Ancient Oaks 100: The Little Engine That Could

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By Jodi Weiss

Stu Gleman’s vision

It is hard to imagine that this was my fourth time running Ancient Oaks 100. The thing about traditions is that they form, often without our realizing it. Ancient Oaks, founded by the late Stu Gleman, represents all things end-of-year and holiday to me. It’s a time to reflect over all that the year has been—and what better way to do that than to run around a 3.45-mile loop 29 times? It’s also a time to visit with ultra-running friends and their families, and for my dad to hang out with the Florida ultra-crazies and have some fun in the parking lot of Titusville, Florida’s Enchanted Forest.

Stu Gleman founded this race in 1999. The race was invitation only, limited to 20-25 runners, and Stu went so far as to interview each of his runners by phone so that he could determine if they had enough experience and the ability to be self-sufficient to complete the race, which has minimal support. Stu served as the race director until 2009, when he handed over the race present day race director Mike Melton. Mike explained that Stu asked him to take it over as he was “pissing off too many people.” While Mike has kept the invitation-only aspect of the race alive, he has increased the field to 60 runners. The race remains free—the park is “sensitive about someone or some organization profiting at the expense of the park,” and in the tradition of a fat-ass event (no fee, no aid, no swag) there is no buckle to claim once completing 100 miles; instead, finishers receive an awesome laminated drawing of trees, rainbows, and happy skies by school children.

I got to meet Stu during my first three years of running AO as he was out on the course with us all, battling the roots, tree logs, and massive oaks. My most recent memory of Stu was during the 2015 race, when nearing nightfall, Stu went out on the course with a knife, determined to “fix a root” that was not his friend. This year, at 6:30 a.m., as racers were in the midst of final race prep, Mike Melton and a host of Stu fans led a tribute to the late Stu Gleman. He had passed away in early September 2016. Stu’s family, friends, and former college buddies each shared stories about Stu, ranging from tidbits about his intellect, to his love of racing, to his good natured-ness, and his devotion to his cats, who currently reside with ultra-running legend Ray Krolewicz.

The beginning

And then we were off! The first few loops, as I settled into the routine of sand, concrete, trail, plank bridges, trail, down-swooping bridge, up the steep stairs, and onto the sandy coming-into-home-base stretch, I thought about this sport, and how it has evolved since the days that Stu created this event in 1999, when the thought of running an ultramarathon was nonexistent in my life. Since running my first 100-miler back in November 2011, though, what I have learned is that in the world of ultrarunning, we become family. I have come to expect that I will see my friends at the next race, and likely, the one after that. But life is fragile, and regardless of running and our commitment to healthy living, we are mortal beings. There are no guarantees; next races are not definite. They are possibilities in our lives, and our showing up and being fit and well enough to race depends upon a multitude of details working in our favor. The pre-race memorial touched me. People loved Stu. They knew him for who and what he was. What a great honor for people to know you, and how lucky we are for races, with their travel, and pre-race gatherings, and the hours that they give us out on the road or trail which grant us the time and space to get to know one another in a way that is not always possible in the helter-skelter of our everyday lives.

About races

No matter how many races I complete, I am amazed at how much I am always learning the minute I put one foot in front of the other. Races teach me how to push through the miles, as well as how to push through my sometimes negative thoughts, pain, mental roadblocks, physical catastrophes, monotony, disillusionment, boredom, and my own limitations. It is easy to feed yourself the negatives: no, I can’t do it; no, it’s too hard; no, it hurts too much; no, I have work on Monday—I cannot afford to be in pain; no, I am not strong enough; no, I didn’t train enough. The no’s abound. Because at the onset, it really doesn’t feel like you can push through 100 miles. It is counter-intuitive to do something that hurts, that causes aches and pains and ouches. But what you learn is that pain is not a dead end. There is something beyond it, and that eventually, you forget about the pain you are in and your mind moves on to other topics—the world around you. What you are grateful for. What is going right for you, because there is always something going right.

The last week of my semester, I talked with my college students about Viktor Frankl and Elie Weisel. I was reminding them of the fact that you can be in a dire situation, but still find light within you to help pull yourself through. Fankl and Weisel were the first two individuals who came to my mind. They were both Holocaust concentration camp survivors, and managed to endure against insurmountable odds. But they did more than endure—they thrived. To me, they redefined human capabilities. They grew, they loved, they transcended their situation, and ultimately, they went on to inspire generations. No, running an ultra is nowhere near the realm of Frankl and Weisel’s hardships, but knowing that we can survive difficult situations, is to me, a universal lesson that we can carry with us wherever we are, and whatever we are confronted with.

Somewhere in the middle

Out on the course, when the desperate mental dialogue set in and all of the other ultra-demons came out to get me, I thought about all of those in this great big world who would give anything to run. Who would view what I was immersed in as the most joyful opportunity. As an experience in freedom, and just thinking that, reminding myself of it, my heart lightened, and I reminded myself that I wanted to be out there running, regardless of it being tedious and my desire at times to quit. Life is sometimes tedious. If we can learn lessons to arm us for our upcoming chapters, then all the better. Learning to be with ourselves is work, but it’s worthwhile work, and helps us to become better versions of ourselves.

When I was nearing the 50K mark, I took my first face-plant on the course. The windy, curly roots which were dense around the two-mile point, grabbed me by the ankle, and pulled me backwards while my body lunged forward. I came around the loop, asking RD Mike and his crew if someone could come out there and cut those winding roots. I got a few, “Hmm, maybe’s,” and someone even handed me a knife, to which I shook my head. Finally, Mike said, “I have an idea: I can put down a red carpet over there so that Jodi doesn’t fall on those roots.” Laughter ensued, at which I was also told to walk that section so that I didn’t fall. All lovely ideas, and with that, I was done with Mike and crew’s shenanigans, and back to running in circles.

Second chances

We all have our moments and hours during races when everything is falling apart. For this race, things fell apart for me after the 50K mark. I felt good overall—no nausea; it was a sunny, warm day with just the right cool breeze rustling the trees as I came through the dense canopy along the course; and after 30+ hours of grading final student papers and tallying up grades, I felt happy to be outside and away from my computer and to-do lists. But then my knee acted up. It had screamed a bit at me earlier in the week—a long-time and persistent injury—at which point I rushed to my acupuncturist. But now it was really not that into running, and each time I tried to push off and run, my knee malfunctioned. It didn’t want to make the running motion. So, I walked. As fast as I could, and I committed to stay happy and focused (except for when I had a melt down and cried). Walking is always fine, but I didn’t have the utmost patience on that day. I couldn’t imagine walking for hours upon hours. I needed to speed it up.

The good news was that I decided I would just go for 100K, then go to the hotel, shower, eat dinner with my dad, and get a good night’s sleep. I deserved it! I had already survived two 135-mile races this year, and completed four 100-mile races amongst other, shorter ultramarathons. Who needed another one? But then I decided I was going to aim for 75 miles. Because somehow, I convinced myself I would feel better with 75 miles. Then, at the urging of Ray K and George Maxwell, who manned the 1-mile-in aid station, I was going for 80-something miles. Time was becoming an issue at this point. 80-something miles did not seem likely. And that’s when the magic happened. After falling asleep a number of times through the night while walking, and while sitting, I decided to give running another go. I had tried to run a good ten times up until this point, but no such luck.

With 80-something miles in, my knee decided to give me a second chance! I was back to cruising along. I knew that I would not be able to complete 100 miles—time was simply running out, but Ray K insisted that I could do it. RD Mike agreed that if I completed each loop in an hour or under, I could pull it off. But I was tired. I was beyond 25 hours into the race. I didn’t know if I had it in me to push for the next six hours. There was that drama, and the fact that my dad, against my wishes, had pulled an all-nighter. He had refused to go back to the hotel when my knee gave out, because he wanted to be around if I needed help. Sure, he slept in the car for a few hours, but I really wanted him to be off duty—it was time for him to get some rest. When I discussed the possibility of being out there another six or so hours with him, he said, “of course you have to try to finish; don’t worry about me.” The race volunteer crew assured me that he had eaten donuts and waffles, and some pizza, which made me feel better. So it was to be: I was going to attempt to finish the race.

The final push

Quitting is the easy decision, and at the time, it’s the more comfortable one, too. Quitting means sitting down and relaxing! But I also know that quitting, for me, has mental and emotional repercussions. It leads me to ask: if I quit this, what else will I quit? And will it be a pattern? And what if I cannot stop quitting? It sounds silly, but in the moments that we make decisions, it’s real. The thing about races is that keeping going is hard, and while there’s no real reward for those of us who keep going, if anything, we earn the peace of mind that is linked to finishing something that we started. There’s a sense of completion and accomplishment that even if short lived, exists.

With steady focus and determination, a bunch of folks pushing me on, and some conversations with my mom, I plowed forward. One loop down. Another loop down, and so on. With about 30-minutes left to the cutoff time, somehow, I clocked 100 miles. It was my 27th 100-mile finish. For the first time in a long time, I was proud of myself for sticking it out, and for the ability to transition from being so sure that I could not finish, to committing to it, and making it a reality. This one was for Stu Gleman, who I’m sure, if he had the chance, would have loved to be out there on that course, roots and all.

 

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