by Mary Claire Walker
What: Midstate Massive Ultra 100 Miler
Who: Mary paced her mother Kathleen at Mile 50
Where: 100M from Windblown Cross Country Ski Area, NH to DCR Douglas State Forest, MA
When: October 10-11, 2020
Why: Love of running ultras
Wind whipped through the parking lot overturning tables and chairs of the crews awaiting their runners at Rutland Long Pond Boat ramp parking lot, which was mile 50 of the Mid-State Massive 100 mi. We quickly secured everything we had set out in preparation for my mom, Kathy. When Kathy arrived here, she would be halfway to her goal and allowed to pick me up as a pacer for the remainder of the race. The night was cold and windy, I worried about her safety on the trails and watched with anxiety as her tracker showed her slowing from a 17min/mi to a 19+min/mi. This put her projected finish at 34 hours, which was past the cutoff. I talked to my dad, Jeff, and we both hoped the new energy I could bring would help her speed up enough to make the cutoff. Using data from her tracker we decided I had enough time for an hour nap before my mom arrived. I leaned the seat back and John covered me with a sleeping bag, I was asleep instantly. I had worked an overnight shift as a paramedic the night before and was running on less than 3 hours of sleep since Thursday. It was late Saturday night at this point.
John, my boyfriend, and I had driven to Massachusetts earlier in the day to crew my mom at mile 27. She was looking strong and was in good spirits despite losing the trail for about 30 minutes. The start of the race ran through the rugged mountains of the Wapack Range and my mom said the views had been incredible. She was awestruck at the beauty and enjoying every minute of the race! She had developed a decent sized blister on her left foot, which we cleaned and covered with a band-aid and duct tape to keep it from getting worse. My Dad, Jeff, had been crewing my mom and driving between aid stations since he dropped her off for the start at 8:03 a.m. this morning. He was tired, but in good spirits as well. He was methodical about following the instructions my mom had written prior to her start, to ensure she had exactly what she needed at the right time.
The start was staggered, with the first runner starting at 8:00 a.m. and one minute between each runner. My mom started at 8:03. My mom has been running since college, but she had to slow down and move more toward hiking while she gave birth and raised 7 kids. As we grew up, she started running again and brought my older sister and me along for runs. Two years ago, she ran her first ultramarathon at Rock the Ridge 50mi in the pouring rain. She finished the whole race with a smile on her face. My duties as a pacer were to keep her eating, on pace, and help with navigation of the course. The Mid-State Massive follows the Mid-State Trail and the race relies heavily on trail markers to mark the course. This caused some runners to get lost last year.
I knew going into this that my mom’s mood was not going to be an issue but worried most about getting us lost and sacrificing my mom’s race in the process. When she came in the mile 50 aid station just after midnight, she was in good spirits and still eating well. She told us she had met a lady named Danielle and had run with her for some of the early night hours. They enjoyed the trials and dirt roads which they were covering, talking all the while. I put on my pack and an extra windbreaker, and we headed into the dark. Running out of the parking lot and leaving the Rutland Long Pond Boat ramp we immediately started climbing up the trail. The trail was narrow and rough. I noticed immediately that the trail markers had no reflective coating on them. It took a lot of focus and my headlamp shining at just the right angle to see the small yellow triangles spaced out sparsely down the trail. Luckily, I had loaded the GPX file on to my watch, so it would notify me when we were off the trail.
We climbed for about a mile then the trail dipped, and we started descending quickly. The woods opened up and we saw the moon shining bright just over the mountain on the other side. Mars was right next to the moon in the sky. They both reflected over the small lake we had just reached. We paused and turned off our lights, drinking in the beauty and stillness of the night. There was not a sound aside from the soft whisper of the wind. Just as quickly as the moment came, it passed, and we heard another runner approaching. He ran past us down the trail, then tripped and fell about 20 yards ahead. We asked if he was okay, which he was. He then started following us, after he realized I was a fresh set of eyes looking for the trail and rough patches. After running through the dark for another 30 minutes or so we came to a road crossing and found a lady standing in the road, looking lost and confused. She asked where the trail was. Directly across the road the trail continued, so she also started running with us. It became a small group. I was leading and making sure we stayed on the trail, with my mom, and the gentleman and lady both following closely as not to get lost again.
I was so focused on following the trail that I tripped and rolled down a small embankment. I jumped right up and kept going even though I felt pain in my ankle and knee. The last thing I wanted was my mom to worry about was me, since I was here to help her reach her goal. This race wasn't about me, but I felt a huge responsibility to keep her on the trail and to make sure she ate and drank. I doubted myself time and time again, “What if I got us lost and we missed the cut off because of me?” I pushed those thoughts out of the way and kept running blaze to blaze. We ran through the dark and started climbing again, and at the top of Moose Hill we stopped and admired the wide expanse of the night sky full of stars, with the moon shining down on us. We breathed in the night air and both felt refreshed. Running along the top of Moose Hill I missed the next turn and we spent about five minutes backtracking to find a very small break in the bushes and a trail marker which had fallen over. We continued on; I was relieved that it had not taken any longer to get us back on the trail. After about 7 miles we came into Camp Marshall, the mile 57 aid station. John and my dad were ready with two camp chairs, ramen and more water. After drinking the ramen and making sure both our packs were refilled with fuel and fluids we were off again. The mile 62 aid station had no crew access, but the volunteers were helpful and gave us more chips. We ran into the night again and realized we were running on a dam with a steep drop on both sides into water. The moon was lower and brighter than ever. The night was magical. I stuffed some chips in my mouth and we started running. I looked over and my mom was eating each potato chip one at a time. She asked me how I ate them so fast. I told her to just grab a handful of potato chips and shove them in, letting some fall. She tried my technique and we started laughing and running along.
My mom’s tracker allowed people who were following her to send cheers. In fact, 43 people sent cheers, which would play out loud as soon as they were sent. They ranged from “good job” to a song about bananas! Her phone started playing “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” It was a cheer from my dad. They met just after college and both of them are big musicians. My dad plays the guitar, banjo, and hammer dulcimer and my mom sings, and plays guitar and fiddle. That song was one they used to sing together all the time. I started playing the full-length version on my phone. My mom and I ran along through the night singing:
Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain mama
Take me home, country roads
This lifted both of our spirits and we started reminiscing about my childhood when all 9 of us would sit in the living room after dinner and play music.
The mile 65 aid station did not have any crew access and was poorly stocked. I asked for ginger ale, but they only had water, so we kept going. We were climbing again and started to see a dim light to the left of us letting us know the night was almost over. The sun was rising as we came into the mile 71 aid station. We had watched the sky slowly begin to glow and turn in to the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen. We were in and out of this aid station quickly, drinking more soup and refilling our packs. John wrapped my ankle to help with the pain. My mom stood up from her chair and could barely walk. She was a little frustrated with feeling so stiff, but after some slow walking we turned to fast walking and then we were running again. The next leg was mainly road, which was welcome as we could move faster on the road and make up some time. We made good time between mile 71 and the 83 mile aid station, averaging ~13min/miles. The smaller towns we ran through were peaceful, with beautiful old architecture, barns and churches. This aid station at mile 83 was the last crew-accessible aid station prior to the finish.
We ran a couple more miles on road and then went back on to the trail. It felt rougher this time and on a downhill my mom caught her big toe on a rock and burst into tears. “I can’t do this Mary Claire,” she said. I kept running but I looked back and said “Yes you can, and I know you can because you are doing it right now, you've run through pain and exhaustion and have never asked to stop or quit.” I then reminded my mom just how privileged she and I are to be able to run these ultramarathons. To have the time and resources to spend 30+hours in the woods for fun. And to have the support of our partners who willingly gave up their whole weekend to support us, as well as the support of so many friends and family, every single day. This lifted her spirits and we kept running, power hiking the steep uphills and running the flats and downhills. We pressed on, and we were less than 10 miles from the finish when we popped out of the woods onto a rail trail which was long and flat and felt like it would never end. I tried to talk to keep both our minds occupied, but this stretch felt like a never-ending hell. It was rough gravel and so straight you could see the mile 92 aid station, but it felt like it must be our imagination, as we weren’t getting closer. Finally, we reached the aid station. The volunteers were encouraging and smiling, making sure our packs were full and we were ready to tackle the rest of this race. We were back on the rough path and I looked at my watch and said, “Mommy you have less than 3 miles, let's push the pace a little.” She started running, and we passed two other racers, encouraging them as we went. I heard the music of the finish line. We ran out of the woods and into a small waterside park. My eyes welled with tears as I ran just behind my mom to cross the finish line. I looked over and she was crying, I held her in a long embrace. She had done it. She ran 100 miles of mainly rough trail and crossed the finish line in 31 hours 1 minutes and 56 seconds at 62 years old. She has always taught me in words and her actions to shoot for the moon and chase my dreams. I feel so honored she chose me to help her do just that. She proved that nothing is impossible if we want it enough.
Kathleen and Jeffrey triumphant