Jack Judge could hear wolves howling as he lay awake in his tent Friday night at the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve, a chunk of Ontario woodland not far from Algonquin Park. Judge had a book to keep him company, a fiction with a forgettable title he kept thumbing through in an attempt to quiet his thoughts. But in his mind, Judge was running, clambering over roots, scrambling up and down hills, trotting past lakes and sidestepping gaping mud puddles.
The Haliburton Forest 100 is a gruelling 100-mile (160-kilometre) cross-country race that has made Judge a legend, of sorts, in ultra-running circles, and not for his speed but for his bottomless capacity – after 12 failed attempts – to keep trying to finish. On the Saturday morning of his 13th attempt, Judge rolled out of his sleeping bag and into the chill September air. The 66-year-old slipped on two polyester T-shirts, a sweatshirt, nylon rain pants and a pair of Saucony “Hurricane” sneakers. He ate his customary bowl of oatmeal, with brown sugar and a splash of milk, drank two cups of tea and went to the start line at 6 a.m. with 47 other competitors.
Judge had been training hard since last September, when driving rain and muddy conditions forced his surrender two-thirds of the way into his 12th attempt to run 100 miles. He had gotten faster, he felt, by a shade, and incorporated sit-ups and push-ups into his workout routine.
“I felt absolutely tremendous at the start,” he says. “The worry was over. The race had begun.”
Over the next 29 hours 54 minutes and 13 seconds, Judge would battle doubt, a dead flashlight battery, woodland hallucinations (featuring four moose) and the physics of what a skinny old man – renowned for being doggedly determined, famously chatty and incredibly slow – is capable of.
This was not Sir Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile or Usain Bolt striking a lightning bolt pose after winning an Olympic gold medal, but a serial failure plodding through the untamed forest for almost 30 hours, buoyed only by the encouragement of others and the personal belief that what might appear to be impossible to most merely depends upon one’s point of view.
And, as the sun began to fade Saturday evening, the view for Judge was clear. The legend was on track to finish within the 30-hour cut-off.
“I regard mathematical certainty as highly suspicious,” Judge says. “But the probability is that I would finish the race, because my training was showing me that I was doing what I was supposed to do. But it’s a little like a TV show where you put a pet hamster in a toy boat – some things don’t always mesh.”
What Judge means is: the unexpected is to be expected. Runners twist ankles. Hard rains fall. There is no certainty in the woods and as darkness enveloped the forest, Judge’s world went black. For the past few years, he has run in the company of volunteer pacers. Runners who push and encourage him not to talk too much, say, about his dabbles with Buddhism or his days as a firefighter, but to stay on track. They run with Judge because he is a gentleman and because he would never ask for their help. Leanne Blair had already run a 26-km race Saturday morning before joining Judge for 52 kilometres through the night.
“My headlamp died on us,” she says. “Jack’s was dimming and his back-up light was horrendously dim – and so it was despairing for both of us because I didn’t think we could continue. But we kept each other up.”
They kept going, pausing beside a mist-shrouded Marsh Lake, where Judge thanked Blair for all she had done. “He is an amazing man,” she says. “He never asks for help.”
Rationally, however, Jack was cooked. He was losing too much time. Practically, he was starving and stopped into an aid station staffed by a longtime friend and race volunteer, Julie Glandfield Smith, for a bowl of her 100-mile soup – made from sweet potatoes, coconut milk, peanut butter, curry powder and ginger root. Hours later, he returned back through the station. Glandfield Smith and the other volunteers nervously checked their watches.
“We knew it was going to be really, really close for Jack,” she says. Word spread of Judge’s efforts. More pacers appeared. Judge spied a chipmunk. He didn’t regard it as a sign, but still. There was life in the forest and perhaps some life left in his legs. Ron Gehl, godfather of the Ontario ultra-running scene, materialized and ordered Judge to stop looking at his ancient watch and to run for all he was worth.
“I was pooched,” Judge admits. “I had been do-or-die for hours and here is Ron Gehl telling me that it was still possible – that I could still make it.”
Judge stopped checking his watch. He had 16 kilometres to go. He ran up hills that he would typically walk and down hills where he would typically worry about falling if he was running too fast. He ran because he feared that to be two minutes beyond the 30-hour cutoff, at the end, might break his spirit. He ran until he saw the finish and the crowd gathered there.
“I charged across the line,” he says. “I was still trying to accelerate by the master timer – for the first time, mind you – because in previous years the master timer had gone home by the time I arrived.”
Judge made it, with six minutes to spare. People wept. The legend was too tired to cry.
“What Jack did Sunday was heroic,” Glandfield Smith says.
On Monday, Judge was home in Kingston, Ont., feeling sore and tired, doing laundry and dreaming about next year.
“I am on the bottom rung of the ladder now,” he says “I actually finished the race. Wouldn’t it be nice to come back next year and finish again – but with 10 or 20 minutes to spare?”
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