By Darrin Denny
There I was. Departing the final Massanutten 100 Mile Endurance Race aid station. Most military guys start stories with “there I was” in case you didn’t know. One steep climb, a steeper downhill and the finish line was within reach. My first 100 mile ultra-marathon nearly complete. Despite the impending finish, running down this hill was agonizing. My ankle looked like a softball, a “minor” issue over the past 18 hours. The injury was not part of my race plan. One of those runner gifts ultra-marathons are infamous for. Most “gifts” typically fade into the background as bigger problems like exhaustion, nausea, and dehydration supplant everything else. Obviously this was more significant but repeatedly my mind grasped one of the defining themes in my life, I do not quit, not ever. Finish what you start, no matter what.
With that battle cry of course I had to finish. I prevailed with a strong sense of relief, pride, and amazement. All of these competed, a fusion of them all. Practically, I thought thank God, I can finally take this shoe off! In retrospect, the most accurate description of my feelings was satisfaction. Somehow I knew from that day forward I would always be a runner; it would not just be one of my ephemeral obsessions but an integral part who I am. No not always struggling along in a hundred mile race or even other ultra-marathons, but there would always be something to run towards. Finishing was exceptional, validating the hard work, sacrifice, and pain. What it took to get there and persevering through major adversity highlighted what I have learned in significant life moments. Satisfaction is not always based on a successful conclusion but often on the journey itself.
“You are going to run the Marine Corps Marathon, right?” The journey started with this question. Being one of those guys, incapable of saying no to any challenge, my answer was absolutely. I survived my first marathon with an uninspiring effort but something unexpected happened along the way. It’s unknown to me when it occurred, perhaps at the finish or even days later. Regardless, an undeniable feeling of accomplishment existed in parallel with a sense of not quite meeting the mark. The preponderance of distance runners know all about this, the feeling that you left something out there. The mind can project strength but it can also do the opposite, promote weakness when none actually exists. For most mortals this happens in every race. The recognition of this weakness consumes you and your soul often demands redemption.
An addiction can be doubly outrageous if more than one person is consumed by the passion. That’s a special rule I have observed over many years and my exploration of the ultra-marathon world have proved no exception. In conferring with my closest running partners we deduced that the marathon was not enough and we needed to do a 50 mile race. We were completely unenlightened about what to do but we consumed great volumes of articles, websites, books, and applied it to our training. Experiments were conducted with different foods, gear, shoes, gels, pills, strategies, training methods, and anything at all that might mitigate our pitiful level of experience. The JFK 50 Mile Race day of reckoning arrived and it was everything we had prepared for, challenging but fun in a warped masochistic way. As novices we unexpectedly overachieved while learning what running an ultramarathon actually entailed.
Shortly after the finish we decided to build on our success. The Bull Run 50 mile Endurance Race started on a balmy 85 degree day with extreme humidity, a rare tropical spring day. Initially it was all fun and games, enjoying the day, well at least until the 30 mile mark. In hindsight there were warning signs throughout that shouted “something is wrong” but my inexperience pushed these aside. A highly unfortunate occurrence. For the last third of the race I could no longer drink or eat, and my whole body was in distress. Over several hours I experienced the most humbling experience of my life. At least that are for public consumption; there have of course been worse! I am betting most would consider it embarrassing to be overtaken by old women doing a form of trail jazzercise, a group of bird watchers, and a troop of brownies examining spring flowers. It was not so much that they passed me, it was the “are you ok” that got my attention. Clearly they were mistaken, did they not know I was an ultra-runner? Of course it could have been the salt all over me, my throwing up, the awkward limping downhill, or more likely the crazed look in my eyes that prompted their concern. I think I finished, barely. Not entirely sure as my memory took flight that afternoon. I sort of remember my partner waiting for me at the finish and also unsuccessfully trying to eat. Driving home is a lost memory; honestly the highway patrol should consider staking out ultra-marathons instead of the local watering holes. Most importantly I learned, filed it away for future use, and damn it burned. My body and soul had failed me completely and redemption was a must.
I was addicted to seeking the perfect race experience devoid of moments of weakness. Unfortunately there is no such guarantee in this sport, it’s a box of chocolates and you never know what you’re going to get. One minute you are fine and the next you are on your knees begging God for assistance. For all but the elite your mind, body, or both fail at some point. It is not always catastrophic, but it almost always happens. It leaves you with the thought “Next time that’s not going to happen.” Moral of the story is that it usually does and the true victory is racing again despite the fact that it probably will. You can guess what happened next. Somebody proposed the fabulous idea of doing something more ambitious. “What about Massanutten 100?” My redemption fix I guess and of course my partners were all in. Long runs, races, and anything that would simulate extended suffering became our obsession. My favorite was running to and from work, 16 miles each way. The looks people gave me when they found out I ran in that morning was also running home were priceless. To this day I greatly enjoy people saying “you are doing what?”
You have heard “there I was” regarding this race. Overall amazing, meaning it was awful and great at the same time. Obviously it was painful as any ultra-marathoner knows; sore feet, pounded thighs, nausea, and vertigo, amongst others were ever present. Curiously the shoes that were perfect in training nearly prevented my finish. One tiny imperfection translated into the previously described softball like ankle. In desperation I cut my shoe apart to keep going. Downhill for me was the worst and to top it all off we ran as a group of four. I know, it is supposed to be impossible for 100 miles. Everyone there thought we were crazy, and we were. Alternatively one guy would be falling apart and the rest strong, but “never leave a man behind” is imbued into you the day become a Marine. The ironic thing is that group effort was completely impulsive. Collective inspiration emerged around the twenty mile mark and we realized we were onto something greater than just an ultra-marathon finish. Aid stations loved us, we motivated each other, and our support team spurred us on. Yes we also bitched at each other mercilessly and personally I contemplated murder a few times but in the end we ran the race as one.
At the finish we successfully crossed the line together, four abreast, satisfaction defined. The two beers at the finish line were the best ever. The day was perfect, the immense pain making it even more so. No it was not as fast as I wanted but we substituted fellowship and honor instead. That is a trade worth making every time. One my fellow runners gave me a framed picture a couple of years later of the four of us finishing. The plaque says “As Iron Sharpens Iron, Man Sharpens Man.” Proverbs 27:17. Amen brother, a truer description of that experience does not exist. Satisfaction, if that is not addicting then nothing is.
In the years since, I have completed nearly 30 other ultras, some with friends and many alone. All have been rewarding, an integral part of who I am, but none have ever come close in matching the sheer enjoyment of preparing and running my first 100 mile race. The sense of comradery, discovery, and facing the unknown make it likely unbeatable. In the end that was the attraction and why it ended up being such a defining moment. Many ultra-runners will recognize something similar in their own ascendancy and like me continue to show up race after race praying to feel that again.