Once AJC photographer Ben Gray began running, he didn’t want to stop.
I’ve run the Beltline Eastside Trail dozens if not hundreds of times. I know every inch of it and always enjoy flying down the path whether I’m the only person on it or it’s packed with a weekend crowd of thousands. This should be one of the high points of my run today, but it just isn’t happening.
My legs are a little tight. My hip isn’t moving as smoothly as I would like. My stomach feels like I had a few too many drinks last night.
I have already run 36 miles — 10 miles farther than a standard marathon — so it is perfectly understandable that my body is complaining a bit. That’s not the reason I’m not enjoying my run.
My mind is wandering and little seeds of doubt are sprouting in the deep, dark corners of my brain.
What on earth are you doing?
Why are you doing this?
Do you realize what’s in store for you today?
The day began six-and-a-half hours earlier atop Kennesaw Mountain in the rain, with wind and lightning whipping around me. I’ve already had an epic run that will impress people at parties for years to come. Still, doubt creeps in.
I have 14 miles to run to get to Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur where my wife, son and friends are waiting for me. I imagine my glorious arrival when they greet me with cheers and hugs. I will down pretzels, chips, bananas and maybe a Coke to bring me back to life.
Unfortunately, I can’t forget that the seminary is not the finish. It’s actually just the halfway point. I am one of three ultramarathoners participating in the Great Southern Endurance Run, a 100-mile run through metro Atlanta.
Couch to 5K
Running was never something I was drawn to. As a child I would occasionally join my dad for a jog near our home in West Lafayette, Ind. But I think I enjoyed the time together more than the actual running. One time we managed about five miles and that was a huge achievement, but generally our runs were much shorter. The thing my dad remembers most is that I talked continuously during the runs, never needing to catch my breath.
My next brush with running came in high school when I joined the track team. Once again, it had nothing to do with a love of running. My older brother Donald was on the team and if I lettered for four years it would count as my PE credit, so why not? I wasn’t fast enough to win, but I was consistently mid-pack in the longer distances by my senior year. If we’d had a cross country team things might have been different.
Fast forward to 2011. I was 39 years old and had swapped my active career as a photojournalist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a much more sedentary one managing the photo department. After a few years of sitting behind a desk, and with 40 staring me in the face, I got a wild hair and decided I wanted to run the AJC Peachtree Road Race.
I started training very slowly, using a couch-to-5K training program. I would set out from my house for 20-minute workouts three times a week. In the beginning it was a minute of running followed by a minute and a half of walking. I picked my route carefully to avoid hills, but I was still winded and checking my watch by the end of each one-minute run. I couldn’t believe how long a minute could last. I also couldn’t believe how much I hated running.
I am nothing if not tenacious. (My wife would say stubborn.) I had decided I would run the Peachtree, so I was going to run the Peachtree whether I enjoyed it or not.
As I pressed on with my training and moved from the 5K program to a 10K program, a strange thing happened. My long runs started getting longer and I started looking forward to them. I still hated running on my short distance days, but when I ran five or six miles, I had a blast. I also noticed I had more energy and the stress I had accumulated during my day at the office would melt away when I hit the road.
The 2011 AJC Peachtree Road Race was everything I had hoped. I finished in just under an hour with a huge smile on my face. But it felt more like the beginning of a journey than the end.
The following year I ran the Publix Georgia Marathon. By the time I crossed the finish line in just under four hours, my legs were screaming and I felt like I couldn’t go another step. But even while basking in the sheer joy of having finished a 26.2-mile run, a part of me wasn’t yet satisfied.
Why do I do it?
Many of my friends who run ultramarathons are running from something — drug or alcohol addiction, eating disorders, depression, failed relationships or unhappy home lives. People often ask what I’m running from, and unless I’m delusional, the answer is nothing.
So, why do I run such long distances then?
That is a question I think about a lot. I ask myself this at some point during just about every race I run — usually when I hit a rough spot.
I like being outside and active. I like to unplug from technology. (I never wear headphones while running.) I like to feel I’ve worked hard and accomplished something at the end of the day.
And I love the adventure of finding new places and seeing new things. Running is the perfect way to do this. If I need to get in a 20- or 30-mile training run, I will often just walk out my front door with a vague direction in mind and turn down streets on a whim. With such a long run ahead of me, I don’t worry about getting lost because there’s plenty of time to find my way to a familiar part of town.
Sometimes I’ll stumble onto cool places like Morningside Nature Preserve or Lionel Hampton Park, and sometimes I’ll explore interesting neighborhoods like Castleberry Hill or Cabbagetown. Even if I’ve driven through the area before, it always seems like a new experience when I run through. Because I’m moving at a slower pace, I see things with more detail and the sounds and smells of the areas add richness to the experience.
The earthy smell of an abandoned house in one neighborhood contrasts with the smell of new lumber and the sound of hammers in the next neighborhood. The acrid smell of fresh spray paint hits me as I pass through Krog Street Tunnel and its ever-changing walls of graffiti.
I’ve also noticed great improvements in my quality of life. I am much more energetic, mentally sharper and more relaxed.
We live in an age when we rarely truly challenge ourselves. We don’t attempt heroic feats that carry a real risk of failure, the kind of physical challenge where we know we will struggle mightily.
There is an incredible confidence that comes with being an ultramarathon runner. Any time I question my ability to do something, I think about what it took to train for and complete a 100-mile run. I think about all the reasons I could have stopped, but didn’t. I think if I could do that, I can do anything I set my mind to.
Being totally honest, though, one of the things I enjoy most about having run 100-mile races is the reaction I get when people hear about it for the first time. Generally there is a moment of slack-jawed disbelief before people compose themselves and the litany of questions begins.
How many days does it take?
One, or a little longer.
Do you sleep?
I once took a three-minute nap during a race.
What do you eat?
Energy gels, peanut butter and jelly, boiled potatoes, ramen noodles, pretzels, fig bars, pizza — anything that sounds good at the time and digests easily.
Where do you go to the bathroom?
You can almost always find a portable toilet in the city, and when you’re running trails there are plenty of trees.
I don’t even like to drive 100 miles!
Neither do I!
Training for ultramarathons takes a tremendous amount of time, but I try to schedule my training so it has as little impact as possible on my family time. My wife Adrainne is in seminary, our daughter Sylvia is in middle school and our son Everett is home-schooled. With this much going on in our lives, we had to create a family calendar to minimize time conflicts. I also had to get creative when it came to squeezing in time for training.
Leading up to the Great Southern Endurance Run last month, I ran 15 miles every Wednesday, but often couldn’t start until 10 p.m. My longer runs happened on the weekends. I would get up early and run from our house in southwest Atlanta to wherever my family was planning to go in the afternoon. Sometimes on Sundays I ran to church and grabbed a change of clothes from Adrainne and changed in the restroom before service.
Smelling the roses
As I turn off the Beltline and head toward Auburn Avenue and the Martin Luther King Jr. birth home, I try to tamp down the doubts in my head so they won’t kill my chance of making it to the finish. I’ve run down Auburn Avenue dozens of times, but I’m on the ultimate tour of Atlanta, so I decide I need to soak up the atmosphere as I pass through the King district. I turn into the King Center and run along the reflecting pool, then stop and pull out my iPhone to take a photo of a family in front of King’s tomb. My head is now straight and I head back down Auburn.
After passing the Capitol, Turner Field, Grant Park and Oakland Cemetery, I start thinking about my next challenge. It’s a little after 1 p.m. and I am about to run directly through the Inman Park Festival.
I round the corner onto Edgewood and begin weaving my way through the staging area for the parade. As I pass floats, marching bands and people dressed as butterflies, I secretly wish I had arrived a little later so I could join in the parade, but I can’t stop and wait for it, so I press on.
Capturing the sights
I’ve called Atlanta home for 17 years, but it wasn’t until I started running long distances that I began to feel a bond with the city. Passing through on foot in an endorphin-fueled state allowed me to experience Atlanta in a whole new way. I began to notice small parks and trails most passersby missed, like the path that connects Decatur Cemetery to Glenlake Park or the Blue Heron Nature Preserve just north of Buckhead.
Street art was everywhere: A face mosaic made of bottle caps nailed to a telephone pole in Cabbagetown; a railcar painted by graffiti artist OBVS near the Armour rail yard; a JD Koth sculpture tucked inside a pay phone booth in East Atlanta Village.
Then there were the curious sights, odd juxtapositions and urban still lifes I found humorous during my runs. A “same day repair” sign hung above a broken chair. A bicycle frame — missing seat, handle bar, wheels and chain — locked securely to a bike rack on Flat Shoals Avenue. An empty gin bottle on the 17th Street bridge that lined up perfectly with the buildings in the Midtown skyline.
Being a life-long photographer, I wanted to record and share these moments. I began wrapping my phone in a Ziploc bag, tucking it in the waistband of my running shorts and shooting pictures along the way, which I posted on my Instagram account @photobgray and tagged #runography.
The more I ran, shot and posted my photos, the more my Instagram following grew. I started hearing from all sorts of people — runners, photographers, friends and strangers — who appreciated my posts. As #runography grew, I found that running and photography was a perfect motivational combination for me. Some days the running would motivate me to shoot, and some days the shooting would motivate me to run.
Sometime near the end of last summer, my running friend Thomas Armbruster Jr. contacted me with an idea. He was putting together the Great Southern Endurance Run, a 100-mile tour of metro Atlanta, and he thought I might be interested.
I arrive at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur to cheers. I quickly plop down for a lunch of ramen noodles and ginger ale. Like a NASCAR pit crew, my race crew swaps out the food in my backpack, refills my water bottles and peppers me with questions.
What hurts? Do you want to change your shoes? Are you taking enough salt? Do you want to change clothes? How do you feel?
After 10 hours of mostly running by myself mired in my own thoughts, I struggle to process their questions and formulate answers while simultaneously preparing for the next leg of my run. My wife and son are spending the day at the seminary, manning the aid station for me and the two runners behind me. This is the only time I get to see them all day, and I want to talk to them. I want to tell them how much I appreciate their support. But before I realize it, my 10-minute stop is over, I am waving goodbye and once again left to my own thoughts.
The second half of the run is the toughest part. This is when I run the risk of falling behind on my nutrition, hydration and salt intake. Too little water and I risk dehydration; too much and I risk hyponatremia, a condition that causes cells to retain water and swell. At best, either of these would end my run. At worst I could wind up in the hospital with kidney problems or brain swelling, though they’re both pretty rare.
There will be long hills I have to slog up with aching feet and legs. Not to mention Stone Mountain, up and back. The sun will go down, telling my body the day is over.
On my way to Stone Mountain, one of the unpleasant truths of ultrarunning rears its ugly head. There is a seam in my running shorts that I hadn’t noticed before, but after 60 miles of it rubbing in the same unmentionable spot, my skin has been chafed raw. Luckily I am meeting my crew at the park. A quick change of shorts and I am on my way.
Knowing the trip up and down Stone Mountain will be more of a tough hike than a run, I ask one of my crew members to join me for the trek, and Elise Winterstein jumps in. Having someone to talk to as we power-hike past a steady stream of park visitors distracts me from the burning sensation in my legs and gives my mind a rest from thinking about the run.
Elise guides me to the survey marker on top of the mountain and we stop for a couple photos and take in the view. We could make out the Atlanta skyline, my final destination, in the far off distance. My starting point at Kennesaw Mountain is too far away to be visible through the haze. Seeing just how far I have come buoys my spirits, as does knowing I had survived the last big climb of the run.
At the bottom of the mountain Elise rejoins the crew and I am once again left to my own devices. I’ve had enough of the energy drink that has been my main fuel source, so I try eating solid food, even the thought of it makes me feel nauseated. As I run through Clarkston, again I question why I am putting myself through this.
One of the truisms of running ultramarathons is that you will have low points. They can be mental, physical or both, but they will happen. Just like in life, though, things get better if you recognize and accept the challenge and keep moving forward.
Just then I notice some graffiti on a fence.
"Don’t quit, pain is temporary.”
I have no idea who might have scrawled those words in black spray paint, but I’m quite sure they had no idea it was the reminder I needed to keep me going.
Just as I approach downtown Decatur, the sky begins to darken.
On a previous 100-miler, I was so exhausted and calorie deprived I became incoherent and staggered for about 10 miles. With that in mind, the most important charge I gave my crew was to have someone with me after sundown to make sure I didn’t stumble into traffic.
Crew member Kristopher Cargile joins me. We’re both equipped with reflective clothing, headlamp, flashlight and blinking lights.
By now my pace has slowed significantly. I take walk breaks more frequently, but we still make good progress through Decatur, Emory and onto Buford Highway.
More than 80 miles and 18 hours into the run, I am suddenly overcome with fatigue. I am so tired, in fact, I start thinking about taking a nap. If you’ve ever come close to falling asleep while driving, where your blinks seem to last longer and longer, you can understand how intoxicating the idea of sleep becomes.
I convince myself I can take a five-minute nap at my next pit stop: a running friend’s house where snacks are waiting for us. By the time I get there, though, I have pushed passed the drowsiness and just want to finish the run. A nap now would feel great, but it would mean that much longer before I can lay my head on my own pillow.
After a tour through Brookhaven, we turn onto Peachtree Road in Buckhead where Kristopher steps out and crew member Jason Winterstein steps in for the final push to the finish. We are now at the spot where I lined up for my first AJC Peachtree Road Race. Physically I can no longer run — the bottoms of my feet feel like they’ve been beaten with hammers, my calves are burning and even the slowest trot shoots a knife-like pain through my left knee — but I can still walk fast, and that’s good enough for me.
Now that I have a family, I don’t have occasion to be out on Peachtree in the wee hours of the morning, so I am surprised by the number of people leaving the clubs after a late night of drinking. We pass several groups of people dressed up in their finery when I notice we’re getting some strange looks. I consider what it must look like to see two stinky, disheveled men — one wearing running shorts that are much too short — powerwalking down the sidewalk wearing backpacks, headlamps, flashing lights and reflective belts. As I ponder this thought, we pass a group of men trying to get their drunk friend into the back seat of their car. One of the men is wearing a sailor hat and no shirt. That’s when I realize we probably fit in just fine.
As we pass Centennial Olympic Park with just over a block to go, Jason asks if I want to try running the final stretch. It sounds like a great idea, but my legs revolt after just a few steps and I slow back to a walk. I round the corner onto Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard to the cheering of my crew and Thomas Armbruster Jr., who put the run together. It was a little past 4 a.m. I have covered 103.13 miles in 23 hours and three minutes, taken 179,790 steps and experienced an incredible tour of metro Atlanta. In truth, I am so exhausted I will only vaguely remember how it felt to finish. I do know I am happy to sit down and not have to run any more... at least for a few days.
BY THE NUMBERS
23 hours, 3 minutes
8,232 feet climbed
6893 calories burned
3 pairs of shoes worn
Three weeks after finishing the Great Southern Endurance Run I have mostly recovered, save for two toenails that are on the verge of falling off and the fatigue I feel in my legs when my runs reach 10 miles.
One thing I’ve realized since the run is that when I’m not training I have a lot more free time. I have time to work on more projects around the house, cook dinner more often and even sleep in a little.
I’ve had time to think about the sacrifice my friends made by giving up their weekend to make my adventure happen. They drove all over Atlanta, sat around in parking lots waiting for me, fed me, changed my stinky shoes and socks and drove me home at 4 in the morning.
I’ve had time to think about the love and encouragement my family has given me, not just during the run, but during the hours and hours of training that led up to it. They never questioned my commitment or my ability to complete the run and only joked that I might be a little crazy.
I’ve also had time to think about Atlanta. My relationship with the city had been steadily growing along with my running ability, but this 100-mile tour cemented that bond. I have experienced the metro area in an intimate way few people ever have or ever will. It was a journey through parks, neighborhoods, suburbs and downtowns. It was an odyssey that left us knowing each other a little bit better. Now as I run through the city, seeing spots I passed on my epic run, I feel a wink and a nod of understanding.
Behind the story
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Ben Gray has been a photojournalist for more than 20 years, working the last 17 at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. During his time with the AJC, he has covered the Falcons and the state Capitol, traveled on assignment to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Nicaragua and managed the photo department. You can follow his running adventures on his Instagram account @photobgray.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.
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