Today is Thursday October 15th. It’s been four days since I finished the Oil Creek 100 Ultra Marathon to support the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the fight against cancer…here’s my story…
Friday morning, October 9th: I finish running last minute errands and load up the car with all of the gear I’ll need for the race. There’s a lot of stuff. I wonder if I’m packing too much. There has been constant rain in Titusville for the last couple of days so I know it’s going to be wet and cold. I’m probably going to be running in the rain for the first portion of the race and most definitely running in the mud. I have extra shirts, shorts, running pants, socks, shoes, everything. I’ve packed power bars and gels, flashlights, hand warmers, gloves, hats, and the kitchen sink. There’s a lot and it’s heavy. I didn’t think about the heavy part.
I’m so excited that race day is almost here that I rush to get the car loaded. I’m anxious to get on the road and I haul everything out to the car and toss it into the trunk. As I’m doing so, I toss out my back. Uh oh! This is not good. It’s not a bad sprain…I’m still able to move fairly well. I just can’t do much heavy lifting or leaning. If I do, my back caves in and sometimes my legs give out. Not good. It’s happened before so I know how to deal with it but it’s not good. For a split second, I think about calling everyone and telling them I can’t run….then I get in the car and start driving over to Rachel’s. She’s volunteered to drive me to the race and back since I probably won’t be much good for driving after the race. I love her for that!
I try not to think about my back. I’m just thinking about the race. It’s going to be a long weekend. It’s going to be tough and miserable in the rain and the cold and the mud but I’ll get it done. I have to focus. Rachel and friends Monica and Kevin are going to be there. My brother John is coming. Friend Jim is running the 50 miler so he’ll be out there with me. Jim and I have lots of help and we’ll both get it done. My back will be fine.
The 4 hour drive over to Titusville is pretty uneventful. We caravan with Jim and only take a couple of wrong turns. No problem. We have plenty of time to get to the Titusville Middle School, TMS, where the race headquarters is located and is also the start and finish location. The drive is scenic. Maybe, it’s too scenic. The leaves are turning colors which are beautiful but all these trees are located on some ever taller growing hills. Hmmm…did I do enough hill work? I’m not so sure. Doesn’t matter…We arrive at the middle school around 5:30 p.m. and there are a lot of people already there. They look like trail runners, lean, rugged, ready for anything kind of people. Many of them have on their trail shoes and running clothes and look as if they could start running at any time. I wish we could start now and not have to wait for the 5 a.m. start. I imagined they were wishing the same thing. I’m waiting for John. He called and is close by now. I can’t wait to see him. I haven’t seen him since March.
John is going to pace me on the third of three 31 mile loops and I know I’m going to need his help. The weather and the hills have me worried. I tell everyone that as long as I can get through the first two loops, John will get me through the third loop. That will get me to 93 miles and then there is a 7 mile finishing loop which John or Rachel can get me through if they are up to it. John might be tired and not be able to go and Rachel has an IT injury she’s been nursing. If either of them can’t pace me for the 7 miler, that’s ok, I know I can get that on adrenaline alone.
John arrives during the pre-race report. I go over to greet him and give him a hug. I’m relieved he’s there…I realize the race has me more worried than I thought. We chat for a while. He says I’ve lost weight since last we saw each other. I say yep, ultra marathon training has taken 10 pounds off …the ultra marathon diet! He notices I’m walking bent over…yep, bad back…We go and sit and listen to a couple of local vip’s and dignitaries, have our spaghetti dinner, and talk some more. It’s great talking to John and Rachel and Jim and a couple of other runners. Monica and Kevin are still on their way.
Eventually, we head for the hotel and try to get to bed early. Sleep is intermittent until the alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. We head for the race around 4:15 a.m. The 100 milers start at 5:00 a.m. and the 50 milers start at 6:00 a.m. We arrive with a few minutes to spare. It’s almost race time. I drop off my “drop bags” which holds all of my extra gear. One drop bag will be here at the start which is the top of the loop and the other will be at the turn-around point or aid station 2 which is also the bottom of the loop. There are 4 aid stations in all with food and water and 4 in between those which just have water. It seems there’s plenty of support along the course. Don’t really know that for sure as this is my first ultra marathon but it seems to be reasonable. The race start gets close. I give everyone a hug and join the rest of the 85 or so runners at the start line. I’m not sure everyone showed up because of the heavy rain or whatever but it looks like most are there.
At 5:00 a.m. they send us off. It’s still dark out so we all have our headlamps and visor lights and flashlights on. We run into the darkness. At least they did. I pretty much walked it. Trying to run is not good…my back is stiff. I’m hoping it eases up as I get warmed up. It has to. It’s happened before and it needed to happen this time. I keep walking…try jogging here and there. My back starts to loosen up. I’m in last place. Hmmmm…never been in last place before. Here I am in the longest race of my life for a great cause, and I’m in last place. Interesting… I keep on moving.
The trail is easy here. It’s paved path into the Oil Creek State Park. Then we turn off onto the real trail. We immediately start climbing. Everything is wet…muddy…rocky…and rooty. Mud, rocks and roots are everywhere! I think….shit…this is going to suck. I keep climbing hoping I can catch up to someone. I try to run…I hit more mud, rocks and roots…there’s no running here. Where’s the running? I can hardly see anything even with my three lights. It’s pitch black out here. No street lights, no moon light, no nothing. Just rocks and mud and roots and darkness. It’s surreal.
I trip and fall and wrench my back. I get up and curse the root I tripped on. I keep moving. Up ahead I see some lights of other runners, hear their voices. Can’t tell how close they are. Not even sure how to get to them as I can only see trail that’s maybe 5-6 feet in front of me. I keep moving, sloshing though the mud, stepping gingerly over the rocks and roots. Trying to keep my balance. I notice the trail get narrower. On one side is the hill rising up and to my right. On the other side is a drop off into the darkness. It looks like a long drop and I don’t handle heights well. I think…shit…I slow down, I trip and catch myself again. Luckily I fall forward and not to the left. I get up. I keep moving. Eventually, I trip again. It takes me 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to the first aid station…just over 7 miles…I’ve fallen four times. This is one tough course! I never imagined it would be like this.
Early on in training, I thought 24 hours would be a good finishing time. I now realize, there’s no way I’ll make that. The trail is rough. I keep tripping. It was extremely slow going in the dark and the entire third loop will be in the dark as well. I’ve only run one quarter of a loop so far. On top of all that, my quads are already burning. The hills are tough. I realize I didn’t do enough hill training not that there are any hills in northwest Ohio that compare because there aren’t! I’m not having much fun and a bit discouraged.
Coming off the trail near aid station two, I hit a section of road and cross over a bridge. I’m thinking I’m already dog tired, wet, cold and hungry. Three and a half hours on this trail so far has really sucked. Then, I hear screams! It’s Rachel and Monica and Kevin and John all waiting for me, cheering me on. As I continue around the path into the aid station I see a sign. It has the names of my mom, Karen Landis and Herb, and other Honorees, all waiting for me. I reach out to touch it as I pass. I have tears in my eyes as I now remember why I am here. The rocks and roots and the mud and the sore back and the hills don’t matter. I came here to run for 105 Honorees and that was what I was going to do.
The time didn’t matter. I just needed to finish. If I can get through the first two loops, John will help me get through the third then there’s just the 7 mile finishing leg and I’ll be done. Just two loops is all I need to concentrate on. So, I push on. I say goodbye to my friends and John and I head back to the trail. It was 14 miles to get here, 17 miles back to the start. I can do this now. I feel good and I can do this. I focus.
I start watching where and how I place my feet. No more tripping. No more complaining. Just keep it steady and keep it moving. The day warms with the sun now overhead. I hit the next aid station passing a couple of runners along the way. I’m feeling good. There’s Rachel and John and Kevin and Monica again! They posted another sign along the road. It’s awesome. I get even more energized and after a banana and some soup at the aid station I head back to the trail. Someone tells me to go back up the road to a set of stairs leading into the brush. They call it the “stairway to heaven.” I quickly learn why…the trail pretty much goes straight up! I keep climbing for what seems like forever. I climb and I climb. I wonder how much of this leg is straight up…
7.5 hours after starting, I hit Titusville Middle School, TMS, the end of this 31 mile loop. It’s been a long morning. My support crew is there cheering me on. I’ve been looking forward to seeing them. I need recharging! They talk to me and help me change my shirt, my socks, and get me some soup and bananas. They help me think. .. 31 miles of trail and my brain is starting to turn to mush already. They are encouraging and helpful and exactly what I needed. After 10 minutes or so at the aid station, I am ready to head back out. I give everyone a hug and go for it. They cheer some more. I love it. I’m feeling good. One more loop, will get me to 62 miles, farther than I’ve ever run before, and I know that John will help me get through the rest! I can do this.
I start the second loop in the day light. It’s awesome. I realize I can see where I’m going and the scenery is beautiful! The mountains are awesome. There are trees everywhere not just rocks and roots and mud. I can hear birds singing. I love it. I don’t recognize the trail since the start of the first loop was in the dark. That’s ok though. I’m hoping this time I’ll be able to go faster since I’m running in the day light. It doesn’t turn out that way. I cross a small wooden walkway and my feet fly out from under me! I land on my hip and it hurts! Hurts bad! I get up and curse again for falling and then I keep going. It’s the last time I fall but it still takes me 1:45 to get to the first aid station. I keep worrying about falling. I know I’m getting tired but that’s ok. I keep moving. My back has eased up. I don’t get as many twinges and if I hold it just right, it’s fine, it’s manageable. I pass a few more runners. I tell myself I love it.
Aid station two, the turn-around is next. My crew is there again, reliable and so dedicated to helping me get through this. They’re awesome! They help me with my lights and warn me about the night coming. It’s supposed to get cold when the sun goes down. It doesn’t look like I’ll make the end of this loop before sunset so I need to be ready. They fill my water bottle, get me some soup, help me into warmer clothes and make sure my lights are working. I get moving again as they cheer me on back to the trail. Rachel and Monica cheer and yell until they can’t see me anymore. I love them for that. I love all of them for being there for me. They keep me going and energized all the way back to TMS. They aren’t at the next aid station but that’s ok. I know John should be getting some sleep right about now and the rest of them should be looking for Jim at TMS as he finishes his 50 miler. Then I’ll be coming in right behind him and finishing my second loop.
The stairway to heaven is a little tougher this time around as the sun goes down. On go the flashlights. Running in the dark is still weird but not so bad this time. At the start it was so new I didn’t know how to process it. Now though, I’ve had time to think about it. It’s dark and lonely. You can’t see outside of your light range, maybe 5-6 feet is usable light and beyond that there is some visibility but it’s hazy. Your depth perception is all screwed up. What you think is far away ends up being just feet away. The dark is weird and it messes with your head. I focus on the light and the ground directly in front of me. I watch where I step, every step. I run. It’s quiet. All I hear are my footsteps and my breathing. I’m breathing hard, working hard, trying to make good time. I can’t tell my pace as there are no reference points. Nothing visible other than what’s right in front of me so no way to gauge…it’s dark out here.
I see a light up ahead, the first in a couple of hours, at least. As I get close, I call out, “How are you doing?” The runner turns towards me and his lights blind me for a second. Then he calls out, “Ernie, just the man I wanted to see!” I thought, “What?” then I realize it’s Jim! I can’t believe it. I didn’t think I would see him on the trail as we were running slightly different courses and had different starting times but here he was. It’s awesome to see someone on the trail when you are running in the dark like this but to catch up to a friend is a wonderful thing. We stayed together the rest of the way in to TMS. It was great. We talked a bit, vented about the difficulty of the trail and running in the dark. It was good to run with a friend again after so many miles on my own.
As we neared TMS, our support crew saw us coming in together and cheered with all they had! Rachel was jumping for joy. Everyone was yelling as they saw both Jim and I coming in together. It felt great. Jim was finishing his 50 miler and that made him an ultra marathoner! It was a milestone for him and we were so happy for him. I was finishing my second loop, another 31 miles, in 8.5 hours and that felt great. I knew I had just one more loop and John was going to help me through that and I knew the final 7 was a given. I was feeling good. Rachel asked me how I was doing. I said, “Good!” and she seemed surprised for a second then she told me about how many of the runners had been dropping out, maybe 20 in all. It was too hard, too cold, not worth it they said. I wasn’t surprised as this was one tough race and the coming night and the cold weren’t very appealing. I didn’t want to run another loop either but I had no choice. I had a mission to finish and I could see John was ready to go. He was dressed warm, had his lights on, and was full of energy. I knew that energy would pull me through the next 31 miles. Did I really say that? 31 miles!? OMG!
I fueled up with hot soup from Monica, Gatorade, and power bars from someone else. Rachel helped me find some warmer clothes and dry socks. Kevin helped me change the batteries in my flashlight. I gave everyone a hug and congratulated Jim for a job well done. Then John and I headed out. On the way I thought about the miles to come. I was tired and sore and getting cold. I didn’t want to go but I had to. So I concentrated on talking to John about how I needed him to pace me. Nice and steady to get back in time to finish the last 7 before the cut-off time of 32 hours. It sounded good. A little over ten hours and that would leave plenty of time for the finish. We had a plan by the time we got back to the trail. I warned him of how tough the trail was but soon realized I didn’t need to.
John took to the trail like a mountain man. He stepped lightly and nimbly around and on the rocks and roots and mud and had an energy level I envied. He took the lead and navigated the trail and all I had to do was follow. It felt great to just let him lead. All I had to do was keep up. It was all I had to do but even that got hard! I had stayed at the aid station too long…muscles had gotten cold. The temperature had dropped to 30-32 degrees and that didn’t help. We could see our breath and my glasses kept fogging up. It got to be slow going into the third loop. John kept pulling away from me too. That was annoying. I kept thinking he was supposed to be pacing me but he kept leaving me behind…what’s with that? I called out to him to slow down a couple of times and finally he did. Sheesh! What I didn’t realize was that I wasn’t eating enough and I was getting cold. I was running out of gas. My blood sugar was getting low and I was tired and cranky. Slowing down made it worse.
By the time we got to the turn-around point, we were behind schedule. I had nearly dozed off while running and at one point I seriously considered lying down on the trail and taking a nap! This was not good. At the aid station I asked for coffee and guzzled it. I ate a power bar and a banana and some more soup. I told Rachel about our falling behind schedule and she tried to reassure me. I just needed to run for my Honorees. Kevin changed the batteries in one of my flashlights that had been getting dim. I could see again. Somewhere in there, Rachel said, “Look who’s here!” I looked around and there was our friend Dayna! She had come late but she had come all the way to Titusville to support Jim and me. That was way cool but I was a bit brain dead and just asked her, “What are you doing here?” Which, as I look back, didn’t sound very nice but it was all I could do to focus on what I needed to do to get running again. Still, she jumped right in and asked me what I needed. She had a look of concern on her face that I realized everybody had had all along. They were all worried about us and that was touching. I didn’t know what to say.
The coffee hit the spot and I started to feel a sense of urgency again and get back some confidence. Dayna was here and everyone was rooting for us. I could do this. John was still strong and seemed to be having fun! On the trail, he kept asking, “Who dreams up races like this?!” “Who thinks up this stuff?” He was amazed at how gnarly the trail was but he seemed to be handling it just fine. He was funny as well as a natural runner and I was glad he was here to pace me, my big brother!
We hit the trail again and headed for the next aid station and the stairway to heaven. We started to hustle and I started to wake up and feel better. We made good progress. John kept talking to me. Every once in a while he would say, “You know, you’ll never have to come this way again!” followed with a “I can’t believe you’re doing this loop 3 times Ern’!” and he would laugh and that would get me to laugh. We got to the stairway and hustled up the steep inclines. I was dog tired but it seemed much easier this time around. We kept moving but with about 6 more miles to go to TMS, I started to hit the wall. I was running out of gas again. I ate some more power bars and gels. We kept moving. I checked my watch and tried to figure our time. I wasn’t sure but it seemed like we would make it with plenty of time for the 7 mile finishing loop. I kept checking my watch. I knew I had to make this. There was no stopping! I so wanted to stop. I just followed John.
Finally, we came to the path leading back to TMS and the end of the third loop. It was a small relief. Just this last mile or so back to the school and then there’s just the 7 mile finishing loop. No problem…but I was running out of gas. John encouraged me to run it in, but I couldn’t. I just walked now. My feet hurt. My ankles and my knees hurt. Even my head hurt where I ran into a tree branch in the middle of the night but I kept moving. We were going to get this. There were several other runners heading back out for their finishing loop and I wanted to catch them so bad…the little bit of competitive nature I have. With a couple hundred or so feet to go I got moving and was able to jog it in. Everyone was cheering!
Blisters! The blisters showed up on the bottom of my right foot about 15 miles ago. I could feel them there and feel them getting bigger. It was weird because I haven’t had a problem with blisters all year and these were on the ball of my foot where a large callous was supposed to be. I knew that was not good. When I got to TMS, I got a needle out of my drop bag. I was going to pop these blisters and get going on this final lap but when I looked at the bottom of my feet I realized the blisters were under my callous. This was not good. I couldn’t get to the blisters to pop them. I tried for what must have been 10 minutes and just got frustrated and gave up. I put my shoes back on and got ready to head back out. I find out Rachel’s IT injury is acting up. She can’t pace me. It nearly breaks her heart and mine.
Monica volunteers to pace me. I’m not so sure she can as I don’t think she’s run trails like this before she’s been training for a marathon of her own. She did admirably… she took to the trail just as easily as John. I was worried she would trip and fall and that would have been bad because she’s running the San Francisco Marathon next weekend for LLS. The ground was dryer now and the rocks and roots were less slippery so maybe that helped but she did great. I took the lead and had her follow me for the first half. I was energized now. Damn the blisters and the sore ankles and knees and the sore back. I had this 100 miles! I had it, but half-way through I was tired again. I was exhausted. I wanted to fall down. So I backed off and asked Monica to lead the way. I needed to just follow again. She got right into it and kept me moving. She had all that energy that John had and I wished I had some of. I just kept following. It was all I could do. After about 2.5 hours and 6 miles, more roots and rocks and mud and freakin’ hills!!!, we finally hit the paved path again…about 1 mile to go!
Just like John, Monica encouraged me to run it in. I said I’ve got nothing left. She said that’s ok, whatever you need. I kind of liked that and didn’t like that at the same time. Then I saw another runner up ahead. He looked back and saw me at the same time and started running. I knew I could catch him so I started running again too. I got about 50 yards and was out of gas again. I walked. I told Monica, in a near whisper, that I could catch that guy. She encouraged me to do just that. I got to running again and went a little farther this time before crapping out. The guy in front crapped out too. I was encouraged so I ran some more. Eventually I caught him and passed him and I saw two others up ahead. I was going to catch them too. I had to push it. Somewhere along the way, Monica started to call out the names of some of my Honorees and reminded me of why I was here. It woke me up. I choked up, started to cry but held it back, instead I started to move my feet! I passed up the other two runners! I was running now, really running except my back wasn’t working right anymore. I realized I was bent over to the right and couldn’t straighten up. I knew I looked funny as hell running crooked! I couldn’t help it. I kept running anyways. I wanted to finish strong!
The crew saw us coming around the corner. Kevin was cheering and John and Dayna started running with us. Rachel was cheering as she ran for the finish line to be waiting for me there. I moved my feet as fast as I could. The finish line got closer slowly but surely. It seemed so far away. I saw the clock as I finally crossed the finish line in 30 hours 17 minutes and some seconds. I was done! I was done! Everyone was cheering for me. I had done it. I had run 100 miles! I hugged and kissed Rachel and hugged Dayna and Monica and Kevin and John and felt so great and so exhausted! The race director handed me the finisher’s belt buckle. It was awesome! It felt so good to be done. It felt so good. I wanted to lay down right there.
Four days ago, with the help of the best support crew a runner could ever have, I ran the Oil Creek 100 Ultra Marathon, for 105 Honorees and raised $5,648 for LLS and cancer research. That was the important part. Miscellaneous info…my feet have swelled up a bit. My back is sore. I’m exhausted. Out of 86 registered, 48 runners finished and I placed 31st…I did it…but it hasn’t quite sunk in yet…