“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear” – Mark Twain
A few weekends ago, I finished the HURT 100, my biggest dream race since I started ultrarunning. I obsessed over this race for years, and in 2016 when I was in Oahu, I went out and previewed the course. This one loop beat me up so much that I could not imagine doing it four more times under 36 hours. The HURT 100 course is five very technical loops with a tight cutoff. It never gets easier. You are running in a tropical rainforest, and while you are close to Honolulu, you are in a totally different world.
I live in Ohio, and while we have a good network of trails here, they are relatively flat and smooth. I can train on a few hills that we have in the area. Those hills might be steep, but not nearly long or technical enough. Besides that, winter in Ohio is cold and often icy. It is hard to train for a race in hot and humid conditions with very technical footing and lots of climbing like HURT while living in the Midwest.
The seed was planted though, and in 2016 after my first feel of rainforest trails, I kicked off my five-year plan to get to finish line of HURT. From then on, all the races I did were building blocks to get me to be a better climber, stronger person, or to be better at managing heat. I studied splits, obsessed over past results, and talked to previous finishers. The majority of people who completed the course were much more experienced and faster than I was. I was chipping away though, signing up for progressively harder races and getting to their finish lines: Hellbender 100, Ute 100, Cruel Jewel 100, Eastern States 100, and four finishes at Hellgate 100K. Almost every week I was climbing a 33% grade, 150 feet of gain, 0.1 mile grassy dam hill in the state park near my house. Ten times, then 20, 40, 60 at a time. I was driving 90+ minutes to a southeastern Ohio trail that had a 40-mile loop with 8,000 feet of gain, and running at least half of the loop every 2-3 months. I was going to Sugarloaf Mountain in Central Ohio and doing hill repeats on it, getting 5,000 feet in 10 miles.
I think in 2016 I had about a 10% chance of finishing. By the time I applied in 2019, I estimated my chances at 50%.
50/50 chance. Not very high odds, but that is how I live my life. This is how I teach my daughter to live her life: to push out of her comfort zone and try hard things. Because in truth, we are never fully ready. There is no perfect time to run your first 100-mile race, to have a baby, to move to a new town. You must hold your breath and dive in, otherwise, life will pass you by.
I didn’t expect that my name would be pulled in the lottery the first time, but it did, so 2020 became my year. The real work started. Aside from climbing, I needed speed.
I am not a particularly fast runner. When I was running road marathons, I was usually finishing around the 4-hour mark. I ran one 3:58 marathon. In my youth, I never showed any athletic talent. I grew up in Poland, where nobody sugarcoats anything. There were no cross-country teams or sports activities for average or below-average athletes. I was tall, uncoordinated, and awkward and often the last person picked on the team in gym class. I would like to believe that I tamed my demons over the last couple of decades, but they still stick out their ugly heads here and there, telling me that I don’t belong.
What was I thinking, attempting one of the hardest 100-mile races in the world?
I worked on my speed, I ran intervals on the trail and treadmill. I worked on heat acclimation. Once a week I went to the local YMCA and did a sauna/treadmill combo: 15 minutes moving in a sauna, 30 minutes on a treadmill. Alternating. I built it up to six sauna and five treadmill intervals and chaffed my body like never before.
All along, I had my village: my husband and daughter who believed I could, and my friends. My dear Trail Sister Jaimee Wilcox, who went to the Y every week with me even though she didn’t need heat training. My friend, Helen Garen, joined me for hill repeats on Sugarloaf Mountain several times; and another friend, David Holliday, who ran a 50K and 40-mile training runs with me in the dreary, cold, and wet Ohio winter weather. Lee Connor, two-time HURT finisher and incredibly accomplished ultrarunner, answered way too many texts from me and always gave me her honest feedback and suggestions, but most importantly, believed in me.
My husband Dave, our thirteen-year-old daughter Carla, and I came to Hawaii a few days before the race to explore Maui and acclimate to the temperature. I heard reports that the Oahu trails were wet, and the rain was falling steadily. I tried not to let this get to my head. I had my race strategy, which I believed could get me to a 35:30-35:59 finish. Based on historical data, I knew I had to run the first loop in under six hours and had to have 16 hours left for the final two loops.
When we arrived in Honolulu on Thursday before the race, the rain had finally stopped. I was excited and ready. I had good feelings about the race and was taming my fear. Saturday offered relatively low humidity and temperatures for Hawaii: around 70F. There was a breeze in the air that felt wonderful. I had planned to run this race alone, the way I usually do: no crew and no pacers. My family dropped me off at the start line and I told them that if everything goes well, I would see them around 5:30 pm on the next day.
I could write a detailed report about HURT, but there are so many out there, and honestly, most of the race is a blur. Five hard, technical loops. Lots of climbing. Enormous roots that got bigger with every lap, climbs that got longer, tourists near the waterfall that kept coming in big groups during the day. Some relatively dry sections of the trail, wonderful sounds of bamboo forests, views of Honolulu from tops of the climbs that were equally beautiful during the day and at night. Thousands of stars, sounds of wild pigs, herds of hunting dogs, creek crossings that were deep and slick and tricky for someone as uncoordinated as me, but also refreshing and rejuvenating. Aid stations. Absolutely wonderful aid stations, full of volunteers who cheered for us so loud that it always put a giant smile on my face. Volunteers who filled my pack, brought me food, gather my drop bags, reminded me to empty trash from my pockets, took my sunglasses and put them in my bag at night, brought me wet towels to wipe off mud, and wrapped cool towels around my neck when I was getting warm. I hardly had to say a word. They were incredible and knew what I needed.
But things were getting worse. My legs were hurting, the demons were appearing again.
You are not strong enough, fast enough, good enough. What were you thinking?
People with whom I had run in the first part of the race were either way ahead or dropped out. I was alone. I had to turn off my brain and just keep going. I still had a shot. I was still on track. I kept tripping and falling, sliding in the mud. I wish I was more graceful. I wish I trained more, climbed more, came to Hawaii sooner and train here for a month. I wish I was faster. On out and back sections I was jealous of those an hour ahead of me. They will get it. I wish I had more talent. Why can’t I be faster?
I had to snap out of it.
“Do what you can with what you have, where you are.” — Theodore Roosevelt
I kept my focus on the trail. When I came to aid station on loop three, one lady yelled as I was leaving: “My runner dropped and I’m not supposed to pace another friend until loop five, do you want a pacer? I can run one loop with you.” Well, I wasn’t planning on it, but it would be so good to get out of my head now and have company. Nate, my new pacer was amazing. We shared stories, and she kept me awake and focused. My demons were asleep again. I started loop four according to plan. I got this. Things were hard, but I was making progress, working hard, ignoring pain in my IT band, blisters that kept opening on my feet. I knew every open wound would hurt for a few minutes, but eventually, my body would adjust to the new pain. I kept going.
As I was leaving for my final loop, I was full of hope again. Someone yelled behind me as I was heading back on the trail: “Do you want a pacer? He ran this race before; he knows the course really well. He can help you!” Fish, a local runner and HURT veteran, joined me for my final loop. The loop when everything went wrong. The big blister around one of my toes that was still filled with fluids ripped the toenail off its bed. It was now floating in the water sack and hurting horribly. My hip flexors ceased to work, I had a hard time lifting my feet and several times I had to crawl up on the rocks, then stand up. I was dizzy, lightheaded, and I ran a 45-minute mile. Fish never stopped believing in me. He saw I was in a dark spot and kept pushing me, telling me what I needed to do to meet the cutoff. He gave me hope and a game plan. Run or powerwalk the flatter, less technical sections; go through aid stations in less than five minutes. Don’t give up. Keep trying. I did. I tried so hard. I have never worked that hard in a race. I never hurt that much either. Between my feet, my banged-up knees, and head that was pounding, I was truly miserable. I will get used to it, I kept reminding myself. Accept the pain, because it is not going anywhere. It is here to stay. Keep pushing.
I knew that, regardless of the outcome, I could not give up. I would hate myself if I did. I needed to give it my all. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” There was another person that was in my heart while I ran, who gave me strength and pushed me to the finish: my friend Ruth Kohstall. Ruth is a 66 years young ultrarunner and triathlete from my area. She attempted HURT five times and got as many as four loops, but never a finish. Before I left Ohio, she told me I had to get to that finish line. I dug even deeper for her. It literally took every ounce of my being to keep going.
About a mile from the finish I finally realized I would finish before the cutoff. I crossed the finish line caked in mud, smelling absolutely horrid, but I had a huge smile on my face, and my heart was so full of gratitude and love. I was grateful for Fish and Nate, for all volunteers and other runners who cheered for me, for my friends back home who believed in me. I felt so much love that day and I felt that I belonged.
Then it hit me: my legs just locked on me; I couldn’t stand. I sat on the bench and felt extremely nauseous, then got very cold and despite putting on a long sleeve shirt and a jacket I started shivering. My fingers got numb. My legs didn’t want to move. My husband Dave had to carry me to the car. When we arrived in our Hilton Waikiki hotel (where we stayed thanks to business travel points), I couldn’t get out of the car, I couldn’t move, I was laying stretched in the back seat, trying not to pass out and scare my teenage daughter. Dave helped me out and the bellman got a wheelchair and pushed me, covered in mud with disheveled hair and smelling horrible, through the hotel lobby to our room. I don’t remember much, but I did turn a few heads.
The next day I assessed post-race damage. I figured that I would probably lose four toenails, I had huge chafing marks that looked like sword cuts across my body, bruised up knees and hands, skinned heels, and lots of soreness. I looked like I had been in a battle. I was. I won the battle against my demons.
This story is not supposed to be about how tough or extraordinary I am. I am not. I am a mid-pack swim mom from Midwest. However, I finished one of the hardest 100-mile events in the world. Please, never be afraid to try hard things. The journey you take, the memories you make are second to none. That is where running stops being just running and becomes life-transforming. And when things go wrong, never be too proud to accept help. It really does take a village. People are good, they want to help you succeed. Let them help you. Create new friendships. Go out and master your fear.
Feature Photo: Augusto Decastro