I was in the bathroom when the countdown began. For some reason I don’t have the urge to go until 10 minutes before the race starts, which is not exactly great timing. “10! 9! 8…”The good news is I’m fast (in the bathroom). Leaving the bathroom, I watched as the pack of runners ran off into the distance, signaling the beginning of the 2019 Castle Peak 100k.
When a friend suggested that I try the Castle Peak 100k last year, I went to the website to see the following warning: “The 1.25 mile Palisades section includes very technical, risky & exposed scrambling. This may not be appropriate for those with a fear of heights.” Based on my experience on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016, my immediate response was that I wouldn’t be able to do the race. I never thought I had a fear of heights until I found myself utterly paralyzed on Forester Pass in the High Sierra and crawling along the Knife’s Edge in Goat Rock’s Wilderness in Washington. Yep. This race was not appropriate for people like me. My friend, Dan, refused to believe my pleas and proceeded to email multiple friends who had done the race asking if they thought someone who had thru-hiked the PCT and won multiple Bay Area races would have a problem in the Palisades, to which they all responded absolutely not. I’m not sure these responses boosted my confidence, but I decided to sign up anyway. I attended the training runs and found that okay, fine – the Palisades weren’t so bad after all – as long as you don’t obsess over looking down and thinking about dying. Even the race wasn’t so bad, as I was too tired to focus my energy on being scared, and adrenaline and my pacer propelled me forward. After winning the race in 2018, I was invited back to run in 2019. Despite my initial hesitation and doubts that I could complete this race, I couldn’t resist doing it a second time. I loved the vibe of the race, the welcoming race directors, and I can honestly say it’s one of the most beautiful courses I’ve ever run. My hope was to PR, if even by minutes. My 2018 race had been mostly seamless, but I knew I had slowed down in the Palisades due to overall fatigue and lack of pressure from females behind. My goal was to PR and finish strong.
I made my way through the bottleneck of runners heading onto the singletrack. Ascending The Animal, I recalled how I had run the entire first 24 miles last year and perhaps that had contributed to my fatigue later in the race. I heard Ian Sharman’s voice on “Science of Ultra” in my head. “If you ask yourself – Will I be able to run this hill at the end of the race, and the answer is no – You should not be running that hill”. I decided to interject some power hiking, even though the first 24 miles is extremely runnable. I shared some miles with Dave and Dan, until Dan passed me heading up to Andromeda, looking effortlessly energetic. I arrived at Johnson Canyon 20 minutes later than last year. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me, and maybe it was a good thing to take it easy for the first third of the race. In my case, I felt terrible. Despite taking it “easy” in the first 24 miles, my legs already felt like they were trashed.
I left Johnson Canyon with this notion that I was behind and needed to make up time. But, there was only so much that my legs could do, so I did my best. I chatted with people along the way. I met a Frenchman who allowed me to recite the only thing I knew in French: the French alphabet, and he approved despite my terrible accent. I ran on and off with a guy from the East Coast who had thru-hiked the AT and chosen to run Castle Peak with his thru-hiking pals over celebrating his girlfriend’s birthday. Yep, this is my tribe. I asked people “How’s it going?” and when the response veered towards anything but positive, I reminded them that this day was not set in stone. Anything can happen in an ultra, and things are constantly changing. An upset stomach will not last forever. Tired legs can be revived. If anything, I was reassuring myself.
As predicted, there was a lot of hiking. But I didn’t mind. The hiking allowed me to take a breath, enjoy the view and wildflowers, and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This would be my last piece of solid food for the day, I concluded as I tossed the crust aside and struggled to gather enough saliva to swallow. The day was beginning to get warm, and it was a relief to get up to Basin Peak, the cool breezes that accompanied it, and the view of beautiful Castle Peak in the distance.
A photographer along the ridge commented that “You run all the fun races!” I started to question my decision to run these “fun” races that he spoke of. Upon arrival to the top of Castle Peak, I let out a long celebratory yelp and then took on the task of getting down. I thought about Garret and wondered if he would be bombing down, a far contrast from my tiptoeing. Despite my prudence, I did pass some runners on my way down – all men. There were no women in sight. The last woman I had passed was in Euer Valley, and the lead woman was running strong, miles ahead.
Upon arrival at the Castle Valley aid station, I was surprised to see Dan standing there. “How are you doing?” He asked me. I have no idea how I responded or if I responded, but deep inside I felt anything but strong. He mentioned that he was having stomach problems and took off. I filled up my water, grabbed a strawberry popsicle, and took off myself, but he had long gone. Heading to Hole in the Ground, I began to think about all the advice I had given to my friends who were running Castle Peak for the first time. “Save your legs for Hole in the Ground”, I had advised. Now I wasn’t even sure if I had legs for Hole in the Ground! My legs kept moving and I powered on, completely focused on the ground ahead of me. While this section of the course is very runnable, it’s deceivingly technical. I ran back and forth with Dan, but his fast hiking was far superior to my fast hiking. I longed for the Hole in the Ground aid station with rice balls Yuch had raved about last year, but the aid station had moved. It was now .2 miles up a hill that was off the main course, and there were no rice balls. After inquiring about this course update, I was told the new timing chips required cell phone reception. Hence, the .2 mile slog up the hill.
The road section from Hole in the Ground to Van Norden is painful, as are most road sections in the middle of a trail race. Not sure why this is other than the expectation that you should be going fast on a road and are not. It’s become a ritual to stop at the gas station bathroom on Donner Pass Rd. approaching the Van Norden aid station. Perhaps this is not the most competitive move for someone in a race, but then again maybe I’m not the most competitive person. I dashed into the bathroom, sat down on the toilet and well, I just sat. It was really nice. Then I washed my hands at the sink with soap. Also, very nice. Then I splashed water on my face multiple times. So nice. But life must go on, and my pacer Moriah would be waiting for me and wondering where I was. So, I left my secret pit stop and proceed to head up to Van Norden. During my brief time in the bathroom, someone with a green shirt had passed me. It was Dan! Maybe I had been in the bathroom longer than I thought…
It was 3:40 when I arrived at Van Norden, 20 minutes later than last year. I was surprised to find that I had run the last split around the same pace as last year despite my slower first split. A PR was not in the cards for me, but at least I wasn’t totally bombing this race. Well, not yet, anyway.
Running with Moriah gave me a new energy, but soon my stomach began to hurt. It felt huge and bloated, like a giant balloon full of air. I knew I had to continue taking in fuel, but with each drink of my Gu Roctane Summit Tea, I felt a painful jab to my balloon stomach. To make matters worse, my stomach hurt when I ran, but was fine when I hiked. We encountered perfectly runnable sections that I had to walk, much to my chagrin.
Even though I continued to take in fuel, I felt completely void of energy and utterly wasted. I told Moriah I was proud of my race and that I would continue to try to do my best. I knew the gap between me and the first place woman had widened considerably, but my focus was on staying positive and running the best race I could on that day. I knew if I gave in completely, I would regret it later, so I kept pushing.
Random volunteers seemed to be scattered along the Palisades, and in an emotional moment I hugged a female volunteer on the way up to Mt. Lincoln. The Palisades seemed to go on forever, and after endless rope climbs and steep scrambles, I arrived at Mt. Lincoln. We were greeted by Suzanna Bon who Moriah recognized from PCTR’s Armstrong Redwoods 50k, and we proceeded to take a picture of the three us, once again.
I threw down a Gu Cold Brew Coffee gel and crossed my fingers that my balloon stomach would not burst, and we took off.
I’m not sure if it was the Cold Brew Coffee or the fact that the end was near, but I was moving. I ran hills that I thought I couldn’t run. I guess my Central Governor decided it was safe to push since we were so close to the finish. Thank you, Central Governor, but also damn you, Central Governor! With the oncoming sunset, the air was now a cool temperature and the breeze was cooling on my previously overheated body. After Mt. Judah, it would all be cruising singletrack down to the fire road to Sugarbowl. But, wait – the course ribbons were not going down the singletrack. They were continuing up and up! “Oh man”, I told Moriah as I kept brainlessly moving forward. “We’re going up again”. The RDs had revised the course once again. Perhaps, another cell phone spot?! The descent from the “cell phone spot” was precarious and slow, but soon we rejoined with the buttery singletrack and we were on our way to the finish.
In the end, the RDs made one final course revision which was the finish line. It had moved over just slightly to the right of the chairlift, but my brain seemed to remember finishing to the left. Moriah verbally guided me in the right direction and I crossed the finish line as the second female and 15th overall.
I remember thinking after Never Summer that that was the hardest race I had ever done, but after this year’s Castle Peak, I decided the 2019 Castle Peak was the hardest race I had done. I’m not sure if I will continue to say that about every race that I run, as if I’m suffering from some form of ultra-amnesia. I think what stuck out to me is that throughout the day, I never felt strong. I felt trashed early on and continued to run in this state. My physical training which includes a lot of back to back runs on tired legs allowed me to continue running despite my fatigue. The comradery on the trail helped me stay positive, and knowing my friends were out there experiencing the same trails gave me energy to keep moving. Even when a PR and winning was off the table, I gave it my best so that I could say and know that I did. If I learned anything from this year’s race it is that attitude is paramount, never ever give in/up, races with friends are a ton of fun, and hugs are huge.