By David Lettieri
I had just started my 140th lap, which was the same number in miles during the third day of the 72 hour race at 3 Days at the Fair held at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta, New Jersey. The afternoon sun hovered in a cloudless sky as runners took cover in the shade. Some were still on the course braving the afternoon heat and I was one of them.
The past two days were as typically grueling as any other year at 3 Days. Heat and humidity baked the course during the day, which eventually gave way to mercifully cooler nights where the real running was done. My body felt dehydrated and my feet had swollen nearly a shoe size. Physically I wasn’t that beat up but emotionally I was down in the dumps. My mind was wandering as I was trying to find motivation on a course I’ve run more times than I could remember.
I rounded the out and back section of the one mile loop when I saw one of my best friends at 3 Days, Gary Ferguson running like he was on a mission. Over the years I’ve gotten to know “Fergy” very well and took every opportunity to talk with him. Gary had his ups and downs throughout the race but now he was looking strong. I asked what lap he was on and he said this was his 1,000th lifetime mile at 3 Days.
New Jersey Trail series keeps a running tally of lifetime miles for all runners in all races at 3 Days at the Fair. It doesn’t matter what race you choose or how many miles you log per year; they add the miles to your lifetime total. They also provide coins when runners hit certain milestones: 100, 250, 500 and 1,000 miles and now Gary Ferguson, 60 years young, was galloping around the course about to reach this monumental milestone.
Earlier that morning another runner I have come to know and respect through this race, Bill Gentry completed his 132nd lap to reach the 1,000 mile plateau. Over the years I and many other runners have looked to Bill as a sage when it comes to running, pacing, nutrition, making yourself happy or just someone to have an entertaining conversation to help pass the miles. Though I wasn’t able to see Bill notch his 1,000th mile, I did hear him ring the bell that runners ring whenever they achieve a new personal record or pass a milestone at this race.
A few hours after Bill another staple at 3 Days, Fred Murolo, who had powered through the night and was painfully working his way around the course, finally crossed the finish line to record his 1,000th lifetime mile. Having surpassed the 200 mile mark twice in previous years, Fred has been as steady and consistent as anyone when it comes to 72 hour races. This year Fred was on a schedule and had to leave the race early to attend his daughter’s graduation but would not relent until he earned his coin.
Through freezing cold nights and blistering hot days, Fred willed his exhausted body around the course until he reached his goal. I was not there to watch him cross but he rang the bell to celebrate his 1,000 lifetime mile to the delight of the race directors, volunteers and runners alike.
Since I missed two of my favorite people at 3 Days reach their milestones, I wasn’t about to miss another very good friend reach his. Gary Ferguson turned the corner and caught me in a flash. Like a relay runner catching a head start before reaching for the baton, I was nearly at full speed as Gary zipped passed me. I increased my speed and in moments we were running shoulder to shoulder around the course.
We powered along like it was the final kick of a 5k. We didn’t speak a single word; our synchronized steps did the talking for us. We whipped around the course weaving between runners. We felt invincible. Gary would point in the direction he wanted to pass a runner and effortlessly we advanced. Cruising at a sub 7 minute pace we reached the final stretch when Gary shot off like a rocket.
Everyone cheered as Gary crossed the timing station and he barely looked winded. I clapped and cheered for a friend I’ve gotten to know over the past six years. Gary is one of the kindest and most positive people you’d ever meet. He always has cheerful words of encouragement or a funny story to help take your mind off of things. Not one for excessive training, Gary has a gift of relentless forward progress and can run, walk and move forward, no matter how physically or mentally drained he is.
Gary looked relieved, accomplished and proud of his 1,000th mile milestone. He gave hugs to the race directors Jen and Rick McNulty and smiled as others congratulated him on his effort. After crossing the timing mat I congratulated him on his achievement and took a moment to soak it all in. Soon it would be my turn.
I was worried if cranking out a 7 minute mile would destroy my body but that actually turned out to be the energy boost and motivation I needed to get going. I had 17 miles to reach my 1,000th mile and I was ready to work. I battled through the hottest part of the day and was churning out miles faster than before. A violent thunderstorm ripped through and forced me to take a break but once it was over, I was back out and ticking the miles off.
As I started my 1,000th mile I found another good friend, John Fegyveresi who was absolutely crushing his race. John and I have battled in the past at 3 Days and his hard work, effort and sheer determination has pushed me to become a better runner. I could think of no one better to accompany me as I reached my milestone.
Together we jogged around the track reminiscing of the time he and I both reached 200 miles at the same time two years ago. I know John was tired and running faster than he wanted but I was happy he was pushing himself to watch me cross the finish line. Once we reached the stone pavers that mark the start/finish of the course he said: “It’s all yours” and let me run it in.
As I ran along the final stretch of road towards my 1,000th mile, I remembered the first time hearing about the lifetime mile coins five years ago from race director Jen McNulty. I had just finished my first 12 hour race at the inaugural 3 Days at the fair. I logged a respectable 56.61 miles and did the math to see how long it would take me to obtain each coin. I remember thinking about the 1,000 mile coin in awe; like it was this unobtainable distance I would never reach.
Five years later I crossed the timing mat to complete my 1,000th lifetime mile at 3 Days. I thought about my life, my running career and how far I’ve come in both. 3 Days at the Fair has always held a special place in my heart because it’s a race that has continually challenged me to push the boundaries of what I thought was possible.
After crossing I grabbed the PR bell and rang it for all I was worth to signify I had reached 1,000 lifetime miles at 3 Days. I was congratulated by Rick and Jen and everyone else who happen to be at the timing station. I then did something I never did before at this race. To fully embrace my milestone, I grabbed a beer and walked a victory lap with three of my best friends: Melissa Huggins, Pablo Espinosa and his fiancée and crew Kelly Ward. As we walked a lap we reminisced about the past, talked about the future and laughed the entire time.
Coming into the race this year I didn’t have a goal pace, I didn’t have a secret number set in the back of my mind and I didn’t care about my overall place. I wasn’t out to hurt myself or suffer needlessly. This year I was more focused on the experience and having fun. This year I completed what I set out to do and felt the joy that Bill, Fred and Gary had felt as they notched their 1,000th mile. Together we, the 1,000 mile class of 2015 joined its only other member Darren Worts. Darren has proven to be far and away the best and most consistent runner in the history of 3 Days and he had reached 1,000 miles the year before. It is an absolute honor to stand in such good company.
Over the years at 3 Days I learned you run this race with your mind, happiness is the most powerful emotion to pull you out of the darkness, log as many “ninja” miles as you can at night and a good conversation is more motivation than any song or playlist. I have become close friends with many runners at this race and one thing is for certain: though you may arrive at 3 Days a complete stranger, you always part ways as best of friends. As I finished my victory lap to log my 1,001 lifetime mile I looked at the path ahead…only 999 miles to go.