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Meeting The Third Man

By Dana Maccorquodale

I have a secret. On my first 30 mile run, in the sweltering heat of White House, TN, I had an encounter with the “Third Man”. It not only changed my view of training and racing, but it changed my life bringing me peace, joy and a love of training that cannot be quelled by my aging body. It drives me to push my body further and faster than ever. Only when you are at the precipice of disaster, the very edge of your capabilities as a human, will you encounter this most powerful presence. The Third Man Syndrome is very real for me.

I always began my very long runs (26+ miles) very early in the morning to escape the sweltering heat of Eastern TN. Out the door by 4am, wearing a Camelback and carrying 2 hand held water bottles. My headlamp and iPod would be my only company for the next 5-6 hours.

I ran loops on my long runs for safety and I knew all the water stops along the way. In case of emergency, I would be easy to find.

This run started out like most others; I was staying hydrated, maintaining my pace, ingesting plenty of calories and electrolytes to fuel my run and keep me moving. The miles began to slowly click away as the sun began to rise. I could feel the heat building. After 15 years in Hawaii, the humidity of TN was a shock to my system, however, I felt pretty good on that run for a long time. Of course, as every ultra athlete knows, you have moments when you feel like crap and you have moments of exhilaration and elation. You remember that those moments will pass and just keep running, don’t stop. I am a big proponent of not stopping as it trains you to run tired, to run through exhaustion. For me, once I stop and walk, it becomes too easy to stop and walk again. My solution, just keep running.

Part of my route was on the road and part was on a pretty secluded trail. The trail was my refuge from the blistering sun, a change in scenery to ease the mental monotony. I had my mom meet me at mile 25, for my last trail loop followed by a 1.5 mile run on the road. She refilled my fluids then left me to finish. 

As I turned onto the trail, I was feeling pretty good; I was hot, I was tired, but this is when I like training the most. Five miles left. I like the challenge and welcome the pain, I embrace it. It’s a little over a 5k loop on the trail. As I was running, I began to not feel well— becoming light headed, nauseous yet continuing to run, trying to shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.  A little further down the trail, I began to get frightened about my mental state. I was getting confused, disoriented, and slowly began to realize that I no longer knew where I was. Yes, I had run this trail countless times, I was not lost, my mental state had deteriorated so much that I was not able to discern reality from fantasy. My body was beginning to fail me and I was not in control of my mental faculties. 

At this point I was ready to give up, to lie down on the side of that trail and not get back up. I was physically incapable of taking another step.

It was also at this exact moment, I realized I was no longer alone. Fear left me, pain left me, I felt a moment of pure bliss, unadulterated happiness, and a calm overtake me that I have only felt once. I was being moved along by a power greater than myself. Although I felt the presence of another person, they were unseen but I was not alone. It was a spiritual awakening, the likes of which I have never known. This was real. There was a force at play I will never fully understand. My Third Man stayed with me until I made the turn back to my house; just long enough to lead me to safety and I was able to run home on my own power. 

I told three people about my experience. Every one thought I was nuts saying I was hallucinating from dehydration. But I wasn’t. 

There is a small group of ultra athletes who have had this experience along with thousands of others. The common thread is that they are all on the brink of total disaster. Climbers on Mt. Everest, men lost at sea, Ernest Shackleton and his crew on their tragic trip to Antartica have all experienced the Third Man. He is real. 

This is the first time telling people the real reason I love pushing my body so hard. I long for another experience with the Third Man. I have been chasing him since 2010 and as long as my body allows it, I will continue to push harder & further in my quest to meet him again.

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Dana MacCorquodale is the Head Masters & Open Water Swim Coach at TIDE Swimming in Virginia Beach. She is also a top 10% Ironman Finisher, marathon open water swimmer & ultra runner.