What I learned running my first 100 miles race

As of last weekend I became one of the approximately 7000 people who complete a 100 mile race in the US every year. And what a humbling lesson it was.

The race was scheduled to be my longest distance and longest continuous run to date (previous personal records of 70 miles and 22 hours respectively — just 3 weeks prior). For as long as I could, I honestly ignored acknowledging the elevation profile of the course. The course ended up having approximately 24,000ft of elevation — or the equivalent of climbing up and down Everest from Base Camp… Twice.

Lesson 1: What you decide, defines you

I’m usually very casual about the challenges I engage in but this one did push my nerves a bit. In the weeks leading to the race I changed my phone’s wallpaper to a motivational poster saying “Doubt kills more dreams than failure.”

Failure is always an option but I made a conscious decision to give my all out there before accepting defeat. During the 35 hours, 20 minutes and 5 seconds it took me to complete the race I needed to dig deep into this decision and continue to relentlessly push forward to the finish.

Lesson 2: You have to accept the risks and move forward

Four years ago when I started running I had no idea I would be even attempting something so extreme as the Eastern States 100 but as soon as I touched my naked feet on the ground the morning of the race the realization came to me: for the next day and a half I would be pounding those two feet over and over again — approximately for 180,000 times. Each single one of those steps could be my last one. There are rocks, slants, holes, roots… anything can lead to a rolled ankle, a broken foot, or tripping down the cliff.

In fact we were less than 5 miles in and one of the participants a few steps ahead of me slid very badly when he stepped on a slanted rock. He fell off his feet, hit his left shoulder blade hard on the ground, and almost fell off the cliff. The impact sent his headlamp flying down the cliff. We helped him back on his feet and he had blood all over his left side but he was mostly affected for having lost his headlamp. He marched forward bravely despite the addition of new challenges.

Lesson 3: Things will get shitty

My first bad low was around mile 19. It was hot and humid — just around 11AM. My stomach decided to not accept the food I was shoveling in. At that point, I had already conquered several climbs and had seen my team for the first time. Things should be good. I had almost 20% of the race down and the pace was great. But things were not good at all inside of me.

The course presented what seemed to me at the time as the steepest climb I’ve ever had to tackle. The little food I had managed to shovel down hardly stayed in. I slowed down to a crawling pace and felt literally like the very last runner in the race. So many people passed me at that point that I was the only one on the course for a really long time. All my friends were several minutes ahead of me.

I’ve been there before and it’s definitely one of the things distance runners learn to deal with during training. You question everything. Everything sucks. Your brain gets so upset at you that it will make you suffer beyond reason.

I’m happy I fought my way through that low. It wasn’t the only one.

Lesson 4: It’s Ok

After that climb I totally lost track of time. Something kicked in and those next hours were the best hours of the race. I was totally by myself for hours and hours — not a single soul around. The trail was beyond gorgeous. I kept thinking about art — particularly how art could never capture the beauty I was experiencing. There was a stream for miles on end by the course; a mild fog just hanging above it; its delicious, refreshing, cold water — yes, I did go into the stream a few times and those moments were truly memorable.

It rained at some point. It was a torrential rain but the forest gave me shelter from the worst of it. There were sun rays hitting the stream coming through the rainy clouds and the foliage in what I can only describe as the most beautiful shekinah I’ve ever seen.

When the next fueling cycle came I was elated. I didn’t feel disconnected or didn’t feel any need in any way. On the contrary, I felt enormous peace. I felt in total sync with the universe. My preferred mantra at that point was a simple and empathic “It’s Ok.”

Lesson 5: Your team is your universe

Dusk was approaching fast and then a different challenge would start: fighting through darkness and sleep deprivation. It was also the part that my amazing pacers started joining me — not only to keep me on pace but mostly safe.

The first pacer up was my son. He’s a great trail runner but this was his first pacing experience as well as the first time running at night. He was a real hero. At one point the trail narrowed down and slanted heavily. It was dark and I was starting to fall asleep. The ground gave up on me but most probably I misstepped — I went sliding down the cliff. My son reacted fast and caught me before I was too far. My right knee had hit the ground and a few logs on the way down. When I was up on my feet we noticed the knee was bleeding but somewhat functional so we kept moving forward.

My crew was out of this world. They were impeccable in everything: moral support, strategic advices, kept me fed, safe and moving forward all the time. I had food shoveled into my face so many times. I remember each one of them dearly. When my feet were all banged up and I needed a quick patch, my crew attacked them like there was not tomorrow. There was no way I could have made it without my team. They saw me in bursts of 2 to 12 minutes every 4 to 6 hours in the most bizarre locations in the middle of the woods — but seeing them was the single most important thing my soul needed.

My second pacer came in and my brain virtually shut down. It’s hard to describe the amount of trust you put on your pacer at that stage. I couldn’t think straight; I was barely keeping myself awake; my whole body had stopped working as normal several hours prior. I didn’t know what time it was or which mile we were in. Most of the time I just wanted to take a nap.

That was the part I had been mentally training for: how to stay awake despite the sleep deprivation and body exhaustion. I had a whole caffeine intake strategy; I had trained in those conditions; I had done hours and hours of visualization but ultimately, what really made a difference, was having a superb pacer by my side. He navigated me, kept pace, made sure I was safe, talked to me, controlled my food and water intake and, above all, knew what was happening and how to react to adversity.

Lesson 6: It’s never over until it’s over

I was one of the last runners to cross the second to last checkpoint. I was tired beyond description. We were 5 minutes short of the cutoff time and I swear I tried but I couldn’t make the math if this was good or bad. I trusted my team once again. They told me it was possible but I would have to work hard. “Work hard?” I had been racing for almost 100 miles already! I needed a nap. But the race was not over.

In fact Eastern States has the most epic finale of any race I’ve ever raced. The course is 102.9 miles so, the moment you cross 100 miles there are of course 2.9 more miles to go. The elevation profile shows a downhill which should be welcome at that point. However, it turns out that downhill is both super technical while also infested by rattlesnakes!

My pacer at that point was my lovely wife. She kept pointing to where the rattlesnakes were and I honestly couldn’t see them. It was so hard to see anything. I did hear their rattles though and that didn’t make me comfortable at all. The technical climb down required a lot of arm movements and I thought I would be touching a snake at every single arm swing.

Those last 2.9 miles were tough. In my heart the challenge was already over long before but it was not. It’s never over until it’s officially over.