It was cold in Alcoa, Tennessee that January day. Really cold for a Georgia girl; fourteen degrees to be exact. I was bundled up tightly in my heavy WeatherEdge jacket, old thermal gloves, and layers of sweats, but nothing could ease the bite of the windchill. I pulled my jacket up a little higher over my mouth, and I breathed in and out to feel some kind of warmth…Man, it’s freezing.
I glanced over at my husband, Dan, who was staring back at me….Thumbs up… a reminder that being cold was the least of my worries that day. I was standing outside of a local middle school, under a huge banner, surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes with one common goal— to finish an ultra. The Pistol Ultra. And the gun was about to signal the start of another 100 mile journey for me. Another life lesson I would never forget…
If you have followed my blog for awhile, you will likely remember the last story I wrote about a 100 mile race, Ancient Oaks in 2012. If you haven’t read it, a quick recap would be that I decided I needed a break from hundreds. To sum it up, I was too content in life to push myself that hard at the time. I needed a reason to suffer, a reason to put my body through Hell. And for a year, I simply couldn’t come up with one. I was comfortable, happy, and fine with it. Yet comfort and happiness can only get you so far.
I began to feel unsettled, and a little less disciplined. Less willing to push myself out of my comfort zone every day. Don’t get me wrong, I was still fit and healthy. But it had been a good long while since I’d actually forced myself to work hard for something. I needed to fight again, needed that rush of slaying another giant.. So, I did what most people do when they need to change– I set a good ole New Years resolution around Christmastime. But instead of dropping 20 pounds, I signed up for another 100, this time, hopefully faster than before. Of course, I instagrammed my plans.
To be honest, running another 100 with a goal time was more than just a resolution for me. It was an opportunity to deal with some things that’d crept up in the past year or so. I guess life has a funny way of knocking you down every now and then, and running has a funny way of coming along and helping you back up. Especially ultras. I’ve always said ultras are for the mentally screwed, and I still fully believe that.
Snap back to the cold hard blast of reality.
There I was again. At a starting line of yet another 100 mile race. This time on pavement, a first for me. As a trailrunner, I knew it was going to hurt, but I could hang. I knew that whatever it was that pushed me to the starting line would be the very thing to push me through to the finish – an innate need to suffer. A willingness to wrestle with demons. Funny thing, those demons. Even if you think you’ve slayed all of them, there are always a few who will come back out to play if you ask. …So I asked..
Right before the gun went off, I begged God to give me the perfect day to go to war with myself. I didn’t want any easy going milk and honey– I wanted the meat, the rough stuff. I wanted to burst open the floodgates of pain again.
I shuffled to the very back of the pack and waited patiently for the gun.
I looked down at my watch and started to move…..It’s just you and me, buddy.
The Perfect Place
The Pistol 100 mile runners had nine 11 mile loops to finish that day. The race started at Alcoa Middle School, then moved along the scenic Pistol River through the quiet towns of Alcoa and Maryville. The greenway took us out 4.5 miles, hit the incredibly friendly “Woody aid station”, then turned us back around towards home base aid station at the school. We then had to run an additional lollipop loop by the start. There were plenty of bathroom stops, spots for family and friends to cheer everyone on, and the aid stations were stocked full of everyone’s favorites. I knew that if I ever wanted a place to battle it out for a 100 mile personal best –this was the race to do it. From the get-go, it was clear that the RD, Will Jorgensen, and his entire team, had meticulously planned out everything from the registration to the finish line, and anything in between. We were in good hands. I was happy to relax and let my mind get to work.
Start Slow. Stay Slow. Finish..Fast?
I started the race at a nice 10 minute pace and quickly fell into a groove. I was comfortable running easy and letting all of the speedsters from the different divisions pass me. In the back of my brain, I kept hearing my friend Beth McCurdy screaming at me not to go out fast. It’s my main problem in these races. But not today. I stood my ground on that 10 minute pace. Not a minute faster or slower.
I turned on some old Incubus, zoned out a bit, and let my brain get to work. When I run these things, I like to mentally settle on a topic for my brain to tackle. I’ll think about my kids for a bit, things that make me laugh, where I want to run someday, anything and everything. It’s how I pass the miles. It’s my time to not be Ashley the wife, Ashley the mom, or Ashley the friend or sister or daughter– just Ashley.
Dan left me alone shortly after the start to go hang with our kids and my parents who were staying at our family cabin nearby in the Smokies, so I pretty much had the day to myself.
I kept the whole thinking and running thing going for quite some time. I had a few pit stops and bathroom breaks, but for the most part it was all smooth sailing. Hour after hour began to look the same. I would run a loop, change out my bottles, and head out for more. It was still freezing out, but it wasn’t bothering me at all. I was just sippin’ my Tailwind, cranking my tunes, and logging my miles. Happily. No hiccups at all.
So Where Are The Demons??
Things were going so smoothly actually, that around 40 miles or so, I started to wonder why nothing crappy was going down! I mean, in all honesty, I’m pretty sure I’m the female ultrarunning version of Charlie Brown. Things just never seem to work out for me. I was almost positive that all of the furies of Hell would be unleashed upon me at mile 99 or something, so I held my tongue, but dang.. it was just a good day.. and it lasted the whole day.
I ran solidly from zero miles onward, and never really skipped a beat.
Guys, I have to drop this little tidbit because it’s too cute not to share. Every time I go to our cabin, I take my kids to this tiny little Ma & Pop cupcake shop in the mountains. It’s become sort of a tradition that Brett and Brook and I split a cinnamon roll for breakfast every time we’re up there. So you can imagine my surprise when later in the evening Dan came back to the race with a box of the store’s homemade cinnamon rolls with a little note from my kids. Brett also made me a good luck rainbow loom bracelet which I put on instantly! (If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about.)
I about died. Heart. Melted. I couldn’t touch the cinnamon rolls for fear of spending the rest of the night in the bathroom, haha, but it was so freaking sweet my babies thought to do that. It definitely put another pep in my step and pushed me onward. If anything, just to get home faster so I could be with them.
Be Careful What You Wish For
The sunlight started to fade, but I was still running strong. My watch died, but I was enjoying myself enough that I didn’t need it. The entire day was the same thing over and over again. I would run an 11 mile loop, then bounce back towards the start to the table Dan had set up. He would fill my bottles, switch my shoes, kiss me on the forehead and push me back on the course. Each time I would come back just as fresh and happy as the time before.
But when the sun finally set, and the darkness settled in, everything began to change. The course had gotten lonelier as the participants of the shorter races had all pretty much finished their efforts. The sky had gotten gloomier, and the chill was back to cold and brutal again. Most of the other 100 mile runners were settled into their own groove, silently grinding away at the painful miles ahead of them. It wasn’t really the time for socializing or making new friends.
As I ran along, I suddenly realized I was alone. Even worse, I felt alone. I don’t remember exactly what mile I was on, I know it wasn’t a particularly hard one, but it suddenly felt overwhelming. For the first time that entire day, I started to feel like walking.
I tried to fight it…..How about a walk / run?… I thought to myself, as I turned my run into a shuffle….Just a little less than 50k left, I got this….
But that first moment of doubt–that first sign of weakness–became the perfect opportunity for my demons to finally rear their ugly heads.
…No you can’t. You’ve never done it before. What makes you think you’re any better now?..
Crap. It’s happening. I realized.
The moment I had craved all along, that hard battle…the mental game..I was getting it. I suddenly started to feel nauseous, and became overwhelmed with the thought of dealing with myself.
What was I thinking? I don’t need this.
But it was too late. My shuffle turned to a walk, and I was already deep inside of my own weak mind. And I couldn’t get out.
For several minutes I could think of nothing but my insecurities, defeat, and self-doubt. Failures. Fears. Anything but running.
I kept digging deeper. An entire onslaught of painful memories met me right there on the pavement on that cold Tennessee night. I’m talking stuff buried so deep, I’d completely forgotten it existed– all of it surfaced. All the way back from grade school and into adulthood.
Just one blow after the other.
BAM Remember that one??
BAM You’re not good enough.
BAM You’ll never be good enough.
BAM You’ll never get over it.
BAM You always fail, Ashley. ALWAYS.
Yup. From smooth sailing to total and complete headcase in sixty seconds flat. And I just couldn’t find the strength to run through them.
I knew I asked God for a battle, but I didn’t see that beast coming. Blisters, quad pain, sore knees… I could handle that. But honestly, I wasn’t really prepared for this.
Before I knew it, I had pitied myself into a slow pathetic long walk, on a flat stretch of pavement, no less, and for no real reason at all. I was so pissed at myself, too. I wanted to cry, wanted to fight it, but I didn’t have energy to. I was defeated.
Dangitt, Ashley. Why. Why do you always, always, always have to fail?
I stopped walking. Just stopped moving all together. I bent over, put my hands on my knees, breathed deep, and looked down at my shoes.
“Pull yourself together. You just have to run.” I said out loud.
But as usual, I knew this wasn’t about running. It was about dealing with myself. About closing doors to my past, and pushing on towards my future. It was about letting go, and moving forward. But I couldn’t do it alone. I stood back up, and looked straight up to the sky.
..God. Here I am again. Broken. I know it’s just a race. I know I chose to do this and I asked for the pain. But I’m weak. Please. Give me strength to fight, give me strength to change, give me strength to let go…
In that moment, there weren’t any lightning bolts or earthquakes, but instead, a peaceful calm and reassurance settled over me. Suddenly I knew what I had to do, and I knew only I could do it. I had to run. This was my race. My pain. My battle. And nobody, not even God above, was going to do it for me. I started to run again, and swore to myself that I wouldn’t walk another stretch of the race no matter how bad it hurt. I had to finish this battle once and for all.
Just keep moving forward. Keep moving forward.
Misery Loves Company
When I got back to the starting area, I had roughly 24 miles left to go. I told Daniel I was struggling a little bit [try a lot] mentally, and could really use the company if he wanted to join me for a loop. Now Dan isn’t a runner, but he eagerly jumped at the opportunity to push me...Dan always seems to jump in at just the right time.
We quietly fell into stride together. I told him that I had just conquered a rough spot mentally, and I didn’t really feel like talking much because I wanted to reflect on it.
“You think I’m out here for conversation?” he retorted. Dan quickly dropped the pace back down to 10, and I had to work to stay by his side.
We ran together as I thought about the day, and kept replaying “Keep moving forward” in my brain. Every now and then, I’d start to get weak, and attempt to voice how I felt, but Dan was quick to shut me down:
“Can we slow down?” I would complain. He would ignore. We’d keep pushing.
“It’s a hill. Can we walk it?” — “What? I can’t hear you!” And we’d charge up it.
“I need a break.” — “Oh really? I thought you needed a strong 100 mile finish.”
That’s why we’re married, you see, the man knows better than to give me what I want.
This back and forth went on for an hour or so. But eventually I realized it was better to just shut up than to waste my energy trying to say anything at all. So I stayed quiet and kept chanting in my head : “Keep moving forward. Keep moving forward!”
And eventually we were back to the start for one last loop. As Dan refilled my water bottles, I started to panic, as I realized I had to run the last bit alone. I looked over at him, and I could tell he was in pain. He’s not a runner, and 11 miles is a heck of a lot for someone who doesn’t run.
“Hey. Thanks for the push Dan.” I said as I started to take off towards the lollipop.
“Ash, wait up, I’m coming with you!” He shouted back.
I didn’t know what to say. I just looked at him and smiled. Grateful for him being there. He knew it meant the world to me. And together we took off for the lollipop, then the final 11 mile loop.
No Pain No Gain.
Pistol was supposed to be an “easy 100”, but it’s still 100 dang miles no matter how you slice it and dice it. Even flat pavement feels like a mountain on your aching joints and fatigued muscles in the end.
But we ran it, and we ran it hard. I gave every single mile every last thing I had left in me. I cried some silent tears of pain and joy, and I wrestled with the urge to slow down, but I never went to battle again in my head like I had earlier. I’d conquered that massive demon once and for all, and I knew it. And with Daniel by my side, I felt completely invincible.
Just 11 more. Then 10, then before I knew it, five…the countdown was on now.
Dan looked down at his watch. “Hey, you’re gonna get that sub 20 finish you wanted if you keep running good.”
“Really?!! No way!” I laughed. I had completely forgotten about the clock and the fact that I was racing.
Just a couple more miles left.
Each one hurt a ton, but they were bearable. Conquerable. I was on the cusp of a personal victory, and I could literally taste it in my mouth.
Keep moving forward. Keep moving forward!!!
The last mile finished on one of the only hills on the entire route, but I ran it as hard as I could, tears and all.
I crossed over and put my hands on my knees, and silently thanked God.
…You knew I needed that. Thank you. Thank you.
Then I jumped up and down and ran over to Dan who wrapped me up in a huge bear hug.
“YOU DID IT BABY!!!!” he shouted through his huge grin, “I AM SO PROUD OF YOU!!”
“Thank YOU for being there. I couldn’t have done that without you there to push me so hard..or anything in life for that matter.” I cried, returning the love.
At that point, Will, the RD, walked over and congratulated me on finishing first female.
“Wait, what?!! Me?” I was so shocked. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I was leading the race for the women. The cherry on top was enough to bring me back to tears.
Will handed me my beautiful Pistol 100 buckle, an awesome course record pistol mug, and a certificate to snag a free pair of kicks from a local running store–extra swag for finishing first.
“Wow. This is too much.” I choked back.
“You earned it!” Will laughed.
“I don’t know what to say. Thank you!” I said looking at my shiny new buckle.
I fought a good fight. I settled the score, and my work was done. I’d gotten everything I’d asked for. It was finally time to hang up my hat and go home.
But there’s always more.
We thanked Will again, and all of the volunteers who had worked tirelessly throughout the day to make it a success. Everything was perfect. The entire race was a genuine first class event. Dan loaded all of my gear up into the car as I struggled to sit down. Then we made the hour drive back into the Smokies.
“So Ash, you finally got that sub 20 hour hundred finish. Think you’re done with these things for a while now?” Dan asked from the drivers seat.
I sat quietly for a moment and looked out the window into the darkness, letting the entire day sink in. I smiled and looked down at my 5th 100 mile finish buckle, “Nah… I’m just getting started.”
If you made it this far, congrats! Ha! This one took me forever to write. But really I felt NOT writing about Pistol would be a big mistake. It was an incredibly smooth, well put together event, and deserves every bit of praise it gets. The race is a new favorite for the 100 distance, and I will certainly be back for more! If you’re looking for something shorter, there’s also a relay, a 50k and 100k race. Check it out here: PistolUltra.com
Also I don’t usually add these kind of details to a race recap, but I am extremely happy with the combo of fuel and gear I used at Pistol. It was a huge reason I was able to just relax and run– I used Tailwind nutrition for the majority of my calories, and will never ever use anything else. They’re the best. Altra and Injinji randomly threw some socks and shoes my way pre race, which was a nice surprise, and they ended up being the perfect combo for my feet. Thankful for all of that stellar gear!
If you have any feedback, leave it below. Love to hear your thoughts! Thanks for reading!:) ~Ashley
Dan and I goofing off pre race:)
Annnnd, my dear good friend Jen wanted you all to see this pathetic pic of my daughter walking me– stumbling with my scraggly hair, looking like a crackhead in crocs, sheep pajama pants and race shirt– into a McDonalds shortly after the race so I could pee. You’re welcome, Jen.