This is my third year of racing and my first year of running trails and ultra distances. My journey to the Mark Twain 100 really started in January, and during the year I raced two 50Ks and a 50-miler. I probably should have stopped at that, but who doesn’t love a good challenge? So, I figured a 100K was in the cards. I had yet another chance to call it in, but conversations with my coach took a left turn, and what do I do? I sign up for my first 100-miler!
Race: Mark Twain 100 Mile Endurance Run
Organizers: St. Louis Ultrarunners Group
Location: Berryman Trail in Potosi, Mo.
Distance: 100 miles (25-mile loop four times) or 50 miles (25-mile loop two times), run counter clockwise
Elevation: 10,000 feet ascent/descent (100 mile) or 5,000 feet ascent/descent (50 mile)
Terrain: 98 percent singletrack with lots of loose rocks and roots; mostly rolling hills that keep coming at you; no steep or long climbs; one creek crossing. If you are properly trained, uninjured, and rested, the course is completely runnable. Difficulty: Intermediate.
Time Limit: 32 hours (100 mile) or 16 hours (50 mile)
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Coach & Mentor: Paul Shimondle
Pacers, Crew & Support: Meghan McCarrick and Bethany Murray
Why choose this race as your first 100M: The terrain is impeccable, and the temperature this time of the year is typically favorable. The race has the perfect “vibe” that one becomes accustomed to (and spoiled by) while running ultras. It’s a very well put together race, with great organizers, volunteers, swag, and a kick-ass finisher buckle. The race has a homegrown and organic feel to it, where the ultra community comes together to truly inspire each other and see you through the finish.
Lights, Camera, Action!
Pre-Race: A bunch of us were running this race, some tackling the 100M distance and some in for the 50M option. My coach (a.k.a. Hula Hula) drove from Rockford, Ill., to run the race with me and see me “conquer the ultra beast,” as he says.
We stayed at the Berryman Campground on Friday night. There was a light drizzle off and on pretty much throughout the day and night, with unseasonably cooler temperatures. We pitched the tent, hung out, went for the pre-race dinner held at the Huzzah Valley Resort, and then came back and slept — if you can call it that.
I was surprisingly calm, with no flutters or questioning if I was ready or not. I’d raced the trail before and had done a couple of training runs there, so knowing what to expect was settling. Two things nagged at the back of my head though. First, 40 miles of the 100-mile distance would be uncharted territory for me. I’d raced a 100K before, but I had no idea as to what my body would do beyond 60 miles. Second, I’d been nursing some issues with my left IT band, which had gotten better with tapering, but I’d packed Kinesio Tape knowing it would flare up with the distance I was about to tackle.
At this point you may ask, “Did I have a finish time goal in mind?” Why, yes, I did. I’m not the fastest thing in town, so I figured a 28-hour finish was pretty legit. If shit fell apart, a 30-hour finish was satisfactory, seeing as this was my first attempt at 100M and I can only learn and improve.
I won’t bore you with all the other details, just know that at 4:20 a.m. on Saturday I was up, in my gear, and eating breakfast. At about 5:30 a.m., I had my drop bags and other crap loaded onto my shoulders and was walking to the start line.
Loop 1: Did I mention before that it was cold? It was cold. I stood beside my coach, and not a whole lot of words were exchanged — just random BS floating around as we all gathered at the start line. There was a quiet understanding and comfort in having Paul by my side as I stepped over the start line, hit all cylinders, and GO!
The first five miles of the loop were rocky and technical, and a few runners bit the dirt only about three miles in. We were running in a B line, probably 14- to 15-minute pace at about two miles, when I broke away from the pack with Paul right behind me. I ran a little faster just to put some distance between us and the rest of the runners. The focus for me throughout this race was not to fall and not to hang out and chat at the aid stations, something I’m notorious for doing. So, “keep moving forward no matter what” was the plan.
As we kept moving forward, we turned a rocky corner going uphill and suddenly I saw Paul on his knees. I stopped to check if he was OK. I could see he had banged up his knee pretty bad and was bleeding. He waved me on with an “I’m fine.” My brain was focused on covering as much distance I could while it was daylight, so listening to my coach, I kept running.
I came and went through the aid stations, throwing back some Coke. I ate every four miles while power-walking, rotating between bananas, PBnJ, and salted potatoes, all of which I’d packed in my vest along with my bladder, which had Tailwind in it. I popped SCaps every three hours. Five-and-a-half pretty uneventful hours later, I pulled into the start/finish again. Twenty-five miles done.
Loop 2: I refueled, swapped my bladder, stashed more food, and was off as quickly as I’d rolled in. My goal for this loop was to run a bit slower — six hours for 25 miles. As long as I had the 50 miles done in less then 12 hours, I was golden.
As I headed out, I wondered where Paul was and if he was doing alright. “No time to waste now,” said his voice in my head. Gotta keep moving forward.
I ran another uneventful 15 miles, then caught up to a runner named Scotty. He was struggling. I started to walk with him as we chatted. It was his first 50M. He was from Tennessee and wanted to finish in 12 hours but was pretty much shot. After exchanging pleasantries, I ran past him a mile or so, then I looked at my GPS. I turned my head to see Scotty walking not far behind me. I thought, “Why the heck am I in such a rush? I’ll be here all day and night and quite possibly well into the next day.”
I turned to Scotty gave him a breakdown of time and pace and how he could still make it to the finish in under 12 hours. We chatted a little more, and then I started to pace with him, keeping a steady run of 14 minutes per mile. As I paced him, we talked about future goals, tattoos, what I was eating, etc. At this point, I realized that his finishing goal had become my challenge.
About two miles out, Scotty could smell the sub-12 hours finish, so he took off like he stole something. With a pat on my shoulder, he was gone in a blur. I rolled into finish loop two at about 12:05 hours. There was Scotty, with a big smile and thank you. His finish time was 11:56:43.
Loop 3: Before I started this loop, some weird shit happened, and it just got weirder as the evening went on. But I have to tell you that this was the best and probably the worst loop at the same time.
Both of my pacers, Bethany and Meghan, were waiting for me at the start/finish. As requested, Meghan had brought me a crispy chicken sandwich and fries from McDonald’s. At this point, I was sick of eating PBnJ and potatoes, though I could stomach bananas still. I ducked into a buddy’s camper and woofed down the food, which I now recall as being the worst food I’ve ever eaten. It tasted like leather. But I knew I had to eat.
As I quietly sat and ate, I heard an “Aha!” Paul was right there. I was so glad to see him! He had been following my trail from aid station to aid station, hoping to catch me. Instead, he’d caught me in the act of scarfing down some fast food. Anyhow, I threw on a long-sleeve tech shirt, adding two layers of clothing and gloves, and swapped my water and food. My IT band was starting to act up, so I taped it as best as I could before heading out. I turned to ask Paul if he was coming, and he said he’d catch up. So, with Bethany breathing down my neck and telling me to get a move on, we were on the trail for loop three.
After about five miles, it got dark and cold — bitterly cold. As the night progressed, we were shivering and chattering our teeth. We could see our breath in our headlamps, and no amount of running warmed us up. There was a light drizzle and mist (borderline frost) that was making it impossible to run, so there was nothing else to do but jam to some tunes, and by “jam” I mean we were loud. Both Bethany and I were singing in the dead of the night, not a soul to be seen for miles and miles. We were making coyote calls, and to our surprise, someone answered! Bethany asked, “Who was that?” and I smiled, because I knew it was Paul catching up to us. Before I knew it, he was right behind me. “Aaaooooohhhh!”
My stomach felt like shit, and I had to pull over quick to barely miss crapping my pants. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty or pleasant. My stomach was pretty sour, and as we came to the last aid station, about five miles from the finish, I realized I wasn’t eating much. Paul, Bethany, and I all huddled around the fire. I had some soup and a couple of Ibuprofen. I was feeling completely out of sorts, and the pain from my IT band was making it impossible to move. I heard Bethany say to me, “It’s a new milestone for you. Seventy miles! You beat your distance PR!” I had to get up and keep moving forward. I just had to. I had “Hotel California” by The Eagles stuck in my head, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” That’s what aid stations do to you when your body breaks down and your mind starts to go.
I turned to Paul, who I could tell was hurting from his fall. His knee wasn’t looking so good. Still, I said “Let’s go.” All he said to me was, “I need to stay a bit. You guy’s carry on.” And I remember him saying to Bethany as we dragged our asses out of there, “Take care of Shalini.”
The rest of the way in was a blur. I was freezing, and I just wanted to be done. But, wait, I had another loop to get through. We reached the start/finish line, and Bethany handed me over to Meghan, who asked if I needed to fill up my water and food. That’s when I realized that not only was I not eating as I should’ve been, but I’d barely run through the water in my bladder. I didn’t want to stop — at this point I knew I had to keep moving — so I threw on my hoodie and got going. As I started to leave the start/finish one last time, I asked if anyone had seen Paul. They said he’d decided to pull out at 70 miles. I really didn’t have much time to process this information. All I could think was, “How could he have just quit?”
Loop 4: As I started loop four, I knew I had to finish. Meghan and I talked as she ran ahead of me and I struggled to stay upright. I was running hurt. My IT band was shot, and finally I couldn’t keep up anymore, so I power-walked with Meghan edging me forward.
I was shivering again as we got to the first aid station. Meghan pushed some chicken noodle soup on me. Then, we kept moving. The sun was starting to peer over the hills, and I knew the 28-hour finish wasn’t going to happen. As we made our way from aid station to aid station, Meghan made sure I ate and kept hydrated.
As we approached the third aid station, about nine or so miles out from the finish, I was starting to get dizzy and my power-hiking pace was not much of a pace. I was dragging. I noticed swelling on the top of my right foot from where my Hokas were digging on my instep. With another nine miles to go, every inch of my body was screaming. On Meghan’s suggestion, I decided to swap my shoes at the aid station. Then, I ate a ginormous pancake, ditched my vest, and carried on with a handheld.
I started to feel better as we logged another two miles. At this point, I noticed that the food and water was just running through my system. I bounced between feeling hot and then cold, but we kept moving forward. As we approached the last aid station, I told Meghan I was really dizzy and needed to eat, so I sat down and ate something — I honestly don’t remember what it was — and I asked for more Ibuprofen. Huge mistake! A quick piece of advise to anyone running an endurance race: DO NOT TAKE ANTI-INFLAMMATORIES.
I got up, and we were off again. I was worried that I’d be nearing the time limit, but Meghan said we could still make a 30-hour finish if I picked up the pace and ran. Did she just tell me to RUN!? I told her I couldn’t run without causing further injury to my IT band, so we power-walked, with Meghan shoving water into my hands to drink. The Ibuprofen I’d taken dulled the pain, but as a side effect, I was having to stop and pee every quarter of a mile or so.
Five more miles. I can so do this. Despite all the issues, I felt alright. My spirit had not broken at any point. Never did I say to myself, “I can’t go on.” DNF was not an option. Having come this far, I could deal, but the pain in my knee due to the busted IT band just won’t go away. My mind kept pressing on it, so I stopped and said to Meghan, “Stay a few steps ahead of me and don’t stop talking, and we’ll power-walk to the finish.”
Right on! Oh, the conversations to be had in the longest five miles of my life.
Meghan: “So, how are the vegetables in your garden?”
Me: WTF!? Did she really just ask me about my stupid vegetable garden? Oh well! Not like there was anything better to talk about, and it kept my mind off the pain!
And, so, we kept moving forward. I’m not sure what came over me as I approached the finish, but I was my stupid self again. I saw my husband, Brad, and my three little girl’s waiting for me, and then I saw Paul and Bethany, along with other friends who were there waiting on my slow ass to finish. I was happy again!
Conclusion: I finished my first 100-miler and “conquered the ultra beast.” I was grateful for my family, my coach, my pacers, and all of the friends who were there to see me in. I’ve been humbled by this experience and what I learned about myself going through the process. When you take on a challenge of running 100 miles, there’s no greater outcome than that of finishing on you own two feet. And while I didn’t make my finish time goal, I somehow managed this finish 30:25:32, #2 Overall Female, #1 Age Group 30-39.
What’s up next? Who knows, a free spirit cannot be bound by anything.
Author: Shalini Kovach is the lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.