It was early March in Chicago, and after a short spell of incredible snow, debilitating ice, and bone stiffening cold, we were blessed with a seasonably warm day. I had promised Alfredo that I would take him to his physical therapy appointment that was scheduled on that Tuesday at 2pm. I arrived at his house about 10 minutes before 1pm to help him down the flight of stairs out of his house and into my car. He hadn’t been outside in weeks. It had just been too dangerous for somebody that was heavily feeling the effects of his ALS diagnosis just a few months earlier. He was excited that it was warmer out because his bones and muscles were able to loosen up. He had more mobility than when the weather was dipping below zero.
We chatted a lot about my upcoming race during the car rides to and from the doctor. I was in heavy training mode for my first 100-mile ultra-marathon that was in just over a month. I had signed up last May after seeing the experiences of my friends over social media. I had to miss the 2014 event for another race that I had already entered, though I had finished the 50-mile option in 2013, and been to the race to help out in 2012. I was incredibly jealous of the good time everyone was having, and without even the slightest desire to run a 100-mile race, I signed up.
On the car ride home, he talked about the possibility of taking the three-hour trip down to Pekin, Ill. for the Potawatomi Trail Races to see myself and other friends of his finish the race. It was then that he had said something that changed things a little bit for me.
“Man, I hope that I can be there to see you finish. I just want to see you finish your first one-hundred.”
A few weeks went by while I was putting 70-mile weeks on my feet as my final hard stretch before the Potawatomi Trail 100. I don’t think I’ve spent this much money on anything in quite a while. Every single day, something new was coming from UPS or Fed Ex; trekking poles, calf sleeves, new socks, plastic bins to put everything into, etc. Before I knew it, the taper had happened and race week was here. I visited Alfredo a couple of times for some blessings, and received so many amazing messages from friends who have all finished 100-mile races before. I actually wrote various quotes from these friends on an old t-shirt from this same race in 2013 for a little motivation.
I actually came home from work on Thursday morning to a mess. Our front lawn was being ripped up to fix busted sewage pipes and a sump pump that gave out a week ago. Also, the front of our home needed to have the electricity rewired; the new pump needed more power than what was provided. Anyway…things were a mess, and I decided to just let the landlords deal with it. Don and I were off.
I woke up at 3:30am without an alarm on race day. It wasn’t necessarily nerves as much as the fact that I wake up at 3:30am every morning to go to work, so my body was in its comfort zone. I had considered doing the early start on Friday, but because of my work schedule, I figured that the best option for me just to start at the normal time on the schedule start day.
The temperature was comfortable. Walking to the start line of the Potawatomi races feels for me like walking into a party where I am the guest of honor. I have grown to know so many people there, so my nerves were eased with hugs from fellow runners, volunteers, families of the runners and the race directors, all of whom, I consider friends. I went looking around, and found Liz, who had been basically doing the same training plan as I had for the past 26 weeks. Although we don’t see each other much, I felt very connected to her just because we had been experiencing the same feelings and situations for the past six months parallel to each other.
My first two loops (20 miles) were fantastic. I feel strong, fast, my breathing was on par. Everything just seemed to be great. Liz and I pushed each other along. She’s really great at climbing hills, and I am a fan of the flat-straight areas (must have everything to do with the fact that most ALL of my training was in Chicago). We got to learn a lot about each other, and she taught me about proper vitamin usage! Most of which I don’t remember, though I did state to her somewhere around mile 17, “Maybe we can have a chat about this after the race, because I am going to remember nothing.”
As Liz and I came in to mile 20, finishing our second loop, I told her that I needed to change my clothes, and that if she needed to go, just go. I enjoyed running with her, but she needed to run her own race. She did end up heading out ahead of me, and I am incredibly proud of her for doing so because she ended up finishing first place female in the 100 mile!
I went out on my own for the third loop (miles 21-30). Everything was great. I moved well, I felt strong, nothing was causing me pain. I continued to repeat a quote that a friend, Anastasia (who has completed 20 of these 100 mile races) had posted on my Facebook wall during the week:
“Eat before you’re hungry. Drink before you’re thirsty. Walk before you’re tired.”
When I caught up to my friend, Amanda, she was on her ninth loop, coming into mile 90 with her pacer, John. Amanda started on Friday so that she was able to finish early and enjoy the rest of the weekend watching people finish. Personally, I’m pretty thankful for her making that decision because she played a HUGE role in my later miles.
Amanda gave me lots of advice about the overnight running. It was pretty warm out at the time that I saw her, so thinking of how cold the night would be was something unfathomable at the time. She said that she had on gloves AND mittens, about three tops, but wasn’t wearing pants which made her freeze. I made sure to grab that advice and use it a few hours later.
I did just that. I came in after that loop, and saw that a friend, Tom, had taken a drive down to the race that day. He was looking to get some miles in, so after he fed me some delicious bacon, he jumped in for the next ten miles with me on loop four.
It was about 4:45pm, and I wanted to make sure that I was getting my fifth loop in before the sun went down. I headed out strong on my own, and continued that loop. Easy-peasy. I have to say that I barely remember that loop just because it was one of the happiest. I ate well, I jammed to some music coming out of my phone and I wasn’t hurting anywhere.
Night was about ready to come, and this is when I really needed my pacer, Julie. Not only do I despise running at night, I fall. I fall a lot, and having somebody there to keep me company and make sure that I’m safe was imperative for night. Everything was fine until about mile 55 when my rationality had just about disappeared, and I was unhappy. I yelled at Julie about some stuff, which is something that has never happened under normal circumstances in our relationship. We made it to mile 60, and that is when I needed a break.
My legs were NEVER the problem. Neither were my feet. It was my stomach. No matter how hard I tried, I just could not eat. My mouth was too dry, my throat hurt too much. Nothing wanted to go down, and when it did, I thought that it was immediately coming back up. I ran just about the entire night dizzy and light-headed. It was pretty miserable. Usually night-time runs bring out the demons in my mind, followed by the idea that I’m going to be abducted by aliens. When Julie brought up witches and the “witching hour,” I snapped again.
“Don’t talk about that. I don’t like hearing about witches. No aliens. Shhh. Just shhhh.”
I’m sorry Julie.
We came into mile 70 at about 5am on Sunday morning. I stopped to grab some coffee and try to eat a little when all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe. I began gasping for air. I set my eyes on a chair behind the table full of food at the aid station, but knew that I would fall into the table and knock everything off if I tried to get to that chair. I looked down and dropped to my rear on a bed of wood chips.
My beau, Don, decided it would be best if Julie and I took about a half an hour break so that I could catch my breath. He wasn’t letting me quit. All Julie kept saying was
“Make it to the morning. Just push through to the morning. Stop and rest if you need to until sunrise, but that sun re-births you.”
I sat down in the car to warm up and noticed that I had FIVE text messages from Alfredo.
“Okay, fine,” I told myself, Don and Julie. “I’ll go out. Making it to mile 80 sounds so much more impressive than making it to mile 70. My distance personal record is 63 miles, so I can’t just end it at a few more with 70. I’ll end when Alfredo gets here at 80 and I will spend time with him the rest of the day. There’s always next time.” These were all things that I told myself, and pretty much continued to do so for the next nearly four hours that I dragged my sad, busted body through another 10-mile loop. But I did it. I finally came through.
And I saw Alfredo.
I told Alfredo:
“You got to see me finish. I’m stopping at 80.”
He was not going to pressure me. It seemed like he was overwhelmed with the amount of people who hadn’t seen him in a while, otherwise he may have scolded me. Instead, I headed to the Port-O-Jane, and when I came out…well that’s when the race truly began.
I sat down while Cory and Amanda ripped off my shoes and socks. I was complaining of a giant blister, which to all of our surprise was not there. Later, I came home to find this as my blister:
Amanda and Cory were pushing, pushing, pushing me so hard to get back up. I looked to Julie, to my mom, to Don, but not one of them was on my side. Nobody would let me stop. I had NO blisters on my feet. I wasn’t injured. I was being incredibly difficult. I had an emotional outburst that would give even the most boastful tantrum from a four-year old a run for its money.
And then it hit me. There’s always next time. No, Jen. No there is NOT always next time. Alfredo came today, and Alfredo would give anything to have a next time. His wish would be to go and try to get a finish at the next local 100-mile race. I was feeding myself bullshit, and it stopped right there.
The race no longer was only about Alfredo. It was about who I am, what I do, what I say, and who I want to be. I didn’t want to fail. Not for Alfredo, not for myself.
Cory, wearing denim and headphones made for a recording studio, had been responsible for bringing Alfredo down to the race. Little did he know that Julie was going to convince him to get me the 20 miles into the finish that I needed. I had just come off a four-hour walking loop with maybe 10 minutes of trying to quit and a five-hour loop before that. I had five and a half hours to get two loops in. And that’s what we were going to do.
“This is going to be the hardest that you have ever pushed yourself in your life, but Future Jen is going to thank you.” – Cory
He didn’t lie. It was hard. We briskly walked hills, and when I would lose my breath, he would teach me better ways to conserve my energy. Cory would pull random food out of his pockets, open the wrapper and just tell me to eat it. He wouldn’t let me stop coming in to mile 90 at the start/finish line. I had to go straight through. He grabbed more nutrition from my mom at the tent, filled my pack, and off we went. The last loop went by incredibly quickly (my third quickest loop, in fact), but it was more fun than I could imagine. Cory took the role of my own personal DJ, playing whatever music I requested to motivate me to that finish line.
One of the last songs I asked him to play was “Go The Distance” from the Disney movie, Hercules.
I finished. I got back before everybody picked up, left and the race ended. I made it in just at the allotted 34 hour time limit. Another first…I finished DFL. The D and L stand for dead last…you can figure out the other part. 😉
My friend, Karyn, will be attempting her first 100 in less than two weeks. When she asked for advice, I told her bluntly:
- Use Desitin baby butt cream. Slather all over your feet and bum. I have NO blisters even though I had soaked feet for 34 hours and no bum chaffing.
- Miles 55-90 suck badly. They suck SO badly. You will want to quit. You will complain, yell, cry…you will not be yourself. It is okay because there should be a lot of people to call you on your crap to keep you moving.
- Eat. If you can, eat a ton, even if it means eating a Gu every three miles. I could never eat. I was so nauseous on and off because I was not eating and I was retaining water.
- Don’t be scared. Because honestly, looking back, it is NOT that bad. It feels like hell for a few hours, but it’s only a few measly hours of your life for the pride lasting the rest of your life.
Thank you to everyone who helped me out there this weekend, including, but not limited to…
My amazing mom, Judy
The greatest partner ever, Don
One of my best friends and pacer, Julie
Cory for hopping in unexpectedly and doing a HUGE job (not to mention, bringing Alfredo down)
Cindy for coddling me when I needed it most
Amanda for not actually kicking me, but getting me up and moving
Tom, Liz and Julie A. for shared loops
Michelle, Lee & everyone at Heaven’s Gate Aid Station
Geoff, Paul Farr, Matthew & Paul W. at the Totem Pole
Mike Mike!!! Thanks for the coffee and the inspiration
Josh with Brit and Avery for coming back after winning his own race the day before
Erica, Michele, Andra, Bo, JulieAnn, and everyone else that wasn’t able to be there, but has trained alongside me for the past six months
My best friend, Evie, who has put in many miles with momma to help me stay motivated
Rich & Eric Skocaj…I feel such a part of this race now, and I am grateful for you. Let’s run a race together soon!
And lastly, Alfredo. Thank you for being so brave. You made me brave, too.
“Go The Distance”I have often dreamed of a far off place
Where a hero’s welcome would be waiting for me
Where the crowds will cheer when they see my face
And a voice keeps saying, this is where I’m meant to be
I’ll be there someday, I can go the distance
I will find my way if I can be strong
I know every mile, will be worth my while
When I go the distance, I’ll be right where I belong
UPDATE: Alfredo Perro Pedro passed away from ALS on November 8th, 2015 at 8:30am. He left this world peacefully, with an the abundance of strength and spirit he exuded in everything that he did. Trail Runner Magazine published an article to celebrate Alfredo’s life on November 11th, 2015. You can find that by clicking on this link.