The Bear. Those words, and this race, have been a part of my running journey for many years. In fact, the majority of my running career has revolved around this race. For the last five years, I thought my goals were centered around becoming a hundred mile finisher, but this year, I learned I’ve been wrong all along.
As race day approached, it became hard to remember just how far I had come in the past year. On September 1, just shy of a month before race day, I scrolled back through my training log. It had been exactly a year since I started working with my coach, Becca. The little gray box held my first workout: 5 min walk warmup, 5x2 min run/1 min walk - 10 minutes of total running. A year later, here I was, not only about to toe the line for a hundred mile race, but feeling healthy, strong and confident.
This training cycle reminded me of the freedom running gives me. Unlike the two previous summers that had been plagued by injury, pain and disappointment, the training this summer was FUN! Together with my incredible friends and partner, Ken, we explored new routes, rediscovered old trails and even created a stand-in 100k when Vermont 100 was canceled. I saw my incredible PT, Ashten, twice a month, and was consistent with strength and rehab training. In short, this training cycle was as perfect as real life training can be.
In the final weeks leading up to the race, I found myself having a lot of big emotions, but fear was not one of them. I wasn’t naive, I knew what the course would bring, but I also knew that I had, and would continue to, control what I could and not worry about the rest. I was prepared for rain after the wettest summer on record in New England. I was prepared for heat - I had been using hot baths and heat training whenever I could.
My biggest anxiety leading into the race was running with my best friend Peter. When sign ups had opened, Peter had registered, telling me he wanted to come along to pace me the whole way to my finish. We had discussed what this would look like, but as he trained hard, I watched his desire to finish grow, and I feared that our communication would break down during the race and result in hurt feelings. I tried to share this prior to the race, and honestly we had some tense conversations. In the end, we came to the agreement that we would go with the flow, but promised to leave our emotions at the race and not carry them forward in our friendship, no matter what happened.
The trip to Utah was blissfully uneventful for me (not so much for my friend and pacer Effie the following day!) I spent Thursday making final preparations, and met Peter and his dad at race check-in. I went to bed early on Thursday night, and struggled to fall asleep with the commotion in the house, but I had expected that.
Friday morning I woke up shaking with anticipation. It was here - the day I had been dreaming about and working towards. I sent my Ken a final text, got dressed, taped my ankle and knee and lubed EVERYTHING. I also appreciated the time difference for a race that starts at 6 am, it was perfect timing for my body to be awake and eat. We got to the start at 5:15 - I was participating in a research study and wanted enough time to check in as well as go through my mobility drills. My sister had made a series of beautiful signs, and the lights helped immensely to keep our little group together.
Suddenly, it was time. Peter and I shared memories of our early friendship as we jogged through his childhood neighborhood, hand in hand, afraid of losing each other in the dark. Together with the other 350 participants, we shuffled onto the single track. We fell into a pattern of following the group. Jog, walk, occasionally sprint when an opening appeared in front of us. We asked and answered the same questions, getting to know our fellow runners. Where are you from? Have you run the Bear before? What do you do for work?
The ascent was mostly easy, and completely beautiful. Near the summit I began to feel the altitude, but unlike previous years I was ready for it and didn’t let the anxiety creep in. We flew through the Logan Peak Aid Station and over the ridge, headed toward Leatham Hollow and our crew.
I could already tell at this point that Peter had more energy than I did. I felt like I was constantly holding him back, but I was comfortable with our pace, knowing we had a long way still to travel. My biggest fear going into this race had been an early ankle roll, but even through the wobbling cobblestones my ankle felt strong and stable, and my post-tibial tendon, which had been giving me some issues the weeks prior to the race, had loosened up.
We hit the final descent into Leatham, a gorgeous singletrack that is still one of the top stretches of trail I’ve ever run. We were about 15 miles into the race, just a few miles short of our first crew stop and I began to feel an ache in my right IT band. While familiar, the IT band tension was not something I had dealt with in this training cycle, or in fact, in many years. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had happened at mile 50, but mile 15 was so early for the pain to start.
I didn’t let myself panic. Instead I tried to problem solve. Was it the tape on my knee, I ripped it off and let it hang. We were close to the aid station, so I could stop and stretch then, which I did. I knew following Leatham that we had many miles before the next descent and I held out hope that it would loosen before then.
Through most of the next section Peter ran ahead of me. Never so far that I couldn’t see him, and he would slow or I would speed up occasionally. The sun beat down on us, and I did my best to cool by dipping my hat and arm sleeves in the chilly, but smelly (from cow shit) stream we were running along. My plan to freeze my bladder full of Skratch had backfired, and, since it wasn’t melting, I ran out of water, but Peter was able to share enough to keep me going. However, by the time we reached the Richards Hollow Aid Station at mile 28 I was dizzy and starting to get nauseous.
Mentally, I was able to hold strong, and the Richards Hollow Aid was a huge boost. They had someone greeting runners with ice cold towels and were serving “margaritas” (salted watermelon juice). I took a Pepto-Bismol, added water to my frozen Skratch, sat for a second to get my bearings and then we headed off down the road.
While the heat and altitude were affecting me through this stretch, I had learned from previous years, and I expected it. What I didn’t expect was how angry my IT band would get when I tried to run down the steep, hard packed dirt road. I found a rock that I could use to dig into the tight muscles and ligaments, and we got into a routine of running until it was so tight I couldn’t move, and then using the rock to loosen things up. Rinse and repeat. This slowed us down substantially, given that this stretch should have been easy running. At one point, I took Tylenol, something I generally don’t use while running, but I was out of ideas.
As we approached the turn to descend into Right Hand Fork, I looked at Peter and told him it was time for him to leave me and push ahead. I knew the descent would be slow for me, and I knew Effie was waiting to pace me at Right Hand and that Peter had a pacer just a few miles further at Temple Fork. He responded that he wasn’t ready to do that yet, even though he understood where I was coming from. He then convinced me to lay face down in the dirt while he dug the rock into my glutes, a key memory from the race that I wish we had a picture of.
Even as I lay in the dirt crying, I felt emotional, but not hopeless. I was encouraging Peter to go ahead because I wanted him to stay on our pace goals, but I still had hope that things would turn around for me and in many ways they did. The descent into Right Hand Fork wasn’t nearly as painful as I feared, and we were able to make up some time. Effie was waiting for us at the aid station and got us through quickly, pushing us along as we wound our way down to Temple Fork.
We passed the spot where in both previous attempts I had been forced to put on my headlamp, and I knew we would make it to the Temple Fork Aid before dark, which had been a huge time goal of mine. This gave me a boost and we collectively decided to make the stop quick, opting to change into warm clothes at Tony Grove, 7 miles further along, since the night hadn’t gotten cold yet.
My parents and sister had the massage gun ready at this stop, and dad worked on my IT band while my mom gave me broth and Emetrol. We grabbed jackets, poles, headlamps, our second pacer, Diane, and the four of us headed up the hill before it was dark. My nausea seemed to subside for a bit, until we got back into altitude. Every time I tried to pick up the pace, my heart would race and I would start to feel sick. Peter and Diane pushed ahead, planning to meet us at the aid station. I took Zofran for the nausea and let Effie encourage me forward.
The final mile into Tony Grove is a steep downhill and my IT band once again started screaming. Sitting in the aid station, eating soup and surrounded by people who loved me, I found myself ugly crying. I wasn’t in pain, and I wasn’t necessarily sad or angry, just so full of emotion. I think someone worked on my IT band, and we changed into warm clothes and got super bundled up, as the temperature had dropped significantly. Not long after I arrived at the aid station, Peter had come over, changed and ready to go, and I finally convinced him to leave with my friend Jessi to pace him. It was bittersweet to see him go, but it felt like a relief. I knew he had a shot at finishing and I didn’t want to keep holding him up.
Once I was changed and fed, Effie and I again headed off into the night. Despite being behind my goal paces, I was still ahead of pacing in previous years and Effie did a great job keeping me moving through the runnable single track. Because the grade wasn’t as steep, my IT band held up pretty well and the Zofran had kicked the nausea. We made decent time under the full moon and incredible stars, even stopping at one point to turn off our headlamps and howl. We came into Franklin Basin Aid, where I had slipped through just under the cut off in 2019, and had been pulled for time in 2021. My crew, and Peter’s dad were all there waiting, with news that Peter was looking strong. After chugging some cold brew concentrate (the taste was NASTY but it did the trick of getting caffeine in quickly), I swapped Effie for Alex to pace and we headed out.
Alex, who I had met and become friends with during Bear in 2021, kept me entertained with her life story while we climbed. I was surprised at how many people we were still with, and realized that’s what happens when you’re not dead last and chasing cut offs. The terrain was helpful to mitigate IT band pain and the nausea was gone, but at some point I started gagging at everything I ate.
This was a new sensation, and I’m still not sure what caused it, but it turned into a pattern. Every 30 minutes my watch alarm would go off to eat (I was incredibly consistent with eating during this race and that certainly had a hand in keeping my energy and attitude in a good place.) I would attempt to eat something, choke it down, and then forcefully heave 3 or 4 times. Nothing would come up, I wasn’t nauseous, just gaggy. Once I heaved it would be over and we would continue on. It didn’t matter if we were walking or sitting or jogging, or what food I ate, and since I was keeping the calories down we figured it wasn’t a huge deal. At one point Alex joked that I would have six pack abs by the end of it.
As the sun rose, we attempted to jog down the road into the Logan River aid station at mile 69. From my experience in 2019 I knew there was a mileage discrepancy so I didn’t panic when it was further than we expected. When we got to the aid station we were offered pancakes. I looked at Alex and laughed and she knew it was because I was embarrassed to eat in front of other people after all the gagging and heaving overnight. But those pancakes went down easy and suddenly the gagging was gone!
We crossed Logan River, marking the furthest I had ever made it on the course. The next stretch of trail was gorgeous and flat, but I had a hard time making myself run. Suddenly we were in the sun and it got warm fast. We were not prepared with hats or sunglasses, since we had been planning to make it to the next aid station before sunrise, and it was hard to stay on the trail with the sun in our eyes, but we made decent time, and Alex attempted to text the crew with what we would need.
As we descended into Beaver Mountain Aid (mile 75), I knew my race was nearing the end. I had some time before the Beaver Mountain cut-off, but the next two were much tighter, and I thought it just made sense logistically to finish where my crew was. I shared this with Alex, and she told me to just keep going and we would talk about it at the aid station.
We hit the road and began the jog into the aid station. As we turned up the hill, there was a sign taped next to the flagging. “Acadia and Peter, We Bee-Lieve in you!” It said in black and yellow. I once again started crying and I knew I wasn’t going to be done at Beaver Mountain.
I hardly remember the Beaver Mountain stop. Jessi was there with her husband, as was Effie and my parents and sister. They got us changed into daytime clothes, I probably ate something, but mostly I just sobbed. Again, I wasn’t sad or mad or any one specific emotion. I was just feeling all the emotions so close to the surface.
I cried my way right out of the aid station, hardly able to talk, while my crew and Alex encouraged me along. We passed right through a group of tourists that didn’t know what was happening and I thought that must have been a sight.
Once we were back on the trail I told Alex that my goal was to make it to the next crewed aid station, 10 miles away, before getting pulled. We just had one cut off to make in-between, and we made good time in those first few miles after Beaver Mountain.
I don’t know if it was the heat, or the exhaustion, but after a few miles of solid pace, something changed. “I feel weird,” I told Alex. “Like you’re not in your body?” She responded. That was it, exactly. I began to hallucinate an incredibly vivid scene of people camping along a river. She tried to encourage me along, but every step required an enormous amount of conscious effort. Fighting the urge to sit, we moved along at a snail's pace. I wanted so badly to move faster, but there was nothing left.
In the past during long runs, I’ve hit a point where my brain says “no more.” This time, I found a new level. I was able to keep my brain on the same page as my body, until my body finally said it was done. I hit a level of the pain cave I have never experienced, and didn’t even know existed. Honestly, it was incredibly peaceful. I could have lived happily in that dream state for a long time.
Eventually we missed the cut off and I finally gave in to the urge to sit. Not long later an aid station volunteer came to check on us on an ATV. He gave me a ride to the aid station (which was nearly ¾ of a mile past where we expected it to be.) We got a jeep ride out to my waiting family, and then we headed to the finish.
During the drive down the canyon I came back into my body. I didn’t want to take my shoes off because I planned to run into the finish with Peter and I didn’t want to have to put them back on. We got to the finish, and got word that he had passed through the last aid station. I think I cried for the hour we waited for him. The emotion at the finish was so high and I was so proud of myself, all the other runners, and so proud of Peter.
He appeared down the road and I walked out to meet him, dancing in the same way we had encouraged each other early in the race. He danced back but then I could see he was crying. He told me how much it hurt and I told him it was almost over. We ran side by side down the driveway and then he went through the finish shoot alone, collecting a buckle on his first ever 100 mile attempt.
Somewhere in the peace at the depth of the pain cave, I realized that this was what I had been working for. Five years of training, and two previous DNF’s. The injuries, and the rehab and the long miles and big emotions. It wasn’t about a buckle or a finish. It was about learning to give every ounce of my physical energy, despite what my mind was telling me, and finding a way to enjoy every hard, painful, dark, nauseous step.
It might not have been the outcome I thought I wanted but it was the outcome I’ve been working for all along.
This race reignited a passion for running, and for running long distances, that I didn’t realize had disappeared. But, it no longer feels like the goal is simply to finish. It is, and always has been, to push myself to learn and to grow, not only physically as a runner, but also mentally.
The recovery from this race has taken longer than previous years. Three weeks later I have only run a handful of times, and I am still working through the hip and IT band issues that plagued me from the race. It took nearly a week before I got a full night of sleep (besides travel and post race sleep issues, I got called into work the first night I was home!) My lack of immunity post-race meant I got knocked down hard by an otherwise mild cold. It's been a good reminder that while running 81 miles is an incredible accomplish, my body deserves the rest it needs to recover, and I'm doing my best to respect and honor that.
Thank you so much to my incredible support system who makes these crazy adventures a reality. Ken, for the day in and day out support and Finley, for being my always willing adventure buddy. All my friends who shared miles with me during training. My coach Becca, and PT, Ashten for being the voices of reason and encouragement. Peter, for doing this crazy thing with me. Our amazing pacers: Effie, Alex, Jessi, Diane and Barb, my crew: Mom, Dad and Raey and Peter’s parents for crewing him. We couldn’t have done this without any of you.
Finally, a huge thanks to all those who donated to Medical Missions for Children as part of my fundraising efforts. Thanks to you we raised over $5000 to help children in underserved areas receive life saving medical care. Learn more about Medical Missions for Children or donate at www.mmfc.org