Monday, March 29, 2010

Jay Holder: 100 Miles...Nuff Said

As marathon season gets underway in earnest, one thing I have heard a lot of people reminding runners is, "you have to respect the distance." But, I don’t think that is a mantra that applies only to marathoners. Any marathoner who’s ever gotten ready to run a 10k has heard: "oh that should be easy for you!" It makes you cringe. You know every distance demands different respects. The shorter the race, the faster your body has to go. The longer the race, the more it needs to maintain. It all hurts if you’re giving it your all.

This weekend, I witnessed a new kind of hurt. I gained respect for a new kind of distance. Let me make it very clear. I did not run the Umstead 100 Mile Run in Cary, North Carolina this weekend. I was there simply as a support crew member with CRC members Aaron Linz, Matt Jaskot and Michelle Hazelton. We were there to carry water, change shoes and preoccupy the mind of Thomas Eggar, competing in his first 100 mile race.

If you don’t know Thomas, get the picture of the lanky distance runner out of your head. Replace it with the picture of a guy you might see in an under-wear advertisement (Sorry, man), complete with the six-pack, but with more tattoos. On the 12-and-a-half mile dirt path in Umstead Park, traversed Saturday into Sunday by skinny guys with long stringy hair and lean women with leathery skin, Thomas stood out. He knows this. Over the course of eight laps, he saw his 287 fellow competitors over and over again, cheering for some of them by name by the time we were allowed to join him 50 miles into the race. At that mile, the halfway point, Thomas was already starting to cramp, his calf doing some sort of freestyle dance as Aaron assisted in removing a rock from his shoe. He had already run more mileage than he had ever run in one outing, and was headed into the unknown. We kept with him for two laps, being careful not to mention if we were tired or if there were any parts of our bodies protesting the pace or the distance. Along the way, I learned that ultrarunning is its own sport. I saw a woman running while eating a hotdog. I doubt you see runners doing that on Heartbreak Hill. Thomas never once complained. He stayed strong and positive as we came into the checkpoint just after dark to complete mile 75.

That is when Aaron and I split off to find food and beer. We’d wait for Thomas at the turnaround and hop back in as he made his final trip up unforgiving hills, past aid stations where you could pour M&M’s out of a jug. Three hours passed. That’s how long it should have taken him to get to us. Empty Miller Lite cans were indicative of our wait. At four hours, we started to get worried and decided to head toward the camp.

That’s where we found Thomas with the blisters you see in the picture to the left. It looked more like a flesh wound. One lap to go, and Thomas had barely made it through the last one. But this is not a man who quits. After the Red Cross patched him up and a volunteer handed him some potato soup, he literally began dragging his injured foot in the direction of the course. This was a man on a mission. I watched, unable to fathom the pain and the willpower. More than 12 miles with each foot-fall sending searing pain through an already aching body. But he did it. Thomas crossed through the start/finish line for the final time just be-fore five o’clock Sunday morning — 23 hours after the journey began. A very proud set of parents — straight from California — were there to congratulate him, and make sure the next distance he had to travel, was done with some assistance.

When I last left Thomas, just after two o’clock Sunday morning, he looked like he’d lost about 10 pounds. When I next see him, he’ll have a shiny belt buckle to hold up his pants.

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