At about 6 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, when I saw snow dancing in the light of my headlamp, I started to cry. I was nine hours into my first 24-hour race. I was trying to see how many times I could run around a course in a park in Hainesport Township, N.J., in a day that bridged the end of last year and the start of this one.
I’d started running at 9 a.m. in the rain, and was trying to soldier on in a damp, plummeting cold.
I paid my $200 registration fee for the Hainesport Hundred and 24 Hour Endurance Run back in November, because it sounded like a good way to mark the end of a dreadful year. In that moment, in the dark, the snow didn’t feel like magic. It felt like mutiny. But I couldn’t stop moving forward. I had 15 hours to go.
Ultramarathoning is still a small sport compared to road racing (your typical 5Ks, half marathons and marathons), but participation in events longer than the marathon distance (26.2 miles) increased 345 percent from 2008 to 2018, according to The State of Ultrarunning 2020 report.
“There’s a natural inflation as marathons and half marathons have gotten more and more popular,” said Adharanand Finn, author of “The Rise of the Ultrarunners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance.” “The more people who did the marathon, the more people who are going to say, ‘What’s next?’ and try ultrarunning.”
I ran my first 50K, about 31 miles, at the Labor Pains 12 Hour Trail Race in Reading, Pa., in 2016. My second 50K came two years later at the Blues Cruise 50K in Leesport, Pa., where we all ran the same, big loop once.
A few months later, in training for what I’d hoped would be my first 50-mile race, I cracked my tibia, and I haven’t quite found my running groove since. Still, despite running about half the weekly mileage I ran when I was training for those big races, I signed up for the Hainesport 24-hour race because it seemed runner-friendly and Covid-safe. A small group of runners would run the same paved loop, just a bit shorter than a mile, over and over again, which meant I wouldn’t be in a crowd but I could see people and have access to an aid station at least once every mile. You could stop, rest or sleep as many times as you wanted. If the going got too rough, there was an out: my car, and a 25-minute drive home.
“It allows people to go as far as they want to and know they have an aid station within a mile,” said Vanessa Kline, owner of Batona Trail Races and Beast Pacing, who put on this event and served as co-race director with her partner, John Swanson.
I focused on time rather than speed. I wanted to stay upright until midnight and then see what else I could do. My plan was to run three minutes, walk two minutes, and repeat until I couldn’t run anymore, and then walk for as long as I could. Unfortunately, nature wasn’t cooperating. The race started in 44 degrees and rain, followed by dry but descending cold.
The 26 other runners made up an eclectic field, including Steve Slaby, 39, a fast and talented runner who’s competed in elite events like the Leadville Trail 100 Mile run, Badwater 135 mile race, plus the International Association of Ultrarunning 24 championship in 2019; Kenneth A. Posner, 57, author of “Running The Long Path: A 350-Mile Journey of Discovery in New York’s Hudson Valley” and who ran without shoes and sometimes without a shirt; Erin Karara, 32, who’d taken a crack at 100 miles in a virtual race but didn’t finish; Michael “Gagz” Gagliardi, 45, who ran a 76-mile outline of Philadelphia over the summer; and Crystal Jackson, 48, who has run more than 30 ultras and started the race in an umbrella hat.
Trishul Cherns, 63, drove down to the race from his home in Middle Village, N.Y. He’s been running ultramarathons since 1978 and still holds multiple Canadian ultramarathon records, including in the 700 miles and 1,300-mile distances.
“I’ve done this for 42 years. I hope to do this until I’m into my 90s,” he said. He planned to powerwalk his way to 100 miles.
The first laps went smoothly, as I expected them to, but I started to feel creaky by 2 p.m., which is when I crossed paths with Jackson in the bathroom. She told me she thought she could make it to 100K.
“I just want to make it to midnight,” I said.
“You gotta make it till morning, girl,” she responded.
At 3:30 p.m., I saw Ben Troy, who’d lapped me multiple times, taking a walk break.
Troy, 22, ran his first ultramarathon in February of 2020 and liked it so much, he ran a few more. This was his eighth of the year. He’s a senior at Slippery Rock University and hopes to join the Navy SEALs. I mentioned that I’d read that the SEALs had a saying that when you think you’re done, you still had 60 percent more effort left to give.
“You always have a lot more left to give,” he said.
Runners were allowed to have a “crew” — in this race, typically one masked person, delivering food, drink and buckets of encouragement who stayed until the runner was done. I didn’t have one; instead, my mom stopped by at 4 p.m. with burgers, fries and coffee. I stopped for 45 minutes to eat and didn’t feel like starting up again. “You’re just getting started,” my mom said as she got ready to go. “Have fun!”
The temperature slipped from 43 degrees to 40 to 39. I put on longer pants, a heavier shirt, and grabbed two disposable hand warmers. A few laps later, I put on my hiking jacket. As night fell, we turned from upright forms in bright tops and pants into dots of light from our headlamps, bopping around the same path, over and over and over again.
By 6 p.m. under that snow, I crossed the marathon distance mark, and my walk breaks stretched into the times when I was supposed to be running. The ghosts of past injuries floated up to haunt me with every step: the tendinosis in my foot from 2013, the tibial stress fracture from 2019, stretching back to gluteus medius tendinitis — or dead butt syndrome — from 2010, all on the right side, my own unholy trinity.
Just after 6:30 p.m., at 28 laps, I quit the run/walk/run and shifted to just walking. I was listening to Nick Offerman’s “Good Clean Fun,” his memoir and how-to about woodworking, but his loving descriptions of antique tools and the joy of working with green ash couldn’t pull me out of my spiraling negative thoughts: This is stupid, it’s cold, I’m cold, why did I do this, I could just go home, I can’t make it to midnight, I have to make it to midnight, I can go home at midnight, no you cannot go home.
Sometime after 8 p.m., I saw Cherns again, who was still powerwalking at a steady clip, and joined him. “I run to complete, not to compete. You just have to complete, Jen,” he said, as we walked together to the 12-hour mark.
At the halfway point of the next loop, I looked back to the aid station and parking lot, with a brightly lit Christmas tree. I watched runners passing in front, like small planets crossing in front of the sun.
At 11:15 p.m., I stopped at 38 laps.
I wanted to get into my car and drive home to my heat and my bed and a selection of craft beers in my refrigerator. But it was getting close to midnight. I moved my car to a dark spot, folded down the back seats and set up my sleeping bag. I walked back to the aid station. A masked volunteer poured me a glass of ginger ale, and put a sparkler in my hand at midnight. Fireworks blasted in the distance. Runners still shuffled through, mumbling “Happy New Year,” as they started another new lap.
I slid into my sleeping bag in the back of my car and nodded off around 2 a.m. and slept fitfully until right before 5 a.m., when it was still very dark and very cold at 31 degrees. I unfolded myself from my sleeping bag and gingerly took a few steps. Not as terrible as I thought, probably because I had walked about 10 miles after running 28. My jacket and shoes, which I’d left outside the car for the night, were covered in frost.
I didn’t plan to run at all, just walk, so I layered up with fresh tights under sweatpants, long sleeve shirt, both coats (defrosted under the hand dryer in the restroom), and the same warm hat from the night before. I shuffled to the aid station, staffed by a new batch of volunteers. It was cold enough that the olive oil they used to make grilled cheese sandwiches had frozen overnight.
“This is going to be the best worst coffee you’ve ever had,” one race aid said while pouring hot water into a cup with instant coffee mix.
The number of runners had dropped overnight. Posner stopped after 51 laps, which got him to his goal of 50 miles. Slaby packed up after 75 laps. I started my 39th loop at 5:30 a.m., feeling sore and tired but refreshed, especially compared to the runners who had gone through the night. Karara ran with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders; Gagliardi’s beard froze.
I finished lap 39 and saw Jackson. She needed two more laps to get to 100K but said she was too cold to go on. I grabbed a fleece-lined poncho out of my car, wrapped her in it, and nudged her to keep going “because you’re too close now.”
At 6:30 a.m., the sky started to shift from black to charcoal to gray. I finished lap 40. I didn’t really see a reason to stop now that I was up and moving forward again. I grabbed another cup of the best worst coffee and saw Gagliardi again, already past 100 miles and in the lead, but stuck in the same vortex I’d been in the night before. He slowed to a walk, so I walked with him, talking about inane things to distract his brain and help him keep moving forward. And what we’d all been waiting for since 5 p.m. the day before finally happened.
“Look at that!” I said pointing to a yellowing sky. “A new day is here, Gagz. We made it. You made it! Not much longer to go!” When I talked to him again after the race, he said that thinking about the new year dawning in different time zones across the globe kept him going. “Every hour there’s some part of the world that’s having a celebration right now,” he said.
By 8 a.m., the moon was just a smudge in a light blue sky, and the grass glittered with frost. My mom came back again to cheer. Lap 43. Could I do two more? I switched from a podcast to music, the album “Gone Now” by Bleachers, which feels like a soundtrack for driving to the beach on a hot summer day. Whatever worked at that point, I’d take it.
The sun, my mom, the best worst coffee, the upbeat music, combined with the fact that I knew I’d make it to 24 hours led to me shocking myself: I started running again. I’d found my extra 60 percent.
I came down the final stretch to finish lap 45, and felt as close to euphoria as I’ll probably ever get, with blisters. I ran through the chute one last time, hands in the air like the Rocky tattoo on Gagliardi’s shin, then crumpled into my mom’s arms, in both triumph and relief.
I stayed to watch Chaiwen Chou, 37, complete her 100 miles, finishing her last lap a few minutes under the 24-hour mark (though race organizers left the course open to anyone who reached 80 miles by 9 a.m. if they wanted to do 100 miles — Cherns finished his 100 miles in 28 hours, 44 minutes, 11 seconds).
Gagliardi won the men’s race with 123.87 miles in 125 laps. Karara wasn’t the only woman to run 100.09 miles in 101 laps, but she did it in the fastest time, in 21 hours, 51 minutes, 59 seconds, which made her the women’s winner.
My total distance was 44.59 miles, still the furthest I’d run by more than a half marathon. I don’t know if I’ll do it again, but I said that after my first marathon, and now I’ve run a dozen of those.
“You’re completely rinsing yourself dry,” said Finn, predicting that I’d probably try another 24-hour race, or at least another ultramarathon. “It’s no longer about running anymore. It’s about a journey to yourself.”