To me prayer is as much a part of my daily run as the shoes on my feet or the route that I choose to run. I can’t think of a better time or place to meet with my creator than when I am running. It is one of the greatest gifts he has given me and there are few other activities that give me a greater sense of being or purpose than simply running. It is the special sanctuary that he has provided for me to meet with him. There is not a race that goes by where I don’t call on him for strength before or during the event. That being said there are plenty of races where I am full of energy and confidence and while I realize this strength is a gift from above it does not take a lot of faith on my part to see myself finishing the race. Saturday was not one of those days. As I stood at the aid station at the start of my third loop through Great Falls Park during The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile in DC, hands on my knees, eyes fixed on my feet, it was hard to envision myself finishing the next loop. I closed my eyes said another prayer and started walking out of the aid station my brother Andrew next to me as my pacer now. “I’ll finish this loop” I told him, “Then I might think about finishing the race, but it’s not likely.”
The day had actually started off pretty well. We took off from the start at 5am and within a few minutes it just me and two of my college teammates, Jake Reed, and Dan Hibbs out front. They had both come up from Lynchburg the night before and stayed out my house. I have run countless miles with these guys so the early hours passed quickly as we caught up on our lives and sloshed through ankle deep mud. We ran together out front through the first Great Falls loop, going out a little past the first turn around by difficult run when we didn’t notice the ribbons stopping. It was a good thing I was at the panel event the night before or else we might have tried to keep going! Near the end of the first loop Dan who was running his first race over 10 miles started to tire slightly, and although we all stayed together my stomach was starting to cause issues, and it was becoming apparent that Jake was the strongest of the group at that point. As we began the second loop things started to get interesting.
I made it about 200 yards out of the aid station when breakfast started to come up. Jake and Dan kept moving were just barely out of sight by the time I was back running again. On the first climb of the loop Jake started to pull away from Dan and by the top of the climb I had pulled even with Dan as well. I attempted to catch Jake on the downhill and got to within about 10 seconds of him by the turnaround before I had to stop and throw up again. I kept moving pretty well through the remainder of the second loop hoping that my stomach would start feeling better. Somewhere along the way I lost sight of Jake, and the doubts started coming. By the time I finished the loop my stomach was getting worse again and I was just wishing that the day was over.
Through the third loop I reached one of the lowest points that I had ever reached during any race. Nothing I ate would stay in my stomach and my body was beginning to feel deprived of any sort of energy. There were a few things that got me through this loop. Number one was God, I don’t know if I had the strength to stand and still he kept me running. After that the support of my wife Leah kept me going. She is always incredibly encouraging and I couldn’t stand to drop out after dragging her out at five in the morning to watch me run. Still I am not sure that I would have continued on if it wasn’t for the support of people out on the course. I work at The Running Store, which is less than an hour from where the race takes place and I have met some awesome people there over the last few years that were running as well, and cheered me on as they passed me out on the course. I had also met several people at the panel event the night before the race who I recognized out on the course as they yelled “Go Jason!” I tried to shout encouragement back to everyone but at times I was too tired to say anything so if you read this I want you to know you guys were awesome out there! At the first turnaround on the last loop I was able to get an idea of how far behind Jake I was. I had been told two minutes when I started the loop but as I began to descend towards difficult run he was already hauling back up the hill at least 4-5 minutes up on me and looking devastatingly strong. I was reminded of a workout at Liberty my senior year when I had been doing a threshold type run with some pickups out on the IM fields. I was actually feeling pretty good and generally had a good amount of distance on Jake in workouts but with a mile and a half to go he was still with me and I remember thinking that he must be feeling pretty good. Then we went up a small hill and he just left me continuing on to run close to 4:40 pace for the remainder of the workout. He wasn’t going 4:40 pace as he passed me going up the hill but he looked every bit as strong as he did that day a few years back. By the time I finished the third loop he had extended his lead to eight minutes. At this point I had finally been able to keep some fruit down and although I wasn’t feeling any stronger I knew that with food in my stomach I might start to feel better soon. I was still thinking of dropping out but the encouragement I was receiving along with a strange trend I had of feeling amazing during the run back between Great Falls and Algonkian got me out of the aid station for the long haul back to the finish.
It’s never something that I notice happening but for the third year running I left Great Falls feeling terrible and then by the time I hit the single track along the river a few miles later I was flying along an feeling amazing. Well at least feeling amazing. The last two years I would have been flying, today the mud made that next to impossible. What had been slick conditions on the way out with a few areas of deep mud on the way out had become a trampled mud soup for the return trip. At one point I saw the toe of someone’s shoe, barely visible, sticking up out of the mud. Later on someone would tell me that this guy had lost his shoe in the mud and continued on to finish the 50k with one shoe! I hope that’s true, because that’s an awesome story. Despite the mud I still felt like I was keeping a strong pace as we closed in on Frazer aid station I was shocked to see Jake up ahead of me. I had started to have hoped of catching him but was mostly resigned to the idea that this was his day and I was happy for him. As I caught him I asked him how he was doing and he said that he was cramping pretty bad and was having trouble running. I told him to hang with me and kept my pace. I felt bad but I didn’t know when my next crash was coming, I half expected to fall apart in the final few miles and have Jake come back past me again. As the final miles wound down the crash never came and I still felt strong as I came out of the woods with less than half a mile to go. Matt Woods was standing there and gave me a high five, at the exact spot where he ended our battle last year in one of my best ultra races ever.
As I crossed the finish line I could barely believe that I had finished much less won. I think the finishing picture shows it all on my face, fatigue, relief, and thankfulness. I know that this was a day where my strength was not enough. I know that it was God’s strength and the encouragement of some awesome people that got me through. A few minutes later Jake crossed the line to seal the 1-2 for our old Liberty University team. I think it would have been a really interesting race if he hadn’t cramped up and I look forward to racing him again when we can both have a better day. I love all of The North Face events but DC is special because it is close to home and I get to see so many people I know race and see their hard work pay off as they cross that line. In the women’s race fellow TNF athlete Nikki Kimball took the win in course record time which is crazy considering course conditions. She has been having a stellar spring and it will be exciting to see what she can do at Western States. I should also note that it was Nikki who got me set up with The North Face in the first place! Dan finished his first, and he says only, 50 mile which was impressive because this was a spur of the moment decision for him and his longest run before had only been two hours and thirty eight minutes! I think he summed up the pain that ultra runners go through best later that night around a bonfire at my house when he said “my blood hurts.”