Monday, June 17, 2013

2013 TARC 100-Mile Mud Run / Deathmarch Report

It's now a little over a day since I took my last painful step on the extended mud pit that was the 2013 TARC 100-Mile Run course (otherwise unofficially known as the world's longest Tough Mudder), and I am no less ambivalent about how things went.  So this is a little more detail about how it was, and a little less clarity about how I felt. 

First, a little background.  Originally, I had planned to run the Old Dominion 100-Mile Endurance Run, in keeping with what I've done the past two years to prepare for Badwater (running the MMT 100 and the OD 100 back-to-back).  Unfortunately, I was sick with a pretty bad stomach bug the day before the race, and ultimately decided not to start.  It was a tough decision.  I would have liked to have posted here that in spite of being on my back on the floor in the airport in Bogota, Colombia, en route from Bolivia back to Washington, DC, crippled with stomach pain and drained from way too many trips to the bathroom, I managed to bounce back less than 24 hours later and finish a 100-mile race (and maybe even finish well).  On the other hand, that may have been too close to an outright miracle for it to have been even a remote possibility, and, in the interim, the race could have turned into a painful, miserable, injurious struggle. 

Enter the TARC 100, which had me at least a little more (but still not entirely) at peace with my Old Dominion DNS.  Two weeks after OD, and a month before Badwater, the timing of the race made more sense than the timing of OD.  Based on the course description - relatively tame trails with little elevation gain/loss - it seemed as though it could be a "fast" 100-mile race, which would be a good complement to MMT, which is a much slower, more technical run.  As Massachusetts' first 100-mile run, though, there was the element of the unknown.  There could be something terribly wrong with the course measurement, or markings, or organization otherwise that could have made it an ordeal.  And usually, the first time around, these events have those sorts of problems.  But the materials that were available online were detailed and thorough, and it seemed as though the race directors had everything covered, so it seemed like a risk worth taking.  Plus, at $60 to enter, including a really nice finisher's jacket, the price was right.

Pre-race logistics went as well as could be expected.  Patrick and I left from Aberdeen on Thursday evening after work, and although it rained steadily for most of our drive up, we missed any potential tornadoes or flash-floods that the weathermen were threatening.  We crashed at my friend Steve's friend Nate's place in Charlestown, slept for most of Friday, and left for the park in Weston mid-afternoon on Friday, encountering minimal traffic along the way.  After a quick run to the little grocery store and bagel place in Weston, we parked, endured a strangely long and slow line to check in and pick up our bibs, and then got dressed and ready for the race.

At the pre-race meeting (6:30 p.m. meeting, with a 7:00 p.m. race start time), the race director warned us that he had run the entire course earlier in the day, double-checking the markings, and due to the heavy rains over the past few days, there would be mud.  Not everywhere, but parts of the trail hadn't drained, and probably would not drain entirely.  He recommended just running straight through it, as opposed to rock-hopping, which was potentially slippery and dangerous.  You could say that we were fairly warned.  But running one 25-mile lap of the course, in daylight, on fresh legs, is quite different from running four consecutive 25-mile laps, at least partially in the dark, as we would all soon find out . . .

We counted down backwards from 10 to the start, and right on time, we were off.  A lead pack of about 10 of us were together for the first mile or two, but the pack began to splinter as the runners looking to win the 50-mile race really took off.  Glen, Jack, Patrick, and I were all fairly close together during the first 4.5 mile loop, and we chatted a bit about this and that (including Badwater, which Glen will be running for the first time this year, with Ian Sharman as a pacer, apparently).  For my part, it was a decent start, and I was in no particular distress.  We passed the start/finish area on our way out for the next 20+ miles of the first loop, only slightly muddy from a few relatively minor puddles.  Our false sense of security had been established.

The next section of the course was far more representative of what the entire race would be like, and was a mud-ridden, bubble-bursting nightmare.  Ankle-deep, shoe-sucking mud pits about every quarter mile, coupled with flooded streams that, in the worst cases, were waist-deep on a short person like me, ensured that our feet would be forever wet, and our footing would be never stable.  Since we were all still feeling reasonably good, we plowed through most of it with reckless abandon, but I could hear comments that this would not last, and we wouldn't be running this way later in the race.  When I ran through what appeared to be a puddle that turned out to be more of a stream, with giant, jagged rocks at the bottom, and nearly twisted my ankle as I planted my foot awkwardly on a rock and plunged waist-deep into the cold water, I was more than inclined to agree.

While the leaders gained a little bit of separation from me during the first lap, for the most part, I held my ground, even as darkness fell, and the mud hazards became even more hazardous, as it was even less likely that you could tell what you were stepping in before you stepped there. I came through the first 25-mile lap in just over 4 hours, all in all not too disheartened by the caked-on mud from my knees to my feet, and pleasantly surprised by how awesome the power-line cut looked against the reddish night sky (my most significant regret relative to this race is not getting a picture of that).  Maybe this would turn out okay.

And then, somewhere within the first 10 miles of the second loop, things started falling apart.  My stomach had been unhappy with my level of exertion for the first loop, but I kept putting food and drink in, and hoping that it would eventually level out, get tired of protesting, and fall somewhere in the background noise that is the typical ultramarathon aches and pains.  Instead, it was gradually worsening, and it soon became apparent that I would need to enter survival mode. 

For the remainder of the second loop, I tried slowing down, I tried eating more, I tried eating different things.  I tried every trick I could think of to stabilize the situation, but no matter what I did, I couldn't find a way to run for more than about five minutes at a time without feeling like my stomach was going to explode, reducing me to a slower-than-normal walk that offset any of the gains made from running.  Pushing through the stomach pain only made the inevitable crash worse, as it demanded even more nutrition than my body could reasonably provide in that state.

In this condition, the goal became to make it to at least 50 miles, as that would be two complete loops, back at the start/finish area, where my drop bag and the car were, and where I could most comfortably end what was rapidly becoming an unmanageable ordeal.  I made it back to the start/finish area at around 10 hours, for a 6-hour second loop. 

I tried to console myself with the fact that everybody was hurting now.  Hurting from 10 hours of constantly wet, muddy feet.  Hurting from intense darkness from the tall tree cover and minimal light from the crescent moon.  Hurting, in some cases, due to slipping and falling (when I passed Jack, who eventually dropped, his entire thigh was bandaged, due to a "run-in" with a tree stump). 

But at the rate at which my condition seemed to be worsening, all of this was little consolation.  More than likely, the fact of the matter was that, in spite of this being two weeks after my digestive catastrophe, I had lingering effects of the stomach bug, or some other bug in my system.  But either way, my stomach rejecting everything, and the random aches and pains that weren't race-related were indication that I was sick.  Every step I took was going to be more stress on a sick system, and going to be just a little bit more difficult and painful than the one before.

So I had a decision to make.  Drop now, or keep going?  The race director gave me the typical (albeit very energetic) "it's a nice morning just go out and walk the first 4.5 mile loop and come back here and see how you feel" line, and there is definitely a part of me that responds to that.  There's also a part of me that responded to his interaction with another runner on the verge of dropping, when another person commented that the race director should show the runner the basket with all of the bracelets of the runners who had dropped (apparently, 60 people had dropped after the first loop).  The idea that it was still possible for me to finish, albeit slowly and painfully, and keep my bracelet on my wrist, instead of in the basket prematurely, had its appeal, and of course, everybody there at the race, and associated with the race, was pulling for me, and for everybody else, to at least finish.

But stopping had its appeal, too.  At the rate that I was going, barring a miracle turn-around, it could take the next 20 hours to finish the last 50 miles.  20 hours is a long time when you're sick and tired and far from home, and, in the grand scheme of life, there are people and places that might be more deserving of your attention (for starters, Sunday was Father's Day).  And even in the event that no long-lasting damage occurs as a result of the struggle, it's still not likely to be very much fun in that state.  20 hours of what was shaping up to be meaningless suffering without a point seemed more unappealing than it ever had in any race that I had run to date.

But since I was there, and, perhaps on some level, because I hadn't given Old Dominion a try, I felt very marginally motivated to at least give this a try, against all odds, knowing full well that it would be a huge struggle ahead.  After half an hour of laying out in the morning sun, warming up and letting some food digest, I went back out there.  It took me nearly an hour and a half to walk the first 4.5-mile section of the third loop.  My stomach vaguely protested, my legs felt weak, and now that I was walking and my feet had been wet for that long, my toes were even more painfully waterlogged and/or blistered (I wasn't about to take my shoes off to see).  People were passing me, and I had no energy to keep up with them, much less pass them back.

Still, I persisted, and walked through a little over half of the loop, before I got to the Ripley 2 aid station, where there was a conspicuous doctor and equally conspicuous cots.  I took this opportunity to eat and lay down, since the doctor said that I didn't look so good.  I spent about half an hour there, and coincidentally woke up just as Snipes was sitting down at the aid station.  I got up to talk to him, and he immediately got on the "follow me and we'll finish the race" soapbox, to the chagrin of the doctor. (I later found out that Snipes and the doctor had disagreed about some things on the last go-around, so perhaps that was part of the motivation behind his response.)  As much as I didn't want to, and as much as I clearly expressed to Snipes that more than anything in the world, I just wanted to stop, I followed him and his pacer Christopher out of the aid station and onward.

We spent the next 7 or 8 miles of the loop jogging slowly on the flat sections, walking the uphills, and walking the muddy sections.  I was hanging on, but barely, and I knew in the back of my mind that sooner or later, Snipes was going to drop me.  And in the last three miles of the loop, he did, directing Christopher to stay with me at least through the end of the loop.  The company for part of the loop was nice, but at the same time, it was a constant nerve-wracking experience to wonder when my body would fail and when I would get dropped.

I reached the start/finish at the end of the third loop, mile 75, and I was in significantly worse condition than I was at 50 miles, and dropping was significantly more appealing.  I knew that Patrick was having a good day, since I saw him near the end of my third loop, and that he would be finished soon.  It was now a little over 19 hours into the race, and, at the rate Patrick was going, based on where I saw him, I figured that he would be finished in the next 10 or 15 minutes (and, as it turned out, I was pretty close to correct).  I could have just stayed at the start/finish, waited for Patrick to come in, and packed up and left.  We could have been on the road by 4 pm, home by midnight, in time for a good night's sleep in a real bed, with a full Sunday of life outside of this mud-coated fiasco.  And, in the grand scheme of life, this all seemed very sensible and reasonable.

But again, the race director told me to just give it a try, and everybody was pulling for me (and everybody else) to give it their all and finish, and again, in a very marginal sense, these forces won out, against every part of my will that was screaming loudly "stop stop STOP!"  I tried my best to brace for the worst. 

The first 4.5-mile section took me an hour and forty-five minutes this time - immensely painful, considering that it took only 35 minutes in the good old days of the first loop.  I was getting passed worse than before.  Everything hurt.  At least the weather was nice - sunny, clear, and not too warm in the shade.

Back at the start/finish, now with just over 20 miles to go, the excitement should have been palpable.  But at this point, I'm not even sure that my heartbeat was palpable.  I was a weak, broken zombie, stomach churning and toes burning.  The race director described the rest of the race as "just a long run," which struck me as the equivalent of telling somebody who's just eaten 80 hot dogs that he could easily eat another 20 more, since he already managed 80.  But apart from the previous 80 hot dogs, he did have a point.  I lingered for a bit, ate some food, and prayed for it to digest so that I would have the energy to keep moving. 

Meanwhile, Glen, who had just finished, gave me a "c'mon, this is your Badwater training!" and then jokingly offered a young girl that he was talking with (apparently another runner) as a pacer, which of course she wanted no actual part in.  I'm sure that he didn't mean for it to come off as taunting or insulting, but in his post-finish-line glow/delerium (they're nearly the same thing), and in my 20-more-hot-dogs state, it felt awful to hear, and was definitely filed away in the "retribution later" section of my brain (maybe my opinion will change between now and Badwater, and it won't stay there, but for now, there it is).

Not wanting to hear any more, I got up and staggered forward, getting ready to gradually jam those hot dogs down.  Strapping on the headlamp, I felt particularly defeated, knowing that, barring a miracle, I would be passing that way again in the dark (the volunteers were confused as to why I thought that I needed it, furthering the sense of abandonment in this ordeal). 

On my out-of-the-way walk to get my headlamp (bad planning on the drop bag location), I saw Patrick on the massage table, and the race director commented that he'd been there for the past two hours (which I found out later was only marginally exaggerated), and that I shouldn't let him get too comfortable.  Patrick said "don't worry, take your time," but I never explicitly said to him that I was fully anticipating another 8 hours before I would be back, and I think he mistakenly assumed that I was making a comeback, rather than death-marching it in.  I apologized to him then, and I'll apologize again now.

And then, I was alone again, marching down the trail, stomping through the mud.  As people inevitably passed, I moved to the side of the trail, hands on knees, defeated.  People generally offered help and encouragement, but my universal response to how I was doing was simply "bad," and I didn't take anybody's help.  Then, at one point, as I was bent over, I heard a girl who passed say "hop on the train!" and maybe it was the expression, or some combination of interesting colors and shapes in my blurring vision, but I figured, why not, I'll try one more time to get some momentum going.  I ran with Hillary for a little while, and we chatted about this and that, which was a welcome distraction.  At one point, I got ahead of her, and she apparently waited for her father, who was also running the race, to catch up, so I left her behind. 

Maybe I should have waited too, as it would have slowed the pace, but instead, I kept going, hoping momentum would take over, and not too long after, I wound up reduced to a walk again, as if that were really a surprise.  So eventually Hillary passed me again, and I tried one more time in vain to keep up, although I knew it wouldn't happen.  And then I knew I'd be walking in the next 15+ miles.

I'd say that the rest of the race was entirely nondescript ever-darkening woods, mottled with foot and stomach pain, but there were a few other things that stood out.  After Hillary passed me, and I eventually made it to the next aid station, her father showed up at the aid station just as I got there - apparently she had left him, too.  He asked if Hillary had passed me, and I said yes, I wasn't feeling so good.  Then the guy that he was running with at the time made a comment about how he "raised his daughter right" and he joked that he would never let her date a guy that couldn't keep up with her.  Again, not entirely meant to be an insult, but in my state of abject misery, the insinuations that a.) I was somehow trying to "date" her because I was running with her for a little while, and b.) I was just some jackass trying to do this run to look badass, and not somebody who legitimately works hard at and trains for this sort of thing were deeply insulting.  Strike one. 

Meanwhile, the aid station volunteer asked if I needed my hand bottle filled, and I didn't have the patience at this point to try to explain to her I wasn't sweating at all, and water wasn't going to help my condition.  When I told her no, I didn't need my bottle filled, and she insisted anyway, I handed it over, then went over to the table in the meantime to try to eat something.  After I had finished eating, I asked for my bottle, and, a minute later, she still wasn't finished filling it.  Immensely frustrating, since she was prolonging my pain, and I didn't really need it filled in the first place.  Strike two. 

As I stood there staring while she fumbled with the bottle, "raised his daughter right" guy, in his own stumbling state, stepped on my left foot, right on my toes, where they were the most raw.  Strike three.

I don't remember which choice word was my knee-jerk reaction to the blinding pain, but I know that I immediately grabbed my hand bottle from the aid station volunteer, uttered another rude phrase, and marched off as quickly as I could.  The worst part was that I knew that I couldn't keep up that fast-walk pace, and that they would eventually catch me and pass me.  And they did.

So I spent the last portion of the race very frustrated, somewhat humiliated, and entirely alone.  Somewhere in the last five miles, I finally was no longer getting passed, which was some consolation - at least at this point, nearly everybody was walking. 

And, in a final moment of petty retribution, as I navigated the mud pits that were cruelly, unintentionally placed about a mile from the finish, ensuring that all my efforts to wash my shoes in the clean streams would be defeated, who did I pass but Hillary's father, struggling because "he hurt his foot," to which I responded "we all hurt all of our feet a long time ago."  Of course, he meant, and clarified, that he had done something particularly bad to one of his feet somewhere in the last mile (which would have meant less than three miles from the finish), but whatever.  In the miserable turtle race that close to the finish, I was going to struggle to the finish line ahead of him, rather than waiting up, since, based on our previous interaction, I knew that he would do the same for me.

29 hours and 12 minutes later, this whole stupid thing was over, and I was soaking my legs in a bucket of warm water along with all of the other busted-up people at the finish line, trying in vain to scrub all of the mud off.  I'm pretty sure some of it is still permanently embedded in my skin. 

Patrick had moved my drop bag closer to the finish area, but I had no idea that he did it, and he wasn't there, so I spent 10 minutes searching for it where it used to be (sort of far from the finish line), when it was actually sitting three feet behind me the entire time. 

Right after finishing, I had this new mess to deal with.

All around me was that vague glow of the exhausted pride and relief of the finishers, who had made it in just ahead of the 30-hour cutoff time, but I wasn't sharing in it.  Patrick and I both had to get home, and my extended wilderness escapade had put us way behind schedule.  I made myself as presentable as possible, and within 40 minutes of my finish, we were in the car and headed home, via the caffeine-aided buddy-driving system (Patrick took the first couple of hours, and I took the rest, since it turned out that he hadn't slept much at all after he finished). 

We both made it back to our respective lives in one piece, and I spent the rest of the day cleaning up the car and organizing stuff and visiting with my family - you know, normal human things that don't involve meaningless suffering without a point.  Also, sleep.  After 46 straight hours of consciousness, sleep is good.

That's the story, and I'm still ambivalent about the entire thing.  I do think that very few people understand what a deathmarch in an ultra really is, and this is perhaps an opportunity to clarify that.  For the most part, an ultra turns out one of three ways for a person that runs it: 1.) Better than expected (faster and/or less painful), and a pleasant surprise, 2.) More or less as expected, give or take a bit, or 3.) DNF.  Very rarely is it the case that somebody is on track to perform far worse than expected, but continues anyway, instead of taking a DNF. 

The reason is that, as the above has most likely illustrated, when you're doing awful in a way that isn't going to respond significantly to ad-hoc attempts to address the problem (broken bone, sprained ankle, stomach illness), the only way to make progress is to reduce yourself to the slowest possible forward progress that you can manage under deteriorating conditions, and hope that that pace is good enough to at least make the finish cutoff.  This is significantly different from having a "bad patch" in a race, working through it, bouncing back, and maybe even going through the cycle a few more times before finishing.  There is no bounce-back.  There is only struggle and pain until you reach the finish line - or drop out.  And most people drop out.

And not only is a deathmarch a miserable experience in the moment, due to the associated pain and suffering, but it's also, at least in my mind, the antithesis of what running is about.  Not because you're most likely walking, as opposed to running, but because it takes away from the feeling of freedom that is one of the things that makes running so awesome.  When a run is going well, you feel as though you're in control or even transcending what you thought was possible, to make it from one place to another under your own power, at your own pace.  When you're deathmarching, you're a slave to an unresponsive body, forced to play by its slow, miserable rules if you want to get anywhere, which, considering the amount of pain, a large part of you doesn't want to anyway.

So I have the distinction of being one of the few people with the "guts" or "toughness" or whatever you want to call it to finish a race under those conditions.  And I'm pretty sure the record will show that this was the worst that I've ever finished in an ultra, since I finished 54th, out of 64 finishers, just 48 minutes ahead of the 30-hour cutoff time.  And I did feel some sense of satisfaction in receiving my finisher's jacket and belt buckle.

But at the same time, what was the point?  The race was almost uniformly un-fun past 50 miles, and the only thing I wanted during the second half of the race was to stop running.  What did I really gain from that sort of torture?  Who did I hurt or disadvantage by continuing the way that I did, for as long as I did?  The awareness of the wonderful things in this world, like showers and soap and blankets and clean sheets and people that truly love and care about you, intensified as this ordeal progressed.  Why willfully forsake those things to "accomplish" something that, from many perspectives, could be characterized as stubbornness at best, and stupidity at worst?

I don't really have an answer for any of that, and at the end of the day, this is a classic "agree to disagree" situation, which, in retrospect, was heighted by the "backup plan" nature of the race (Old Dominion was still the race that I wanted in my heart) and unfamiliarity with the course (which, by the way, although appearing to be spaghetti on paper, was immaculately marked, and you would have had to have been an idiot to get lost, and that's coming from somebody with a history of getting lost), both of which weakened my resolve in the face of adversity (although the absence of those factors wouldn't have really helped my stomach situation).

Amidst all of the perceived negativity here, I would like to point out, here in this fine print, that anybody who can mark a course that is this confusing with absolute clarity, so that not even I get lost once, is an amazing race director.  Also, that if the course had been dry, it would have been much faster and more fun.  So congrats, race directors - you did awesome.

So one last clear, unambiguous statement before I leave this for good:  Badwater is about a month away now, and if this experience had any value at all (which is still debatable), it showed that if I can persist to complete a race in a situation in which I have barely the capability to, and virtually no interest in doing so, it should at least mean that for something that I do care about, like Badwater, something awesome is going to happen, no matter what condition I show up in on race day (but hopefully, due to lessons learned here, and a little good old-fashioned luck, it will be much better than this go-around).  So if you'd like to support that sort of effort, make a donation to my Badwater charity, G-PACT, here:

And now, back to life . . .


  1. Congratulations for having the stubbornness to finish. I bailed after the third loop, and after reading your account of your fourth loop, feel a little better about my decision. I am still disappointed with not finishing, this was my first attempt to run 100 miles.

  2. That was a pretty tough 100-mile run for your first attempt; I wouldn't be too disappointed about 75 miles on that course. Hopefully next year, it will be dry, and the relatively flat, relatively fast course that it could be. There are plenty more races out there - keep moving forward, and keep after it!

    1. Thank you. I'll certainly continue running, haven't decided yet if I can make the commitment again to the amount of training 100 takes.

  3. Great job, Ploskonka! I was proud of you for continuing on past Mile 80, when it was obvious that you were beat down and debating whether to drop. This wasn't for naught as it proved that you have what it takes mentally to slug through a death marching sufferfest. Congratulations.