The Wildcat Ultra – My First 100 Mile Race!
When I would tell people at other races that I was running my first hundred at the Wildcat Ultra on September 3-4 in Pensacola, Florida, they would cringe. Actually, the words of one person were, “Ew, you are running that as your first 100?” This reaction had nothing to do with the race itself. You see, temperatures in Pensacola at this time of year can climb into the 100’s with heat indexes of 105 to 115. Can you say recipe for disaster? Suffice it to say, I didn’t give it a second thought when I signed up back in February after finishing my first 100k at Iron Horse.
The Wildcat Ultra is held at the Escambia County Equestrian Center in Pensacola, Florida and is a flat,2.5 mile loop course with one main aid station near the start/finish area. Personal aid stations can be set up as well. Three distances are offered, a 50k, 100k and 100 mile. All three distances have a 40 hour time limit to finish. I figured that this race would be a great test of my physical and mental strength being that I live in Florida and can train in temps that are almost as hot.
When Jennifer Van Vlack and I found out back in January that we were both going to be running this as our first 100, we decided to keep in touch throughout our training to keep each other accountable for what we were setting out to do. We would touch base every 1 to 2 weeks to see how things were going. We were both crushing the miles and pushing our limits. During one weekend I even ran for 12 hours through the night for a total of 50 miles and Jennifer ran back to back to back marathons in three straight days, with all 3 times around 4:30. Crazy stuff was happening and before we knew it, the race was only 6 weeks away. We even started using an app called countdown to show us exactly how many days, hours, minutes and seconds were left until it was go time.
The date was now August 27th and the race was only a week away. We were getting so excited. I had been tracking the weather for a couple of weeks now and things looked normal, but a week before the race, there were now signs that a tropical depression was coming in off the west coast of Florida near the panhandle, right where I would be driving. The initial plans were for me to drive up on Friday morning, the day before the race, but that was not looking too good at this time. After watching the tracker for a few more days, I decided to head on up on Wednesday to stay ahead of all the rain. Talk about a smart move. I did hit some rain heading on up, but as soon as I passed Tallahassee, the rain disappeared and the blue skies came out. I got to the hotel around 7pm on Wednesday night and now had 2 full days of being able to rest before the run. When I look back on this now, it probably helped me more than I know.
It was now Friday, September 2 and there was a packet pickup at 12pm for about an hour if you were able to get to the venue. Since I was already in town, I went over to the equestrian center and picked up my bib as well as Jennifer’s, since she was on her way to the venue with her husband Brian, 3 year old daughter Andie and her friend Lindsay who would be helping crew and pace during the race, but they would not be there in time. Jennifer decided to rent an RV for a few days so that they wouldn’t have to camp out in tents and had invited me to stay with them a couple of weeks back since there was going to be room for one more adult to sleep. Since I was at the venue already I made sure that everything was in order for the RV spot that Jen had rented. The four of them arrived at the equestrian center a short while later and we finally got to meet. Jennifer and I had been talking for such a long time now though that it felt like we had already met. I gave her, her race packet, the tag for the RV and then they went to pick up the camper as I went to get some lunch and refill my coolers with fresh ice that was keeping all of my gallon containers of Tailwind cold since I had made them the day before.
We all then made our way back to the equestrian center where they parked and set up the RV. It was at this time that I finally met Dale Cougot. Dale had been coaching Jen for this race and so she signed him up to run it with us. Dale is a very experienced runner with many 100’s under his belt. He even recently finished his second Badwater135 where Jennifer crewed for him. He was friendly right off the bat and was real easy to get along with. We all hung out in the RV for a while before Jennifer, Dale and Lindsay went grocery shopping and I stayed back to get my stuff organized for the race that would be starting the next morning. A short time later they were back and got everything situated.
It was now time to head to dinner. We all headed on over to Tamiya Thompson’s house to have some chicken and pasta. Tamiya is Aaron’s (the Race Director) brother, and I had met him and his mom Julie back at one of the 8 Hours of Hell races back in July. We became fast friends and saw each other again a couple of weeks back at another of the 8 Hours of Hell races. At this one, all talk was of Wildcat and the excitement that was building. A few days later Julie reached out to me to ask if I’d like to come to dinner. When I told her that I would be with a group of people, without a moment’s hesitation, she invited all of them as well. Me, Jennifer and Lindsay all jumped in Dale’s truck since mine was full of my stuff and Brian and Andie went to pick up Jennifer’s other friend Chris from the airport, who was coming to crew and pace as well. Dinner was real casual and very comfortable. We were treated as if we were family and it was a great feeling. We didn’t make it a late night though since it was now time to head on back to the RV and get some sleep. The pre-race meeting was going down at 7:45am with the race starting 15 minutes later. After having a few more laughs at the RV after getting back, we finally shut it down and got to bed.
I was up at about 5:15am. I never sleep great the night before a race and since I’m so used to getting up early and had two great night’s sleep on Wednesday and Thursday nights, I was already well rested and ready to go. I was able to take my time getting ready. I decided to start off with a classic InkNBurnshirt, the Out N Back since it was white, my white compression under my black shorts that I would probably wear the entire way, a favorite pair of Balega socks, my original Altra Olympus and my white and red Headsweats trucker hat. Dale and I even took a ride to the store for him to pick up some ice for his cooler and some coffee. Just after 7am, Jennifer was ready to go and after getting some last minute things taken care of, the 3 of us headed on over to the race start for the briefing. Aaron basically went over the course with us, which was pretty straight forward, and then a local priest said a prayer and blessed all of the runners. Shortly thereafter Aaron started the countdown and all of a sudden we were off on our EPIC journey.
The day was looking beautiful and clear as we started on our first loop. My plan was to do my intervals from the very beginning. I’ve learned that on long races, you need to preserve the energy and do what feels comfortable for you. So many people get caught up in the moment and go out too fast or start doing things differently than how they trained. I’ve gotten caught up in this in past races as well and I was not going to let that happen today. I knew that Jennifer and Dale would get out ahead of me, but I also knew that there was going to be quite a bit of walking involved and Jen and I would do a lot of the race together in the later miles.
The first 5 miles (2 loops), I was keeping just a tad over a 12 minute per mile pace since I completed it in 1 hour and 32 seconds, which is exactly like I had thought it would be. I had passed the main aid station twice already, but not really eating much this early. I did refill my Tailwind bottle and water bottle at our own personal aid station near the RV at this point and I was feeling good. The next 2 loops were just a bit slower and by the time I finished 10 miles, I was at 2:03:46. It was now that I decided I needed to up the calories and the hydration a bit. It was only 10am and it was already getting very hot. I slowed my pace down after mile 10 and started walking a bit more. At 15 I was at 3:27:27 and by the time I hit 20 I was at 4:54:54 and this is where the wheels almost came off for me.
I was standing at the main aid station and I started to get a bit emotional. I really don’t know why, I just was. I was not crying or anything like that, but it was weird. Julie came over to me and asked what the matter was. I remember saying that nothing was wrong, but she noticed I was not myself and figured the heat was probably getting to me. They sat me in a chair right away and she and Grace just kept putting ice cold washcloths on my arms, back, legs, calves and head. Julie even put some ice in a couple of zip lock baggies and put one under each arm. Then they made me eat some real food, a turkey and cheese wrap, and drink some pickle juice. I never once thought that I was done during this ordeal, but I was definitely having a moment. After a short time and getting some of those extra calories in me besides the Tailwind, I felt completely better. They all noticed how much better I looked at that point and knew I was ready to head back on out. One more shot of some pickle juice and I was off again and starting loop #9.
The next 10 miles went very smooth. I took my time after my little ordeal and just kept trucking on. I did not feel tired at all but it had been a very hot day with temps very high and heat indexes even higher going over 100 degrees. I’m not exactly sure what loop or mile I was on when what happened next. All I know was that it was a few hours before it was to get dark, so most likely between miles 30 to 35. I was just getting to the grass island area where we would run down the middle. Our table and my cooler were off to the side towards the RV. I looked on over to see Lindsay and Chris standing there, but with 3 other people. At first I thought it was Brian and Andie, but when I looked again I saw who was really standing there. My wife Kasi had driven the 6 ½ hours that morning with my daughter Zoe and her friend to surprise me. I ran over to them and hugged them so hard. The emotions were too overwhelming to contain. I was so happy to see them and genuinely surprised. Talk about an emotional boost! Kasi had gotten to the RV earlier and met everyone, so they couldn’t wait for me to get to our spot along the course and see them. Suffice it to say, I was ready to take on these next 65 miles or so and there was no stopping me.
Just after hitting the 38 mile mark, it started to get dark, so I made my way on the course and veered off to the car to get my headlamp on and my small flashlight in my pocket as backup.
In a 100 mile race where the temps are very hot during the day, the nighttime becomes your friend. It’s a great time to get a lot of miles in a steady rate. It was at this time that I met up with Jen and Dale on the course and we walked together for a bit again. As the time started to get later the storm that had been brewing was rolling in and before we knew it the rains came. Before it started getting bad, Jennifer and Dale decided to stop at the RV for a bit and wait for the storm to pass. For me, I decided that I wasn’t going to stop. I was powering forward at a nice pace at this point and wanted to get in as many miles as I could before the sun came up. At one point I did stop at the car to change my shoes, socks, hat and shirt and put my poncho on. I seriously considered stopping myself for a short while until the rains slowed when I was in the dry car, but I told myself not to get caught up in the moment. I got out of the car and continued on. That’s when the heavens opened up and it came down in buckets.
I made my way around the course doing intervals at a pretty quick clip. By the time that the rains finally let up and the storm was moving past I had made up a couple of loops on Jennifer when she and Dale were heading back out onto the course. I decided to change my shoes for a second time at this point and it was now that we started to do the rest of the race together as much as we could
As the loops were ticked off on the lists in our heads, the miles added up, the hours passed on by and we got closer and closer to our goal. By the time that the sky started getting lighter and we were able to get rid of our headlamps, we were over the 60 mile mark and figured out that Jennifer had 14 loops to go and I had 16. It was at this point that we both felt that we had to check our feet. I knew something was going on for a while and so when we stopped at the RV and I looked, I saw I had some blisters that needed taking care of. Without any hesitation, Jennifer said she would tape them up for me. She said she was used to it after crewing for Dale at Badwater. This really saved me and I am very thankful to her for it. I again changed my shoes and socks and shortly thereafter getting back at it, Jennifer was hitting mile 70 when I was hitting mile 65 and we were trucking on. At 24 hours on the course, I was at mile 71 and Jen was at 76. I did have to stop one other time to redress my foot at some point.
It was crazy to think of what started out as a 40 loop run was now down to 10 for me and 8 for Jen. It was easier to look at what we had left to do in this way at this point rather than in miles or time since mentally it seemed easier.
One by one the loops got ticked off, we continued to hydrate, continued to consume calories by eating real food each time we passed the main aid station, told stories to not think about what we were doing and saw less and less people on the course. Many people, who had signed up for the 100 mile race, either dropped to a lower distance or dropped out completely. In the end, out of the 50 people who started the 100 miler, only 17 people finished.
Before we knew it, Jennifer was down to her final loop and I had 3 to go. Dale, who had a couple of down moments, had even come back with a vengeance and had one loop to go as well. Jen’s husband Brian and her 3 year old daughter Andie, decided to come with us on her final loop. When we got about 100 yards away, Chris and I went ahead so that we could see her finish. Jen came across the line in 33:32:34 and was the second woman to finish and 9th person overall and Dale was right behind her in 33:35:43, 10th overall.
It was now my turn to head on out for my final 2 loops. I already couldn’t believe that I had finished 95 miles, but that was not the goal. Kasi and Chris paced me for that loop. We told Kasi about the course and everything we talked about. She enjoyed herself and kept me distracted and before I knew it we were finishing that loop and now I had 1 to go. Chris came with me again and I could tell that it was going to be dark in about 50 minutes, so I kind of picked up the pace and power walked the whole way. Even Chris noticed that I had gotten a second wind and mentioned it. I told him that I wanted to finish just before it got dark, and that is exactly what I did. I crossed that finish line in exactly 35:09:21 and 12th overall. After receiving my buckle from Ben and getting my picture taken and was congratulated, I immediately went to Kasi and gave her a big hug and kiss. It meant so much to me for her to be there on the finish of my first 100 mile run. Jen came back to the finish to see me cross and gave me a hug as well. She looked how I felt, exhausted! I hugged Julie as well who was a huge supporter of mine from the get go and I even promised I’d give Pops a hug and kiss on the cheek when I finished and I am a man of my word.
I finally sat down to savor the moment and have that beer I was looking forward to, but that was just not going to happen. Halfway to the bathroom, my body knew that it was over. On the way back I started shivering and had to remove my shirt and wrap myself in a blanket. Kasi walked me back to where the RV and cars were, got some clothes out of my car to change in to and then went back to the hotel where Kasi had gotten a room. I took a shower, which felt soooo good, took care of some aches and pains including my feet that experienced a first by getting blisters on both and then got into bed. I was probably asleep 1 second after my head hit the pillow, but that is expected after being up for over 40 hours straight. I don’t know how my body did it, but when you are in the moment, you don’t even think about it. We knew we were tired but our bodies knew that we were doing something special and it wasn’t time to rest. Celebrating came the next day at Olive Garden.
This EPIC journey would definitely not have been the same if I did it by myself. First of all, having Kasi surprise me and be there meant everything to me. She is my rock, my shoulder to lean on, my best friend and my biggest supporter. She has put up with so much when I was training and she is the reason I am who I am. She has taught me to fight for what you want and challenge yourself. She is always saying, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” She is so right. This incredible journey sure has changed me. Secondly, I now have a friend for life. Jennifer and I have been Facebook friends for quite some time now and we have been keeping tabs on each other’s training, but when you run and complete a 100 mile race with that person, that friendship is solidified. You learn so much about each other over those 33 to 35 hours. We laughed, told stories and just had a great time from beginning to end. We look forward to running other 100’s together and supporting each other in many others. Kasi and I look forward to heading to TX as some point to spend some time with Jennifer, Brian and Andie and just having a great time. Team Trucking On has been established!! Third, I’d like to thank Dale Cougot for all of the race know-how he provided, the wisdom of being in this situation before and the inspiration he showed while running himself. He is truly a great guy and a total badass and I am lucky to call him my friend. Fourth, even though they came for Jen, Lindsay and Chris were the best crew/pacer duo you could ask for. Without any prompting they were there for me as well and they were a big part as to why I finished. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. The friendships I have gained also mean so much to me and made a world of difference. The whole Thompson family was so welcoming and treated me like I was one of the family. They took care of me every step of the way and made sure that I kept putting one foot in front of the other. They even bought me beer to have when I finished, but it just wasn’t happening when it was finally complete. Last, but certainly not least, I want to thank my brands I am an Ambassador for, Tailwind Nutrition for fueling all 100 miles and keeping me going the whole way, Headsweats for the awesome trucker hats that I never run without and InkNBurn for the incredible dry ice tech shirts that do everything a tech shirt is supposed to do including looking good. I also want to thank Altra Running for the most awesome running shoes on the market in my opinion and Balega International for the most comfortable running socks I have ever worn.
Lastly, I want to thank all of my friends for the words of encouragement and support during the entire run. I am floored by how many were following my journey into the unknown and humbled beyond belief. I grabbed every ounce of energy from wherever I could get it and took it to the end. I look forward to going on many more adventures with all of you behind me and taking it as far as I can go.
Run Hard, Run Strong and #stayvertical my friends.