(L-R) Ryan Jones, Matt Patrick, Marcus Grimm, Jon Obst, Tom Kingery, Benny Madrigal and Rhet Hulbert
Nearly two weeks ago, I found myself at a cocktail party for a business expo. It was a good event with a lot of local business people. The cocktail party was sort of a pre-game for the expo, which was starting the following day, but not for me.
Toward the end of the expo, I found myself in a conversation with three other people and learned that one of them was also a type 1 diabetic . She’d also had it 24 years, nearly as long as my own 28.
In the course of the conversation, she dropped one of those sentence “bombs,” as I call them – words that can derail the entire conversation or at the very least change the attitude of all the people who hear them.
“Let me tell you,” she said, mostly addressing the two non-diabetics in our foursome. “Diabetes is the worst.”
Admittedly, I have trouble with such declarations. On one hand, I can’t deny someone their own feelings, gained honestly after better than two decades with the same disease I have. But on the other hand, and I hear such things and I can’t help but think, “The worst?”
Friday morning, while my coworkers were already at the expo that I had avoided, I boarded a plane for Atlanta. Beside me on the plane was Ryan Jones, my teammate and one of the most accomplished type 1 diabetic ultra runners in the US.
While this was the third time Ryan and I had raced together, it was our first time to travel together, and I used the entire flight to grill him about his training and racing experiences.
We also discussed the race we were heading to, the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler. It would be my 3rd race of a distance this far, but on harder terrain than I’d ever been on before. Still, what none of us was exactly how much harder. We had all seen previous results and they were definitely slower than other races, but in the end, I don’t think any of us wanted to admit how much slower this course could be. With my own PR of 7:55 at 50 miles, I’d decided that 11 hours sounded about right. After all, that gave me a large cushion of more than 3 hours.
At the airport, we were joined by Matt Patrick and Tom Kingery, both of whom had signed up for the 50k. A second group consisting of 50 miler Jon Obst and half marathoners Benny Madrigal and Rhet Hulbert completed the men’s squad. Pro cyclist Morgan Patton would be on hand later in the weekend to also take on the half.
Finding a traditional pre-race spaghetti meal in Pine Mountain was impossible. Fortunately, finding a pleasant restaurant wasn’t, and a BBQ pork chop and sweet potato fries proved more than adequate for my pre race meal.
As most of our meals, this one was a blast; equal parts diabetes and running conversation, trash talk and random sports information. Running and diabetes are both such central aspects of all of our lives that the conversations come fast and free. But like before most races, it also led to an early bedtime. I was asleep just past nine to prepare for my 3am wake-up call.
Typical for the night before a race, I slept relatively well, in between startling every 90 minutes for fear I’d overslept. I dressed quickly and quietly since I was rooming with Matt, whose race started two hours later. Jon, Ryan and I made our way to the short shuttle ride that took us to the starting line.
Twenty minutes prior to the race, my blood sugar was 71. I ate a Clif Bar without insulin and made my way to the start.
Though I’m hardly the first to mention it, one of the coolest things about running is how the amateurs mingle, start and race with the most elite pros. I stood on the start line right beside Nicky Kimball and Hal Koerner, literally two of the giants in our sport. And by the looks of the others in the pack around me, I knew there were many others with resumes more impressive than my own.
Of course, the worst thing about a 5am start meant that when the horn blew, we headed directly into the woods in total darkness, aside from our own headlamps and glow sticks that were sprinkled about every 50 or so feet on the course. This was all compounded by the fact that the terrain itself was rocky, rooty and rolling single track, which would challenge our skills and sanity for the entire day.
There’s no easy way to say it: my lack of night running experience and my unwillingness to take chances so early in the race made the hours until sunrise frustrating ones for me. By and large, I found myself consistently passed during the first twelve miles of the day, and while I’d pass roughly 4 runners for every 1 who passed me in the final 11 hours, any hopes I’d harbored of finishing in the top 50 were long gone before the sun even came up. At one point, a park ranger warned us of the “big cliff” just off to our right and I had to will myself not to stare into the blackness that seemed to be just beyond where my feet were landing.
I was elated when I checked into the second aid station and was able to ditch my headlamp in one of the two drop bags I had prepared.
The course proved to be challenging for both the runner and diabetic in me. The constantly changing terrain and elevation meant my pace fluctuated greatly throughout the day. The varying pace meant that my fuel level adjusted, too. My BG went from a low of 97 to a high in the 240s. I tested at every aid station, which translated into about every 90 minutes.
Despite the course and blood sugars, the first hours after sunrise were some of my favorite. I enjoyed a nice two hour grind spent largely by myself. At this point, about 4.5 hours into the race, I still seemed on pace for close to an 11 hour finish, though I knew that eventually the bear would hop on my back.
Finding the trail for the first half of the race was quite easy. The course we were on was identical to that being cross by the 50k, marathon and in most cases, even the half marathon. This meant that multi-colored streamers dangled from several trees and there were no concerns of getting lost.
But eventually, the 50 mile course went in its own direction and the multi-colored streamers gave way to only one color, which happened to be orange and of course, the season happened to be autumn. Shortly after the 25 mile mark, a group of four I was traveling with found ourselves inexplicably off the course.
As the one who had been leading the group, I immediately felt responsible, but while retracing our steps, we discovered that in fact we were following some old orange trail markers. While this helped to ease my guilt, it didn’t change the fact that we were losing time, and doing so at a point where maintaining pace is of critical concern.
One member of our foursome took it harder than the rest. As we made our way down one trail after another, he lagged behind, stopping periodically to say, “Is that it?” with his hands on his knees. By the time we found the course, our GPS showed we had lost almost exactly two miles. Not only that, but those miles had been slow ones with plenty of walking and backtracking. An eleven-hour finish was completely out the window now, and I spent much of the next three hours hoping to make it in under twelve.
For the next hour or so, I kept the hammer down a bit, pushing my heart rate a bit higher and trying to get back some of the time we’d lost. But by now the sun was crawling high into the sky and the weatherman’s prediction of 80 degree highs was proving to be dead on and by the time I passed 32 miles, my pace was beginning to slide.
Somewhere around this point, I fell into conversation with one of the women whom I’d gotten lost with. I’d dropped her after we found our way back onto the trail, but being from the South, she was handling the heat better than I and would go on to beat me handily.
While she was with me, she picked my brain a lot about diabetes. It turns out that she’s a personal trainer and had a client whose diabetes was out of control. She confessed to not knowing much about the disease and we discussed the basics at length. She was grateful for the knowledge she hopes to take back to her client and as for me, I was simply grateful for the distraction. I’m hopeful those miles with me will help her to help her client.
With ten miles to go, however, my pace had gone out the window. My quads were screaming, forcing me to walk on all of the uphills, of which there were many. I ran some of the downhills, but every step seemed to involve avoiding rocks that were at ever more precarious angles. I willed myself to keep going, briefly pondered quitting a few times but in the end told myself that by the time I could find an aid station to quit and get driven back from, I could likely just as easily finish on my own two feet.
Near the next to last aid station with under ten miles left, I hooked up with two guys, one of whom had been with me when we’d gotten lost so many hours before. We were of a common mind at this point (unhappy but resolute) and also of a common body (good enough to shuffle, not good enough to move fast) and the three of us settled into a deathmarch for the final two hours. Alternatively, we fantasized about what we’d eat that night (a lot) or drink (even more), and how long it would be until we’d run again after today (quite a while, we agreed). But step by step, mile by mile, we moved through the mountain trails until we could hear the crowd from the finish line in the distance.
About a quarter of a mile from the finish, we made our last pass of a runner, reduced to a walk. Though we willed him to come with us, he was having none of it, so we pressed on, finishing within a few steps of one another.
In the end, I finished in 13:10, running 52 miles. My GPS had hit the 50 mile mark at 12:41. Though I wasn't pleased to be so close to the bottom of the pack, it wasn't lost on me that 40% of the entire field had either quit or been pulled from the course for missing the cut-off. In the end, I had to be satisfied with finishing.
I was the last of my teammates to finish that day; my fifty mile friends finished well ahead of me, as did my 2 50k teammates. A day later, two of my friends would take two of the three podium finishes in the half marathon and Morgan Patton would finish her first half marathon.
Like most of my ultras, the result was just part of the story. While I wasn’t thrilled with my finishing time, the terrain was easily the most difficult of any race I’d accomplished and my half-hour detour certainly didn’t help. Moreover, there were moments on the course when I found myself elated, dejected, exhilarated and bored. Like a good race, I had found it all out there; the best of myself and the worst.
I spent some time since then considering what the diabetic I’d met the previous week had said, that having diabetes was the worst. As I thought at the time, I don’t believe that, and have never believed it. In the end, it seems to me that finding things that are bigger, scarier and altogether more horrible than diabetes helps me have confidence, knowing that if I can face the wounds of an ultra, I can face whatever the disease decides to throw at me.
In the end, I’m grateful to live a life without believing that diabetes is anything close to the worst, one where I find my own pain, my own path. Even, and maybe especially, if it takes me two miles out of my way.