I came to pace…and found heart
Before you begin, this is an unedited, published draft! I wanted to get this out while it was still fresh in my head (sort of!) Enjoy!
“It’s okay to cry” is all that I heard as our entire group walked back to our Crew HQ from the finish line. Norma knew how emotional of a finish that was for me and did not hesitate to let me know it was ok! 😉
This journey began six months ago when Lynn and Norma began their journey to finish their first 100mi race. They both began training for and preparing to race Brazos Bend 100! While I wasn’t racing, I joined them on a lot of their long runs. As part of their preparation, they both asked me to take care of crewing for them and Lynn asked me to be her pacer for 25mi. I was really excited. I had never been asked to pace someone and I had wanted to ever since hearing stories about Alex’s race at Cactus Rose 100 with his brother.
This race took place at Brazos Bend State Park… The entire park is riddled with warnings related to the alligators. For those of you that know me, a sign like this can only mean one thing! This is like putting candy on a table and telling a kid not to touch it! I was on a mission! I was going to find an Agillator! (yes, it is spelled wrong… long story back to Fort Stewart, GA) 😀 Unfortunately Lynn and Tammy forbid me from petting any alligators or pulling on their tails! 😦
Lynn and Norma finished their first loop looking strong and actually came in ahead of their scheduled time! After their first loop they had an idea of what they were going to need in their coming loop. Tiger balm, Tailwind, Food, Chargers, etc. Now that they finished their first loop, it was time for the crew to get busy and get them to their buckle! At the end of the first loop, Lynn was developing a hot spot on her foot that had to be triaged and unfortunately she was not open to amputation yet! We lathered her up with Trail Toes and trail toes tape before we sent them on their way!
We began gathering all of their requested items and Tammy and I set out to visit the 40-Acre Aid Station. Goodies in hand we had everything they could have possible needed! We arrived well ahead of time and spent some time scoping out the local lake… (You know what I was looking for!!! GATORS!) Unfortunately even though we found one, Tammy was insistent that I not pet him or pull his tail like I wanted! We still did get a picture of him before the girls came in! I was destined to find one later when Tammy wasn’t there to stop me! lol
Lynn and Norma both came into the first aid station (Mile 30) right on time. We had everything ready for them that they had asked for. With Lynn’s hot spot continuing to “grow” she was ready for a new pair of socks which she didn’t have in her drop box at this station! Not to worry! She had the BEST pair of socks available! I gave her my lime green Swift Wick socks! For those that know me, lime green is my FAVORITE color! I wasn’t going to give my favorite socks to just anyone!
Tammy, Kathie, Mike, Doug, Kevin, Marc and I spent the remainder of the day making sure that the girls had everything they needed, made sure they stayed on top of their nutrition intake, liquids, batteries, and everything else they needed! During all of the crewing we learned one very important thing. Tammy and I (or whomever is leading up the crewing next time) needs to be the one that packs all of their crew boxes and supplies for them. It is GREAT that Lynn and Norma did it for us, but when it is pitch black out side digging through tough boxes looking for a small white cable can be rather time consuming! Next time they run and we will take care of their packing and organization! 😀
Before we knew it they were completing their second loop (50mi!). This point was already a Personal Record (PR) for their longest run. This was to be their longest stop along the way so they could change shirts, shoes, socks, and get some solid food in their system! We had chairs out and ready, lights, food, everything that they had asked for was systematically lined up at their chair ready for them. As they pulled into the Start/Finish line they were ushered over to their chairs to begin the pampering and triage! Norma and Lynn both began taking in everything they has asked for… Tortillas, boiled potatoes, fresh bottles, batteries… The team was on top of it! I couldn’t have asked for better people to be out there helping Lynn and Norma! Unfortunately the hot spot on Lynn’s foot has grown into a BLISTER. (She also texted this at me while she was coming in… “I have BLISTERS John”.) They had already accomplished an amazing feet and were now set out on their final 2 laps. Now they were not going at it alone; They were both going to have Kevin (pacing Norma) and Mike (pacing Lynn) for the next 25mi.
Before the race I had an AMAZING conversation with Liza Howard and Jay Danek. Having never been a crew chief or paced a 100-miler before I wanted to make sure that I have everything in place that Lynn and Norma were going to need. Liza and Jay both provided some really great information that I took with me the entire time. One think that Liza really stressed was that I needed to make sure I had rest and was watching my nutrition as well! On that note… it was time to sleep (as much as I could). I had finally retreated to the back of my car around 7pm to get a few hours of sleep. By my estimates, Lynn and Norma would be coming in off of their 3d loop around 12:30 AM. I set my alarm for midnight and “attempted” to fall asleep. After it was all said and done I ended up getting about 3 hours of sleep. Probably not what Liza had in mind, but it was still something! Midnight came and I jumped up… tried finding the keys to the car that I had somehow lost in my sleep… lost one of my shoes (which had fallen outside and collected A LOT of dew), and finally managed to get dressed and stroll over to our Crew HQ tent.
Doug Long and I were the next two pacers going out. Doug was going to bring Norma into the finish and I was going to replace Mike and pace Lynn. About 45 min later, Kevin and Norma came in off of their 3d loop. Norma was tired and wanted nothing more than to continue. She was at the Start/Finish AS about 2 min total and pushed out onto her final loop with Doug. Norma couldn’t have been in better hands with Doug. If there was anything Norma needed, Doug could take care of it. If not, Doug could have made it out of a nearby tree!
Around 2:12AM (almost 2 hrs after I was expecting), Lynn came into the AS. I could tell by her face that she was in a lot of pain. She spent some time at the AS as the team helped her change her shoes, shorts, and shirt and get her some food. While they were taking care of everything she needed I made sure her bottles where topped off and she had some extra nutrition. She had spent the last 5miles walking from the pain and I knew this was going to be hard on both of us. Now it wasn’t only the blisters, but her tendons were getting swollen as well. Later, as I was watching her walk, I realized that the way she was walking to protect her blisters was most likely also the cause of her inflamed and sore tendons. Before we left she began questioning the cut-off times and whether she had enough time to finish. The ugly side of her mind was already beginning to poke at her. Now it was time to push all of that out of her mind! Little did I know what I had in store for me. When Lynn asked me to pace her, she wanted me to pace her for the final loop because she said I am able to be both a friend and an a**. I knew she wanted someone that would push her and I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. Needless to say… that could not have been further from the truth!
As we set off, I could tell by her face and how she was walking that she was in a lot of pain. I turned around and looked at the bright red clock that was lighting up the finish line. We had a little over 9hrs and 45 minutes to finish the final 25mi loop and off into the darkness we went. As we drifted away I remembered again what Liza told me… “Take care of your nutrition…”. The next time I looked back, the start/finish line had faded away and all I saw was darkness…
Our first stop was going to be the 40-Acre Aid Station, which was about 5mi away. For those that have spent any time with me on the trails you know that I can be a clown at times. Now that I was out on the trails, my first order of business was to find my alligator! To describe it the best, you would have to think of a little kid walking through a giant toy store! My head was on a swivel bouncing back and forth from one side of the trail to the other shining my light across the water looking for those two little yellow eyes looking back. If there was a gator there, I was going to find him! In between of my gator searching searching antics Lynn and I talked about everything and anything. We talked about the course, about times we spent running together, talked about my ride to Brazos with Mike, and anything else that came to mind. Focus was to keep her focused on the conversation and not her feet that were a tad blistered! As we got closer to the aid station we went over everything that she needed so that we could get in and out as quick as possible. Once we came into the 40-Acre Aid Station (Mile 80) she scurried into the bathroom while I dug through her drop box getting all of her requested items out. Of course while she was in the bathroom I noticed that the Aid Station volunteers were making cheese quesadillas and I simply had to partake in the yummy goodness! Once Lynn came out (which seemed like forever) I brought her over to the buffet line so she too would eat! I must say this is probably my most favorite thing about ultras! FOOD! Before we knew it, we were off again!
Our journey to the next aid station (Hale Aid Station) was much the same; just the two of us talking about everything and anything that came to mind. The entire way so far we had talked about gear. It turned out to be a very clear night and free from a lot of cloud cover. That just meant that the temps would begin dropping. The combination of cold and the dew meant that Lynn started to get colder since we were not able to get into a steady run. Luckily I had a pair of gloves to keep her warm until we got to the next aid station (which was now only a few miles away). At the next aid station she would be able to get her jacket out of her drop bags.
The trees along this area were pretty cool looking! The grandfather’s beard that was hanging from the trees cast really cool shadows and added a bit of spookiness to the trails! With the added spookiness I continues to look for my alligator and still came up empty handed!
During the last 5 mi segment Lynn continued to put down crackers, her rice cake (sort of), and take in water/tailwind. Once we pulled into Hale Aid Station (85 miles) we met up with Abi! I am just going to say that Abi is awesome! Not only did Abi volunteer to crew for Lynn and Norma during the night, but also volunteered all day long to work the finish line for the Brazos Bend 100. She has always been willing to volunteer and go above and beyond and this day was no different!
I started digging through Lynn and Norma’s drop boxes (Norma had already gone through and wouldn’t need anything here anymore). I was looking for Lynn’s jacket as well as any sign of tylenol, Advil, Aleve, “Apple Juice”…. We needed any type of pain killer that we could find to help her control the pain in not only her feet, but now her tendons. Her ankle had now formed into a cankle from the swelling and the pain was getting worse. There were no pain killers in any of the boxes and the aid station volunteers were empty handed as well. What we also didn’t have was her jacket. Once again Abi came through for us! She quickly ran to her car and came back with a jacket! This jacket was a lifesaver and helped get Lynn out into the darkness once again. I topped off “her” water bottles and we were back on the trail!
As we once again stepped out into the darkness I was about to be faced with the hardest 15mi of my life. About 1/4mi dow the trail I pulled off my pack to see if there is anything that I had that I could give her to help with the swelling and pain she was feeling. Seeing her going through this pain was really starting to bother me and this was not going to get better.
In my pack, tucked into a little corner pocket was a tylenol heat pack. We continued walking for a little bit trying to find something for her to sit on to make it more comfortable. We came across a park sign and we were in business! I broke open the pack, stuck it to her leg, and secured it with athletic tape loose enough to not cut off circulation but tight enough for it to stay in place the last 15 miles of her journey. With that, I learned the value of buffs! I also had an extra buff in my pack that I was able to use to dry off her leg and help the adhesive stick better! Turns out that it worked! 5 hours later it was still there! Around the next turn we actually stumbled upon a park bench… go figure!
Unfortunately the heat pack didn’t provide any relief and we still weren’t able to find anyone with any pain killers. Our next stretch we started seeing the first sign of light breaking the horizon as the sun was approaching. I was looking to that sun light to give us a bit of momentum to begin pushing the pace and it did. We went from an 18/19:00 min/per mile moving pace to about a 17:00/18:00 min/per mile pace. While we increased our pace a little, it did nothing for the pain. She really began favoring her leg at this point and I began reaching out to others to see what I could do to relieve some of the pain. At 6:00 in the morning I reached out to the best person that came to mind for assistance! I got a hold of Liza! Liza had suggested ice and tylenol! Lynn’s mind began wondering to dropping to the 50mi at this point due to the pain and I was trying to find the nicest way possible of telling her no! Liza told me that it would be much better for her (mentally) to keep pushing and get pulled from the race than for her to quit. At this point Lynn was set that she did not have enough time to finish based on how she was moving and couldn’t go on. The only thing I could do was get her focused on short goals and that short goal was the Brazos Aid Station which was not much further. After a few minutes we decided that I was going to run ahead and make sure the Aid Station was ready for her… Making sure we had ice and drugs ready when she came in. We were going to ice her leg for 5 min, get some food in her and “evaluate” her condition from there. While evaluate was what I told her, I had absolutely no intention to allow her to stop unless her leg fell of on the way!
I took of running down the trail (since she said it was only 1/4mi up the trail). 1 mile later I arrived at Brazos Aid Station. I quickly moved into the Aid Station asking about ice and tylenol so I had everything ready for her. That is when the crushing blow came.. “We don’t have ice or tylenol here”. Given the aid station we were at (the furthest from civilization), there was no way to get ice out to her in time and once we left the Aid Station, we would not be reachable for 8 miles.
Now is when I am about to hurt Lynn more than I wanted to and why this last leg was emotional and hard for me.
As I waited for Lynn, 4 other runners came through the aid station speaking of a “female runner” that said she was going to drop at the next AS. I was afraid that she had it set in her mind that she was going to quit.
She finally made the turn headed to the aid station and was prepared for the fight! (I was not going to let her sit down or do anything else). I walked up to her and told her “Ok…There is no ice or tylenol. Our only option is to press. We can beat the cut-off, but we need to really push.” There were tears in her eyes and I could tell how much pain she was in. Without questioning it she said “Let’s go”, turned around and walked back down the trail. We now had 11mi until the finish line!
We were not only going into the longest stretch of the course without an aid station, but also the most challenging portion of the course. Almost this entire stretch was tacky, muddy, and riddled with holes. Under normal conditions it really wouldn’t be that bad. Unfortunately with her issues with the tendon on top of the blisters, this final stretch was slow. Through this portion of the trail were only moving at about a 21-22:00 min/mi. I tried everything I could to push her faster. Talked about the trees, feral hogs, Cactus Rose 100, anything I could to not think of the pain and push through it. That plan worked great until she put her foot back down on the next piece of uneven ground. Up to this point we walked together. This last stretch I had to walk in front of her. There were actually two reasons for this. One was to push her pace. From the years of running with her, I knew she would push herself harder if someone was in front of her. The other piece was that I didn’t want to see how much pain she was in. I needed to de-sensitize this final and push her pain out of my mind. If I focused on her pain I would slow down and I couldn’t do that. I maintained a 20:00 min/mi and kept looking back at her. The loner we pushed, the further back she would fall. I needed something else!
Throughout our journey I was texting Liz (my wife) giving her update on our progress and how Lynn was doing/feeling as well as sending her pictures. After talking this one Lynn said “Had I know it was for Liz I would have at least waved!” lol
Just like all of the other trails, we still managed to build a rock collection in our shoes! Here, because of the swamp, mud, and muck, stopping was a pain in the butt! Every time we stopped we were attacked by malaria carrying mosquitos! (Not really, but that is what I called them). There may or may not have been a time when I held her up and joked about pushing her into the mud… 😉
Soon we were out (sort of) of the tacky, muddy mess of a trail and we actually came across other runners! (I actually thought it was part of the loop and there were other people behind us! I was actually excited about this as we were now on the final 6 miles back to the Start/Finish line!) We cheered them on as we did each and every person that we came across. As we passed them I turned to the final runner and said “Great job! How many more miles do you have?”. When he responded with 4 I looked down at my watch and realized what that meant. We WERE the last people and that we still had 2 miles of muddy trails to go.
We began talking about our next goals and that next goal now was getting to that finish line and taking care of those piggies of hers. There was nothing left to do on the trails and all we had left was to push through any and all pain that came up. I began texting back and forth with Tammy to have things ready for Lynn. One of those things was “pain killers”. Lynn asked for them several times but was afraid to let her have them earlier because we were still 8mi out. I told her that as we got closer someone would bring her some “pail killers”.
This area of the trails, was interesting… We were walking through the Duck Dynasty hunting grounds! It was a wooded area with these magnificent trees with grandfather beard hanging from them and vines that had a diameter of close to 12″. I said a couple times that I wish I had one of these trees at my house. This is not the kind of tree that you put a cute treehouse in…. This is the kind of tree that would hold a tree-mansion! The trunk on some of these trees had to be over 6′ in diameter! They were MASSIVE to say the least! So why Duck Dynasty? Whoever lived on the property that skirted the state park was obviously a hunter. About every 100′ there was a deer feeder and in between the deer feeders were deer blinds. There were definitely hunters next to us!
We were now about 4mi out from the finish line and only had 1 1/2 hours to go until the course cut-off. Every time we passed a new remaining miles point I would compare our distance to one of our local runs. With 4 miles left I told her “Just 4 miles… We are doing an out and back on the fence line and you are home free!” I wanted to relate our remaining distance to something she was comfortable with and to remind her of where she had come from. 2 years ago I started running with her on the trails and we would run 3-4mi and be done… Now look at us. I am pacing her on her first 100mi! She is doing more miles in a single run than she would do in 2-months when this all started! Ooops. I lost track! SQUIRREL!
At our current pace, 4mi in 1 1/2 hours wasn’t going to be possible. To finish, she needs to dig deep and go after what she has trained for. I finally sent Tammy a text and told her to send the drugs that it was time. While I waited for a response, our of the blue popped Jason! Jason was on our team for the recent RAGNAR trail relay that we had done. There was no plan for him to be there and him showing up was perfect! We had not been with Jason for almost 2 months so there was a lot to talk about and being that Lynn was stuck putting up with me for the 7 hours on the trail, it was refreshing.
A few minutes after Jason arrived I received the text from Tammy! Mike Adams and Doug Long had been dropped off and were RUNNING to use with drugs! I knew what this meant. Regardless of whether the drugs kicked in, mentally she would be stronger because the pain would soon go away!
Doug and Mike are the two fastest runners in our group (except for when I am dreaming) and they ran up to us before we knew it! Lynn popped her pain killers and we began the push! Doug jumped up front and began pushing the pace that she needed to maintain. We were not out of the majority of the tacky mud so moving faster was going to be easier for her. We needed to maintain a faster pace than she had done in the last 2 loops. Pushing this pace was going to require her to dig deeper than she ever had. It didn’t matter who was there with her…this was all her.
We were now moving at a 15:00 min/mi. Ever few feet you could hear her grumble in pain and there were tears running down her face. I have known Lynn for several years and she was one of the few people that I really considered a great friend… In fact, most of them were there at Brazos Bend with us! Seeing her in this much pain not only hurt, but also felt amazing. Amazing knowing how much she had put into this very day, how close she was to the finish, and how much heart she had.
During our final push, there were several times that she started running! Not because we pushed her to do so, but because she found the strength inside of her to push through the pain. Every time we came upon a hill I would grab a hold of “Mickey” and push her up the hill! I told her “You worry about moving your legs and I will move you!” I was not going to let her stop… not now! At one point Mike commented on how she was the only runner to be escorted by 4 men!
Before long we reached the bridge that would take us to the final stretch. We stayed on her to keep her arms swinging and to keep moving forward. The more we pressed the more tears filled her eyes and the more you could hear her pain, but in just a few minutes it was going to be all over.
After we crossed bridge we only 1/2 mi until the finish. This was a 101mi course. After we crossed the bridge I asked her “How long was this race?” When she responded, I reminded her that she had just run 100mi! Before you knew it she began running again ON HER OWN. This wasn’t a slow run, she started pumping her arms and begin pushing at a 10:00 min/mi. After a few hundred yards we dropped back down to a fast walk again. Throughout our entire Journey, Liz sent encouraging messages to me for Lynn. Right before the finish I received the best one that made me laugh “Tell her she is raising my blood pressure and can’t wait for her to finish!”. Of course I shared this with her, as I did all of the messages!
Something happened at this point that really stood out at me. Doug turned around, more excited than I had ever saw him, and said “This is amazing… things like this just don’t happen! People don’t usually finish like this” He had a smile on from ear to ear and I started realizing what was going to happen.
We looked up and the finish line was now in site. No-one had mentioned the time to her at all. When we saw the finish, she only had 5min left util the course cut-off. Marc Henn was there to great us and give us the time. Lynn again began her push… She pumped her legs, pumped her arms, and began running again towards the finish. She did this until she was about 100yds away and walked one last time…
Lynn began her final push for the finish line with less than 3 min left. She ran faster than she had during any of her training. Her last 100 yards after running 100 miles was at a 7:07 min/mile.
Lynn crossed the line at 29:59.58 with 1 minute left to spare. She didn’t just cross the line and meet the Race Director Robert, she crossed the line to a horsehoe of every person that was left at the course yelling and cheering for her in addition to friends and her entire crew and her training partner Norma.
Lynn began giving all us hugs until I was finally able to get her to turn around and get her buckle from Robert. Not only did she receive a greater finish line party than the actual winner, but she was also greeted by Victor Ballesteros that interviewed her for UltraSportLive.TV!
While all of this was taking pace and as I was texting Liz the great news I heard Norma… Norma was standing next time saying “It’s ok John… You can cry!” and then reached out and gave me a hug. I was doing everything in my power to hold back all of the emotions that I was feeling and obviously Norma noticed. After we wrapped up the finish line activities and headed back to our “Crew HQ” I began the reflection. Thinking back to the “pacing”. All of the highs and lows. All of our laughs (there were a lot of them), and how I felt knowing that I hurt her along the way by pushing her.
During the race, Lynn asked me if she was DFL (Dead Flipping Last), which she was. After the race I posted something on Facebook and gave her something to think about.
“The winner spent 15hrs on his feet. You spent 30 hours are on your feet. Now tell me which person has the greatest endurance. You are the winner in my eyes.”
Now it is time for the personal reflection! I was honored that I was asked by both Lynn and Norma to be their crew chief for their 100 mi adventure and even more honored that I was asked to pace Lynn on her final 25mi loop. I never expected to have been touched so deeply as a result of this. Looking back at it, there are so many things that I learned, so many things that I would do differently if I had the chance, and so much stronger my friendship with Lynn and Norma is. I know that things will never be the same between us and that we will always share something very special. Thinking back to the race from yesterday I still feel choked up and emotional when I think about what happened and what it felt like to watch her push through that finish line.
I don’t have “best friends”. My wife and family has been the closest things in my life and all that I have ever needed. After this weekend, There are some very special people that I consider to be my best friends and even better… you three are my (our) sisters.
To the crew: I have to thank each and every one of you. Kathie, Abi, Marc, Jason, Doug, Mike, & Kevin. None of what happened could have been done without each and every one of you. We were a well-oiled (and fed) pit crew! If there was something that one of the girls needed, they had it. While it wasn’t my race, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for being so supportive. Simply put, without you… they never would have finished.
To my wife: I love you honey. I know was a hard weekend for me to be gone especially having to travel Monday morning (which was cancelled). I want you to know how much I love you. None of this would be possible without you! You always take care of people and even though you weren’t able to join everyone in Brazos Bend, you still sent a little something of yourself with. I love you. The only thing missing from this weekend is you! You do such an amazing job at things like this and would have loved to have you by my side helping us! 😀
And to my sisters…
To Tammy: I could not have done this without you. You stepped up and helped EVERYWHERE along the way… You cooked, took care of Lynn and Norma in ways that I couldn’t have. Thank you.
To Norma: You are amazing Norma. From the day we met we have always talked. You have been with us through some tough and interesting times and you have stood by our side. I am so proud of what you have accomplished and honored that I was able to be a part of it.
To Lynn: You are very special and honored to have been a part of this amazing journey of yours. I can’t imagine having this experience with anyone else. We talked, you cursed at me, we joked, and we cried together (there was a reason I was walking ahead of you at times). I felt all of your pain on my 25mi PR (hehe), and felt all of your joys as you crossed the line. I had more joy and happiness with you crossing the line with you than I did with my very own races. One last thing… Don’t ever ask me to hurt you like that again! Next time, we will do it together! (You know I am partially kidding… I would be honored to pace you again). My only regret is that we didn’t take a picture together. 😦
And now to regress a bit? Remember the conversation that I had with Liza and the importance of me sleeping and watching my nutrition? Well now I understand why. Throughout the 9hr and 47min journey my focus was Lynn. I made sure her bottles were always full and made sure she was eating. During our final 5mi stretch I began getting a headache and couldn’t figure out why. Once Doug and Mike met up with us I took Lynn’s bottle so she could focus on swinging her arms without any interruption. Holding her now empty bottle I realized something. I never filled up my bottles on the last 20mi and only one of them was empty. I had been so focused on her and making sure she was ok that I didn’t even think about myself. Liza… You were right and I failed at this piece of advice!
While this wasn’t my race, I earned what I believe to be my most memorable bib and will always remember my 25mi PR with sister!