The medic looked at my feet skeptically. My boyfriend blurted out the question that no one wanted to ask.
“You’re done, right?” Kevin said to me.
The question pissed me off, but I couldn’t blame him at the time for asking. I had just run sixty miles, ten miles longer than I had ever run in my life, and still I had forty more to go. No one, after seeing my feet, would advise me to go on. Hell, I knew that I probably shouldn’t go on.
But I had to.
Kevin peered over the medic’s shoulder as he peeled off my socks. Both of them gasped.
The balls of my feet were smothered in puffy half-dollars, my heels were completely blistered, and my toes had been overtaken by small pockets of white, painful bubbles. One of the half-dollars had already popped, leaking clear liquid steadily down my heel. The medic began to work on popping the other blisters while Kevin shook his head in disbelief.
This was my first hundred-mile race, and it was already clear I had a lot to learn. I’d made several mistakes. I was, for instance, nearly late to the race because of a last-minute dash to Walmart to buy a flashlight; it hadn’t occurred to me that running a hundred miles would take all night.
And now I was suffering the consequences of my worst mistake. I was running the Rocky Raccoon 100 in Huntsville, Texas, a part of the country I knew nothing about. I lived in California, and I had no idea that the Texas humidity would make my feet swell the way a sponge expands after it soaks up water. I brought several pairs of socks—I knew you had to change them during a race—but I didn’t know that I needed shoes a half-size larger than usual to make room for my ballooning feet.
California’s dry air never gave me such problems. I’d never even had a blister before. Now my shoes were transforming my feet into tenderized hamburger meat.
The medic scowled as he continued to work on my feet. Though initially stunned by the blisters, he was a medic in an ultrarunning race, and he’d probably seen worse (at least, I hoped he had). I sighed with relief as fluid spilled out of the puffy pouches. He then started wrapping my feet in duct tape. Yes, the heavy-duty silver tape people used for household repairs, from leaky pipes to broken door handles. Until that moment I didn’t know duct tape could also repair leaking blisters, but that was one of the many things I had yet to learn about being an ultrarunner. The tape secured the blisters against my skin, and when I got up to test them out, they felt pretty good for the first time in hours.
So no, Kevin, I wasn’t done.
Like many people, I started running to get healthy. I switched all-night raves for early morning runs, and while I missed the rush of dancing till dawn, putting my sneakers away was not an option. I started like many do. I ran around the block, almost died, and then tried it again the next day and found I could go a little farther before I almost died again. I stumbled across ultramarathons just a few years after I became a runner. These impossibly-long races called to me. They seemed to be the answer I needed to change my life.
Four years after I started running, I competed in my first hundred-mile race. Just three months earlier I finished a fifty-miler, my second, in Napa Valley near my home in northern California, in pouring rain that left me soaked through and shivering but sure of my ability. I finished last, but many ultrarunners much more experienced than me had dropped out of that race. I kept going. So I thought that if I could finish fifty miles, in those crappy, miserable conditions, while dodging or falling waist deep into muddy puddles, then I could run a hundred.
At least that’s what I thought.
I picked the Rocky Raccoon randomly from the back of an ultrarunning magazine. This was 1999, and there were only a few hundred-mile races in the whole country (as of 2017, there are seventeen hundred-milers in California alone). I had lucked into a good one for beginners. Most of the race was in Huntsville State Park, just north of Houston. Five laps through the trees and swamps got you a hundred miles.
Beginners traditionally loved the course because it wasn’t over mountains or hills, or even very rocky, despite the name of the race. Most of the trail was flat and wide, stuffed with soft dirt, making for a comfortable surface. It smelled like wood and mold and the air was heavy and wet, making it feel almost like a steamy sauna. The twenty-mile loop wound through scraggly woods that blotted out the sun, muddy swamps, and lakes full of creatures I’d never seen in California. A sign greeted you at the entrance: “Alligators Exist in the Park.” Great.
Another reason beginners loved the trail were those laps. A huge aid station in a standalone tent, the kind you’d rent for a special occasion, greeted you at the end of every lap. There, runners could eat or drink, change shoes, put on or take off clothes, rub Vaseline on bloody friction rashes and, you know, have a medic put duct tape your battered, blistered feet.
As you entered, a sign warned that pukers should keep to the left. I was not a puker. At least, not yet I wasn’t.
As I got up from my seat, stuffing my feet back into my too-tight shoes, the last rays of sunshine slipped behind the hills. In the thick cover of the trees, it was already dark. I would be running the rest of the race at night. I clicked my weak flashlight on and its beam danced around the trees like a pale strobe light. In a weird way, it reminded me of my old life—all that was missing was the deep beat of dance music reverberating in my chest.
“Good luck,” the medic said, attempting to hide the worry in his eyes. “I hope the tape holds.”
Why wouldn’t the tape hold? Isn’t that stuff used to repair just about anything?
Well, I’d find out soon enough. I started into my next lap.
Having laps is a little unusual for a long distance race. Many times, especially in an ultramarathon, you’re stuck out there, alone, in the wilderness. You could get lost or thirsty or hurt, and no one would be around to help you for miles. That’s why officials check you in when you make it to an aid station. If they don’t cross your name off the list, they know they eventually have to start searching for you. Sometimes — especially if you look out of it — they ask you your name or weigh you to make sure you haven’t lost too much weight.
But these were twenty-mile laps on the well-marked course with bright orange signs that you could see in the dark, which were like a security blanket for beginners like me. They meant that you were never too far from help, or a break, or water, before hitting the path for another twenty.
Still, no hundred miler is easy. The trail was clean but overrun with sneaky tree roots waiting to trip you if you weren’t paying attention, and it’s hard to pay attention for hours and hours of staring at the same damn trail. Your mind starts to wander, a kind of defense mechanism to stop you from thinking about the next mile, or the next forty. Spills, and the bloody knees and elbows they caused, were inevitable.
The duct tape padded my tender feet, and for the first time in a while, I felt better. I could run again. I was finally having fun. I wielded my flashlight and it gave off a sickly, yellow glow, but it was enough to let me see the roots and rocks so I wouldn’t trip.
As the night settled around me, it muffled many of the sounds of the race through the forest. I heard the soft drumming of shoes on the dirt accompanied by a symphony of chirping crickets, croaking bullfrogs, and humming insects. The heavy breathing of other runners sounded like a breeze through the trees. Their conversations were hushed, as if no one wanted to disturb the calm of the night. “Good work,” they said all around as they passed by.
A couple of runners trotted past me whispering encouragement to one another. I looked around noticing the huddles of runners packed together in small groups. Everyone but me seemed to have a buddy.
“They’re called pacers,” one runner said smiling as he passed by me.
His pacer waved.
Pacers? You were allowed to have pacers? I had no idea, but yes, in hundred-mile races, you’re allowed to have other runners with you on the course. Mostly what these people did was keep an eye on you and keep you from falling too deep into despair.
I’m all alone out here, I thought.
As the night closed in on me and the dark air constricted my breathing, the sounds of the race seemed to turn a bit more sinister. I thought back to that sign warning people who entered the park of alligators. In the dark, surrounded by the inky-black night, every time I heard something in the woods—a twig snapping or some underbrush rustling—my mind filled with snapping teeth.
That nervous energy carried me through the dark trail for a while and was enough to distract me from the steadily slipping duct tape flapping out of my sneakers.
Until it wasn’t. Crap.
I really thought the duct tape would hold—if it fixed pipes, surely it could hold my feet together—but by mile seventy-five, the wet Texas air had once again soaked my feet with sweat. My shoes began to fill with needles, the pain from the blisters stabbing me with each step. It was some of the worst pain I’d ever felt.
And I still had a full marathon to go.
When I got into mile eighty, I collapsed in front of the same medic from before. He didn’t exactly look psyched to see me.
“Let’s take a look,” he said, trying not to meet my eyes as I took off my shoes. It felt so good to get them off.
I didn’t know anything about treating blisters, so I sat back in the chair, grimaced, and let him peel the tape off my heel. When he did, the skin slid off with it.
“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCCKKKKKKKK,” I screamed.
I braced myself as he took hold of the tape on my other heel. He pulled again and the skin came away as easily as if he was peeling an overripe banana. I screamed even louder this time. The raw patches burned and the warm midnight air offered no relief to the tender skin.
“I think you should stop,” the medic said, finally looking me straight in the eye.
Even though I’d only completed a few races, I already knew that ultramarathons were as much about enduring as they were about running. There were others around me puking or cramping or hurting, or in various states of distress. So for him to tell me to quit was not only discouraging, it was frightening.
But fears be damned, I needed to finish this race. In my mind, I would not be an ultrarunner until I finished a hundred miler. I had finally found something that I thought could help me become a new person. It was the first thing in years that filled the void.
The medic’s question scared me; but like Kevin’s had before, it also pissed me off.
I stared defiantly back at him.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I answered. “I came to run a fucking hundred miler. I’m not stopping now.”
The medic sighed with resignation and started to cover my feet with fresh duct tape. I jammed my pathetic, swollen feet back into my shoes, which were nothing less than torture chambers at this point. As I stood up my legs quivered like a baby deer. I took a few steps, and it was the most excruciating pain I’d ever felt in my life.
Now my shoes felt like they were stuffed with hot coals. Tears ran down my face.
I took a few more steps and started into a slow jog. That pain would be with me for the next eight hours. It would be my pacer.
I had twenty miles to go, longer than most runners ever go in a single effort. Twenty miles is a half marathon, then a 10K, plus a mile, and I’d be doing it on feet that were as soft and sensitive as a baby’s butt, on a trail riddled with tree roots and only the glow of my flashlight to show me the way. And then there were all those alligators that I was supposed to look out for.
It was pitch black now. The pain in my feet had reached fever pitch, but as I started yawning, it dawned on me that my feet weren’t my biggest problem anymore.
I’d never run all night before, and I was yawning a lot now. A thick desire to curl up in the leaves and take a nap was threatening to end my race.
I couldn’t take a break, no matter how badly I wanted one, because I was worried I wasn’t going to finish before the cutoff time, when they pull runners off the course regardless of how far they’ve gone. Even the fastest runners can’t afford to take much more than a catnap without missing the cutoff time, and I was one of the slowest. I had to keep going.
I weaved like a drunk driver across the wide trail, trying my best not to smash into other runners.
“Are you okay?” asked an older guy who’d obviously done this before. These types of guys always reminded me of my father. Later, many years after his heart gave out and he died when I was seventeen, I always thought my father would be one of those guys if his time wasn’t cut short.
“I’m just so sleepy,” I mumbled.
The guy nodded sympathetically. I wasn’t the only one shuffling around like a zombie at this point.
“You need coffee,” he said.
Coffee. Yes, I thought in a daze. Yes. Coffee. “Good luck!” he called over his shoulder as he jogged away into the darkness.
I was a couple miles from the next aid station. I knew if I could make it there, I’d be okay.
Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. It was a refrain I chanted with every painful step. All I wanted to do was lie down. I could barely hold my flashlight up, and its beam swung lazily across the trail, disorienting me. My eyelids slid closed while I continued to shuffle forward. They sprang open after I hit the ground with a thud. I pulled myself up brushing dirt from my hands.
Ultrarunners sometimes fall asleep on their feet because they’re so tired. We can even doze off while we’re running. I was lucky not to get hurt, but I was still exhausted as I stumbled forward. I was in serious trouble.
That’s when I really felt the sense of community that led me to ultrarunning. Ultrarunners all look like regular people, the kind you might pass on a busy city street, but there’s one key difference: they are all achieving these amazing physical feats. As other runners passed by and saw I was delirious from pain and exhaustion, something they’d felt themselves many times before, something many were feeling right now, they smiled and encouraged me, or asked if this was my first hundred miler (I’d hoped it wasn’t that obvious, but I guess it was).
This was the kind of support I had been missing in my life since I had to move away from all my friends. Right then, my mom was the only one who seemed to be on my side. Even Kevin seemed to doubt me at times, as he did during this race.
But ultrarunners watch out for one another. It was as if everyone on that trail understood each other, and thus understood me, without evening knowing my story. A voice rang in my ears, out of the darkness.
“Can I get you anything?”
The aid station! I’d made it. Hell yes.
“I need coffee,” I said.
“We don’t have any,” the volunteer said, her kindly face crinkling with sympathy.
My heart sank. I was done. I could run through pain, but I couldn’t stay awake any longer.
“We could make some more,” the volunteer said. “I think.”
“How long will that take?” I said.
“Um . . . maybe twenty minutes or so?”
I didn’t have twenty minutes. I’d stiffen up. My feet would turn into blocks. I’d probably fall asleep. My race was over. And then Kim’s voice chirped behind me.
“Is this your first hundred? I haven’t seen you before. I’m Kim,” said a runner behind me in a warm Texas accent through bright-red lipstick. She obviously had done this race several times. “How are ya doin’?”
“I need coffee,” I said back to her.
Kim shook her head. Her face was fully made up, which I thought was funny for a race. “You need NoDoz,” she said. “Here, hon. I have some.” She rummaged through a pack she wore and pulled out some small red pills.
A jolt of anxiety shot through me as she held them out to me. It was so tempting, but I knew I shouldn’t. After all, I was out there almost dying while running a hundred miles because I was trying to ditch my life as a drug addict.
I looked down at the small caffeine pill in my hand. I now knew that there can actually be two defining moments in an addict’s life: when you get hooked, and, if you’re lucky and determined, when you decide to quit. The night in jail after the police broke down my door scared me so much, I knew I had to quit.
I’d done well up until that point to stay off drugs—I moved away from my friends, stopped going to the clubs, and had given up alcohol.
I stayed true to my diversion program and went to NA meetings every day. I was working in a bagel shop. But it was hard. I missed my friends, the deafening music of the clubs, and the rush from a bump of speed, especially now as I faced that last twenty miles.
I didn’t want to take anything that even resembled drugs. I was out there running to forget them. I was hoping ultrarunning would be the thing that would help me forget drugs. I was hoping ultrarunning would be the one thing that Peggy never had. And so any kind of drugs made me nervous after my addiction. I didn’t even take Advil any more, despite, you know, the fact that pain meds can really help you through a hundred-mile race.
I rolled the tiny caffeine pill around in my hand. It seemed a lot like the speed that kept me awake for hours on end in my old days. It would give me the same kind of energy. As badly as I needed it, this scared the shit out of me.
“It’s just like coffee,” Kim said, sensing my hesitation. “It’s the exact same amount of caffeine.”
She could see that I was still worried.
“Just take half,” she said.
I popped the pill into my mouth, bit it in half, and tucked half away. Just fifteen minutes later, I was awake.
The other runners all seemed to be out there to cheer me on. It was the kind of support that was, well, addicting. I started on again, following Kim until she ran ahead. I felt better knowing that she and her red lipstick smile would be out there on the course with me.
As I started into the last twenty miles, my feet begged me to stop. I walked and ran through the heat of my chaffing toes and the cold of my shredded heels. The haze of my exhaustion and the buzz of the caffeine was all that kept me going. It really was like a dream. A nightmare really. Only my tears and the stabbing pain reminded me that I was still out there, on the course, trying to be an ultrarunner.
The sounds of the night, the buzzing bugs, and the whispers of the other runners all faded as the first light washed through the trees. The thick branches blocked most of the early morning light. The dim light made things seem that much more surreal. I would see a tree or a bush and think it was another runner. The tree roots on the ground turned to snakes slithering from the swamp. I jumped out of range of imaginary fangs a few times, yelping when I landed hard on my ruined feet.
I was miserable, in a painful daze. I kept going, but doubts were just behind me, on my heels, while the pain continued to pace me.
I began to yawn again—the NoDoz was just starting to wear off. The crickets were silent, but I could hear birds chirping. I could see the sky begin to glow, and I stashed my flashlight.
As I ran out of the trees, the morning sunlight washed over me. It was warm and bright, and energy spread through me. The birds grew louder. The crowd was bigger. The end was closer.
My head was full of thoughts of my dad as I stumbled through those last few miles. I talked to my father in my head with pride. Look at what I’m doing now, Dad, I said to him as I stumbled home, bawling.
Just get there, I thought. Just a few more miles. Just get there.
The faint cheering that had teased those last few miles slowly became louder, and I ran a little faster.
My feet hurt and my legs were killing me, but they worked. I thought of my dad, of Peggy, of all the addicts I had left behind, the runners whose bodies were too broken to run again. I was running for all those who couldn’t.
I rounded a corner, one that I’d seen four times. The cheering got even louder. I realized I had less than a mile go to, and then I saw the finish.
When I finally crossed the finish line in that mad dash, I thought a bolt of lightning would strike me down. Or something corny like that. But it wasn’t nearly as dramatic. I crossed the line, kicked off my shoes and the duct tape hanging from my battered feet, and fell to the floor smiling.
I never did see any alligators.