How I Became an Ultra Runner

pinhoti-elevation-large

After my one and only hundred mile run I said I would never do it again!  It was a very painful experience for me and I saw no reason to repeat it.  And, here I am now within three weeks of attempting another hundred miler, Pinhoti 100.  Pinhoti is perhaps, the toughest ultra in the Southeast USofA. Why am I attempting another 100 miler?  I keep asking myself that very question and, there is no clean, easy answer, I’m afraid.  Actually, I’m not quite sure I’ll ever be able to come up with a viable answer as to why I am again attempting something that I know is going to be a very painful experience for me. I know that at moments during this race, the experience will be dreadful for me and, I’m almost certain that I will want to quit a dozen or so times during the duration of this run that starts on November 2nd and ends on November 3rd.  Why, then, am I purposely going to put myself through so much agony?  I don’t know.  I don’t know if I’m trying to prove something to myself or, maybe, to others.  I don’t know.

Please allow me a few moments of your time to explain how I was exposed to ultra running and eventually became an ultra runner.

Bobby at Leadville pre-race

Bobby at Leadville pre-race

It all started in 2007 when I agreed to crew my older brother, Bobby, on his attempt to conquer the Leadville 100.  Back then, the race was one quarter of what it is today and, I thought these ultra running people were insane!  I mean, who goes out and runs a hundred miles?!  That’s ludicrous!  At that time, my brother lived in Littleton, Co and I made a deal with him.  I crew for you, Bobby, and you allow me to make your home base camp for my attempt at climbing Long’s Peak, a pretty little fourteener in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The deal was made, my fate was sealed.

Crewing Bobby during Leadville became an experience that I still dwell upon.  I was helping my brother in completing a race of incredible proportions on some of God’s most beautiful terrain.  To me, it was a logistical nightmare as I tried to keep up with my brother from check point to check point. Twin Lakes became my favorite little town in Colorado.  It symbolized Colorado so well to me.  It’s a small quaint little place in the midst of the very rugged Rockies.  The people are friendly but tough.  You gotta be tough to carve out an existence in this section of the Rockies.

As I waited for my brother to come out of the woods I took in this lovely little mountain town and drank some of the best coffee in the world right there at Twin Lakes.  While I waited I also got to meet lots of runners along with their families and friends that were crewing them.  I Met some of the most sincere, genuine, hospitable people at Twin Lakes.

leadville2007-2

After a few hours in this lovely little town, my brother emerged from the woods tired but determined.  He swapped out some clothing, refilled his hydration pack and disappeared into another section of deep forested mountain terrain.  I went to the next location to await my brother’s re-emergence from the forest and help him again along the way.

me, on long's peak

me, on long’s peak

After Leadville, my brother fulfilled his end of the deal by handing me the keys to his car.  I threw my 75 pound, 7000 cubic inch backpack into the trunk and drove northward to Rocky Mountain National Park for my own challenge.  As I trekked my way to the Boulder Fields at the base of Long’s Peak my mind kept drifting back to two things, – Margaret and ultra running.  (I had met Margaret on a dating site during this trip but that’s a different story).

Bobby and Greg at Leadville

Bobby and Greg at Leadville

This ultra running thing and those amazing athletes intrigued me.  I knew that my brother had been running these “ultras” for years but I never really gave it much thought until Leadville.  I couldn’t stop thinking about this ultra running thing. I could not understand why anyone would pay to put themselves through such a long, painful race.  As I laid in my tent at 12700 feet with a nagging altitude induced headache, I pondered what drives people to attempt something crazy like a 100 mile run in a 30 hour period.  It seemed so insane to me.  For the record, climbing mountains has never seemed insane to me but this ultra running thing was koo koo to me.

A great couple from South Dakota that I met at Leadville

A great couple from South Dakota that I met at Leadville

The thing, though was that these ultra runners did not really seem insane at all!  If anything, they were some of the nicest, most laid back, easy going people I’ve ever encountered.  Even in the midst of agony they would joke around with each other and encourage one another to stay strong and to keep going.  Up until that point, I had been in a heck of a lot of road races and I never ever came across a bunch of runners that were so cool and encouraging to one another.  It certainly left an impression on me.

Fast Forward Running for Cindy

my friend, Cindy

my friend, Cindy

One year later, I met a friend at a Starbucks in Savannah that was just wrapping up her last chemo treatment.  All of her hair was gone.  Her skin was slightly yellow, her eyes somewhat sunken in.  She had a flowery head scarf on and to be completely honest she looked beautiful.  Cindy has always been a very attractive woman.  This was her third battle with cancer, though, and it had taken a toll.

We talked for a couple of hours.  I drank coffee, she drank water because anything else made her gag.  Her daughter was there attentive to her mother’s needs.  Despite this ordeal, Cindy remained pleasant, putting on her best face but I could tell that she was uncomfortable.  During our conversation she told me that she doesn’t know what to expect.  This was the worse fight she had had with cancer and she did not know if she was going to make it.  Hearing that from Cindy made my eyes tear up.  I’m not someone that weeps easily.  I never have been.  I grew up in a world where women and children may cry but men never do.  A few nights after coffee with Cindy I did weep as I thought about all that she had endured and, at the thought that she may succumb to this cancer and leave two kids behind.

tv interview

tv interview

I had known Cindy for quite awhile and she was always so upbeat, caring, cheerful.  She was always there for everyone that needed a friend.  She had certainly been there for me on more than one occasion!  She’s just a phenomenal person and what was happening to her was so incredibly unfair!. What I did next was what I always do when I feel such despair, – I prayed.  I asked God for a miracle, to spare Cindy, to heal her, to restore her, to give her joy again and, not to take her away from her kids.

What I did after praying was to think of what I could do for Cindy and her family.  Although, Cindy’s health care package from work was good enough there was out of pocket expenses that had snowballed into big problems.  This seemed another unfair tactic of cancer, – not just weakened the body but go after the hosts finances as well.  Effn cancer!

Cindy with Isabella

Cindy with Isabella

I wanted to do something for Cindy to alleviate some discomfort and thought maybe, I’ll run a marathon as a fund raiser.  It seemed a pretty good idea. I mean, I knew several other runners that had done that for the Leukemia Society and other organizations.  The thing was that I wanted to do a fund raiser for Cindy and her family.  I wanted the money to go to her and let her use the money how she wanted to.  Giving money to some organization wasn’t going to help Cindy’s financial woes brought upon by cancer.  So, I decided I would do a fund raiser just for her.  The problem was I had no idea what I was doing.  Soon, though, friends helped me set up a paypal account, online donation buttons along with a blog on my personal domain. This online blog was by WordPress.  All I had to do was ftp a bunch of tar’d up files to my domain, untar it and begin setting up an impressive blog site.  That was simple enough.

What was tough was trying to get people to donate to a site and a cause that was dear to me but suspicious to those that did not know me nor Cindy. My first donation came from one of my very good friends who eventually became my boss, Tom Davis.  He donated a whopping $100!  Wow!  Now, if only I could get others to give so generously or, if I could get a whole bunch of people to donate just a few dollars then, we could get some where.

Well, I continued my running and thinking about what marathon to do.  There were so many marathons and I just had no inkling of which to do for this fund raiser.  That’s where my brother, Bobby, steps back into the picture.  He calls and tells me that he’s going to run the Boulder 100 in October 08′, just three and a half months away and, was wondering if I’d like to do that run instead of a marathon for Cindy.  I told him that I wanted a few days to think about it.  After I got off of the phone with Bobby I did what I always do when contemplating something big, I prayed.  I asked God to give me some wisdom in making this decision.  Before I finished my prayer I had an answer.  This running fund raiser was going to have to be Big!  It was going to have to be momentous, dramatic, painful.  It was going to have to consume my life as cancer had consumed Cindy’s life.  If I were to do this fund raiser I was going to have to experience discomfort like I’ve never experienced it before.  This was going to have to be a run that would forever change me.  This run would morph me into a different man.  Later that same evening I called my brother and told him that not only am I going to run the Boulder 100 but that I had already registered for it.  You see, God does answer prayers. ;)

this was my boulder 100 gear

this was my boulder 100 gear

My glorious training began the next day.  I ran 12 miles in 95 degree heat at the Rails to Trails.  In the process, I lost my underwear as I used it for toilet paper when I suddenly had the strongest urge to relieve myself and, being on a long, narrow desolate trail far, far away from any known toilet, I just had enough time to pull my shorts and undies down before the volcanic eruption occurred and shook the land around me.  It wasn’t pretty.

I still had 6 more miles to run and one very nasty set of undies at my feet with no trash can in sight.  So,  what do I do?  Do I leave those gnarly undies there for someone else to stumble upon while running the RTT?  How do I dispose of this smelly evidence?  I could carry them out?  Nah.  That wasn’t going to happen.  So, I did what anyone who had a brain like mine would do.  I chucked those undies into the marsh with all of my might. The marsh would hide my disgrace, I figured.  Just then, though, a strong wind caught my undies like a sail on a boat and I watched in horror as my poop stained undies flew high above my head and landed on some of the tallest spartina in chatham county, waving like a proud flag in the wind.  Not one of my most glorious moments, I’ll admit.  But, when you gotta go you gotta go.  I quickly began running away from the crime scene.  Sorry, for littering.

My second day of training for the Boulder 100 was much less dramatic than the first.  No underwear was harmed or lost.  Most importantly, a trail wasn’t soiled and contaminated. That’s a good thing, right? :)

Maccabee in all his glory

Maccabee in all his glory

It was during the Boulder 100 training that I learned that my late dog, Maccabee, had incurable cancer.  The goal of conquering the Boulder 100 became bigger to me.  I spent long hours on lonely roads and trails cranking out mile after mile after mile.  The relationship I was in went sour during this time. Running became even more important to me.  I found myself not simply running for Cindy but running to keep my sanity.  My life was literally falling apart, piece by piece; chunk after chunk would crack off and fall to the ground.  When I wasn’t running, an overwhelming sadness engulfed me. Running became a medicine that kept me from losing control of myself.  At this time, my faith became Faith.  I learned not to ‘lean on my own understanding’ but relied on a higher power for fuel to keep me going, to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Colorado

just arrived in Colorado, 2 days before the boulder 100

just arrived in Colorado, 2 days before the boulder 100

The big day finally came.  Two days prior, I had flown in to Colorado and acclimated quickly.  I did a 7 mile run up Waterton Canyon in Littleton the day after arriving in Colorado and felt strong, having completed the run at a 7:15 minute pace.

The Boulder 100 started at 9:00 on a crisp, chilly Saturday morning.  Saying that the first 50 miles were easy will come off sounding like total arrogance but the truth is that it was easy.  It was easy because I found myself immersed in conversation after conversation with some of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met.  These were the same encouraging, friendly, laid back, easy going bunch that I had encountered with my first exposure to ultras.  Cranking out mile after mile with my new found friends was light and easy.  My jaw muscles became sore from all the talking and laughing, though.

All good things must come to an end, right?  Well, it did for me once the night stepped in and overtook that beautiful sunny day we experienced during the first half of the run.  It was in this dark that the Bouler 100 became a race to me.  When the sun dipped behind the Rockies it took about 15 degrees of warmth with it.  And, out in this Boulder reservoir the night sky was dark.  The air was cold and dry.  At this time in the race most had either finished or quit.  Where there were dozens just a couple of hours ago, now there were just a few bobbing headlights that bleakly broke through the dark night, here and there.  No longer was I running with friends.  Now, it was the bobbing headlamp that would pass me by with heavy breathing trailing behind it every now and then.  The warm smiles and encouraging words that had accompanied those smiles were now absent.  I felt an isolation like I’ve never felt before and, I hated it.  All of the demons that had been exorcised had returned to a home that was clean and in order just a few hours earlier and now they settled back in leaving me in a condition much worse than before.

Cindy and Maccabee were good buds

Cindy and Maccabee were good buds

Cindy’s plight, Maccabee’s plight, the dissolving of my relationship, it all came back and I began to question the sanity of attempting to run 100 miles in one day.  What was this all about? What difference would it make?  At the end of it all, the money I’ll raise for Cindy will only be a drop in the bucket to all of the other expenses she’s accrued during her fight with cancer.  My once incredibly fit dog, Maccabee, was still going to be claimed by cancer and, I’m still going to be broken hearted because Margaret and I are no longer together and will never be together again.

So, what was I doing out here in Colorado in the middle of the night, in temperatures in the low thirties freezing my butt off?  What did I hope to gain by this?  This was ridiculous!  I am such a fool for thinking I could make a difference in anyone’s life!  I was a fool for thinking that this “run” had any kind of power or mysticism about it.

I completed another lap of the 7.5 mile loop and went straight to the warm aid station and got a cup of warm soup and a cup of hot coffee.  I sat down in front of the heater and began to feel so much better warming my old bones next to that warm propane heater.  The soup was so good!  The coffee tasted like swill but who beggars can’t be choosers.  I sipped my nice hot cup of coffee.  The race was over for me.  This silly venture had finally come to an end as I realized how insane this entire escapade was.  I will sit in this warm aid station and consume lots of warm soup and coffee and wait for my brother to finish.  That’s what I’m going to do.  It’s all good!

My cell phone rang and rang and rang.  I dug it out of my coat and reluctantly answered it.  It was an old girlfriend of mine, April.  This woman probably knew me better than any other human had ever known me.  She had seen the good, the bad, the awesome in me.  She seemed to see more good in me than I ever did in myself.  A lot of the reason why things did not work out with April and I was because I could never see the awesome in me like she seem to see.  Inversely, though, I saw her as the most amazing woman ever and, too good for me.  I convinced myself that I didn’t deserve her.  So, I lost her but we remained friends.

April, has never been one to sugar coat anything.  She told it like it was.  And, that’s what she did to me.  She told me, ‘Dan, you’ve accomplished a lot.  63 miles is nothing to be ashamed of.  You can go home knowing that you have run more in one day than most people ever will.  I encourage you to think about Cindy, though’.  April would always say when trying to get a point across, “I encourage you to think about…”

She continued…’You can quit now and go home proud, knowing that you’ve accomplished a big deal but I encourage to think about what it means for Cindy to quit.  For Cindy to quit means to die.  For you to quit means to go home and be proud and warm and happy.’  FU__!!!  Why did she have to go there!

I was suddenly ashamed and pissed off.  Once again, April was right!  I got my silly self out of that aid station and began another trek through the long dark 7.5 mile trail.  Before I could get too far, though, Greg Dalton spotted me and told me the unfortunate news that my brother had dnf’d.  If my older brother, the badass ultra runner of the family, cannot complete this race who am I to think that I can?  Greg told me that he came out here to run 50 miles this evening and had planned to do that with Bobby but now that my brother was out he would run it with me, if I wanted.  SH__!  I wasn’t going to get out of this one.  This was do or die. This was a second chance.  I didn’t want this second chance but I knew in my heart of hearts that there was no way I could quit now.  I was handed a second chance on a silver platter and I would be a fool not to take it.  Reluctantly, I took it.

Those last 27 miles were grueling, to say the least.  My body ached like it had never ached before.  So many times, I felt like lying down on the ground and going to sleep.  I was cold and hurting.  My mind begged me to quit.  My feet hurt so dang much!  Every step I took hurt.  I wanted to weep because of the pain all over my body but I couldn’t. If Greg had not been with me I never would of finished those last 27 miles.  I can honestly say that.

Greg, being an incredibly strong runner himself encouraged me the entire time.  He asked me questions about Cindy, about Maccabee and about Margaret.  We talked about April.  He told me about his wife who was an amazing athlete just as Greg.  Walking, jogging and talking helped the night move along faster.  Before I knew it we had reached the 90 mile threshold.  I couldn’t believe it!  Crossing the 90 mile threshold was the moment that I realized that I was actually going to finish this!  I was actually going to accomplish what I had set out to do!  This became big!  Suddenly, I felt strong. Suddenly, some freaky third wind overtook me!  I began to run instead of hobble!  These last ten miles were going to be a breeze with this new found strength!  A half mile later the euphoria ended and I found myself hurting even more and hobbling again.  So much for this third wind.  Sheesh.

after surviving the night during the boulder 100.  less than 10 miles to go!

after surviving the night during the boulder 100. less than 10 miles to go!

Two hours later I’m still hobbling and maybe somewhere around 95-97 miles into the Boulder 100.  This race is never going to end!  We were approaching the magical hour, though and, where there’s magic there’s power.  A green-bluish streak went across the sky!  It was big!  I looked over at Greg and said, “Did you see that!”  Of course, he did.  How could you not see it!  It was the biggest shooting star or meteor, or whatever that I have ever seen!  It spanned a great expanse of dark sky before it faded into the night.  Never have I seen anything like it before nor after.  That, gave my spirit a boost, a boost that I most desperately needed!

That little boost helped get me to the other bigger, more glorious moment, – when the sun began to peek over the eastern horizon.  The sunrise fueled me and lifted my spirits so freaking high.  Soon, I saw the movement of people and that big banner where we had started under this fiasco almost 24 hours ago.  In Colorado, though, looks can be deceiving.  The finish lined had appeared so close but 45 minutes later it was still very far away, with the people moving around the finish line looking like 8 inch hobbits.

The Finish

so tired but so happy after having crossed the finish

so tired but so happy after having crossed the finish

At 9:07 am, I crossed the finish line, 24 hours and 7 minutes after I had started the biggest run of my life.  All of those smiling happy people that cheered and greeted me as I crossed the finish line are forever etched in my brain and heart.  A small Asian lady that I had befriended many hours before along this journey smiled broadly and gave me a huge awesome hug.  I felt like she and I had been friends for a long time and had just seen each other after too many years of absence from each other.

My brother, Bobby, walked up to me and gave me a super strong hug and congratulated me.  He told me that he was so proud of me.  That meant the world to me then and still does!

don't ask me about the record.  it's an inside joke

don’t ask me about the record. it’s an inside joke

Greg had purposely drifted into the background, allowing me to savor my moment of glory.  That’s the kind of gentleman that he is.  I walked up to him and thanked him and gave him a hug, a manly hug that is – you know, can’t get too close.  Lots of hand patting on the back, a sixteen inch buffer of space between us, you know how it goes. ;)

The drive from Boulder to Littleton, I cannot remember.  I fell asleep within minutes of crawling into the back seat of my brother’s suv.

Two days later, I was back in Savannah.  It was night time.  There was no marching band awaiting my return.  No one at the airport seemed to notice a new Dan.  I picked up my luggage and headed to my truck.  My truck looked the same.  It was still dirty and kind of smelly.  Twenty-five minutes later, I walked through my front door and Isabella and Maccabee met me with lots of wet doggie kisses.  In the living room, there were two signs tacked to the wall:

“Congratulations Dan!  Happy Birthday!  Thank you!”

I had arrived home late that night on my birthday and where I thought that everyone had forgotten my birthday, Cindy had not.  That’s the kind of person that Cindy is.

And, that’s how I became an ultra runner.  Btw, ended up raising $7700.00 for Cindy.  She took part of the money and flew her and her daughter to New York City to spend the holidays with her son that was living there.  Before she flew to NYC she told me that she feared this might be the last Christmas she has with her children.  Thankfully, it has not been.

In a few weeks, I’ll have a chance to complete another hundred miler.  Why am I doing this again?  I don’t know but I do know that I’m going to be spending 30 hours or so with some of the most genuine, encouraging, amazing, wonderful people ever and, that’s a pretty darn good reason to attempt this silly distance again.  Let’s see how things go.

Thanks for stopping by.

peace,

dh

10/10/2013

 

 

 

Print Friendly

2 comments for “How I Became an Ultra Runner

  1. 2013/10/11 at 9:28 am

    Wow….you had me in tears. Beautiful.

  2. Dawn
    2013/10/12 at 5:11 am

    Dan, your story is very inspiring for all of us to conquer what makes us fearful in order to come out the other side a stronger more present person. And you are so right about those who do ultras, they are some of the very best people there are. It is the same reason I began running ultras and am always amazed how during each one when I am having a difficult time another runner comes along who encourages and helps me get through that slump. Kind of a metaphor for life if we are lucky enough to have such ones in our lives. I even started my own race in memory of my brother as a way to memorialize him and to give back to this community that I love and has given so much to me. Good luck at Pinhote 100 I hope you do a post race write up! Happy Running!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *