During mile 1 of my first 50-mile race, as darkness lifted from a perfect Vermont morning, I did what a lot of people do when they think they might be in over their head—I started talking to strangers.
By mile 5, I had acquaintances. By mile 10, I had friends. By mile 12, I had advice. Lots of it. Be patient. There’s no rush. Walk the hills. Eat a lot. Eat gummy bears. Don’t stress. Just look at this as a day when you get to run for 10 hours without guilt. I obeyed all of it.
By mile 31, I put on a fresh pair of shoes and socks—taken from a bag we were allowed to send ahead to ourselves—in addition to a foil-wrapped bean burrito that I’d stuffed into one of the shoes the night before.
I was moving through the woods with the purest joy, deeply at ease with the elemental act of running. In fact, somewhere around mile 27, I decided that this was the kind of running I really loved. No more obsessing over pace. No strategizing except to finish. Lots of down time at rest stops. Plenty of socializing. Yes, from now on, this is what I would do. Ultra marathoning. I was converted.
I lay down in a field of grass and bit off the end the burrito. Considering the infrequency with which I saw port-o-cans, I decided that this first bite should be the last bite, so I shoved the burrito back into the humid well of one of my used shoes (which the race organizers would ferry back to the finish), laced up my fresh shoes, ate a Clif Bar, and ran on, now more in my head than in over it.
The course got tougher. The trail narrowed to a single track and began to serpentine. The hills—already severe—intensified into multi-mile stretches followed by steep downhills that burned my quads. My friends had scattered across the course. We were alone together.
By mile 40 I was tired but not that tired. My thoughts were still upbeat, all real darkness was kept at bay. When I got to the aid station at mile 40 I couldn’t believe it was already mile 40 (my GPS, which proved worthless in the deep Vermont woods, read 36 miles). I had this thing beat, I thought. I even allowed myself to start envisioning the finish—something I’d been doing by way of fantasy for a few years.
I’d trained well to get to this point. Along with my friend, Yetik, I signed up for this race, backed off speed work, and focused on distance. During an Austin, Texas, summer, Yetik and I ran a 40-miler, two 35-milers, a 30-miler, a bunch of 25- to 29-milers, and more 20 milers than I can recall. Many of these runs were back-to-back affairs. Weekly mileage was 80-90 miles. All slow, deliberate, even plodding runs.
To avoid running in the direct sun, we’d often start at 3 a.m. for the longer runs, heckled by straggling partygoers for whom the night still raged, thrilled to be running down the middle of main streets normally jammed with traffic.
The training was more time-consuming than strenuous, demanding more patience with boredom than tolerance for pain. Our chronic aches and sore spots disappeared and we burned more calories than we could possibly replace—Yetik lost 20 pounds. And, as you might imagine, we got to know each other very well. When you do nine-hour runs together, that’ll happen.
Yetik, who very well may qualify as the kindest human on earth, is Turkish. I knew we’d paid our dues together when, the night before the race, nervous beyond belief, he politely asked me to turn off the TV—in Turkish. “You’re like my brother,” he said, a little embarrassed.
By mile 47 (and the last rest stop) I was weary but inspired, fueled now by the anticipated emotions that would well up upon finishing. 50 miles! I was about to do what I once couldn’t imagine people doing. I ate a handful of salty chips, drank some Gatorade, and bounded across a pasture to the trail leading into a forest, where I would have to run uphill for three final miles.
When I hit the trail I looked down at my watch out of habit, taking my eyes off the trail for just one split second, when—crack! I heard it before I felt it. Searing pain shot from my foot to my head. I could feel it in my jaw. I was on the ground, in a small ditch, holding my ankle. Suddenly realizing what was happening, I started yelling a single four-letter word over and over again. Starts with F.
When I opened my eyes a fellow traveler—a young woman—was standing over me holding an Advil between her finger and thumb. She yelled the same four-letter word I was yelling. So we were now two runners in a forest yelling the F word in unison at the top our lungs. What fantastic empathy! And then she helped me back across the pasture to the aid station.
There was really no choice to be made at this point. I iced the ankle for an hour, ran four steps, and then asked for a ride to the finish. Very bad sprain and, thankfully (as a a later x-ray would confirm), nothing broken. Now I had another goal: I’d watch Yetik cross the line. I’d live the finish vicariously.
Four years ago, on a marathon training run, Yetik suggested that we do a 50-mile race for his 50th birthday. Several people were on board with the plan. Then, as the date approached, several people backed out of the plan. But I stuck with the plan. 50 years and 50 miles—both seemed like big ideas worth sticking to, if for no other reason than it was really important to Yetik.
And now here I was, on the verge of 47 years, injured after 47 miles, shivering in 47 degrees, and waiting as the sun started to go down alarmingly fast on what may have been the finest running day in running history. Not only was I feeling deeply sorry for myself, but Yetik had yet to appear. I was so anxious about him that I took my burrito out of my sweaty shoe and ate it. He had to finish this thing. Just had to.
A race director told me Yetik could be pulled off the course if he didn’t reach the last aid station—the 47-mile one—before a certain time. Understandably, they didn’t want runners getting lost in the dark woods. But this could not happen. Yetik had to finish. No other option. It was now dusk and the finish area was largely empty and sort of desolate feeling. The tents were being dismantled.
I hobbled around, pacing as best I could. Then I saw this little blue dot in the green distance. The dot got closer. In a moment, I knew it was Yetik. His arms were raised in the air. My arms were raised in the air. And then he finished. He did it. Second-to-last runner. But he finished.
He told me that he hated me. Which of course was code for saying that he loved me. To prove the point, within an hour he had signed me up for a 50-miler in February.
“You’ll run 97 miles to do 50,” he said.
“Sounds perfectly reasonable,”I told him.
James McWilliams is the Ingram Professor of History at Texas State University—San Marcos and the author, most recently, of Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals, published by Thomas Dunne Books. For our earlier interview with James about running and his new book, jump on this link here.