began to fade just after midnight. About 55 runners remained, most
of them sleepy. My left knee had tightened up, making jogging painful.
Our only pleasure came every 10 miles when we were hugged, washed,
and fed by our enthusiastic crew. They clapped vigorously as we
approached their aid station, then lied and said we looked great.
We shuffled out of the tent feeling proud and rejuvenated.
By 2:30 a.m., at mile 75, I was exhausted; we had
been running for 20 hours. Those gently rolling hills had grown
to rugged mountains, and our lazy 13-minute pace had morphed to
a grueling 20-minute grind. The 30-hour cutoff was beginning to
seem a difficult goal. I struggled to stay awake, questioning my
decision to enter this race. "Runners are so stupid!"
I yelled out loud, hoping one of them would hear me.
I was frustrated and angry with Farouk. Why is he
repeating the same story? Why can't he leave me alone? And then,
as he sped ahead, Why doesn't he wait for me? Each time I squatted
to remove gravel from my shoes, I found myself dozing off, ready
to take a nap in the ditch, until I heard Farouk in the distance
calling, "Anna? Are you still there?" Answering him was
like having to answer the phone in the middle of a deep sleep. Farouk
earned his keep that lap, causing me to move forward when the gravel
road could easily have felt like a feather bed, offering rest and
a moment's ease in pain. The word "endurance" took on
a whole new meaning.
We made it to the 80-mile mark at 4:45 a.m. My left
leg couldn't bear weight unless straight, my feet were swollen beyond
my shoes' capacity, and our pace had slowed to a painful 22-minute
mile. Farouk was in worse condition, and his spirit was broken.
"Anna, I really don't think I can go 20 more miles," he
said over and over, finally declaring his intent to quit.
I had a million good reasons to stop at that moment,
yet the humiliation I imagined at quitting, with dozens of friends
and well-wishers awaiting our results, was motivation to continue.
I ordered a bedraggled Farouk to get up.
The next 10 miles were our slowest yet, although as
the sun rose, so did our spirits. The aid stations offered bagels
and cream cheese, cheerful assistants, and ice water to soak our
hot feet. In the hopes of a functional knee, I abandoned my no-drug
rule for an Advil. We pushed hard, Farouk power walking as I swung
my left leg in circles to avoid bending it. We finished our ninth
lap by 8:40 a.m., and with one lap to go, bright sunshine, and fresh
socks, we headed down the trail. The likelihood of an official finish
was slim, but like most marathoners, we had abandoned earlier goals
in the hope of simply completing. Our buddy Russ was asleep in his
cabin, having finished third in 21:17.
Suddenly, without warning, I felt an explosion in
my left shoe, followed by shooting pain. I squealed and hopped,
aware that I had popped a large blister. The toe box of my Sauconys
filled with liquid. As I recovered from the shock, my right foot
followed. I was paralyzed. "Just ignore the pain!" Farouk
com manded and marched on. I called ahead to him to keep up the
pace, that I would try to catch up. My feelings of annoyance and
frustration at this most faithful partner had faded, and I felt
proud thinking Farouk would finish his first 100 miler in time.
the clock. As I approached the 96-mile mark at 11 a.m., I thought
of my friends and family cheering me on. My husband and children
who had weathered four months of weekend absences. I thought of
my crew who had stayed awake all night, of my running partners at
the finish line ready to celebrate.
I remembered old advice about "digging deep" in the final
lap of a race, about finally discovering what you are made of. I
could hear myself explaining to incredulous running friends that
ultra marathons are 95 percent mental, that if you're willing to
keep going you'll win. "What's to lose?" I thought, and
I started to jog. Gingerly, at first, then with more confidence.
Suddenly, I became a new runner. The aches and pains
of moments before simply vanished. My legs felt loose, my feet were
springy, and my heart was light. I sailed down the hill, spotting
Farouk a half mile ahead. Trying not to push my luck, I walked quickly
up the hills, eager for the crest so I could run again. My legs
had a mind of their own.
Those last miles were a complete surprise. I grew
stronger with each step, infused with the joy of my new gift. Never
had four miles been such a blissful expression of what it means
to be alive, to be a runner, an athlete, blessed with a strong and
healthy body. I was drawing on the energy of a community of supporters.
We were running this race. Sprinting in long, sure strides, I came
upon the finish line, greeted by this community of excited well-wishers,
both present and in spirit, cheering wildly for a hard-fought victory,
39th of 42 finishers. Farouk followed moments later, delirious with
joy over a triumph he had at one time abandoned. Keith had finished
10 minutes earlier.
Twenty-nine hours and 40 minutes after a lazy
and gentle start, our race came to a close. Twenty-nine hours and
40 minutes of hope, work, bonding, agony, endurance, recovery, and
self-discovery. As the memory of my pain fades, I am left with the
deep satisfaction of a race well run. As I return to the "real"
world, I am reminded that the Umstead 100 is not so far from the
event we call life, an event requiring determination, made richer
with support and companionship, and where self-discovery is the
intention, even if it hurts a little along the way. *
Anna Newcomb Bradford lives with her husband, fellow runner James
Snyder Bradford '84, and three sons in Vienna, Virginia, where she
is a social worker at Inova Fairfax Hospital. In 2000, she was awarded
the Golden Show Award by Runner's World for motivating and training
ultra marathoners in Northern Virginia. She is the daughter of Mariette
'56 and the late Anthony Newcomb '57 and has three Obie siblings.
--by Anna Newcomb Bradford '84
Photo by David Brooks
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of Finding Her Stride