HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
As he stepped out from the truck, he immediately felt the piercing cold on his face. It was dark, but he could still see last night’s snow draping the rolling hills for miles.
“Why do I do this to myself?” he thought.
At that moment, Phillip LaPoint reflected back to why he started running in the first place.
“I started running when I was 13, just to get fit,” he said. “I really wanted abs when I was a kid. A couple years later, my mom brought home a magazine and it had this guy in the picture, running up a mountain during a race. I didn’t know who he was or anything, but it looked like a lot of fun and he seemed pretty happy. So I started reading the magazine and learned that people run really long races – 50 to 100-mile long races. I thought it was crazy at the time, but it kind of grew in my mind and I wanted to see if it was possible for me to do that.”
On January 7, 2017, Staff Sgt. LaPoint, a 49th Maintenance Squadron stockpile technician, ran his first 50-mile race – and won it.
As he approached the starting line his nerves were racing. Different scenarios ran through his mind.
“Before the race I was feeling kind of scared -- really nervous,” he said. “I forgot my headlamp and it started in the dark on a trail. I just didn’t want to break an ankle within the first two miles. It was really cold, too – one of the coldest days in Louisiana. I didn’t have any pants -- just my shorts -- so I was pretty underdressed. I was very concerned about the conditions. I was scared of the day ahead of me.”
At 6 a.m. the gun went off and participants bolted toward the Azalea Trail – Louisiana’s longest running trail.
“I started off running with a guy who had a headlamp,” he said. “We talked for a while and ran the first four miles pretty slow. It started getting lighter out and I could see pretty well, and I knew I was pretty far behind already and I felt good, so I started to ease up in the pack a little bit. I started moving forward, catching people, just trying to find the first place runner.”
Fifteen miles in, LaPoint caught up with the first place runner. Unsure of his standing, he asked how many people were in front of them.
It was at that moment the man said the two words that changed the race.
LaPoint was scared at that point.
“I was pretty scared at that point,” he said. “It was my first 50-miler and I was in the lead. I figured I was probably going out too hard, but I still felt good so I decided to keep the pace. I just kept pushing and I was just trying to stay ahead of everybody. It helps being kind of anxious. It keeps your mind off hurting and being tired.”
However, anxiety couldn’t prevent the wear and tear a 50-mile race has on the body.
“The last 12 miles of the race my body felt completely blown up,” he said. “I was hurting. It was bad – my stomach wasn’t feeling good, but I was just trying to stay ahead.”
LaPoint stayed motivated by focusing on runners and bikers from the other races in front of him.
“The race wasn’t only a 50-miler,” he said. “There was also a bike race and a marathon. So I was starting to pick off some marathon runners, which was encouraging. It helped me to see a person and have a goal to catch that person and keep going.”
As he approached his final mile, he could see the crowd of people waiting across the lake.
“There was music playing at the finish line… I could hear it across the lake,” he said. “It was Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing.’ I almost teared up a little bit. I was just thinking, [‘I’m at the end of this race. Everything’s hurting, but I’m almost done and I knew I won it by then. It was pretty emotional.’”]
He crossed the finish line, overwhelmed with pride and appreciation.
“Crossing the finish line there’s a couple seconds of reflection on the mental toughness and how hard it was to just keep pushing. There’s a kind of gratitude that my body was able to do that and I was able to push through the pain to achieve a goal and enjoy doing it.”
Ultimately, the biggest reward was standing on the other side of the finish line – his family, who he hadn’t seen for months.
“They all showed up wearing these corny shirts that said, ‘run Phillip run,’” he said. “It was nice to stop running and see them. There was a fire going and it was just a moment I could really soak in.”
Hundreds of hours and over 2,000 miles was all worth it for that moment.
“It was a goal for a long time, but it’s kind of weird how it worked out. For a couple years I’d given up on running – wasn’t my life anymore. But, my childhood goal worked out to get me where I’m at now. It’s just kind of crazy how it happened. My ultimate goal is to do the Hard Rock 100-miler. It’s pretty hard to get into. You have to do a lot of volunteering and qualifying races leading up to it. I want to build up to that as quickly and healthily as I can.”
The Wild Azalea Trail Challenge was only the beginning for the Reeves, Louisiana native.
“I like having a physical goal I can set and achieve,” he said. “It’s a great stress reliever and it keeps me fit. I hope to be one of those old guys you see at races still killing it in their 80’s. Who knows how many more miles I’ll run in my life. . . But, that’s what I love about running. I know it’s going to hurt tomorrow – it’s going to suck. There are going to be hours that are painful, and that’s what it is. But, I’m also going to enjoy it and I’ll be happier for it in the end.”