Monday, August 24, 2009

Race Report: The Crewman's Perspective

I watched Karen train throughout the winter, sometimes returning from a 2 hour run at 6:00 AM with a frozen balaclava dangling from her face. Icicles formed from her ears, eyebrows and chin. Some people can't walk to their cars in temps like this so they install remote car starters so not to get a chill. I watched Karen push through every extreme. Sleep deprived and torturous weather...nothing would stop her from getting her miles in. This was nothing new as I've watched her prepare for many races in the past. This one was a little different. When Karen told me last November that she found a 100-mile ultra she was considering I smiled and agreed to be there for her. I did my background work as well, ensuring I had all the Crewing basics committed to memory for a 100 mile race. I've crewed Karen before when she ran her first 50-mile race, which she won and put 45-minutes on the second place female. All Karen needed to do is Run, and run lots! Most of her training started from our home and some in Fort Calhoun where the gravel roads are as steep as they get. This became Karen's routine. 30, 40 and 50+ mile training runs up and down rural gravel roads. No support. No cheering section. Sometimes the raccoons would stop and stare, but beyond that she did 95% of her running alone and with no assistance. This not only built physical strength but mental strength as well.

As the Lean Horse 100 grew nearer friends came forward and agreed to help Karen with Pacing near the end of the race. A 'Pacer' is a runner who jumps in and runs with the athletes as they become tired and mentally drained. Our friends EJ, Randy and Mitzi formed team Boom Boom Pow, which became Karen's personal Pace support team. The team traveled to Hot Springs and set up camp the night before we came to town. Randy, being the outdoorsman and adventure racer of the crew had all of the camping essentials including a portable coffee stove.

The Lean Horse 100 began with a wake-up time of 4:00 AM on Saturday morning. In typical pre-race fashion neither of us got much sleep. We were in for a long two days. Two bowls of oatmeal and a bagel and Karen was on her way to the start line to join hundreds of other runners. 6:00 AM sharp and the start gun sounded sending the runners towards the Black Hills of South Dakota. My first order of business was to set up Karen's crew station at mile 16, which was the first point on the course that crews could access their runners. Karen's station consisted of a chair, a cooler stocked with anything and everything imaginable and a box of various food and supplements. Karen's buffet of food and drinks weighed more than she did.

Karen arrived at mile 16 roughly 3-hours later. She was slightly tired from the heat and from running unending hills but was in good spirits. After re-stocking Karen's fuel and mopping her with sunscreen she was off and running towards the next aid station. My job was to meet Karen at each of these aid stations and monitor her food and water intake as well as her health and mental condition. Each aid and crew station was roughly 4-6 miles apart. As the first few stops came and went the heat increased and was soon into the mid 90's. Runners were struggling. Some didn't make it past mile 30 before having to call it quits. Enthusiasm on runners faces had turned to blank stares and sunken eyes. The heat was changing the way the race would unfold for everyone. Aid stations were running out of ice. At one point I ran back to bring water to Karen prior to the aid station when a male runner collapsed right in front of me. I was able to catch him before he hit the ground. Karen grabbed the water from me and continued towards the aid station. EJ noticed Karen return without me so he ran down the trail to assist me with the runner who collapsed. EJ was able to lead him to help and get him back on the trail. Randy called ahead to Mitzi before she arrived at the race and told her to bring water, and lots of it. Mitzi arrived a short while later with a trunk filled with water and ice.

Karen entered the mile 30 crew stop very fatigued from the heat and hills. She was showing signs of heat exhaustion but still had good spirits considering what was happening. It's hard to break Karen's spirit even when she's suffering. I amended her diet and fueling to adjust for the heat and sent her on her way with instructions to conserve as much as she could until the sun began to set. Karen's not one to do anything 50%, but she listened when told to back off and conserve as much as possible. This saved her. One of Karen's pacers, EJ, noticed that Karen was coming into the aid stations empty of water so he took it upon himself to run backwards down the trail to bring Karen water before she reached each aid stations. Once Karen made it to the aid station Randy would help refill bottles and I would ice Karen down and evaluate her condition. It was like a pit stop at an Indy car race. Karen would run in and sit down as people washed her, fed her, changed her shoes and socks and sent her back on the road. I would then run or walk Karen back onto the course for a short distance before leaving her to herself. This went on for another 45-miles. Each crew member probably ran 10-15 miles throughout the day and night.

Once the sun began to set the temperatures dropped and Karen began to come alive. She changed clothing to get rid of the wet gear as the temps dropped. Her spirits increased with each aid station. At one point she came into the aid station dancing to the team song, "Boom boom pow" by the Black Eyes Peas. 65-miles of running hills in oppressive heat and Karen is dancing! We had the doors open on the car and music blasting at each stop.

It was also at mile 65 that the race changed again. Karen wasn't aware of it, but EJ and I had begun tracking the lead four females who were well above 45-minutes ahead of Karen throughout the race. We noticed that the leading females were slowing and showing signs of exhaustion. The female racer who was in the lead the majority of the race had been passed by #2 and was looking very tired. EJ kept close track of the time gap between them and I kept track of their pace and fatigue level. We kept quiet and watched as Karen crept closer and closer to their heels. I didn't want anyone telling Karen that she's gaining on the leaders because I didn't want Karen taking her mind off of her #1 goal, which was to finish. #2 goal was to finish in 24-hours or less. My worry was that had she known that she was closing in on the lead females she would not stick to the plan and end up racing their race and not her own. The team managed to keep this under wraps for most of the night. The game changed again at mile 74.

It was pitch dark on the trail as Randy and I stood at the aid station just before the last 16-miles of hell. The trail turns to gravel road at this point and returns to killer hills with destructive elevation. EJ was pacing Karen in from the 70-mile station and was keeping Karen on track. By this point Karen had passed the #3 and #2 female and was in second place. Again, Karen knew nothing of this. Karen was under the assumption that the leaders had already finished. As I stood at the last aid station before the turn-off I watched the first place female arrive with her male companion. I watched as she ran right through the aid station without getting additional fuel or water. Her male companion yelled at her to stop and refuel. The lead female appeared intent on winning and staying in first place that she didn't stop or slow down for this aid station. She appeared hell bent on winning this thing and it could be seen on her face as she hammered through the aid station determined to keep running. I looked at Randy and said..."Did you see that?" Randy said "yep". I said to Randy, this is the make or break move on her part. This female racer who has raced and placed at previous 100-mile ultra marathons made a decision that didn't go unnoticed. Had I not seen her skip this aid station I would not have thought of attempting to push Karen to catch or pass her. The wheels were turning on how to direct the race in Karen's favor.

As Karen arrived at the 74-mile station Randy took over as Pacer. EJ stopped and jumped in the car with me. I told EJ about what was unfolding and he was amped! EJ was part of the plan to continue pacing Karen and to keep her in the dark about the gap closing between her and the lead runner.

Once on the gravel road we were switching out pacers with Karen every two miles. First Randy, then Mitzi, then EJ. Each time we would drive ahead and pass the lead runner in our car then stop and wait until Karen arrived. At one point the lead female's male companion ran up to my car and asked who we're crewing. I told him it was Karen. The lead female apparently heard this because she took off running like she had just seen a ghost! Before long Karen was only 4-5 minutes behind the lead runner. We were at mile 88. EJ just finished his pace shift and was back in the car with me. He knew how close the leader was and told me that Karen was still in the dark. Karen was now running with Mitzi and was having a grand ole' time yucking it up and swapping stories as they switched off walking and running. EJ and I drove up next to Karen and I politely told her to concentrate on just running and to stop talking. At the time it may have sounded very rude, but there was a game in play she was not aware of. The lead runner was bound and determined to win this thing. Karen was just enjoying herself and trying to make the best of the final few miles. She had no intent on winning, just finishing and enjoying herself.
As we crested a hill at mile 89 I spotted the glowing light of the lead female's headlamp. I knew it was time to intervene. I stopped the car and got out to run with Karen allowing EJ to take the car. I told Mitzi that I would take over running so she jumped in Randy's car. It was time for a talk with Karen. As I began running with Karen I spoke with her about how well she was feeling. I was trying to access how much energy she had in reserve and how her legs felt and how functional her mind was before I asked her to "race" the final 11 miles. She appeared alert and with a little fuel left in the tank. The conversation went like this...

Me: How ya' feeling?
Karen: Good.Me: How are the legs?
Karen: Good, but my left quad is hurting.
Me: If you had to run the next 10 miles, could you?
Karen: I don't know. Why?
Me: Do you see that faint light ahead?
Karen: Yes.
Me: That's the first place female.
Karen: I thought she already finished!
Me: Nope. We've been monitoring her for miles. We can pass her if we run.
Karen: I'll try.
Me: Stay with me and lets pass her. Once ahead of her we'll re-evaluate.
Within a few minutes we were on the heels of the leading female. Besides the glow of the headlamps you couldn't see anything. As we ran past the lead female we wished her well and shouted words of encouragement. Karen and I kept pace step for step running, not walking each of the next few hills. The sight of Karen running and not walking up those hills must have shattered the previous leader because when I looked back I didn't see anything. No head lamp. No words. Nothing.

Karen and I continued running up and over each hill. Few words were spoke. 20-years of life together and we knew what each other was thinking. I ran next to Karen lighting the trail the best I could with a handheld flashlight. Miles clicked by as team Boom Boom Pow sped ahead to check on us and offer help if needed. EJ, Randy and Mitzi yelling shouts of joy and encouragement as our pace picked up. It was 2:00 AM in the middle of nowhere and a battle was being won.
Karen and I continued our pace. Getting faster with each mile. I was blown away by Karen's determination. She was running as if she was 3 miles into a 10k....not 97 miles into 100. Every once and a while Karen would ask if anyone was behind us. I looked. No one was close. We had not only passed the lead female but 6 other leading males during this last 10-mile effort. Karen was shredding the field. We passed the walking zombie-like creatures as we headed towards the finish. While other's were barely staying upright and were walking, we were running at a steady pace. The race was Karen's to win. No one knew what had unfolded over the past four hours and many many miles. No one knew the extent of how Karen pulled herself from fourth position to first. All of the leading females being experienced 100-mile marathoners. The effort Karen put in those last ten miles has no measure.
As we ran down the middle of the street towards the finish line we could hear our friends yelling. They could see us coming and were shouting at the top of their lungs. It was after 3:00 AM and you could hear their voices echoing throughout the city streets. It was like a ghost town at 3:00 AM. The streets were empty and dark. Glow sticks hung from tree branches and paint marked the roadway directing us to the finish. We rounded the corner, down a short sidewalk and Karen ran under the Finish banner into the arms of her friends. Hugs and tears. The race director was waiting there to congratulate Karen and award her her medal, trophy and belt buckle. The race was over. Karen had broken a record at this race by being the first "First Timer" to win the female division. We had managed to put a 40-minute gap on the second and third place females over a 10-mile distance. Incredible!

People write books about days like this. What Karen did is unimaginable to the common person. Most people can't comprehend the difficulty of a 26.2 mile marathon let alone a race nearly four times this distance in horrible conditions. Yet it doesn't surprise me having witnessed Karen's dedication to good health and consistent training. She truly earned this victory. After a short cool-down period we were off to the hotel for a two and a half hour nap. We were awake at 7:00 AM and on the road back to Omaha by 9. Karen was still alert and giddy as we drove and relived the race mile by mile. I'm not sure it has yet sunk in what Karen pulled off. How did Karen beat out the other more experienced runners? We both agreed that it was the level of attention and support she received on the course. Karen played it smart and listened when told to slow down during the heat wave. Karen forced the nutrition in when she was feeling nauseous. Karen pushed past her comfort zone and dug deeper than imaginable when the game plan changed at mile 89. When most people had slowed to a crawl, Karen was running full force towards her first place victory.
Well done Karen and team Boom Boom Pow!

Congratulations to my wonderful bride!!! You are an amazing woman.



  1. WOW!!!! Great synopsis! Just when the adrenaline had passed I am now geared up and ready to go at it all over again! Does Karen wanna go Pro?? I'd be honored to be part of the pit crew again. The support we gave her crushed the spirit and will of her competitors. All she had to do was run and have fun in which she did. I still can't believe her finish. I swear people, she was hauling a$$ just like Mikey said. Can't wait for Karen's report.

  2. EJ: We all share Karen's victory. We may not have the legs or strength to run 100 miles, but we have the passion and determination to do whatever it takes to help someone who can. Congrats to you, Randy and Mitzi as well. I'm ready for the next one.

  3. I especially like the 50 mile turn around photos! It was well worth the jaunt to capture the smile on Karen's face. Thats 50 miles people, only the halfway point, and look at that smile. She carried that smile the whole way.

  4. Karen Douglas does not get frostbite. Karen Douglas bites frost.

  5. What an amazing story!!! Well told, Mike. Karen, what a true inspiration and this couldn't have happened to a better person. I can't even describe how 'wowed' I am. Outstanding job Team BBP. What an amazing display of teamwork! I look forward to seeing more pics and hearing Karen's story.

  6. Karen -you are AMAZING!!!! xoxo, Kevin & Toad

  7. There are not sufficient words in the English language to explain how Lynda and I feel about this amazing accomplishment. Karen, you truly ROCK and Mike (and crew) have demonstrated your love for Karen in a very special way. Once again, Lynda and I are proud to call you friends! Phil

  8. Abolutely amazing story - congrats to your wife! A friend that you trained for a century ride posted this link on my FB wall. I'm a rookie ultra runner looking forward to my first 50-miler in October (North Face Wisconsin) and my first 100-miler in June (Kettle Moraine). It's great to know that other Omaha residents share in the sickness of wanting to go beyond the marathon. This story is truly inspirational - thanks for sharing!

  9. Abolutely amazing story - congrats to your wife! A friend that you trained for a century ride posted this link on my FB wall. I'm a rookie ultra runner looking forward to my first 50-miler in October (North Face Wisconsin) and my first 100-miler in June (Kettle Moraine). It's great to know that other Omaha residents share in the sickness of wanting to go beyond the marathon. This story is truly inspirational - thanks for sharing!