March 2018 issue
The adrenaline was electric at the starting line of the Devil Dog 100 ultramarathon in Prince William Forest Park, Virginia. It was 5:59 a.m. on December 2, 2017 and with only a minute to go, I glanced at the faces around me, their physical and emotional energy glowing under their headlamps, and I wondered what motivated all these incredible athletes to pursue this event. As for me, I glanced down at my bib number where I had written the names of 170 generous people that pledged to donate blood to support my Red Cross virtual blood drive – they were my motivation.
The gun went off and I focused in on running one mile at a time, hoping that the past six months of training would get me to the finish line. The first loop, miles 1-20, went by in a steady blur as I charted out various markers on the course to be aware of for the upcoming laps. Early on, I stayed with a pack of runners in a single file line at a 10-minute-per-mile pace, our headlamps illuminating the course in front of us. I continuously studied the course in front of me, on alert for any root, rock or any hidden debris that could twist an ankle or worse. In the sub-freezing temperature, I kept trying to blow my exhaled breath downward so it didn’t cloud my foot placement. The last third of the loop included a variety of technical inclines that forced me to slow the pace to a careful walk.
The second loop, miles 21-40, the pace remained steady. With the energy still high, I spoke to several of the runners that had shared the same pace – learning where they were from, how many ultras they completed, what their estimated finish time was and other information.
Once I reached the halfway mark during the third lap (miles 41-60), I felt a sense of reassurance. Right before the sun went down, I was able to see my parents at an aid station. We were very happy to see each other, even if only for a few short minutes, but it was enough to give me some much needed inspiration.
On the fourth lap, miles 60-80, I felt a surge of energy and increased the pace for as long as I could. I knew I had to conserve energy for the last loop, but I wanted to make the most of this second wind that I had after seeing my parents.
By mile 92, the surge slowed back down and I alternated a fast walk/jog strategy. Through the trees, I watched the sun begin to slowly rise and I could hear the sounds of nature and wildlife preparing for the new day – the birds, insects, and the sound of my tired feet crunching through the path covered in leaves. I breathed in deeply as I reflected on how magical this moment was, noticing that the sun’s reflection off the tiny dew droplets looked like thousands of diamonds in every direction. Watching the sunrise was an awakening for the mind, body and spirit.
With a few miles left, I was reduced to a moderate walk and I kept glancing at my watch to see my pace and the time, but most of all my heart rate.
Watching the blinking heart icon made me reflect on how special this event was and just how amazing it is to be alive. Thirteen years earlier, I was in ICU in critical condition, in a coma for two months, resuscitated eight times, and was given 36 blood transfusions and 13 plasma treatments throughout my 14 lifesaving operations. I had been in a near fatal-car accident coming home after swim practice.
And now, here I was celebrating 10 years of competing in endurance sports and approaching the finish line. I looked down at my bib number that included the 170 names. As a blood recipient, these generous people were my motivation to not only start this race, but to also get to the finish line.
After 26 hours and 48 minutes, I crossed the finish line through the support of my parents, wife, four-month-old daughter Clara, and my Red Cross colleagues, Donna and Kamenna. In my years of competing in endurance sports, I’ve learned that a race may be run alone, but in no way is it ever an individual effort. I was able to improve my 100 mile time by 3 hours and surprisingly place ninth overall, enjoying every mile, breath, and heartbeat along the way.