Man on the Run

I ran four 100-mile foot races in less than three months—just to see if I could. And, no, I’m not nuts.

GOING THE DISTANCE: Fort Worth surgeon Steve Hudgens was one of 21 people who finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in 2004.

I wasn’t an athlete in high school, but I started running when I was in medical school at Baylor. I’d do three or four miles a day just to stay in shape. In 1981, I went to New York City to do my residency, and I did a lot of running around Central Park. I ran three to six miles a day. I watched the New York City Marathon every November and thought, “That would be fun.”

My wife Suzie and I moved back to Texas in ’88, and I joined my practice with that of another cardiothoracic surgeon. I kept telling him, “One of these days I am going to run a marathon.” After about three months of hearing me say that, he told me to either run one or shut up. So I signed up for the Cowtown Marathon, and, even though I wasn’t adequately trained for it, I finished. I had such a good time that I decided I’d run the New York City Marathon that year. I was 33. After that, I was hooked.

In 1996, I broke three hours in a marathon, finishing in two hours and 58 minutes. Being a surgeon, I didn’t think that I would have the time to train any harder,  but I kept running. After 60 marathons, a cardiologist friend of mine, David Corley, challenged me to do the Western States 100. It’s in California, and it’s the oldest 100-mile race in the country. It began in the early ’70s and basically crosses the Sierra Nevada range. It’s the most prestigious of the 100s. That must have been in 2000.

I’d researched it in the past, and I knew that I could have a pacer for 38 miles. So I told David that if I ran that race he would have to be my pacer.

I had to qualify with a 50-mile run, so I went up to Oklahoma to the Cross Timbers Trail Run. Having not been a trail runner before, I broke my ankle in a creek bed at the fifth mile. I thought I was going to have to pull from the race, but I had to walk a certain distance before I could get off the trail, and by that time, my foot felt better. So I ran the 45 miles I had left on my broken ankle. Afterward, I was out for about 10 weeks, but I had qualified for the Western States. So many people apply for the race, though, that they decide who gets to run by lottery, and I didn’t get in. The next year I qualified again, without any injuries. And that time I got in.

At the end of the race, all the runners, no matter how good they look, are sent to the medical tent to have their blood pressure taken and their oxygen saturation levels checked. A healthy person breathing regular air typically has 98 to 99 percent oxygen saturation. The oxygen saturation levels of runners at very high altitudes drop to the low 80s or 70s.

David went out with me, and we did it. It was so well-organized that he got wrapped up in it, and he decided after pacing me 38 miles that he wanted to run it, too. I decided to run it again, with him. There’s a friend of mine from Houston who last year ran the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, which is four 100-mile races in 11 weeks, and I thought I would try it. Before this year, only 138 people had ever finished the Grand Slam.

The Grand Slam involves the Western States, the Vermont Trail, Leadville Trail, and the Wasatch Front. Each race is in the mountains, off-road, and that’s why I’ll never be competitive enough to stay up toward the front: the altitude gets you down.

I’d finished the Western States before, so I knew what to expect. One-hundred-mile runs are totally different from marathons. I could go out today and run a marathon by myself. One-hundred-mile runs you can’t do by yourself; you’ve got to have a crew. Once I’ve trained to run a marathon, I know that if I am feeling good that day, I can finish. With a 100-mile run you never know if you are going to be able to finish, even if you feel good when you start, because there is so much physiologically that changes as you go. You get dehydrated. Your stomach may not tolerate the food that day. The weather may be miserable, and you may get hypothermic. You have to stay so focused to keep going.

Vermont was a big mental block. I’d tried to run Vermont before, in 2003. It was about 85 degrees and very humid, and I went out real fast. I lost 10 pounds in the first 50 miles. I had such bad cramps that I couldn’t get anything down. It’s the only race I’ve ever run that I had to drop out. I was worried that the conditions would be the same, and sure enough, it was raining again, the humidity was 98 percent, and temperatures were going to be in the high 70s. But, this time, I went out a lot slower. I tried to drink a lot more. I ended up losing 4 pounds in that race, but I stayed within the weight cutoff.

Feet take a beating, and painful blisters are a big reason some people drop out of a race. To prevent blisters, some runners coat their feet in Vaseline before they start. Some wrap their toes in moleskin or duct tape. Some wear socks made like gloves.

Leadville was physically the toughest of the four races. All the other races go in a big circle or from one point to another, but Leadville takes you 50 miles out and then you turn around and go 50 miles back. I was in good shape when I started up Hope Pass, but it just killed me. I really didn’t think I was going to get back over that pass. I was ready to give up. But my pacer came in and said, “We’re going to get through this.”

There was another point when I was the last person allowed to leave the aid station. There were still 30 miles left to go, and I thought, “If I am this close, there is no way I am going to be able to keep the pace up. They’re just going to pull me at the next aid station.” Everyone who’d come out to crew for me was with me for about a mile, and Suzie looked at me and said, “You aren’t quitting. I will shut this door and not let you in the car.” In the next seven miles, I made up an hour and got ahead of the cutoff times enough that I knew that I would finish.

There are lots of moments during the run that you wish you weren’t doing it. There are lots of times you feel terrible. One person said in a brochure for one of the runs that you feel so bad at some point that you just keep going because you know that the only thing you can do is feel better, and that’s kind of the way it is. There are so many reasons to quit and so many opportunities to quit. But when things really get tough, if you will just work yourself through it, there may be a reward for you at the end. I think you can apply that to all of life.

Runners have 30 hours to finish the 100-mile course. Of the 195 runners who officially completed the Leadville Trail 100 in 2004, 120 finished in the last two hours. The fastest time: 18 hours, one minute, 46 seconds—a course record.

The fourth race was easy because three had already been done. I felt I could certainly pull myself through, but 30 miles into it I was really questioning whether I could finish. But if you look at the history of the Grand Slam, runners usually fall out in the first race or third race. I think everyone who’s ever finished the third finished the fourth. Thirty of us started the Grand Slam last year; 21 finished.

I am probably done running 100-mile races. From now on, I will probably just pace people. My wife and I have used my marathon running as a way to go on vacation. She doesn’t run; she’s my cheerleader and my crew. We’ve done marathons in different countries. Now we’ll have to take a real vacation. Suzie wants to go to a beach and just lie around.

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