100 Mile finish number 15 is in the books. I completed the AT100 in 21:43:13, good enough for 10th place out of 106 finishers (and I am guessing 145 starters). With 9 FURs (Florida Ultrarunners) toeing the line, we had a great time as a group.
I love the number 10. Having made a career in finance, I live in a "base-10" world every day. Four years ago, I got married on 10-10-10. The week before the wedding, I ran the AT100 as my bachelor party and had a blast with Andy Mathews, Andrea Risi & June Leland. Going back this year, I had a lot of fond memories from the previous trip, including stopping at this cross street on the way to the race site. I am not a believer in numerology, but enjoy any time I can work "10" into the conversation.
I did not feel well prepared for this race. Following Western States in June, I had a summer of leisure where I put on 15 lbs. and lost the best of my conditioning. I trained decently the month leading up to the race, but did not go in with high expectations. My Good/Better/Best goals for this race were Finish/Sub 24 hours/Sub 22 hours. I knew I would need a near perfect day to challenge 22, and 24 would take some real work. I thought about starting slow, but instead committed to pacing Luis Barrios through the first 20 or so miles. Luis came to Arkansas in tremendous shape and was poised to post a great time if his stomach held out, and he didn't fall prone to a jack-rabbit start.
The weather forecast couldn't have been much better. 45 degrees at the start, sunny and 70 in the afternoon, dropping back into the 40s the following night. The FURs were generally jubilant to run in these conditions after a summer of training in Florida's heat and humidity.
Luis and I planned to hold to a 12-13 minute pace through those first 20 miles, and we stayed very close to that throughout. We came though the first crewed aid station at Lake Sylvia (mile 16.4) in good spirits and on track. As usual, George Buffington was doing an amazing job of coordinating support for multiple runners along with Eric Shelton, Dave Bracken & Vinnie who were awaiting their chance to pace Andy Mathews and Patrick Bene later. Luis and I finally separated around mile 24. Not because I slowed down, my pace stayed right about the same. Luis just sped up, and looked good doing it. I assumed that would be the last I saw of him other than the turnaround.
I passed the 25 mile marker in 5:01 and knew I was going a little too fast. I put my headphones on, slowed the pace just slightly and just tried to stay steadily going forward. I ran the next 60 miles largely alone and had very few conversations. I did exchange pleasantries with a couple of young guys who kept passing me on downhills, and I would catch them on uphills or at aid stations where I did not dawdle. At the second crewed aid station, Lake Winona (mile 31.9), Dave told me that all the other FURs looked good, and Luis had pulled a good 15 minutes ahead of me. He had much the same feedback at Powerline (mile 48.0). I completed the second 25 mile section in 5:17, just about the slow down I had anticipated.
I looked forward to approaching the turnaround (mile 57.9) because I knew I would get to see all the leaders on the way out, and then see my friends on the way back in. But I was shocked when I saw the leader come through 18 miles ahead of me on his way to a 15:59 finish. I saw Luis near the base of the hill approaching the turnaround and knew he was still about 15 minutes ahead of me. I made the turn knowing I was in 27th place (my unofficial count). I made it a goal to make it into the top 20 by the end of the race and resolved to hold pace as best I could. Coming back the other way, I saw in quick succession all of the FURs, all looking on track to finish. Not that Patrick and I are ever competitive with each other (that is a straight lie), but when I saw I had a 45 minute lead on him at the turn, that became a second goal. I knew he has the running talent to catch me, but I was not going to make it easy.
When I came through Powerline the second time (mile 67.9), George & Vinnie told me Luis had just left and I was closing the gap. I charged towards Smith Mountain with renewed energy, but was soon frustrated with the choppy footing on the jeep road up there. By the time I came down off the mountain I figured I had bled too much time to hit 22 hours overall. I finished the third 25 mile section in 5:39, against a goal of 5:30. On tiring legs, I just did not see holding on for a 22 hour finish. I had not run anything longer than 34 miles since Western States, I knew the last quarter of the race would be a real challenge.
I saw Luis for the first time as I came into the Pigtrail aid station at mile 79.7, but he took off quickly. I saw him again at Lake Winona (mile 83.9) and we began to run together again here. Kind of. Any time I got shoulder to shoulder with Luis, he would accelerate and pull 10-50 yards ahead of me. I would catch him as I trotted and he walked the next uphill, and as soon as I pulled abreast, he would pull away again. I was working harder than I wanted to, but I realized we were both benefitting from the back and forth flow of our running so I kept pushing him. Finally, Luis's stomach gave up on him and he pulled back a little just shy of mile 90. Food had started looking and tasting bad to me as well, and I only took in 2 gels over the final 12 miles. I was fortunate to finish before completely bonking.
Once Luis was behind me, I started talking to myself. 22 hours was still within reach if I could stay steady. But I didn't stay steady, I actually picked up the pace. I caught the two young guys on an uphill for about the 5th time, and this time pulled ahead to stay. I knew they were waiting for the next downhill to catch me again, so when I crested the hill, I ran down as hard and as fast as my quads would allow. I was still 8 miles from the finish, but decided to empty the tank now and see what happened. I came to the last aid station, Pumpkin Patch (mile 93.7) feeling great about how I was running. A volunteer reminded me the next 4.5 miles was choppy jeep road, downhill at first and then uphill the second half. I decided I would continue to run the downhill as hard as I could and then walk some of the uphill if I had to.
The mind does funny tricks late in race when it is exhausted. My head was lost in the music as I tried to pound every step harder than the one before. I had no thought other than FASTER. I didn't care of I collapsed 2 miles from the finish, I just wanted to see how far I could run this hard. Suddenly I looked up and realized I was at the top of the hill and onto the final downhill stretch, 2.4 miles from the finish. So I ran harder still. This was another one of those precious moments that only comes every so often when running and I was making everything I could of it. I caught another runner as I stomped down the hill, and quickly pulled away from him. With 0.5 miles to go, I saw the headlights of another runner and his pacer just ahead. He was limping and walking slowly as I went by. But I didn't let up then either, I ran all the way through to the finish.
21:43:13. I ran the final 25.3 miles in 5:46, far stronger than I should have given my lack of training. When the RD told me I had finished in 10th place, I was shocked. I summoned my full vocabulary and exclaimed, "Holy Shit!" I had moved from 27th place to 10th pace over the final 42 miles. Another top 10 finish in an ultra, my 24th overall (it helps to enter smaller races). I was (and am) elated. I love the number 10. It has been and always will be my friend.
Luis came in just a few minutes behind me, and the rest of the FURS came in over the next few hours, Sean Connolly, first-timer Danielle Zemola, Andy & Patrick together, Tim and Stephanie just a bit later. We had a 100% finishing rate for Floridians where the overall race had at least a 30% drop rate. We finished 4th in the team competition, our best showing yet. I won't gush about it here, but having that large a Florida crew together (13 of us including crew and pacers), really made this a lot of fun. There is definitely something to be said for getting a large contingent of us to a destination race.
I entered the AT as a chance to go away with a bunch of friends, and as motivation to train in the summer months. Running 100 miles in crisp, cool weather reminded be of how much more fun this can be when the humiture isn't through the roof. I am really looking forward to the winter race schedule.