In 2010, I was training for my first ultra, logging training runs in the New River Gorge. I wanted to run a 50-miler. But I wrecked some ankle tendons during my training and a subsequent marathon. My gait compensation caused me to develop plantar fasciitis. After that, I struggled to run long distances and gave up my dream of running an ultra.
My family and I moved, in 2012, to Farmville, Virginia from Fayetteville, West Virginia. Now I work for my father-in-law’s business, Appomattox River Company, and I’m the BRO athlete kayak fisherman—not exactly bipedal endurance material.
This year, on a whim, I decided to join my brother-in-law, John Waite, and his aptly named Team Bonkers at the Virginia 24 Hour Run for Cancer in Hampton on April 25 and 26. My beloved grandmother died from cancer in 2008, and it still stung. I thought running in her honor, as well as all who’ve fought that fight, would be cathartic.
When the day arrived, I was anxious. I hadn’t done any training. Though I still told people my goal was 50 miles when asked. I always set ridiculous goals and blurt them out. It’s some sort of absurd personal challenge Tourettes. What was I thinking?
The 24 Hour Cancer run was held at Sandy Bottom Nature Park on a 3.75-mile lollipop loop. My sister was running too, and her goal was to stay active for 12 hours and walk/run at least a marathon. The race started at 7:30am. I ran the first lap as planned and then met my sister. We walked the second lap together and chatted about our families.
I fell in love with this event from the start. The trails were full of determined people. The atmosphere was warm, and the cause was just. Because of the course layout, you passed people over and over. It created an intimacy, a sense of strong camaraderie between “strangers” on the trail. Everyone smiled in passing, slapped high fives and offering encouraging words. Each lap started and ended in the same spot. So you got a chance to visit your team tent and recharge after every loop. Big props to the volunteers who manned the start station and counted everyone’s laps!
The rain came at 10 a.m., way earlier than expected. The temperature never rose into the 60’s as forecasted. At 15 miles, I changed my socks for the first time. It’d been raining steady and changing socks, then sitting in my truck for a moment, felt like heaven.
Photo by Brian Vincent
The miles and the rain wore on. Soon I was in uncharted territory. As I rounded the bend to reach 33.75, I spotted my sister at the .625 marker. She was doing an out and back to the marker to finish with her first 50K! She persevered through some pain, and now she was closing in on her personal best mileage. We ran her last .625 in together. Pumping our limbs, we both started giggling and asking, “My arms are moving, REALLY fast, are my legs moving?” It was my favorite moment of the race.
Two of my buddies, Joe O’Brien and Shane Cochran, also finished with personal best distances. I felt proud of everyone’s efforts, especially given the conditions. By now the trail was a wet, muddy mess and the rain was still steady.
After my sister’s triumph, I hit lap number 10. It was a struggle. The sun began to drop below the horizon and the temps went with it. I finished up lap 10—37.5 miles—and stumbled to my truck. I’d forgotten gloves and my hands were frozen. I wanted one more change of socks and an overhaul of my clothing. I sank into my seat, heat pumping in the truck, and thought about quitting. I could be proud of 37.5 miles for my first ultra.
I switched the Farm To Feet Asheville Lows for the Blue Ridge Compression socks around mile 15. The compression socks served me extremely well over 22 plus miles. I was reluctant to strip them off. But when I changed into a fresh pair of Roanoke ¼ Crews I started to rally. The Farm To Feet socks impressed me.
I slipped out of the truck and back into the rain soaked night. As I passed our tent my brother-in-law spotted me, “ I thought you were done.”
“So did I,” I replied.
He’d run a marathon in the morning, pacing a friend, gone to my niece’s soccer games, then come back to our tent, brewed chicken broth and cheered us on. Now he was suited up for a couple nighttime miles. He had 4 more laps to hit 40, a good training run for his upcoming race, the Massanutten 100. My brother-in-law is an ultra running beast.
There were a lot of beasts out there. So many people endured the weather and pounded out miles. I saw folks carrying American flags and people carrying the names of loved ones lost. I saw elite endurance athletes pushing the limits and shattering records, and everyday folks pushing their personal limits. The Men and Women’s winners crushed 133.25 and 131 miles! It was truly awe-inspiring.
I had three laps to go, plus an out-and-back 1.25 to finish with 50. The next few laps were a blur of pain, ankle deep mud and rain. There were some tough moments in those last 12.5 miles. With the rain beating down and my headlamp lighting the muddy trail, I finally rounded the bend and hit the start-stop line for mile 48.75.
At 12:50 a.m., I started the walk to the .625 mark. At .25 my left foot exploded with searing pain. I stopped and cursed. I wondered if I could finish. When I got to the marker I just stood there, thinking about my grandmother and that long month my family spent by her bedside as she fought the cancer eating away at her bones. I thought about all the other folks in my life who’ve been touched by this disease, and I started walking back.
I noticed a discarded protein packet, on the side of the trail and remember saying, “I don’t think I can stop, stoop, and pick that up.” No one else was around. I could just leave it.
But in those moments, funny stuff enters your head. I looked at the trash and realized that if I didn’t grab it, my whole journey would be tainted. So I bent over and picked it up. It seemed to take forever. I walked, looking at the trash in my hand. It felt so burdensome. I limped, favoring that busted foot, towards the finish line where I knew I’d find my team and a trashcan.
In the end, I got my 50. It took 18 hours. Elite ultra runners crush 100’s in that time. I know that, but for me it was a huge triumph. The Virginia 24 Hour Run for Cancer was a magical moment. I want to thank all the volunteers and the race director, George, for all they do. This is a great event, even with bad weather. I may have to climb out of my kayak for another ultra. There is fun to be had out there past the marathon, just make sure you train first. The “off the couch” 50 is not recommended. Team Bonkers finished ninth out of 18 teams, and I’m proud of every person who put in those miles. Well done!