Monday, May 18, 2009
I went to the Keys 100 to crew for and pace Sister Mary Beth Lloyd and Lisa Smith-Batchen, and to get in some quality training miles for Badwater, which I did. I left the Keys 100 a changed person in so many ways, with a renewed sense of admiration and respect for those who go above and beyond their natural capabilities, who succeed in the face of despair, who refuse to use the words "I can't" or "I won't", who with determination take each and every painful step towards their goal with a desire drawn from the depths of their heart and soul.
I had the honor and privilege of pacing several ladies through various portions of the Keys 100. This weekend was certainly filled with amazing individual performances, including first place finishes by friends and Badwater crew members Brian Krogmann and Jen Vogel in the men's and women's categories respectively (congratulations Brian and Jen!). However, nearly 60 miles of this event was focused on the journey of one young lady, Brittni Radford of Wasilla, Alaska (yes, that is the hometown of Gov. Sarah Palin), who simply amazed me on so many levels, in her very first attempt at the 100 mile distance, without ever before venturing past 26 miles. On several occasions her grit and refusal to quit brought tears to my own eyes. She displayed an inner determination that I have not seen in a person in a very long time. She would wince in utter pain at mile 93 as her severely blistered feet were treated and prepared to suffer the brutal and hot last 7 miles to the finish line, not once showing any indication or desire to quit. So, while my experience this weekend left me with several new friends (both crew and runners) that I certainly hope to keep in touch with and see again in the future, it is more about a single person who over the course of 29 hours and 100 miles became a part of my ultra running memories that will never be forgotten, a person that I hold in the highest respect and admiration, and one that I consider a part of my family forever. This is the story of Brittni Radford's epic 100 mile adventure of self-discovery and triumph.
I found myself in the Florida Keys on the weekend of May 16 and 17, 2009, as a last minute fill-in to crew and pace a group of ladies running with Sister Mary Beth Lloyd, running in her calf-length black habit to raise money and awareness for Aids Orphans Rising. They were to be led by Lisa Smith-Batchen, and were to be as slow as the slowest person. It was to be a 100 mile group effort. Several days before the race the media began to cover Sister Mary Beth's running and her cause. She was featured on several local television stations, and made the front page of the Miami Herald. Press came to the course on race day for videos, pictures and interviews. But this was to be a group effort, and Sister Mary Beth was not alone, nor would she once claim this to be anything but a group effort for the children. Accompanying Sister Mary Beth and Lisa
were Jean Oakley, and sisters Heather Wilcox and Brittni Radford. The crew consisted of myself, my brother Jon, Todd and Helene, two Ashleys (one Jean's daughter and one Heather's), and Stephanie (who I had the opportunity to spend a ton of time with on the course and who was a tremendous help in getting Brittni to the finish line - a person who's own determination to go to any length to see her friends succeed left me in awe - and she is pretty freaking funny as well). I learned a lot about Stephanie in 2 days, and I can certainly say that her young life has thrown many challenges her way that she has hit head on and overcome.
The race began at 6 AM sharp on U.S. Route 1 at mile marker 101. It was an uneventful start. This is an unsupported event, like Badwater, and each runner is required to have its own crew and crew vehicle (we had 2 vans for our 5 runners). The girls, led my Lisa, started strong, moving well to each one mile van jump. The cooler air in the early morning hours would work to their advantage. But the sun would soon rise, and with it came temps that would reach the upper 90s. Each member of the team (except for Lisa) was attempting their first 100-miler, with most of them making the attempt with no running experience beyond the marathon distance. Soon they would each develop their own issues. Sister Mary Beth would suffer the greatest. Wearing full nun attire (a calf-length black habit), she fell victim to the heat within 20 miles, experiencing severe stomach and stability issues. The group would not leave Sister Mary Beth, resisting the urge to move ahead. With it evident that Sister Mary Beth's day would be either long or short lived, she demanded the girls move ahead without her and Lisa.
So, instead of my pacing duties starting at mile 50 as originally planned, they would begin around mile 30 and I took over leadership of the remaining group. By mile 50 (which we reached less than an hour under the time cutoff) each of the remaining 3 girls had developed issues covering different ends of the spectrum. Jean's knee prevented her from running more than 10 steps without having to bend over in agony. Heather's feet developed blisters that ground her to a slower march. Brittni's issue, however, was that she needed to run. The slower pace led to shin pain, and she would often run ahead to the next mile mark.
At mile 53 or so a few of the girls in the crew wanted to run a portion of the course known as the 7 mile bridge. Familiar with that section of the course, I knew it brought tight shoulders and dangerous traffic. So, discretion being the better part of valor, I took a break, giving Stephanie and Ashley a chance to enjoy the bridge. I drove ahead to see Jen Vogel, who was about to move into 2nd place overall with just 13 miles to go in her race. I wished her well, spoke a bit with Lane, then drove the nearly 30 miles back to the bottom of the bridge to wait for the girls. I was tired, and my plan at this point was to call it a night, head to the hotel in Key West, and get some sleep before coming back out in the morning.
However, prior to leaving the group at the start of the 7 mile bridge, I pulled Brittni aside. I had noticed that she had so much left in the tank that she could have easily already been 10 to 15 miles ahead of the others if she had gone ahead on her own. But that would have meant leaving the group and going forward without a crew, an impossible task in a self-supported event such as this. I looked Brittni in the eyes and told her that if anyone was going to finish this race it would be her, and that if she kept moving and drew from the same determination that got her to this point, she would easily make it to the finish line. She simply nodded and kept moving.
While waiting at the bottom of the bridge for Todd and Helene (two more amazing people that donated their time for this cause), with the plan set to drive to the hotel in Key West with them, I dozed off. Stephanie woke me 5 minutes after they completed the bridge portion and told me that Jean and Heather had decided to drop out of the race. Jean's knee was too painful to allow her to move on, and Heather's blisters were simply too much to withstand (her take on whether or not she will attempt another 100-miler is in the video below). But Brittni was still going. I was not and really never thought about getting back on the course.....until, that is, Stephanie told me exactly why Brittni was still going on alone. Aside from the desire to finish what she had started for the children of Sister Mary Beth's cause, she told me of her conversation with Brittni, in which Brittni repeated what I had said - that if anyone was going to finish this race, she was the one I thought had the best shot, and that she would do it - and that made her determined not to back down. Stephanie also told me that Brittni was hopeful that I would return to pace her. How could I possibly decline ? How could I leave this girl out there, each step being the farthest distance she had ever gone, knowing she hoped I would return. I simply could not, and the new found enthusiasm that coursed through my body had me up and on the course again with Brittni.
What an amazing first 20 or so miles we had. We were laughing and having a blast. We enjoyed a few rain showers (one heavy) that cooled us off. There is a now infamous road side "nature calls" stop that will remain a secret between me, Brittni and Stephanie (what happens on the race course, stays on the race course). At some point we discovered a runners discarded underwear directly in our path on the course - nasty. We even decided to turn off Brittni's head lamp as the stars shone bright enough to light our way. We were moving and moving well. Time was not an issue, and I set a goal of a sub 30 hour finish. Stephanie would join us for several miles at a time, infusing an extra burst of energy and a "crap-load" of fun. Stephanie was amazing.
As the mile markers passed, Brittni's condition began to deteriorate. But not mentally. She never lost focus. Not once. She never said "I can't". She never mentioned quitting. Yet, multiple blisters on her toes and the bottoms of her feet slowed her significantly, even though she still moved at a good pace, power walking with a purpose. She could still muster a brief period of running here and there, including one mile-long stretch that shocked the hell out of me, but overall you could see the pain in her face. Tears would come to her eyes periodically. She would respond without words - a simple nod, smile or waive of her hand, too focused and in pain to speak. Never did she waiver. Never did she stop moving. Never did I doubt that she would cross the finish line. It was only a question of when.
Mile marker 8 (mile 93 of the race) was dreadful. It was the one moment when the perfect opportunity to quit arose. We sat Brittni in Lisa's van to address her foot issues. When her socks came off I winced. This was worse then I have ever seen in person. Worse than Bob Gentile's blister issues at Javelina Jundred 100 and Umstead 100. I would hold Brittni's legs while Lisa would clean her feet and apply hydropel. As Lisa would touch her feet Brittni would pull them back, tears flowing from her eyes. I held her hand so she could squeeze out every ounce of pain. Lisa decided to put her in compression socks with smart wood socks on top. Getting the compression socks on was painful even for me to watch. Putting shoes on was less painful only because Lisa gave Brittni her shoes which were a good size and a half bigger.
Out of the van she rose, and back onto the course we went. Brittni, Stephanie and me, step by step, each more painful then the next, together. We would pass several other runners, at least 8 or so by my count. Emotions started to get the better of all of us. We would remember something funny that happened miles back and laugh, but then feel choked up by how far we had come since then. I would continue my strategy of running ahead to refill bottles and get supplies, and then run back to meet the girls. This allowed Brittni to keep moving, and also gave me a few extra training miles.
The crew that stayed out and up all night was stellar. Heather's Ashley had put in a ton of pacing miles. Jean's Ashley did it all, the ENTIRE time without resting. She even crewed alone while two of the girls slept in the van. What an amazing 24 year old this girl is. I only hope my own daughters have the same determination and willingness to help others that she has.
Back to Brittni. The miles continued to go by. The sun rose on the second day and the heat returned, and that meant we had to go back to ice bandannas and towels to keep Brittni cool. Still, she pressed forward. I told her she was finishing this race and it was just a matter of digging deep within herself to find and use every last bit of courage and strength to finish. I told her to do it for her team, for Sister Mary Beth, for the children, but most importantly, to do it for herself, to top off this amazing with ride with a spectacular finish. Every now and then I would look at her to make sure she was o.k., and every time I did I saw the same thing - DESIRE. A desire to finish what she started. A desire to do what the rest of her team could not, for Sister Mary Beth, for her own sister Heather (to whom she said she would give the finisher's belt buckle), for Jean, for the crew that stood by her side from mile one, and for the children that Sister Mary Beth works so hard to raise money to support.
With 4 miles to go I looked at the time. 28 hours. 28 hours and 96 miles done. She could do a mile an hour and still make the 32-hour cut off. Soon we would get an amazing surprise. The entire crew had joined us. Heather, Harley (heather's husband), Heather's daughter, Jean, and yes, the running nun, Sister Mary Beth were back out to cover the last few miles with Brittni, so see her finish. It was a family affair, and it was beautiful. 3 miles became 2. 2 became 1. I started doing sprint repeats to get a look at the finish line, and set myself up for the finishing video. I had so much energy and excitement for Brittni that I was moving, 60 of my own miles later, at a sub 8 and 7 minute pace. Cameras were snapping. Car horns were honking followed by words of encouragement from passing drivers. Hugs were plentiful. Local folks were out to see the runners finish on a gorgeous day, and they offered tremendous support.
And then.......the finish. 29:12:35. The most glorious 100 mile rookie finish I have ever witnessed in person. My video taking couldn't keep Brittni from moving right through the finish line to give me a huge hug. That embrace meant the world to me. I had watched someone grow into their own in 29 hours. I had witnessed a woman learn just how tough she is, how much faith and hope and determination she has inside of her. I saw a transformation - from every day normal person, wife, mother, daughter, sister, to 100-mile finisher, to ultra runner.
I was also very blessed to get to spend time with Lisa and Sister Mary Beth, two amazing women who go above and beyond for others. Heather and Jean made valiant efforts at the distance, only to have injury cut their journey short. Heather says she is done with this 100 mile thing. I say she has it in her. The Ashleys, Todd, Helene, Harley - amazing people I am excited to call new friends. And Stephanie, a true friend with a heart of gold, who continued to support Brittni's effort, with barely any rest. I hope to keep in touch with and see my new friends and their families again soon and wish them the best in everything that comes their way in life.
I sit here in the airport writing this and as I do I get choked up yet again, several times. I am so happy that things turned out the way they did, so overjoyed that I decided to take every last step with Brittni. I really cannot believe what this girl has accomplished, and I am so very honored to have been a small part of it. I see many ultras in her future, many more 100 mile finishes, and I pray that I get the chance to be a part of another.
But I am sad. Sad that it is over. Sad that it was so short lived and went by so fast. Sad that I had to leave these wonderful people so soon after this amazing accomplishment. I find myself missing my time on the course with Brittni and the group already. I will be home soon, and will have the joy of seeing the greatest people in my life, my family, who I have missed so much while in the Keys. And soon this weekend's excitement will wane and dissipate with each passing day. But the memories from my time at the Keys 100and Brittni's epic journey will last forever, as one of the greatest ultra running experiences of my life.