by Mary Claire Walker
Every achievement starts with a dream and desire to try. My dream for the past four years was to run 100 miles. That dream turned into reality at Yeti 100 Mile Endurance Run on the Virginia Creeper Trail during the early morning hours of Saturday 9/26/2020. I set out with an “A” goal to run under 24 hours, and “B” goal to complete the course under the cut off time of 30 hours. I kept my “A” goal near and dear to my heart because the imposter side of me kept playing on loop in my head that I wasn’t good enough to think about attempting to run under 24 hours.
As race day got closer, the weather report changed from warm sunny weather to consistent rain with temperatures ranging from 52-64 degrees over the entire 30 hours. The Yeti 100 mile course was slightly altered this year due to COVID-19. Instead of three 33-mile legs, we had five out and backs. The first was 28 miles out and back towards Whitetop Mountain. This leg included most of our almost 3000 feet of gain. The second through fifth laps ran 18 miles the opposite direction passing Alvarado twice. Crews were allowed at Taylors Valley, which was miles 7 and 14, and Damascus— miles 28, 46, 64 and 82.
Race morning was chilly with a torrential downpour, which based on the weather report was going to be the weather until possibly 6 or 7 pm when the rain might let up. I was dropped off at the start line and immediately realized in the dark that every runner looked the same with their raincoat and headlamp. I started looking frantically for Jason as we had planned to run the first 46 miles together. Within minutes we were being called to the start line and I finally found Jason. My anxiety immediately lessened seeing a friendly face. Jason and I have been through some tough training runs together, this first 46 miles we were going to treat like another training run.
We stood in the rain on the path which had turned into a stream at this point and counted down the start. The start itself was very anti-climactic, we all started walking for what felt like 10 minutes but was actually about 45 seconds. Then the crowd spread out enough to begin to run. I clicked on my Kogalla light and we started running down the path. I was so anxious and excited Jason kept having to grab my pack and pull me back, “We have a long way to go girl!” After about a mile we began climbing a very low grade maybe 2-3%. We kept our pace easy and conversational all the way to mile 7 where we saw our crew for the first time. We grabbed some silver dollar pancakes and vegan sausage, and we were off for another 7 miles to turn around. We got to the first turn around and I was in and out of the aid station grabbing a package of pretzels and some mini snickers. I turned around and saw Jason with his pack off refueling and refiling his pack. My competitive spirit took over and I yelled to him that he better hurry up or I was going to drop him. He laughed, put his pack on and started running down the path after me. I looked back and saw him, but we were separating a bit. The second 14 miles were all down the 2-3% grade. I kept myself at a controlled pace but tried to capitalize on the descent. We met a really sweet lady between mile 21 and 28 who had run Heart Of The South this year. We chatted about her previous races and what it was like to run that far completely unsupported. After a mile or so I pulled slightly ahead and came into our mile 28 crew station about 10 minutes before Jason. I found my crew but there had been a miscommunication about where the tent was going to be set up and where the box of food was, so I grabbed some water and was on my way for the first of four 18-mile legs.
This second leg was really mentally challenging, I was worried about my crew and hoping they figured out where to be and where all my food was. I was also worried about pulling away from Jason so early. “Had I just ruined my whole race?” “Was I running too fast?” “Was I going to be able to actually finish this race that I started out to do, or had I just messed the whole thing up?” I kept my pace easy and talked to a couple runners along the way. Around mile 30 I caught my right toe on a rock and tried to catch my fall. I felt my right knee hyperextend and “pop”. I tried to take another step and my right knee buckled. Immediately I thought my race was over, I had a set of poles at mile 46 but I had another 16 miles to get back to my crew for my poles and an ace bandage and I couldn’t put weight on my knee. I stopped and tried to hold it for a minute hoping it would feel better. It didn’t but I found if I stepped with my right foot perfectly square under me it wouldn’t buckle. I started running again and came into mile 46 with a weird limp and practically in tears. I told John, my crew chief, I needed my knee taped. I was on the verge of tears; I was less than halfway through and I had already been through so many emotions I wanted to break down and cry. I had a pacer coming out with me this leg though and knew I would get a boost from his energy. I was also starting to get nauseous and hadn’t been able to keep any food down since mile 35. I drank ginger ale and took a grilled cheese to go, I ate a piece of crust and started gagging. I tucked the grilled cheese away and started running. My pacer was Craig, one of Jason’s friends who had come to help crew and pace, but I met him as I was getting my socks and shirt changed at mile 46. We started running and I still wanted to cry, I said to Craig “I know you don’t know me but talk to me. I need a distraction". He did, we started talking about random stuff and pretty soon the miles were clicking off, he was pointing out pretty places on the trail and we were laughing. After 5 miles or so I ate the rest of my grilled cheese. At the Alavarado aid station he grabbed a handful of mini snickers and a quesadilla and made sure I ate the rest of the way to mile 64. I had an awesome lap and came into mile 64 in good spirits. I asked for another grilled cheese and broth.
My whole body was soaked through, so we changed my shoes, socks, shorts and long sleeve here. I felt revived by the dry clothes and started out on my third leg with Jessica as my pacer. We ran along pointing out the mud and chatting. As we came into Alvarado I started feeling really nauseous again. My pace slowed and I started sobbing. The emotion of everything was too much and I cried hysterically as we ran down the trail. I stopped talking and couldn’t tell Jessica what was wrong, she tried to feed me broth and chocolate. Then she started playing music on her phone and we began singing. We ran into Damascus singing along to Journey at the top of our lungs. I still couldn't eat much when we hit mile 82, I had some broth and tried to eat more chocolate and crackers, but everything either tasted horrible or made me gag. I left for my last lap with a sub 24-hour finish in the bag, I had over five hours to run 18 miles and I would accomplish my A goal for this race.
Leaving the last crewed aid station at mile 82 I was in good spirits again. My goal was in sight and completely doable as far as I was concerned. We started running, I thought I was pushing a little harder and I looked at my watch to check my pace, I saw a 17min/mi displayed. That must be wrong I thought, but I confirmed it with Jessica and realized my goal wasn’t in the bag. I was running hard, my heart rate was up, I was breathing heavier. I could only manage a 15min/mile running at what felt like an all-out sprint. I realized if I wanted to accomplish my goal that was what I had to do, so I put my head down and started pushing. It was about this time my Kogalla ran out of batteries. We were reduced to one small headlamp that Jessica was wearing. I ran just behind her so I could see the trail, but it was dark, and my eyes started closing involuntarily. I started swaying and weaving side to side on the trail. At the next aid station an amazing volunteer, Henderson, let us borrow his headlamp.
We hit the turn around and as we were coming into the Alvarado aid station I started falling. I still don’t know if I fell asleep or passed out, but I realized Jessica was basically carrying me into the aid station. My feet were on the ground but not really moving. She sat me down on some steps and I held my head in my hands. I was at mile 93 and I couldn’t hold my head up or support my own weight. I knew I couldn’t stay where I was if I wanted to accomplish my “A” or “B” goal. Henderson gave me some more ginger ale and made me eat some snickers. Jessica asked for my pack so she could refill my water. I couldn’t lift my arms, there was such intense pain in my shoulders that took two people to get it off me. After the ginger ale and snickers my vision cleared a little and I was able to pick my head up. Henderson helped me to my feet, “you’re killing it, go finish this!”. Energized, we continued our shuffle. I pushed harder than I ever have in my life. Every mile I re-did math in my head to see if I could still make my goal. I would be running as hard as I could and then I was dreaming, I started focusing on Jessica in front of me and pushed my legs to turn over as fast as they would, which wasn’t fast at that time. We hit mile 99 and I knew I had it in the bag. We crossed the lighted bridge for the last time. I thought I ran faster, but my gait never changed. I heard John and the rest of my crew cheering for me. I ran to the large blow up arch that said “Yeti Trail Races'' on it.
Jason Green, the race director, walked up to me and handed me two belt buckles. One for finishing 100mi and one that said “Sub 24 hours”. I stood under the arch for a picture and then my body gave out. I tried to lay down on the grass, but I was too sore and tight and in so much pain I was just collapsing. John gave me a huge hug; we were both crying as he helped me to the warming tent where I could sit in a chair in front of the fire. He wrapped me in an emergency blanket, and I shivered. The momentousness of the goal I had just achieved didn’t sink in. I couldn't stay conscious long enough for me to realize what had just happened. John picked me up and carried me to the car. I don’t really remember this, but I have a picture to prove it. I got carried into our Airbnb and slept. It was 4:48 am when I finished and I woke up around 11 am, still disoriented and still completely unable to move on my own. But I had two shiny belt buckles which reminded me that I had actually run the race and accomplished my “A” goal, and this was not a dream. I had proven to myself again that I can do anything I put my mind to. Writing this seven days later, I am still in awe of what we as humans are capable of if we strip away the self-doubt and fear.
Editor’s note: Mary’s mother is running the Midstate Massive Ultra Trail 100 miler on October 10, which occurs several days before her mother turns 61. Mary will pace her for the last 50 miles and will write about it for the November Pace Setter!
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When not pursuing strenuous activities, Mary is a full-time paramedic. Her favorite quote is something she does not know about, “Laziness is the practice of resting before you are tired.”