COLUMBIA — After 18 hours alone on a wooded trail in Utah, Andy Pele was hallucinating.
Pele was in the middle of the Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run in September of 2008. It was around midnight, and the woods had been dark for almost five hours. In Pele’s exhausted mind, images of people surrounded by beach balls, along with a burning house, popped up along the trail.
Pele said that visions are common occurrence for athletes participating in Ultramarathons (races longer than a marathon).
“I expected it,” Pele said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty cool. I’m having my first hallucination.’”
Pele, 42, is a letter carrier living in Columbia who moved to Missouri from Oceanside, Calif., in 2004. He has participated in wide range of athletic events since 1999. His career began with inline skating competitions, including one in which he raced across the state of Iowa on roller blades while other athletes biked. He then switched to triathalons including numerous Ironman races, until retiring from competitive events at the end of September. Of every athletic endeavor he has undertaken, he said the 100-mile run was the most extreme.
The idea of a 100-mile run first came to Pele in a bookstore in 2005. After Andy Pele read "The Ultramarathon Man," his wife, Nicole Pele, knew her husband would want to attempt the feat. He said his purpose in choosing this event was to pick a goal that was near impossible, to see how hard he could push himself.
Nicole Pele said her husband has the qualities necessary to accomplish a task that many wouldn’t even attempt.
“Once he decides to do something, he’s pretty focused and has an unbelievable ability to stay focused,” Nicole Pele said. “He can get pretty consumed in whatever goal he has put before himself.”
Although she was confident in her husband’s abilities, Nicole Pele still wasn’t sure what to think about this ambition.
“I probably shook my head,” she said. “He had done one 50-miler before, and I was fine with that. But I just thought, 100 miles, those people are crazy.”
Pele began preparing for a 100-mile run scheduled for 2006. Training for a triathlon in August of 2006, Pele was hit by a car while riding his bike. The accident left him with a bruised liver and broken ribs, and it prevented him from competing in the 100-miler.
But Pele refused to give up his goal. He set his sights on the Wasatch Front 100 in Utah on Sept. 5, 2008. He began training around March 2008.
To prepare, Pele ran 7.5 miles to work and a different 5.5-mile route home. Then he ran 25 miles every Saturday, and 30 more every Sunday. He ran late at night. He ran early in the morning. It seemed as if he was always running.
The night before the race, Pele sat alone in a cheap hotel room. He had told his wife not to join him in Utah because there would be little opportunity to see him. Nervous and excited, Pele couldn’t sleep.
“You’re waking up all the time, always checking the watch,” he said. “Am I going to miss the alarm clock? You wake up and it’s like, ‘Oh finally, I can get up and start getting prepared.’ You have so much on your mind. The going-to-sleep part is the hardest part.”
Early the next morning, before the sun had risen, Pele, along with about 200 other runners, loaded buses that took them to the starting line. He said some people were talking non-stop, while others, himself included, kept to themselves while thinking about the challenge ahead of them.
There was nothing glamorous about the beginning of the race. Unlike other events Pele has been in, there was no National Anthem, no cannon marking the start. Runners went to the bathroom, checked their flashlights and checked in their supplies. It was time to run.
The runners stayed clumped together on a single-track trail 5,000 miles up in the forest for the first five to 10 miles, until reaching an incline that took the runners up to 10,000 feet. From that point forward, Pele was on his own with the sights and sounds of the trail to keep him company.
“On the way up, you’re starting to see the sun rise,” Pele said. “When I’m running along this trail and I’m looking down, you can see the whole Salt Lake City valley. All of the lights are on. It was pretty neat.”
The quietness of the solitude made the rush of the wind through the trees more distinct. He heard the crunching of the leaves beneath each of his steps and the sounds of wildlife in the distance.
Pele said some runners were lucky enough to see a shooting star, but he spent part of his run through the night watching the moon. However, what Pele looked forward to most was a fire in the distance.
“It’s so cool because it’s not a fire in the woods, but a campfire at an aid station,” Pele said. “That’s where you’re running to and that’s where all of the people are going to be. That’s where all of the warmth is and where you’re going to get your soup.”
With less than 10 miles to go, Andy Pele began to slow down. He entered a stretch of trail angled steeply downhill and littered with bowling ball and softball-sized rocks. Pele said every step became painful. The final seven miles took him four hours to finish.
“It was getting warm,” Pele said. “I was watching a lot of people passing me. I was really mad at all the spectators who told me, ‘You’re almost there’ when I had three miles to go. They’re telling me I’m almost there and that’s still two hours away.”
Thirty-three hours after embarking on the 100-mile journey, Pele crossed the finish line.
He lay down on the grass, wasn’t hungry and paid no attention to the other runners finishing the race. He was done.
After the race, Andy Pele told his wife he would never participate in a race like this again. But a little over a year later, he went to support his friend last weekend in the Ozark Trail 100, a 100-mile race in Missouri. With his body and mind fully recovered from his 100-miler in 2008, seeing a friend accomplish the feat has him rethinking what he told his wife.
Andy Pele and Nicole Pele have discussed the possibility, but Nicole Pele is trying to hold him to his word.
“I just kept trying to give her hints and tease her about doing another 100, and she just said, ‘Yeah, keep dreaming.’”
After seeing the time and energy it took her husband to train and finish the race the first time, and dealing with the worrying that allowed her only 45 minutes of sleep during the event, she said she isn't so sure.
“... that has to be negotiated,” she said.
“Well that’s the first I heard, because I didn’t know negotiation was possible on this topic,” he said.
“As soon as I talked to him after the 100, he did, he’s like, ‘I’m telling you, I never want to do another one of these again. Never,’” she said.
“Yeah, my mental state was completely screwed up after running 100 miles when I told you that,” he responded.
Whether he comes out of retirement or not, Andy Pele said he doesn’t think there is anything special about his abilities.
“I believe there’s a lot of people who can do it, and that your body is much more capable than you believe it is,” Pele said. “Maybe that’s what helps me through it because I just believe that anybody can do it and if anybody can do it then I can do it.”