It was just before 10:30 in the morning, and Rachelle Ungerman was fast approaching the finish line for the final time. She’d passed it several times during the 100-mile run, under the warm sun of the previous day and through the driving rain of the Tennessee night.
The looped course she was on was a touch more than 11 miles, and the Fort Wright resident was on her ninth lap. Graffiti art of a large penguin stood about a half-mile from the end of the loop, and it had become so familiar she had christened it Pengy. It was time to say so long.
“It had stopped raining and the sun had come up, and I knew I was on the upswing,” Rachelle said on her blog, “Passing Pengy one last time, I touched his nose and told him goodbye. On to the finish line of my first 100-mile race.”
Yeah, you read that right. A 100-mile race. Running through the day and night and into the next morning. Running for 26 hours and 24 minutes.
One hundred miles is the distance between Cincinnati and Louisville. It’s about the distance to Indianapolis. Drive 100 miles south on I-75 and you’ll pass Lexington and approach Richmond. But people run that far for one race. It’s a small group, and the best ones pretty much all know each other. Some marathons have tens of thousands of runners — the Chicago Marathon last year had more than 40,000 finishers. One-hundred-mile races may have 100 entrants.
For those who prefer ultra-marathons, a 26.2-mile marathon is too short. Instead, they measure how many marathons it takes to complete their races. Rachelle’s 100-miler — in the Pistol Ultra in Alcoa, Tennessee, (outside of Knoxville) on Jan. 3-4 — was just shy of four marathons. Back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
She’s 43, married with three children, and a strong believer in God and the Bible. Her runs, like her life, are about endurance and making it through the tough times. One of her favorite Bible verses is Hebrews 12:1-2: “Let us lay aside every weight. … Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.”
It’s a message she has engraved on a bracelet she wears while running. “It is what I want my kids to take away from my running,” she said. “It’s not about being fit or cool or whatever one might think. It’s about endurance. There is so much to learn in that category.”
She works at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati in the radiology department and started running six years ago because many of the radiologists she worked with ran and talked — as runners are wont to do — about it. Her first race was a 5K in Cincinnati, and she was hooked. She ran the Flying Pig Marathon, and wanted more. She signed up and ran a 32-mile trail race, and that still wasn’t enough.
“The 100 is a completely different animal,” she said. “I tell most people that I just wanted to see if I could do it. … I was also running for a cause. A friend of mine is a nurse practitioner in Togo, west Africa. She is raising money for an AIDS/HIV clinic as an addition to the hospital where she serves as a missionary nurse. AIDS is a top killer in Africa.”
Training for a 100-mile race takes months of preparation. Although you never come close to running 100 miles pre-race, the weekly miles come close. A common tactic is to run 30 miles on Saturday, and follow that up with 20 miles on Sunday, so you can get used to running on tired legs. Rachelle said she would stay awake one night a month to get used to not sleeping for more than 24 hours. But the hardest part, she said, is figuring out what you are going to eat and drink during an ultra. At a previous 52-mile race, she said, she did not drink enough, became dehydrated, and had to spend the night after the race in the hospital.
“I am a very carefree runner,” she said. “I run for pleasure. I had no idea the math and chemistry that I had to deal with in human physiology to complete a 100-miler successfully. An ultra-runner friend of mine who is an engineer hooked me up with some basic info on nutrition according to temperature, sweat, sugar, salt, etc. Crazy.”
Rachelle credits Craig “Wheels” Wheeler of Burlington, an experienced ultra-marathoner with several 100-mile races under his belt, with helping her train and transitioning her from a mostly trail runner to a road runner. She also used the Tri State Running Company store in Edgewood as a base to store gear and water and food — and to use the bathrooms — during her long runs.
As for the race, she said her pacer, Eden McDermott, was essential.
Eden said her first actions were to help Rachelle when she came around to the starting point of the loop. There, Eden said, she would bring food or water, help Rachelle change clothes or shoes, pass along messages from her husband, or just do whatever she could to help out.
“The only thing we planned prior to the race was for me to make sure she kept moving,” said Eden, who was also to ensure that Rachelle kept a steady pace. “She got rid of her watch a few loops in — she didn’t want to look at it or know how much time had passed.”
Eden, 33, who lives in Covington, didn’t start running until Rachelle was more than halfway through the race.
“The first time I went out was at 55 miles in; I think around 8 p.m.,” she said. “It was raining for maybe an hour or two at this point, and wouldn’t let up until morning 12 hours later, but at least it wasn’t cold — about 52 degrees. I went out for the 9.2 mile loop, where we jogged/walked and ended up helping a friend out who was struggling to keep up. Rachelle was a rock star. She was so focused with one thing on her mind, which was to keep her body in check and get it done. She just kept going; it was so impressive and I realized how strong of mind she was.”
Rachelle says she was focused from the start of the race. She’s happy she chose the Pistol Ultra for her first 100 miler (yes, she said, there will be more) because it was so well run. She gave a shout out to the race director, a Tennessean named Will Jorgensen, who lives in nearby Maryville.
At the end of the race, “I was so focused that it surprised even me,” Rachelle said. “I prayed a lot too, and I really relied on my faith in God to get me to the finish line. At about mile 94, Eden told me, ‘This is the last turn around, you are headed to the finish line.’ (Soon afterward, Eden pulled away so Rachelle could finish on her own.) I almost cried then, but told myself to suck it up until the finish line was in sight. That was the moment that I had waited six months for. Being able to say that you are almost done is an exhilarating feeling. I literally danced to the finish line.”
Afterward, it was joyful, if a bit painful. “Had I really just done this?” Rachelle said. “Did I really smell this badly? YES! I couldn’t wait to touch that belt buckle (given to the finishers).
“I was a little stiff to say the least, so Eden drove me home. We had to get out of the car a few times for me to unkink myself. But my body held up well considering the beating it had just taken. … I took a week off and ate everything in sight. … But, let me caution someone reading. Recovery is a very personal thing. You must respect the distance and your body.”