Sept 2012 Spartan UltraBeast Killington, VT DNF
Sept 2013 Spartan UltraBeast Killington, VT DNF
May 2014 ThunderRock 100 Cherokee, TN DNF
Sept 2014 Spartan UltraBeast Killington, VT DNF
June 2014 Death Race Pittsfield VT DNF
Nov 2015 World’s Toughest Mudder Las Vegas, NV DNF
Aug 2016 Yeti Snakebite 50k Atlanta, GA DNF
That list above was staring me in the face, or should I say, sitting on my back at the start of my Race For The Ages 100 mile journey. There are lots of “reasons” why I DNF all those events. Some were flat out “quits” and some were “ran out of time”. Those that have been around know none of that shit really matters. It’s a binary issue. You are either a person who crosses the finish line, or not. You get the bling, or you don’t. All these races were things I planned on starting and finishing, and had come up short, sometimes way short.
Showing up at the starting line for this race was the first time I knew deep in my gut, that it was hit my goal of 100 miles or else. Every other race I have ever run, there has been a small part of me that has said “If it gets too tough, you can always stop”. I don’t think I consciously knew that until I spoke to my wife in the kitchen before driving to Tennessee for this race.
I told her (so that I would hear it myself), that there is no turning back for this one. That all the excuses in the world don’t matter. There was no “stopping so I don’t get more hurt or saving some for another World’s Toughest attempt in November. If I can’t run for months after this race, I don’t care, I’ve got to get 100 miles.” As I told her that, I knew that I needed to, had to, finish.
In all of those DNF’s above, there has always been a lot of chatter from me on social media about training for and then doing these events. Sometimes for fun, sometimes because I was asking for encouragement, sometimes for ego. This time I was going to do something different. Outside of telling a few close friends. I never posted anything publicly about this event. The only thing I was going to post was after it was over. When I hit my goal of 100 miles. I just knew that focusing on the event was where my mind needed to be. This wasn’t going to be about attention. (and that’s hard for an attention whore like me).
A Race For The Ages, from the mind of Gary Cantrell, aka Lazarus Lake. Here is the concept. Get a 1 mile looped course. Everyone who enters has one hour for each year of their life to complete the course. I was inspired to sign up after meeting Laz and his wife Sandra back in February. They convinced me that if Barkley wasn’t my thing, that I should do another one of their races. Race ends at Noon on Labor Day, Monday Sept 5th. Most miles wins. If you are 65 years old, you have 65 hours to run. I am 44 years old, which means I get 44 hours. Start time 4:00pm on Saturday, Sept 3rd.
Obligatory “Before” Shot
I decided bringing my 7 year old son, Jaxson, would grant us some nice bonding time, and would help give Mommy a break. I take off a lot on weekends for races, leaving my wife with 3 kids to watch. Those with kids know that taking away even one of those little burdens, I mean bundles of joy, can make your time solo parenting infinitely easier. Jax and I arrived and set up camp at around Noon on Saturday. I am not an “Outdoorsy” type of Dad, so camping does not come natural to me. I even needed help setting up my tent, which with today’s technology are almost idiot-proof. Shortly, thereafter Dario, this website’s webmaster, arrived with his little camper and set up camp next to us. He would not start until 4am, a full 12 hours after me.
All is set up, and I notice I am starting to have some anxious nerves and I can’t wait to start. After catching up with Dario, I decide to lay in the tent and chill til start time. I attempt to sleep, and can not. After a while, I look at my watch, it’s nearly 4pm, and I can think about making my way to the starting area. Except it isn’t.
I look at my phone and it’s 3pm. I failed to realize I have lost an hour driving into the central time zone. Fuck, I can’t sit here in a hot tent for another hour. There is a Waffle House up the road, so Jaxson and I head there. I need to eat light. Chicken sandwich plate with steamed hash browns is the healthiest thing I can think to order. I know my stomach can’t go sideways on me on this race or I’m screwed.
4:00pm. Saturday. Tammy Massie and I start together as the only 44 year olds in the race. Tammy’s done over 200 ultras, so I ask her about her goals and plans on how to attack the race. Her plan includes some very specific times which include stopping to sleep at a nearby hotel. I also tell her of my plan, which includes something I like to call “winging it”.
A lack of a real plan was my plan to reach 100 miles. This same plan had gotten me most of the DNF’s above, so some would say it was the wrong way to go. I mean I knew I’d sleep some, and eat some and run/walk a lot in between. I brought several running shirts, 3 pairs of shorts, several pairs of socks, a couple of pairs of shoes, a tent and some food. I knew I had to get to 100 miles before the clock struck Noon on Monday, but that was the extent of it.
The first thing they tell you in Ultras is you don’t go out and run 100 miles. In a point to point race, you run aid station to aid station. Or in a looped scenario like this one, just going lap to lap is the goal. So all you have to say to your brain is “one more lap”, when your brain wants to tell you that “100 miles if a really long way”, or “this is fucking impossible”, or “dude, mostly everything hurts, so let’s stop now.”
I got it in my head that 10 loop stretches seemed to be the number. Don’t ask why, it’s just what my brain latched onto. Not in a sense of “Lets go out and run 10 miles.” but more like “Let’s get that number on the screen to say 10 more”.
I was really excited to be out there in those first loops, but man it was hotter than I had imagined. I chatted with Tammy a bit more and those first 10 kind of flew by. Somewhere between miles 10 and 20, I begin running with Sue Scholl and Juli Astairs. We are doing some walk/running and making good time, and I am picking their brains to learn as much as I can on the fly about to survive these things.
Mile 20 rolls around, and I figure now is a good time to snag a couple hours sleep. It was actually when many competitors were getting back out on the course, because the sun was finally down, but hey I’m a rookie, and rookies make mistakes, so that’s what I did.
After a 3 hourish nap, I went to eat one of the prepped meals. There was some buffet style food being served every 6 hours, if you chose to pay for them in advance. I assumed there would be several healthy choices for ultra runners. Rookie Mistake #2.
Laz and crew served things that you would find at any awesome southern, down-home BBQ. This food is decadent and delicious. At any other time, I would dig in and take several helpings. When running for 24 hours plus, it can be touch and go on the stomach and nervous system so I wasn’t thrilled. My memory is a little foggy but I am pretty sure the first two meals I ate were macaroni and cheese with a side of a biscuit. Inside the biscuit was a giant hunk of ham the size of my fist.
I ran another 10 miles (30 total up to this point) and decided to catch some more Z’s. I crawl into the Wal-Mart tent I had bought just for the occasion and Jaxson is sound asleep. He’s also on the only pillow I brought. My thinking while packing for this was “I am going to lay down very little, and when I do, I’ll be so tired from running, I’ll sleep anywhere, easily”. Rookie Mistake #3. The tent was hot and uncomfortable. No pillow made it worse, I steal half the pillow from my slumbering child, and attempt to get unconcious. Not sure exactly when I fell asleep, but woke up around 7:00am, ready to take on some more loops.
Right around this time, Dario came by the tent so we could finally go off and run together. His race began at 4:00am which was shortly after I had last gone down to sleep. I began to think that I had slept too long and wished maybe I had gotten to mile 50 before taking the break I had. I told Dario I was at 30, and he said “I’m only at 16 and would kill to be at 30 right now”. This gave me a major mental boost as Dario and began to round the course several times together.
Dario and I – On a happy lap.
A short while later, I came across Lisa McGinnis and her two 2 boys, Shane and Ryan, and I asked them if they would be willing to hang and play with Jaxson. She and the boys were crewing for husband Mike, and they all said they would be happy to help. I would see Jaxson every few loops around and he was always playing with the boys and having a good time. This was a major weight off my mind and made a world of difference on the trip overall.
40 came and went and I hadn’t even stop to notice, til I looked at the big board on one pass and had 42. I decided 50 should be the next real break and hit that around 12:45pm. I went to nap inside the tent and could not. It was roasting in there. I tried napping outside the tent and flies would land on me just about any time I was about to drift off. Sleep was not really to be had, so I went to check out what was being served for a meal this time around. Turns out it was pasta, pasta with two types of ridiculously heavy sauce, red or white. I went with the white, but was pretty sure I’d be paying for either one later on. (I was right).
I was back on the course a little before 2pm and covered miles 50-59 in about 3 hours including breaks. It was still around 95 degrees, so these miles went much slower than I had planned. When I hit mile 59, Dario was at 40. He decided to take a serious break at this point. He realized that by doing so, his goal of 100 laps was not going to happen, but he had a new goal of 75 that still seemed attainable.
Somewhere in the 60-65 mile area, I ran across Juli and Sue again. At this time I noticed, Juli had the toe box cut out of her Hokas. I was reminded how I had seen Joe Fejes (who has the 3 day and 6 day record for these kinds of races) do this many years ago. My hot spot on long runs is always the outside of my big toe. I figured now was as good a time as any to test this shoe adjustment. She suggested I ask her husband Val do it for me the next time we passed the timing tent/home base area of the race. I stopped to look for Val but didn’t find him so I went out on my next loop. When I had come back around, I heard Mike Melton, the timing guy, say “Here he comes, Val”. Val stops me and introduces himself and says “I heard you have been looking for me”. Val, then proceeds to do some surgery on my Hokas. I thought to myself – “How amazing is this little community!?! Somehow in the time it took to me to do another loop, the word had gotten around that I needed help, and Val was ready with a pair of scissors to do the job!”
As I began to run in my “open air” shoes, I noticed how my big toe actually lands outside of where the inside of the shoe stops. Everyone should do this at least once to a pair of shoes, it was quite eye opening. It was also at this time that I begun to have the first of my digestive issues. There was a bathroom at the start/finish area where we got our meals, and there was also one at about the halfway point on the course. Thank God for that halfway point bathroom, as I had frequent stops. The last thing I ever want to read about in a race report is stuff that would gross me out, so I won’t do that to you either.
Suffice to say that a 16 minute lap can easily become a 23 minute lap when you have to hit the bathroom. Those extra 7 minute stops add up quickly as well. 2 of those and that’s a lap you could have done. It’s never an easy undertaking either. Every extra effort in a multi day race takes a toll. So it’s take off the camelbak, take off the phone case, take off the headphones, drop trow and do your business. Then, slowly get up, put everything back on, wash hands, and then slowly get the legs moving again to make your way back on course. It took me nearly 2 hours to cover loops 60-65.
By the time I hit mile 70, it was at little after 10:00pm on Saturday. I had 14 hours to go the last 30 miles. Up to this point, I was still just “winging it” with my “just 10 more loops” plan. Now I had to start doing the “countdown math” if I wanted to reach my goal of 100 with room to spare. The last thing I wanted was to have to truly run towards the end of the race when I knew I wouldn’t have the strength to. I also knew there was no way I was going to make it without at least a couple of rest breaks. So that’s 30 laps with 14 hours to go. My thought was I wanted to take 3-4 more breaks before 100 of about an hour each. This would still leave me 10 hours to do 30 laps. That’s 20 minute laps including breaks. I knew a fast walk was about 16 minutes, but that would still be cutting it too close, knowing I’d need to do various things like get food, water, check on Jaxson, etc.
It was actually too much to comprehend, so I just took a little over an hour break to eat something, change clothes, and get back to my mantra of the “the next 10 loops”. I distinctly remember hitting 74. I looked over at the big timing screen as I passed it and thought 74-Awesome! Only 26 miles to go! 26 miles. That’s a marathon.
This is never going to happen.
That’s when I forced myself to do that thing I’ve always read about and heard endurance runners talk about. I told myself that I did not have 26 miles to go. I began to tell myself mantras that got my head straight. One step a time…stay in your body…all that matters is this lap… all that matters is the next step. I had been presented with this situation many many times before. But in all those previous DNF’s, I never truly lived it, cause something in me, somewhere quit.
This time, I broke through. I found myself in that place over and over again. The “Fuck It’ Place. As in “Fuck It, I can’t do this…Wait -it’s just the next step and I can do that, I am doing that” over and over again.
Each time “The Fuck It” came, it passed. Eventually I was thinking of something else or I ran into someone else to talk to, or I was obsessing about some other problem in my life. The easiest way for me to get back in my body was to watch countless people around me keep moving, no matter what age, no matter what shape. None more so, than my ARFTA hero, the oldest entrant, Dan Baglione. I met him right before I started my first lap. Dude is 85, recovering from chemo treatments, and was on a mission to hit 100 miles. I saw him at all hours of the night, he’d be moving really slow at times, but he would be moving.
My hero Dan Baglione and I
Mile 79, a little after 3 am. 21 miles 9 hours. 20 divided by 9 is 2.3. As long as that number is below 3 (as in 3 miles an hour), I know I am on the safe side. I decide I can take one more hour actual stop, and still give myself a little bit of wiggle room. I choose to run as fast as I have in a long time and finished an 11:19 mile. My knees and calves felt every step of that mile. Sure sounds slow now, sure felt fast then.
I end my last long break at around 4:00am. 8 hours sounds like a long way away, but I know it’s going to come quick, so I get back to putting one foot in front of the other. God Bless “This American Life”. In the early morning hours of this Labor Day, Ira Glass and his merry band of story tellers kept me awake with episode after episode. Miles 80-90 took me nearly 3 hours. Moving ok, but still tons of them damn bathroom breaks. Curse you deep-fried-delicious-southern-buffet-meals-that-I-couldn’t-stay-away-from.
Mile 91 shortly before 9:00am. Dario has finally awaken from his slumber. He has a smile on his face but he is moving awful funny. He knew coming in that he hadn’t really trained for this race, but the reality hit him harder than he thought and he turned his timing chip at 40 miles. It would usually be at this time, that as his pal, I would relentlessly razz him for this. However, as my pal, he wanted me to finish no matter what. So he was encouraging me, filling my water for me, and walking parts with me. Every time I saw him, he’d assure me that I did not have time to dilly dally. I would want to stop to eat or drink or talk to Jaxson, and what felt like 30 seconds would pass before he would say “get moving!”.
I kept doing that math in my head and it still looked good to me, but Dario was not going to let it be too close. Neither was Laz, who whenever I saw him from 5am on, would remind me that if I didn’t keep moving, I was going to have to run when I didn’t want to.
The last 10 miles were probably my favorite. As I would see runner after runner on each lap, so many cheered me on and asked how close I was to my goal. It started out with just Tammy (who finished with 109), saying “Go Matt”, every time she saw me. Then slowly but surely, I’d see more and more that I had connected with over the weekend, that were so stoked for me to get my first Hundred.
Juli asked me how my Hokas were feeling as she raced to 162 miles and 2nd place for the women. Sue Scholl (131 miles) gave me encouragement and asked how close as I was. Sal Coll (161 miles), who I paced when he had a rough time at the GSER a few months back, kept smiling and cracking jokes with me whenever we passed. J.D. Pollard (75) and Nathan Johnson (65), two young bucks that were some of the last to start gave me that gave Advil and Tums when I desperately needed it. The Legend Himself Ray K (114), who talked with me in the late hours when I learned we were both born in Brockton Hospital. Mike (105) and Lisa McGinnis, who were extra invested in my success since they helped me take care of my son. It felt so good to have all of these folks that were pulling for me in such a big way.
Finally, that last lap rolled around. As I passed the 2/3 way mark near my tent, I asked Jaxson to walk the rest with me. I wasn’t sure how it would go, since he had been sitting in the tent all morning and letting me know each time I passed how eager he was to go home.
It made my heart sing that he agreed, and we began our procession to the finish line. Dario hurried into place to get this photo:
The second after this was taken, Mike the timing guy asked “One more for good measure?” Without hesitating, I said “Fuck That”. I had more than enough time to do another lap (or two?), but this was it. I was done. I went out and conquered something I never thought I would do, and many (including myself) thought I couldn’t do.
At the risk of getting SUPER heavy, it is the end of The Prayer of Saint Francis that comes to mind here.
“For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.”
Only by pushing through, only by getting past it, only by NOT quitting, do I truly own all those Fucking DNF’s from the top of this page.
I see how I truly quit in everyone. EVERY. ONE. At the beginning of this story I talked about “run out of times” versus “just quit”, but now I understand it on a much deeper level. Some I had quit halfway through, some I quit 30 minutes in, and some I quit before the event even started.
Thank you Laz (and Sandra) for providing me this amazing opportunity to finally get past all of it.
*** Sept 2017 Update. The following year, Dan Baglione returned to Race For The Ages for another loop (or 100) around the park. He started having some difficulties on the first day and was brought to the hospital. He passed shortly thereafter.
Here is what race director Laz wrote on Sept 9, 2017.
farewell my friend
I have had a lot of conflicting emotions about dan’s last great adventure.
dan had talked about ARFTA being his last hurrah
ever since this last health issue had surfaced.
there were a lot of ups and downs during the year
and the whole thing was on again, off again
according to which way his health limitations were swinging.
I thought it was over when dan wasn’t allowed to fly
but then this whole train/bus/car plan was put together
and it was back on.
I was really concerned about him traveling alone
but dan was adamant.
and he was one stubborn Sicilian.
I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when he agreed to travel with dave.
but I had no idea how daring dan’s journey was
until I saw him at the park.
I could not believe he had undertaken it.
even harder to believe was that he made it.
but dan was one stubborn Sicilian.
we had talked,
before this past year,
about goals, and bucket lists.
we agreed, in theory, that we wanted to end up
with goals yet unmet
and bucket list items unfulfilled.
because, what do you do when everything has been done?
sit around and wait to die?
dan kept living up to the very end.
I am glad I got to talk to him one more time.
I am sorry we did not have the wheelchair there in time to wheel him for one last mile.
I am glad I had the chance to say goodbye.
but I am the most sorry we could not return him to his beloved wife.
so, I have mixed feelings about my part in helping dan pull off his last great adventure.
but, it wasn’t ever really my decision to make.
it was my place, as a friend, to help him do what he wanted to do.
dan went out doing what he had decided to do.
dan was like that.
he was one stubborn Sicilian.
Photo credits : Top photo and cover photo-Karen Jackson. Dario and Matt-Ray K. Matt and Laz -Tanya Underwood. All others taken by author.