Samantha Neakrase

C&O 100: From DNF to Destiny

I rarely write race reports, but John Calabrese’s C&O 100 mile race report inspired me to write, because I feel like his and my races were so connected this year, even though we did not run together.

Coach Lauren, before going UNDER the train

I did not finish the C&O 100. This bums me out for a lot of reasons, not least because I really trained hard for this race starting last December when Lauren Gabler Masterson adopted me as my coach. She kept me on track with a weekly training plan which I miraculously followed down to the tiniest detail. The accountability you get from a friend coaching you is hard to beat. I did not want to disappoint her by skipping a run or doing something half-assed. While I’m not great at being motivated to train myself, apparently, I’m the most compliant and disciplined person when I’m simply following orders.

When you DNF, there are a ton of things that go through your head. The main thing that went through my head as my race started to fall apart and later when it ended was that I was disappointing my coach and dear friend, who not only had dedicated time and energy to my training, but who had been looking forward to pacing my last 40 miles and seeing me to the finish. Feeling like I failed and denied her that experience was the worst part about this DNF.

But that’s where John came in. When I woke up the next morning after dropping, I had a text from Lauren saying she was pacing John. I believe the quote was there was a lot of “grunting”…

But let’s step back a bit and see how these two races cross paths.

As I mentioned, I’d been training for this race for months, running on flat terrain, including a 50k on the C&O canal, to build up my ability to run for an extended period without the breaks that come from hills and without that soft surface that’s kinder on your legs. Training was amazing! I became more consistent, I was faster, and combined with a change in my eating habits, lost over 10 lbs. I was feeling fit and positive in a way I hadn’t for many years. To me, it wasn’t a matter of if I’d finish, but how fast I could finish.

A couple of weeks before the race I finally got around to studying the course and reading all the race reports. What a surprise to find a race report from John from his 2023 C&O Canal race (um, actually not a surprise, because he writes like 20 of these per year). Anyway, his report really struck me, and I internalized his observations about the porta potty, bridge, and cone as visual milestones indicating the end of each loop. I sent him a message to ask about the course and his experience and to get advice. Apparently, this series of messages inspired him to register. Hey, why not run a 100 miler with less than two weeks’ notice?

Despite my training and feeling strong, the two weeks before the race honestly sucked. Work has been ridiculous. In the two weeks prior to the race, I was routinely working 10 and 11 hours a day, sometimes being in the office from 7:30am to 6:00pm, plus a commute. I was really wiped out. On the Wednesday before the race I was horrified to feel a sore throat coming on and the classic cold symptoms of a fuzzy head, fatigue, and coughing. I took an extra telework day so I could get some extra sleep, though with the volume of work, I actually got no respite from the relentless emails and tasks. If anything, the stress levels increased.

Something Stupid
By Thursday night, stress was keeping me awake at night and mucus was leaving me gasping for breath. At 2am, I decided to rummage around my closet for some cold medicine. I happened upon some partly used packets of Mucinex. Great, I thought. I’ll take some of these and it’ll clear things up. There were two packets that looked a little different, but only one had the box with instructions. Without the benefit of contact lenses, I squinted and saw that one was regular Mucinex and one was Maximum Strength! Yes, just what I need. Still squinting I looked at the box and saw that I should take two capsules. Cool, must be the same directions for both types of pills. Oh, and why not guzzle some cough syrup for extra measure.

Pre-race jitters on the drive to the start with Nick, Elsa and Fozzie

Not two hours later I woke up feeling sick. I got out of bed and was stumbling around like a drunk feeling dizzy. I felt like I was going to throw up, couldn’t get anything out other than dry heaves, but drank some water and went back to bed. A few hours later the alarm went off. I dragged myself out of bed and stumbled to let the dogs out and feed them. After barely managing that small task, I stumbled back to bed and told Nick he had to deal with the rest of the morning routine because I could not function. Fearing that I had made a terrible mistake, I looked up the Mucinex guidelines online and was horrified to read that you are only supposed to take one Max Strength capsule. Instead of taking 1200mg, I had taken 2400mg. I tried to throw up again and collapsed on the bathroom floor unable to move.

I had meetings starting at 10am so I emailed my colleagues in the office saying I wasn’t feeling well, needed to sleep for another hour or so and try to get myself together in time for meetings. I managed to pass out for a little over an hour and then was able to get myself out of bed in time for meetings.

I spent the rest of the day feeling hungover. I was glad when we finally left the house in the late afternoon and headed to Brunswick. I was tired, but ready to get my gear organized, eat dinner, and get an early night.

Race Morning
We headed to the race early so I could check in, get my swag, place my drop bags, and still have a little bit of time to relax. The first weird thing that started happening and that would be a problem throughout the next 18 hours was needing to pee… again… and again… and again. I peed when we got there. Then 10 minutes later, I need to pee again. Nick said no you don’t need to pee, you’re just nervous. Except that when I went to go pee again, it was like a bucket of pee. Then I had to go a third time before the race start.

Full of smiles and energy at the start of the race. 📸 Charlene Howard

Race start was good. A nice slow lap around the parking lot to spread out and a slow conga line down the hill down to the canal. Perfect time to stay slow and warm things up.

Like John, I had decided my strategy was to keep a pace between 12:00 and 12:30. I had also decided to walk every mile. To keep up this strategy, I set my watch face so I could only see average pace and current pace, not distance or time. I wanted my average pace to be around 24-hour pace at the beginning, with the goal of a finish time in the 26-27 hour range, which is somewhere in the 16 minute average pace range.

I was using the walk breaks every mile to do full body assessments, take salt tabs, gels, and eat. (As an aside, the aid stations were amazing. Dargan Bend? OMG - they had everything labeled GF, vegan, etc.)

I managed to keep up this pacing strategy for most of the first 40 miles, dogged only by this incessant need to pee. This was not just discomfort of feeling the need to pee, but actual peeing. The canal towpath makes it hard to find a place to go, so you have to run with that discomfort for quite a while until you can find a good place to duck somewhere to pee.

Ships passing on the towpath. Ben Nalette and John Calabrese wending their way north, while Sam Neakrase was heading south. 📸 Tracy Cooley

John noted in his report that he and Ben Nalette saw me and I told them they were going sub-24 hour pace and that prompted them to slow down. The funny thing is that I said that to them while giving them a fist bump because before the race I said, hey if we all go at 14:00 pace we finish under 24 hours. How hard can it be to do that pace from the very beginning, I joked. Telling them they were going that pace was supposed to be encouragement, not a warning….

The Rain
Many people know me as the rain magnet. I have the worst luck with weather. Rain and flooding at MMT in 2018? That was me. Icy blizzard at Devil Dog in 2016? Me again. Rain and mud at Seneca Greenway in 2024? Me again. The list goes on. But I was prepared! The rain started and out came the poncho! And I knew Nick was waiting with my actual rain jacket at Brunswick (Mile 30).

Even with the poncho, I was getting wet. My feet do not do well being wet because I am prone to trench foot. I had also packed six different shoes and a variety of socks to account for any need to change shoes, so I wasn’t super worried.

Sam at the Brunswick aid station, annoyed at the rain and worried for her wet dogs 📸 Nick Neakrase

After a while, however, the rain really soured my mood after I hit Brunswick. I was wet, struggling to decide if I was hot or cold at any moment with the rain jacket and poncho. And the wet feet had started to generate a little crevasse on my left little toe into which my sock had started to burrow. Ouch.

During this time, I also passed John who had slowed to a walk/hobble before Keep Tryst. I asked him if his leg issue was life threatening, noting that it was a reasonable question to ask in an ultra. Ha! If the bone’s not sticking out, then how bad can it be!

Headed back to Manidokan, I was glad when I got to the porta potty, followed by the bridge, followed by the cone (thanks for that little nugget in your 2023 race report, John!)

Transition to Loop 2
At Manidokan, I needed to do a full costume and shoe change. Nick had set up a glamour canopy over the car with all my stuff. Bonus, my two little doggies Elsa and Fozzie were there! The best crew ever!

Crew and runner at Manidokan aid station 📸 Lauren Gabler Masterson

I was really feeling disoriented and not sure what I wanted to do. I wanted to change shoes but was unsure if I should stay in my Timps or change into something more cushioned. I had worried that the flat terrain and gravel would eventually wear into my feet, which I had begun to feel when I ran my 50k training run on the canal earlier in the spring. I had not run more than 15 miles in my most cushioned shoes and was worried about switching to them, so I opted for a fresh pair of Timps.

I had also begun to feel swings in temperature - one minute shivering and the next minute feeling hot. I was experiencing some intermittent fever from my cold and was starting to do a lot of coughing with rattling phlegm. I decided that with the night coming in a few hours I would rather err on the side of being too hot, so I changed to tights, long-sleeved shirt, and Houdini jacket. I also took gloves and a Smart Wool head band.

Lauren had already arrived and was helping me figure stuff out. My stomach was a little meh, so she encouraged me to have some broth. Overall, I was feeling a little out of it.

Manidokan to Harpers Ferry
We had a little bit of a snafu and Tracy Cooley wasn’t able to start running with me as a safety runner at Manidokan, but she was going to find me somewhere on the trail between Manidokan and Antietam. I continued my previous pacing strategy, though probably 30-60 seconds slower than the first loop, ranging between 12:30-13:30 pace. I decided to take an additional walk break during each mile. I finally saw Tracy and it was nice to have company. At Antietam I looked for something that my stomach would be ok with and had some broth.

On the way back to Dargan Bend, we passed John and Ben coming towards us looking rough. Tracy had mentioned she’d be looking for someone else to pace once Lauren picked me up at Brunswick and I commented that John would be a good candidate.

Sam coming in to the Keep Tryst aid station 📸 Adeline Ntam

After the 50 mile mark and through Harpers Ferry I started to slow a lot. I was tired, had low energy, and I was still having to pee constantly, which was making my abdomen really uncomfortable. My GI system was also having issues (I was glad to pass the Porta Potty at just the right moment!) The legs were stiffening up and I was struggling to move at a good pace. I think we were now in the 15:00-16:00 pace range. I was still looking at my average pace/current pace and decided I would try to keep my current pace below the average pace on my watch at any given time. A 26–27-hour finish was still doable.

Keep Tryst to Brunswick
At Keep Tryst I really needed to put my feet up. My toes were absolutely burning. I sat and had some of the delicious ginger rice soup, messed around with my clothes (still couldn’t decide between hot and cold, gloves or no gloves, headband or no headband, Houdini or no Houdini), and tried to trouble shoot. We headed back out.

A guy caught up with us and we found out he had run ALL the C&O 100s. I immediately asked him for advice on my feet. He said, well the Bad is when you have tingly and numb feeling in your toes and are in a lot of pain, where the Good is where they are uncomfortable and swollen but you can keep loosening your shoes. When I heard him describe the bad it really deflated me because that is exactly what I was feeling.

Flash back to two races. In 2016, I ran my first 24-hour race and ran 75 miles on a flat 3+ mile loop. I remember somewhere after the 50-mile mark developing a severe pain in my toes that felt like I was walking on broken glass (not in the Annie Lenox way but in the “I am being murdered” way). I toughed it out to mile 75 but doubt I could have gone further. Flash forward to 2020 when I did a solo 100-mile attempt in Prince William Forest Park. I had decided that after dark I would do short loops on the fire roads so Nick wouldn’t be driving back and forth across the park. The fire roads in the park are full of little stones that just kill your feet. At around mile 75 I stopped because my toes were tingly and numb, and I felt like I was walking on broken glass. I could not continue.

And now, at C&O 100, I was experiencing the same dreaded sensation. There is nothing you can do about this. It will eventually go away on its own after you rest. In the previous cases, my toes continued to feel like they were being stabbed for days after. This was the thing I had worried most about happening and here it was.

My plan to prevent this was to have very cushioned shoes on hand as a backup and some extremely cushioned hiking socks.

Transition at Brunswick
I had already told Tracy I didn’t think I could continue, but at Brunswick, she and Lauren got to work to get me back on the trail. We switched to the cushioned shoes that Nick and Lauren had risked their lives to bring me by crossing the tracks under a train (see Nick’s Facebook post)… and the big ol’ cushioned hiking socks. We also adjusted some of my clothing and tried to get some food in me. I was feeling crappy but I looked even worse in photos of me in that moment.

Into the night at Brunswick aid station, starting to feel stiff. 📸 Nick Neakrase

To make things worse, when I had been running with Tracy, I had done something to my hip testing out a running form to help my feet. After sitting in the aid station, it had stiffened up so when I finally got up to start running with Lauren, I could barely move.

At this point, Tracy had taken off with John and the intertwining of John’s and my race stories began.

Back to Keep Tryst
Lauren and I began the ominous hobbling back towards Keep Tryst. We were at the mile 60 mark and my pacing strategy had gone completely out the window. We’d be lucky to keep an 18-minute pace if I could only move! To compensate for my hip, I shifted to a wide-stance waddle, which allowed me to move but still at a slow pace. Instead of a bedraggled runner I now looked like a demented drunk duck.

Things just wouldn’t improve, however. My abdomen was so uncomfortable. I kept needing to pee. Lauren suggested I take some pain meds for my feet, but I was also wary of doing so because my kidneys seemed to be struggling. I also began to have GI issues again and feared an emergency trip into the woods.

The pacer is having fun; the runner a bit less so at this stage of the race. 📸 Nick Neakrase

My toes were in such excruciating pain that the idea of enduring 40 more miles was just too much. I’ve experienced my fair share of pushing through the pain, sometimes having to live with the consequences afterwards. At MMT 100 in 2023, I forced myself to power through 40 miles feeling like my shins would snap in two. I got my finish, but then had to take five months off from running. Was it worth it?

We got to Keep Tryst and sat down to consider our options. We couldn’t get to my poles until Manidokan 7 miles away, but with the 3:45am cutoff looming and my pace anywhere from 19:00 to 30:00, it no longer seemed feasible. I know we could have said, heck with it, let’s at least try and if we get timed out we can say we tried. But I’ve done that before and always felt it was silly to do that to myself. Why would I choose to be in pain for that long if the chances of being allowed to continue were almost zero? What do I need to prove in that moment?

A DNF is never an easy call, but when your pain level is so high that every step becomes excruciating and that there will be no relief, it’s tough to come up with a reason to continue. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I’ve finished races in bad conditions and have pushed through pain and discomfort on some tough courses.

I assumed I would finish C&O. It didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t finish beyond some worry about my feet on the flat surface which I thought I had covered with my pacing plan and the shoes/socks I had as backups.

I hated to disappoint Lauren who had probably had the worst three miles of a race in her entire life. (Though after reading John’s report, it seems he might have beat me on that one.) I mean, you come out to pace, and you are basically walking and stopping? What a letdown after weeks of looking forward to this.

Nick came to pick us up and drove us to Manidokan for Lauren to get her car to drive home and to pack up the gear we still had under the canopy. We said our goodbyes and I apologized again to Lauren for the letdown. We headed back to our Airbnb where I struggled to fall asleep because of the pain.

Redemption… Sort of.
I finally slept and, in the morning, woke up to a text from Lauren that she was running with John. Wait what!!!???

In a stroke of luck, Lauren had decided to hang out at Manidokan to eat some food. Tracy and John came into the aid station while Lauren was there and, seeing that John needed help and having plenty of juice left after the miserable 3 miles she spent with me, Lauren jumped at the chance to pace John.

And that’s where the intertwining of mine and John’s stories continued.

I can honestly say that this was the most satisfying DNF of all because my failure freed Lauren and Tracy to help John. It’s like fate. It was meant to be. I wanted to finish, but in some ways, my race ended early so that John’s race could end at the finish line. All those little interactions from the messages before the race, to the fist bumps, to the greetings, to Tracy mentioning pacing him along the way, were leading up to the grand climax of this story — John’s incredible finish with less than 12 minutes to spare.

I couldn’t be happier for John, and for Tracy’s extra 10 miles, and for Lauren’s epic 30 miles. And though I didn’t get my buckle, I had the most amazing journey to get to the race training with Lauren. I don’t intend to let that go to waste and will be keeping up that momentum and motivation to get me to Laurel Highlands 70 miler in June, where I will be back to more “hospitable” terrain.