Guest Post: Before and After My First Hundred Miler

This is the before and after story of a father-son journey from zero to 100 miles in 30 months.

Guest Author: Tim Toben is a 58 year-old father of five, who started running again at 56.  He lives in Chapel Hill, NC and operates a sustainable farming nonprofit called The Eco-Institute at Pickards Mountain. His son Nathan Toben, a 32 year-old ultra runner/coach, trained his father for 30 months, leading up to the 2017 Pinhoti 100.  

Nathan and Tim Toben.

Courtney Dauwalter changed everything. Courtney is the 32-year old ultra runner who not only won the 238-mile MOAB 240, but beat the rest of the field of men and women by over 10 HOURS! In her victory, there is a lesson, even for an old man running his first 100. The question is no longer, am I “man-enough” to finish a 100-mile ultramarathon, but am I woman-enough? (Here’s the URP interview with Courtney.) This week, I will travel to Alabama, where I will attempt the Pinhoti 100. The 101-mile course traverses the beautiful Talladega National Forest from Heflin to Sylacauga.

My journey into trail running, began 30 months ago as a superficial undertaking to improve my physical fitness. I was drinking too much and occasionally smoking tobacco, both of which diminished me. I’d watched my 32-year old son Nathan transform his life through running and wanted that for myself. He was running 10 miles a day. I aspired to just 10 miles/week.

He encouraged me to “just start, even if it was a fast walk and a mile.” A mile a day became two and then three and eventually five. We think we know how to run, but most of us don’t. There are ways to land, push off, swing your arms, lift your head, engage your glutes, etc. that improve efficiency and prevent injury.  I was “starting” to run again at 56 years old, so I listened and learned.  After three months, Nate told me that he’d registered us for the City of Oaks Half Marathon in Raleigh. That 13.2 mile race went well and my little kids, Thai and Ezra, met me 100 yards before the end and escorted me across the finish line.

I increased my miles, a little each week, maintaining an aerobic heart rate (MAF Method) and focusing on three week training blocks. On the fourth week, I’d drop back to three miles a day to let my body assimilate my progress. After a few more months, Nathan registered us for the Myrtle Beach Marathon. I’d run one other marathon in my life, but it had been 30 years since then, and I wasn’t sure I could do it again.

But I did. And I beat my three decades old marathon time by over 30 minutes.

It was spring now, so running was easier. I was 57 and running 30-40 miles per week.  I’d lost ten pounds, stopped smoking, and was feeling better than I’d felt in 20 years. My training runs had become a spiritual practice, a morning meditation in the woods. Nathan continued to tweak my running form to increase my efficiency.  He’s a 32-year old endurance athlete, so we rarely trained together, but I’d gotten a runner’s watch with GPS and all sorts of bells and whistles, and he could monitor my routes online — heart rate, cadence, and pace.  He suggested adjustments, like any trainer, and my speed and endurance continued to improve. Nate introduced me to his trail running friends, and I joined a few group runs.  It was time to try my first mountain ultra.

Iron Mountain, in Damascus VA, was that race.  A 50K in the mountains with 5200′ of climb.  We put together a race plan and set time goals — (A) best, (B) likely, and (C) lowest. For me they were 7:00 hrs, 7:30 hrs, and 8 hrs. Ultras are amazing.  They are almost always in beautiful places.  They are weekend events that require camping or cottage stays, nearby.  The Ultra Community rallies and volunteers to set-up aid stations at 5-9mile intervals along the race route, stocked with food and drinks and first aid supplies. Ultra running is very different from marathon running.  Ultras happen on mountain trails, often covered with roots and rocks, and there’s typically climbs and descents, some quite challenging.  Marathons happen on roads and elevation changes tend to be more gradual. Money and sponsors are scarce in the Ultra Community, so the elites and novices hang out together and their crews intermix. Marathons are more competitive with clear division between the sponsored elites and the weekend warriors. Ultras are cooperative — every participant knows its an ordeal and wants their comrades to finish.

I finished 50 minutes ahead of my A-goal at 6:10.  It was the most gratifying athletic achievement of my life.  And I began to see how different ultras were from shorter distance races.  They are journeys, for both body and mind.  And, I was beginning to see that the mental journey was as significant as the physical one.

I took a two month break to recover and regroup.  As an older runner, I’ve found that recovery simply takes longer, so you have to yield, but I think I could have been fine with just a month off.  I needed a new challenge, so on my 58th birthday, I registered for the Cruel Jewel 50-miler near Blairsville, GA.

The Cruel Jewel is generally viewed as the most difficult 50-mile Ultra in the Southeast.  It is 56.65 miles with over 15,000 feet of elevation gain. My question leading up to race day: “Was I tough-enough, ‘man enough,’ to finish?” I was moving well through the first 35 miles, but heavy thunderstorms rolled in and I was soaked for the last six hours and falling a lot on the slippery trails. My physical conditioning was good, but my mental preparation fell short. The last ten miles were grueling.  My headlamp was failing, but thanks to a female athlete who passed me and guided me in, I finished at  2am, with blisters on both feet and without four toenails that I’d lost, due to blood pooling.

Despite the post-race aches and pains, I felt stronger and smarter.  I’d learned a lot.  Mostly about the mental challenges and my need to train my mind with the same degree of effort as I’d devoted to training my body.  With Nathan’s encouragement and with continued physical training and mental discipline, I thought I could be ready for a 100-miler in six months.  So…I signed up for the Pinhoti 100. That race is November 4-5.

I increased my miles to around 50/week for the final four months and ran the Iron Mountain 50K again, mostly as a training run.  My A-goal was to match my previous time of 6:10, because everything had gone right that day.  But I also applied some new mental discipline to my race and used my mind to float above the pain, once I’d applied the available physical remedies (water, gels, nut bars). And it worked. I finished in 5:41, knocking 29 minutes off my previous time. For me, it was a breakthrough to a new relationship between my mind and body.

My peak training block leading up to Pinhoti included my first 80-mile week, with a weekend schedule of 30-miles on Friday, 20-miles on Saturday, and five miles on Sunday. The race is a week away and I’m in full physical taper, but the mental training is actually on the uptick. That’s because of Courtney Dauwalter. Courtney has been moving up in the Ultra ranks for the past several years.  But her performance in Moab Utah reset the standards for ultra running and brought together some observations I’ve made as a father of five children.

If this is an insight, I give Ms. Dauwalter the credit:

I’ve been present for the labor and delivery of all five of my children.  Mothers approach childbirth in a way similar to how Dauwalter described her Moab 240.  It is not about conquering or powering through, but rather about (1) preparing well, and (2) adapting fluidly to the myriad situations that arise.  No two childbirths are the same, just as no two ultras are the same.  Except for elite athletes, 100-mile ultras take between 24-30 hours to complete.  Unexpected injuries, digestive issues, weather hazards, and equipment failure create mental challenges that are compounded by extreme fatigue.  If the orientation to the race does not accommodate the unexpected, the likelihood of a DNF (did not finish) increases.

Completing the race depends on the mental capacity to rise above pain and other hurdles that arise during the ordeal. It is a feminine lesson.

I remember falling in the mud and poison ivy for what seemed like the dozenth time, 42+ miles into the Cruel Jewel.  I was angry, tired, spewing expletives, ready to stop. The masculine “man-up, be decisive, suck-it-up,” just didn’t serve me with 15 miles to go. Now I relate that moment to a point 20-hours into the labor of one of my children. My wife was pale, physically depleted, beyond ready for it to be over.  But it would be six more hours and an episiotomy, before the baby was born.

In her post-race interview, Ms. Dauwalter was asked “did you ever consider stopping?”  Two hundred thirty eight miles in the mountains of Utah…total elevation gain — the height of Mt. Everest. Her answer was “no.” So how does this lesson apply to my angry moment at Cruel Jewel?  Maybe my response could have been “glad I got that out of the way,” or “I’m a little closer,” or the MLB sports commentator approach “he slides into second!” There is a mental choice at that moment that will serve to defeat me or coax me forward. I get to make that choice. I know…and you’re absolutely right…this is much easier said than done.  I’m not claiming I can get there. We shall see.

I went into the Cruel Jewel 50 with the question “am I ‘man-enough’ to finish my first 50-miler?”  With the training of my son, the experience of a 5-time father, and the witness of Courtney Dauwalter’s extraordinary finish at Moab, I will enter Pinhoti with the question “am I woman-enough” to finish my first 100. — with Nathan Toben.


After Pinhoti 100:

I didn’t know if I could do it. A 58-year old, retired father of five, attempting to run 100.59 miles in less than 30 hours. Was I being unrealistic, stupid, selfish, crazy? Or was this an adventure that would extend the horizons of my life? A vision quest.  A rite of passage.

Six months earlier, I had run the Cruel Jewel 50, a tough 56-mile Ultra in North Georgia, but 100 miles was a whole different beast. My eldest son and his “Trailhead” running club friends believed I could do it. “Put in the (training) miles, make a plan, and run your race. We’ll be there.” I wanted to do it. Nathan agreed to take off five days from work and be my crew and pacer. So I trained for six more months. Mostly 50 mile weeks, with peak training of 60-80 mile weeks. 

November 4th. Race day. Heflin, Alabama. Talladega National Forest. 254 runners would start. 140 would finish. 

I’d hydrated well the previous two days. The downside was that I had to urinate a lot and at 12:30am found myself wide awake with unanswerable questions. I fell back to sleep at 1:30.

I didn’t need the alarm. At 4am, I was awake again. It was time to get up. I took a comfort shower and began preparing for the 200,000+ steps it would take for me to reach the finish line. I was asking a lot of my body, so I wanted to treat it well. I toweled off, put on my dry fit shorts and shirt, and started working on my feet. 

“Take care of your feet and your feet will take care of you.”

I hadn’t taken good care of my feet at Cruel Jewel, and I paid a heavy price. Blisters on toes and both heels and four lost toenails, due to blood pooling. That added a level of pain to my final 15 miles that I didn’t want to repeat. So this time, I applied A&D ointment to both feet, put protective bandaids on vulnerable toes and blister guards on my heels. There are numerous creek crossings on the Pinhoti trail, but I’m a veteran rock hopper and log crosser, so my plan was to find a route to keep my feet dry. 

It was time for my final pre-race meal. There was a 24-hour IHOP next door to our hotel. I woke up my son Nathan and told him I was headed over there for eggs and pancakes. I could eat, so long as it was more than two hours before race time. I’d carbed up the day before, so went for comfort food. 

I got back at 5am and checked over my running vest: salt tabs, wet wipes, gels, nut bars, electrolyte fluids, music. All good. The night before, Nathan and I had gone over his crew pack. 50 gels, 20 nut bars/waffles, 12 packs of electrolyte powder, three gallons of water, first aid kit. The cooler contained four mason jars of chicken/vegetable soup and bone broth. Stove, jetboil for coffee and soup, lighters, two extra pairs of running shoes with wicking socks, two extra shirts, trekking poles. 

Since he was both crew and pacer, he had to pack his running belt and gear too. The plan was that he would crew me until mile 55, run with me until mile 85, drive to the finish and run back 3-5 miles, meet me between mile 96-98, and escort me across the finish…if I made it that far.

The drive to the start took longer than we anticipated. The GPS coordinates we entered took us down some bumpy dirt roads. It was now 6:40am. Start time was 7am. We parked and briskly walked a half mile to where 25 nervous runners were lined up at the three stall state park bathroom. The other 200+ were already gathering at the start. At 6:54, I made it to the bathroom. At 6:57, I headed to the starting line. Nate and I found our fellow Trailheads from Chapel Hill and greeted them with adrenaline filled hugs. I was feeling a little crowded, so I moved up a little and as the countdown started, I was about a third of the way back from the front. 5..4..3..2..1. Finally! 

It began. 

Within 100 yards of the start, the course narrowed from a wide state road to single track trail. We all slowed to a stop, as a single file “conga-line” took shape. It was my first. Eventually 1000 feet long, the line snaked its way through the forest. Nathan had warned me to expect this and told me to “be thankful that the people in front of you, who were giving you a chance to conserve energy, as the tendency was to let the adrenaline take over and steal future reserves.” 
The density of runners was new to me and the stop and go pace took real patience, but I knew that patience would be a theme that day, so I accepted it. Finding a way to be grateful for both the good fortune and the obstacles that arose was Nathan’s pre-race counsel. In fact, my theme all day was “gratitude.”
How lucky I was to be healthy enough to attempt this, to have Nathan and the Trailheads helping, to have volunteers at aid stations to feed me, to have gorgeous weather and a full moon forecast, to have the equipment I needed, to be on this beautiful trail with kind people. 
The creek crossings began early. Some runners sloshed through. I was careful to find the route that kept my feet dry. There were roughly a dozen river/creek crossings over the course, but I was able to find logs or rocks that allowed me to avoid the water. That made a huge difference in my pain level. My friends with wet feet and blisters suffered a lot more.
Nathan met me at Aid Station One.  He handed me three gels and I refilled my vest bladder.  It was a quick stop.  One hundred yards down the trail, a race official checked us in as we jogged by.  The conga-line didn’t spread out until about mile 10.  At about mile 12, we came up on the first injury.  Five runners were helping a sixth, who had broken his right lower leg. His race was over and we all sobered up to the risks before us. As I approached Aid Station Two at 13.3 miles, I saw Nathan with his camera. So vigilant, so good to see him.  Photo-op and then refills.  The routine was that I pulled out my trash, he took the vest and refilled it with water and electrolyte fluid, and I refilled the pockets with gels and nut bars from the options he’d arrayed on a towel next to a camp chair. He’d tell me my position, relative to A, B, and C goals, and when the next and station was coming up. “I’ll see you at 18.3.” The other Trailheads also offered food, a dry towel, first aid, counsel… and then sent me on my way. It was tribal.
I was cruising now.  The usual tweaks in my left hip and IT Band had warmed up and were no longer bothering me.  My legs felt strong and the line had cleared.  I chose not to listen to music, so that I could talk with the other runners and enjoy the beauty of the Pinhoti Trail.  It was gorgeous.  Soft pine needles, winding single track through mixed forest with occasional overlooks that featured valleys of peach and crimson — it was Alabama after all. 
Aid Station three was important. It was the last “crew access” aid station until mile 40.9, at the top of Mt Cheaha, the highest climb of the event. I wouldn’t see crew for the next 22.6 miles. At 18.3, I was surrounded by my son and five Trailheads.  They were amazing!  One stripped the soaked shirt off me. Nate brought me a dry one.  Another sat me down and untied my shoes.  A blister had formed between my second and third toe and he popped it, wrapped it, and Nate got me new socks. They handed me real food — cooked potatoes with salt from the food table and fresh fruit.  They read me the texts of encouragement from family and friends.  I’d forgotten that there were no more crew access stations until 40.9, so after that royal treatment, I was sad to leave.  Nathan handed me trekking poles, and I was off. I had 22.6 miles and the toughest climb of the race ahead of me.
Everything went fine until about 34 miles. I’d been taking two salt/electrolyte tabs every two hours and a gel every 30 minutes. I think I’d over-salted and I lost track and missed a gel. I began to feel tired and irritable.  My mood dropped and the thought that I still had 2/3rds of the race in front of me felt ominous.  Then I remembered what Nate said.  “If you feel fatigue or discouragement, take a gel or even two.” My body needed fuel and theses were the signs of an empty tank, nothing more. Within 10 minutes of taking two gels, I was ok again.  My mood had lifted, and I was ready for the big climb up 2400′ Mt Cheaha.  More important, I’d learned how to treat a dip in energy/mood. 
The climb was tough, but my trekking poles made a huge difference.  Instead of relying on legs only, I became a “four-legged,” and distributed the work across my entire body.  I fast-hiked up the mountain and arrived at Aid Station 7 (40.9 miles) at 4:30PM, a half hour ahead of my A-goal. The view over the valley was breathtaking. I was buoyant. 
Pinhoti 100 crew.
Nate met me at the top of Bald Rock and we stopped by the food table and grabbed a quesadilla and some roasted potatoes. But the real prize would be chicken soup, which I’d made a few days earlier for this moment.  It was loaded with nutrients — bone broth, veggies, and chicken.  My first real meal since 5am. The Trailheads were great.  ET wrapped an ice-filled bandana around my neck, and fed me wraps to go with the soup.  We laughed and I grabbed an avocado wrap and my headlamp and headed out. They were worried that I was going too fast, but all signs were that I was running within my limits. That was the key. “I’ll see you at 55 miles,” said Nate as he peeled off. Not only that, he would join me then as my pacer and run with me through the night until mile 85! I was jubilant. It was the high point of my day.  
The next three miles are known as “blue Hell.” It’s a steep rocky climb down the mountain, which I’d normally have enjoyed. But about 20 minutes into that section, my stomach began to cramp. I felt nauseous. It got worse and I finally had to vomit.  Everything — all of that prized nutrition — was lost. I went another hundred yards and threw up again. The last remnants of gels and chicken soup and avocado…gone.  My belly felt better, but my confidence was shaken. I was mad at myself.  I hadn’t skimmed the fat off the soup.  It had wrecked my stomach.  How stupid of me. Now I was compromised and it was getting dark. There was a long lonely section of dirt road ahead and I was getting tired. 
The regurgitated flavor of gels made them repulsive to me. I could no longer take them at the rate my body required, so my mood began to dip again. As I crossed the halfway point,  self-doubt and negative thoughts began to enter my mind. My gratitude practice was failing me. I saw the thoughts for what they were, but they seemed powerful. I forced myself to choke down a gel and it helped. I was not able to run, but I trekked ahead.  “Just keep moving forward,” I heard in my head. Four more miles and I would pick up Nathan! My stomach and throat burned. I was frustrated but not desperate. I thought of my five children’s births. There was never an option then to quit, and quitting was not an option here either.
At the 55.3 mile aid station, I was spent. I had slowed considerably, mostly hiking the previous 15 miles. Nathan and the crew knew it. I was late arriving, now past my B-goal. I had taken in just enough fuel to get there, but it was unclear whether I had another 45 miles in me. “Guys, I need your help. I have to figure out my stomach issues.” The Trailheads were worried about me, although they didn’t show it.  They cleaned me up and fed me, but pulled Nate aside and said something to him. I brushed my teeth. That was great! It was 10:15PM.  We packed up and left.  
Having an experienced 100-mile ultra-runner with me was race-saving.  The fact that he was my son turned out to be monumental. He didn’t put up with my crap. The 30+ miles started slowly, because I was in a deep nutrition deficit. I had torn my MCL decades earlier and my left knee felt like a needle was piercing it from the outside and there was a dull pain from the inside.  I feared that running might injure it, so we hiked..and hiked..and hiked. 
Nathan forced me to eat, and little by little, I felt my body and mood respond. “How are your feet,” he asked. Good.  “How are your legs?” Good.  “Wow, that’s great dad!” We began to alternate running and hiking again.  “Eat a gel,” he’d say every 20 minutes.  “I can’t eat a gel,” I argued.  “Eat a gel, dad.” “I’ll throw up, if I eat a gel.” “Then eat a waffle bar.” “My stomach can’t handle that.  I’ll lose everything.” “You have to eat now.  We’re going to stop until you eat.  Nutrition is more important than miles.  Eat.” So, I ate.  And every time I ate, I was able to jog again and my mood lifted.  I was finding reserves in my legs that were blowing my mind. Once my body realized that I wasn’t going to succumb to it’s STOP signals, it seemed to open additional reserve tanks. This happened five or six times.  A barred owl called out, I called back to it, and we chatted for a while. I was getting stronger. 
100 miler
Nathan and Tim Toben
The climb to Pinnacle Rock at 75 miles was tough.  The Aid Station is perched high on the mountain and the approach starts directly below it.  It looks like a manageable 2-3 miles, but it’s a punishing 7.5. The trail is a long series of switchbacks that ends in a surprisingly steep climb to the top. Loud rock music and delicious table food met us at the top.  It was close to 3am. Nathan had done a training run earlier in the day and had covered 20 miles with me, so he already had about 30 miles under foot. We had 10 miles to go together and then he would split off.  It was a tough 10 miles.  At 80 miles, I sat down and told him I needed a few minutes of sleep.  I’d read how Courtney Dauwalter revived herself with a one minute nap during the MOAB 240 and told him I needed that.  He smiled and said “you can’t sleep dad. Eat a gel.” It was another low point. Until,
I ate a gel.
Again, it worked.  And finally, after perhaps 20 prompts, I figured out he was right.  Not “wanting” a gel was irrelevant.  It was what I needed to keep going, so I stopped resisting. 
With this newfound acceptance and at around 82 miles, I saw it.  It was huge and crossed the path right in front of me, between Nathan and me.  A buffalo. Huge head, massive shoulders, long thick haired torso, back slanting downward to bony hind quarters. Unmistakable. And in vivid animated color. It looked back at me as if to say, “follow me.”

I told Nathan I’d seen it and we both laughed. I’m certain I could pass a lie detector test that I witnessed it…a hallucination?…That’s what our culture would call it. Some traditions would say this was my spirit animal. Strong, sacred, representing abundance.

Approaching 85 miles was bittersweet. I’d lose Nathan there. I didn’t want him to leave me. His experience, wisdom, and patience had gotten me this far. We’d trotted down the hillside at dawn. The sunrise was glorious. I was feeling gratitude again. The Trailheads cheered as we entered Aid Station 16.  They surrounded us on a bench, changed my shirt, and restocked my vest.  ET read encouraging texts from my wife and my mother. “Think about Beethoven’s Ninth on the final leg,” my mother wrote. Galoot, the veteran Trailhead, walked me out.  “You’ve got this.  Pick it up to a little jog. It’s a long dirt road and then a long asphalt stretch to the end. Fifteen miles and it’s over.”  Then I heard “You can do it dad. You’re amazing,” my son yelled as the distance grew between us.  He had run 40 miles already and crewed me when he wasn’t pacing.  And so, I had no choice, but to give the final 15 miles my all. Off I went, humming the Ode to Joy. 
I ran nearly all of the next 7.5 miles.  I passed six runners.  With 85 miles behind me, I had tapped another reserve tank. It amazed me. What hurt most was shifting gears — starting to run again from a hike.  My quads were shot.  So, I tried to just shuffle in that gear between a hike and a run. Every 20-30 minutes, I heard my son’s voice in my head — “eat a gel.” And I did. I got to the final aid station, around 93 miles, at 8:30am — three and a half hours before the cutoff. I had abandoned my time goals. I just wanted to complete the race. I was happy. 
The volunteers and crews there were clapping for every runner that made it that far.  “Congratulations brother. You’ve got loads of time. You can walk it in.”  I had seven miles to go, but I finally knew I would make it. There was no rush.  I wanted to savor the final stretch.  I hadn’t listened to music at all, and I decided not to. Instead, I listened to the crickets and tree frogs and songbirds. I took in the grassy dam, the still pond, the quiet, and the fern border to the road. I thought of Thoreau and Walden Pond.
It was hot and many runners were wilted by the sun. I was euphoric.  Humbled by the kindness of the volunteers, my fellow runners, the Trailheads, and my son. With three miles to go, I saw the strong profile of Nathan, making his way back from the finish line to walk me in.  He was surprised that I was so close to the finish. All smiles and high fives. We hiked to the stadium and then broke into a triumphant jog and crossed the finish line together. The clock read 28:29. 100.59 miles. It was over. 
My wife facetimed me at the finish line.  She was on her way to meet us, crying tears of joy. I don’t think either of us really believed we could do it.  But with the help of a whole bunch of good folks, we did. It was a top ten experience in my life.
Tim and Nathan crossing finish line at Pinhoti 100.

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