I was sat on a log with my head in my hands and hadn’t seen another runner for hours. The mist was swirling and it was 3am in the middle of a dark Texan wood. All around me I could hear scratching noises of the wildlife just off the trail. I was feeling dizzy and sugar depleted and knew I needed a two minute sit down. I had been running for 21 hours now and was 94 miles into the 100 and the heat and humidity had taken its toll. As I lifted my head, through the mist a huge duck paddled a rowing boat majestically across the trail and on into the woods, completely silently. It was at this point I knew I needed to get this thing done and get some sleep. But first I needed sugar and fast.
Backtracking a tad, I was here for the most important run of my life so far. Maybe ever, in terms of emotions and significance. I wasn’t running this race for me, but in memory of Lon Lomas. This was supposed to be his first 100 mile race but fate made it me running instead, with the honour of giving the belt buckle to his wife, Alicia, at the finish. No pressure to get it done, then. But to be honest, I wasn’t nervous and I didn’t feel the significance of the pressure until it was done. I knew I would finish this race, I just didn’t know I would do as well as I did.
I landed in Houston on Thursday afternoon and after dealing with the worst people in America, the guys on passport control, I was through to meet Iain Wallace and see the best side of America. Iain was a stranger to me but was introduced through Rob Goyen who is the RD of the Brazos Bend 100. Rob had been amazing before the race, not only giving me a free entry because of why I was coming, but also free camping at the Brazos Bend State Park and when I said I could do with a ride from Houston to the park, he set me up with Iain. Iain is a Scotsman who has lived in Houston since 1994. He met me at the airport and I stayed at his house on the Thursday night before he drove me to the park on the Friday afternoon. Iain was running the 50 mile race (there was also a marathon and half marathon making this the biggest trail race in Texas history) and knew the area well. He was a fantastic host and we have become friends. He also introduced me to some of the best Mexican food I have ever had, including a deep fried burrito (you can take the man out of Scotland…)
Once at the park we headed over to the race start to meet the team setting up. I recognised Rob from Facebook and went over and said hello. He was as chuffed as I was to meet and like Iain, I have made a good friend in Rob. I asked Rob what he wanted before I headed out knowing Iain wanted some whiskey and Rob asked for chocolate, so I gave him a big bag from UK duty free as a little thank you for all he had done to help make this happen. I also met his lovely wife Rachael and a number of the team getting things ready, but seeing them so busy I said I would go set up my tent and come back for the pre-race briefing at 4pm.
The Brazos Bend State Park is more beautiful than I expected. One of my favourite films of all times is Forrest Gump (and not because he runs a long way…) and I always wanted to see those southern trees and this park reminded me of his house. Shimmering lakes, amazing trees and just so green everywhere. It wasn’t like the Texas I have seen on TV.
Having set up the tent and attended the briefing, I had a shower, sorted my kit for race morning and settled in to read my book and get an early night before the 6am start. Soon after I started reading I heard “Tim?” outside my tent. It was James and Kelly, two of the Lomas’ friends who I had been in contact with before the race. They were kind enough to drive out from Louisiana and crew for me which was amazing and great to meet them face to face finally. I said we would meet up again at 5am and then got back to reading and quickly fell asleep.
I had set my alarm for 4:30am and slept remarkably well as the crickets cooed outside all night. Just as I was getting dressed I heard two more voices outside my tent calling my name- it was Alicia and Lance, Lon’s brother. The first time I was about to meet them and it made me nervous and focussed at the same time. They were both incredibly kind and also excited about the day but with naturally mixed feelings. They showed much more strength than I did by being there and I knew they would get me to finish this race no matter what.
After James and Kelly also turned up we had a brief run-through of what I would need on the day and I gave them my bags. Mainly it would be changes of clothing as the race was well catered, but above all, moral support and encouragement when it got tough later on. They had all brought mountain bikes with them so it was easy for them to meet me at certain points on each loop and do what was needed every seven miles or so. Running 4 x 25 mile loops is a lot easier logistically than a point to point course, even if it is mentally tough.
We strolled down to the start just before 6am and very soon after, the countdown began. The 100 miler was the least busy of the four distances held and 103 of us took off to run 100 miles. It was still pitch dark at 6am so most of us had headlamps on. I was wearing my reserve one which doesn’t have great light output, but I knew it was only needed for an hour or so. About half an hour in I found the field had spread out well but I was running side by side with a guy called Andres Sanchez. I am not a hugely chatty runner during races but we found we had a lot to talk about and in the end pretty much ran the first 50 miles together. Sometimes he was ahead, sometimes behind and sometimes together and it was a great way to help the miles click by. He told me his marathon PB was just over 3 hours which made me a little scared as mine is 3:38, but it was also his first 100 so I think he was taking it steady and it worked well for both of us. Just like the North Downs Way 100 I made sure that for the first 50 miles if it felt like hard work I would stop and walk to re-set.
Even early on the humidity really hit me. The sun wasn’t even up but I was sweating and I made sure to take an S-cap every half an hour as well as as much water as I needed, drinking to thirst. As the sun started to break through it was a magical sunrise and lit up the whole of the park and the sky. I quietly prayed that this would hopefully be the only sunrise I would see on this run, even though I had until midday Sunday to finish. I am not a religious man, but it was a beautiful sunrise and I quietly said hello to Lon and told him I would finish this.
The first loop I ran with just one 500ml Salomon softflask, but had another in my pocket in case it was needed, but with water every three miles and the heat still being relatively mild I just needed the one. Whilst water was every three miles, there were full aid stations at miles 6, 11 and 17 on each loop and I kept these as my focus. I didn’t carry any food with me so I made sure I took my time at each of these and ate as much as I could, even in the latter stages when I felt sick. Early on it was mainly fruit with more substantial food later in the day, along with a gel every hour.
The first part of the course travels through the lakes area where the alligators live. I was really looking forward to seeing them and not apprehensive as there has never been an incident in the park and you just need to keep your distance. No such luck on this loop, it was still too cool for them, but I was starting to bake already. It was like someone switched the calendar and moved me from December to August in a day and harder to adapt to than I had thought.
From the lakes section we travelled into the woods and followed stunning single track for the remainder of the course. This weaved and darted around and made running fun and something I had to concentrate on. Whilst the course was advertised as fast, it was a lot more technical than I thought and several times I tripped on roots and tree stumps that were hidden under the thick leaf foliage. I made a mental note that in the dark with fatigue this section would take some concentration and by my calculations, all going well, I would cover two loops of this part in the night.
The course was set up in such a way that you passed other runners regularly and I was constantly told “good job”, which by the end I was dutifully returning. It was an incredibly friendly race and seeing other people on other sections really did encourage me on. Some of the half marathon runners couldn’t believe the distance we were running and them being in awe was quite cool and helped spur me on.
The 50 mile run started at 7am, an hour after us, so Andres and myself were wondering at what stage the leaders would storm past us. Sure enough, at about three hours in Ford Smith literally sailed by. It was like his feet weren’t touching the ground. Who knows, maybe he had been given some tips by the duck of the woods as to how to traverse these parts. He went on to finish in 5:48 which is pretty incredible now I know the course.
At about mile 20, Andres and I took a wrong turn but quickly realised and doubled back after no more than a mile I guess. But adding two miles at this stage was a bit frustrating but we had to put it out of our minds and just crack on. It focussed us to have a good end to the loop and we made it back to the start/finish in 4:20, which was pretty decent for 25 miles and 2 bonus miles, with 75 left to run.
Here I realised how big this run was for me. A gazebo had been set up at by the Lomas family and 12 friends and family were there as well as others around who had heard why I was running. I met Lon and Lance’s father, Alicia’s mother, Jason and Randall, two friends of Lon’s and a host of others who all hugged me and helped me get on with the job with renewed focus. This next loop was set to be the hottest and I was likely out from 10:30am to around 3:30pm, so I stripped off my North Face tribute t-shirt and swapped it for my white and very lightweight Salomon vest, which I intended to keep drenched. A lot of other runners were now shirtless but a) the world is not ready for that yet and I didn’t fancy tensing my tits every time I saw another human and b) I asked Jez at Western States why he didn’t run shirtless when most of the elites did and he said he felt it was better to have a wet t-shirt on to keep cool than just let the moisture evaporate straight off your skin. Made sense to me.
Loop two was hot. Really hot. It got up to 27 centigrade at times and this was like a summers day back home, but it was the humidity which literally clung to me and made me feel suppressed all the time, until a breeze would quickly bring temporary reprieve. I was now using both soft flasks, one to drink from and one to douse myself with on my head and shirt.
I met Lance, James, Kelly and Alicia every few miles and they kept up a great routine of coke, sunscreen, bodyglide, cheering and encouragement. I really couldn’t have done it without them.
Each section on loop two seemed to take so much longer than the first. Things looked different in the changing light and I wasn’t once bored of the course, it just seemed to take a long time. At each aid station there was a camera crew from Ultrasportslive.tv and they were all great fun and helped me relax and enjoy the run as opposed to being focussed and putting myself under pressure.
Eventually I hit the more tricky technical section and the humidity in the woods was simply sapping. It felt like someone was squeezing my head with a warm towel but I knew if I could just get through this section, it would start to cool off later in the afternoon and I could get my rhythm back in the evening.
Sure enough, I came back around to the start/finish and completed 50 miles in 9:44, which I was pretty happy with. I sat down and when asked how I felt I knew I had learnt from the summer. I said “The bad news is it hurts, the good news is I know it won’t now get any more painful and I just need to work through the pain”. In a way I embraced this moment as it was the mental side that would take over. The physical knew what it was doing and I just needed to repeat what I had already done for 50 miles, albeit at an inevitably slowing pace.
I again changed my Buff and t-shirt and felt fresh. I opted not to change my shoes and socks until mile 75 as the Rapa Nui’s still felt amazing and my socks were doing a great job. It was also still very warm so I didn’t yet want to see the state of my feet until it cooled down somewhat. I had blisters for sure, but nothing in any way, shape or form like the North Downs ones.
And so for only the second time ever, I ran out of a 50 mile aid station ready to do it all over again. At least here I knew what was to come and that helped.
I met the guys two hours into this loop as I knew I would need my headtorch soon after 6pm and when it started to get dark here, it got dark ridiculously fast. They set me up and sprayed me with insect repellent as the mosquitos were starting to really buzz. As I write this, their bites are the only pain I have left from the race, so I would call that a pretty damn good recovery.
The last time I ran a night race I had Chris Mills to pace me, but here I was going it alone. This didn’t bother me as I knew the route well enough by now and I have been running home with a torch along the canal path for the last few months, so am pretty competent. That said I was getting tired and so blasted the i-pod until the batteries died. It also kept my mind off all of the scratching in the woods. Everything here bites, scratches or stings so I kept my wits about me as much as possible and it helped me focus.
I ended loop three in something like sixteen hours and knew I had six hours to play with for the final loop to get the coveted ‘under 22 hours’ belt buckle. This had been my focus the whole day and remained so, so I quickly changed tops for the last time, changed batteries in my headlamp and headed out for one last loop. Lance and co now saw I was getting tired and made a big effort to jeer me on for this one final push. Every step took me closer to no more dreaded loops and I could sense the finish, even though it was hours away yet.
I changed shoes and socks here, swapping out for my Stinson Evos, which were like running on marshmallows and very welcome. James tended to a couple of blisters, I bodyglided and was off and running.
All I wanted after the sun went down was noodles and broth as well as mashed potatoes and gravy when it could be found. The guys were great and every time I saw them had a cup of both for me. The aid stations and the volunteers were also incredible and I even tried my first slice of pumpkin pie. Without the calories I was forcing down my neck, there is no way I would have finished.
The last tough section was due to take about three hours between mile 85 and 98. Here I was suffering and so Lance and James made an effort to cycle out to as many spots as possible to meet me and give me coke and encouragement. They were awesome and made this lonely section manageable. Lance is not the sort of guy you would put down as scared, but even he said afterwards that those woods gave him the spooks and I was pretty glad it wasn’t just me who felt that. It was pure Blair Witch in there.
I finally got to the last tricky section again, about six miles of single track deep in the woods and started to feel a pain in my right knee. Up until this point I was making good time and pretty confident I would get in under 22 hours, but as the knee worsened I had a shooting pain up my ITB and it went completely rigid on me. Not good this late in the game and certainly not good in these woods. With hindsight, just like the hallucinations which were now coming thick and fast, both could well have been a result of me lacking sugar and my body starting to crash. I made a conscious decision then to slow down and just finish. The time didn’t matter, which buckle didn’t matter, only finishing mattered. So I walked a lot of this spooky section and massaged my knee as often as required. I had the odd sit down and then I started to recover. It never always gets worse.
Finally, I came out of the woods. I downed two horrid gels that were left by the water aid station and pushed myself to get out to mile 98 where I would see the guys for the last time before the finish. They saw I was in a state, but all I could say was “We’ve done it. We did it.” I also added “I’m pretty fucked”.
As they drove down to the finish in Lance’s truck, I jogged towards the finish and smiled. I looked up and said a few words and kept going. About a mile out, Lance had jogged up to meet me and it was at this point that I stopped running. We walked in and said a few things to each other that I am not going to share, but he and Alicia were my two rocks that day. This meant so much to all of us and it was an honour to be the one to get it done for them. A few hundred yards from the finish, Lance ran ahead to tell Rob (the RD) we were coming in and handed me over to Alicia. We walked to the finish arm in arm and, again, I am not going to share what we said but as we crossed the line we held hands and put them in the air together.
I hugged everyone there. All Lon’s family had been up for as long as me and I know from experience how mentally tiring crewing is so it was a pretty emotional finish. I got a hug from Rob and stood back as he gave the buckle to Alicia. Incredibly graciously, he also gave one to me.
Not that it matters, but I finished in 22 hours and 31 minutes. I was 18th overall and 1st international, which I am still getting my head around. My longest training run is typically around 4 hours at the weekends and I run less than 70 miles per week on average. I just wanted to emphasise that in case you happen to be reading this and feel that 100 miles is beyond you. It’s not and in my case it is 20% physical fitness, 80% mental focus.
After getting the buckles and chatting for a bit, I was crashing and needed a shower and to pass out for a few hours. That I did and we all met for breakfast about 9am before going our separate ways.
Even if I do ever get into Western States, I don’t think anything can ever touch the significance of this ultra on that day for me. How could it? If ever there is an example of dignity and strength, it is the Lomas family and I am just so happy I could do my one small bit to help make this Christmas just that little bit easier.
A final thank you to everyone who made this happen. Those of you who chipped in on Crowdfunder to cover my flight, North Face for the tent and sleeping bag, Salomon and Merrell, for clothing, Buff- my main sponsor- and everyone who sent me good luck messages. You all got me through this.
Sleep well, Lon. We both got those buckles we always wanted this year. I told you we would.