The world lost an incredible mother, wife, daughter, friend, attorney, underprivileged advocate, and community member suddenly and unexpectedly on October 16, 2013. In honor of my late wife, Holli Wallace, I am training for the Hallucination 100 mile trail run and raising money for the Children's Grief Center of the Great Lakes Bay Region.

My training progress

Sunday, September 25, 2016

2016 Hallucination 100 Race Report


Well, it's been about two weeks since I completed the 2016 Hallucination 100 mile trail run.  My legs are back to normal and my feet feel fine although I don't always wear sandals in public so that I don't freak people out (at least 50% of one of my pinkie toes was blistered by the end).  Our final donation total was $7,780 which exceeded both my primary goal of $5,000 and my secondary goal of $7,500.  Perhaps as important to me as the financial total, was the number of people who made a contribution.  Around 73 people, many of whom knew Holli and some who did not, honored her memory with a contribution to the Children's Grief Center and I thought of many of the notes that were left with the contributions during my run.  I was encouraged knowing that so many people still held memories of Holli in their hearts.

I want to thank the boys' grandparents for all of their support throughout my training as well as during the race.  My parents did an excellent job of supporting me as I went through each lap and Mike and Denise did a great job of shuttling the boys around (including a soccer game!) and getting them to the race.   Thanks to Gina, who is the one who introduced Holli and I, for supporting the crew with pizza and cheering me to a finish.  It still brings tears to my eyes when I think of the boys standing there near the finish line waiting for me.  Thanks to Elliott and Oliver for sharing your energy with me.

I'll keep my race report brief.  The race consists of six loops of 16 miles each.  The first two went by smoothly and uneventfully.  As I geared up for loop 3, I heard the gentle sound of rain on the aid station tent as I prepared to start the loop.  It was about about 12:30 AM.  The next loop was rough.  The gentle rain soon became a downpour that made visibility difficult.  The trail could not drain fast enough and soon I was running through water that was ankle deep in places.  I ran through deep mud and through small streams.  Needless to say, I was soaked.  But it was cool and I was still feeling good and lost remarkably little time on the loop.  I encountered a rather large raccoon that refused to move from the trail.  It was strangely surreal, but I was moving along well.  By loop 4, the novelty of running through the rain had warn off and the deep puddles and continued rain made changing shoes and socks an act of futility.  I was tired.

The weather had cleared up somewhat by loop 5 and the sandy soil had reduced the puddles, but there were still plenty of long tracks of deep mud.  It was sunlight again, which always provides some encouragement but I was both physically exhausted and beginning to doze off while running.  I knew that I had sufficient time to finish so I wasn't discouraged, but I looked forward to lap 6 and the sight of Elliott and Oliver waiting as I completed lap 5 warmed my heart.  I even managed to jog out of the aid station before walking once I was out of sight.

There was an inevitability to lap 6.  I knew that I could finish.  It was just a matter of not stopping.  I tried to will myself to run, but could rarely manage more than 100 paces of a slow jog, then only 50 paces, before I had to walk.  As the sun began to set again, I kept having the strangest hallucinations.  I knew that they weren't real so they didn't really bother me, but the imagine of the runner stepping over a small fence was quite vivid even though I knew that nothing like that existed on the course.  Trees became bears.  The winding trail looked a lot like a snake.  Sometimes it moved.  I was dozing off again and with half of the last loop remaining I asked a nearby runner if he was walking the rest of the way.  He was so I offered to walk with him hoping that some small talk would help keep me focused and moving forward.  Dan's feet had suffered with the rain and we both avoided any discussion of blisters.  I'm sure that we made quite the sight shambling along those last few miles, but we kept moving forward.

Elliott and Oliver shrieked in excitement when they saw me come around the corner.  It's a little blurry at that point.  We crossed the finish line together.  Words don't do it justice.  After everyone had left, Elliott stayed with me at the campsite.  I thought about taking a shower, but the bathhouse was too far to walk to so I just changed clothes and collapsed into a sleeping bag.  At 2 AM, I woke Elliott up and leaned on him as I shuffled my way to the nearby port-a-potty.  I felt incredibly satisfied.  Later, I saw that the night of rain took it's toll any only 71 of the 203 starters actually finished the whole 100 miles.

That was going to be the finale, but I already know that there are only finales in movies and books.  This Friday, I'll talk about my run and grief at a TEDx talk at SVSU (www.tedxsvsu.com) which will be the first time that I have ever talked about losing Holli in public.  Speaking publicly about my feelings is not something that comes naturally.  Okay, even speaking privately about my feelings doesn't come naturally.  It feels important though.  I've talked to too many people who have felt alone and isolated after suffering some tragic loss.  I've had my share of setbacks and made my share of mistakes, but perhaps my experience and what I have learned from Holli will help others continue to move forward through difficult times.


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Countdown to the race and TEDx


As I write this it is just over 8 days until the start of the race.  Honestly, that's sort of intense.  It's too late for any running that I do to make a difference physically.  I think that I have my equipment pretty much dialed in so, other than assembling everything into one place, I think that I am pretty set there.  I'm working with the Children't Grief Center on materials to have at a table that will be located at the campsite we will have set up.  That's where Elliott and Oliver will be collecting donations in exchange for the tie dye shirts that they made.  I'll be there at 11:00 AM settings things up before the race starts at 4:00 PM.  Of course, I'm still taking donations here: https://www.crowdrise.com/runforholliinsupportofthechildrensgriefcenteroftheglbr1/fundraiser/brianthomas5

I guess I'm mostly working on getting emotionally prepared for the race.  Even a normal race carries a certain emotional weight as you confront physical discomfort and exhaustion.  Of course, this isn't a normal race and the races that I have run preparing for this one have given some insight into how I might feel this time around.  In that typical male manner, I'm no superstar at communicating feelings and emotions, but I know that there will be a flood of feelings over the 28 to 30 hours I'll be on the course.  Some of those feelings will be good and some won't.

So I'm pleased to announce, with an ironic nod to the challenges I face talking openly about feelings, that I've been accepted to give a TEDx talk on ultrarunning and grief on September 30 at SVSU (http://www.tedxsvsu.com/). My hope is to talk about how running has helped me frame my life since losing Holli. The point that I hope to pass along is that the training for a race is more important than the race itself.  The race is the easy part (er, easier).  Training for the race is the hard part. But, of course, the talk isn't really about running. It's about trying to carve out a meaningful and fulfilling life after suffering significant loss. My life is certainly and unfinished and imperfect project, but perhaps some people will benefit from hearing about some of the things that have worked for me.  You would be surprised at the number of hours I have already spent trying to put things into words, tossing drafts, and starting again.  Perhaps to reiterate the point of the talk, my plan is not to "let words come" but to craft my talk and practice until it is something worthwhile. Keep your fingers crossed.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Back to Burning River


Where has the summer gone?  I'm heading down to Cleveland this weekend to run the Burning River 50 Mile Endurance Run.  This will be the first half of the 100 mile run that I did in 2009.  Was it really 7 years ago?  I've been keeping up with my running (mostly) and this weekend will be significant because I have always peaked out at 50 miles before each of my 100 mile runs.  Actually, as I think about it, out of 5 attempts at 100 mile runs the only two times that I dropped out I had not completed a 50 mile training run at the peak of my training.  So keep your fingers crossed for me.

The other reason this feels like a big run is that it means that the Hallucination 100 is only a month away.  I confess that I haven't hammered out all the details of that weekend, but I thought that I would give a general overview for anyone who is interested in coming for all or part of the weekend (you can find a complete schedule here http://www.runwoodstock.com/index.php/info/schedule-of-events.)

1)  Where can I find everyone at the race?  We will have a campsite at the start/finish with a table for the Children's Grief Center.  We'll be selling bracelets for donations and have some information about the Center.  We will probably begin setting up in this area around 11:00 AM on Friday the 9th.  Come and spend some time with us.

2)  Will I be able to watch the race?  Sort of.  Races take up to 30 hours so it isn't really a spectator sport.  The race is a series of 16 mile loops that go through the camp group where our campsite is located.  Obviously, I'll be spending most of my time on the loop, but you will probably be able to predict when I am passing by the start/finish based on my time in the previous loop.  Of course, I'll probably be slowing down each loop.  I'll also be at the start at 4:00 PM on Friday and, if all goes well, crossing the finish line sometime before 10 PM Saturday night.

3)  What can I do?  You are certainly welcome to join us at the campsite.  The weekend is full of events with live music, yoga, food, tye dying, and other activities.  Check the schedule above.  Please note that you will need weekend passes or Saturday concert passes (https://runningfitevents.redpodium.com/2016-run-woodstock).

4)  Can I run (or walk) too?  Yes!  I think that it would be awesome to see Run for Holli shirts at the various races that they will be holding that weekend.  There are three 5k runs that are free if you get a weekend pass.  That's only 3.1 miles!  Walk one with a Run for Holli shirt!  If you are interested in pacing, shoot me an email too.  Pacers are allowed after the first loop.

5) Can I still donate?  Of course!  We have exceeded my initial goal of $5,000, but I would like to hit $7,500 by the end of the race!  You can donate here:  https://www.crowdrise.com/runforholliinsupportofthechildrensgriefcenteroftheglbr1.

I'm going to put an event on the Facebook page so that I can keep track of who is planning on coming that weekend.  Thanks to everyone for their support to this point!


Friday, June 17, 2016

It's more than 50% mental



That's one of those cliches among ultrarunners that has more than an ounce of truth.  You train physically to run the first 50 miles and mentally for the second 50.  My first 100 mile run was the Haliburton Forest 100 in Ontario, Canada (pictured above).  It consisted of two 25 mile "out and back" runs.  Consequently, I hit the 50 mile point at the start/finish point just as the sun was starting to set, 50 mile runners were celebrating their finish, and I was physically more than exhausted.  There weren't many 100 mile runners on the course, temperatures were dropping, and I knew that I had a long, cold night ahead of me.  Holli stayed up most of the night with me, driving from aid station to aid station.  It wasn't fun at that point, but I finished.

I was thinking about this 50% mental rule last week, except this time it was 11:30 PM and I only had to run 7 miles to stick to my training plan.  I was sitting on the couch trying to decide if I should run or not.  I hadn't planned on getting on the treadmill that late, but I had let the boys stay up late as the summer days had gotten longer and right before bedtime Oliver had been missing his mommy.  I wasn’t in the mood to run.  I wanted to sleep. The mental “grit” required to run 100 miles gets all the glory, but the truth is sticking to a training plan takes more mental effort.  If you can figure out how to stick to that training plan the race is easy.  Just kidding, at least it's easier.  I have stare down matches with the treadmill multiple times a week.  Most of the time I get on the treadmill.  Sometimes I don’t.

I’ll be doing a little mental and physical training next weekend with a 50k at the Dawg Gone Long Run down in Dayton, OH with my old friend Luke.  This will also be the first test run of the Run for Holli shirt that I’ll be wearing at the race.  The Booster t-shirt campaign has ended and we sold 44 shirts to make $1,120 for the Children’s Grief Center of the Great Lakes Bay Region!  That means, we have raised $3,975 towards our goal of $5,000!  That’s incredible!  Thanks everyone!

Even though you can't order t-shirts anymore, you can still make donations here!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

I don't believe in ghosts


Yesterday was the day that Holli and I met 19 years ago.  We met in the driveway of a house in East Lansing (photographed above by Holli in 2012.)  Tomorrow will be the day that Holli and I got married 14 years ago.  Holli used to joke that she would haunt me if she passed before I did, although I guess we expected this would be something we confronted in old age.  It wasn't scary.  It was a comforting idea.  Of course, I don't believe in ghosts.

That hasn't prevented Holli from haunting me and I am grateful that she does.  Even after two and a half years, I still imagine her sitting next to me in the car or on the couch.  I hear what she would say in response to both small and large events in my life.  Memories replay on a daily basis with sad, but comforting detail.  At times, the line between when she was here and when we lost her becomes blurred and I forget that she never saw Oliver play soccer, Elliott sell root beer floats, or even meet Peanut.  I know that it is because I saw her there.  I sometimes wish that I believed in ghosts, but I don't.  This hasn't stopped Holli from haunting me.  It is sad sometimes, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

******

Now I need your help keeping Holli's memory alive by helping me support the Children's Grief Center of the Great Lakes Bay Region.

1)  Go here to order a shirt before June 12.  All proceeds go to the Children's Grief Center.
2)  Make a donation here in honor of Holli and in support of my run in September.
3)  Share this post and, if you knew Holli, perhaps share a memory of two also.

**If I already told you that I would send you a shirt, no need to order one as I will have one sent to you.**

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Crewing for an ultramarathon



Just to set the stage, I’m writing this from a hotel in Beijing while Denise and the boys are at the final grief support group potluck.  It’s no secret that I like to travel and enjoy a job where that is one of the perks.  Still, each trip brings a negotiation with guilt over leaving the boys and I am grateful to Denise and Mike for taking such wonderful care of the boys when I am gone.
When I did the No Wimps Challenge at the end of April, I was pleased to reconnect with my old running buddy Dirt Dawg.  We ran together for nearly the entire marathon.  He actually paced me during my first attempt (and fail) at the Hallucination 100 back in 2010.  That race, and even this trip in a way, reminded me of my race crew.

Holli, of course, was my crew at all of my major races.  For those of you unfamiliar with the ultrarunning world, your crew are the people who stay up ridiculous hours following you from aid station to aid station to fill water bottles, tend to sore feet, provide fresh shoes or clothes, remind you to eat, drink, or take electrolyte pills, check you for blisters, provide encouraging words, lie to you that you “look great!”, bring you food, put up with general crankiness, and basically keep you on track to finish.  Needless to say, crewing a runner is more than a matter of just logistical support.  In particular in 50 or 100 mile races, cognitive reasoning takes a hit.  I’ve seen things in the forest that weren’t there (mostly wishful thinking that aid stations were closer than they are.)  I’ve forgotten to eat or drink and neglected blisters.  Towards the end of most races, I lose track of what I need and become convinced that I am unable to finish in the time allotted.  This can become rather pronounced after 70 or 80 miles.  It’s hard to spend 28 hours convincing yourself that finishing is possible.

It becomes important at those times to have someone who knows what you need even if you don’t yourself know.  While only a fleeting runner, Holli had become well aware of my preferences and habits on a race.  I’m sure that she could easily carry her own in a conversation about the nuanced differences among socks and shoes that runners seem to enjoy.  Most importantly, of course, she knew what I needed even when I didn’t.  Having someone like that in your corner can take you incredible places and, among other things, get you through three 100 mile race completions.

I won’t reiterate the now redundant point that my training is behind what I wanted it to be and I still haven’t ordered the t-shirts, although I have figured out which company to use.  I’ll highlight more positively that my training is still on track for the race and that I will “officially” launch fundraising efforts when t-shirt become available in a few weeks.  I want to thank Mario Volante, the Awad family, and Uncle Wing and his family, for their donations so far.  I also want to say a special thanks to my mom and dad for their generous contribution.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Life always gets in the way of my running


On Saturday, I'll start the NO WIMPS Challenge with a half marathon down in Pinkney followed by a marathon on Sunday.  I did this is 2013.  It's the first of several small goals I use to keep me on track for the big run.  I'm marginally prepared although I expect experience at this race and in general will be enough to carry me through to the end, even if my times aren't what they could be.  Life has gotten in the way lately and sidetracked my well organized training plan.  In the past month or so I've been sick, the boys have been sick, our basement has flooded, we've celebrated holidays and a birthday, we've had a sleepover with a houseful of energetic boys, Elliott and I road tripped to Niagra Falls, and I've been down to Mexico for a few days.  I sometimes tell students that you need to have life plans so that you know how to gauge how serious things are when they go wrong.  It also gives you some sense of the path that you should return to after recovering from those inevitable moments when life gets in the way.

Elliott and Oliver lead the path that guides me.  The problem is that there are thousands of daily decisions and negotiations along that path that rarely have clear solutions or answers.  Family, work, and (dare I even suggest?) time for myself are a juggling act with ongoing decisions of what to drop and what not to drop.  What kind of parent does it make me that goes for a three and a half hour run on the eve of leaving his kids to work in Mexico?  I think that I am doing fine, but questions like this cross my mind all the time.  When Elliott was upset that Holli had to work she would explain to him that she enjoyed her work and that, while she would miss him, it was important to her and that she was grateful to have the job and that she was helping people.  I remind myself that living a life that is not just for them is the only way to live a life that will be meaningful for them.

Perhaps it is only related in my mind, but yesterday was Elliott's first travel soccer game and today was Oliver's first soccer practice of the season.  It seemed to me another step in their independence.  I love to watch them play, especially in those moments when they are so clearly thriving in the moment.  It doesn't work all the time, but I hope that they know that there are moments when I am away from them and thriving too.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Why the Children's Grief Center of the Great Lakes Bay Region?


I think that there is a very reasonable question regarding why I chose the Children's Grief Center of the Great Lakes Bay Region as a the charity to raise money for in Holli's honor.  I'm not sure if there is a single answer so much as a confluence of things that just made it the right thing to do.  As I sit here looking at old photos of Elliott's part birthdays, I am reminded of what a dedicated mother she was and how important that it was for her children to be nurtured and loved.  In fact, it was a mantra that I used frequently to get through the first year.  I asked myself what she would have wanted most and the answer was always that the boys be nurtured and loved to the best of my ability.  There are some days that I do better than others, but it was and still is a clear goal.

Today, Elliott spent his birthday without his mother.  It will be like that for the rest of his life as, of course, it will for Oliver.  This isn't a burden that goes away in a year, or two years, or even decades.  After today, it will be another holiday, major life event, or life challenge.  I'm sure that they will think about it in different ways as they get older, but it will always be there.  A hole in their lives.  It's a hard thing to watch children grow up without a parent.  The truth is that there aren't very many people or places that understand what it is like for a child confronting this type of loss.

We have missed very few support group sessions organized by the Children's Grief Center.  Elliott and Oliver never fuss about going and are always glad to go and glad to be there.  The staff and volunteers know them well, are exceptionally warm and friendly, and always patient and kind.  I know that it is a place where they feel like they belong in a world where they don't quite fit in the same way that they used to.

Elliott and Oliver are certainly testament to the benefits of the Center, but I know that there are more children out there who are facing similar challenges who may not know that the Center is there as a resource.  It's a hard thing to confront.  Going the first time was hard.  It still is sometimes, but the simple truth is I'm not sure where we would go if the Center was not there.  I don't know of another place filled with kind, caring staff and volunteers, as well as people who also know what it is like to spend another birthday without a mother.  I wish that the boys didn't need to belong to a group like this, but we didn't chose this path and I am grateful to be able to support a group that will help the boys move along it.  It's what Holli would have wanted.

Monday, March 7, 2016

109 miles in February

I like numbers and statistics.  In February, I ran 109 miles and burned a total of 11,874 calories.  I feel pretty good about that.  Of course, more important than simply the numbers is what they mean.  In 2013, when I was last training for Hallucination, I clocked 101 miles in February.  By April of 2013 I was up to 176 miles (with a drop in May due to a trip to Asia) before peaking at 191 miles in July of 2013.  I figure that this means that I am pretty close to on track.  I am also very pleased to have received $2,000 in donations pledged so far.  Just last weekend, I finalized the details on the website that I will use for actual donations and I will post the details soon.  Still moving forward...

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

I need six people to commit to collecting $500

I'm working with the excellent staff at the Children's Grief Center to set up a more efficient online donation system.  Once that is done, I'll start collecting donations on a more formal basis.  My initial goal is to identify six people who are each willing to either donate directly or help collect donations of $500.  That's just 10 donations of $50.  If you are willing to commit to being one of the initial six people raising $500 for the Children's Grief Center in Holli's name, please email me (brianjasenthomas@gmail.com) or send me a private message on Facebook.  I'll get you a shirt as soon as they are printed and a leather bracelet that says "Run for Holli."  Please help me out.

In other news, training is going well.  I've started planning to run a series of races leading up to Hallucination.  These races serve as miniature goals to help keep me motivated.  Also, through a combination of coincidence and intent, they are something of a trip down memory lane.  First, I'll run the Trail Marathon in Pinkney on 4/24 (as well as a half marathon on 4/23 to complete the No Wimps Challenge).  I've actually run this race a few times, including in 2013 when I was also training for Hallucination.  I'll follow this with the Two Hearted 50k in Paradise on 6/24.  I've never run this before, but it just seemed appropriate.  Finally, I'll peak my long runs with with 50 miles at Burning River on 8/6.  This was the location of my second 100 mile race. 

Please consider being one of the first six to commit to collecting $500 for the Children's Grief Center.  I'm off to put some miles on the treadmill.

Friday, February 19, 2016

On grief and ultrarunning

Holli and I used to talk about running a fair amount.  Even though she wasn't a runner, she was my crew at all of my major races.  In long races it isn't unusual to lose the ability to understand clearly what you need or what is going on.  You can forget to eat, forget to drink, forget to change gear, the list goes on.  It is nice to have someone who knows what you need even when you do not.

We inevitably lean on past experience to understand current experience.  I've found that the difference between ultramarathons (in particular 100s) and shorter races is the number of ups and downs that you experience.  In shorter races, there is often a clean arc that goes from feeling great to feeling tired to feeling the elation of finishing.  With ultras you must endure several cycles of ups and downs before crossing a finish line that, at least for me, rarely brings a sense of elation.  Only later does a sense of satisfaction set in.

The myth of grief is that there is some sort of clean arc to the process.  The finish line lies when one has gone through all the stages, taken enough time, finished grieving or moved on.  The language of grief coming to an end is so much a part of our lexicon that you don't notice it unless you are given reason to pay attention.  Of course, it isn't true.  There is neither a clean arch nor a finish line.

On Wednesday, I heard my 4 year old son explaining to one of his little friends that his mom died.  Moments like that are heartbreaking and I know that there will be more. There is no finish line, just more ups and downs in a jungle gym of emotions that is neither fair nor predictable.  At times memories are a comfort and at times they are an open wound.  There are moments of pride and satisfaction as well as defeat.

The night after I finished my first 100, I dreamed that I was still running.  It had it's ups and downs, but I was glad to still be running.  And I felt strangely disappointed when I woke up in bed. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Puke and rally



(Remarkably, I just realized that I was still using this blog the year that Holli passed so perhaps it is an appropriate time to start again.)

Photo at the start of the North Country Trail 50 in 2007
Holli and I had more inside jokes than I can count.  Many of them, like puke and rally, were sophomoric and likely only funny to us, but that had absolutely no bearing on their humor.  She was always young and humor was not dependent on the opinion of others.  Eventually such jokes become a language in and of themselves, a secret language and a shorthanded way of communicating.

The phrase "puke and rally" was chanted by a, likely drunk, frat boy in a movie theater in East Lansing during the opening night of the Legend of Drunken Master.   We were undergraduates at Michigan State University.  Patient as she was, Holli was indulging my appreciation for Jackie Chan and Hong Kong kung-fu movies.  The movie's protagonist had consumed too much wine to fight effectively and had, as the chanting frat boy and his friends enthusiastically cheered on, puked and then rallied.

I remember the phrase coming up many years later when I watched a friend of mine running his way towards his first and my second 100 mile completion.  After about 50 miles, he literally vomited his way for about 4 more miles, before rallying and finishing well ahead of me.  Perhaps not poetic, but representative of running 100 miles.  You run, fall apart, recover, run some more, fall apart some more, recover enough to keep going, fall apart, recover, run.

I have a file folder on my computer littered with Excel files outlining training runs for races that I never signed up for, never finished training for, and in some cases never even started training for.  I have floated the idea of doing a run for Holli for more than two years and it has lingered on a post-it note on my phone for over a year.  Each time, something got in the way, something was more important, or I just couldn't bring myself to lace up those shoes for the next run.  I'm registered for the Hallucination 100 in September and maybe something will come up and I won't make it to the finish line.  Even if that happens, I like to think that they are just small steps and detours in moving forward.  And I'll rally.