On a Megabus traveling from Pittsburgh to New York City while Bill and I were dating, I told him about “The Walking Dead” TV show. One of my daughters and I were hooked on it, and I thought Bill might like to check it out sometime. As usual, he decided there was no time like the present and what can’t a smart phone do anyway. He got that baby out, signed on to Netflix, and before I knew it we had watched one season after another between the ride up to NYC and the ride back to PGH. What a great way to pass the time. And I got to see some of the episodes I had missed too.
If you’re not aware of what “The Walking Dead” is, it’s about a group of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse in America. It’s very educational and I feel much more prepared should this ever occur in real life. Like the time I was in the grocery store – and then the mall only a few weeks later! – and the music started cutting in and out and lights started flickering, and eventually everything went black, and I was on alert for zombies to start appearing. (Thankfully they never did.)*
Ever since that Megabus ride, Bill was hooked as well and we watch it religiously when it airs. One of his daughters is also a big fan and has joined our little viewing parties from time to time. We’re like Trekkies, only something else with the words “walking” or “dead” in it…
So imagine Bill’s glee when he saw an advertisement a few months ago for an ultramarathon where “The Walking Dead” is filmed! He told me about it and asked for my thoughts, and I agreed the idea was a no brainer (no pun intended)! Road trip on the calendar: The Running Dead Ultra in Senioa, Georgia. Bill signed up for the 100 mile race; there were also 50 mile and 50K races.
How hard can it be to run or crew 100 miles when you’re busy looking at TV show sets?! Especially on roads (not mountain trails), in Georgia, at the end of March! This was going to be one long joyride/run.
Bill had consistently maintained his training since his last 100 mile race, in January, and he ran in a 50K in early March as a “training run” (not racing, just getting in miles) where he ended up taking fifth place. He’d been running about 80-100 miles a week, working out in the gym 2 – 3 days a week, and eating a healthy diet.
But as it turned out, Bill had a few concerns going into what I thought would be the long joyride/race:
1. He had to work a lot of extra hours during the two weeks leading up to the race so he couldn’t run as much or work out at the gym.
2. He needed new running shoes. The ones he had were either too worn down or uncomfortable. But he never got to the shoe store due to all the extra work hours.
So he packed three pairs of shoes that he hoped wouldn’t make his whole body scream and trusted that he’d been training enough to finish in a respectable amount of time. We set out for Georgia at 2:00 in the morning on Friday, March 27 with all of our trusty supplies in tow and all of the cat’s accommodations made. A friend of mine had warned me of the horrors of Atlanta traffic but we didn’t want to get there late at night with the race starting Saturday morning, so that’s why we left home when we did. We were hoping to get through Atlanta shortly after noon to avoid their Friday rush hour(s).
Along the way we were able to educate others about Heinz ketchup’s roots as we ate breakfast in Southern Virginia:
The drive wasn’t bad at all. We got to our hotel in Peachtree City almost exactly 12 hours after leaving home, and then we set out to explore the area:
After dodging golf carts, getting some lunch, and taking a nap, we headed to packet pickup at the Start/Finish area.
Bill talking to Lia, one of race staff, and holding the race t-shirt and the race bag with his race number and course directions. Then Lia showed us the “trophies.” Bill never won a race before, but this would be a really cool trophy to get!
Meanwhile, I stepped in a hill of fire ants. Because we don’t have these where I’m from either. Then the race staff put this nice
The course had been modified from the original plans so that the runners would pass more of the filming locations. Bill would be running a 33.5 mile loop three times. So technically his race was 100.5 miles. We found out that there were multiple turns in each loop and the runners were given a laminated card with all of the directions.
Getting lost on ultra courses is pretty common, and no one wants to add any bonus miles when they’re already going 100. Ultra courses are pretty different from those at marathons, 5K’s, etc.:
- streets aren’t closed off for ultras
- there typically aren’t hundreds – and definitely not thousands – of runners so they can’t watch to see where everyone else is going
- the runners can get very spread out on such long courses and not see anyone for extensive periods of time
- they get sleep-deprived due to races taking upwards of 24 hours or more, so they aren’t able to see and think at their clearest all the time
- and even though the courses are marked with reflective tape, flags, and/or signs, they’re so long that there are many chances for signage to be vandalized or for inclement weather to blow a sign away or turn it.
So off we went to familiarize ourselves with the course. The race director said that little orange flags (like the one used above to keep people [me] out of the fire ant hill) were placed where “The Walking Dead” has been filmed. We were on the lookout for those as well. (See those pictures here.)
After driving the course, we went for the traditional pre-race pizza and beer. We found a really yummy place called Brixx near our hotel.
Finally it was race day – Saturday, March 28. Typically Bill eats a little breakfast the morning of an ultra but he said he wasn’t hungry this time. I was hoping he wouldn’t run out of energy really fast. He drank two cups of coffee and we headed out. The weather was unseasonably cold for that area. It was around 34 degrees Fahrenheit for the 8:00 a.m. start. The forecast predicted a high of about 52 and overnight lows into the high 20’s. Not really a problem for Bill, fortunately, because it’s pretty much the weather he’d been training in at home.
The Running Dead is a new race. If I’m remembering correctly, they’ve run around the filming locations once before but with no aid stations or formalities such as awards. It grew into a bit more of a formal event this year but still very small; only 15 runners for the 100 miler.
After a short briefing…
… and a simple “Go!” from Lia for an official start time of 8:04 a.m., they were on their way!
The race was very different for me as Bill’s crew. I was permitted to be on the entire course and to help him (give him supplies, nutrition, water, change of clothing) anywhere. Most ultras are not all on roads (if at all) and even if they are, the crews can only help runners at designated aid stations. There were to be four “manned” aid stations for this race and water-only aid interspersed between. Bill and I had planned that I would meet him at the four manned aid stations.
He told me that he should be at the first aid station (9.5 miles away) in about an hour and a half, so on the way I stopped at a few places in Senoia and talked to some super friendly people. They were all very happy to talk to me about The Walking Dead as if I were the first fan to visit there, even though there are all kinds of fan tours and people coming from as far away as France. I got breakfast and coffee and had a quick look at one of the shops, where I ran into Darryl…
It was time to head aid station #1, located at a placed called “Tranquil Cemetery.” Apparently it hasn’t been used in filming but it fit with the theme so they incorporated it into the course. Bill arrived around 9:28 a.m., almost exactly when he predicted he would. He was tied as the 7th runner to get to the aid station, but I didn’t know who was running the 100 and who was running the 50. Bill was running with Catherine Todd, an Australian who currently lives in Dubai and is famous to Bill because she was the female winner of the Badwater 135 in 2013 (Bill’s first year running that race). He was hoping to keep up with her for a little while.
Bill said he felt good and he looked fine. He took off the knit hat he had started the race with, got his handheld water bottle and a gel and went on his way.
Aid station #2 was 9.2 miles away, on Main Street in Sharpsburg, GA. Teeny tiny little town with about two commercial buildings (one unoccupied), and a smattering of pretty, Southern-looking homes. I watched a handful of cars come by, park, and unload families with cameras, posing and taking pictures in front of the building where (I think) decomposing zombies had been walking through waist-high water for probably a few years.
Bill arrived about an hour and a half after the last stop. It was about 10:55 a.m. and he was still running with Catherine and they were still tied for 7th runners. He said he still felt fine and he looked very relaxed and happy. I refilled his water and he had a gel and went on his way.
Then there was a little bit of confusion. The information in the race packet said that there would be another aid station in a specific location about 10 miles away but nothing was there. I drove back down the road to where another crew girl was parked and asked if she knew anything about it. She said she hadn’t seen one either. I decided to stay there and wait for Bill to let him know about the missing aid station and see if he needed anything. As I saw him approaching a short time later, I yelled across the road that the aid station wasn’t up ahead and asked if he needed anything now or if I should just meet him at the Start/Finish aid station (about eight miles away). He yelled, “I need water!”
I yelled, “We don’t have any because I was going to get it from the aid station!” (Later remembering we did have some in the car). There also should have been water-only aid a few miles back but apparently that wasn’t there either.
Thankfully, the other crew girl immediately said, “I have extra!” And she gave me a jug from her car. Whew.
Bill came over and said he also wanted the insoles from his other running shoes because “the Skechers have no support.” He ate a gel and three Tums and took one of the pre-made baggies of Ibuprofen & Tums that I always have in the race kit (he usually carries these because stomach upset is common for him and pain can get intense at any time).
So this was 12:20 p.m. around mile 26. About 3/4 of the race to go and the shoes were already a problem. I think he was the fourth runner to get to this spot. He was now running alone.
I drove to a spot a couple of miles after that, where there was a potentially confusing turn for Bill. The 50 mile race turned left but the 100 went straight. I parked at the corner and told him to go straight when he got there. I had seen another runner turn left just before Bill got there but I wasn’t sure which race he was in. Bill saw him and told me to go and tell him, so I drove up and let him know but he wasn’t sure whether to believe me. As I was trying to convince him, also saying that I saw another 100 mile racer go straight and that Bill just went straight, one of the 50 mile racers came over and confirmed what I was saying. Heavy sigh from the 100 miler – as I said, they don’t need any bonus miles in races this long.
I proceeded to the Start/Finish Aid Station and Bill arrived at about 1:40 p.m., with one of three loops (33.5 miles) finished. The race staff said that he was in 3rd place. Bill looked tired but very focused and he didn’t want to stay long. I filled his water bottle and he had two small cups of Powerade, a pickle, a handful of candy, and 1/2 of a squeezable fruit snack. He took a gel and went on his way.
One of Bill’s friends and fellow racers from Pittsburgh, Eric Deutsch (who I told you about in the Beast of Burden race), texted me to see how Bill was doing, and I told him that Bill had just completed the first of three 33.5 mile loops. In Eric’s typically enthusiastic way, he said, “Awesome!… Wait! Did he just run 33.5 miles in 5 hrs 40 minutes?” I said yes but “he said he’ll be slowing down now.” Eric said, “Does he know it’s 100 miles? JK. He is so good (fast).”
Visit number two to the Tranquil Cemetery Aid Station (43 mile mark) came around 3:20 p.m. Bill was still in 3rd place. He looked exerted but again he did not sit down or stay long. I could tell he was pushing himself. I filled his water bottle and he had two small cups of Mt. Dew, plus a gel. He took another gel and went on his way again.
I updated Eric, and he performed his usual mathematical calculations and informed me that Bill was running a 10:07 pace, “which is fast.”
At this point I went speeding off the course to a Wal-Mart near our hotel to get Bill some bacon and squeezable applesauce (Thank you again, Kelly Gleason, for reminding me of that magical food!). He hadn’t had any substantial calories yet all day and I figured he would need it to get through the night / second half. I bought pre-cooked bacon and microwaved it in our hotel room, then got back to the Sharpsburg Aid Station (mile 52.2), which was the closest to our hotel, at 4:15 p.m.
Bill arrived around 4:50 p.m., still in 3rd place. He still looked very focused and determined. And he still looked like he was pushing himself. This wasn’t a joy run. He sat down and wanted food. I told him about the bacon and he happily had a slice, plus one of the squeezable applesauces, two cups of Mt. Dew, a ginger chew, and some gum. I also filled his water bottle and gave him his iPod, which was dead so he gave it right back. I started charging it in the car while I drove around. The fact that Bill wasn’t asking for more Tums and Ibuprofen seemed like a good sign.
The next two stops were on the side of the road in the same spots as the last lap, as there were no more aid stations until the Start/Finish at 67 miles. First I went to the water-only station a few miles down the road so that I could fill our water bottles, and the water dispenser was very low. I had to tip it forward while holding the water bottle between my knees and it slowly came out. Then I went back to the spot I had met Bill on the first lap, at around 59 miles. When he got there, he was in pain and a little bit dehydrated. He was getting blisters and changed his shoes. He asked for Fizz (electrolyte) to drink and more in his water bottle. As far as I knew, Bill was still in 3rd place.
After that, I drove to the Start/Finish to tell them that more water was needed back at the water-only location, as Bill was near the front of the pack and there was already hardly any water left. I brought Powerade with me and went back to what I think was around mile 64 to wait for Bill. He got there at 7:40 p.m., took a swig of the Powerade, and took his night gear: a reflective vest and headlamp. I also gave him his charged iPod. With the sun going down, it was getting noticeably chilly.
I then drove back to the Start/Finish Aid Station to wait for Bill. The 2nd place runner, Beth McCurdy, arrived and had a lengthy stop. As she was leaving, Bill was coming in.
At 8:20 p.m., Bill completed his second of two loops for a total of 67 miles done. He looked less exerted and more relaxed. He put the knit hat and a windbreaker on, drank 1/2 bottle of Powerade, ate 1/2 container of Ramen noodles with broth and a few pieces of bacon. He remarked that he was surprised to see Beth just leaving (because she was a few miles ahead of him the first two laps) and asked me how far ahead the first place runner was. I ran over to look at the check-in paper and asked the race staff about the 100 milers. They told me that the first place runner had dropped out, that Beth was the first to arrive, and that Bill was in 2nd place. Bill was excited to hear that news. He said he would try to pass Beth but didn’t think he could do it this late in the race. He asked me to bring the rest of the Ramen noodles and bacon for the next aid station, and went on his way.
I had gotten really good at figuring out the back country roads and the short cuts to Peachtree City so I sped off to Starbucks, got fuel (because we were told that every gas station closes at 9 p.m.), some Chicken Pad Thai for my dinner, dodged a bunch of teenaged hordes in golf carts (this golf cart thing still fascinates me…), and updated Eric. He informed me that Bill had run 100k in about 11:20: “still fast.” When I told him about Bill being in 2nd place, Eric replied, “How far ahead is the girl? If she’s within 5 miles, she’ll be done. Unless she’s an elite.” I didn’t know Beth’s experience level but I told Eric that she was maybe about 15 minutes ahead of Bill. Eric said, “15 minutes is only a mile and a half at best. He has 33 miles! I might not be able to sleep.”
You’d think this was a lap around a track… this “possible passing” could take hours… and hours… Ultra runners live in a parallel universe where distance and time have completely different meanings than for the rest of us.
When I got back to Tranquil Cemetery Aid Station (mile 76.5) for the final time, it was pitch dark and Beth’s crew car was there. She arrived and got in the car, spending a little bit of time again. As I saw Bill coming toward us, it was 10:15 p.m. and Beth was getting out of the car. I heard her say, “I gotta get going.” and she ran off. Beth and Bill greeted each other as they passed.
Bill quickly ate some more of the Ramen noodles, broth, and the rest of the bacon. He had a cup of Mt. Dew and some of the water with Fizz, plus I filled his water bottle. He then put on a heavier coat and asked me to stay on the course with him – to go about three miles and wait for him. Bill was in 2nd place and had probably gained about ten minutes on the frontrunner.
While driving ahead the three miles, I saw that Beth was not far in front of Bill. I think she was about a half mile at that point. I stopped at about the 80 mile mark where I saw her crew car (as well as some kind of large animal crossing the road in my headlights) and I chatted with her crew guy – named Bill. I asked him if he saw the animal, which he did not, but he walked around with his flashlight to look for it. Then he told me that Beth had been really struggling with the cold. She lives near Atlanta and isn’t used to / hates the cold, so it was really bothering her now that the sun went down. Suddenly we saw a headlamp light appear – and it was Bill (Thompson) getting there first! It was about 10:58 p.m.
Bill the crew guy said congratulations, and Bill Thompson asked me to stay close by because there were a lot of dogs (not fenced in or tied up) in the area that had been chasing the runners. I also told him about the animal I saw crossing the road.
For about four miles I coasted along behind Bill as he ran. It was the first time I had ever done that because it wasn’t allowed at any other race I’ve been to. At first I was very sleepy and worried because I was sure that I couldn’t stay awake very long doing this. Then we got out on to a busier road where vehicles were passing periodically and 2 – 3 of them literally came right at Bill as if they were trying to hit him. EXTREMELY alarming. (Note: racers run on the left side of the road, facing traffic. On this course there was little to no shoulder on the roads. Bill ran as far to the side as he could but sometimes there was nowhere to go when the vehicles came toward him).
The longer this went on the more I was amazed by him. I’ve never really seen what goes on between his periodic aid station stops at races. I don’t know if he sits down sometimes, walks a lot, stops for a beer with people along the way… who knows! I just haven’t been able to see it: The distance… in real time… And he was running. Just still running. Over 80 miles and over 15 hours into this, and he was still running! I kept shaking my head and saying out loud to myself: “Wow. Truly amazing.”
During this time, Eric apparently woke up and saw the updates I had been sending him. “I fricken knew it…” he replied. “I know he’s putting the hammer down.”
At about 84 miles, Bill told me to drive ahead to the Sharpsburg Aid Station (mile 85) a mile away and ask them for coffee. Unfortunately they didn’t have any. He arrived at around 12:15 a.m., drank Mt. Dew, had a caffeine shot gel, put on his tights and went on his way. Bill was still in 1st place. The race staff informed me that there were only four other runners still on the course / in the race.
I also realized that we hadn’t seen Beth’s crew car at all. It felt like we were the only people out here and that Bill might be the only person to finish the race!
For the next five miles or so I alternated between following Bill and driving ahead 1/2 – 1 mile at a time. When I followed I could see that his gait was different – strained, harsher, more of a heel strike than usual. He later told me that was because his shoes were so uncomfortable. He had blisters but wouldn’t pop them or put bandaids on them. And I was still amazed at how he just kept running… I remember looking at him and wondering at how someone gets this in their head – to run and keep running – for over 80 miles. Wondering at how Bill has that in his head. “Remarkable,” I’d say out loud to myself.
Then he asked me to drive back three miles and see if anyone was coming. I drove 3.5 miles and saw no sign of anyone. Again, it felt like we were all alone out there. After I found Bill and told him I didn’t see anyone for 3.5 miles, he started walking a little bit more and then told me I could drive ahead 1-2 miles. We were hitting the stretch of the race that had always felt like the longest (in the spot where the aid station was supposed to be) in the wee hours of the night/morning. It was also hilly there. I realized I was dozing off after stopping. Every time we felt like we were getting closer to the final turns, it felt like they got further away.
But Bill says that those miles turned into something special for the two of us. He felt more relaxed knowing that no one was close enough to catch him. When he stopped at the car we would hang out a little bit, look at the beautiful, clear sky full of stars, and talk a few minutes. He remembers that one time we shared his snack: Honey Stinger Waffles (chocolate and lemon). I had forgotten about that. I must have been sleep-eating. Bill considers that stretch to be a really nice and memorable experience that isn’t typical in a race.
Finally it was time to make to the second to last turn. Bill told me that the next section was where dogs had run after him in the previous laps so he wanted me to follow close behind him again for a few miles. He would then wave me on for the final mile before the Finish Line!!!!! We were so close! But first one more piece of suspense… the car wouldn’t start. I fiddled with buttons and levers and tried again. Nothing. I blew the horn, Bill turned around, and then when I tried again, it started. I realized it was out of gear…
So off we went, Bill intermittently running and walking up the hill for two miles, and me trying to protect him from dogs. Thankfully there were no ugly run-ins and we proceeded smoothly. There was a school at the corner where we would make the final turn and Bill would have about 1/2 mile to go to the finish. For once, the school sign arrived sooner than I thought it would and I lept with glee in my seat! Bill had started running again as we approached… he saw on his GPS and knew how close he was… and he looked strong. He waved me on. I drove to the corner and paused to make doubly sure he saw which way to turn, looking back to watch for him coming. And he was running….. 97.5 miles and 20 hours of racing… And I was shaking my head and saying out loud to myself, “Truly truly impressive. He is something else. Wow.”
I drove like Dale Earnhart, Jr. the 1/2 mile to the Finish Line and told the race staff that #14 was about to finish. They said, “and he will be the first one!” They got that cool skull award ready and we watched for the headlamp light in the distance.
He was running strong!
4:09 a.m. – 20:05 elapsed time – 1st Place Overall Finisher of The Running Dead 100!!!!
As Bill and I have talked about this race, he’s told me over and over how grateful he feels for everything I did, especially on that last lap. Staying right there with him through the night. Helping to keep attack dogs and reckless drivers away. Giving him warmer clothing and keeping him fueled and caffeinated. Gazing at stars, having a chat at 3 a.m. and just soaking in the moment together. I’ve told him that I never felt so much like a team with him during a race. Just he and I, depending on each other to go that distance and get to the finish line. It was the first time I could see so clearly how I was helping him. I’m still such a novice at crewing and running that until now I’ve mostly felt like I was sort of just cheering him on but that I don’t do anything more than some well-placed drop bags and aid stations can do. It’s been a major learning curve and on-the-job training. Especially because he and I hardly even knew each other off the race course let alone on it before I started crewing. Now we both know in general what the other needs at various points. “She’s a pro,” he told people. “You were awesome,” he told me.
What a great sense of satisfaction to know that these are the memories that go with Bill’s first win.
There’s something to be said for just staying in the race.
Keep Moving Forward,