A few months ago while I was out at Badwater, I got a text from my good friend, Beth McCurdy: “Hey girl, I want to talk to you about something, I have an idea. Call me when you get back to Georgia.” At the time, I was out exploring Red Rock, the Grand Canyon, and working at the greatest races of all time in Death Valley (Badwater) so I pushed the text to the back of my mind. I didn’t think of it again until I got home. Funny though, because that little text would ultimately turn into one of the most inspiring experiences of my life…
When I finally settled into my routine again back at home, I got in touch with Beth. “Hey, I’m back. Sorry it took me so long to get in touch with you. What’s up?” I asked. Beth shared what was on her mind: “Would you have any interest in coming with me up to Cleveland, Ohio to crew me at North Coast 24 Hour? I have a goal: I want to run 125 miles. I’d cover all of your travel expenses and everything. I just really think that you’re the person that I need with me up there when I race this.”
She didn’t have to ask me twice. Of course I would go. I’d do anything for the woman that turned me into an ultrarunner. But the thought of us together as a team made me a little nervous…You see, Beth and I are wired very much the same when it comes to running: intrinsically motivated, highly competitive, and willing to push through anything and everything. We had the potential to be unstoppable. ...Yeah, this could get a little dangerous...I thought. I knew that there was a very real possibility Beth would push beyond her limits at the race to reach her goal mileage, and I knew there was an equally risky possibility that I would encourage that push. But, as usual, I tossed logic aside and quickly accepted the offer. “I’m so there!”
The weeks went by and the planning began. Beth was perfectly trained for the event, and I knew that she was in shape to race with any of the top contenders. We talked a lot about race strategy, and dug deep into how we needed to interact during the race. In a 24 hour, the runner is racing around a circle for 24 hours and getting the most laps they can rack up without caving mentally or physically. Think NASCAR with feet. It’s insanely hard, and if the crew drops the ball on any mental or physical aspect, they can potentially destroy the race. A good sync between Beth and I would be vital. Being good friends, having done many races and training together, I felt I knew every side of Beth I needed to know to get things right. I knew I couldn’t baby her, but I couldn’t push her too hard either. There was going to be a delicate balance, and keeping it alive was crucial. I knew that Beth would do her job. I just had to do mine.
When race weekend finally arrived, we had everything planned to a tee. Our travel arrangements had us flying out of Georgia and into Ohio early Friday. As soon as we got to the airport, it became very clear that our race roles were already in place. I looked over at Beth and saw her heavy bag draped over her shoulder. I reached for the bag and said, “What are you doing?!! You can’t carry anything! Give me that!”
“Girl. Don’t worry about it!”
“No. I don’t want your back to get all jacked up or something.” I said as I pulled it off of her shoulder.
She couldn’t disagree with my logic, and relinquished control …good sign.. I thought to myself jokingly. From that point on I began to do anything and everything I could for Beth until I eventually earned the nickname: Beth’s B… “B” as in word that rhymes with witch..
I carried her luggage…
I lugged around her groceries…
I let her sit on me…
…and basically just took over her duties of life… But I didn’t mind. Being her “B” was my job.
When we arrived in Cleveland, we grabbed lunch at a trendy downtown restaurant and goofed off the rest of the day. That evening, we finally settled into the hotel for the night. The two of us had a long conversation about how things would play out in the morning. Though she had the goal to run that 125, we agreed that no matter what, we were leaving with at least 120 miles- the minimum amount required to qualify for the 24 Hour World Championship. We would do whatever it took to get her there. As I chatted with Beth, I was constantly noticing how calm and confident she was.
The more time I spent talking with my friend, the more I realized just how much this goal meant to her. She wanted it- well yeah duh she wanted it. But there was something more. Almost like she wanted it so bad that the goal had etched itself into her very being. Honestly, I couldn’t explain it if I tried, but I sensed something great was going on.
This time is going to be different than any other races we’ve done.. I thought.
As the night progressed, our conversation steered away from Beth’s ultrarunning goal and trickled deeper into life. We picked my own brain and talked about my past addictions- something we always do together because of Beth’s past in counseling. We reminisced about our ultra experiences together, and our plans for the future, our families, and how running has changed us. The more we talked, the more I understood the depth of the woman in front of me. Beth is beautiful on the outside, but equally so on the inside. She deserved a perfect day tomorrow, and if our conversations were any indication, she was going to get it no matter what.
Still No Nerves?
On Saturday morning, race day had finally made its debut. Beth and I sat down for our prerace breakfast. I observed her as she calmly munched on a bagel.. again not a worry in the world.
“Geez Beth. You just look so relaxed,” I said. “You know, all weekend you’ve been this way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this chill before a race. You’re oozing with nothin’ but confidence.”
“I know. I really do feel confident this time. I put in my work. Now I just need to finish the job!”
We talked a little bit about what weather we could expect, possibly some rain in the middle of the day, maybe some wind from Lake Erie, but overall it looked like it would be just right. Perfect running weather…
Beth’s friend, Denise from Cleveland, wanted to help out during the weekend. Denise was an angel. Not only was she carting us around Ohio for the race, but she offered to do anything and everything she could think of to help make Beth’s day a success, and to make my crewing easier. Her car was filled with a table, tent, towels, blankets, jackets, food, and medical supplies… She thought of everything! Beth and I kept telling her how awesome she was and how appreciative we were of her help. But Denise just smiled and acted like it was nothing. I loved how cheery, energetic, and selfless Denise was. I was excited that she was going to help me crew, and so was Beth.
When we got to the race, everything was perfect. Though the sky was grey, the weather wasn’t bad; just a little nippy with a slight wind. The course was set directly beside a scenic park on Lake Erie. It was a beautiful setting for a race. I looked over at Beth and of course, she was still cool, calm, collected. She was obviously finding her mental zone before the start. After Denise and I set up the tent, all of us began walking over to the start line together. I asked Beth if she wanted one last pump-up chat.
“No. I’m good. But hey, remember that time when we were on a trail run and I fell and twisted my ankle, and you said a prayer for me?”Beth giggled as she remembered, “Well…can you say another prayer with me before the race?”
I smiled at the memory and told her of course I would. My friends always laugh about the fact that I pray randomly- usually about anything and everything. I’m not a “really religious person” so to speak, but I am a Christ follower, and I like to talk to God. Plus there’s never been a moment in my life where I was sorry I prayed about something! So I put my arm around Beth, and I prayed my typical pre-race prayer asking for a good race, for good judgement, care on my part, and most of all, for safety. I didn’t figure anything would happen to Beth, but I never like leaving those things unsaid.
The race started out exactly like we had hoped. Beth quickly found a good groove and began knocking off the mile loop at just under a 10 minute pace..Not too fast. Just right.. She settled into her pace, and would stop by our tent occasionally for some fuel. We tracked her progress as she went, and just relaxed while she did her thing. Denise and I began to chat to pass the time, and we quickly realized after trading a few comments that we’re both pretty comical and politically incorrect.
..Ha! This is gonna be fun…
Denise and I would laugh and joke around until Beth approached, at which point we’d get down to business and take care of our girl. She was knocking off her miles with ease. A couple of hours went by, and everything was just flowing smoothly …almost too good to be true.
“Dang Denise! What is all of this wind about? This is insane! I’m freezing!!”
The light breeze that had greeted us from Lake Erie earlier in the morning suddenly changed to high powerful winds. Like 50+mph winds! We both got really cold, and bundled up under blankets. At one point, a huge gust came and picked up our tent sending it across the course! Our tent neighbors crewing another runner helped get the tent back in the ground, but man I was unnerved!
..Man! This can’t be good for Beth…
I worried how the gusts were going to affect Beth. But when she came around on the next loop, she was completely fine!
“Nice weather!” she’d say as she passed, “A little windy though!”
….A little windy? Man! Her mental game is totally on… killer beast mode!…
I knew that Beth was downplaying the weather in her mind, so it wouldn’t hurt her mental game. We rolled with it. And when those winds brought in one of the most massive storms I’ve ever seen, we still rolled with it….
Hail from Hell
And then things took a drastic turn. The rain and wind kept on, but the storm grew even stronger. The drops from the sky turned into heavy hail. Massive bolts of lightening streaked across the sky. The race director, John, began encouraging the runners over a megaphone to take shelter under the pavilion.
Ahh geez, this should be interesting…
I knew Beth wouldn’t want to stop because it would throw off her entire groove. I didn’t blame her! I wouldn’t stop either! I sprinted over to the pavilion, and waited for her to pass by. I wanted her to know that I would fully support her decision to run through the hail and lightening if she wanted to. As she approached, the RD John shouted through the megaphone again that runners were encouraged to take caution. Beth ran towards me looking strong and confident. When we locked eyes, I knew there was no way she’d go under that shelter, and she knew there was no way I would ask her to. So I took stride next to her, and shouted over the wind that we could use this to our advantage and gain miles on the competition. She agreed and instinctively picked up the pace. Though I knew I technically wasn’t allowed to pace her in the race, I ran by her side anyway through the painful hail. Hardly anyone else went out into it willingly. The cold stones from the sky were literally pounding our bodies, yet she didn’t drop pace one bit. I couldn’t believe that confidence and drive was still there!
“You’re incredible!” I shouted over to her. But she was in an almost trance-like state, and completely oblivious to anything I was saying.
I admired the way she moved, effortless and beautifully, through the most awful hail storm I had ever seen. When I got back around the loop I asked John if I could keep pacing her throughout the hail storm, or if it would disqualify her. He said it could be grounds for disqualification, so I decided to let her go alone. Yet, it didn’t even matter because when I turned around, she was already gone starting her next loop.
Meanwhile, when I had been running with Beth, Denise was grabbing all of our tons of stuff from off of the soaking wet ground and taking care of all of the background business. Denise really deserves a huge shout out for this! Though she doesn’t let it deter her in any way, Denise has Leukemia and battles lung infections often. Being out in the pouring rain like that was a huge sacrifice to help Beth, and it meant a lot to all of us!
As everyone did there thing, and after I finished running with Beth, I just stood there, helplessly waiting. I knew Beth was extremely uncomfortable. It was freezing cold, she was soaking wet, getting annihilated by gallons of hail, and there was nothing I could do to make her feel better. All I could do was scream, “Keep going!”, and shove a cup of chicken soup down her throat. As the hail poured, I remembered my own experiences running ultras in bad weather.
I just needed to back off for a minute.
This was between her and the run.
Because when you’re running a long race like that, and the universe is literally rallying against you, it doesn’t matter what anyone says or does. Sure people can try to pull you through, but what is boils down to is this: you gotta have one heck of a fight in you to survive it. And as the night would prove…Beth has that fight.
Ray and the Fight of the Night
As night settled in, the high winds and chilly temps continued, and even more rain pummeled the course. Beth was running extremely well despite it all, and fueling properly: chicken soup, spark to drink, and Boost every couple of hours. Besides the awful weather, she had zero issues on her own. She had worked her way up to the very top of the list and was battling even the dudes for an overall win. Just one guy in front of her, and a couple of chicks on the same loop as her.
With a race this close, and two chicks breathing down Beth’s neck, I felt that maybe we needed to reevaluate the possibilities. So I grabbed Beth’s phone and got in touch with the one man I trust most in ultrarunning: Ray Krolewicz. If you read back through this blog, you will find stories of how Ray has helped me through races, and given me stellar running advice. He is pretty much the Yoda of ultrarunning. He knows his stuff, and can back it up. Since Beth also looks to Ray for advice, I knew we needed to bring him in for some race strategy.
Though it was the middle of the night, Ray was eager to help and jumped right in to talk strategy with me. He agreed that he felt she could take an overall win. So he stayed up throughout the night to help me instruct Beth on how to finish out the race. So the night began to look something like this: Beth would be out there running her butt off in the pouring cold windy rain, I’d sprint to her each loop, take care of her, feed her, walk with her for a bit to talk strategy or boost her confidence, then sprint back to the pavilion, cover up under a soaking wet blanket, and shiver through the conversation with Ray.
Honestly, it was the coldest and most miserable I had ever felt in my entire life. I’ve put my body through hell time and time again, and I’ve experienced some really miserable conditions, but crewing out there with Beth…man it just straight up sucked. It really did. And I was completely blown away at just how well she was handling it running in a freakin lulu tank and shorts! Not caving one bit, and fighting with everything in her arsenal, she simply was on a mission and it showed.
Without even knowing how close the race was, Beth brought her 100 miles in under 18 hours and 30 minutes. With a ginormous smile on her face, we hugged in celebration of her reaching such a huge moment. I grabbed her some chicken soup and we quickly walked together to a nearby bench, and for the first time all day, she briefly collapsed in exhaustion.
I squatted down to eye level, and looked her square in the eyes, “You’re smokin’ this thing. I’ve never seen you run this good in my life. Ever. I’m completely in awe.”
“I haven’t stopped once..” she said.
“I know you haven’t. You’re doing amazing. You need to get back out there though. You’ve got competition breathing down your neck. And you’re within 3 miles of the overall male. You can win this thing if you play it right.”
“How far back is the other runner?”
“She’s close. Real close.”
“No Ash. I want miles. How many miles is she?”
And with that I started to fumble.
…Crap I shouldn’t have brought it up so soon…
I knew it was too soon in the game to start racing really heavily, but it was too late. She asked, and we made a pact beforehand that I would play by her rules. She wanted miles, she got miles…
“Same mile as you. But you can’t race yet. You gotta stay smart and just keep doin’ what you’re doin’.”
“I can’t work this hard to lose. I’m ready to start again.” she said, as I grabbed her arm and lifted her up.
She took off running, and for the next few hours, Beth battled it out hard. The male lost his lead, and it was strictly between the chicks. With Beth’s training, we knew she could pull off a final kick, and possibly take home an overall win. But as fate would have it, there was more than just awful weather in it for her that night.
The Night is Darkest Before Dawn
The competition kept Beth alive for several loops. But somewhere after 110 miles, one of the biggest race monsters – other than ridiculously severe weather- attacked Beth:
“I just threw up a ton on that past lap. I feel really really bad. I am so extremely nauseous.” Beth said as she approached me at the aid station.
“Okay I’m getting the ginger ale and crackers. Keep walking I’ll run up to meet you,” I yelled as I sprinted back to our stuff, and ran back to meet her.
“Just take small bites and sips. You’ll shake this. It will go away.” I said, not totally convinced but with my best poker face. Beth did as instructed, then continued on to the next loop.
Our next encounter wasn’t any better. “I’m so bad. I am dry heaving.” Beth said, but still she had no interest in stopping.
All I could do was force her to munch on crackers and ginger ale. We still had three hours left in the race. She had to have fuel in her body to continue. She had to….
Every loop became a quest at that point. She’d run around to me, I would try to force food, she wouldn’t take it, and she’d keep shuffling onward.
“You have to eat-Have to!!” I’d shout as she’d pass, running next to her with various options to eat.
“I can’t. I’m too sick.”
A couple more loops of that and Beth began to feel like there was no end in sight. The women’s race was still close, though, and she knew it. She wanted to keep pushing despite being completely 100 percent empty.
With two hours left, Beth stopped for a moment. She grabbed my arm to stabilize, and squatted down to stretch in pain, “Ahhh!” she cried out, “I didn’t know it was going to hurt this bad.”
“No. You knew it would hurt this bad Beth,” I said sternly, knowing good and well I couldn’t baby her no matter how bad my human instinct wanted to just wrap her up, hug her, and cry with her. “This is what you trained for. This is what sets you apart from everyone else. You feel this pain and you push harder. So finish this out. Push harder!! You can still win this thing!”
She got up and continued moving the very best she could, relentlessly forcing every agonizing step in the cold windy rain, with well over 100 miles on her feet.
Gutting it Out
I watched my friend push on, yet again, through every bit of adversity that came her way, and celebrated as she reached 120 miles. As she kept running after that, it became very apparent that this race- all of it- came from somewhere deep. It didn’t come from the shoes on her feet. It didn’t come from the music in her headphones. Shoot, it didn’t even come from the months of strict training she put in. This race- it was literally etched onto her heart. I don’t know how it got there, but it was there, and working as an unstoppable force.
All right, so maybe I kinda started to tear up when I realized this….I couldn’t help but remember my own ultra journeys and everything that they meant to me. Her race was beautiful. Her undying effort was incredible. Witnessing it was simply overwhelming.
The Final Hour
With almost an hour left in the race, I stopped trying to feed Beth. She refused to eat as she was still extremely nauseous. Regardless, the adrenaline and drive she had was enough to keep her moving. Her loops were getting slower and slower of course, as the miles and lack of food whittled down any last bit of life she had in her, but she was still determined. The race against the other women was no longer any concern. It was now just survival.
30 minutes left in the race, I feared that her next hurdle to battle would be hypothermia. With no food in her system, and 120 miles on her legs, her body’s attempt at warming itself was futile.
I looked over at John, the RD standing by, and asked if I could go out and make sure she was safe and help her run it in. He agreed that it was okay, so I hiked up my jeans and took off in a hard sprint to catch Beth as fast as I could. When I got to her, It was clear that my assumptions were right.
Her lips were completely blue.
Her face was pale.
She was shaking uncontrollably.
And she was still running.
…Holy crap…what a fighter…I ripped off my flimsy jacket and threw it over her, and yelled “Let’s finish this!” over the wind.
“I’m so cold.” She muttered, “I don’t think I can run.”
“No Beth. I think you can run.” I said crying, “Watching you run here today…I mean..it’s been the most inspiring thing I’ve ever witnessed. What you did out here today, through all of this.. It’s more than I can understand. I know it came from somewhere deep.. And I’m completely in awe. I’m positive you can keep running. Just keep pushing from that deep place.”
But Beth stopped moving. She bent over and started dry heaving.
…She’s given it all she has this time. That’s it…..I thought.
But it wasn’t it. She stood up straight again, wiped her face, and took off running once more. She brought that loop in faster than she did most of the others during the night!
The Last Stand
I joined her again for what would be our final loop. We walked together silently as the wind and rain beat down on us. She was moving steady and with resolve, ready to finish the race, but it was written all over her body that a mile never felt so hard. Her legs simply couldn’t push any more. Halfway around, I looked down at the clock and realized that we had 10 minutes left in the race.
I looked over at Beth and said, “Hey. Look we have about 10 minutes left. You got over 120 miles! But you got those miles alone. So I’m gonna leave you now to finish this thing out by yourself. Its all you. Okay?”
Too tired to fight, she complied. I sprinted ahead to the finish to grab my camera and tell Denise that our girl was comin’ in to finish her journey. But boy I barely got my things ready before I turned around just in time to see Beth approaching her finish line full force with a huge satisfied grin on her face!
“Oh my gosh, Denise she’s running! GO BETH GO!!!!!”
Denise and I jumped up and down cheering as Beth ran that last bit of mile with absolutely every single thing she had left. She crossed that finish line with tears in her eyes, and fell right into my arms.
122.5 miles…2.5 less than her goal, but 2.5 more than what she needed to qualify for World Championships! Beth finished 2nd place overall, beating all of the men and finishing closely behind one other woman…despite all of Mother Nature in its fury rallying against her.
“YOU DID IT!” I sobbed, still holding her tightly, “I’m so so proud of you!”
I let go of her and wiped my eyes...Holy crap..did that really just happen?
I watched smiling as Beth received her race medal from John, then we ushered her off to the med tent. She was hypothermic, hungry, and nauseous, but completely and 100 percent happy.
“I left it all out there,” she said through quivering lips, and wrapped up in Denise’s arms.
“We know you did girl. We know you did.”
I sat on the med table next to my friend, as everyone took care of her needs and nursed her back to health. I couldn’t move though. I just looked at her for awhile… Dumbfounded.
Almost hypothermic myself, I wrapped up underneath a few blankets, and stuck my head under for a minute to take everything in. I dropped my face into my hands and quietly cried happy tears for the success of Beth’s day. All day, nonstop, there was one crazy thing after another threatening her finish.. and the awful rain, cold, and wind was a constant. Her not being able to eat for hours in the end and still finishing? Man! It was just a lot to absorb. Every possible thing that could have gone wrong, went wrong, and she still crushed the course!
…She literally did give that every single thing that she had..
I was definitely enthralled with Beth’s physical tenacity, but my heart was warmed even more by her spirit. I completely understood how and why she pushed as hard as she did. I respected that it came from inside. I remembered the feeling, and I loved the moment. It reminded me of why I love to run these things so much. …guess that’s why I was crying like such a freakin’ baby..
You know, all day Beth fought–
The wind tried to knock her over.
The rain tried to freeze her.
The hail tried to break her.
The miles tried to wreck her.
Her own body tried to stop her.
But the simplicity and beauty of it all, is that her heart —
— her heart held on until the end.
…And that’s what running is all about.
Congratulations to my amazing friend, Beth McCurdy. I will always cherish that day, and the bond we created out on that course. There is no doubt in my mind that had you not battled all of that weather, you would have finished far beyond your initial goal. Thank you for starting my ultra journey years ago, and for letting me be a continuing part of yours. I’ll never forget this..
So whad’ya think? Ever experienced an incredible race like this? Did Beth’s journey inspire you? Leave your thoughts and comments below, and thanks for reading! ~Ashley