Last Saturday morning I drove 2.5 hours up north to the resort town of McCall to help with an aid station for runners doing a 100 mile trail run. Yes, it was 100 miles, actually about 102 miles but at that point what does another mile or two matter?
This was called the IMTUF100 (Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival) or I Am Tough if you want to be phonetic about it. Our aid station was at mile 58.7. I was late to the party, because I wanted to stop in Boise on the way and buy chicken strips from KFC for the runners and they didn't open until 11:00am. A friend of mine who used to run these ultras told me they would be appreciated. And they were.
The race started at a local hot springs at 6:00am. Our aid station captains, Ulli and Traudl, along with another volunteer, Bob, had the whole thing set up by the time I arrived. So I was glad I could contribute the chicken, some candy, homemade cookies and lots of blankets and chairs. We didn't expect the first runner until late afternoon, but even I was surprised when he came running in just before 4:00pm.
So by my calculations he averaged close to 9 minutes per mile. Over 58.7 miles. Of steep ascents and descents. And when he showed up he looked great. He ate a little, had us refill his water, grabbed a long sleeve shirt and headed out to conquer the next 11 miles to another aid station, all while it was getting colder and darker.
Yes, he impressed me, but I have to admit I was even more in awe of the runners who made it in after the first few frontrunners. Because they were tired, cold, hungry, and aching. A few decided 58.7 miles was enough and listened to their bodies and minds and dropped at our station. But so many of them warmed their bodies by the fire, grabbed some food and drink, listened to the encouraging words thrown at them, and headed off into the dark night for the next major aid stop 11 miles away. They were exhausted, mentally prepared to go on, and able to ignore aching legs and blistered feet. They were the heroes.
Did I mention that these trails, in addition to being up and down hill traverses (sometimes requiring a bit of scrambling using hands) were also in the middle of the wilderness? There were little critters around, like chipmunks, squirrels, mice, raccoons, and rabbits, And there were bigger critters around, like mountain lions and bears, who usually leave humans alone. But they were there, and they were close.
Our station had a cutoff of 2:15am. Any runner who showed up after that would not be allowed to continue. We had two runners who didn't make the cut. One was 30 minutes late and he was happy to stop. The other arrived around 4:30am, and she was exhausted but in decent shape.
Helping out at this event was a great experience. We saw a couple of deer hanging around camp. It's odd, when humans show up at weird times, like the middle of the night, deer are not that scared to hang out. When I was heading to my car to leave I heard an owl hooting. It was so cool. I admit I was glad I didn't see a bear or a big cat though.
By the time we packed up our camp, with the canopy, chairs, tents, food, etc, it was about 4:00am. I was given the go-ahead to leave, while the aid station captain and a volunteer waited for the last runner. I went a few hundred feet and noticed my low tire light was on.
I checked all the tires, and probably because of the low temps (around 20 degrees) the pressure was down in all of them. So I made it to town, found a gas station and put air in the tires. At 5:30 I was on my way. In hindsight (well, actually I thought of it at the time) I had no business driving on that particular road in the early hours without a wink of sleep all night. But all I wanted to do was go home and crawl into my own bed.
At that hour it was a fairly deserted highway going through a beautiful canyon and countryside, which I couldn't see because it was still dark. I made sure the radio was on a comedy channel (hurray for XM radio!) and kept it nice and cool in the car. I made it home at 7:30am, didn't unload a thing, jumped in the shower, climbed in my bed with earplugs and an eye mask and slept straight through to the middle of the afternoon.
It took me the rest of the day and a good night's sleep to feel somewhat normal again.
My takeaway for this adventure was profound and important. It emphasized what I have been told but still struggle with. The human body, if sufficiently prepared, is able to withstand great trials. If our mind is in sync, and we are physically and mentally trained for success, we can accomplish almost anything. I truly believe this. I saw it in the runners who went on. I saw it in the runners who were not ready to go farther.
I am positive I will never run 100 miles. Yet I believe that if I want it badly enough, if I train my body well, and train my mind even better, I could do it. I could do it.