (mostly) under my breath as I seethed with hatred at the final forever straight stretch. The course returned the favor with the final climb back up to the finish line. 300 feet of gain in a ¼ mile is bad enough on its own. After 100 miles, it’s way worst. Add in 8 hours of rain on a dirt trail and you get a 10-minute crawl up a muddy slip and slide. The last ounce of energy and body heat kicked me across the finish line with a time of 21:38:14 for my 22-hour finish and first belt buckle!!! I was thrilled to be done…and 90% satisfied with my race.
If you are a runner, this next part will sound very familiar. I decided many times over during the race that another flat 100 was never going to happen and, as I crossed the finish line, I confirmed that one last time. I put on dry clothes and fell asleep while shivering violently under a blanket in the heated camper.
“No WAY am I doing another flat 100!!”
…on the other hand…my body held up pretty well, my training was successful, and—aside from the caffeine—I nailed nutrition. Also, I’ve already paid for Canal Corridor 100 in October…with a little caffeine at the start, some better weather, and/or smarter gear…I wonder…could I do 100 in less than 21?….maybe even sub 20?...
Behind the Curtain/Randomness:
- Coach: Mike Fox (Excel Rocktown)
- Pacer: Jon Nyce, mile 70-100
- Calories: 10,580 burned, 6041 consumed (I was aiming for 300/hour and got 280. Not bad)
- Food: Toast Peanut Butter Crackers (6 packages), 3 cups of assorted soups, 4.5 Honey Stinger Waffles, 4 packets Honey Stinger Chews, 1 Honey Stinger gel, watermelon, 12 oz Ginger Ale, 36 oz Coke,
- Hydration: Generation UCAN (1 serving), Non-caffeinated Tailwind (22.5 servings), Caffeinated Tailwind (4.5 servings). If memory/calculation is correct, I consumer over 18 L of fluids :-O
- Sodium: 20 Saltstick capsules plus nutrition and hydration for a total of almost 17,000 mg
- Notable gear: first race with compression socks deemed a huge success!