My One Big Goal - 700 miles

My One Big Goal - 700 miles

Running from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Savannah, Georgia

Miles Run So Far: 63.7

Miles To Go: 636.3

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Lone Ranger gets by with a little help from her friends

A few months ago, Tara, a "virtual" friend of mine (i.e. someone I only know via online, social networking sites), planned on coming to Philadelphia to participate in an ultra race and she needed some runners to pace her. I signed on for this gig, even though I had little idea what "pacing" someone really meant.

In the last few weeks before the race, the 20in24 Lone Ranger Ultra Marathon, things started to get real. Real, as in I'd agreed to run 16 miles with Tara even though my longest runs ever in my entire life were 13 miles. Real, as in someone was depending on me to run long enough and possibly fast enough so that she'd make her goal (running 100 miles). This was a bit scary for me, since I generally run only for me, and I'm a bit of a slacker. Tara is no slacker. (Here's Tara's own blog...)

However, on Friday July 16th, I wandered the house gathering all sorts of items I'd agreed to bring to the race: a scale, pompoms, hydrogen peroxide, scissors, markers, chairs, blankets, coolers, a foam roller, pillows...My car was packed to the gills with so much stuff that neighbors must have thought I was preparing for an apocalyptic event rather than camping along the banks of the Schuylkill River.

When I met Tara, I was so excited - here, in the flesh, was my virtual friend! She sounded just like I thought she would and was just as cool in person as she seemed online. I also got to meet Bethany, captain of Team Ultara (our pacing/support team), and Anna, a good friend and fellow relaxed runner. The four of us went over gear and race strategy, had a pasta dinner, and went to bed early.

By 8 am on Saturday, the four of us were setting up camp behind the Philly Art Museum. Up went our tent, we unloaded all our gear, and killed time until it was close enough for the race to start. Finally, Tara took off running, and Team Ultara had about 75 minutes of time to kill.

Honestly, I think I was pretty disorganized as a support person for Tara's first 2 laps. I wasn't expecting Tara - this funny, smart, laughing person - to transform into this lean, mean running machine. Man, was I impressed! Tara flew in to the transition area, told us what she needed and was gone before I could count to 21. In fact, on lap 2, Tara didn't even stop for fuel, water, electrolytes - she just kept running!

But, by lap 3 Bethany, Anna, and I had our assignments. We decided zone defense was our best offense. Bethany's role was to QB - talk to Tara, find out about fuel and needs. Anna was on water duty. My role was to get Tara to drink her Ensure and refill her electrolytes. Truthfully, we were pretty awesome at it! Like a well oiled pit crew, changing tires and getting our racing machine back out there to burn rubber (ok, I've mixed quite a few metaphors, but you get what I'm saying).

Tara is such a fighter! She often has to battle a wonky stomach, and the heat and some hidden gluten had her insides all messed up. She looked like hell after lap 3 - like she'd run about 70 miles instead of 24. I couldn't imagine her running in that condition for another 20 miles, never mind her goal of 80 more. But, once her stomach settled down, she just dug in and ran on. And on. And on!

As I soon discovered, there are two sides of being on an ultra runner's team: the pacing side, and the support side. The support side is what I've been describing - checking on nutrition, water intake, asking about blisters or chafing. Then there is the actual running with your runner, the pacing.

I was Tara's third pacer of the day and got to run with her at about 9 o'clock at night. Pro: it's dark and the heat is seeping away. Con: it's my bedtime.

I'd been practicing pacing in my head for the last couple of weeks. Each time I'd run, I'd pretend I was with Tara, and asking her questions. "Did you take your electrolyte tablet?" "How many calories do you need this loop?" "What do you want in your handheld?" I had to get myself ready to run with the focus not on me and my body, but on Tara and her body.

Turns out, Tara sort of hit the wall on my lap. Which is to be expected. She'd been running for 11 hours straight, no breaks. Other Lone Rangers would run a lap, hang out in the air conditioned exhibit hall or at their tent site, then do another lap. Tara, she planned to be on her feet, moving forward, for 24 hours straight. No stopping.

This lap was one of Tara's longest, timewise. We walked quite a bit, especially while she was eating. At one of the aid stations, Tara wanted Coke in her water bottle and the volunteer was so confused. Tara kept saying "I want Coke" and the volunteer would say, "Gatorade or water?" over and over again. The volunteer filled a dixie cup with an inch of Coke and set it in front of Tara, and then looked at me with this expression like "your runner is losing it" and asked me if she should put water or Gatorade in the water bottle. "COKE" I said, and then explained to the incredulous volunteer, "Coke has calories and caffeine. It's what ultra runners need."

I have to say, running at night in Philadelphia was pretty cool. We were running along the Schuylkill River, with Boathouse Row all lit up, sparkling in the cool night air, a gorgeous quarter moon hung low in the sky a lovely harvest gold color. Generally, Philly isn't safe enough to run in Fairmont Park at night, so this truly was a unique experience. I even saw two hookers and their pimps, who looked a bit put out by all the lights, runners, and volunteers on bikes, scaring away the johns.

Tara and I kept going over the math in our heads: how many miles she had yet to go to reach 100, how many hours she had yet to accomplish this task. The math said she had it nailed, with up to 2 hours to spare.

When my lap with Tara was done, I passed her off to Anna, explaining how Tara was doing (feeling really tired and not wanting to eat). Tara's watch had died and she wanted her back-up which was at the campsite. She and Anna took off running, I hauled our refueling gear from the transition area to the campsite, found the watch, and jogged off to find them. I mean, how fast can one girl run after already completing 67 miles? Turns out, pretty fast! I had to sprint for about half a mile to catch up with them, blowing by a few younger guys, who were impressed with my super speed. When I turned back around to head to the camp, they were shocked that I ran all that way just to pass off a watch..."it's for my runner" I said, feeling very proud of Tara.

Then, I went to the hotel for a nap. When I woke up at 4:30 and checked in with Bethany, she reported that Tara was on lap 11, at the three mile mark, and her feet were killing her. They were going to stop at mile 4 where there was a small medical aid station to check out her feet. The good news: no blisters. The bad news: Tara's feet hurt so much she couldn't run at all. They walked. At mile 5 they called me to come pick up Tara - we had to get her to the main medical tent because something had gone very wrong with her feet.

There we were at the medical tent, ice bags surrounding her feet, and the doctors told Tara she was done. She had contusions on the bottoms of both her feet. "But I'm in 3rd place," Tara said, "Do you think I can go back out and walk?" They looked at her like she was nutz. Doctor #2 said, "If you were repeatedly hitting your head on the wall and your head hurt, what would you do?" "Stop hitting my head," Tara said dejectedly. "Yeah, but," Bethany chimed in, "if you were in 3rd place in the Hitting Your Head contest, you might do it one or two more times, right?"

When the doctors became more involved with another runner, Team Ultara made our getaway. I drove Tara back to the 5 mile mark, dropped her off at 6:55 am - she still had 3 hours to go and even walking slowly could finish several more miles. Tara had on my flipflops, the biggest shoes we had for her tender feet. She took mincing, little steps with Bethany on one side, Anna on the other. I parked a mile away...30 minutes later, Tara arrived at mile 6. I was thrilled with the time she was making. I whooped and hollered...I joined the Team as we walked with Tara. I read to her all the texts I'd received from our awesome Running Moms group, and Tara laughed at their outrageously loving support of her.

Each step was a battle for Tara. We knew that 3rd place was gone. We knew that 100 miles was gone, too. But even knowing this, Tara kept going. Step. Step. She wouldn't quit. When walking became difficult, she actually crawled in the grass along the path, giving true life to the Dean Karnazes quote, "Run when you can. Walk when you must. Crawl if you have to. Just never give up.”

After walking with Tara for half a mile, I ran back to the car and drove it to find another spot to park, just in case. And about ten minutes later, I got the call from Anna, "Tara's done. Come get her."

Part of me felt such sadness over this, Tara's goal that she trained for over 5 months, her dream of 100 miles in under 24 hours set aside. And yet, I was in complete awe of her - her determination, her courage, her faith in herself, her strength and will.

Final tally: 92.5 miles in 22 hours.


  1. All I can say is THANK YOU!!! You were amazing.

  2. 1st - I think it is amazing that anyone could even contemplate running 100 miles in 24 hours. I am still working on getting my 5K time down.

    2nd - Jill, you are an amazing friend to support Tara in this adventure.

  3. I remember when you came running up with that watch huffing and puffing and saying, "I didn't think you guys would be this far already!" I had to do the same thing on the next lap when I forgot to put the electrolytes in Tara's pocket & I thought the same thing. She was still RUNNING! As always, it was great hanging out w/ u Jill! Oh and I forgot how beautiful it was with the houses all lit up like a Christmas village.

  4. Thanks for sharing your story - you are awesome, and I continue to be amazed by Tara.