Sitting in my sweltering summer-afternoon tent, puncturing feet blisters with a box cutter and grimacing from my raw chaffed arms, a question hits me: “Why the hell am I doing this?”
I don’t have to do it. Nobody is making me. I freely chose this. I even paid good money for it. I’m here because I wanted to be.
Does this sound messed up? Maybe it is. But after I punctured and drained those blisters and slathered my arms with more anti-chaffing cream, I stepped back out of my tent and kept going.
The question became less philosophical and more practical. Plain and simple, I am here to run.
Running A Race for the Ages… I loved it, I hated it; I relished it, I cursed it. I successfully endured and finished this terrible, wonderful, horrible, transformational, no good, so awesome, very bad, extraordinarily epic race.
What Is A Race For The Ages?
Gary Cantrell, under the pseudonym Lazarus Lake, has created some of the most challenging ultramarathons in the world – including the Barkley Marathons (in which there have been years when no participants completed it) and the 314-mile Vol State race.
Lazarus Lake is also the creator and director of A Race For The Ages, where every runner must run the number of hours that correspond to their age in years.
Lazarus Lake is a mountain-man sort of looking dude with thick glasses and a gnarly beard, and he’s your first clue that A Race For The Ages is not going to be just any ultramarathon.
Some Of The Participants… And Finishers
In this year’s event:
- The eldest runner was Dan Baglione at 85-years-young.
- The winner of the race is 68-year-young, Gene Dykes. He ran 205 miles.
- 2nd place was 73-year-young, Tim Hicks. He’s 73.
- The top female finisher, 57-year-young Liz Bauer, got 173 miles. Liz was the youngest runner in the top 10. (The others were in their 60’s and 70’s.)
At first pass you might think A Race For The Ages is mostly a bunch of old folks running. But then you wise up. Well, what happens is that you get schooled.
These “old folks” are actually highly accomplished and even legendary ultra-runners. They pat you on the back and smile cordially, and then kick your ass on the run, lapping you over and over again like you’re practically standing still. (Note to self: don’t use your age as an excuse… ever!)
60 and even 70 is the new 30 and 40 when it comes to laying down some heavy mileage past the 100-mile mark in ultrarunning.
Those high-energy youngsters in their 30’s and 40’s start out fast with a confident glint in their eye. And then somewhere around mile 70, they start losing steam and the “old folks” are just getting started.
Many Runners Stop At 100 Miles
There were 175 people who signed up for A Race For The Ages. Out of that, 152 people finished with a result. My result was 134 miles.
Many runners approach these races with the goal of running 100 miles – which is a big milestone in ultrarunning. After they get their 100 and custom belt buckle, they call it quits even if they technically have several hours they could technically keep running.
But the hardcore runners just keep going. They want to rack up as many miles as possible before their time runs out. That’s just what they do, which is why they are legends. I’m not a legend, but this is what I did.
Could I have run further with more time? Of course. But I could have also run faster with the time I had. In the end, I had to accept all things considered, I did the best I could in this race. I ran 134 miles.
But there were moments when I wondered if I could run this long or far (or if I even wanted to) when the s**t got real – like the second night of running after the miles in the grueling heat all day.
After getting my 100 miles, I sat down and took a break and even laid down for a few minutes. I flirted with the idea that running 100 miles was a great accomplishment, that I was hurting, and to just get my damn belt buckle and go home. But I couldn’t. This wasn’t my first rodeo at running 100 miles. And so I pulled myself up off a nice cozy air-mattress, and I kept running – which is how I finished with 134 miles in total.
Things I Noticed While Running A Race For The Ages
There’s a way my race could be divided into 2 halves:
- The first half were all the miles I did before my brief conversation with Barney.
- The second half was all the miles after that.
I was hurting on that second night of running. I had already gotten my 100 miles. That’s when I came alongside fellow-runner, Barney, who I had never met until that moment. I was at a low point, hurting and exhausted, and not saying much of anything to anyone. But when I came alongside Barney I asked how he was doing. He responded, “I’m enjoying the moment.”
Are you kidding me??? I’ve popped blisters with a box cutter, I’m on fire from chaffing and sunburn, my foggy contacts are permanently affixed to my eyeballs, I’ve had no sleep in 40-something hours, my hands and feet are swollen, and if I have to down another sports drink or energy gel I just might shoot someone or better yet, myself!”
But not Barney. No… Barney was “enjoying the moment.”
His words impacted me. Until that moment I had been stressed and pushing hard to run my 100 miles. I had a laser-like focus – head down, pounding out one mile after another after another after another.
But Barney spoke of how beautiful an evening it was and mentioned the towering trees against the nighttime sky.
I looked up and was like, “Damn, there are trees out here?” There were! There was also a wide stream along the path and a symphony of nocturnal sounds. And that’s when I started noticing…
- Noticing the beauty surrounding me
- Noticing the faces of other runners as I passed them
- Noticing my own thoughts and feelings streaming through me
- Noticing how much I was seized by the experience of being alive, being present, being there – all there – part of a race, part of a human experience that was bigger and deeper and wider than any of us and all of us
When You Want To Stop Running A Race, Don’t
A Race For The Ages… we cried, we laughed, we sang, we cussed, we suffered, we endured, we broke down, we put ourselves back together again, we were strangers, we were comrades, and we just kept running… and caring about each other and pulling each other toward that finish line when the clock finally read 00:00:00. It was magic, it was misery, it was miraculous.
For me this was a test. Not a math test. But a completely different kind of test. It was a test of heart and passion in which you’re confronted with what seems like a limitation, a boundary, and that voice telling you to stop. But you don’t.
You reach deeper. You find something you didn’t know you had until the moment you had to have it. You keep going, you keep moving, you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you keep believing, you remember how far you’ve come, the hours and miles of training you’ve put in, you remember the suffering, you remember your life and when you finally started really living, you remember the people you love (yes, those you love), you remember you can never get this life back… and you just keep running.
A Race To Remember
There were so many little unexpected things that truly made this “a race for the ages” to remember – for me personally.
I had no support crew with me and was basically running the race alone, not knowing anyone. But then Angie happened, Barney happened, Bill happened, Karen happened and I felt part of a family.
Sharing an air-mattress with another exhausted and shivering runner I had only met for the first time, having another runner apply anti-chaffing cream in places I couldn’t reach, reaching out my hand to high-five a runner I had strangely became close to… were all part of making this race special.
And then there were those lifting moments when I was able to check my phone, Facebook, and text updates to those I love, and read their messages of love and support. I was never truly “alone.” I missed my dog Gin, but my friend keeping her texted me pictures of her that made me laugh and let me know she was okay.
I’m vegan, and made it all 134 miles without eating any meat. There were hot meals provided every 6 hours, and I elected the “vegetarian” option. I had a vegetarian “biscuits and gravy” meal at midnight that was incredible.
I did not bring enough food, drinks, snacks or first-aid support supplies that I really needed. It was a big oversight on my part. It I teared up when I found a goodie bag set outside my tent, which included several items a fellow-runner knew I needed.
Yep, this wasn’t my first rodeo, but it’s one I will definitely always remember. In a low moment I asked myself, “Why the hell I am doing this?” I learned that the answer really wasn’t, running.
Why I Run
People often ask me why I run – especially the longer more grueling distances. I’m not sure if there’s one simple answer to that question.
I feel at home in myself when I run. I experience my connection to the whole. I feel a sense of deep belonging to the universe and all living things when I am running outdoors. I stop to talk with the cows, touch tree branches as I run past them, and keep a running dialogue with the earth beneath my feet, sky above my head, and the river that runs along the trail.
The longer the run the better. It’s a time to think, ponder, and reflect. I’ve written an entire book chapter in my head while running. Some of my greatest epiphanies and moments of enlightenment came by noticing something that Mother Nature dialed up or set upon my path. I’ve grieved tragic losses on runs. I’m not sure I would have survived the death of my parents without running. I’ve also worked out a couple heartbreaks on the trail.
I can’t say I understand my running entirely. Am I running from something? Maybe. Do I like pain? Maybe. Am I trying to prove something? Maybe. I am insane? Probably.
For me, running is an experience of self-transcendence. When I run I am testing the limits and challenging the boundaries of what my body, mind, and spirit are capable of doing together. Every run is an adventure of self-discovery and self-creation. Running is not a thing I do; it’s who I am. It’s life. Pain and pleasure, tragedy and triumph, solitude and companionship, anguish and bliss, human and divine.
I sometimes say, “Running is my religion.” What I mean by this is that running is a way I maintain a vital connection with my innermost self. It reminds me I am intimately a part of the universe and all living things. It’s the divine experience of self-transcendence. It’s a part of my inner work of being a free and whole human being.
In years to come if you lose track of me and you’re trying to hunt me down, I’d start searching on running trails.
Look for me in Manchester, Tennessee at A Race for the Ages. I’ll be one of those “old folks” laying down those miles. I’m never going to be a legendary ultrarunner, but I’ll be an awake one. And if a younger whipper-snapper runner passes me by and asks how I’m doing. I’ll tell them, “I’m just enjoying the moment.”
Others’ Highlights After Running A Race For The Ages
- Rocket City Runner: What It’s Like To Run A Race For The Ages
- Bookladywalker: Running In Circles On Labor Day Weekend
- The Running Hacker: A Race For The Ages Highlights