Firefighter runs 100-mile ultra-marathon for charity
Running blindly through the night, an unmarked and unprotected 500-foot drop somewhere near his right side, Jason Williams questioned whether he was in over his head.
His feet were covered in blisters, his head had “a cartoon bump”; he was dehydrated and cold. The eight-pound backpack he was carrying only added to the agony the 37-year-old felt as he travelled through 100 miles of “rugged Rocky Mountain terrain” in The Leadville Trail 100 Run last August.
“I wasn't able to speak to anyone who knew about the race [before I signed up] but what was listed on the internet … they downplay the whole thing. It was way, way more difficult than I could have imagined,” he said.
“I definitely lost every single toenail. It starts at 4am so it’s pitch black and it's alongside of a river which is very rocky. In the first ten miles I was tripping and falling repeatedly. My big toes were black within the first ten miles.”
He was inspired to try the race after reading Born to Run, Christopher McDougall’s 2009 bestselling non-fiction about “superathletes” and ultra-marathons.
“They were talking about the most prolific runners ever and how they tested their skills in this long-distance race in the States. And that was the race that they had run, The Leadville 100,” he said.
“I'd also been listening to podcasts by Rich Roll, [the ultra-endurance athlete and bestselling author], and [other runners] talking about ultra running events. So it was popping up more and more on my radar.”
With the London Marathon under his belt and having completed the Bermuda Half Marathon Derby “maybe ten times” the full-time firefighter felt that, with training, he would be fit enough.
“I just spent some more time on my feet. The bulk of my running was on the treadmill at work. So I would run to and from work and then when I got to work I would run maybe three hours on the treadmill. Most of the race is a run and walk type of thing so I spent a lot of time alternating between running and walking in my workouts – instead of a straight run – and I would go for a longer period of time.”
Top local runner Rose-Anna Hoey put him in touch with Anne Kermode, who gave some insight into the ultra-marathon experience.
And then he signed up to run hoping that his three daughters, aged 11, 7 and 4, would be impressed.
“I flew out by myself. I didn't have a crew anything,” he said. “I wanted to do something pretty epic. We had been thinking about it for a while and I wanted to make last year the year to get it done.”
His family however, had a few concerns.
“The race takes place in a mountainous terrain so they were worried about the animals that would be there. It’s typically bad weather during that time as well. Usually during that time of year they get daily thunderstorms and really bad lightning.
“So most of my family was initially afraid but at the end of the day they were behind me pushing me along.”
Mr Williams signed up hoping his name would be picked in the raffle for entry. When that didn’t pan out he agreed to raise at least $2,300 for a charity, Save the Children. Through family and friends he collected $2,430.
The only thing he could not prepare for was the altitude. At its highest point, Bermuda measures 249ft; The Leadville 100 starts at 10,152ft and climbs to 12,424ft.
“What I read on the internet was either you go well in advance, like three to four weeks, or you show up the day of the race. So I flew up to Denver on the Thursday prior to the race, spent the night in Denver, took a bus over to Leadville on the Friday. I had just enough time to pick up my race registration and spend the afternoon in Leadville and then the race was the next morning at 4am.”
Mr Williams set off with about 700 runners. He believes fewer than half finished.
“It was rough. Many people do shoe changes I just didn't even want to look. I just kept my shoes on and I kept going.”
His backpack was prepared for almost every eventuality despite the “fully outfitted” checkpoints with water, food and gels that dotted the route.
“[I had] first-aid supplies, salt tablets, headlamps, things like that. I don’t think I needed half of what I had. I definitely over-packed.
“I was dressed like it was freezing cold. I had gloves, two jackets, long pants …. when the sun came up I was able to break everything down but I still carried everything with me.”
Sleep, he decided, would only waste time.
“It was definitely a lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely trail, especially at night. When we first started the race everyone was together so it was a single file line but the second night shift it was all spread out. I was by myself for hours at a time which was tricky because it was very hard to follow the course, especially when you’re pretty exhausted. Looking for markers in the trees was difficult.”
His support system back in Bermuda kept him going, particularly his wife Karen and their children, Aerial, Journey, and Promise, and his mother and stepfather, Karla and Donovan Sweet.
“Even though they weren’t there, in the back of my mind I felt their encouragement – the Fire Service and my family.”
Many of the runners had people who had agreed to pace them for the last 40 miles or so. Mr Williams would have been on his own had someone he met at the race not dropped out.
“I guess the guy I met called ahead and said I had no one to run with so his pacer joined me. That was actually my saving grace, this angel pacer who helped me through the rest of the race.
“For the last 30 miles or so I was in a condition where I found it difficult to stand for more than 50 feet. I kept falling. I hit my head a few times. I finished the race with a huge cartoon bump, where I’d fallen. At the last checkpoint the pacer was shovelling everything that had salt on it – salt chips, salt tablets – into my mouth so I could get back to a state where I could walk.”
Only about 300 runners crossed the finish line. Mr Williams made it in 29 hours and 25 minutes.
Months later, he’s still unsure which part was the most challenging.
“It was a little bit of everything but I would definitely say the nutritional side of it was not good, not just the dehydration but lacking the electrolytes. I was pretty fuzzy. I wasn’t able to think clearly so even something as simple as stopping to catch my breath, if I would lean forward and put my hands on my knees I would topple over because my weight would shift forward and I would fall over.
“My pacer kept encouraging me to fall left. The trail was pretty difficult to navigate but, on the right hand side was like a 500-foot drop. He was like: ‘If you have to fall, fall left because if you fall right, it’s a bad day – for everyone.’”
As they neared the end of the race Mr Williams wasn’t able to stand upright because of back pain which he believes was brought on by severe dehydration.
“I was really hurt. I had these tracking poles that my pacer lent me [they were] the only thing that carried me across the line. I kind of dragged myself hunched over, and fell into the arms of a race official giving out medals.”
He stayed at the site for an hour, visiting the medical tent for water so he could take some Tylenol, before a race official drove him back to his hotel where he “sat in the bath for an extended period of time”.
“It’s funny because when I finished the race I was like, ‘I will never ever do this to myself again.’ And a day later I was like, ‘Where do I sign up for [the next one]?’
“It’s definitely collective punishment. Everyone is there suffering together. I guess that's the beauty of it all – when you look at anyone, no one's having an easy day. Everyone is in the same state as you.”
Back in Bermuda three days later, he took a break from all exercise.
“I took a month off from anything. The first time I ran, it was more like a walk.”
Firefighter Jason Williams will once again race in The Leadville Trail 100 Run in August. Contact him at email@example.com or @ jasonwilliams9014 on Instagram