TERRE HAUTE —
Some phrases can only be uttered by a few people, or none at all.
For example, as comedian Steve Martin once said, “Here’s something you’ll never hear — ‘Hand me that piano.’”
As Vigo County resident Billy Hubbard ran a race alongside the Potomac River in Maryland two Sundays ago, he entertained a thought that will never enter most of our minds.
“I’ve only got 20 miles left,” Hubbard said to himself. “That’s no big deal. It’s less than a marathon.”
Most people have a better chance of lifting a Steinway than saying such a thing during their lifetime.
An extraordinary goal, one that Average Joes and Janes never contemplate, put Hubbard in that rare spot. He said those words after passing the 80-mile mark of the C&O Canal 100 near Knoxville, Md. If you’re doing the math, “I’ve only got 20 miles left” plus “passing the 80-mile mark” equals a 100-mile race. It’s called an “ultra marathon,” far beyond the traditional 26.2-mile marathons.
Yes, Hubbard ran 100 miles in 28 hours, 24 minutes and 23 seconds. (Actually, the event uses a rounded-off number for its name — the C&O 100 — because the competitors’ high-tech, GPS-equipped watches calculated 105 total miles, Hubbard said. But 100 or 105, after that distance, what’s another five miles?) One-hundred and three runners started the race. Only 49 finished it. Hubbard was the 37th to cross the finish line. He’d started running at 7 o’clock in the morning on Saturday, April 27, and stopped just before noon the next day.
There’s one other crucial number to consider: 47. That’s Hubbard’s age. He became a 100-mile man at a stage in life when most folks slow down.
By contrast, when Hubbard turned 40, he sped up. He started running, hoping to participate in triathlons — an endurance competition involving swimming, running and cycling. He was no stranger to sports and fitness, having competed for several years on professional motocross, supercross and mountain-biking tours across the United States, and also handling chaplain duties for those series, after serving in the U.S. Navy. Still, time had passed since Hubbard and his wife, Honnalora, returned to the Wabash Valley to live, work (Billy as a construction superintendent for a big-project Indianapolis firm), and raise their son. To do a triathlon, Hubbard weighed just under 250 pounds and needed to get in shape.
“I had a fair amount of fat around my mid-section,” he said.
Running 15 to 20 miles a week, Hubbard gradually progressed from modest to mega triathlons. After reaching a triathlete’s pinnacle — an Ironman Triathlon, in Florida in 2009 — he did a 50-mile race.
Just a few years after he’d taken up running.
Eventually, after retiring from construction two years ago to become director of safety and operations for the Terre Haute City Parks Department, a three-digit number popped into his running plans. Why?
“It’s the challenge to do more,” Hubbard said. “The ultimate is to do a hundred.”
Indeed, that trio of numerals represents a mystical barrier. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in an NBA game. We treat people who live 100 years like astronauts, considering they’ve traveled so far through time. So Hubbard made his first attempt at a 100-mile ultra marathon last November at the rugged Ozark Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run through the Mark Twain Forest in Missouri.
Ultras carry a rating based on their terrain, from 1 (gentle) to 5 (rough). The Ozark Trail 100 rated a 4. Runners traverse creeks, walking through water waist deep. Despite bringing extra socks, Hubbard developed “blisters on top of blisters” on his feet and couldn’t finish. “Apparently, I hadn’t prepared enough for the conditions there,” he said.
He didn’t quit. He prepared harder, targeting April’s C&O Canal 100. Its terrain rating was a kinder, gentler 2, if such words can apply to 30 consecutive hours of non-stop running. From November through April, Hubbard ran a cumulative 1,400 miles. His training regimen steadily intensified to 88 miles a week. To prevent injuries, he never approached 100 miles in a single day, but occasionally ran 30s back-to-back on weekends, giving him a feel of the exhaustion from a nearly two-day jaunt.
This routine continued through the winter. Outdoors. Daily. “It didn’t matter if it was snowing or zero” degrees, he said. “You just add clothes.” His sweat turned to icicles. Sometimes, Hubbard was the only person outside of a warm, cozy house on a cold, nasty day. Initially, he drew some curious looks from motorists. “I think some people got used to seeing me,” he said.
At one point, he doubted his readiness. His wife, a minister, convinced him otherwise with “a great motivational speech, which was just what I needed.”
It all paid off in Maryland.
Now at 167 pounds, Hubbard experienced no serious ailments as he and the others jogged beside a secluded, scenic stretch of the Potomac. It’s historic ground. The C&O Canal path interfaces with the Appalachian Trail, and runners could see kayakers and whitewater rapids. The race’s trickiest section came overnight. Hubbard donned a headlamp, and frequently glanced at his GPS watch. “It helps keep your sanity,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re just running off into the night.”
As the sun rose, the energy levels of some dropped. Hubbard knew his mind had to convince his body. “After 20 hours, your body wants to quit,” he said.
He kept going. Leaning on his faith, he kept singing, “I can do this in Jesus’ name,” as ID tags — one from his son, a Navy serviceman now back in the U.S. from the Middle East, and another from Billy’s running registration — jangled from his neck. With a mile to go, tears filled his eyes. “I was reliving all the miles it took to get there,” he said.
He finished happy, relieved.
His son, Anthony, told his military buddies at a North Carolina base about his dad’s exploits. “You try to impress your son, even if you’re 47 or 48 years old ,that dad can still do it,” Billy joked.
Actually, Hubbard said, ultra marathons suit “mid-lifers” best. Their more mature muscles respond well to the endurance, and their schedules are less cluttered as the “empty nest” years arrive.
That said, Hubbard has “no desire” to do another 100-miler. After all, he can already say he did it.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.