All things considered, I had no right being at the Ancient Oaks 100 Mile Endurance Run . But I went anyway, and I’m so thankful I did….
It all starts with a flashback to the week after Hinson Lake 24 hour in late
September: I was sitting in the orthopedic’s office anxiously waiting for the diagnosis as to why I couldn’t walk after the race, “We’re looking at two badly torn muscles: one in the gluteus minimus, and one in the illiacus,” the doc explained, “also looking like a stress fracture in the hip. You have more than overdone it! You can probably start walking without crutches by the end of November, and possibly resume running in small doses by Christmas if you respond well to physical therapy. By the way, you really should consider taking up a new hobby. Maybe try swimming.”
This was not the first time I’d found myself being shunned by a doctor. Nope, the last time was just a few months prior when I ran until I dropped at Fort Clinch 100 in June. I was scorned pretty hard by a doctor once I finally woke up… in the ICU.
To say I had a “bad year” of running would be making light of it all. I didn’t have a bad year- I had a terrible year. I had a year from Hell. It got rough enough that my friends and family were literally begging me not to do ultras any more, because they were “destroying my life”. I disagreed, explaining that I felt ultras were teaching me things and making me stronger. Yet, no one really saw it my way. My running began to create a huge wedge between me and those close to me. Everyone around me was convinced that I was incapable of running a long race without experiencing some sort of catastrophe. They dubbed me incapable of understanding boundaries, and more than capable of pushing past the point of safety.
But you see, I’m not like other runners. I don’t quit too easily.. I’m an ultra runner- obsessed with the adrenaline rushing through my veins with every mile conquered, addicted to the feelings of uncertainty in my brain after hours of pain, in love with the sense of meaning- that only running for a hundred miles can bring.
So after each major incident, as soon as I was capable of walking: I’d lace up, and take back to the trails resuming my mega mileage like nothing happened… because no matter what anyone else thought or said: it’s what I love to do.
Fast forward to late November, and I’m trying to find the words to explain to my family and friends that I’m signed up for yet another ultra- not a 50k, not a 100k.. the full 100 miles at Ancient Oaks- a race in Florida directed by Mike Melton that takes place on a three and a half mile loop: “Look guys, I know I need to take it easy. I swear I won’t push my body. I don’t want to be back in the hospital. I need to end this year with something good. Please understand. I just plan to walk most of it. I’m solely aiming for a finish.”
But if I’m honest, I didn’t really plan to walk most of it… I mean, really, in 2011, my soul took one of the worst beatings in my entire adult life. All I wanted and needed was to run, and run far, to cure that pain. I felt fit for a 100. I knew despite all that I’d been through earlier in the year, I was finally ready to run strong. But how could I tell anyone that? After my diagnosis in September, my family and friends assumed I would finally be a good little runner girl and rest. I was obedient— for a couple of months, anyway. I couldn’t even walk without crutches for about 8 weeks, but the instant I could walk- I ran. I ran a lot, actually. I didn’t lose any fitness, because I cross trained while on those annoying metal limbs, and I stayed strong. I knew I could tackle Ancient Oaks 100 and finish strong. I knew I could! So, despite absolutely everyone advising me against it, I stuck with my gut and committed to the race.
However, the cards weren’t stacking up right for me to make the drive from my home in Georgia to Titusville, Florida. First, I couldn’t hitch a ride with my close friend, Beth. She was already riding down with a friend, and there was not enough extra room in their car for me and my suitcase. Next, Daniel, my husband and race support, got a last minute call to work in North Dakota the week of the race. I initially couldn’t find a babysitter for my kids. Nothing was working out! And given my awesome racing luck, I was petrified to make the 9 hour drive alone. When I thought all hope of getting down to the race was gone, a sweet friend of mine and fellow ultrarunner, Sarah, offered to accompany me for the trip! What a lifesaver. So with everything finally figured out last minute, Sarah and I made our way South.
The trip in itself was awful. I was pulled over twice and given tickets for random things, and we didn’t make it to Florida until 10pm. We had to wake up at 4am to get to the race. I began to wonder if I had, yet again, made a huge mistake in deciding to run another hundred. I fell asleep that night feeling a little uneasy, but ready. I kept reminding myself that 100 miles on a 3.5 mile loop full of sand, crazy single track, and good people, was the remedy to my bad year. All I needed to do was relax, chat, roll with the miles, and simply enjoy myself! Everything else would just have to fall into place.
Race morning arrived, and before I even hopped out of bed, I prayed a quick prayer: “God, please guide my steps and my mind. Keep me strong and healthy… Oh yeah, and God, please help me not to be a total freakin’ screw-up today. It’s all in your hands, God, Amen.” And with that being said, I gave it over to God. I confidently jumped out of bed, slipped into my gear, haphazardly threw some stuff together for the race, and headed out the door. I felt calm, but still hosted a few of the typical 100 mile butterflies deep down. Thankfully, all of those nerves went away the instant I pulled into the lot of “The Enchanted Forest” where Ancient Oaks took place. Lots of my favorite runners were already there hanging out with one another and preparing their gear for their 100 mile journeys. I spotted Bruce (Sung Ho) Choi, Beth McCurdy, Brad Goodridge, Juli Aistars, and Ray Krolewicz almost instantly, and we all shared a few laughs before the start. It’s always good for me to be surrounded by smiling faces before tackling a monster of a race because it reminds me that I do this simply because it’s fun. I need to be reminded of that sometimes.
And having fun certainly isn’t hard when the race director of your race is Mike Melton. I love Mike so much. He’s an incredible RD. Mike was the first ultra runner I met at Strolling Jim 40, my first ultra, another race Mike directs. He made a huge impression on me with his big smile, and even bigger heart, at SJ40. So after greeting him at Ancient Oaks with a big hug, I grew even more confident in my ability to tackle the 100 safely. I knew I was in good hands.
About 60 runners gathered to wait for Mike to signal the start of the race. After a quick “good luck” phone call from my sweet husband, I was ready to roll. Usually I find myself towards the front of the pack in a trail race, but this time I ignored my ego. I decided to let the other runners shoot out like cannons while I held my ammo in for later in the game. I walked towards the middle-to-back pack and waited patiently for the start.
A couple of shouts from Mike later, and we were off! I ran by myself for a little while through the first part of the course. Stay calm, Ash, protect your body.. I kept reminding myself. Roughly a mile or so of the loop was a deep beach-like sand before the course turned into a nice dense single track. I found a smooth little groove to settle into with some other runners on the single track portion. It was here I ran with Juli, Ray, and Cheryl Lager. The conversation was great for the first couple loops. I felt at ease, and confident that I was tackling the race with a smart approach.
Eventually, the group was whittled down to just Ray and myself, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Ray and I have spent a ton of time talking deep during most all of the ultras I’ve done. I learn so much from Ray, and he’s taught me a lot about running and life. He’s kind of like my “ultra dad” in a way. Our conversation made the next few miles easy and fun.
After I ran with Ray for a couple loops, I caught back up with Juli Aistars. Juli is special. Running with her has become something I really look forward to in ultrarunning. I talk with Juli often, outside of ultrarunning, and have found that her well of wisdom is overflowing- life, running, health- you name it. Juli makes me feel calm; she reminds me a lot of my mom, so I ran with her for awhile in the first 20 miles. The first loops passed pretty quickly, as Juli encouraged me to run the race smart and safe, while not ignoring my instincts. I appreciated this little bit of encouraging conversation with Juli, and by the next loop, I found myself starting to speed up some.
After the first 20 miles, I was running totally alone and running strong- no, incredibly strong. I began to settle into a deep mental zone that I usually can only find during my training runs. The mental state I found made me fly through the single track faster and faster with each passing mile. It didn’t take long at all for everything to just click with my run: my stride felt perfect and efficient, my body was completely relaxed, my turnover was quick and painless, and my heart and mind were happy to be running. I developed a good pattern for the course. I would sprint across the timing mat, say “Hi!” to Mike, walk the short paved stretch from the aid station to my car, attend to my needs, dig into my trunk for more food, wave to Sarah, text Daniel, then take off with a good solid pace for the entire loop.
Before I knew it, I was past the 50 mile mark with no problems. I had gotten into such a groove, that I didn’t even feel the distance take a toll on my body. My hip didn’t hurt from the recent stress fracture and torn muscles. My feet were badly blistered but I didn’t care, and my muscles weren’t the slightest fatigued. I was mentally and emotionally completely absorbed in the act of running. I knew I was running well, and I was so happy I was running well. I didn’t notice anything or anyone around me, and I didn’t worry about a thing: I just ran. Even when evening came, and the course was completely dark, I was out still smashing the single track without a light. Nothing was slowing me down. I got back to the aid station area, and realized I had left my lamp at home. Crap! Thankfully, Bruce and Dave Carver were there to lend a helping hand. I had two head lamps now to really tackle the trail. So the next few miles passed even quicker.
In what felt like no time at all, 100k was done. I was still feeling great, and I felt even greater when I reached the aid station after a loop and saw one of my favorite athletes waiting there for me: Jen Vogel! “Oh my gosh! Hey!!!” I yelled. Jen drove all the way from Key West where she had just finished a triathlon to run a couple of loops with me before heading home. Jen has been at many of my races, and has witnessed me go through some crazy stuff. When I woke up in the ICU after Fort Clinch, Jen was right there beside my bed with Caleb Wilson (who also showed up at Ancient Oaks, but more of that in a minute). So, seeing Jen during the 100 meant a lot to me. We exchanged a quick hug, grabbed some snacks, and then hit the course for some miles full of laughter and catching up. If you know Jen Vogel, you know she’s nothing short of hardcore: having her there pushing me for a couple loops was perfect. We ran a solid pace that brought me to 70 miles before Jen had to head home. Even though our run together was short, having Jen there during that time gave me a good confidence boost to go into the remaining miles.
By 70 miles, I was still feeling remarkably strong. Mike told me then that I was running in first place for the females now, but that Cheryl Lager was close behind me and still looking strong. I was a little shocked, as I had no anticipation of being anywhere near the front coming into this race. However, the thought of even being able to battle Cheryl for first gave me a surge of adrenaline, and I decided to tackle the race aggressively from that point on. I was still feeling 100%- almost like I hadn’t ran at all- and I knew I could crank the last marathon out. However, I started to get a little worried about my body in the back of my brain.. in my past long races, I’ve often crashed and burned in the last 20. I decided to ignore all of those worries, and to stay positive. There was nothing to worry about- I just had to hang on to my confidence.
I ran hard from 70-86 miles. I took more time at my car digging through my trunk in the dark for fuel and gear-trying to stay on top of my own needs- but each loop was solid running despite the chunk of aid station time. It wasn’t until I started creeping up on 90 miles that my energy started to slip. As I ran into the aid station, I got a little discouraged that I had finally dropped my pace. I got frustrated with myself, and thought I can’t run a solid 90 miles of this race and not finish strong! I started to walk over to Mike to tell him that I wasn’t feeling great any more, and planned to slow down, but before I could- I heard a familiar voice saying my name-Caleb Wilson!- “Caleb!!!!! What are you doing here!!?” Caleb, the Fort Clinch RD, came to Ancient Oaks to cheer on the runners. Seeing another great friend perked me up a lot, and got me excited to keep moving forward. Another thing that got me pumped-Caleb brought something that made me smile: his Chia Seeds mix! If you read my Fort Clinch race report, you might remember that those Chia seeds were kind of a bonding element in mine and Caleb’s friendship. I told Caleb to lace up because I wanted to hit a loop together to catch up. He agreed, probably reluctantly if I had to guess given the last time he saw me was in the comatose ward of the ICU, ha, but we did the next loop at a very slow pace. Caleb witnessed my collapse at Fort Clinch first hand, so we spent the majority of the time chatting about that entire experience. He also was constantly reminding me to listen to my body, and telling me that if I needed to walk the rest- it was no big deal. Anything would be better than winding up in the ICU again, after all. Talking with Caleb encouraged and reminded me that I had grown stronger since Fort Clinch 100. I could finish the last part of the race without nearly killing myself again, and I was anxious to do just that.
Finally, we reached the aid station. I thanked Caleb, and got excited because I had only 6 miles left in the 100. I grabbed my friend Sarah next, and asked her to push me through a loop. Sarah runs long distance with me often at home, and has a good feel for my abilities and what I’m willing to push through. I told her to be stern with me, and not to let me whine. She agreed, I changed out some gear, grabbed a ton of fuel, took in a bit of caffeine, and we started off for a loop. My blisters were finally starting to get the best of me, and I began to complain about them. Sarah wasn’t having it. I asked her to be tough, and she did.
“I don’t want to hear it Ashley, it’s just a blister. Run.” she’d snap back.
“But I don’t feel like running. This sucks! I’m just not feeling it any more!” I’d gripe.
“Get over it Ashley, you’re almost done with this thing. YOU NEED TO START RUNNING AGAIN. Let’s go!”
And with a little bit more prodding from Sarah, I started to run–fast.. I suddenly remembered why I came, to prove that I could conquer a 100 successfully. Success doesn’t mean wallowing in pain, and letting it get the best of you. No success in running means giving a race your all- every last bit of you- if that’s what it takes. I had a shot at a strong finish, and I wasn’t going to let it slip. Not this time. So I took off, and I didn’t let up.
“There ya go!” she said, “Look at you! Keep this pace up!”
Keep it up I did, we finished the last 2 miles of that loop at a strong fast pace, and I only had one more loop to go. I told Sarah I needed to do the loop by myself because I knew it was going to be emotional. She agreed, but made me promise to run it. I told her it wouldn’t be a problem, as I was going to be stoked to finish the hundred.
I chugged some coconut water, said a quick prayer, and took off for my final three and a half mile loop. And I tell you what, it wasn’t even a few steps into it that the tears began to pour like rain. Every emotion I had been through during the day-during 2011-it all came down on me at once. I was about to finish my 3rd 100 mile race, that nobody thought I could even finish, in first for the females, with a PR, too! I ran that loop so hard- every last bit of it- at an all out speed. I started laughing and praying out loud to God, thanking him for giving me a perfect day of running in the woods. He knew I needed it, and He chose to bless it for me. It meant everything to me. I finished the last quarter mile with my fastest sprint possible and crossed the finish line in 23:25. I cried, of course.. I always cry at these things. I said a silent prayer to thank God for keeping me safe. Sarah was right there to see me finish and gave me a huge hug, as well as Caleb, Juli, Mike, and some other friends.
I plopped down in someone’s chair and let everything marinate for few minutes. I was almost dumbfounded: Did I really just do that? Really? I’m supposed to be on crutches right now. But, I did just do that.. I had trusted my gut, followed my heart, ran strong, and finished the job! I was on top of the world. I really just couldn’t believe that everything played out the way it did. I sent a few texts to my friends and family waiting for news at home, and it felt good to assure them that I wasn’t dead, in the ICU, broken, torn, or shattered; I was completely healthy and happy. There really aren’t words to describe how much finishing that race strong meant to me.
Running Ancient Oaks 100 taught me a couple things. One is that I should always trust my gut. As long as I am in line with my thinking, I should never listen to anyone else’s negative opinion about my running. I spent far too much time in my young life worrying about what other people think of me. This year taught me that nobody else’s opinion really matters but my own. I knew I could run 100 miles, and despite what anyone else thought: I was right. When people say that I’m obsessive, crazy, and stupid for running so much, I’ve just got to laugh it off. Running is a huge part of who I am, it’s part of what makes me ME, and I will own that from here on out.
Thanks for reading 🙂 Following the 100, I had no pain, no recovery down time, and as you can see on the left- I got right back to my crazy running distance and speed. I had some very deep and meaningful conversations with important people in my life about my running, and everyone finally agreed- I know my body best. 🙂 So this story had quite a happy ending 🙂 More pictures are on my flickr, and probably on facebook somewhere [but I don’t have a facebook, so I wouldn’t know]. Below are my splits from the race. You can find the rest of the results, as well as more information on the invitation-only race AO100 at http://www.AncientOaks100.com.
Place Name Bib No Gender/Age Laps Time Pace Distance Total Time 1 Ashley Walsh F/25 29 14:01/M 100.340 23:25:59 Lap 1 39:31 11:25/M 3.460 39:31 Lap 2 38:34 11:09/M 6.920 1:18:06 Lap 3 40:18 11:39/M 10.380 1:58:24 Lap 4 45:11 13:04/M 13.840 2:43:35 Lap 5 38:19 11:04/M 17.300 3:21:54 Lap 6 42:22 12:15/M 20.760 4:04:16 Lap 7 45:25 13:08/M 24.220 4:49:42 Lap 8 47:12 13:38/M 27.680 5:36:55 Lap 9 50:12 14:31/M 31.140 6:27:07 Lap 10 53:45 15:32/M 34.600 7:20:53 Lap 11 41:13 11:55/M 38.060 8:02:06 Lap 12 43:32 12:35/M 41.520 8:45:38 Lap 13 46:50 13:32/M 44.980 9:32:29 Lap 14 47:41 13:47/M 48.440 10:20:11 Lap 15 45:46 13:14/M 51.900 11:05:57 Lap 16 44:42 12:55/M 55.360 11:50:39 Lap 17 46:09 13:20/M 58.820 12:36:49 Lap 18 52:02 15:02/M 62.280 13:28:52 Lap 19 54:26 15:44/M 65.740 14:23:18 Lap 20 54:39 15:48/M 69.200 15:17:57 Lap 21 47:37 13:46/M 72.660 16:05:35 Lap 22 43:59 12:43/M 76.120 16:49:34 Lap 23 52:55 15:18/M 79.580 17:42:30 Lap 24 56:00 16:11/M 83.040 18:38:30 Lap 25 53:04 15:20/M 86.500 19:31:34 Lap 26 59:47 17:17/M 89.960 20:31:21 Lap 27 1:00:59 17:38/M 93.420 21:32:20 Lap 28 1:07:38 19:33/M 96.880 22:39:59 Lap 29 46:00 13:18/M 100.340 23:25:59