100 miles to feel alive – Tunnel Hill 100

On November 10th, 2018 I spent much of the day with a smile on my face.  The weather was cold, much colder than a normal early November weekend, even for Illinois.  As a Wisconsin girl, the cold didn’t scare me. The number of miles didn’t scare me and the amount of time I’d be running didn’t scare me. In fact, that day, nothing scared me.  In the weeks leading up to the race I struggled with some hip pain, but even that didn’t scare me.  I knew that this race would bring light into a dark time and make me feel alive.  In the days leading up to the race I was almost giddy. Running is great, but ultra marathons are my thing. This day would bring more joy than pain into my life and I was looking forward to the entire day, a day where I could again feel alive.

 

Even though I was excited to run at Tunnel Hill, I struggled to find my ‘Why’ for the weeks and months before the race.  I signed up right when I found out a few friends would be running other distances. To be honest, I couldn’t figure out my why until I started writing this.  Out of nowhere, it hit me.

 

I’ve been back to work for 2 weeks, after 2 weeks off.  I’m back to the daily grind and days that are the same, one right after another.  I’m back to the daily struggles with a preteen girl, house chores, laundry, dinner, and my commute to and from work, relationships with family, friends and the man closest to me… and through all of this, I’m numb. I keep going back to the time on the trails at Tunnel Hill.  I recall the feeling, the cold, the stars, the darkness, the pain toward the end, the endless smiles from my crew, all of it.  It was my favorite day ever… and now, I’m here, wishing I felt as alive as I did weeks ago. Needless to say, I found my ‘Why’.  Why do I run 100 miles? Why do I run distances that most people hate driving?

 

To feel alive of course.

 

Tunnel Hill is a flat and fast course that draws all kinds of runners, from course record setters and WORLD record setters, to first timers, runners aiming to break 20 or 24 hours in the 100 miler, and even runners that just want to set a new PR for the distance.  Tunnel Hill has an ideal course and logistic set up for each of those goals.

 

The race begins at the City Park in Vienna, Illinois which seems like it’s in the middle of no-where. Runners head south on the Tunnel Hill State Trail to the Wetlands Center at 13.25 miles before heading back to the start/finish for 25 miles.  The course then heads North to the Northern turn around. At 11.75 miles runners turn back to City Park in Vienna for a total of 50 miles only to start all over again (for the 100 milers).

 

Tunnel Hill offers a couple distance options; the 50 and 100 milers start on Saturday morning. There is an additional marathon option that starts Sunday morning. Both the 100 and 50 mile options have a 30 hour cut off time which is pretty generous for such a flat course.

 

As with most races, I checked the weather predictions for Vienna Illinois for 10 days before the race.  At first, the predicted temperature and weather conditions seemed promising, but with every passing day it seemed that the expected temperature dropped. When I first signed up for the race, I assumed that the weather would be almost ideal for racing especially since Vienna is more than 400 miles south. I was so wrong and when it comes to weather, I usually am. The temperatures were expected to reach highs in the 30s but feel like 20’s for most of the day. The night time gave me the most worry.

 

At first I wasn’t concerned because I’ve run ultras in colder temperatures on snow covered trails. However, I’ve never run farther than 50 miles in those conditions. I knew that whatever happened, I’d have to keep moving in order to keep warm. Stopping could end my run. I also struggled with finding the right clothing to get me through the cold during the early morning, a slight warm up in the afternoon and dropping temperatures for my run through the night. This uneasiness had me scrambling to a Dick’s Sporting Goods the night before the race for an extra layer… just in case.

Andrew and I stayed in a hotel about 30 minutes from the start/finish. Because Vienna is a smaller city with a population of 1,434 people, there weren’t a lot of lodging options, however, larger cites were close by. Andrea and Will V. also had a room in the same hotel which was nice. Even though we didn’t spend a ton of time together before the race, it was great to know that I had friends nearby.

 

The night before the race I was oddly calm. I organized my gear days before, I had briefed Andrew and Andrea about what I needed and when I would need it. I even slept well, as if the next morning was just another day.

 

The start/finish line was buzzing with runners, a LOT of runners.  I later found out there were 740 runners tackling the 100 and 50 miler. WOW! I had planned to meet Will V. and Ben at the starting line. Will V. was running his first 50 miler and Ben was looking for redemption at the 100 mile distance.  Finding them proved to be impossible. Spotting them would be like spotting them in a ‘Where’s Waldo’ book, while everyone in the book was moving. Eventually I gave up and fell into the huge group of runners.

 

The group was so large and the starting line was so loosely organized that I honestly wasn’t even sure which direction we needed to go. Eventually, it turned into a ‘follow the leader’ type thing. Soon, everyone started moving and the herd of runners did one lap around the parking lot and made their way to the trail. I wasn’t even sure where to start my watch, which was a little weird but hey, it’s 100 miles, who really cares where I start my watch?

 

Pacing for 100 miles is tough!  Pacing for 100 FLAT miles is just as tough and takes a lot of control. My normal flat pace is usually a bit faster than what I planned to run for the race.  It took a lot of discipline to hold back when I felt so ready. I planned to hold between a 9:00 and 9:45 pace. I know that’s a wide range, but I didn’t want to drive myself crazy worrying about numbers all day and all night. I also knew that no matter how easy I went out, I would inevitably slow down. For the first time in a long time, I went out super easy and it worked out well.

 

The first few miles I weaved in and out of people who were moving very slowly. I got stuck in the middle back of the pack which is fine, but a lot of these people were run/walking or running much slower than I had planned for the day. While I welcomed the easier start, I had to get to a place where I felt comfortable running. I did my best to pass the masses of runners to a place that I could comfortably run that was around my goal.

 

Eventually I ran into Will V. and Ben.  I was in the process of passing Will, when he looked over and said “HEYYYYY!” He told me my friend Ben was up ahead just a ways.  Ben looked back and saw us so he slowed down and we ran together chatting along.  The conversation was a great distraction. We laughed, joked, talked and ran. I really could not wipe the smiles off my face, this was for sure my place.

 

We saw Andrew and Andrea for the first time at the Karnak aid station at mile 10.9 ran past and headed out to the turn around at the Wildlife center and back to again to Karnack. I stopped the second time at Karnak to take in some fuel and switch out my bottles.  I chatted with Andrea and Andrew a bit before heading out.  Will V. and Ben had headed out before me but they slowed for me so that we could run together. We ran together til around mile 18 when Will V. and Ben slowed a bit while I was able to stay on pace.  The rest of the day I’d be by myself until I could pick up a pacer.

 

Both Andrew and Andrea had planned to meet us at 3 different spots on the course. Each out and back section had an aid station a few miles before the turn around, as a result I was able to see my crew twice in a fairly short time period. The sections from those aid stations were the longest, between 10 and 11 miles.  Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem but during an ultra marathon, a lot can happen in the span of 10 miles.

 

I did worry about being warm enough. The cold of the morning meant I had to dress in an extra layer. I feared that my body would sweat and my clothes would be damp from the afternoon, and freeze once night fell. In the afternoon I took off my jacket and asked Andrew to dry it off on the car vents so that when night did fall my jacket would be dry again. I quickly regretted that decision but ran 10 chilly miles before getting back into my jacket.

 

I spent much of the day focusing on mindfulness and as a result time seemed to fly by. I’d focus on the leaves falling from trees, the pattern they made on the ground, the noises of the trees, the noises that my feet made when they hit the ground and the crunch of the leaves as I ran. I listened for bird calls, and other animals, I hyper focused on current sensations and got completely outside of myself.

 

The Southern section of the course was marshy and because of recent flooding there was a a lot of water surrounding long portions of the Trail.  I was honestly a little bored of this part of the trail, in contrast, as we headed North I was pleasantly surprised. The trail travels over the Breeden Trestle which stands and impressive 90 feet above the ground and is 450 feet long, through rock formations, and finally Tunnel Hill. Originally, the Tunnel was 800 feet long, however, a portion of the tunnel collapsed in 1929 and currently stretches 543 feet. At first I wasn’t super impressed by the stories of the tunnel. It’s really something you have to experience to fully appreciate.  At first glimpse the Tunnel doesn’t look exceptionally long, however once you get about half way into the tunnel you travel into complete darkness. IT. IS. CRAZY. In a way, you loose the perception of your body in space. I wasn’t sure if I was going to trip, run into the wall or even another runner.  Running through the Tunnel for the first time left me giddy and exhilarated, and just plain giggly and I couldn’t wait to share that experience with Andrea.

 

 

I reached mile 50 after 8 hours and 13 minutes. My pace was consistently within my goal, but the hard part had just begun. For me, the race began at mile 50. I had seen Will V. and Ben on the course but they were a bit behind me. At mile 50 Will would be finished with his race, and Ben would continue.

 

Leaving the half way point, I felt a little disappointed and lonely.  A lot of the runners on the course would be finishing, and my friends would be hanging out together celebrating Will’s victory.  It was my turn to struggle in the dark, alone.

 

There was still some light on the horizon when I left the 50 mile aid station, but soon, I realized I should have grabbed a headlamp. I had nearly 10 miles until I’d see my crew again, and the light was rapidly fading. By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late. I would have to run this portion in fading light and possibly complete darkness depending on my pace. Instead of focusing on this little problem, I decided it was cool as hell to run on a trail in complete darkness with 50 miles on my legs. Who else would have that story to tell?

 

The trail was much quieter this time around. On my way out the the Wetlands Center turn around I started to see some of the faster 100 miler’s fly by, including Zach Bitter who would run a new world record for the 100 mile trail distance. The first time I saw him on the trail, I reached out for a high five, I got one, that nearly knocked me off my feet, he continued on without missing a step.

 

Shortly after mile 50, I started to really feel the pain in my hip that I had been struggling with for the past month. My pace slowed from 9:30 to 10:00, then 12:00 and so on. My running began to fall to a slow grind. A slow grind that would last for rest of my race. Mentally, I was prepared for this, in fact, I planned for this.  I decided weeks ago that if I got to a point where I couldn’t run, I’d run/walk, and if I couldn’t do that I’d walk.  This was always the plan, and I knew that it would happen at some point… and the point had come.

 

The cool thing about this course is the out and back sections. Throughout most of the day I was able to see runners on the course going the opposite directions. After getting past 50 miles that happened less and less. When another runner would pass, we’d usually exchange words of encouragement with a “Great Job!” or “Nice Work, Keep it up!” After 50 I started to get tired, so my words of encouragement were less enthusiastic until a new face ran by. In the distance I saw a woman approaching at a run but she wasn’t wearing a number.  Her hair was waving free as she ran.  The lighting backlit her blonde hair making her look as if she were glowing and her hair were ablaze. She offered a “GREAT JOB!” and clapped as she went by.  For whatever reason, it took me a moment to realize who she was.  As I passed her, I quickly threw my head around and shouted “ARE YOU CAMILLE HERRON!?!?” She shouted back “YES!” as we both continued on our own way.

 

That moment energized me. Camille Herron had cheered ME on?! She is every bit amazing as her accomplishments. Seeing her run in person is absolutely inspiring. She glides along the trail, her hair waves in the wind, and the smile on her face never leaves. That one short interaction got me to mile 60 with a newfound energy.

 

As I reached mile 60 I had realized that I’d been running all day and hadn’t stopped to pee since early that morning despite an entire day of drinking. Nutrition wise I had been right on track. I hadn’t suffered from cramping, low energy, or any GI distress. I told Andrew about my concerns before I headed to the Wetlands center turn around.  By the time I got back to him at mile 65 I finally had the urge to go. I headed into a port-o-john to realize that my pee was dark brown like coffee.  I was confused. I felt great, had no cramping, I was keeping food and fluids down without nausea, my energy was good, so something wasn’t right.

 

Nutrition wise, I had been drinking most of my calories with Hammer Perpetuem and Hammer Heed. I’d take in real food when I’d see my crew. My race day nutrition included bags of chips, pickles and olives. I also always had peanut butter packets with me in case I needed quick calories when I was away from my crew.  I thought that maybe the chocolate Hammer Perpetuem had turned my pee brown. Since I didn’t have any other symptoms to be worried about, I decided to focus on drinking more water.

 

My OTHER friend Will O.  had come to crew for Ben, who ended up dropping at mile 50. Will O. offered to pace me from mile 65 to mile 76 when I would pick up Andrea to run the last 24 miles with me. Running with Will was great. I was starting to tire and slow down, so having him with me as a distraction was helpful.  Without him even knowing it, he pushed me along.  I didn’t want to show weakness in front of him and I felt bad making him walk with me, but that’s the nature of the 100 miler. We chatted and looked at the stars. I almost forgot we were on a mission to run 100 miles. I was just enjoying the company.

 

I finally reached mile 76 and it was time to pick up Andrea. The amount of time that I spent at the aid stations became longer and longer. Because I was stopping more I had to warm up.  My crew would get me to a warming tent, wrap me in blankets, and bring me whatever warm food they could. Andrew gave me more hand warmers and an extra layer. I didn’t bring an extra bottom layer that wasn’t a running tight so Ben offered a pair of warm pants to go over my tights and Will gave me two extra pair of gloves.  My crew put me together, got me warm, fed me and pushed me back onto the trails.

I had been looking forward to running with Andrea most of the day. I couldn’t wait to hear about her day, Will’s finish, and what she and Andrew talked about during the hours they spent together waiting for Will and I. I couldn’t wait to share the trail with her, the tunnel, the trestle, the darkness, and the suffering. I was able to run/walk for the first 10 or so miles. My breathing was labored at this point. Even a slog (slow jog) left me out of breath as if I were running a 7 minute mile. My hip pain had increased to a level that I could only manage for a short time. When we reached Breeden Trestle I told Andrea we had to turn off our headlamps. We got to the middle and gazed at the stars.  The sky was clear, but there was no moon, and the stars dazzled above our heads. It was absolutely breathtaking. When we reached the tunnel I was amazed at the darkness and how dizzying it was.

 

We had been doing more walking than running and by the time we reached mile 85 I started to get colder and colder. Will O. wrapped me in his sleeping bag and I sat near a campfire for warmth.  Andrew continued to feed and water me. Someone gave me a warm cup of coffee, a member of another crew rubbed my shoulders, I was warm, happy and ready to get this thing done.

 

Andrea and I continued to try a run/walk routine but my hip was falling apart. Interestingly, my mood was not affected. I was as happy as I could be. I was also peeing again, which was great but when I had the urge to pee, I had to stop right away, because I couldn’t hold it. If I didn’t stop and and squat instantly, I would have peed myself. I had basically lost control of my bladder. In the last 10 miles I had to stop and pee just off the trail 3 times while Andrea guarded me from prying eyes. The last 6 miles I was forced to walk.  My hip pain was too much to push, but I wasn’t mad, upset, or disappointed. I had plenty of time to finish this.

 

Just before we hit mile 99 Andrea and I decided that we would run mile 99 for Joy, our friend who was on a journey to beat cancer.  We called it our Joy mile. Originally I wanted to run the last mile, the hardest mile for my friend, but I just couldn’t bear it. Mile 99 was still our Joy mile even if I couldn’t run. It was about the fight not about the speed. I fought for every mile and especially that mile.

 

At 4:10 AM on a cold Sunday Morning Andrea got me to the finish line. I ran 100 miles in 21 hours 8 minutes and 26 seconds. The finish line was quiet and deserted.  The only person to see me cross that line was Will O., Andrea, and the Race Director who approached me with a sub 24 Belt buckle, finishers jacket, and towel.  We stood for a moment wondering where Will and Andrew were and headed to the warming tent. I finally sat down near a heater and gazed at my new treasures. Moments later Andrew and Will V. joined us in the warming tent to congratulate me. They had been sleeping in their nearby cars. We spent some time talking about the events of the day before heading to a Waffle House for breakfast. I wrapped myself in Will O’s sleeping bag and hobbled to the car.

 

A few hours after crawling into bed I realized the extent of the damage that had been done to my body. The next morning I wasn’t able to put any weight on my right hip, I wasn’t able to move my right leg, parts of my body that I never knew were affected by running hurt, I felt destroyed. I spent the next morning crying and resting while Andrew did his best to pick me up and take care of me. He literally had to throw me over his shoulders and carry me into the house.

 

While I didn’t have a low point DURING my race, I experienced a lasting low point after the race.  I lost my mobility and independence for a short time but more importantly I lost my running.  While I’ve regained most of that mobility and independence I still have not regained my ability to run which has been the hardest part of this 100 mile race.  Running the miles alone could never break me as much as NOT being able to run has broken me for the last 7 weeks.

 

In the first few weeks after this race I vowed to NEVER do another 100 mile race again, but as the weeks go by that thought has been changing. Sure the after affect is difficult to handle, however the happiness I felt that day is worth every moment of suffering after.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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