Pain is something we try to avoid. When we do experience it, we minimize its effects, sometimes with pills, with drink, television, etc. It’s probably best that we’ve evolved to travel the least painful route, which is why ultrarunning—a sport that is almost guaranteed to cause the athlete massive amounts of suffering—doesn’t quite make sense to the average person. It’s a sport that capitalizes on pain. It manipulates pain until it’s almost unrecognizable. Until it’s something so different that it resembles a sort of spiritual elation.

Or that’s the most sense I can make of why I have chosen this sport, and why I’ve signed up to participate in my first 100 mile footrace though the mountains of San Diego.

My mom dropped me off at 5 a.m. at the start, right at the Lake Cuyamaca Restaurant and Store, in Julian, California, a tiny town about an hour outside San Diego. I walked down to the start line where a couple hundred other runners were chatting and pacing around nervously. I grabbed my bib number and said hi to a few acquaintances and waited for my colleague Rich (who got me into the ultrarunning mess) and our friend Tyler who I’ve been training with off and on for the past year.

My hip still hurt from an injury and my ankles were tight. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to run 100 miles, but I figured that Rich was getting over strep throat and Tyler was undertrained and tired from working too much so maybe we could all drop the race together and have a big laugh about it later on. In the back of my mind I thought, “There is no way in hell I’m running 100 miles today.” However, I also figured that I’d seen both Rich and Tyler do amazing things and pull some serious running out of their asses when they had nothing left, so at that point, anything could have happened.

I don’t know if my mom and sister know what they’re in for yet, but they’re about to find out. 

 

I knew I just had to run 21 miles until I got to meet up with my crew—my mom and my sister. After that I knew I could run another 34 or so miles until I got to hook up with my first pacer, Dave Wiskowski, an experienced ultrarunner with the patience of a Buddhist monk who was sure to push me beyond my limits, and then I’d meet up with my second pacer,  Joe Grand, my best friend from Kindergarten, who introduced me to the sport of running when I was at my lowest point in life. I really wanted to run with them, so I was going to try and at least go for as long as I could before I keeled over.

The first 21 miles weren’t awful. There was lots of climbing. It was hot and exposed. I drank shitloads of water and Hammer electrolyte drink and sucked down a bunch of gels. I pretty much drank something every 10 minutes and ate every 20 minutes. My hip and ankle issues were bad enough that I didn’t want to deal with nutrition/hydration issues. When my muscles started twitching, I ate a salt cap  every hour. It worked. My muscles stopped fucking around.

When I got to the aid station at Sunrise (mile 21), my mom, my sister, Dave and Joe (my pacers) were there, smiling, sitting me down, asking me what I needed. I ate a tofurkey sandwich and drank a bit while they filled my pack with water and Tailwind nutrition drink. I felt fine. My hip had somehow stopped hurting and my feet felt fresh. The weird thing about running is that even if you start the day feeling like shit, you can run yourself into a pretty good spot. It makes no sense and I’m no doctor, but I assume it has to do with some kind of voodoo magic.

Filling my water so I don’t die on the trail

I took off from the aid station feeling loved and ran toward the Pacific Crest Trail where it was just me and the edges of cliffs and the wide open sky. It was truly a sight to behold, kicking up dirt on the side of the earth, my thoughts turning from nervousness about the race to my family, my wife Crystal and my son Ezra. They were at the hotel because Ezra is 2 and can’t yet handle an all-night support crew adventure (OH, BUT HE WILL) and Crystal is 8 months pregnant with our daughter, Luna (I am breeding a whole new support crew, you see). I thought about how I wanted to see them and how much I missed them and for the next several miles, my thoughts turned heavy, as if every footstep was an anvil that pounded straight into my heart. Luckily, I’d get to see my mom and sister at the Pioneer Mail Aid Station (mile 28.2) where I would put on a smile and pretend everything was OK.

By that point, my crew was well oiled machine. My mom greeted me with a smile while my sister sat me in a chair and massaged my back and shoulders, which, by the way, is something I could really get used to. It’s like they’d been crewing runners for the entirety of their adult lives. My fake smile turned into a real one. I was ready to hit the next aid station.

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeew, feet

But, also, I was starting to feel like shit. From Pioneer Mail to Pine Creek was 8 miles of hot, rocky, grueling running, which is when thoughts of dropping the race crept into my mind. “NOBODY GIVES A SHIT ABOUT RUNNING 100 MILES,” I thought. “WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO PROVE?” I kept going, but the thoughts of doubt kept intensifying. I tried to enjoy the views, but my mind was attempting to override anything that would normally be considered beautiful.

I knew I needed my pacers.

And I needed to get to the next aid station. I ran. I can’t actually remember what happened. I also knew that my mom said my wife and son would be waiting for me at the mile 48.8 Meadows aid station and I couldn’t wait to see them.

When I ran into the aid station, I thanked the stout old guy I’d been following for the past several miles.

“You helped me more than you know,” I said.

“Oh, uh, yeah,” he said, probably a little creeped out that I was on his ass without saying a word for the past couple hours.

Crystal was sitting in a chair and Ezra was playing in the dirt and I wanted to kiss them both and then take off in the car back home and jump into bed. But instead I said hello, ate some food, drank, and took off onto the trail.

Sometimes, the best part of a long run is not running at all

 

An oasis in a desert of misery

When I got to Red Tailed Roost at mile 55, my pacer, Dave, was waiting to take me the next 29 miles.  I was beat. I’d been running for almost 14 hours and my lungs felt like they’d shrunken to the size of rat pellets. I had never run farther than 50 miles and an unexpected side effect crept upon me like a bad dream: Chafed butthole. Yup. It felt like fire ants were circling my anus, biting their way around its perimeter in a show of dominance. However, all in all, my body didn’t feel that horrible. If I could run with a chafed butthole, I could conquer the world.

(No, there is no picture to go along with that.)

Anyway, Dave paced the shit out of me. We ran down through the night and I wanted to quit the whole way. “WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME, DAVE?” I’d say every now and again. “WHY DO PEOPLE DO THIS?” I can’t remember his answers, but they were calm and reassuring and also annoying as fuck and if I had any strength I would have strangled him to death. But his reassurance worked. Dave paced me down a mountain, where my mom and sister were waiting in the canyon, then we had to run back up the mountain. Imagine that: Running down a mountain through the night after you’d been running all day and then looking up at the mountain knowing you’d have to run back up it. It made me want to barf up my soul.

 

True love is waiting for your runner at the bottom of a canyon in the middle of the night

That’s where I started to hallucinate. It was the middle of the night and I’d been running for 17 hours. I saw cougars behind trees. I saw giant spiders the size of garbage trucks. I saw evil shadow spirits that sizzled into thin air. I didn’t care. I wanted them to bite me. I wanted to be taken out of the race.

“I WANT TO DROP, DAVE,” I said.

“But you’re not hurt,” he said. “We’ll just keep going.”

“Goddammit,” I spat back. I wanted to murder him, but at that point I was too weak.

We kept going until we got to an aid station that was dark except for a bunch of colored lights. The temperature was unbearably cold and it was weird as shit in there. A man (I think it was a man) sat in a chair by the heat lamp, wrapped head to toe in blankets, sleeping soundly. A Persian guy sat in a chair and stared angrily into space. Another runner came in and looked like he needed something, but he couldn’t talk. Someone handed him a coffee, but he just stared at it like it was a long lost lover. The aid station attendants sat him down and tried to bring him back to life. Another attendant said, “We need to watch him. He’s dangerous” to which the Persian man responded, “What are you talking about? I’m not dangerous.”

“Not you,” the attendant said. “Him.” He pointed to the hallucinating man praying to his coffee.

“We gotta get out of here,” Dave said, sensing the supernatural vibe that seemed to be spiraling downward.

“I can’t do it,” I said. “I want to go home.”

An attendant with a curly mustache chimed in: “The sun will be up soon,” he said. “It will recharge you. It’s like a whole new race after that.”

I looked at him like he was some wise prophet. “If you are lying I will find you and murder you,” I said.

“It’s true,” he said, smiling. And, with that, we took off into the dark.

The night turned angry with cold, 60 MPH winds, the dirt from the trail blowing into our mouths and eyes, the chill stiffening our muscles, settling into our bones. We just had to keep moving. The wind got stronger. The cold intensified. All I wanted to do was sleep, but if I stopped on the trail I would die of hypothermia.

We ran and ran and ran.

Running through the Patagonia logo while devising innovative ways to kill myself

When the sun rose, someone behind us on the trail said, “Hey, look, it’s the Patagonia logo.” I thought that was hilarious, but I was too tired and angry to laugh. I hated running. I hated everything. But, goddamn, that sunrise was beautiful. Few people get to experience being delirious at the top of a mountain at 5 in the morning, but at that moment, I figured that’s as good as life gets, and it’s also as awful as life gets. My body was crying in pain, but somehow it was beautiful. 

At mile 84.3, it would be light outside and my second pacer, Joe, would be waiting for me. I was so excited by the sunrise that I ran with Dave faster than I’d run all night. The aid station attendant was right, the sun rays entered my body and charged me like a sensual massage by the hands of the universe. I felt unstoppable.

When we got to Pioneer Mail 2 aid station at mile 84.3, my crew and pacers hadn’t arrived. We ran too fast and beat them. I wasn’t upset. I felt proud that somehow in the past 30 miles I could feel my pain and misery turn into something manageable. It never left. It simply transformed. I knew the feeling wouldn’t get any worse and I could handle it. When my crew and second pacer showed up, I was ready to go. We took off slowly down the trail and I felt a surge of energy and ran, bounding up the rocky path, Joe right behind me, excited to be on pacing duty.

Pacer #2, Joe Grand, ready to take me to the finish

We scaled the cliffs and hit the last aid station with about 9 miles left in the race. I couldn’t wait to be done. Every now and then, Joe would tell me how well I was doing and that we could walk the rest of the way if we wanted and still make pretty good time. That just made me want to run even harder. It was heating up and I stripped my layers and kept moving, one foot in front of the other. I had been running for 27 hours straight and I wasn’t going to stop now.

We curled around the mountains and there was the lake, the finish line about a mile ahead. In the distance, I saw Catra Corbett, the renowned sober, vegan ultrarunner who has run some of the toughest races on the planet. When she saw us approaching she turned around and asked if we were OK. I gave her the thumbs up and ran with her for a bit.

I asked her about ultras and she talked about Badwater and brutal stage races and her ultrarunning dog and pissing blood. She is a goddess. Then, as the finish line was within sprinting distance, I told her it was my first 100 mile race. She was super excited. “You finish ahead of me. I don’t want to steal your glory.” Catra knew that when she crossed the finish line people would go nuts (It was her 10th SD 100 finish!). She wanted me to have my moment of glory. That pretty much sums up the ultrarunning community. Camaraderie. A brother and sisterhood of weirdos. Try to get a marathoner to give you a better finishing time and see what happens. They’ll try to trip you at mile 26.1 and laugh in your face. Ultrarunners don’t give a shit. It’s not about the time. It’s more about the wacked out  journey that just broke you down and built you back up again in a stronger version. OK, maybe it’s a little bit about the time.

One last push until I can end this charade

As we approached the finish line I could hear people cheering. “That’s all for you!” Joe said. We bounded up the hill at the end and crossed the line where I immediately started crying. Perhaps sensing a tender moment, race photographers swarmed and snapped photos as I bawled into my mother’s shoulders. My sister cried and hugged me. Joe gave me a giant hug and Dave came running up for a stinkyass embrace.

I have survived a mentally fucked up father. My little sister, Monica, died when she was my son’s age. I became a juvenile delinquent at an early age. I suffered through a gnarly drug and alcohol addiction. I started running because somehow I knew it would save my life from my own shitty choices. I reconnected with my family. I went to college. I got a master’s degree. I just ran 100.2 miles. And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

This 100 mile race has taught me a few things. It’s taught me a deep love for my family, a family that would do anything to help me thrive. My connection with them is as strong as ever. It’s taught me about community. Sure, ultrarunners are crazy, but they’re a band of outcasts and weirdos that understand the finite distance of our lives and aim to run wild until the ultimate, unavoidable finish line.

When I was a kid, I would start things, but never see them through. I’d quit halfway. I was a quitter. This sport has taught me that quitting isn’t an option. If you start something, you finish it, no matter how bad it hurts, no matter how closely you summon the grim reaper.

Fake it till you make it. Or die.

Yeah, it hurt. There were times when I actually thought I was dying. There were times in the middle of the night where I had hoped to break my ankle and be dragged out of the race by the officials. There were times when I wanted to murder my pacer (sorry, Dave, I love you, my patient brother). But by mile 70, the pain twisted and curled around my body like a colorful snake, its poison stinging but never stopping me in my tracks, the sensation of venom coursing through my bloodstream, transforming from pain to misery to contentment to primal joy, and finally to the ultimate form of strength–the strength built upon solid foundation of pain and determination. It’s indescribable, the feeling of running through the hot day into the freezing, windy night and reaching the morning, still running toward the finish line. Oh god, it hurts. There is poetry in the pain, but the sad truth is not many people are into poetry. And, no, I still don’t believe in god, but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t close.

 

Pacer Dave Wiskowski, me, pacer Joe Grand

Pacers and crew. I am still stuck in that chair. Help!

How to run a 100 mile race

 I’m not an experienced ultrarunner, so I shouldn’t give running advice, but there’s wisdom I’ve heard time and time again that works:

  • At some point in the race your mind will tell you to stop. You have to override that part of your brain. Once you do, you’ll find that you can run for eternity. Or until you die. 
  • Keep eating. If you feel sick, you have to eat, even if you don’t want to. Your body needs calories. If you eat too much, you’ll probably vomit and possibly die. 
  • Keep hydrated. Dehydration will be the death of you. If you drink too much you will probably die, too. 
  • The sun will recharge you. After you’ve been running through the night, the sun will rise and electrify your body in unimaginable ways. It will also kill you. 
  • Here’s a tip that I haven’t heard before, but it might have been the only thing that saved me when I wanted to quit: Before the race (like an idiot), I bought a bunch of San Diego 100 merchandise. I can’t resist good merch. At mile 64, when all I could think about was sleeping in my own, warm bed, and I wanted nothing more in the world than to murder my pacer and quit the race, I thought of my hat and longsleeve shirt. If I dropped the race, I couldn’t wear that shit without feeling like a poseur. So I kept running. That probably only serves to illustrate what a simpleton I am, but it worked, so fuck it.

Coffee never tasted so good. Plus, it loosens the bowels, if you know what I mean.

Comments

  1. Thank you Josh! I cried, i laughed but ultimately related to my inner core! coming up on 12 years for me of freedom. didn’t know we had that in common. Say hi to Dave for me! Amazing family you have and congrats on a sister for Ezra!

  2. Josh says:

    Ahhh thanks, Chris! I knew I felt a great kinship with you.

  3. COLLEEN SUBIN says:

    Josh I am so moved by your experience and beautiful conclusion, so powerfully written.
    I wish Crystal and you the best on the birth of your baby girl. :)

  4. Todd Bertolone says:

    Josh,

    Congratulations on a great race and for your newer outlook on your family and life. You have a fabulous way of merging great humor into the truth of a 100 mile race. I have ran five 100 milers and your read made me remember my times out there dealing with the beauty and the beast of finishing it. I laughed out loud at my computer reading your story! Thanks so much for writing your story; I will remember much of it when I run my sixth 100 this September, which should be my hardest race yet. Cheers!

  5. Ginny McReynolds says:

    Josh,

    I’m obsessed with your story now. I’ve crewed for 100 milers and even THAT seemed nearly impossible. I just think you are amazing to have done this. None of us even knows what it created in you to do it, but I imagine it’s a thing. Congratulations, my friend.

  6. Olla says:

    Well done sir!!

  7. Shawn says:

    Well spoken my friend….my favorite part is about the sun being a sensual massage by the hands of the universe….i’m glad as I am sure you are that you stuck it out in experienced every bit of it……

    see you on the trail

  8. Frannie Tennant says:

    don’t even know you but if you are a friend of Dave’s you are uber cool, congratulations…yes you have to dig deep and even 6 months later you can hear yourself saying, ‘did I really run 100 miles’…….and I am sure you will run another! well done!

  9. Tatiana LaTour says:

    That was soooo awesome! What a freaky weirdo you are! I loved that story so much and I’m gonna make Brian and my girls read it tomorrow. Damn! What you did is so inspiring and not in a direct way cause I’ll never do anything like that bullshit but it’s super inspiring that you live your life so sweetly and beautifully with tender wife, tender little one… calm kind of stuff and then also bat shit extreme parts and it all seems to intertwine and work and you are supported. I also love to hear of strange roads away from addiction. You are so lucky! Thanks!

  10. Tim Stepp says:

    Congratulations, you’re are new type of dangerous now.
    I’m the one who told you the sun would recharge you. It sounded like more of a resurrection you earned. I’m extremely excited for you to get out of Dale’s Kitchen and finish the race the way you did.
    Great writing and hats off to your determination.

  11. Thank you all for reading! I am so moved by your interest and and your good wishes.

    Tim!! You seriously saved me! Your smile and wise words gave me a huge boost. I’m going to remember your good spirit when I volunteer at an aid station. I owe you one.

  12. Brendan Boyle says:

    Proud of you Josh, thats and amazing accomplishment and an even better story. Hope to see you all again soon.

  13. Brendan Boyle says:

    Proud of you Josh, thats an amazing accomplishment and an even better story. Hope to see you all again soon.

  14. Lauren says:

    Tatiana’s comment is the best and it resonates strongly with me!! “What you did is so inspiring and not in a direct way cause I’ll never do anything like that bullshit…”

    Love you bro
    <3 seester

  15. Jan Lee says:

    Josh, When I first met you, you were a determined student, writing your essays in a car. And now? You’ve taken determination to an entirely different level. You are an ultrarunner! Congratulations. And, as your story so beautifully illustrates, you are also an ultra man, one who recognizes the transformative power of a sunrise and of the support of family and friends.
    You are an inspiration.

  16. Roger Monty says:

    Josh:

    Far, far out. YOU DA MAN !!

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