Here we go loop-de-loop: Tales from survivors of Howl at the Moon 2015

This story originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of In Passing.

On Aug. 8, 300 runners and walkers gathered to participate in the 24th annual Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Run/Walk. The largest timed ultramarathon in the United States, Howl participants are invited to do as many loops of a 3.29-mile course as they can before the eight-hour cut-off. This year, many Second Wind members attempted Howl for the first time and many Howl veterans returned. Here are some of the adventures from newbies and veterans alike.  

Laura Armstrong: First Howl

I hate trails, I hate August weather and I hate bugs. But when Howl registration opened last April and all of my friends started signing up, I jumped right on the Howl bandwagon and signed up along with them. Howl seemed like a much better idea in April. I had never run an ultra but figured that if I was going to do it once, Howl would be a good option (how lost could I get doing a 3.29-mile loop over and over?). I was promised that Howl is just a big “moving picnic” where runners spend their eight hours eating and laughing and having fun…and then eating some more. Also, I have always favored distance over speed, (not by choice, but hey, go with what you’ve got), and I liked the idea of running slowly and conquering a life goal in the process. My goal was to complete an ultra, preferably at least 30 miles and ideally 31.1, to earn that 50K car magnet, but mostly I wanted to have a good experience and enjoy it.  

I knew going in that I would likely be running alone for a lot of the race, so I knew that I needed something to make those eight hours pass and to help me to enjoy the day. I made it a goal in the first loop to meet a new person and learn a new name every loop. I was going to force people to talk to me! And it worked! I met people from Indiana, the Chicago suburbs and Ohio. I made some new friends and MOSTLY remembered their names. I had fun trying all of the crazy ultra food at the incredibly well-stocked aid stations and enjoyed seeing the same volunteers over and over for eight hours. I made sure that if I was going to be out there for eight hours in the sun that I was going to enjoy it, and I am really proud to say that I did. I will remember the people I met and the friends that I ran with, and when April rolls around next year, it won’t take nearly as much peer pressure to get me to sign up for another go-round.  

Jeff Rohde: First Howl

At the beginning of the year, when I made up my mind that I wanted to complete an ultramarathon, a few of my friends had the same idea. In April, I got a call from my wife telling me she was signing up for Howl at the Moon and so were several of our close running friends. I hesitantly told her to sign me up as well. The great thing about Howl is the veteran Howl runners we know that are willing to share their war stories and battle scars. That would be my biggest piece of advice to someone training for Howl in particular. Talk to people who have run it! Information like race day setup, packet pick up, aid stations, etc., are all hard to find. So a big thanks to Marc Mills, Letitia Moffitt and Jim Fair III!  

By the time Howl came, I was ready. I logged over 100 miles on the Howl course, always ran at the hottest time of day and practiced eating real food while doing long runs. I also lost 16 pounds in the process, which is hard to do after eating everything in sight for the past three months.  

Race morning was eerily quiet. There wasn’t a lot of nervous chatter before a race like I was used to. Everyone seemed to know what the day had in store for them and it was not a time for chit chat. Before the race started, the race director announced his main hope for the day was that no one would go to the hospital. Again, not something you hear before most road races.  

My first loop was really the only one I can clearly remember, up until around my sixth. This is where some of that missing chatter started to come up once when the nerves settled down. I found myself getting into a steady groove and felt strong. The aid stations there were fantastic. Tons of real food options and drinks other than just Gatorade or water. They even had beer and margaritas toward the end of the day! My absolute favorite was the boiled red potatoes I heard so much about. They are covered in butter and you get to dip them in salt. About that sixth loop, I started really looking forward to seeing my friends who I knew were coming at some point in the day.  

They got there right when things started to get tough at loop eight. The Crazy Runners, which is what my group of friends call themselves, are the best people to have at an event like this. I was beyond thankful for their overwhelming positive energy and helpfulness. I pretty much walked loops 10 and 11 due to cramping, but Alicia Pettyjohn and Ryan Anderson were there to see me through to the end. But I have a feeling they might have been there for the margaritas too. I managed to hobble two out-and-backs to give me a total of 37.19 miles at Howl at the Moon. Overall I was very happy with my performance and will be back to run it again someday.  

Jim Fair III: Second Howl

2014 was my first Howl at the Moon race...and my first ultramarathon, 30.61 miles, which I finished on crutches. So this year when I checked in with my race counter before the race, he asked what motivated me to do it all last year. My reply was that “if mileage was my candy, then I was a kid in the candy store that day.” Then I brought out the crutches for a few mini out-and-backs before all of the lap counters.  

During the 2015 race I felt great, as if I was on pace for some really high mileage. Just before I went into my marathon loop (roughly after 23 miles), the lightbulbs turned on and I grabbed a few buddies who were taking a break ... and turned Howl at the Moon into a training run for Farmdale100. Seventeen miles later, I was scanning the time clock as we were finishing up the last loop. Jjust over 16 minutes left and my legs felt fresh! My buddy from the Lake Run Club asked if I was going to do any out-and-backs. I told her of course, I’ll try to go for four, except I am not a fan of out-and-backs.  

After throwing on my Mizuno racing flats, I started cranking out some fast strides as I flew back and forth over the quartermile stretches of freshly trimmed grass, just as I envisioned the year before when I was struggling to keep my balance on crutches. What I didn’t expect was so many of my cool friends cheering for me near the beginning of the stretch for all four out-and-backs, or that I would start cramping up so acutely in my calves, but it made the race so much more awesome. I admit I was astonished that I picked up two extra miles at roughly a 7:30 pace after running 3.29-mile loops for roughly 40 miles, but most of that was in having so much fun running, joking, running, laughing, camping, running and partying with friends.  

Valeria Rohde: First Howl

When I first heard of this race years ago, I said I would never do it, or any other ultra, because they sounded terrible. But over the years I slowly convinced myself that running an ultra was the natural transition for a distance runner, and when it was time for me to choose, Howl was hard to beat. For one, I don’t particularly love trails so the Howl course would be a good transition for me as a road runner. Also, it’s a local race and I knew a lot of runners who run it every year, which meant good advice from past participants, being able to train on the course and not needing to travel. The race itself didn’t disappoint. I ran by myself for most of the race, with the exception of two loops where my awesome friends Sarah and Ryan ran with me. I was able to stay focused and keep running for most of the eight hours, except for the aid stations where I was walking as I fueled. I am proud to say I ran “the hill” every time despite hearing repeatedly that “everyone walks the hill.” What I loved about this race was being able to see so many familiar faces throughout the day. Even though I prefer to run alone and don’t particularly like socializing in a race, it was still nice to see people. I also greatly enjoyed the loud music at the first aid station, and I loved eating olives and watermelon at the second aid station. It was also super-nice to not have to carry aid with me since I don’t like carrying anything when I run.  

This was a different race in that I didn’t have an exact goal, or a specific number of miles I wanted to do. I found it very intriguing to find out how far my body could go in eight hours. It was a new and exciting challenge, and one which, after eight years of being a runner, was able to give me stomach butterflies and a childlike feeling of giddy expectation. I ended up with 41.98 miles, and although it annoys me greatly that it wasn’t a whole number, it is nothing compared to the great experience that was running Howl as my first ultra.  

Letitia Moffit: Third Howl

I’m probably going to p*ss off some of my fellow runners by saying this, but in the grand scope of things, ultras aren’t that hard. No, really. Let’s start with the fact that we choose to do them. Right there, that makes an ultra easier than all the things people suffer through that they don’t get to choose. In that light, running 3.29-mile loops all day in August is just a very long, rather smelly picnic on your feet.  

To me, running ultramarathons isn’t all brag-andswagger; it isn’t about impressing people with how tough, awesome or badass you are; it isn’t about passing or beating other runners; it isn’t about proving anything to anyone, not even to myself, because the truth is more of my ultras have been humbling and not glorifying. Ultras are fun. No, really. I wouldn’t do them if they weren’t, and Howl is one of the funnest ultras ever.  

I told all this to my ultra newbie friends in an attempt to allay their fears and worries. They did not believe me. They feared. They worried. They doubted my assurances, and as a result they trained like tributes for the arena. Me? I trained, sort of, if by “training” you mean “running kind of like how I lways run, a few shorter faster runs during the week and a long run of some kind on the weekend.” That’s what I’ve always done for Howl, and it has always worked, because I’ve always met my goal—because my goal has always been to enjoy it.  

What’s not to enjoy? Salty boiled potatoes and M&Ms, friends everywhere, weather that cooperated reasonably well for August and a beer truck at the finish line? Yes, please! In the end, I didn’t run my “best” or “worst” Howl in terms of mileage, but the experience was hugely satisfying, in part because I didn’t get injured (always a good thing), in part because my running buddies did amazingly well (go figure, serious training really does pay off), and in part because it’s Howl.  

But the most satisfying moment of Howl came a day later, when I was told those sweet, sweet words: You were right. The doubters had become believers. I won.  

Erin Smith: First Howl

Last year I came out to support some of my friends who ran the Howl at the Moon Ultramarathon. That’s when I was hooked. The atmosphere was amazing and it looked like so much fun. So this year I raced everyone to sign up in time! Luckily I was able to secure a spot and started training. I’ve run a few ultras before but this was my first Howl. In the weeks leading up to the race, I tried to think about three “goals.” Usually I set three levels of goals to help me determine my success.  

My minimum goal was to run a 50k and my big goal was to run 40 miles. I truly didn’t think it was possible. I was lucky enough to run half of my race with pacers. They were crucial to my success, because at times I wanted to scream, cry or just plain quit. With their support and help I was able to push through and reach my big goal! 40.48 miles! Howl at the Moon was one of the best running parties I’ve ever been to, and I have an age group award medal larger than my hand to show for it. That, and a missing toenail. I can’t wait for Howl next year!  

Douglas Armstrong: First Howl

In 2014, I ran a lot of races, including two marathons. That’s a lot for me, and I was feeling burned out from running. I just couldn’t see going through another marathon training plan this year. So I did the next obvious step and signed up for my first ultramarathon. Well, everyone said it was like a picnic while you run…  

Of course, I still had to train. But I didn’t take this too seriously. I mostly ran with my wife or at social runs. Ready for my list of excuses? I don’t do well in the heat, it was hard to schedule around the kids and work, we went on vacation for a couple of weeks and I got a nasty enterovirus right before the race. Whew, just making that list of excuses was exhausting! But I wasn’t worried. During a sweltering training session surrounded by kamikaze insect orgies, I calculated that, worst-case, I could at least walk 20 miles; I wanted to at least justify taking a Howl slot.  

During training, I got tired of trying to remember everything that was needed. So I put together a Howl “go-bag” so I would be ready to run Howl or train at a moment’s notice. For the actual race, I followed the Boy Scout motto and over-prepared. I brought a cooler and box filled with water, ice, Scratch, Nuun, Gatorade, Coke, root beer, chocolate milk, S-Caps, pretzels, pretzel twists, cashews, chocolate bars, extra shirts, shoes, water belt, bandages, visor, sunglasses, headphones. I barely used any of it.  

During the actual race, I had a blast! It really made running fun again. Kennekuk was a great host. There was great food, beer, party atmosphere and friendly people. I didn’t have expectations for myself so I had no nerves and could just relax. The nuclear furnace we call the sun was gratefully behind clouds a lot of the day, so I ran more than I thought I would. At the beginning, I met new friends and learned all about their plans to run the “Goofy” at Disney. During the middle loops, I listened to my Stephen King book about time travel to help the time pass. The nice thing about running slowly is that I got to see my runner friends a lot as they kept lapping me. I’d put on my most cheerful face to yell “hi” as they whizzed by, but the truth is I was having a great time. I even got an encouraging ass-slap! The aid stations were truly as awesome as promised with a great variety of salty treats. My favorites were the olives and salted potatoes. This was probably the first race in the heat that I actually got proper hydration and nutrition. Though I somehow still managed to lose 5 pounds.  

For the last two loops, more friends stopped by to cheer and help pace. Amber Anderson ran with me and was great company. I say “ran,” but truth is my run was her speedwalk at that point; my minimal training was catching up to me. No matter, we chatted, snacked and kept on moving. I enlisted her to perform racemath and we figured out how to time it to minimize the waiting around before the dreaded out-and-backs at the end. In hindsight, I figured out that if I had run all of the 3.29-mile loops just a minute or so faster, I would have had enough time to get in an extra loop for a respectable 30 miles. Ah well.  

In the end, I got my “ultra” distance of 28.32. Though I’ll have to lower my voice or use air-quotes when calling that an ultra when talking to real ultra runners. But no matter, I had fun and earned my ticket to the party. Who wants to work hard running a marathon when you can party and run an ultra!  

Amber Anderson: Howl Veteran and Pacer

I ran Howl last year; it was my first ultramarathon. My plan had been to do it again this year, but things didn’t quite go that way. Instead I decided that I would go out there and cheer on all of my friends that were running, and this year there were many! Since the doctor hasn’t cleared me for running yet, I knew I had to be picky on who I could help with their loops. Douglas Armstrong was the lucky winner!  

When I got to the shelter around noon, I had to wait quite a while for Doug to come through Tent City. Our friends said he had just started a loop about five minutes before we arrived. So I got to spend the next 50(ish) minutes cheering on all of the other people I knew running. I’m not really one to try to motivate other people – it’s not really my thing – but Alicia is the best cheerleader for runners I’ve ever seen! Once we saw Doug coming down the homestretch, I was surprised to see he was still running (no offense Doug!). I decided I would do my loops with him anyway. We ended up doing his last two loops together, and I did follow doctor’s orders and walked, even when he ran. (He nervously inquired whether I even had to changes paces between his walk and run. I happily assured him that I did). Being a “pacer” for Doug was great. My plan of attack for the last loop was to keep asking him questions and get him talking so that his walk wasn’t so much of a “stroll” as “walking with a purpose.” He would also ask me for advice, being that I’m a “veteran” (if you can call completing two ultras a veteran…). I convinced him to take either a daiquiri or a margarita near the end. He didn’t think it was a good idea until he started drinking it and realized how cool and refreshing it was. That was probably the best advice I gave him.  

These loops were probably a lot more fun for me than him, but I like to think we had a good time together (he may have been in too much pain to notice). During those couple of hours, we first decided I was his ultra coach, which then changed to life-coach. We realized that apparently Doug feels “brain freeze” differently than most people, and we decided it was best to puke on the side of the trail, rather than try keeping it in.  

Being part of the support crew is a very different experience than being the runner. The day was so much more relaxing; I got to drink cider (thanks Jim!) while Doug ran his out-and-backs, I got to cheer on all of the runners (some I knew, some I didn’t) without fear of wasting energy, I was able to help the runners when they came through the shelter by refilling bottles, locating ice/towels/etc., and the time on my feet was about half of theirs. With all of those combined, I call that a win!  

Janet Stroud: Fourth Howl

The Howl at the Moon Ultramarathon has always been my favorite race. I have not run it for the last six years due to various personal reasons. I lost a very dear friend and mentor a few weeks before Howl this year. He was an amazing runner and athlete. His name was Don Cole. He was the sole person who introduced me to trail running, to the Kennekuk Road Runners and to my first Howl at the Moon in 2004. He was there with me for my first Howl and helped push me to run over 43 miles. He was so inspiring and strong. So this year I for sure had to run it. Of course, I arrived exactly on time – just as Marc Reddy was announcing the start and I heard the siren go off as I was running up to my scorer to check in. I started running and immediately heard from many people how nice it was to see me. Everyone is always so nice and cheery on the course.  

I fell into step with Nancy McCarty. We started talking and ended up running more than 30 miles together. That also was nice, since in past races I ran some with Nancy, who is an amazing runner. I re- member saying to her how hot it was about 9 a.m. The Howl is a tough race because the temperatures can be very hot and the day is long – eight hours long. The club, however, makes it memorable and the crowd is always so supportive. From the aid station workers, who opened my Gu packs because my hands were too sweaty, and the crowd who passed out ice watersoaked sponges each lap, to the wonderful, uplifting feeling one gets every time you round the corner when finishing a loop and you run down the straight meadow in between all the tents and supporters who are yelling at how awesome you look and how strong you look. I always get the feeling here, “Yea, I’ve got one more in me!”  

Now I remember why it has always been my favorite race. Marc Reddy and all the volunteers simply go above and beyond what you usually find in a race. I ended up with 45.25 miles and was awarded second female overall! I definitely attribute this to all the awesome and uplifting support that is always present at this race. From the club to the volunteers to all the other runners out there supporting each other the entire day … this is why runners are a family.