Wednesday, May 20, 2015

It's Not Whether You Win or Lose, It's How You Play the Game

It's Not Whether You Win or Lose, It's How You Play the Game
C&O Canal 100 Mile Race
April 25, 2015

When does it become real?  For some people it is when you sign up for a race, for others it is at the start line.  For me, it got real when I least suspected it.  
I signed up for the C&O Canal 100 mile race with hopes of crushing my previous 100 mile times.  The course suggested it was mostly flat, except for going up and down a very large hill twice.   The race director even advertises that there are only two climbs and how hard could that be?  I grossly underestimated the hill.  I’d hate to see what the race director calls a mountain.  
Race day started with temps in the low 40’s.  I’m pretty sure the entire day it didn’t fluctuate more than a few degrees.  From the start line we crossed a field, then along a road followed by a gentle downhill.  What came after that was a long decent on single-track switchback trails.  At the bottom of the trail we crossed a small stream twice.  If you were nimble enough, you could make it across mostly dry.  But I’ve never been accused of being nimble. 
Shortly after the water crossing we started out on the canal towpath.  The first 20 miles were pretty uneventful.  Unless you count me constantly questioning why I sign up for these races and how I could possibly run 100 miles when this already felt so hard.  Thankfully the next aid station distracted me with waffles.  That was a new one for me on race day.  But I subscribe to the theory of if it looks good, eat it.  

     The towpath edges along the Potomac River.  It was flowing fast and I was surprised to see a few kayakers and paddle boarders out there.  We passed by Harper’s Ferry and connected with the Appalachian Trail.  It was pretty cool to be running on this historic Section. One of the most beautiful things I saw along the path were the fields of flowers I had never seen before, Virginia Bluebells. They were so thick at times they appeared as a blue haze hovering over the ground, like something out of a dream.  

I had decided that this would be my first race I would run solo, with no outside help from friends or family.  Some people refer to this as either running a race “crewed” or “screwed.”  I knew by doing this on my own, I would need to rely on my drop bags and the help of the aid station volunteers.  This was the perfect race to try it out as I quickly learned that the aid station volunteers here were as experienced and efficient as any NASCAR pit crew.  When I approached an aid station someone would grab my drop bag and get out whatever I asked for while a another person would take my water bottle and fill them.  Then a third person was busy getting food ready for me.  It was very impressive.  
Doing a race without crew and pacers can be lonely, but sometimes you get lucky and meet another runner and forge a friendship.  As I was munching on hot pierogi and making my way down the trail, I came upon a fellow that was walking at a brisk pace.  I ran up to him, introduced myself, and asked him how his race was going.  He said his name was Charlie and he offered me a piece of bacon to go with my pierogi.  Bacon?  Sure, why not.  At this point I didn’t know that he would turn into my race partner for almost 40 miles.  There is something funny that happens on the trail. You are stripped down to the most basic version of yourself.  You let your guard down and will tell a virtual stranger more than you might tell most people.  They see you at your best and your worst, sometimes only minutes separate the two.  Our conversations distracted us from what we were doing and it made the time pass more quickly.
We came into the 50 mile aid station well on our way to a sub-24 hour finish.  After replenishing our food and water, we grabbed our rain coats and headed back out on the trail.  A cold rain started and the cloud cover made it darker out earlier than expected.  Within a few miles we had to use our headlamps to see the path.  Charlie got a call on his cellphone from his wife to alert us of a runner about 3 miles ahead of us that was in distress.  The man had called his wife and said he was very cold and he that he could hardly stay awake.  We covered ground as fast as we could to get to this runner.  The temperature continued to drop below 40 and the rain and wind made it seem colder.  When we were moving at a decent pace it was ok, but when we slowed down the cold was quite noticeable.   We finally caught up with the distressed runner.   His flashlight had died and he was trying to make his way on the path in the dark.  He was wearing a trash bag over his clothing trying to stay warm.  He told us several times that he just could not keep his eyes open and he only wanted to sleep.  He was not shaking and he seemed confused.   I know the signs of hypothermia, he was exhibiting several of them.  
Charlie and I both realized at this point we would have to bring this runner into the next aid station.  There were a lot of rocks and roots in this section and I couldn’t even imagine him trying to cross the stream and make it up the big hill without any light in his condition.  We slowed our pace to a moderate walk so he could keep up with us.  I walked a few feet ahead to light up the trail and called out if there was a rock or root that he might trip on.  Charlie stayed back and walked next to him.  We brought him about 4 miles into the aid station.  We were happy he was safe now and could get some help.  He dropped from the race here, it was mile 60.  A term commonly used in ultra running is Did Not Finish (DNF.)  A lot of people also say it stands for Did Nothing Fatal. 
I soon realized that I was shaking beyond control.  Someone brought me a cup of soup but it all splashed out of the cup because I couldn’t hold my hand still.  The race director brought me a blanket to try to warm me up, but it did little good.   They had a fire going at one point, but the rain put it out.  There was no place to get out of the wind and cold, only an overhead shelter so we could get out of the rain.  I sat with Charlie while he got ready to head back out.  I knew that that the next aid station would be another 7 or so miles and I would need to have some warmer and drier clothes to get to it.  I didn’t have that luxury.  Charlie was ready to head out and I told him I made the decision to call it a day.  I knew if I went back out I might be in the same position as the runner we brought into this aid station.  I wished Charlie well as he headed back out on his journey.  I called my husband to pick me up and told him my race was over.  The weather ended the race for a lot of other people that night.  About half of the runners dropped out.
The rain had finally stopped by morning and we found Charlie along the course.  We went to the path to meet him and walk a little together.  He was very happy to see us.  After big hugs he told me that I was the reason he was able to get as far as he did.  I told him to keep going that his journey wasn’t done yet.  
At the finish line it warmed my heart to see Charlie come flying up that big hill one last time. His face was filled with determination, pride and joy.  He was all smiles as he hugged his wife and collected his buckle.  He hugged me again and thanked me for helping him achieve his goal.  
I had hoped to finish this race.  I had also wanted a shiny new belt buckle to add to my collection.  Instead what I got was the satisfaction of helping someone in distress and getting them to safety. 
In the end I know that it isn’t whether you win or lose (not that I was going to win.)  It really was how I played the game.
Charlie and his wife Mary at the finish.


  1. Great sportsmanship. Glad you guys were there for that runner.

  2. So, glad you all had such great communication. Reading things like this make me want a 100 miler but I'd be happy with a 100k as well!! Thank you for sharing! You are an inspiration!

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