I watched Sarah pull away, gliding effortlessly through the still congested field of runners, 2 miles into the 62 miles that lay ahead. Relying on my heart rate to keep me in control, I let her go. It was my 7th time on Team USA for the World 100k championships and I felt like I was finally getting a hold of what I could sustain. I also knew that Camille was even further ahead, setting a blistering pace – but fast is fast, and I knew she was experienced enough to know what she was capable of. I kept my heart rate around 150 and was pleased to see that the pace was fast – 7:10 or so, but it felt stupidly easy.
The IAU World 100k Championship race is 2nd only to Western States 100 in terms of my priorities. While it isn’t the most pleasant of surfaces (flat and hard) and often contrived courses (loops of 5k to 20k), the gathering of nations through runners makes the world seem smaller. For me, it allows preconceived notions tied to nationality slide away, as our own humanity and interest in how others live their lives on our shared planet reveals that we are more alike than different.
In this sea of running humanity, I settled in and for the ebb and flow of the day. My Croatian friend, Marija, was running with her teammate, and Holly and Susan of the UK were tucked in behind me. The first loop of the 10k course I was relaxed while learning all the twists and turns, taking in the numerous spectators comprised of the citizens of Winschoten, The Netherlands. Streets were lined with children offering sponges, adults lounging in chairs while yelling out our names, and flags were laced high above the streets. At 6k, Mark was ready at the team table with my first bottle. I drank most of it and every bottle I received during the run, determined to keep my calories and hydration up.
At the end of the first loop I was pleased to see I was around 45 minutes, average pace around 7:12 according to my Garmin. A few sharp turns onto the bike path and I was aided by our other team table, where Lin handed me my bottle and offered shouts of encouragement. Lin (Gentling) has been one of my handlers each time I’ve been on the team, and one of our amazing team managers.
For the next 2 loops, still running a good clip, I remained tightly connected to teams Croatia and UK, plus a male runner from Europe – perhaps Germany. While running with women is legal, running with men can be perceived as being paced and grounds for disqualification – particularly if the man is from the same country, but also from any country if there is an unspoken alliance. He seemed very intent to run with me though, as he would slow up if I did, or speed back up after receiving aid. Finally I asked, “Do you speak English?”
“I need you to not run with me. I may get in trouble.” He didn’t understand so I tried again using hand gestures.
Pointing in front of me, then behind me I said “I need you to run in front of me or behind me. I could get in trouble.” This he understood and fell in behind, and eventually fell from the pace for good.
Cloudy skies and fall temperatures kept the conditions nearly perfect for an endurance event. Only the wind caused concern for me, as at times it was very stiff. One stretch of the course passed three horses standing in their field, butts to the wind to shelter themselves, which affirmed that it was not insignificant.
Beginning the 4th loop Marija came up by my side and we ran together awhile, as well as a male runner from Croatia. Finally I told Marija – “He should not be running with you – it may be seen as pacing.” She was unaware of this rule and said “It’s okay – he is not as good as me.” I knew her well enough that she only meant he isn’t as fast as she is, and I let her know that it didn’t matter – someone could file a complaint. She let him know and he fell in behind, and she slowly glided away from me.
My overall pace was slowing by 1 or 2 seconds each 10k. Of course I was thinking at some point it will stabilize. By 40k I was went through around 3:01, and the 50k mark was 3:47. My heart rate was still between 150-155, only shooting up after drinking from my bottles. My stomach was in control, as I had pre-emptively taken Imodium prior to the start.
At some point UK Susan passed me, but UK Holly was still going back and forth with me. I was uncertain where Jo Z was, their top runner. Our team managers intentionally do not let us know where we stand as a team until some point in the 2nd half, as they don’t want us to try to start racing early, risking some blow ups. Even now, I was not sure how we were doing, but I was happy to know that Camille and Sarah were ahead apparently holding their own. I had gone to and fro with two of the Japanese women, and I knew they were a force, as they placed second last year. Other teams to contend with were Russia and Sweden, but I hadn’t been around any of them that I was aware of.
Meanwhile, the men’s race was starting to happen around me. I was surprised to see young teammate Jim Winslow in first. Wow! And this was in my 6th lap. I yelled out to him some encouragement. In a matter of moments, steady Swedish runner Jonas Buud came by. Oh, man, Jonas has been 2nd at worlds time after time, but no victory. Was it his fate again? And soon afterward, my Italian friend and 100k hero Giorgio Calcaterra floated by, and gave me words of encouragement. Within another few minutes, teammate Zach Bitter passed by, maybe in 11th or 12th place, looking very good – this looked good for the US men, indeed! However, as soon as I finished the loop, I caught back up to young Jim stopped at our team table. I touched him as I passed, encouraging him to get it together. He eventually passed me back, but struggled that second half. Meanwhile, Zach had severe breathing issues that led authorities to take him to the hospital fearing heart problems. Thankfully, he was fine. The next US fella to pass me was Joe Binder, super consistent, and was our top finisher.
The course is as flat as they come – but of course there are always a few gradual inclines and descents. I learned each slow spot of the course after a few loops, so I allowed myself to ease up and not get discouraged, and as soon as it became pancake flat or slightly downhill, I recovered. The black pavement and red bike paths were the easiest on my feet and legs, but the sections of brick (not as bad as cobbles) were killing my feet. In the 6th and 7th loops I was accepting that while in training I had regained my speed just in time for this race, I was behind on the endurance. I hadn’t done any back-to-back long runs, and it was beginning to matter. My bowels started complaining, sending me into the port-a-potty. After the second time in, I knew I needed help, so at the 80k mark, I yelled ahead to Lin “Imodium!” and when I reached her, Lion, our team doctor, had a pill in a neat little package for me. I said “I can’t open that.” Even sitting down in a living room with bright lights, small packaging is not my friend. Lion desperately tried to tear it open, got it partially there, and the powder began to spill from the capsule. John, Sarah’s husband and crew immediately tried to open another. Both of them had powder to offer me, and I took it. Meanwhile Lin said “We’re in first place. We need you to….” Here she assessed my status, paused, and said “just keep doing what you’re doing and what we know you can do.” She could tell that I was in distress and didn’t want to put pressure on me. But I was totally inspired to keep on pushing as hard as I could.
By the time I got to our next team table, Mark was ready with more Imodium, all nicely laid out in his hand sans packaging. One more porta-potty stop, and now I had just 1 and half laps to go. My pace had fallen off drastically, but my heart rate was not completely tanked – in the high 140s. With less than a mile to go in my 9th lap, I could hear two motorcycle escorts, beeping their horns. It took me a second or two before I realized it HAD to be Camille! I looked over my shoulder, and there she was, just gritting it out. I pumped my fists in the air for her, and as she passed we cheered each other on. It was just now over 7 hours, and she would complete the course in 7:08, incredibly fast, only 8 minutes over Ann Trason’s long held national record.
As I completed lap 9, Bryon Powell of IRunFar.com yelled out at me – “You’re in 3rd for the team, and we’re in first. You matter.” The race is scored by the top three women’s cumulative time per team. We were up by 8 minutes. Fueled by his words, I made myself work hard for as long as could. It was a bit of fartlek running. I passed one of the Japanese women who had collapsed and was being assisted. It was getting ugly. I kept hoping that teammate Justine would catch me and catch a few of the women who had passed me in the last lap. I was pretty sure Carolyn Smith was unable to finish due to injury. But with no Justine sightings it was on me to push hard. I grunted through the tough spots I had relaxed in before. I willed my legs to ignore the fatigue, and my feet to ignore the pain. With 1 k to go, I accelerated as much as possible, and finally flew across the finish line in 8:02.
Not my best, not my worst, but I was absolutely wrecked. Timo – our 3rd team manager was at my side, wrapping me in a blanket. I sat for a while, looking for Mark. Timo got me up and helped me across the road, where Mark was looking for me. From there Mark took me inside and helped me to the locker room. It was unofficial, but it appeared that we took the Gold, by 11 minutes. Sarah had finished 4th in a crazy time of 7:29 in her first 100k! My friend Marija had made her way to 3rd, and 2nd place went to Sweden. And as this race also served as World Masters Athletics championship, I won the 50-59 age category.
I am so fortunate to be a part of this machine. I couldn’t do it without the support of my friends, family, sponsors and Team USA management. I would personally like to thank my one and only Mark Laws for his support and companionship on this self-centered journey, Lin Gentling of the Team USA management for her handling me for the 7th time, Timo, Anne Heaslett, Lion Caldwell and Susan, for their undying support of the Team, and to my sponsors Altra and Injinji for helping me take care of my feet! I also thank my awesome teammates – Carolyn Smith, Camille Heron, Justine Morrison, Sarah Bard – we really gelled!