Mohican 100 Race Report

by Lucja Leonard

The forest is quiet except for the soft rumbling of voices at the aid station, fire flies light up the dark and thick night air as I sit in contemplation in the damp grass. My race number has been snipped. I have just had my first ever DNF (did not finish) at my first ever 100 mile attempt. The year was 2014 and after having only completed 2 ultra events previously I’d chosen to fly halfway across the world from the UK to the USA to run 100 miles.

The Mohican 100, held in the Mohican State Forest in the state of Ohio, is the 5th oldest ultra running race in the USA with 2021 being the 32nd running of the race. Even Caballo Blanco from ‘Born to Run’ has raced here.

What was I thinking coming all the way over to the USA with very little experience and being totally overwhelmed by not only the distance but the big hoo-ha only an American ultra can provide and most likely not really thinking this challenge through? The DNF sat on my mind for a number of years and it was always calling me back to right my wrong and get that belt buckle. It’s always been something I do: to not leave unfinished business on the table. I still have one more wrong to right and that is the HURT 100 in Hawaii, one of the toughest 100’s in the world. It took my soul in 2019 and I’m waiting for the opportunity to go back to put that one to bed.

The Mohican course is renowned for its hot, humid and tough muddy conditions and an all hands required tree root climb on the first lap to push you to your limits. It’s tough and traditionally has a high DNF rate. It’s a 4 lap course, with the first 2 laps slightly longer (54miles in total) then 2 shorter laps to finish. I thought it was a tough year in 2014 and this year’s race did not disappoint with its levels of brutality.

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Photo credit: Butch Philips Photography

It’s a warm start at 5am and although day is already breaking, head torches are a must as the forest is so dense that it remains pitch dark for at least the first hour and a half. The course is run 95% on lush single track. The trails had been rained on the last few days and you could feel the moisture in the air but it wasn’t too slippy underfoot just yet. There was rain forecast later in the day so things could change at any time and for now I was enjoying the smooth trails and just as the race pack started to spread out a deer dashed across the trail ahead of me with the sun streaking through the trees. Magical!

I let the anxiety of running 100 miles leave my body and I just ran in the moment, feeling as though I was just out for a long run on the weekend. I really enjoyed the dense forest and even enjoyed traversing the downed trees, some of them so big I had to body roll over the top, before the infamous vertical wall of tree roots where I had to use all fours to scale it.

The second half of each loop is a bit longer between aid stations and you don’t get to see your crew at any of them so I had to rely heavily on the checkpoints. The weather is humid and I’m wet from the start, which adds to the toughness of this race. Although I’m not overly used to dealing with the excessive effects of the chafing and blisters this brings, I’m fully aware to keep my hydration and electrolyte levels in check and keep a close eye on this throughout. The anticipated rain did come only a few hours into the race and it quickly turned a fairly dry underfoot trail into a slippy path requiring more effort.

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Photo credit: Butch Philips Photography

I was feeling positive coming in from lap 1 and was excited to my friends Emily and Kate, who had come along to support and pace me. They were waiting at the Mohican Campground which is the start/finish point, along with all the other crews and spectators giving me a great lift with all their cheers and applause. I remembered to grab my poles for the 2nd lap as it was getting pretty slick in places after the rain and I didn’t want to get caught without them if conditions worsened.

The rain had ceased but now it was like a steam room, the heat mixing with the moisture and certain sections were getting more and more messed up with the numbers of runners going through the mud. Running through mud makes more mud! I was still feeling strong until about 3/4 of the way through the 2nd loop and my first low hit me hard, it was the hottest part of the day and my mind started telling me I wasn’t good enough to finish and a flow of negative self-talk came through, reducing me to tears by the time I’d reached the campground again.

But my girls were having none of it! I changed into some fresh, dry clothes; ate some pizza and listened to some encouraging pep talks and before I knew it, I was smiling, laughing and grabbing Emily by the hand to head out as my pacer for the third. Mentally I was pleased to have the 2 longer laps out of the way and knowing that getting out onto this 3rd lap was already ahead of my failed 2014 attempt. With 46 miles to go, I had to get this lap out of the way and I knew that I would finish, even if I had to crawl, it would be within my grasp.

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Photo credit: Lucja Leonard

Into the night I go as we embark on the third lap, it’s time for the real adventure to begin. Emily is excited and her fresh energy enthused my waning spirits. For a while at least, we hike the uphills and jog the flats and downhills; Emily motivates me by telling me I’m moving well, and we are for at least half of the third lap. What can go wrong naturally will, in a 100 miler. It is, after all, a problem solving adventure, and just when you think you have thought of everything, something else goes wrong.

This time it’s my head torch, the (fully charged) battery dies on me and I’m in total darkness! Emily changes out her batteries to give to me and uses her spare but within minutes it goes flat too. Luckily Emily has her phone torch and I use her head torch and as we pass other runners I’m constantly asking for spare batteries, not thinking for a minute that someone will give me theirs until another runner, Crystal, gives me her spare handheld torch and spare battery. What an absolute lifesaver! Her actions are what I love about ultra runners; she embodies the spirit of helping each other and that we are in it together.

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Photo credit: Lucja Leonard

Presuming all my problems are now solved, my body and mind then decide to tell me it’s time to sleep yet my legs and my heart are awake, moving forward relentlessly. Until they don’t want to anymore. Mr Sandman is trying hard to catch me and bring me to my dreams at about 3am, the witching hour, but my body and mind are fighting to stay awake and at some points it takes all my strength to keep me on my feet, I sway a bit as I hike through the night and I wish for daylight to come.

With the dawn approaching, I can feel its presence coming even in the thick dense forest where the light can’t penetrate, but it’s reviving me with every beam of brightness that starts to infiltrate. I commence the fourth lap at 4:30am and I’m excited to head out for a short 4 mile section on my own again to give Emily a chance to recuperate and then rejoin me for another section. Heading onto the trails I hear the distant sound of thunder and then lightning cracks, LOUD, close by, so loud I jump as the forest is lit up before me. Then a huge crack of thunder vibrates the earth around me and the heavens open up with a deluge of rain so heavy that the trail turns into an ankle deep rushing stream within minutes.

It’s not cold but it’s hard to see with the rain falling so hard into the beam of my head torch, the terrain becomes super slippery underfoot and it’s impossible to see what rocks or tree roots you are standing on, which slows me down. I push on and just as I reach the aid station the rain stops, just like that, it becomes dry and dawn breaks.

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Photo credit: Lucja Leonard

One last short section with Emily and then Kate joins me for the last 17 miles. We try to get a run on in sections but after spending the entire race wet from head to toe either from sheer humidity or rain, my feet were in excruciating pain from searing blisters, which I never get, and the onset of trench foot, and it was now a battle of mind against body. One foot in front of the other and slowly but surely the finish line comes into sight.

There is something magical and empowering about finally seeing that finish line; I think back to the years of training, not just months this has been a long time coming, that have brought me to be able to finish this 100 miles and it all seems worth it now. It’s an extra special moment to be handed the Mohican 100 mile belt buckle after being beaten down by the course 7 years ago. A special thanks to Emily and Kate who were up all night alongside me, helping me, encouraging me and without them I don’t know if I would be telling the story of finishing.

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Photo credit: Lucja Leonard

It’s hard to articulate the feelings of completing such a distance on foot. Do you focus on the belly-aching negativity of the low moments that come again and again or do you look back misty-eyed and full of optimism with that warm feeling of satisfaction with your rose tinted glasses on? I think you need to look back with a healthy dose of both reflections taking the ‘ughs’ with the ‘ahhs’ in equal measure to answer the sure to come questions of ‘why do I do this?’ or ‘will I ever do it again?’.

“Of course” is the obvious answer. Crossing that finish line was an amazing feeling, nothing can compare to a 100 mile finish, especially a previously alluded one, when you’ve put everything out there. I still can’t put it into words, it’s something you need to experience yourself to know, and when you know; you know. Thank you Mohican, you allowed me the privilege to show my heart, courage and inner strength and of course I righted my wrong.

Mohican 100 race details

Mohican State Park, Ohio
Western States Qualifier
June 19th 2021
100 miles – 11,000ft ascent
32hr cut off
103 finishers
96 DNF

"The Mohican course is renowned for its hot, humid and tough muddy conditions and an all hands required tree root climb on the first lap to push you to your limits"

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