Originally published in Ultrarunning Magazine, January/February 2003
I hear the tires screech as I take a corner too fast. It’s 6:00 a.m., and the race starts at 6:15. We’re going to be late again. This is a hare-brained, last-minute idea for both of us—Pam is running the marathon without having trained for it, and I am running my first 50 mile because I couldn’t find the 50 km I wanted to start with instead. I really haven’t trained enough either.
The thing about me and Pam is that we can’t be on time for anything. It’s not an individual problem—it’s just when we’re together, and particularly when we’re going to a race. We usually leave in plenty of time, but then we get lost. So, we take our usual wrong turn, then drive 80 miles an hour to pull into the Doyon Elementary School in Ipswich, MA at 6:05. We can see a group of 100 or so runners receiving a briefing from the race directors, which we are missing. The man directing parking says, “Are you already registered? No? You’d better run then.” We dash to the registration tables, pin our numbers, hit the bathrooms, and pull up to the starting line in a panic just as the race begins.
The course consists of 12.5 mile loops on very runnable, gently rolling single and double track trails through the woods. The marathoners do two loops with an extra 1.2 mile course tacked on at the end, and the 50 milers do four loops. Pam and I run the first loop together, meeting many members of the club sponsoring the race, the GAC (Gil’s Athletic Club). They are a friendly bunch, and most seem to be experienced ultra runners who are happy to give me advice about how to run my first 50 mile. We run for a while with Ed and Dave, who offer valuable information about pacing, eating salted potatoes, and the training that I should have been doing these past few months. At the ten mile aid station, a dancing, costumed Stonecat smokes a cigar and cheers us on. Just as I am starting to feel like this race is going to be a party, Pam and I run through the first transition and find ourselves alone on the second loop. I haven’t taken enough Advil and my legs are starting to hurt already. Four miles in, I trip on a root and crash to the ground. Lying in the autumn leaves, staring up at blue sky, I think how easy it would be to stay and take a nap. Pam pulls me back up, and a minute later she falls down too. Then she tells me to go—she needs to slow down, and she knows I want to finish the race before dark if possible.
I run on alone, quads hurting, and find that I cannot mentally comprehend running even a third lap, let alone a fourth. I decide, miserably, that I will force myself to run the third, just to do a distance longer than a marathon, but there is no way I’ll make 50 miles. Then, with perfect timing, Andy comes along.
Andy Lapuchowycz is an ultra runner from Connecticut, and he tells me that he’s run four marathons in the past five weeks, and 13 races total this season, including three 100 mile races. He says he’s feeling a little tired today, but if I want to stick with him he’ll get me through the last loop. Even if he has to drag me by my hair, he says. After hearing Andy’s race resume, my aches and pains start to seem a little silly, and I silence the whining voice in my head. I gobble a handful of Advil and a crustless ham and cheese sandwich at the next transition, and off we go for the third lap.
Along the way, Andy tells me stories about other races and racers. He seems to know everyone we see on the course, and often he has an amusing or inspiring story about them. His stories are filled with heroic deeds and hilarious anecdotes—people who made it through their first 100 mile after serious mental and physical challenges, sometimes solely through the support of another runner, or brave souls who came back to triumph on a course they’d failed several times before, or runners who did something kooky like fall asleep or stop for a beer on the race course. Runners who are 75 years old and still run like a bat out of hell, and runners who swore never to run again and came back to accomplish amazing distances and times. I start to realize that ultra runners have a fascinating culture all their own, and suddenly, I want to be a part of it.
On the fourth lap, the Advil isn’t working anymore. We are walking almost all the time. But Andy keeps telling stories, and I keep going. At the aid stations, everyone is talking about how the Stonecat has been drinking since this morning and is behaving very badly. He disappears for a while and we hear that he is sleeping it off somewhere on the course. Everyone is laughing about it. It’s dark now, later than I expected to be running, and I ask the volunteers if we are in last place. They say no, there are a couple of runners behind us.
At 5:45 p.m., 11 ½ hours into the race, we finally finish. I manage to run the last half mile, very slowly, encouraged by Andy. Pam is waiting for me at the finish, and that whining voice is finally banished completely when I tell her, enthusiastically, “I’m thinking about doing a 100 km race next.” She laughs. “Maybe you should train a little more next time,” she says.