By Morgan Mader
Photos by Tim Roberts
I’m wrapping up my first loop of 2022’s Cry Me A River (CMAR) when a runner passes me. “They’re rerouting us to avoid the creek crossing,” he says. “Another runner got washed away, so be careful.” Had I heard him correctly? I hadn’t been running long enough to begin hallucinating, right? The creek crossing was little more than a rock-skip across. How could this be happening?
“Yeah, James got washed away,” he says. I laugh. James is one of the strongest people I know. He’ll be fine. Still, this is CMAR: a race fully capable of crushing your spirit by methodically grinding away at your tenacity and will. Last year, I trudged through 100K of body-crushing hills in unrelenting rain, developing a chafe that would make most people blush.
Yet here I was. Back, not for the 100k, but the 100-miler.
CMAR is a brutal course, boasting 23,500 feet of elevation gain over 100 miles. Held each July in the rolling hills north of Peoria, nowhere else in Illinois can you find a race quite like this. Maybe it’s a sickness, craving torture in the guise of fitness, mental toughness and spirit. Though, as the saying goes: If you can do it, then you must do it.
With a noon start, the air was hot and humid. We found ourselves fully saturated in sweat after only 2 miles, and when the rain came, it was a welcome treat. At times, the downpour was so heavy, I was able to open my handheld and catch enough rainfall to enjoy a drink. But as the rain intensified and word spread of the rising creek, my thoughts turned to James. Not because I feared he’d be washed away, but because I knew exactly what was riding on his performance.
The year before, in July 2021, James won the CMAR 100, finishing eight hours ahead of the next competitor, setting a new course record, and doing what many had thought impossible—finishing CMAR in less than 24 hours. When I left out for my final loop of the 100k that year, I knew James was running well. A mile in, I saw his all-too-familiar gait running toward me. We stopped long enough for a brief kiss. I congratulated him and watched him run off to claim victory.
I still had nineteen miles left to go.
After years of weight training, powerlifting, and CrossFit, James decided to sign up for Spartan’s Ultra OCR in 2019, a 50k trail race with over sixty obstacles. Competing in the Open Category, James won, finishing in just over seven hours. Not long after he came to me with a new challenge in mind: Ultrarunning.
I had run a half-marathon before, but that was fifteen years ago. Still, I love nature and stretching my physical abilities, so the transition made sense for me. Once James began researching Illinois’ local races, it was all he could think about. He wouldn’t talk about anything else. He became obsessed, increasing his mileage exponentially. On weekends, he began tackling runs that were thirty, forty, or fifty miles long. The uptick in mileage was not without challenges, however. James learned through unfiltered, raw experience what it takes to ride the sport’s highs and lows. Occasionally, I would field phone calls from the trail when James needed help working through a low. But that’s how we work; those are the things we do for one another.
In September 2019, we ran our first ultra at the inaugural Temptation 200 at Sandridge State Park, near Forest City, Illinois. James’ goal was to finish the 200k; however, after running 100k on the unrelenting sand, he had given all he had and called it. Five weeks later, hungry for a 100-mile finish, we ran Farmdale—a beautiful course that weaves through central Illinois’ Farmdale Reservoir. Seventy miles in, James’ pace had whittled to a walk. He had over-extended himself, going out too fast. Still, he managed to gut out the final thirty miles and earn a buckle. After the race, he was as incapacitated as I have ever seen him. Watching him slowly inch across a McDonald’s parking lot, I questioned whether he’d ever run again. The following morning, I awoke to him standing over me. He was smiling his irresistible smile, asking if I wanted anything from the breakfast buffet. I knew then he wasn’t quitting, not ever.
As 2019 gave way to 2020, James’ resume of ultras continued to expand. With the onset of Covid, running outside became the simplest and safest thing to do to pass the time. Our training runs got longer. We explored more challenging trails and routes. And in September, we were able to return to the Temptation 200. This time James would not be deterred. He won the 200k and established a new course record. This was his first victory, and it was no small feat.
Furthermore, it made James hungrier.
Still, for every success or emotional high, there is heartache and toil. In the spring of 2020, our beloved dog was diagnosed with cancer. Over a period of months, our focus revolved around maintaining her quality of life. She passed soon after the Temptation 200. Heartbreak overwhelmed me. James was equally saddened by our loss, but people cope in different ways. He signed up for Missouri’s Ozark 100, held in mid-November, barely a month later. I was emotionally unavailable to crew him. My absence, and a slew of other unforeseen challenges, ended up derailing his race, and Ozark became his first DNF. However, through this setback we came to understand just how crucial a healthy headspace is during an ultra. More importantly, we recognized how essential our partnership is to our individual performances.
Simply put: We are a team.
Over the years, we have developed a systematic process for how we train, taper, race, and recover. We often run separate events at the same race so that I have an opportunity to crew James once I’ve finished. Spending twelve, twenty-four, or forty-eight hours on a trail will inevitably lead to moments of doubt but knowing that someone is out there waiting to help you—someone who loves you and is rooting for you—can be the difference between a belt buckle and a DNF.
While I, in turn, carry his.
And no rain or raging creek could dampen the truth we carry or keep James from crushing his own CMAR record. This past July, he shaved another hour-and-a-half from 2021’s mark, crossing the line in an astounding 21:39:53, further establishing his dominance over what is arguably Illinois’ most difficult race and positioning himself as one of the state’s toughest competitors.
I’m starting to run out of all wall space here at home, lined as they are with all of our buckles and ornately crafted trophies. Watching James come alive and flourish as an ultrarunner has been a tremendous journey, one made all the more special by the community of supportive, down-to-earth runners, race directors and volunteers that we have met along the way. We have both earned a measure of internal peace from the sport. It nourishes us, in a way. By pushing ourselves and one another, we have each achieved things neither of us ever dreamed possible, and—perhaps more importantly—forged a truly formidable team.