"The day we're born we start to die – Don't waste one minute of this life – Get to livin' – Share your dreams and share your laughter – Make some points for the great hereafter" – Dolly Parton
My name is Meg(an), and I love to run. More generally, I love to be outside! Via my blog, I hope to offer you my perspective on some of the races that I participate in, and perhaps to inspire you along the way to run in some of these beautiful places.
This June, our good friend Dan and his family moved to Switzerland for his work. The following thoughts ensued. Sounds like a great opportunity. We will miss you terribly. Can we come and visit? What races can we find in Switzerland? Of course there are lots of iconic races in the area: UTMB, the Eiger Ultra Trail, Sierre-Zinal, and the Jungfrau Marathon to name a few. Somehow Yuch identified the Swiss Peaks trail festival, and the decision was made.
The Swiss Peaks 100k is part of a larger trail festival offering races of all distances: 360k, 170k, 100k, marathon, half marathon, and even a kids race. The 100k is actually a 96k (60ish miles), with 5790 meters of gain (19,000ish feet). In other words, similar elevation gain to the Bighorn 100, but in 40 less miles. As per my usual, I was hesitant to sign up, but when Yuch offered the entry as my Christmas present, I couldn’t resist. Plus, I couldn’t let them have all the fun without me.
I haven’t had much time for training since I’ve been working full time, but between my solid base, biking to work, and running every chance I get, I knew I had enough miles underneath me to “survive”. My goal was 18-20 hours, but I was prepared for a 24 hour+ day if worse came to worse.
The race started at 8:30 am in a quaint little village called Finhaut (pronounced fah-ooh), and ended in Bouveret, a village on the southernmost end of Lake Geneva. We got accommodations in Finhaut and Dan and family got accommodations in Bouveret, so we had a place to crash at the finish. Having an Airbnb just minutes away from the start was awesome. It allowed me to sleep 10 luxurious hours that night and have a nice leisurely pre-race morning. At the start, announcers said all kinds of things I didn’t understand until the countdown which I could only assume meant we were taking off very soon. Heading up the road leaving Finhaut, kids shouted “Allez allez!” and before I knew it we were off into the mountains.
There are ten peaks and nine refueling stations on the trek from Finhaut to Bouveret. Types of refueling stations varied between light refueling, full refueling, integral fueling, and lifebases. Don’t ask me what the difference was between each. I think the differences mattered more for the longer races. For example, we had only one lifebase during the 100k, but these were critical stations for those doing the 360k as there were beds for sleeping and showers. For us, the lifebase was where we would find our following bag.
The course profile was up, down, up, down, a little bit of flat, up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down, repeat. The ups were basically a whole lotta power hiking with the poles, which was fine by me. At the top of the first peak, Col de Fenestral (2450 meters), I thought alright, time for downhill!
Too bad the downhill was even slower than my uphill. All the runners I had passed on the uphill and even those behind me were now passing me as I crawled along trying not to faceplant on the technical descent. The next ascent brought us to Col d’Emaney at 2462 meters. More super steep and slow hiking. It was going to be a long day. Fortunately I had a lot of bovine company along the way. There were tons of cows with massive cowbells on their necks along the course.
Fortunately the descent from Col d’Emaney looked fairly runnable. I took a cue from the runners around me and stashed my poles this time, and took in the nice runnable singletrack to the first aid station at Auberge de Salanfe.
First aid station, and it only took me…4 hours?! I was currently traveling at a pace of 2.5 miles an hour. Some running race! The aid station here had all the usual fair, bananas, watermelon, candy bars, but then there was bread, cheese, salami, and chocolate! Interesting. I wasn’t sure if I could handle that, so filled up on water, grabbed a granola bar, and took off.
The rest of the ascents and descents were kind of a blur. All I know is that they were hard as heck, and the usual negative thoughts creeped through my brain. “I’m never doing this again”. “If this is what UTMB is like, I’m never doing UTMB”. Then, it started raining on the descent from Col de Susanfe. The race had advised us to carry certain cold weather gear in our pack (rain jacket, warm second layer, gloves, and leggings), and to put it on sooner rather than later if bad weather hit. As the rain started, I couldn’t be bothered to put on any layers in such an exposed area so I just kept going hoping for some future coverage. A runner ahead of me slipped on a particularly slick rock, fell on his back, and hit his head. “Ahhh!” He moaned as he held both of his hands on either side of his head. I stopped, eyes wide open. “Are you okay??” I asked him. “Ahhh!” was all he could say. Finally he said in broken English that he would be okay and that I should go on. I left, pretty shaken up. The rocks were really slick now. What if that had been me?
I slipped two times after this, luckily without any harm done but still freaked out. I repeated to myself that I couldn’t do this, and that it wasn’t worth injuring myself. I considered DNFing and I thought about my friend Paul. Before the race he commented that I was the only American woman running. As long as I didn’t DNF, I would be the first American woman. Therefore, it would be pretty lame if I DNFed. Shortly after I came across a little shed. I decided to take cover and put on my rain layers. Some other runners saw me duck in there and had the same idea. I ended up taking way too much time taking off my shoes so I could take my shorts off and put my leggings on, and putting my warm layer and rain jacket on. After all was said and done, I departed the shed to find that the rain had stopped and now I was sweating like a pig.
I arrived at the aid station at Barme pretty relieved to be there. The aid stations were not that far apart distance wise, but seeing as though I was going at a snail’s pace they were a welcome reprieve from the ups and downs of the race course. At Barme the aid station was in front of a hotel/restaurant. I utilized the bathroom inside which was very luxurious, but I had to move on. Hmm, what to eat from the aid station? Bread and cheese it was. Yum! I decided to have some more, hoping that there would not be dire consequences to this nutrition decision. I also had several cups of Coke. I still couldn’t be bothered to do a clothing change so continued on out of Barme. As I continued, I decided I couldn’t bear to continue on with leggings and pulled aside the trail to make yet another time-consuming clothing change. The rain seemed to have stopped for now.
From this point on, I pretty regularly consumed bread and cheese at the aid stations, while having Spring Energy Awesome Sauce and dried pineapple and dates on the trail. One of the aid stations had chocolate fondue and I saw a runner dipping a banana in it. As much as I wanted to experience fondue in Switzerland, this did not look particularly appealing right now.
I approached the lifebase at Morgins (approximate half way point) close to sunset. This is where I would find my following bag. I was looking forward to dumping some of my wet layers and grabbing some of my dry ones. The lifebase was full of runners seated at long tables taking a much needed break and feasting on food. After making all the necessary changes and grabbing some more food, I decided I needed to move on. Leaving Morgins, I saw a runner heading up the trail with a Ben Nevis race shirt on. I asked him what year he had done the race, and he responded…in English! Up until this point, I had been on my own because no one on the trail spoke English. I decided to keep talking to this gentleman.
Maarten was from Zurich and was running the 170k. He had done the 360k the previous year, but due to family/training limitations, he had decided to do the “shorter” distance. He was very familiar with the course. He told me he was spending a decent amount of time at aid stations to insure that he was properly fueled for each section. I knew I would probably not spend as much time as him and that eventually we would part. However, as we continued on together, the unspoken decision was made that we were better off together. We never talked about it, but he started to spend less time at aid stations and I started to spend more time at aid stations.
Having Maarten’s company was monumental for me as we ran through the dark and then the rain for the last few hours of the race. It helped that he knew the course and all I had to do was follow behind him. It also helped to lighten the mood to have someone belting out a continuous stream of farts in between singing Danish folk songs. The second half of the race was not as crazy technical as the first half, but that didn’t mean that it was necessarily runnable. It was still quite technical and the rain contributed to some pretty slippery and muddy sections. I told Maarten, if I had been alone, I probably would have been resenting the fact that Yuch was not with me. Instead, I was absolutely fine.
As we got off the trail and entered the village of Bouveret, Maarten and I started to pick up the pace. We had passed a number of runners on the descent and were starting to get big heads about it. We saw some more runners in the distance and decided we would try and pass them, too. It’s always amazing how much gas you have left in reserve at the end of a race. Crossing the finish line was anticlimactic, but that was perfectly fine with me. I could count the number of people at the finish line on one hand. It was 4:30 am in the morning, after all. I finished the race in 20 hours and 52 minutes, 12th female, and 1st American woman.
The Bighorn 100 was a really tough race for me. It was not tough because it was a hundred miles. It would have been as tough if it had been 100 kilometers, 50 miles, or even a 50k for that matter. My legs felt crappy from the start. I’m not totally sure why. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to run the Dipsea 5 days before (but it sure was fun!)
Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to do yoga the day before. Maybe the heat zapped any and all energy from my legs. Or maybe it just wasn’t my day. But who cares about all of my excuses? I knew Bighorn would be tough. I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for the race. I had heard good things about the race (cool local vibe, beautiful course), but mainly bad things (soul sucking mud and freezing night time temps). I guess that’s what drew me to the race. I craved the challenge. We don’t sign up for these things knowing they’re easy. We sign up because we secretly (or not so secretly) desire the challenge, so that we can have the opportunity to overcome the challenges, and end up a changed person on the other side.
My first drop bag was at mile 13.5 Dry Fork Ridge and I already felt like I had come a long way. The race had started at 9 am and the forecast for the day was in the 90s. I started the race with Kfaka’s Kool Tie , or what I refer to as my “neck snake”. You soak it in water, the crystals inside hydrate, and the thing blows up like a gelatinous snake.
The snake worked out fine, keeping my neck cool, but at 13.5 miles, I decided it was time to get serious and picked up my ice bandana. I filled it with ice and yow! The ice was so cold it almost hurt, but it did its job, keeping my neck and therefore my core temperature cool. It worked so well that the heat never really bothered me. In addition to constantly keeping my ice bandana stocked with ice, I took advantage of each creek crossing, dipping my arm sleeves and visor in the water.
En route to Sally’s Footbridge at mile 30, I fantasized about all the ways I could get out of running the rest of the race. Yuch was somewhere behind me, but I was surprised that he hadn’t caught up with me. Maybe he DNFed too? If that was the case, perhaps I should DNF in solidarity. He needed me! Maybe I could DNF and blame it on my toe. I had sprained it 10 days before the race and had to buddy tape it to its neighboring toe. While it had bothered me in the days leading up to the race, it didn’t appear to be an issue. But, I could pretend that it was a colossal issue if that meant sneaking out of this massive endeavor I had ahead of me. The point is I wanted to DNF already at 30 miles. That is not a good sign when you have 70 more miles on the menu.
It’s not like anything was going terribly wrong. I was managing the heat really well and I was taking down food with no problems. My legs just felt trashed and that scared me. I also felt terribly lonely. Arriving at Sally’s, a volunteer asked me if I needed anything. I felt like crying. I told her I needed my boyfriend and he was nowhere to be found. I was scared of going on by myself. Scared of 70 more miles on these already trashed legs. Scared of the unknown. So I did the only thing I knew how to do and kept moving.
Leaving Sally’s, I ran a little bit with another female runner. It was clear this was not her first hundo, and I told her it was mine. I said I already felt like DNFing to which she responded that I couldn’t do that. “It’s an unwritten law that you have to finish your first 100!” I thought, that doesn’t sound like a law at all, but okay. I’m sure she just made that up, but I decided I better try and keep up with her as best as I could.
Another runner joined us and before I knew it they were ahead of me, chatting with each other, sharing a similar pace, and I got left behind. Alone, again. It’s not like I mind being alone. But I think it was kind of getting to me today. A big part of my enjoyment of races is meeting and running with other people. I had been running alone all day and feeling like crap. The wildflowers were pretty and the scenery was nice, but it was hard to enjoy it in my current mental state. It was hard to appreciate the highs and lows without any companionship or commiseration. You know what they say…misery likes company.
The miles leading up to the turnaround at mile 48 aka Jaws were slow, wet, and cold. We were approaching 9,000 feet and the trail was filled with a lotta mud, water, and snow. Ok yeah I could have gone much faster, but the feet were a concern. It would be a while until I got to dry socks and shoes and didn’t want to gain any foot issues before then. Avoiding wet feet was a futile effort. It was impossible. I avoided the water by going on the snow, only to frequently find myself post-holing into freezing cold slush. The trekking poles helped, sometimes. Because other times they post-holed too. I started running with another female runner who happened to be going my same snow/mud/slush pace. Getting to Jaws was bittersweet. I had overcome the trail to Jaws, but now I had to go back that same way and it was getting dark.
The aid station at Jaws was a well-oiled operation. The runners were shuttled inside a big tented space with chairs lined up, and numerous volunteers helped runners get food, give pep talks, and assess feet. I knew my feet were soggy, but I wasn’t about to get them assessed. I grabbed my drop bag, some noodle soup, and Coke then sat down to organize my things. I knew I was going to get cold fast. I had tons of warm clothing options in my drop bag that people had recommended I bring. I put on my Smartwool merino long sleeved shirt, my rain jacket, and my Light-Belt. It was so nice and cozy here at Jaws. Did I really have to leave?
I left Jaws with my new friend, Dana. It was her first 100 miler too. She was also from out of town and without a pacer, so we decided to stick together. I think we made a good team. We both had the silly idea (pre-race) that we were going to join the Rusty Spurs club (i.e. run sub-24 hours), but now had accepted the fact that we were going to be out on the course much longer than we expected. And we were okay with that. It was nice to have someone to talk to, commiserate with, and slip in slushy snow with. I told her about Yuch and that if I saw him, I would stop to talk to him, and that she should go on without me. As soon as I saw him, I pulled him aside and gave him a big hug. I told him, “I love you. I miss you.” and maybe something like “Hurry up and catch up with me”. But he was a mile or two from the turnaround which meant he was 2-4 miles behind me. I suppose I could have waited, but that idea didn’t seem to make sense. I felt like I needed to keep moving forward. Part of me felt like if I waited for Yuch, he might end up leaving me at some point and then I would be back to being alone. So, I said goodbye and moved on the trail, hoping that he would catch up with me at some point.
I was back to being alone again.The night was warm, and I quickly stripped off all my extra layers. I had descended past the snowy parts, and now the trail was “runnable”. Or was it?! Despite my Light-Belt lighting up the trail, I felt uneasy on my feet. Running was hard physically and mentally. My legs felt like they couldn’t run, but also I felt like I didn’t trust myself to put my feet in the right places without spraining an ankle, ending up in mud, or slipping on a rock. So I kept walking. And walking. And walking. I felt like I had no other choice. I had run out of running legs. After a lot of walking I decided this was going to take a long freaking time if I kept this up. Yeah, I guess I could walk the rest of the race, but think about how much faster I could get to the finish if I ran!
I forced myself to start running. It did not feel good, but who said anything about this feeling good? It had to be done. I realized that I could run (sort of), I just had to ignore the fact that it hurt…a lot. I finally decided to take in some caffeinated gels, and this helped tremendously. I realized that although I wasn’t sleepy, part of the reason why I was having trouble running was that I was unfocused. The caffeine helped me focus on navigating the rocks and puddles. Now we were talking.
The night sky was beautiful. I noticed it because I was now stopping to pee every 5 minutes. Perhaps my consistent hydration from the day had now caught up to me? I was barely drinking much now in the nighttime, but yet I peed at least a dozen times in 1 hour. I began to worry that I was over hydrated. Why was I peeing so much? Despite my numerous pee breaks, no one was catching up to me. Every now and then I would see a light that I thought was a headlamp, but it was just a course ribbon.
I finally caught up to Dana at the next aid station. Her feet were a mess and somehow she had collected a new pair of “borrowed” shoes and socks from one of the volunteers. The only problem was that the shoes were too small for her. This didn’t seem like a great idea to me, but she was pretty happy to have a change of shoes, and hoped they would get her to her next drop bag where she would have a pair of shoes waiting for her. I ate some more Ramen, which had now become my nighttime fuel of choice. Nice hot broth and carby noodles. We continued on together.
At Sally’s, we did all our drop bag and gear exchanges, stocked up on fuel, and made sure to head out together. I think we both knew we were stronger together. I again told the aid station volunteers to tell Yuch to hurry up and catch up with me. The climb out of Sally’s was brutal. It was a lot of steep climbing for a long long time. Or at least it felt that way. But Dana was a strong climber and kept up with me well. I had to go to the bathroom again, but needed to wait until the trail leveled out and there was somewhere to go. At the top, we arrived to a windy ridge. I squatted down, and failed to consider the consequences of urinating in the wind. The pee never made it to the ground. Honestly, this was the least of my worries. Running all day long through heat, mud, and snow really puts things in perspective. While I was peeing on myself, Dana lost her hat to the wind. We powered on.
The night time never felt hard from a sleep-deprived point of view. I was worried because I had such a hard time keeping my eyes open at New Years One Day, but this was very different. I was too busy problem solving and moving forward to worry about sleep. It also helped to have Dana there to talk to, commiserate with, and bounce ideas off of. Don’t ask me what ideas we were bouncing off each other, but I’m pretty sure that happened at some point. We kept each other moving by making conscious efforts to start and stop running. I could tell that she had the same determined and hardworking mindset as me and she never once failed to follow my lead. This was not an emotional endeavor. It was strictly business, and we just had to keep chipping away at the miles.
At Kern’s Cow Camp, Dana decided she needed to assess her feet. She knew they were a mess and that something had to be done. My feet were a mess too, but there was no way I was opening up that can of worms. Her eyes filled up with tears as she told me I should go on without her, that she really needed to take the time to deal with the situation. I had no idea how long it would take, so as much as I hated to leave without her, I left the aid station alone.
Arriving at Dry Fork Ridge the second time was a milestone. I had gone 82.5 miles which meant I was getting very close. I knew my feet were soggy and that the trail was relatively dry from here on out so I decided to change into clean shoes and socks. The medic/volunteer/foot-person/angel brought me a bin of water that I could soak and wash my feet in, in addition to a small towel to dry them off with. My feet were water logged. I had a couple blisters, but overall nothing to complain about, and my buddy tape still had managed to stay in place. I changed into a clean pair of Injini socks which meant I would have to buddy tape my sprained toe over my socks. I took my sweet time eating two cups of ramen, and left Dry Fork with clean dry feet and a belly full of noodles. As I left, I saw Dana coming in. I was happy to see that she had not dropped and had resolved her foot issues.
Unlike the previous day, the morning was relatively cool. The clouds favorably covered the sky keeping temps low and manageable. But as the morning progressed, this would change. I had left my ice bandana and visor at Jaws, thinking that I wouldn’t need them anymore. Now I was regretting this as I had no protection from the sun.
The single track was hard. My legs were dead and it was freaking technical. I walked a lot. I got passed by a couple men who seemed to be flying as if the trail was smooth as butter. I decided I needed to be more like them. Again, I forced myself to run. Again, I realized that I could do it if I just wanted it bad enough. It wasn’t pretty but I ran as much as I could. As soon as I started running I turned on Lindsey Stirling. I had initially turned my music on leaving Dry Fork, but immediately turned it off once I realized that music just isn’t that helpful when you’re poking along like a turtle. Now was the time to use it. Not that I was moving super fast, mind you, but I was moving.
I arrived at the last aid station before the finish, mile 96. The volunteers informed me that the last stretch was 5 miles of flat road. I looked at my watch and saw that it was 12:10 pm. If I could do sub 10-minute miles for the last 5 miles I could get a sub 28-hour finish in. This was no Rusty Spurs kinda goal, but I needed some kind of motivation to get myself to the finish so sub 28-hours it would be. I started running as fast as possible. I felt like I was running so fast. This was like a road marathon effort! But alas, I was not running as fast as I thought. Nevertheless, I passed quite a bit of people, both 18 milers and 100 milers alike. These people were just trying to get to the finish, but me? I had a goal here. I needed to get to the finish before 1 pm, or else. Or else, what? Or else I’d turn into a pumpkin. So, I did not stop at the popsicle stand. I did not slow down. I ran as fast as I possibly could. But it was not fast enough. I crossed the finish line in 28:00:02.
A volunteer asked me at the Tongue River Trailhead aid station (mile 95) if I would do this race again. I politely told them that it was not a great time to ask me a question like that. The truth is I would not. BUT. I would most certainly do a hundred miler again. I’m proud of myself for moving forward despite feeling like crap so early on. Just because you’re having a bad day or whatever, does not give you the license to quit or to justify quitting. Good things can still happen. I managed the heat superbly with the help of my ice bandana. I kicked ass at hydration and fueling and had zero GI problems. If it sounds like I’m boasting, it’s because I can. I’ve sucked at both of these things in the past, and having gotten to a point where I am able to problem solve through both of these things is a big accomplishment for me.
To those who ask, I’ve told that I did not find this experience very enjoyable at the time. I’m not totally sure why. Perhaps feeling physically bad led me to a bad mental state which led me incapable of enjoying the race. Some people might say “Do you ever enjoy this kind of thing?” My answer is, yes – of course! Most of the time I do. I would not do this crazy thing otherwise. Maybe I was too in my head until I met Dana. I’m not sure ultras are for me if I have to experience them completely alone. What’s the point of life if it cannot be shared with other people? Both the ups and the downs. Both the wildflowers and the mud. Joy and misery are better together. Having said all this, this was definitely leaning towards a more Type II fun. I found the experience incredibly rewarding. Solving problems and overcoming fear, anxiety, and feelings of failure is a gratifying and worthwhile practice. And for that I am hugely grateful to the Bighorn 100. So maybe it isn’t the most spectacular course I’ve ever seen. But it may be one of the most rewarding. Because without the obstacles, there is no overcoming. And the Bighorn 100 provides plenty of obstacles.
Disclaimer: Despite the hugely rewarding nature of the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run, do not sign up for this race unless are up to the following: chronically soggy feet, post-holing in slushy snow, lotsa mud, 90+ degree temps during the day, quad banging technical trails, and a long freakin day(s).
What does it mean to have a successful race? Does it mean that you won? That you got a “good” time? Placed well? Got a PR? Finished under the cutoff? Finished, period? Didn’t poop your pants? Nailed your nutrition? Had a good time? Didn’t die? Died, but then came back from the dead? Sure! Success could mean all these things or it could mean one of these things. Or maybe it’s none of these things and you have your own idea of a successful race and that’s fine too. The point is that success is very personal and not limited to some external interpretation of what it means to do “well” on race day.
My goal for the 2022 Canyons 100k was to finish, secure my Western States qualifier for the year, and procure my UTMB “stones”. Ideally, I wanted to finish before dark, too. This may seem like a not-so-ambitious goal for a semi-seasoned runner like me, but it was a realistic goal. On January 11th, I sprained my ankle and fractured my distal fibula playing soccer. It was a pretty traumatic injury. I went for a ball that my opponent was also going for on the opposite side (of my foot). We both kicked at it and well, she won. My ankle rolled as it endured the hard impact of a soccer ball being kicked at it. I limped off the field and fell into a puddle of tears. I cried all night, for the loss of soccer, my running, and my upcoming races.
After my initial meltdown, I embraced my time off running. In fact, I welcomed it as an unplanned “off season”. During this time, I truly enjoyed having time in my day to do things other than running. I found myself recovering pretty quickly, and noticed improvements on a daily basis. I found I was able to do yoga and kettlebell wearing my boot. Eventually when the boot came off, I was able to ride my bike. I tried to stay as active as possible on a daily basis without compromising my ankle. On February 12th, exactly one month after the injury, I went on my first trail run.
After surviving my first run back on the trail, I decided I needed to start training for Canyons. Recovering from injury and training is a tricky thing to juggle. My primary goal was to be strong enough to do Canyons, but I also needed to avoid reinjury. My weekly mileage (in miles) looked like this: February: 22, 38, 55. March: 65, 53, 70, 85. April: 42, 67, 36, race week! At the beginning of February I also started a new job as an exercise physiologist at a cardiac rehab center in Santa Rosa and began biking and taking the SMART train to work (9 miles of biking a day). At work, I am on my feet for the majority of my day (a stark contrast to my time at Roost). Despite having limited time to run, I was living and breathing endurance on a daily basis, starting from leaving the house at 6:45 am on my bike.
As race day approached, I felt more and more confident that I might in fact be able to start and finish the race. On March 27th, Yuch, Dan, and I celebrated Yuch’s 53rd birthday by running 54 miles with a total of 12,500 ft of elevation gain (1 extra mile for luck). Yuch remarked that I was “officially healed”, although I still didn’t feel like my ankle was 100% better. Still, I had a lot more confidence that I could do Canyons. I decided to set another goal (kind of last minute, but hey better than never). I wanted to try and do a better job with my nutrition.
Nutrition is always hard for me as the race distance gets longer, and the last two Castle Peaks I ended up with a giant balloon of a belly which caused me to do a whole lotta walking in the last 10 miles. I decided to make the following changes for Canyons.
Take care to avoid dairy and too many veggies in the couple of days leading up to the race. Put more simply, eat simple foods.
Do not use electrolyte drinks as fuel. Only drink water and eat solid fuel.
Use up-front soft flasks for water (instead of bladder). Empty soft flasks completely and refill at each aid station.
Stay on top of food and hydration (ok this wasn’t a change, but I never seem to be able to successfully do this!)
Stay calm and keep RPE (rate of perceived exertion) low(ish) (12-14 on a 6-20 scale).
I showed up at the start line of the 2022 Canyons 100k with a beginner’s mind. Maybe it was because I hadn’t raced in a while, maybe it was because it was my first race post-ankle injury, or maybe because it was the first time in a long time that I didn’t have a laminated piece of paper with goal splits in my pocket. I started the race conservatively. I knew the first half of the race was going to be very runnable and the second half would have the steep descents and ascents of the Canyons. I really wanted to be able to run that second half. Although I was running at a pretty comfortable pace, I felt a lot of anxiety at the start as we all merged onto singletrack and I felt runners behind and ahead of me.
I managed my anxiety and intensity using the RPE scale. The Borg 6-20 RPE scale was designed to correlate well with heart rate (for a young healthy 20 something year old). A RPE of 6 means no exertion at all, while a 20 indicates maximal exertion. Add a zero to the 6, and you get a resting heart rate of 60 bpm for so-called-young and healthy-individual. Add a zero to the 20, and you get a maximal heart rate of 200 bpm. In cardiac rehab, we want our patients to be at a 12-16 (somewhat hard to hard). A RPE less than this means they are not exerting themselves hard enough to get the proper heart adaptations. A higher RPE means they are exerting themselves too hard. Although I do not run ultras to strengthen my heart, I decided to practice what I preach and stay at a RPE of 12-14. More concretely, when I found myself feeling anxious or over exerting myself, I would focus on my breathing, and staying in that 12-14 zone.
The first 50k to Foresthill was extremely runnable. I graciously let runners on my tail ahead of me. I was not in a rush. I ate 100 calories every half hour. If I had a 200 calorie item, I would eat only half of it, then finish the second half a half hour later. Outside of ultras, I sort of eat like a bird, and my GI system is not used to processing large quantities of food so frequently. Despite my conservative start, I felt tired coming into Foresthill. If I already felt tired, what was the rest of the day going to look like? At Foresthill, I used the restroom, loaded up on water and drop bag items, and sat down while I ate a 1/4 homemade PB & J. In the past I have tried to get in and out of aid stations quickly, but it was important for me to make smart decisions on the early side today.
Now I will admit that I am writing this blog entry one month-post race and my memory is not so good, so please forgive me for my lack of details for the second half of the race i.e. “the hard part”. Despite the fact that I had doubted myself early on in the race, at some point I started getting into more of a “flow” state. I think the change in terrain helped with this. My legs like variety which is part of the reason why I gravitate towards hillier races. The second half delivered. It’s difficult to spend much time in your head when you need to focus on getting in and out of canyons. I tried to run the descents quickly and efficiently while also prioritizing not re-injuring my ankle. The ascents were all about power hiking what was too steep (or just not efficient) to run, and running what was runnable. Again, RPE of 12-14. The hiking was a welcome reprieve from the running, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was easy. Just different.
I arrived at Deadwood, a 5-mile loop which bypasses the last aid station of the race. Volunteers directed me up the hill to the aid station (the beginning of the 5-mile loop). On the way up, numerous runners on their way back from the aid station and out of the loop flew by me. I was surprised at how many females were ahead of me. Not only were they ahead of me, but they were a 5-mile loop ahead of me! Because I had started mid-pack at the start, I really had no sense of where I was in the race, but this informed me I was indeed nowhere near the front. At Deadwood, I got some Sprite and some amazing avocado rice balls. Some might even call them amaze-balls. I generally don’t eat aid station food, but these were just what the doctor ordered. I ate two and proceeded on with the 5-mile loop. The beginning was slow and hard, but at some point it leveled out and most of the loop was smooth and fairly fast single track, until I arrived at the intersection that I had arrived at upon first entering Deadwood. I went up the hill to the aid station (again), ate a couple more amaze-balls, and gathered what I needed from my drop bag. I was now finish line-bound and it was then that I decided I could start “racing”. I grabbed my headphones, turned on Lindsey Stirling’s newest album Artemis, and set off for the last stretch to the finish line.
I started passing runners who had slowed to a walk. I seemed to have plenty of running legs left (two to be exact) and no longer needed to hike some of the easier ascents. With Lindsey Stirling’s help, I powered through that last stretch, finally beginning to benefit from my conservative start. At some point, I began to wonder how close I was to the finish. Deadwood had been the last aid station and without a watch, I had no concept of mileage. At the top of a long ascending fire road, I spotted a photographer. I began to get excited thinking – if there’s a photographer here, I must be close to the finish. I turned my music off and put my headphones away in anticipation. I asked him something along the lines of “Am I there yet?” His answer was not reassuring and he told me if I wanted to get to the finish, I better keep moving along the trail. So, I did. Until…the trail turned into a trail river. All of a sudden, the trail was flanked with freshly packed snow, a gift from the recent rain the night before. And the trail itself had become a river of freshly melted snow.
At first, I tried to avoid the water, by hopping on to the snowbanks on the side decorated with footprints from fellow runners ahead of me. After a while, I decided it was not worth the effort nor a potential sprained ankle, so fully committed to the trail river. A couple of miles of splashing in mud, water, and snow brought the realization that the finish was not as close as I had thought. Maybe I shouldn’t have put Lindsey Stirling away so soon. But I’m not even sure my music could have helped me. These last few miles would be a long, slow, and very wet slog. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I began to hear the finish line. I arrived to a road, crossed it, and the trail river and slog continued right up to the finish line.
I finished the 2022 Canyons 100k 25th female with a time of 13:14:46. Despite my not-so-impressive time and place, this was definitely one of my most successful races. Why? I set goals and was able to meet them. I was able to finish strong and passed numerous runners in the last stretch from Deadwood to the finish. I did not have the GI issues that have plagued me for many of my previous ultras. In the past, I have relied purely on my bladder for hydration and tend to “drink to thirst”. This is not a great method for me as I consider myself a terrible judge of when I am thirsty. Additionally, I have a hard time gauging how much water I have left in my bladder, often conserving it when I should be drinking it. By relying purely on my two soft flasks, I was able to do a better job of hydrating consistently between aid stations. By keeping my hydration and fuel separate, I was also able to do a better job of keeping on top of fueling. In the end, I did not end up with a bloated balloon belly and was able to keep providing my body with energy up to the finish.
Another interesting difference between this race and others was how quickly I gained an appetite following the race. I usually cannot eat for hours and sometimes not until the next day because my stomach is so messed up after racing. After Canyons, I actually was hungry right away and ready for my post-race burrito. Some might say that this is due to not running as fast as previous races that I have won or podium-ed, but I don’t think this is the case. My time at Canyons was actually faster than any of my races at Castle Peak and Never Summer. Of course, it’s difficult to compare apples to oranges here as Castle Peak and Never Summer were both at altitude and higher temps.
I initially did not expect to be wow-ed by this race. I have run the Western States course numerous times during the Memorial Day training runs, and admit that there are much more beautiful race courses out there. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by all that the Canyons 100k has to offer. For me, number one on the list is the challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenging elevation profile. The runnable first half and ups and downs of the second half requires strategic pacing and part of me would like to come back to see if I can improve my time on the course. Number two is the bang for your buck, and I’m not talking about race goodies because all I got is one measly t-shirt. I’m talking about getting your Western States qualifier and UTMB stones all in one race without having to travel very far. Canyons is now a UTMB race which means there is a lot of hype and fanfare (if you like that kind of stuff). It’s also a Western States golden ticket race and UTMB “golden ticket?” race which means you can expect the entrants list to be ridiculously deep (if you like that kind of stuff).
Although I considered the Canyons 100k a definite win, there are always things to learn and take into future races. For one, I had a lot more to give when I finished the race. While it is always a good feeling to finish feeling strong, having more to give signaled to me that I probably could have conserved a little less during that first half. It really was not until Deadwood that I gave myself permission to start seriously moving. Although I didn’t go into the race with a competitive mindset, it was interesting to observe how important this mindset is if you want to be competitive. Time goals are also critical. Like I mentioned before, I typically have some kind of finish time goal with goal splits written out on a piece of paper in my pocket. It was interesting to take a completely different approach and see where that landed me. Going forward, I’d really like to take my wins from this race and combine them with a competitive mindset and see if I can find some kind of happy balance between the two. In the end, I consider my experience at the Canyons 100k a success. I finished, I didn’t poop my pants, I nailed my nutrition, had a good time, died, and then came back from the dead. In my mind, that is a successful race.
Kind. Loving. Generous. Modest. Loyal. Simple. Friend. The words come easily from my mouth when describing Joe Whelan. Anyone who knew him would agree. Joe was just a really good guy. There’s something about the word “good” that doesn’t seem good enough though. But in my eyes, being a good person is what I strive for in life, making it one of the best compliments I can give someone.
I first met Joe in 2008. My dad had just passed away from leukemia and I was training for the Honolulu Marathon with Team in Training. Joe was one of my coaches and my first introduction to running. I will never forget that first marathon. It took me nearly 6 hours because well, I was a rookie, and made all the rookie mistakes! But, what I remember most about that race was Joe finding me out of 20,000 runners and pacing me at the very moment I was hitting the proverbial “wall”. As Joe ran and talked with me, I completely forgot about how tired I was. This would be my first experience being lifted up by a pacer and being lifted up by Joe.
I got the opportunity to coach with Joe in 2017. I use the word coaching lightly because he was the coach, and I was more so the assistant coach/sidekick. I don’t know how much I loved the experience of assistant-coaching. What I did love was hanging out with Joe. Joe was a mysterious guy. It’s hard to discern if this was due to being a private person or being an introvert. Maybe these aspects play a role in why Joe was the way he was, but part of me thinks that the main reason is that Joe was so humble that he didn’t like to talk about himself too much. The conversation was always about you. How are YOU doing? What’s going on with YOU? When’s YOUR next race? Spending Wednesday nights at Kezar track and weekend long runs with Joe gave us the opportunity to get to know each other more. When I griped about my problems, he was always there to listen and to lend a non-judgmental ear. He was a great listener.
Joe could sometimes be flaky, which is a weird thing to say about someone who is so loyal and dependable. I always just thought it was Joe being Joe, and that this was simply part of his mystique. I justified this aspect of him with all of his other great qualities, but I was always curious if there was a part of Joe that I was missing. Did he not want to get too close to people? Was it part of his introvert nature? Was he forgetful? Do I read too much into someone not calling me back?
But like I said, you could count on Joe. In 2019, I asked him if he would pace me in the early morning hours of a 24 hour run. I knew he was a morning person. He got up at 4 or 5 every day. Running around in the dark around Chrissy Field, I began to become excited at the thought of seeing Joe. When I first met him I had never run more than a couple miles at a time and now I was running for 24 hours non-stop! I began to wonder, what if he doesn’t show up? He said he would be here, but what if he has a late night and forgets or something comes up? But right on the dot, Joe was there and with the help of the sunrise, I was once again lifted up by his company and his stories. It seemed fitting that the person who helped me run my first marathon over a decade ago would help me run my first 24 hour/100 mile+ race. After that run, Joe told me that I should write about my experience. So I started this blog.
In the Spring of 2020 I started grad school at SFSU. I couldn’t wrap my head around how the commute was going to work. Joe always wanted to help in any way that he could. He offered me a room in his apartment, but when the time came he was helping out another friend of his. This was typical Joe. Always helping out a friend. He told me he would get back to me when he found out his friend’s situation. But he never got back to me. I always try and be as compassionate as possible when considering my friends. I try not to be too needy or demanding. But at this time I thought, “Well, the ball is in his court”. I started taking public transportation to school which actually worked out great. Then COVID happened. The ball was in Joe’s court for a long time. I thought about him often but thought, he will reach out to me when he wants to. That Fall he sent me a text “I am such a bad friend…have not checked in with you at all but I think about you often”. Same here, Joe. And there is no way that you could ever be a bad friend!
Since Fall of 2020, I shared a few texts and one phone call with Joe. During that phone call he said he would call me back but never did. In his defense, I did call him at work. In our last conversations he spoke about his dog Asics getting older and how he was running less and less. Asics was everything to him, and he was everything to Asics. He was going to have a really hard time when it was time to say goodbye to Asics. Part of me is relieved he never had to deal with that day. I thought about visiting Asics after some of his last messages. I wanted to say goodbye to her because I wasn’t sure when would be my last time seeing her. I never once thought my time with Joe was numbered, too.
When you lose someone suddenly you think about all the things you should have and could have done or said. I wish I had kept in better touch with Joe. I wish I had paid him and Asics a visit when the thought came up. Did he know what a good person he was? Did he know what he meant to me? I have so many friends that I love yet keep at a distance. I want to call them, but I think they’re busy with their lives, they don’t want to be bothered. I wish I had bothered Joe more.
I wanted to sort out and remember my relationship with Joe in this entry, but I don’t want this to be all about me. Joe is the one who deserves all the attention now. During my time coaching with Joe, I had an assignment for a class where I had to interview a coach and write a paper about that person. I chose to write about Joe. At the time, I wanted to share it with the Kezar Road Runners, but I knew he would feel bashful about that. I want to share it now. I hope that it gives a little more insight into the amazing and selfless person that he was. His memory lives on in all the lives that he touched. Wednesday nights at Kezar and at the pub will never be the same.
Embracing the Lifestyle with Joe Whelan
Some people go through life working at a 9-5 desk job, wondering what lies on the other side of those glass windows. Did they make the right choices in life? Do they truly enjoy what they are doing for a living? Does it matter that one truly enjoys their career? For Joe Whelan, the lead coach of the San Francisco Bay Area Team in Training team, I can tell just minutes from meeting him that he has no regrets in life. He is truly living the dream. While his full time job as an accountant may involve pushing papers and sitting indoors, every moment before and after he walks into that office is used to its fullest. It is in those moments that Joe is using every free minute to embrace the lifestyle that he knows and loves, and to spread his love of running to everyone he comes in contact with. Through coaching beginning runners how to run a half or full marathon through Team in Training, and hosting a weekly track workout/hangout for intermediate to advanced runners, Joe has succeeded in turning his passion into a lifestyle and in inspiring others to do so along the way.
Joe grew up in a small East Coast town called Holland, Pennsylvania. Like many other children, his idea of “play” involved running around as little kids often do. In high school, he took up running, following in the footsteps of his older brother who ran long distance/cross-country. He may have gotten the idea from his brother, but Joe was absolutely certain of one thing; he did not want to follow in the shadow of his brother. It was at this time that Joe decided he would be a sprinter, and that the 400 meter distance would be his “thing”. In high school, he dipped his coaching feet into the water with the opportunity to coach the grade school kids. A scholarship to La Salle University in Philadelphia led Joe to run all through college where he participated primarily in the 5k and 10k distances, competing alongside the best runners from all around the world. In between his own college running, Joe helped out coaching runners in inner city high schools. It was here that he would begin to recognize his love for working with people as well as the need to share the love of the lifestyle and community with others.
After moving to the Bay Area, Joe found that everyone around him was running more long distance races such as half and full marathons. Formerly a 5k and 10k runner, it only seemed natural to do what everyone else was doing. In 2000, he trained with Team in Training (TNT) and ran his first marathon, the Honolulu Marathon. It may have been his first long distance attempt, but clearly Joe stood out among the rest of the team as someone who was not brand new to embracing the running lifestyle. Just one year later he was approached by TNT who asked if he would be interested in coaching. He would spend the next 4-5 years assistant coaching, co-coaching for the following 5 years, and after that taking on the team on his own. Since one of TNT’s primary missions is to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), they do not have a lot of extra money to give which is why most TNT positions are volunteer based. The coaching position provides a minimal stipend, but with a full time job, Joe isn’t in it for the pay. He clearly does it for the love of the sport, and has been known to spend more on TNT than he actually makes, generously gifting bottles of wine to participants when they perhaps meet one of their running goals or when they are the only one to show up to track in the middle of a rain storm.
In addition to coaching TNT, Joe also is the founder and head honcho of the Kezar Road Runners, a group of intermediate to advanced runners who meet rain or shine every Wednesday night at the Kezar track. The group was born from a desire to get a local group of runners together as running motivation, but now has transformed to a close knit group of runners of whom some might refer to not just as running partners, but as friends and even as family. The cost to join is $0 and no one takes roll when you show up, but this doesn’t mean the Kezar Road Runners don’t take themselves seriously. Accountability is high when it’s your friends and family that are waiting at the track for you and with you. Plus, most of these runners are self motivated and have particular goals in sight. At 6:45 pm on the dot, the Kezar Road Runner crew surrounds Joe as he quickly spouts out the workout for the night which consists of a varied list of distances and speeds. I wonder how they can all remember the “recipe” he has just concocted for them, but no one complains. Instead, they nod their heads in acceptance, and set out running. And after all is said and done, they congregate across the street at the local pub.
Team in Training and the Kezar Road Runners are two different groups of runners of different experience levels and thus different goals, but according to Joe each is rewarding in its own way. The biggest compliment Joe has ever received from a beginning runner is seeing that same runner years down the line, continuing to run and embrace the running lifestyle. When coaching someone who has potentially never done something before, there’s only so much you can do in one season. The primary goal is to have them succeed in their race distance with the proper training, to provide hints on efficiency in form, and to get them to enjoy it in the process. Once they are set loose, they are on their own, so it’s an added perk to have them continue on their own account. With experienced runners, the goals are different. The Kezar Road Runner group differs from TNT in that they already know the basics, but they come to Joe to learn how to run better, how to maximize their workouts, and seeking specific advice on their next race.
So how does he do it all with a full time job? Joe has consolidated TNT workouts to 2x a week and coordinates both of his track workouts at the same time and same place on Wednesday nights. But 2x a week is not all the time Joe spends with his running folk. Just this weekend he ran the Oakland relay with members from the Kezar Road Runners, and when someone has a particular request such as needing help with hill repeats, Joe makes plans to take them to the Marin Headlands to practice just that. This is the epitome of someone who has made running a way of life. “It’s not easy, but you make time for what you love and what is important to you”, Joe responds when I ask him what makes coaching sustainable. The sacrifices he makes for coaching he considers “good sacrifices”. The gratification of seeing both groups of runners achieve their goals is what makes coaching so special and worthwhile. Experiencing the excitement of seeing someone do something they’ve never done before and getting them to dream bigger and beyond their simplest dreams, whether it be a beginning runner or an experienced runner, is one of the best rewards that he has received from coaching. And of course, it is a huge bonus seeing someone years after he has coached them continuing to embrace the running lifestyle. I asked Joe if he found coaching as rewarding as pursuing his own running goals. While each has its own unique benefits, the similarities are clear. When something you love has given you so much, it only makes sense to pass on that knowledge to others.
(Mostly) everyone has heard of the Bigfoot 200, but little know that Destination Trail also puts on the Bigfoot 73, 40, and 20 miler a month earlier. The 73 miler used to be a 100k, but the race was modified in order to make it more accessible for race officials and crew. Plus, the additional miles highlight more of the Mount Margaret backcountry. I honestly didn’t know what the Mount Margaret backcountry was, so in my mind more miles = more challenge and an added stepping stone to the 100 mile distance (which I have not done yet if you exclude New Year’s One Day).
Yuch found this race after learning that the Vermont 100 would be once again cancelled due to COVID-19. Although referred to as a “graduate race”, the profile didn’t look too insane: 14,400 ft of gain over 73 miles. Plus, I happen to be a graduate student so I thought it might suit me well. The course is a figure 8, circumnavigating around Mount St. Helens and nearby Silver Lake. The altitude fluctuates between 1,500 and 5,000 ft. Maybe the most “graduate” aspect of the race is that there are only 4 aid stations (3 total, but 1 that is visited twice), making some stretches between aid stations long, remote, and possibly necessitating the use of a water filter. This didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me as I’m used to doing long runs on my own and filtering water along the way.
Required gear for the Bigfoot 73 includes a rain jacket, long-sleeved insulated layer, long pants, hat & gloves, bivy sack, whistle, headlamp with extra batteries, and 500 extra calories. Ah, Ben Nevis all over again! But, after the tragedy in China a couple months ago, better safe than sorry.
When planning for this race, I considered the following goals; A goal: sub 16 hours, B goal: sub 17, and C goal: sub 18. How did I come up with these arbitrary numbers on a course I’ve never run? Who knows, and very carefully. I studied the women’s times from when the course was a 100k and the fastest time was 16:06. I think it was a pretty random decision when I decided I would aim for beating that time on a longer course. A sub 16 hour finish would mean a 13 min/mile average, which seemed totally doable. I cross referenced my paces at Castle Peak and Never Summer which have greater elevation gain/mile. Perhaps it was a stretch, but it’s always good to have goals. Plus, getting in before 9:30 seemed like it would get me to bed at a decent time.
We stayed at a wonderful Airbnb in Ariel, about 30 minutes from the race start at Marble Mountain Sno Park. The race started at 5:30 am. I secretly (or maybe not-so-secretly) hoped that Yuch and I could run together, since he had run Black Hills 100 (and 5) just two weeks prior and would likely be running on not-totally-recovered legs. I started out ahead of him, but that didn’t mean much since he always starts out slow and eventually passes me.
The course begins with 2,000 ft of pretty mellow elevation gain in the first 5 miles. About an hour into the race, we got our first views.
We then proceeded to traverse a field of boulders, which did not seem as treacherous as the boulder field in Never Summer and was actually quite fun (although slow). I felt fresh and jumped from boulder to boulder while wondering “Do any of these move?”
The first aid station was at Blue Lake (mile 12). I didn’t leave a drop bag here so basically checked in, grabbed more water, and headed back out. I looked at my watch and appeared to be right on pace. On the way out Yuch passed me coming in. I was pretty sure he would catch up with me soon. About 4 hours in, I started ascending up some switchbacks to a ridge.
As I turned up the upper switchback I looked below from where I came from to see a tiny runner down below. I couldn’t tell if it was Yuch or not, but waved anyway. He waved back and for some reason I knew it was him. We seemed to be pretty evenly paced since he was not catching up with me.
Beautiful views of Mount St. Helens appeared as I ran along the ridge.
The wildflowers were OFF THE HOOK. The pictures do not do them justice.
I mostly ran by myself. A small group of men ran together up ahead. I saw two men with red shirts running together for quite a long time and thought they must know each other. Until one of them seemed to peel off to take a break, and then somehow I ended up with the other red-shirted half. This was not ideal, as this half was a talker. Not just a talker, but the kind of runner that grabs on to you and won’t let go. I feel bad saying this. The guy was very sweet. Until he used his master barnacle skills to suck all the energy out of me and drain me of life. Maybe I’m embellishing just a bit. This is what he did. At first he was running in front of me at a pace that was too slow for me. I talked to him for a bit and then decided I needed to get in front of him. As soon as I did, he sped up and was running right behind me with a clumsy gait that didn’t seem natural and a jangling backpack that was slightly distracting. He seemed to prefer the company. This pattern seemed to continue where he would slow down and speed up in order to stick with me. Apparently this was his first race. He had done lots of 100 milers before (on his own). He said where he lives, people know him as the guy that runs 100 milers. I had a feeling he was known for a lot more than that.
I lost him at Windy Ridge Aid Station at mile 30. We arrived together but I left before him as he seemed to be having trouble getting food in. Yuch arrived as I was refilling my bottles. “You’re still here?” He asked. It did seem like I had been there for a while, but with only 4 aid stations over 73 miles, I needed to make sure I was always topped off on fluids. The next stretch would be 20 remote miles before the next aid station. Again, I thought he would catch up with me but I continued to run alone as I left the aid station. I was still on my 13 min/mile pace and feeling good.
It started to feel warm and exposed. I was ready for this though since I had started doing some preliminary heat training in preparation for Castle Peak (poor man’s altitude training). It was probably only in the 70s or 80s, but the lack of tree cover made it feel much much warmer. I still felt good and was all smiles as I ran through awesome single track flanked with friendly flowers.
The course was marked excellently. I rarely looked at my Gaia map for reassurance as confidence markers were well and frequently placed. I walked blindly through a jungle of tall foliage. With each few steps a confidence marker would appear in front of me confirming I was on the right track.
On my way up the next ascent I constantly looked behind me to see if Yuch was on my tail. Once again, a tiny runner appeared down below. I waved, but he didn’t wave back this time. Maybe he didn’t see me or maybe it wasn’t Yuch. It started feeling cooler as I ascended and I enjoyed the nice breeze and views of Silver Lake from up above.
Patches of snow started to become frequent and I started stuffing handfuls of it in the back of my buff around my neck. It felt incredible!
9.5 hours in (around 3 pm) I stopped to filter some water from a stream. And finally, Yuch arrived. I had finished filtering and was ready to go but was pretty excited to see him.
I waited while he filled up and we ran together the next 10 or so miles to Norway Pass, the next aid station at mile 50. This was probably my favorite part of the race. Yuch and I were having a blast and we shared our stories and how much we were loving the race and scenery. Every time we crossed a snow patch we grabbed handfuls of it and stuffed it into various regions on our body including our shorts and (my) bra. These intermittent cooling stations made a huge difference. Not only were they fun, but they were highly functional.
At Norway, Yuch left me. I admit I was taking much longer at the aid stations than he was. He had already-prepared smoothies in soft flasks in his drop bag while I had to prepare my drinks on site. He left and I would never see him again (well, until the end of the race). The stretch out of Norway Pass was not especially fast which was a slight let down after the swift miles leading up to it. But, the terrain continued to change keeping me interested and in constant awe of such a beautiful place. At around mile 55 or so, the course surprised me again as it dropped me off on Forest Road 99. I decided this was a good time for a pacer and turned on my favorite race music, Lindsey Stirling. I was pretty happy that I had legs to run this ascending road section pretty comfortably and passed a runner who had reduced to a walk. Yuch must have passed him too. Would I ever see him again?
Shortly after the road section I arrived at Windy for the second time. Just 15 miles to go! I was still on pace and my A goal was still in reach. At each aid station they asked me if I wanted any food. Wow – they had a lot, a stark contrast from the meat-centric aid station fare at Black Hills. They even had every flavor of Spring Energy gel (which I thought was very generous considering each one runs at $3.75 a pop). As much as I wanted to dig into their buffet, I had carefully planned my food for the day and was carrying more than I needed on me. I didn’t want to have to carry it all back on the plane, and I hate wasting food so I never indulged in any of the aid station food for the entirety of the race (except a couple sips of Mountain Dew). My pack felt especially heavy with all my mandatory gear and excess calories that I clearly was not going to use.
The run out of Windy on to the next trailhead was 2 miles and a sign appeared that said just 13 miles to the finish.
I was pretty sure the course profile had shown that it was mostly downhill from here, so it shouldn’t have been a problem to get to the finish before 9:30. What I didn’t realize (and what I could not have known from a course profile) was that these would be verrrry slowww miles. The last 13 miles were slow-going, which was fine.
But then it started getting dark. That was also fine, because I had my trusty light-belt. But then I started venturing into more boulder fields. While boulder hopping is fine and dandy in the light when your legs are fresh, it was a different story after running all day. I found myself struggling with balance and coordination and I was moving at a crawling pace. The ribbons were becoming increasingly difficult to see in the distance and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where I was and where I was going. I heard something roaring in the distance. Perhaps it was a Bigfoot? When I wasn’t climbing boulders, I would descend into a ravine (also not fast miles) and climb back up. Okay so maybe I would not be cruising in the last 13 miles…
The last couple of miles were indeed runnable. I still had running legs, probably due to the varied terrain and therefore on-and-off running, hiking, hopping, crawling, etc. I hadn’t been paying attention to my watch for a long time. I knew it was after 9:30 and I didn’t want to get down on myself if I wasn’t even going to make my arbitrary A or B goal. But when I saw a sign that said there was just 1 mile to go, I finally looked at my watch and knew my B goal was still in reach. I crossed the finish line at 10:25 with a finish time of 16:55:47. When I crossed the finish line Yuch was waiting there for me. I didn’t say “That was the hardest race I’ve ever done!” or “I’m so glad to be finished!” which are common finishing line comments to have come from my mouth in the past. Instead I said “That was an AMAZING race!” And it was.
If you have any sense at all, DO THIS RACE. It really is more of an adventure run than a race. With such a small field I didn’t really feel like I was racing. I truly enjoyed the long remote sections with solitary miles enjoying the beauty of the area. I also really enjoyed running with Yuch. I did not enjoy running with red-shirted guy. The terrain was so varied I was never bored. The varied terrain was also helpful on my legs as I was able to run throughout the day when the opportunity arose. The course was so beautiful I never felt like I was suffering or that I wanted to be somewhere else. The snow fields were conveniently placed when I needed them for consistent cooling. Despite being a “graduate course”, I never felt scared or concerned for my safety (just out of it and slow at the end). The belt buckles are beautiful and some even have lichen in them!
When I was in my early thirties, I started getting tension headaches for the first time. My head felt like it was throbbing, and nothing that I did seemed to alleviate the pain. Advil worked sometimes, but not all the time. A cold washcloth on my forehead was better than nothing. Ativan helped knock me out, but sometimes I would still wake up with the headache. Around this time, I also started getting hot flashes and fever-like symptoms. The combination of the symptoms led me to believe that something was wrong with me, so I did what I always do when I think something is wrong with me. I went to my doctor.
At the doctor, I got a check up and blood tests that came out normal. How could this be? I thought. Something is wrong with me and it’s not showing up. My doctor mentioned that it could be stress. I dismissed this idea as I did not feel overly stressed. The headaches and hot flashes continued and I resumed playing detective. I Googled my symptoms, which led me to remove certain things from my diet including coffee and gluten. At one point I even went on a completely raw diet, which was quite interesting but in no way helpful. I tried supplements of various kinds including Magnesium and Coenzyme Q10. Nothing helped. At some point the intensity of the symptoms gradually dissipated due to no reason that I was consciously aware of. However, the headaches would stick with me for the years to come.
It’s hard to quantify how often I got headaches. Those who suffer from chronic anything know that it just becomes part of your life and you accept it. I accepted my headaches as something that I gained in my thirties and attributed them to my new adult body and the hormonal changes that came with it. I think they came in cycles. Sometimes I might go a while without getting a headache whereas other times they would come in droves. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to explain when they arrived and when they didn’t. I tried to notice patterns, but the erratic nature of the timing made it difficult. I began to attribute my headaches to stress, not eating enough, not drinking enough, drinking alcohol, and not sleeping well enough. However, there were plenty of times that I was stressed, hungry, dehydrated, imbibing, and not sleeping well and managed to be perfectly fine. Still, all of these things became red flags anyway.
I found three natural solutions that would cure my headaches; running, massages, and sex. I know this sounds weird, but hear me out. I realize the idea of going for a run while your head is pounding sounds miserable. But, somehow I came across this and it worked, every single time. This became my new solution, better than Advil or Sumatriptan. It really worked! Until, it didn’t. At some point, I began to get headaches because I went running. What do massages and sex have in common? They both appeared to cure my headaches for whatever reason. Again, over time the benefits did not seem to be long-lasting and I found that they would only provide a temporary fix. Once the activity was over, my headache would return.
In the summer of 2019, I moved in with my mom and brother. I had been saving money while in grad school and free rent was a huge way to do it. Immediately after moving in, I started sleeping terribly. I knew it had to do with the fact that I was now on the second floor which was much warmer than the first. Also, my brother would come home late from work and wake me up, for example by playing the piano at midnight. So, I started sleeping with earplugs.
My running seemed to be affected by my lack of sleep. I didn’t feel like I was performing to my potential during training or racing. One completely out-of-the-blue night, I had this terrible pain in my left leg that plagued me during the night. I tossed and turned the entire night, totally aware of this new pain in my body. The next morning, I couldn’t even touch my toes on the left side. My leg had totally tightened up. I began to wonder how this could have happened and my mind immediately went to the fact that I had a soccer game the previous night and must have done something to cause this. While I didn’t remember anything specific or traumatic happening the previous day, I knew this had to be it. I always knew it was a bad idea to play soccer when it could cause an injury that would pull me from running. This tightness in my leg turned into a full blown hip injury that stayed with me for about a year.
That fall, Yuch and I went to London for three months and in some kind of miracle, I slept well the entire time there. My bedroom was cool and dark. Unfortunately, my hip and running still felt bad. I began to notice that I felt really out of breath when running. An 8:30 pace felt fast, and speed workouts with the Ranelagh Harriers felt increasingly difficult. I caught a cold which took six weeks to get over (that’s exactly half of my time in the UK). I got the opportunity to run in so many new and interesting places during our trip and I felt depleted on nearly every run.
Returning to the states, my bad sleep trend resumed as I had left it. I continued to feel crappy while running and decided to see a physical therapist for my hip. He told me my core was likely not strong enough and gave me exercises that would strengthen my core and therefore my hip. I got blood tests that confirmed I had extremely low iron and proceeded to go on an iron supplement. I felt like I was making huge progress. The iron had to be the reason why my running had felt so bad the previous summer.
My iron levels returned to normal. Unfortunately, my hip did not seem to be improving with the physical therapy exercises that I was now doing religiously every day. In fact, my hip seemed to be worsening! After being sent home due to COVID-19, I was now doing remote grad school and spending a lot of time sitting at my computer. This had to be the reason why my hip was worsening instead of getting better. I set my laptop up on my dresser and began to spend the majority of my classes standing up. But after a while, this began to exacerbate my hip, too. I decided it was not good to spend a lot of time sitting or standing, so I transitioned to a combination of the two.
That summer something happened that was extremely eye opening. On the drive back from a week at Buck’s Lake, I noticed my left leg was particularly sore. I decided it must be due to the long drive. By the time I got home the sole of my foot was radiating with pain and it was painful to walk on. Arriving at home, we immediately began a conflict with my brother and the evening ended in a raging headache and going to bed early. In the morning, I awoke to all of the previous symptoms gone, but a new one had had arrived. My butt was extremely painful to the touch and I could not sit down without feeling pain. This was the last piece of evidence I needed. I realized my body was completely out of control and not making any sense, so I decided to go for a run. I ran for 3 miles and felt better than I had in a long time.
I had heard about psychosomatic pain before. On my first date with Yuch in 2015, he told me about his experience with it and all about Dr. John Sarno, the man who coined the term tension myositis syndrome (TMS) to describe physical pain caused by psychological affliction. Sarno’s theory is that the brain produces physical pain as a distraction from repressed psychological emotions, and this illness is the common cause of chronic back pain, migraines, etc. Common symptoms include no clear reason for the physical pain (as shown by MRIs, blood tests, etc.) and pain that “moves around”. It made sense to me, despite the fact that there wasn’t a clear mechanism to explain how this actually happened.
I realized that my hip “injury” was not a physical injury (involving muscle or structural damage) after all (as evidenced by my ability to run without pain once accepting this psychosomatic diagnosis). Moving in to my childhood home and starting grad school had been a stressful experience for me, and this must have caused the pain that I was experiencing. As I began to become more mobile and pain free I realized that I did in fact have some tightness in that left hip. It became clear to me that I must have had tightness there all along, but my brain had magnified it to be something much much bigger.
My hip pain of nearly a year went away completely. My iron levels were back to normal. But, the stress in my life continued. My mom was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Decline, my brother with ASD was continuing to wreak havoc in the household, stomping around at the slightest noise despite me and my mom’s constant effort to tip toe around the house. I made it my priority to manage all of my mom’s appointments in addition to our meetings with a family psychologist.
I was not able to de-stress in my usual way – with exercise. Running continued to feel terrible, even though my hip was better and my iron levels normal. I felt completely depleted, and I wondered if there was something more serious wrong with me. My legs throbbed, I would get headaches after every run, I couldn’t focus on my schoolwork, and I couldn’t sleep. A short easy run left me completely wasted, often forcing me to lie down during the day. However, napping was impossible and I would lie awake twitching, often feeling even worse than I did before lying down. I saw a sports medicine doctor who diagnosed me with Overtraining Syndrome (OTS), despite the fact that I had not overtrained. I stopped running, which is the only known “cure” for OTS.
My second semester at SFSU had begun, and I felt like I was drowning. The workload was not drowning material, but my fragile emotional state was incapable of handling it. A simple assignment that I could not wrap my head around (coincidentally, a literature review on OTS) caused me to doubt myself, panic, and consider dropping out of school. I constantly told myself that I had made a big mistake, that I was stupid, and that I was not cut out for this. I cried for days with so much emotion that I had a constant headache that made me cry even more. I am a hugely productive person, and being incapable of “producing” was pretty much my worst nightmare. Not only could I not work, I couldn’t even relax. I was physically and psychologically in hell.
I decided I need help to get through the rest of the school year. I called Kaiser and quickly got in touch with my psychiatrist and a therapist. I was prescribed Zoloft, a medication for anxiety and depression that I had taken many years ago. I stopped in 2008, the year that I started running. Even before starting the Zoloft, I began to feel better. I knew that help was on the way and that I wouldn’t indefinitely cry myself into a useless puddle, incapable of finishing grad school. Zoloft takes about 4 weeks to start working, but I was already starting to feel better. This is called the placebo effect.
I first noticed the actual effects of Zoloft on a bike ride. I had taken up cycling during my time off running, and I enjoyed listening to music while feeling the breeze against my skin. But, going downhill scared me and I typically braked the entire time. One day, I found myself biking down a long descent without braking. It wasn’t until after the bike ride that I realized what had happened. My anxiety had gone away.
When you’ve been living with anxiety for a long time, you don’t think of it as anxiety. Anxiety became a part of who I was, and it was something that I thought was unchangeable. I think I actually may have even been stubbornly attached to my anxiety. It’s not that I enjoyed it. I desperately wished I was a different. But I accepted that this was simply part of my make up. But wow, living without anxiety was amazing. It’s not like I suddenly became a dare devil. I’m a thoughtful and prudent person. I just didn’t have the same fear attached to everything that I did. Things became easier. As things became easier, I was able to welcome meditation, talk therapy, and a regular breathing practice into my life. Mentally, I felt great. Physically, I was still suffering. If mind and body are so intimately entwined, why were they not in sync?
Frustrated at my lack of physical progress, I contacted my sports medicine doctor. I had taken two months off and was feeling physically worse, not better. Breathing was labored while running, and my heart rate seemed consistently high. I couldn’t even dance without breaking into a hot flash. His immediate response was to once again send me to the lab for blood tests and to get an EKG. I guess I should have known better than to complain of labored breathing during COVID. I knew it was a waste of time and that nothing was going to show up. I knew my pain and fatigue was psychological, but I just didn’t know how to fix it. I had fixed my hip pain simply by accepting it was psychosomatic and telling myself nothing was wrong with me, but that method was not working this time. I was meditating and breathing every day, yet it didn’t seem to be making a dent in my physical situation. While writing my literature review on OTS, I had learned that the majority of sufferers didn’t even overtrain, but a commonality between them was that they had experienced some kind of major life event during the onset. Part of me still was not able to fully grasp the concept that my brain could cause such real sensations of pain. I decided I needed the lab & EKG as evidence for what was about to come next. As predicted, the results came back perfectly clear. So, I decided I needed to take the plunge and seek expert advice. I contacted the Pain Psychology Center in Southern California.
Upon contacting the Pain Psychology Center, I was set up for a 15-minute free consultation. I desperately wanted to tell them that I had OTS, and I imagined them responding “Oh yes, overtraining syndrome…we have seen many patients like you and this is indeed a common psychosomatic illness”. However, the person that I spoke to had never even heard of it before. She asked me to explain the symptoms. I told her. Fatigue, headaches, hot flashes, insomnia, labored breathing, elevated heart rate, and decreased performance. She told me that while she had never heard of OTS, it didn’t matter. It was just another syndrome, and all syndromes are just a group of symptoms. She confidently told me that she thought this was something they could help me with, and set me up for another free consultation with the therapist that I would be seeing.
I repeated my symptoms to the therapist. Like the receptionist, she had not heard of OTS. Like the receptionist, she was confident that she could help me. I told her I was just so frustrated because I was meditating and breathing every day, felt psychologically better than I had in a while, yet my body did not seem to agree. She said something like “During our time together, we are going to work on integrating these techniques (meditating and breathing) throughout your day”.
I felt hopeful. So hopeful that I started to gradually feel better already. With my excitement, I began exploring the Pain Psychology Center’s website. Alan Gordon is the executive director of the center, and created it after recovering from his own experience with chronic pain. I found out that he had a podcast, Tell Me About Your Pain, and began binge-listening to it the entire week before my first appointment. I absorbed every episode like a sponge. Then a light bulb went off. Alan Gordon’s description of psychosomatic pain was slightly different than John Sarno’s. While Sarno theorized that the brain could produce physical pain in response to repressed psychological emotions, Gordon discussed the brain’s ability to condition itself to physical pain. While he acknowledged that chronic pain could be psychological in nature especially at the onset, the mechanism involved in the persistence of pain added an additional layer that Sarno seemed to have missed. That layer was anxiety and conditioning.
The world of psychology learned about classical conditioning from Pavlov’s dog. From his research, Pavlov found that the dogs’ salivation was a learned response, when the dogs transitioned from salivating at the arrival of food to salivating at the sound of a metronome. My experience was no different. I had conditioned myself to feel all these physical sensations after exercise. Running was no longer just running, but a whole package of anxiety and fear that I would feel crappy. I reinforced these feelings by sending constant messages to my brain that running = danger and that days off = safety. I reinforced this anxiety by constantly Googling my symptoms, catastrophizing at the slight onset of a headache or any other physical symptom, reaching out to doctors, constantly associating physical pain with tissue damage and physical activity, and reading study after study on OTS. For years I had been throwing gasoline onto a raging fire without even realizing it. If I had been conditioning myself to associate running with fatigue and pain, I could condition myself out of it.
Deconditioning myself from my so-called “Overtraining Syndrome” was similar to how I recovered from my so-called “hip injury”. I constantly told myself that nothing was wrong with me, and instead of catastrophizing at each “bad” sensation I felt, I sent my brain messages of safety instead. My condition improved dramatically. I thought about what my therapist had said in the consultation about integrating meditation and breathing into my day. What did she mean by this? Another light bulb went off. What is the point of breathing for 10 minutes every morning, when I could take a few deep breaths throughout my day when I notice myself becoming stressed or anxious? I began to integrate breathing into my day at opportune times. It worked.
By the time it came to have my first appointment with my therapist, I had listened to most of the Tell Me About Your Pain episodes, had already begun deconditioning, and felt 99% cured. However, I decided to stick with the first couple of appointments anyway because knowing my luck, this was not going to be as easy as I thought. I was right. The pain came back, and my therapist provided me with several tools to approach it. One was somatic tracking which is similar to meditation. You sit with the pain (or “sensation”) and explore it from a non-judgmental perspective. (This is not recommended when the pain is full on raging!) I tried this at the onset of headache. I thought about what it felt like and where it was located. Did it radiate, or was it centralized? If I were to compare the pain to a color was it yellow, orange, or red? The pain began to shift. Soon, it had completely dissipated. I had used my brain to stop a headache in its tracks! I felt like it was a magic. But I am not a magician, and my therapist assured me that it was not magic. It was science.
From the moment I decided all my symptoms were psychosomatic in nature, I was 100% pain free for 2 weeks. Then the symptoms came back, and I continued to fight with all the tools in my toolbox. Sometimes they worked and I could stop the pain in its tracks. Other times I was not so successful, but I noticed the symptoms would be much less severe and didn’t last half as long as they used to. I stopped seeing my therapist and downloaded the Curable app, as $60/year is much more affordable than $180/50 minutes for a grad student. I continued absorbing information on psychosomatic pain and listened to a new podcast sponsored by Curable called Like Body Like Mind. Over time, the symptoms completely went away.
I no longer experience pain and fatigue after running and I don’t get headaches either. I used to associate alcohol with headaches. I can now drink alcohol whenever I want with zero worry attached. I used to associate running with fatigue and pain. I now experience the same fatigue and pain as everyone else does after a hard effort. I am running better than I ever have and it’s not because I’m physically stronger than I’ve ever been. It is because I am mentally stronger than I’ve ever been. I breathe deeply throughout the day when I notice myself becoming anxious or my breath rate becoming faster. It is rare these days, but in the event that I start getting a sensation in my head similar to what I might have called a headache in the past, I say “Thank you body for that alert. I hear you and I am going to take a break”. I do not catastrophize about the loss of productivity that will follow from the raging headache that I am about to experience.
My experience with chronic pain has helped me tremendously in other areas of life, specifically my relationships. I realize that I am anxious, that I catastrophize, and that I’ve constantly feared the worst. By doing the opposite, my relationships with people, myself, and the world around me has profoundly improved. I am, for the first time, truly loving life. If you have not experienced chronic pain or a chronic injury, it may be difficult to understand how miserable and all-encompassing it can be. It can be difficult to understand how amazing it is to not have it, to just feel “normal”. Life is hard as it is, but when you feel physically bad, it’s even harder. That being said, I am eternally grateful for my experience with chronic pain, because I now realize that I have a totally sophisticated and amazing internal alarm system. It tells me when I’m doing too much, when I’m struggling, and when I need to back off. The brain is an amazing thing. By learning to work with it instead of against it, I was able to shift from being a victim to being in total control. Too often we associate physical pain with physical activity that we did, whether it be lifting a heavy box or picking up a pencil. I’ve learned that our brains are capable of communicating so much more, and that it is time to think of the mind and body not as two things, but as one extraordinary and intimately connected machine.
When choosing a marathon to run, considerations often include a scenic course, a fast course, a destination course, or perhaps simply a course in a convenient location. The Chester Marathon mostly fits the last two elements, although you probably won’t see the race listed in any Top 10 Destination Race lists. Still, I would argue that maybe it should be. Why? Because Chester is a picturesque city with a lot of history. It’s a short(ish) train ride from London. Unlike the London Marathon or other nearby bucket list races, it’s easy to get in to and only costs about 50 pounds. Lastly, the race claims it is the best marathon in the world for watching “Wales” (perhaps, a better spoken joke than written). But, the main reason I headed over to the lesser-known city of Chester was to visit my friend Three Bucks who I had met on the PCT in 2016. And what better way to get to know a city than by running through it!
Perhaps running a marathon just two weeks after the Ben Nevis 52k was not the greatest idea. Or, maybe it wouldn’t have been the worst idea, had I recovered and tapered properly. Of course all these shouldas and couldas are so apparent in retrospect. Yes, two weeks is a bit tight, but this race was more about fun and sightseeing than PRs. After Ben Nevis I took maybe 5 days off, while still managing to get in over 50 miles towards the end of the week. The cautious angel on my right shoulder told me to take it “easy” while the daredevil on my left shoulder told me to test out some speed on an 18 mile training run the week after Ben Nevis, several tempo runs along the Thames, and a speed workout with the Ranelagh Harriers the week before the race. Maybe not all bad ideas on their own, but when combined perhaps not the best choices I’ve made. And to top it all off, I still really didn’t have any great information on what kind of pace I could sustain for a road marathon other than what was blatantly obvious; there was no way I could sustain a PR pace, or even anything close to it.
We arrived to Chester the Friday before the marathon and settled into our lovely Airbnb overlooking the River Dee. Despite the beautiful and comfortable room, I would spend the next two nights tossing, turning, and sweating in my bed. Later I would attribute this to PMS (I got my period the morning after the race). The day before the race we spent exploring the wonderful city of Chester. I usually don’t like to tax my legs too much the day before a race, but with only a limited amount of time, this was the day to do it. We walked around the perimeter of the city along the city walls, ate savory waffles and crepes at Crepe Affair, visited the Chester Cathedral, explored Storyhouse (a library, theater, and cinema in one), and topped off the day with sourdough pizza at Urbano 32. Needless to say, I was not going to be super rested going into the race.
I toyed with the idea of just running for “fun”, but then settled on the same plan I had for CIM last year: start at a 7 minute pace and try and sustain it. If you’ve run a marathon or any road race for that matter, you may be able to relate to this feeling at the start of a race. Due to race day adrenaline, race pace (and sub-race pace) feels way too comfortable early on, and consequently you go out too fast. This is a feeling I’ve experienced many a marathon, but not this marathon. After two miles of running at 7 minute pace the thought that so clearly dawned on me was, “There is no way that I can sustain this for 24 more miles!” My legs felt like they were filled with lead. I slowed down to around 7:10-7:15, but even this felt extremely difficult. Perhaps a hard taper after Ben Nevis would have been the wise choice, I thought.
The weather was great. The temperature was cool and the sun was out. It rained a little, but more of a heavy sprinkle that brought out a rainbow later on. I consumed a gel every 30 minutes, grabbing them from my new make-shift “pocket” (my sports bra). Two of the gels were ones that I had bought here, High-5’s. They were fruity, syrupy and felt like superglue on my hands. The aid-stations supplied High-5 gels, water bottles, and some orange electrolyte drink also in bottles. The bottles were easier to drink than cups, but pretty wasteful as I’d have a couple of sips before tossing them in the “rubbish bins”. At some point, I passed by a band playing Oasis’ “Wonderwall” along the side of the course, and I couldn’t help but smile. I felt so lucky to be in England running this race, even if I was not performing my best.
For most of the race I continued this 7:10-7:15ish pace despite the fact that I “secretly” knew that I could not sustain it. I guess I was just waiting for that moment when I couldn’t. That moment was about mile 20 although it didn’t come in the way that I expected it to. The leg/hip pain that I had been having since July suddenly became very painful. My pace slowed down considerably, and I wondered if I had pushed this injury too far.
After every mile, I still couldn’t believe that I was still running. The last couple of miles wound around Grosvenor’s Park, and then spit out along the River Dee. At that point, it was a straight shot to the finish and as usual, my Central Governor told me to “go for it”.
I crossed the finish line with a time of 3:12, 6 minutes slower than my PR at CIM last year. Results can be found here. If nothing else, I got a darn good speed workout from the day, and some serious mental toughness training. It’s funny after all of the distances and races that I’ve done, how the road marathon is still one of the most physically and mentally challenging distances. Of course, the level of challenge can be proportional to the level of training and preparedness. Crossing the finish line, I felt like I had just run a marathon without any training. Of course, that’s not true. It is all my consistent training that allowed me to ride that pain cave wave and get myself to the finish. Still, running a marathon without specific marathon training will result in discomfort (in case you needed the reminder). I actually was pretty surprised to get the time that I did, considering how terrible I felt on the course. In retrospect, I would have done a hard recovery/taper between Ben Nevis and the marathon (probably still would not have PRed, but maybe would have been a little more comfortable). I still would have explored Chester by foot the day before the race (no regrets, there). I regret the time of the month race day landed on (PMS perhaps the worst possible time to do a hard effort), but cannot control that. Sadly, I’ve broken my marathon PR streak (Boston being an anomaly), so once I get this hip sorted, I am motivated to get back out there and go for sub 3. Who’s with me?
The required gear list for the Ben Nevis 52k is the following: waterproof rain jacket, waterproof rain trousers, spare long sleeve midlayer, headlamp, warm hat, warm and waterproof gloves, mountain running shoes (as opposed to trail or road running shoes), sufficient food and fuel, and lastly an emergency bivvy sack. All of this, for a 52k.
So, when Yuch asked me if I would be interested in running this race in Scotland in September, I said, “Sure, why not?” Okay, maybe that’s not exactly how it went. Who can remember these things? It probably went more like – Me: “Is it scary?” Yuch: “No, it’s not scary. In fact, this is probably the easiest out of all the races in the series. You don’t even have to get vetted to get in.” Me: “Okay”.
But, let’s back up a bit. We didn’t travel all the way over here for one race. Earlier this year, Yuch got offered the opportunity to teach abroad at the London School of Economics for the Fall quarter. Of course, it was a no brainer. His schedule would consist of teaching one day a week, and UC Davis would give him a per diem which would cover more than enough for the flat, transportation, and living expenses. In other words, it would be an incredible opportunity to travel in between work days. He asked me to come along. Quit my job and do nothing for three months before starting grad school? That, too, was a no brainer. And so it only made sense to sign up for a few races while in the area. Running the Ben Nevis 52k would be a good excuse to venture over into Scotland, and a good way to tour and experience the Scottish Highlands.
After spending a day in a half in Edinburgh, we rented a car and headed over to Glencoe, a small village just 15 minutes away from the race start in Kinlochleven. The village seemed to be permanently shrouded in fog. I imagined what the mountains would look like on race day. Would they (and me), too, be covered in a layer of mist? Would there even be any views from above? The temperature was warm and moist, but I imagined it to be cold and windy up on the race course. I longed for race day to bring warm, kind weather, but Yuch said “But then you wouldn’t get the full Ben Nevis experience”. I said I was willing to take that chance.
I had no idea what to expect. This was the third running of this race. The first year it was a 100k with the same elevation gain. The second (last) year was a 47k on the “bad weather route” with far less elevation gain, 5400 ft. This would be the first year (if the weather permitted) that the race was held on the normal course – 52k with 4000 meters or 12,500 feet of elevation gain. The year it was a 100k, Mira Rai won the women’s race in 14:24. The year it was the bad weather course, Ragna Dabats won in 4:36. Yuch and I estimated 6-8 hours to finish, and I subsequently packed 1400 calories worth of fuel. There would be one aid station around 19 miles in. One bladder of water should be enough to get me to the aid station, and then another to the finish. For most 50ks, I don’t even finish one full bladder of water.
The weather on race day was, in fact, kind. The previously foggy Glencoe had transformed overnight, and the sky was clear. The forecast was sunny and warm with a high of 70. The good weather route was on!
I started the race out slow, back of the front pack. At the slightest ascent, the runners around me halted to a hike. Trekking poles clicked and clacked around me. I wasn’t really surprised. I had heard of and sort of witnessed this before. I knew these people around me knew better than I. I also hiked (sans trekking poles), but with spurts of running when I couldn’t handle the density of the pack and just how runnable some of these ascents really were. Before I knew it, I was on a nice runnable single track with a bit of dodging here and there.
The first descent was steep, muddy, and slow. Around me runners slipped and slided, because we all know sometimes the fastest way to get down whether it’s in the snow or in the mud, is with a glissade. However, I am a lady, and opted for the “in-control” look and behind which resulted in a slower descent and muddy hands. “This is good Scottish running!” I heard someone behind me say. I looked at my watch and realized I should fuel sometime soon, but the idea of eating with hands covered in mud did not appeal to me. At the first stream, I washed my hands. Soon, I would be able to eat, but first I needed to get through this trackless unstable grassy terrain, really only navigable by the orange course markings and the runners in front of me.
The slip and slide continued. The ground was precarious, fluctuating between a small percentage of solidish ground, and a whole lot of bog. The bog was fun and laughable at first, but quickly grew old with every twist and turn of my ankles. My feet seemed to be sliding all around in my sopping wet Lone Peaks and I wondered if I wore the wrong shoes. With the unstable terrain, the most minimal shoe seemed to be the most desirable. Every step was questionable and sometimes the mud was so deep my foot would sink in up to my knees. For a little while, I followed another guy and was able to learn from his mistakes. At one point, his leg landed thigh high in the mud. “Don’t go here!” he would warn me, but soon the gap between us grew and I was on my own.
The journey to Ben Nevis was unforgettable. The ascent itself was physically difficult, but my legs were strong. With my hands on my knees, I passed a number of runners. It had been a month since Castle Peak, and the last 3 weeks of mileage looked like this: 22, 48, and 50 – fairly light and easy. I knew what was waiting for me at the top. The CMD Arete connects the Carn Mor Dearg summit to Ben Nevis. The pictures of this ridgeline from the race site gave me goosebumps. The goal was just to get it done. However, after the first section, I realized the ridgeline was much lengthier than I had thought.
I was slow. Everyone who I had passed on the ascent was now passing me as I slowly and cautiously scrambled my way along often using my hands for balance. Although the ridgeline looks pretty skimpy from afar, I didn’t necessarily feel in immediate danger. Still, I was extremely stressed out and my back tightened up as a result. Adrenaline propelled me forward. The views were incredible and I tried my best to take pictures when possible. The climb seemed to take forever and each time I got to what I thought was the top, I would see a line of runners ahead of me continuing up. I looked at my watch. This was not going to be a 6-8 hour day.
At the top of Ben Nevis I let out a yelp and exhaled in relief. In my mind, the hardest part of the day was over. The descent from Ben Nevis takes the tourist path, and finally I got to use my running legs to dodge rocks and tourists down to the visitor’s center where I would find the one and only aid station. On the way down, someone told me I was the third female and that the second female was just 3 minutes ahead of me. I was over 5 hours in and had run out of water at this point. While a kind volunteer filled up my bladder with water, I scanned the food options: cheese and meat sandwiches, chocolate cookies, bananas, oranges, potatoes, some kind of cut up peanut butter bar, and cups of a 50/50 blend of Red Bull and water. I thirstily took in a number of orange wedges, but knew this would not sustain me. Although it sort of grossed me out, I decided to go for the diluted Red Bull. It went down easy and tasted pretty good. I had another, and left the aid station with my new Red Bull “wings”.
The fire road out of the aid station was, well, a nice friendly runnable fire road! I asked someone what mile we were at and found out the aid station had been at mile 19. I had been moving roughly 3.5 miles an hour. I felt like I had been out there all day, but it was only 12:30. The fire road transitioned to a nice solid single track in the forest, which transitioned into a more precarious technical single track in the forest, which then opened up to a water crossing with a waterfall, and more ascending.
Somewhere in the forest, I passed who I believed was the second female. Again, I powered up the initial climb, passing fatigued runners (probably the same folks who had passed me earlier on the ridge). But, alas, as we approached the Ring of Steall which presented more scrambling, they all passed me again. “You make it look so easy!” I said to someone who nimbly scurried past me. “That’s exactly what I thought about you on the ascent”, he responded. “We all have our things!” True, I thought. It is interesting to me how we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Scrambling, rock climbing, heights, and descents are not strengths of mine. In fact, they are downright weaknesses.
Although I had thought Ben Nevis would be the hardest part of the race, I actually thought the Ring of Steall was the scariest. Perhaps it had to do with my legs being properly trashed at that point, or the fact that I had run out of water. I wasn’t sure if I had been drinking a lot, or if the volunteer just hadn’t filled my pack up completely full. Whatever the case, I was out, and while I had one bar and a gel left, the thought of consuming them without water did not entice me. Eventually, I took the gel out of desperation. The thought of bonking up there worried me. The thought of becoming clumsy in a place where you didn’t want to become clumsy worried me. Others around me seemed to be out of water, too, and we all shared the same disbelief as we reached false summits and would see more runners up ahead continuing up.
I asked a volunteer at a checkpoint (not an aid station) how much further it was. They told me about 6k, but about 6k later it dawned on me that they were telling me how much further to the summit, not the finish. At the final summit, I again asked another checkpoint volunteer “how much further?” I felt slightly embarrassed that I was continuing to ask this lame question. I mean, here I am running in this beautiful place in a race that I myself signed up for, and I’m asking “Are we there yet?” I felt depleted and desperate. The answer was 6k, but that it was all downhill from here. The fact that it was downhill did not make it easy. The trails were still steep, technical, and then – the return of the bog. My legs were trashed. I was thirsty, but not dehydrated. I considered drinking from streams on the way down, but decided to avert Giardia and wait until the finish. The first view of Loch Leven was comforting. I was almost there!
At 4:54 pm, a volunteer told me I had 2k to go – just a little over a mile. I would not finish in under 10 hours, but at that point, I didn’t care when I finished, just that I finished. I felt like I had been fighting for my life the whole day, and I was ready for it to be over. It was the longest 2k of my life. Perhaps he meant 2 miles? I crossed the finish line in 10:13:12.
I immediately sat down. A volunteer handed me a cup of water and a bottle of something that looked sweet, but turned out to be this really not very satisfying birch water. A man approached me and introduced himself as the race director and wanted to know “How did you find the race?” “Difficult”, I responded and he seemed to like that response. I guess this is what race directors like to hear. He congratulated me on being the second place woman and handed me a print of the course profile and a card that said I had won 250 pounds, my first income since leaving my job!
Only a third of the field finished under the 12 hour cut off – 110 men and 9 women. The first place woman finished in an extraordinarily fast time of 8:05, only 14 minutes behind the first place man. Yuch finished 13th in 9:22, also a very impressive time. I felt slightly ashamed that I finished over 2 hours behind the first place woman. A podcast I had listened to recently remarked that having such big gaps between runners in a race implies a lack of competition that is not “good for the sport”. This comment is interesting to me. Part of me agrees that it would be nice to have more female competition. At the same time, I don’t think I should feel bad that I came in so far behind Superwoman, or any woman! In fact, I feel proud for even putting myself out there on a course in which I knew I would be anxious and completely out of my comfort zone. Clearly, not very many women are willing to do this, which is totally understandable to me.
This race definitely established the limit of what I am comfortable and willing to do in a way that no races thus far have. In fact, when Yuch asked me after how it went, I responded with tears in my eyes, “It was too much”. Physically, I could do it. Emotionally, it was just way too much. While he was happily and joyfully scrambling on the course, I was just trying not to die. However, I will say, to anyone who is interested in running this race. If I can do it, you can do it. For now, I choose to comfortably relax in our flat in Richmond with my Kindle and knitting needles. I look forward to our next race, the Chester Marathon, in two weeks which will take place on a nice, flat, safe, and scramble-free race course.
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.
The Never Summer mountain range in North Central Colorado is appropriately named. Its highest peaks are cloaked with winter’s remaining snow and its lowest points contain damp meadows with numerous creek crossings and nettlesome mosquitoes. Despite winter’s lingering presence, the mountains are abundant with wildflowers, colorful lichen, and stunning lakes. The Never Summer 100k is held in late July, a time of year when thunderstorms are notorious in the Rocky Mountains. Its highest point is Diamond Peak at 11,800 ft. and the race itself averages at around 10,000 ft. The course is extremely technical, as runners negotiate trails composed entirely of ankle twisting rocks, climb over freshly hail-polished boulders, and stumble blindly through narrow meadow trails replete with hidden holes and booby traps. Mix all these ingredients together in one day, and you have the recipe for the perfect mountain ultra; beautiful, dramatic, wet, and very tough.
Going into the Never Summer 100k, I felt very little confidence that I could run this race competitively. Ever since Armstrong Redwoods 50k in May, my right big toe joint was bothering me – not enough to affect my running, but enough to cause concern as to what 64 miles and who-knows-how-many-hours could do to it. My right bunion was screaming either as a result of being crammed into a narrow soccer shoe once a week or maybe it was in cahoots with the toe. Of more concern was my left hip/leg which out of nowhere one morning decided to give me grief and resulted in an immediate inability to straighten it without pain. I hadn’t been sleeping well in months, was exhausted every day, and barely making it through the work day without feeling the need to curl up in the back of my VW bug and take a nap. The list of tasks I needed to complete to apply for grad school was slowly and heavily piling up in the back of my mind. I began to consider the idea that I might have overtraining syndrome, which is, in my opinion, a fancy word that athletes use for stress. My yin was not in balance with my yang. I was not getting enough recovery for all the training and the going-going-going. I wondered if I should stop running overall, but instead I did the best that I could. I scaled back the going-going-going, and did my best to increase the rest and downtime during my day. I tell you all this not to claim a magical success story following a stressful time, but to frame my state of mind the weeks before the race.
My altitude training consisted of spending four days running in the Mammoth mountains two weeks before the race, and arriving in Colorado the weekend before the race. Two nights were spent in Boulder, four nights in Leadville, one night in Walden, and the night before in Gould. In Leadville, I ran three times – all easyish tapering runs, but runs at altitude nonetheless. The first run was 12 easy flat miles around Turquoise Lake and I was breathing hard. The second run was a short 8 miles along the CDT from a nearby trailhead and a fair amount of climbing. Again, I huffed and puffed, and hiked most of the hills. The last run was a quick five mile jaunt down the Mineral Belt Trail in Leadville. I was still breathing hard. This race was going to be a lot harder than I thought.
Yuch asked me if I was excited about the race and my response was “I’m scared”. I knew I could do the distance, but the altitude would put this huffing and puffing sea level girl at a huge disadvantage. My nagging injuries had not gone away, despite my increase in recovery methods. In Colorado, I napped every day, read my book, knit, foam rolled, cooked, and simply enjoyed not sitting at a desk in an office. I decided my goals for this race would be the following: take lots of pictures, have fun, survive, and finish before dark (ETA – 8:30 pm).
Going into a race with low expectations can have its benefits. But it still doesn’t make it easier to go to the bathroom two hours before you’re used to. However, missing your morning bathroom window for an ultra isn’t the end of the world – there will be plenty of opportunities for that along the way! I started out slowly, as planned. On the first climb up 7 Utes at 11,453 ft., my body was forced to a hike. Thankfully, everyone else seemed to be doing the same thing. I pulled away to use the “lady’s room”, despite feeling the furthest away from lady-like. Much better. I continued climbing, even further back in the pack now. Oh well. There was a long way to go, so there was no sense in thinking about pace and place now.
The second major climb and the highest point of the day was Diamond Peak at 11,852 ft. Instead of switching back up the mountain, pink course flags masochistically led us straight up. I chatted with fellow runners as we bonded over this insane climb which had reduced some of us literally to a crawl.
My method consisted of bursts of scrambling up quickly, stopping to catch my breath and rest, and then scrambling up again. It seemed to be working quite well. I took lots of pictures honoring my promise to myself to document the race. At the top it was beautiful. A group of people greeted us and someone offered to take my picture.
And then, we got to reap the rewards of all the climbing and coast along the ridgeline, the most scenic part of the course.
The descents in Never Summer are extremely technical. Many of the trails/roads are covered completely in rocks, which require unconditional focus and a little bit of pretending like you are walking on hot coals. Stepping too long in one place may result in rocks shifting from beneath you and the likelihood of an ankle roll.
Leaving the Diamond Peak aid station, someone told me I was the second place female. As I mentioned previously, I did not feel competitive going into this race. I had been moving at a snail’s pace, and this snail was taking pictures and taking bathroom breaks. The feedback was encouraging. Perhaps if I continued to run smartly, I could pick it up the last 20 miles or so which were much more “runnable” than the earlier parts of the course. Maybe I could be competitive after all.
The next challenge was the climb up to Kelly Lake, which sort of remains a blur to me. Up to this point, the weather had been great – cool and partly cloudy. Now the clouds seemed to take up more and more of the sky and at some point it started raining. I continued to power on, not feeling the need to put on a rain jacket as the rain was light and it was not very cold. The higher I got, the harder the rain fell, and I finally opted to duck under a tree to apply my rain jacket and put away my phone into the safety of a plastic ziplock (the pictures would sadly, end here). I was soaking wet, but not cold. I encountered snow, but this was no stranger to me. I was used to trekking across large fields of snow, most recently in Mammoth. It started to hail when I encountered the boulders – large rocks that we were apparently supposed to maneuver through. Every now and then there’d be a pink ribbon, reminding me that – yes, the trail does indeed go this way! My pace slowed down considerably as a couple of guys shimmied along past me with no problem. At some point I saw a runner down below moving very quickly and I thought “how is that possible??” When he yelled “It’s a trail!” I realized he actually had found a trail below the rocks while here I was messing around on all fours trying not to kill myself. I got myself down to where I saw him, hopped on the trail, and was out of there without looking back.
Departing Kelly Lake and the alpine territory that came with it, the sun began to emerge as I entered a beautiful grove of Aspens. I still had my rain jacket on as I couldn’t be bothered to remove it. I was now entering some kind of flow state that would continue up until I reached the Clear Lake aid station at mile 39.4. I can’t explain it. It just happened. The sun was out, it was humid, and I knew I should be boiling in this heat-trapping rain jacket, but I was cruising and passing runners, maneuvering trail-less meadows loaded with land mines disguised as gopher holes and rocks. I was dancing, sailing, and flying. It was an amazing feeling, while it lasted.
At the Clear Lake aid station, I finally removed my rain jacket. From here I would have a 4.5 mile round trip out and back. Heading out on this stretch, my superhero powers had completely diminished. I nearly hiked the whole 2.2 miles to Clear Lake, which at the time felt so much more than 2.2 miles! Barely a half mile in, leading woman Sabrina Stanley flew by me. I began to wonder if I would see Yuch, or had he already gone by? My legs had nothing left. But just minutes ago I had been sailing! Finally, I saw Yuch and we stopped on the trail to talk. I was glad to hear his ankle, which he had rolled two weeks prior, seemed to be doing okay. It was nice seeing him and talking to him, but at some point I said “I gotta go!” and took off (as much as someone can take off when they are hiking up a hill). On the way back from Clear Lake, I was made aware of the women who were on my tail, the first being Amber, who I had run and chatted with earlier on in the race. I was happy to see her doing so well. She had mentioned she had run this race a couple years back, not done as well as she wanted, and spent some time “puking”. As uplifting it was to see all the runners behind me on the out and back, it also made me extremely aware of how close some women were. If I were to remain in second place, I would need to keep moving.
The bulk of the climbing was over. Time to pick it up. And then, the clouds filled the sky again and shot big pellets of hail repeatedly on to my bare arms and legs. “AHHHHH!!!” I screamed all the way into Canadian Aid Station at mile 50, to find the volunteers and some runners had taken cover under the tents. Spectators along the trail were huddled under their rain jackets. Time to put on my rain jacket again unless I wanted to be beaten into a hail driven pulp. I left Canadian with only 14 more miles to the finish.
These last 14 miles should have been some of the fastest miles of the race, but instead they ended up being painfully slow. My back was killing me and I would run the rest of the race with my hands placed on my hips. The trail was now a river and rivers are made to swim in, not run in. Prior to this trail river, I had been doing my best to avert water and mud on the trails, but the situation was now completely out of my control. I surrendered completely, and splashed my way ahead gaining wonderful particles of mud and cow dung into my shoes. Bring it on, trail river! But slogging through trail rivers is an exhausting act, and I began to tire and would stop and walk. Run, walk, run, walk, swat mosquito, run, walk.
I arrived at Bockman aid station, only 5.7 miles after Canadian, but it seemed like a mud slogging lifetime. I saw my mom and her friend Karla up ahead and I waved. The aid station volunteer explained to me that it was only 6.2 miles with 1,000 ft. of elevation gain to the next aid station and then 2.2 easy miles to the finish. He filled my pack up with water, but the whole process was happening so slowly that I started to get anxious. For all I knew, I was about to get overtaken by the women behind me, and after all I had gone through, I was not ready to give up second place.
The fire road out of Bockman would have been easy, had I not run over 50 miles already. It gradually went uphill, and was definitely runnable, but I was tired. Every time I stopped to walk, I would think about getting passed and I would start running again. I thought about the aid station volunteer, and wondered if this was the 1,000 ft. of gain he was talking about. If so, it really wasn’t too bad. Soon, I came across a massive hill. Aha, I thought. Silly me. That fire road must have been like 10 ft. of gain because here was the rest of it. At some point I was passed by a runner who delivered a message that the third place woman was behind me (no kidding!), but she may have stopped to walk so I probably didn’t have anything to worry about. I couldn’t tell if the message was supposed to reassure me, or scare the bejeebies out of me. I had been running scared for a while, but now I was really scared. I was certain my meadow slog had cost me and now I would lose everything I had worked for. I ran as fast as I could to the finish, which was somewhat possible due to the flat and downhill nature of the trail, and crossed the finish line at 8:18 pm, with a time of 14 hours and 45 minutes. Crouched over with my hands on my knees, I breathed out sighs of relief. I felt like I needed to explain myself. “I was being chased!” But, the third place woman would not arrive to the finish until 37 minutes later.
At the finish, The Gould Community Center was a welcome sight. I entered to find a roaring fire and wet clothing, shoes, and runners strewn across chairs. I changed into warm clothes in the kitchen and placed myself in front of the fire. Yuch brought me hot soup. My stomach was messed up from all the Roctane and Spring Energy, but I was also really hungry from not having eaten anything in a while. Knowing there was no food back at our little Powderhorn cabin, we took vegetarian burgers and soup to go.
Back at our cabin, we took hot showers and tucked ourselves into our beds. Both of our stomachs were a mess, but we were starving so we mustered up the courage to eat our burgers. They were delicious and nourishing. As I lie in bed, wide-eyed and unable to sleep, I listened to the rain and thought of all the runners who were still out there in the dark, splashing through that trail river.