Ultra-marathon ‘totally worth it’ for Kentucky Guardsmen

Commentary by Maj. Robert Andersen, 1st Battalion, 149th Infantry

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From left to right, Spc. Eddie Sparks, Staff Sgt. Brandon Hobbs, Staff Sgt. David Spahn, Anthony Motta, Capt. Jason Mendez, Maj. Robert Andersen, Capt. Jacob Lee, and Capt. Josh Futrell get together for a group photo after the Not Yo Momma’s 100 Miler race in Chillicothe, Ohio, Sept. 27, 2014. (Courtesy photo)

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — Several Kentucky Guardsmen gathered in Great Seal State Park in Chillicothe Ohio for a real test of our physical endurance. It was 5:30 in the morning, Sept. 27, 2014. Anthony Motta, Spc. Eddie Sparks, Staff Sgt. Brandon Hobbs, Capt. Jacob Lee, Capt. Josh Futrell, Capt. Jason Mendez, and I were standing at the start line, anticipating the sound of the horn that signaled the start of a much anticipated race.

The challenge, complete the “Not Yo Momma’s” 100 Miler / 100 Km race in under 32 hours or 24 hours. Hobbs and Sparks took on the challenge of 100 Km (62 miles). All others came to complete the 100 Miler; a seemingly insurmountable distance when considering it all still lay ahead.

Ohio is not known for its hills. But for some reason, God decided to swipe his finger across a 16 mile loop that had virtually nothing but. The 100 Miler course included six 16-mile loops preceded by one 4-mile loop. The 100 km runners would run just shy of four 16-mile loops. Throughout this closed circuit the terrain was notoriously tricky. We had no choice but to pay attention the entire time rather than allowing us to drift away in thought, doing so would greatly increase the chances of injury.

The agreement had been made months ago. Everyone was exited and eager to get started with the rigorous training plans. In April it started for most. The long journey began in preparing the body for something, most would say, it was never meant to undertake. Despite the slow and steady train up, some times life just got in the way and not everyone was able to stay as disciplined as they wished they had in the months leading to the big day. Where training lacked, our ego took the place to make sure we showed up confidently come race day.

Injury unfortunately also plagued some of us. Futrell was stubborn enough to take on the 100 Miler with a bum shoulder, an injury he had sustained during annual training with the 198th Military Police Battalion. Nevertheless grit and sheer determination led him through 52 miles of the race before he finally had to take a knee.

Great Seal State Park

Ultra marathon trail in Great Seal State Park, Chillicothe, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of ultrasignup.com)

The terrain was extremely challenging. Made up of almost exclusively hiking trails across a very rugged environment the risks of falling, tripping, or rolling an ankle was virtually unavoidable. Lee, also from the 198th decided to join the crew last minute and was surprised at the layout of the course. A strength guy by nature and wearing a pair of low profile running shoes he had trouble getting used to the paths the first 10 miles of the race. After 36 miles of course behind him and many hours on his feet he decided to end risking further injury and forfeited the rest of the laps.

Motta, a Nashville resident and high school track and wrestling coach is a good friend of Mendez. This had always been their thing; pick a challenging race and then go do it. Motta was determined to have a good time throughout the entire event as well though. He blasted out from the start line and found himself in the top three spots for the first 10 miles or so. But then an Iliotibial band injury got the better of him and he had to cut this challenge short after only 36 miles in. Despite having plenty left in the tank he made the smart choice. Regardless of what he did, his leg kept on getting worse. Motta spent the rest of his time at the base camp cheering on the rest of us and motivating everyone to carry on.

Hobbs and Sparks, both from the 1st Battalion, 149th Infantry went out confidently and maintained a great mile per average, one lap after the other. Due to the difference in conditioning they eventually broke off from one another to tried to maintain their individual pace throughout the latter parts of the race.

Sparks ran into the night but eventually the rocks, stumps, ups and downs of the trails proved to be too much for his feet to bear. They eventually became so sore and tender that he had no choice but to bow out. He finished 52 miles; so close to his end goal but still a lofty distance considering that sheer willpower had carried him through the last twenty miles with blisters the size of silver dollars and hotspots around the toes and balls of his feet.

Hobbs started feeling the impacts of the terrain early. Cramps were his enemy; mainly to his thighs and lower legs. He trained hard and wouldn’t stop. Mendez and I ran into him a couple of times during the race. He gave himself only one option; finish the race! He completed his run in just over 25 hours. He was absolutely drained of energy, exhausted from the physical and emotional strain he had just put his body through. At the end, however, he was overpowered by absolute joy and feeling of accomplishment.

Jason and I had been training together from the very beginning. We were lucky enough to avoid any major setbacks (injury or other) the six months prior and tried to stay disciplined in logging the miles week by week. We were both adamant about sticking together throughout the entire race which proved to be invaluable as we heavily relied on each other during the long hours.

When you hit a “wall” it takes time to feel your way around it. It’s good to have a buddy there by you guiding you through your troubles. Our lows came at different times throughout the event, but we stayed patient and tried to keep our mind on the finish line as much as possible.

We both felt great finishing the fourth lap; this meant we were passed the halfway mark with roughly 48 miles left. The last three laps proved to be all that we could handle. Dull pain crept to the forefront leading to practically nothing else on my mind. Jason became so tired he started hallucinating, pointing at branches telling me to watch the animals. We were between mile 60 and 62 where I made my biggest mistake; I sat down to gain my strength. This proved to be a poor choice as my body instantly locked up. It took me about 5 miles to undo and to gain some sort of range of motion again.

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Capt. Jason Mendez and Maj. Robert Andersen show off their buckles, awarded for finishing the Not Yo Momma’s 100 Miler race in Chillicothe, Ohio, Sept. 27, 2014. (Courtesy photo)

The run through the night was the hardest. We would switch off taking lead. The trailing team member droning behind trying to place his feet exactly where the point man had put them. Jason had battled stomach issues for much of the course, which left us no choice but to walk an entire 16 mile loop so we could muster up the strength needed to finish. Arguably the lowest point in our journey was when we finished the fifth lap. We were exhausted, in pain, and mentally drained. It was about two in the morning when we headed out for our second to last loop.  As we hit the tree line heading into the woods, we heard the horn sound at the finish line. This signaled that the first runner had finished the 100-mile race; a crushing blow to our confidence as we realized we still had 32 miles left to go.

Finally, the finishing lap was all that was left to concur. The sun rose again on day two and we both found ourselves with a jolt of energy that carried us into what would prove to be our second fastest lap throughout the race. “Stand at Sunrise” is what a fellow runner told us prior to the event kicking off. Ali was his name and he assured us that we would find what we needed to finish as long as we made it to the second dawn.

Jason’s ailments subsided. He felt great. I needed that for the final lap because my body had expended all that it could. In the last 10 hours of the race I found myself taking 400 milligrams of Ibuprofen every two hours. Eventually nothing masked the pain that had built itself up in my limbs. Jason was patient as he talked me through some of the tough spots. He started chatting about random things just to keep my mind off the aching and throbbing in my feet. It worked. We came out of the wood line with less than a mile before the finish, reminiscing about the challenging journey that was about to come to a close. Months of training, a no fail mindset, and a battle buddy is what proved to be the key ingredients for success.

We crossed the finish line together. Total time 30 hours 46 minutes of non-stop running.

Our family and friends met us at the finish. They had been supporting us throughout the entire occasion. Our very own pit crew for the lack of the better word. There is no doubt that this event would have been substantially tougher if it hadn’t been for our loved ones cheering us on every lap, telling us to keep going and reassuring us with love and positive reinforcement.

“So it was dark and we started running. The sun came up. The sun went down. The sun came back up. And a few hours later we stopped running,” Jason sent me in a text after.

I am extremely proud of everyone that showed up that day. All of my friends and those we came to know throughout the countless miles.

Out of 28 Runners that started the 100 Miler only 10 finished. Without a doubt, this was the hardest physical and mental challenge I had ever put my body through. No matter how far I ran during training, the concept of running 100 miles never added up in my mind. Only after taking on that very first lap did I truly appreciate what daunting test I would put my body through.

Totally Worth It!

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