I’ve never been much of a God guy.
I believe more along the lines of ‘energy’ – meaning that your life circumstances become a by-product of the energy that you put out there – The way you treat people, the decisions you make, the things you share…etc.
But Saturday night, …no, actually Sunday morning, as I paced Ashley Walsh in her first 100-mile trail race, I witnessed one of the most incredible awakenings I have ever seen in my entire life.
This is my attempt at trying to express what I experienced, how it made me feel, and perhaps how it has changed my life for the better – most likely forever.
Another Weezy adventure
Once again that little weazly weasel, Wayne Downey, talked me into something gnarly at some far out sketchy place. Since he had plans to pace one of our friends in the Bartram 100-mile trail race, buried deep in the wallows of Milledgeville, Georgia, and known for its State Asylum for the Insane, he thought having me along for the ride might be fun.
“Come on, man, ride’on down with me.” He says.
“It’ll be cool…” He says.
“just go with it…” He says.
I fought it and fought it, but eventually and as usual, I caved in…
Seeking a night pacer
Ashley Walsh is, er, was, more of a Facebook friend than a real life experience friend; but, she posted on Facebook that she was running her first 100 at Bartram, and that she still hadn’t yet found anyone to pace her through the night.
I shot her a quick phone call and volunteered to pace her during those dark and lonely hours. First, I need the miles (well, maybe not 50!) and second, after the awesome experience I had pumping up Weezy, and watching Sean O and John Cremers pace him at the Pinhoti 100, I knew giving back for Ashley had potential to create a special experience.
But, I never, ever expected this…
Not starting out too well
Even though neither Weezy, nor I, knew what to expect in Milledgeville, the excitement was building. I was bouncing off the walls, making peanut butter, Nutella and chia seed sandwiches in his kitchen, getting my fuel together for possibly running as much as 50 miles.
We loaded up the car with chairs, tons of cold weather gear, and lots of food, and headed out towards the deep(er) south – but, man, we didn’t even get a chance to get out of his neighborhood when his runner calls to say that he had already dropped out of the race.
Then, in the same conversation, I learned that Ashley, my runner, was already being paced by someone who pretty much had been pacing her from the start.
I never heard of someone picking up a pacer so early in a 100-miler, so I started second-guessing my involvement.
To illustrate the situation, and honest truth be told, Ashley Walsh is one of the “pretty people” of the world, and I started imagining droves of young dudes all salivating over themselves just to run with her. As the old, ugly dude, I didn’t want any part of throwing myself into such juvenile shenanigans – so I considered bailing – or, at the very least, pacing someone else with less associated drama.
Needless to say, things were starting to look sketchy, and Weezy and I made our way South feeling, all of a sudden, a little less-than-excited.
A loop with a whippet
Beth McCurdy might just be one of the fastest road runners in our big ol’ running crowd. Since we arrived at Bartram Forest a little early, I jumped at the chance to run a 5.6 mile loop with Beth as she closed in on second place in the 100K race (62 miles).
This was awesome. Beth already had 52 miles on her legs, but I literally had to work to keep up with her as she just continued to chip away at the trail miles like an Energizer bunny. I kinda wanted to pace Beth in her last loop as well, but my commitment was to Ashley, and it was starting to get dark…
And away we go
Sure enough, when I saw Ashley, she was already being paced, but as the darkness settled in, she asked if I was ready to go.
In fact, after my loop with McCurdy, I was more-than chomping at the bit to get running.
Ashley and I are similar in that we both like to talk ‘smack’ related to strength training and completing tough challenges – but we’ve really only done this via Facebook or text messages – without a lot of real face-to-face interaction. Sign of the times, maybe?
The first few minutes felt awkward for me as I really didn’t know what to say or if she even wanted someone to talk at all; but by the time we got halfway through the 5.6 mile loop, we were chatting away like old friends, discussing some pretty deep and serious topics, and sharing some similar – and some very different – perspectives. The girl is only 24, but has had life experiences that rival even the most experienced 35 year old.
I remember running along, being amazed how introspective she was, and feeling really stupid and cliche for making such “pretty face” stereotypical judgments about what she’d be like simply because of what I’ve heard.
Shoots, when I was her age, I was a 24 year old, mind-numb surfer floundering around in the oceans of the low country washing dishes, all with the emotional deepness of a granite counter top.
This girl was very well put together, …far beyond her years, and I knew this was going to be an interesting and entertaining day, …er night, of running in the cold, dark woods.
Is this girl for real?
We finished a loop together, and I had to remind myself that she was working on 55 miles.
Ashley was chugging through the miles with general ease. Extremely positive attitude, and fully in the moment soaking up every bit of fun and experience that she could. It appeared she was almost high on the overall experience and her goal to complete 100-miles.
And, it seemingly was never going to change.
Each loop brought the same great conversation with deeper and deeper subjects about life, family, friends, and of course ultrarunning.
A friendship was building.
We just kept chugging along, and I was starting to wonder if she was really human.
70 miles, and no real problems.
Daniel, Ashley’s husband, was an excellent crew chief. Each loop he’d get a quick analysis from me, sweep her up into a chair, feed her, fix her, dress her, and send her on her way. I was impressed.
Later in the night, her father showed up to support her effort as well, and turned out to be one of the biggest race savers for BOTH her and me…
…but, that’s still to come.
Somewhere around 73 miles
In all my ultra experiences, I have never witnessed such a “light-switch” change in a runner.
For the first time since we started running together, Ashley was asking to walk certain sections she’d been primarily running. She’d now run further than she has ever run before, and was starting to experience some of the usual suspects – stomach issues, foot pain and extreme (sleepy) fatigue.
If I was going to be a helpful pacer, this is where I needed to ‘earn my money.’
::: The Fall :::
If this entire report totally sucks, I hope the next couple of sections can, at least, express this situation in the same visual, experiential and shockingly exciting way in which it happened.
Somewhere around 80-ish miles, as we started off on her 15th, 5.6 mile loop, I started to get really worried.
It was somewhere around 3:00 a.m.-ish (I think) and it was raining – hard – with FREEZING cold wind making the low thirties temps feel like the low teens.
Add in the darkness of 3:00 a.m., and it was downright nasty out there.
Miserable conditions with a severity that came with little warning or expectation. We knew it might rain and we knew it could be cold, but I don’t think anyone expected to take the weather-beating that we did.
Luckily, just before we headed out into the nasty conditions, Ashley’s dad asked if we wanted ponchos.
“Oh Hell, yea! Please!”
Those ponchos proved to be the most important piece of weather gear we could have had – without them, we were done. I’m convinced.
As we left the aid station, Ashley was starting to slur her speech. I could barely understand her, or even hear her through the poncho hoods and pounding rain.
She was shivering badly, coughing incessantly, and along the way either a cold or asthma, or both, was starting to kick in on her lungs.
By the time we hit the single-track, her pace had started to wane and she was barely – and I mean barely – moving, and certainly not in a straight line. She was stumbling side-to-side, mumbling about being completely unable to think, and with absolutely no energy at all.
As her pacer, I so wanted to help, but wasn’t sure what to do. She had been eating fine – not a lot, but eating – and she was taking salt, and drinking every 2.5 miles or so. Her legs, despite being on empty, were not shot and nothing was really hurting her at all except for the occasional stomach cramps.
It got really bad, though.
I played all kinds of pacer games:
“just get to the grassy road and we’ll sit down,” I said, with of course, no real intention of letting her sit down, but giving some kind of light at the end of the tunnel during her rough low period.
“this is just a low, Ashley, and you’ll get through it – I promise.”
I’d look back and she’d be slumped over, staring at the ground, and begging to stop or sit down …now starting to say terribly negative things about possibly not being able to make it through the loop. She was too focused on having to finish this loop + three more, and the overall goal of 20 more miles was feeling too overwhelming during this period of gloom and doom.
Sleep deprivation was kicking in and she begged to lie down and just sleep for a minute.
(anyone who has ever been with me in a race in the middle of night knows that I can empathize with this desire very, very well. It’s one of my biggest 100-mile hurdles next to going out too fast.)
It wasn’t making it any better that the freezing rain was getting harder, the wind more intense, and the trail turning into a rushing river in which we had to dance around and navigate along to the far left and right. We were both so cold our conversations had been whittled down to broken sentences of shiver-talk.
It really was pitiful for us both.
I started to really get concerned as she seemed to be getting worse by the minute, a couple of times saying that she might pass out.
Yikes! Please don’t do that…
I knew this was an unlikely possibility, but I still worried, “How would I carry her out of here if she passed out?”
But before I could collect those thoughts, she saw some grass, and thinking it was the road where I previously promised her the chance to rest, she plopped down on the wet leaves, and sat perfectly still with her head hanging.
I sat with her. But not for long.
::: The Awakening :::
I remember thinking how I’ve so so so been here before, and that those experiences have taught me that I needed to get her moving. No part of the race was getting completed sitting here in wet leaves along the trail.
We were now at her lowest point of the race, and I had a little trouble accepting how rapidly it had all happened.
Did I do something wrong?
Did we run too fast when it felt easy?
Man, please don’t let me fail this girl.
I let her use me as sort of a walking stick.
She was holding on while trying to walk, slowly and wobbly, while resting her eyes at the same.
You have to admire the resolve. The desire to keep fighting even when you are as low as you can possibly get, but when we finally got to a specific section of open jeep road, she had to lay down, and there was no stopping her or talking her out of it.
Victor Zamudio would have snatched me up off the ground, kicked me in the ass, and said, “go boy” like he did at Cascade Crest, but I couldn’t exactly do that to a fatigued, tiny young girl.
So she lay there.
Maybe 2 minutes.
Maybe 5 minutes.
I’m just not sure exactly how long, but her eyes were closed, and the rain just kept on a blowin’ inside our poncho hoods as we sat in the wet grass motionless, getting colder and wetter by the second.
After a few minutes, I heard her quietly say, “Christian, I might DNF.”
“I can’t imagine doing this for three more loops. I can’t think. I can’t make any sense of anything. …I’m tired”
“Yes you can, but don’t think like that,” I said. “let’s just get this loop finished and see what happens.”
and I continued, “we aren’t getting any closer to finishing by sitting here.” - knowing that if I could just get her going again, history has proven that a runner will bounce back.
But it wasn’t me that got her going again.
Before I really knew what was happening, she was on her feet and walking very fast, with wide strides, and yelling out loud. Although I could not make out everything she was saying due to the weather conditions and our poncho hoods, it went something like:
“I am not stopping!”
“I can do this”
“God please help me because I will not give up. Give me strength.”
“I can’t stop”
“I won’t stop”
“Christian, we cant stop. I HAVE to finish.”
and then she took off. Like a 7:00-minute mile take off.
I could not catch her.
I had no idea what this was, or what was happening. I was literally in shock.
Was it a freak out?
Was it sleep deprivation?
Was it unbridled passion?
What just got into this girl???
Whatever it was, I knew I had to help get it under control or she might just burn through any last bit of physical and mental energy she had left and end up in an even deeper state of despair.
Towards the top of the jeep road climb, she finally slowed down and I caught up to her, doing my best to keep the situation together. Not saying that it was ME that kept the situation together, but not truly understanding what was going on, all I could think of to do was be focused and supportive.
She was crying, but they weren’t really tears of defeat, but instead more like tears of conviction.
Through passionate tears she’d say, “I won’t quit!”
and I’d say, “nope, you can’t.” in a stern, matter-of-fact, but calm way.
“I didn’t come all this way, to run in THIS place, and do all these miles, just to stop now.”
“That’s right,” I’d say, “we are going to finish this thing together.” – Knowing full well that I was not going to give up on her, and that I’d continue to dig in my bag of tricks to make sure she kept going at any price.
I don’t know how much she remembers from all of that, because at the time she was having trouble recollecting things that would happen as early as a half hour previous, but I hope that looking back she can relive that experience and tell me more about what happened to her…
To explain to me how, or what, got inside of her and drove out the demons of a potential DNF.
Knowing what I know now about Ashley, and how deeply she believes in her faith and its importance in her quality of life, it’s very hard for me to ignore a very evident and telling experience.
Yep, I can honestly say without fear of being cheesy, that I believe what happened out there was a direct result of her faith. However, whomever, whatever, that means.
Like I said, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own eyes.
While it seemed like forever, forever finally came
At the end of that long, emotional loop, we were both spent, and we staggered in as a couple of soaking wet, shivering dogs. Although she had come back from the dead, I was still a bit worried about her motor skills during the last mile of trail and I whispered to Daniel, her husband, that she was staggering and had experienced a bit of a meltdown on that last loop.
He looked at me and matter-of-factly, with zero emotion, said, “well, you just have to keep her going.”
And he was absolutely right.
At that very moment, I finally fully understood why I was there in the first place.
My accepted responsibility was NOW starting to mean something.
Pacing a runner in a 100-miler is not about simply running along with someone talking about the weather and mutual friends, it’s about being that rock to lean on when the physical, mental, and emotional stabilities start to crumble and fall.
Both people can’t get down.
The pacer HAS to stay up.
Has to stay positive at all cost.
Has to be there to make sure that their runner has complete confidence in them and that they will do whatever it takes, regardless of even their own pain and doubt, to make sure that the runner erases all possible fear and continues on in the fight to the finish.
Although Daniel may not even remember saying something so simple and obvious to me, it was yet another very profound moment in the race, and spoke volumes towards how I planned to handle the rest of my duties.
Only three, 5.6 mile loops to go… she’s going to make it, dammit. It’s as simple as that.
And the fun continues
“Say something to make me laugh” she said as we slowly headed back out into the freezing temps and rain yet again.
“Every time I make you laugh, you tell me to stop making you laugh ‘cuz it hurts your stomach.” I snapped back.
That alone made her laugh, and set the tone early for the rest of the loop.
We were slow, but we talked a lot, and she even said a prayer out loud as we descended into the next section of what we called, “creepy trail.” And although I’m not 100% comfortable with Christianity, it felt comforting to listen to her words and even more so when she tossed in there for the ol’ dude upstairs to watch out for me, too.
In this tired, emotional state, it choked me up a little, but I didn’t show it, and we just kept moving.
Setting up a family moment
For two more loops we navigated the course with me constantly assuring Ashley that not only could she do this, but that she was going to do really, really well.
“26 hours in the bag.” I kept saying.
And as we headed off for the next to last loop, I casually looked over at her dad and said, “so what’ya think Dad, you ready to go out on the last lap, and finish with Ashley?”
He agreed, noting that he’d have to walk along as he only had his work boots to wear.
“it’s ok, by that time sir, she’ll be happy to simply walk it on in with family in tow.”
Because its better when everyone gets to play
This was something I had been cooking in my mind since her dad arrived late into the event. Ashley had shared a lot with me on the trail, and I knew how important her family was to her and how special it would be for the people in her life to get a chance to gain an understanding of what she’s trying to do.
So often our family and friends simply shrug us off as self-absorbed insane adrenaline junkies, and getting a chance to bring them inside is not only an eye-opener for the friend or family member, but incredibly rewarding for everyone involved as well.
I knew it would mean a lot to Ashley to finish with her husband and father.
I did my work.
I got her to the end.
They did their work by supporting, feeding, hydrating and loving her after each loop.
Now, it was everyone’s turn to experience success.
Ultrarunning is not just about the running.
If it was, it would get pretty boring for this scatter-brained kid.
Ultrarunning puts athletes in situations that call on all sorts of life experiences and human emotions. There is so much to learn in this sport, and as someone who spent most of their early life in a self-absorbed state, treating friends and family like his own personal entertainment index, and rarely sharing his own personal gifts, ultrarunning continues to make me a better person.
At least by “better”, I mean someone with whom I’d like to be friends, so that’s a pretty good start for me. A late start, yes; but we all have to start somewhere.
Congratulations Ashley Ringo Walsh. The experiences we had on that loop from Hell, over and over and over, will stick with me as much, if not more, than all my other profound ultra experiences to date.
I learned so much and experienced so much in such a short, concentrated time frame.
I learned to never judge a pretty face with preconceived notions.
I learned how to be a real pacer, and by the way, when you made our finisher picture your ‘profile pic’ for a day on Facebook, I welled up with pride.
I witnessed the love of your family, and the excitement of new friendships.
And perhaps most importantly, while I am far from ever becoming a “Christian” in the standard societal definition, I am open to the idea of the existence of a God in others’ lives…
…because I witnessed it in you, and cannot deny it.
I am so thankful for the experience.
Life is good, and you girl, are now a proud member of the 100-miler club.
Welcome to the insanity.