Thursday, July 5, 2018

Patience & Gratitude: Western States 100 6/23-24/2018

As I reach the Escarpment - Mile 4. (Photo: Keshav Dahiya)


Patience

                I am half way up the first climb of the race, plodding along. Two miles in to the race, dawn is starting to break. I am giving my lungs their due time to warm up. I am also being gentle with my left foot, which is already numb from the grade of the ski slope. I am not apt to look back in races, but I glance over my right shoulder, wanting to catch the sunrise photo above Squaw Valley with the hint of Lake Tahoe in the background. There is a faint orange on the horizon, it is muted and tamed. There is no explosion of light today. But as I catch the view, I notice there is little in the way of life behind me. There are a handful of straggling, struggling runners ascending the trail. I estimate I am roughly single digits from being DFL.  This is a humbling way to start your dream race. Part of me wants to panic, but I remain in my rational mind, as panic will not serve me.

Dawn breaking over Squaw. (Photo: David Bowers.)
Thanks to Dave for providing photos of sections I lost on course and congrats to him on his 1st 100 miler!

                I need to just run and execute my own race. I knew this climb would be challenging as I’m not a very strong climber. I also anticipated both my foot numbness (which has occurred at the start of nearly every ultra for the past year, but tends to subside within 3-5 miles) and my breathing challenges at altitude (asthma). Logic aside, this is hard. I set the emotion aside and focus on the remainder of the ascent. Even the brief flatter sections I will power walk as I am still catching my breath from the climb. I just need to get to the peak and then I will be okay.

                There are a bevy of spectators who made it to the top of the escarpment for the morning’s festivities. I appreciate Brad and Brenda out there cheering! I am so slow that, many spectators are coming back down at me as I continue higher. (And, yeah, to those couple of folks taking the scramble section down while racers were still going up and forcing me to yield to you, you are the ultimate assholes. I would have told you off if I had any breath to spare. Most spectators are instead encouraging and are taking alternate non-pink flag sections down.) I smile as I reach the top, knowing the photo might be worth it on another day.  I glance back to catch the view before dropping to the other side of the mountain. One spectator, an old timer, decidedly a veteran of this dance, sends me off with the words, “you’re doing this the right way”, referencing my patience on the climb to start the 30 hour and 100 mile journey. I take heart to those words; my actions are not by choice. 1:16 in to the race, I have summitted to Emigrant Peak at 8700 ft, 2500 ft gained in just under 4 miles.

                I look forward to the new views over the next 25 miles. Mainly though, I look forward to being able to breathe again. I clutch at optimism. I focus on the things in my control, I eat, I hydrate. One step in front of the other, power hiking, since running does not come to me. There are mini climbs through the trail and I am huffing and puffing. I am forced to periodically walk the level areas to regain my breath. I take in the views, those are free and do not leave me gasping. I even take some great photos (which I will lose when my phone crashes, only to be revived two days later with complete amnesia).  My mottos for the race, Patience and Gratitude, are being tested early. The patience is being forced more than I would care for. The benefit, though, of the excessive amounts of walking and of my measured pace is I have more time to see everything around me: gratitude.

Official race photo. (Photo: WSER.)

The start line! 

                The days leading up to the race were filled with excitement. There is an energy about Western States that are not encountered in other ultras. I have taken in the days and the experiences, and I am calm. I am inspired by the ceremony at the top of the mountain pre-race,  “Western States proves that honor lies not so much in reaching the finish as in daring to arrive at the start.” (Antonio Rossmann). I want the finish, but I will take the final steps on this journey, for however long they will be mine. I travel with those that brought me here. A small purple heart is on my hand, as under my sleeves, I have written “Daddy” and “Tonia”. I run for Project Purple; my dad died from pancreatic cancer, Tonia is a survivor and ultrarunner (who told me she would kick my ass if I didn’t finish). My Patience and Gratitude bracelets are on my opposite wrist. I take my pre-race calm and work to channel it in to the day before me.

                I will encounter the periodic runner, am rarely passed, pass a handful on the short stretches where I can manage a trot. We were warned there will be forest service personnel monitoring us through the Granite Chief Wilderness area to ensure we do not cut the single track. Yet I am startled when I spy the ranger sitting in the middle of nowhere in between the trails. I am able to run a bit as I head in to Lyon Ridge as the terrain levels off briefly.  I refill my flask with water to mix with my electrolyte powder and grab a couple of Oreos for the road. And then, the climbing starts again. The terrain between Lyon Ridge and Red Star Ridge is appropriately named. If you have only 5 miles of the course to ever run/hike, these would be my recommendation (don’t ask me how to get there, I think it’s incredibly inaccessible, so yes, it might be a 30 mile round trip from the start). The mountain drops off to your left and you are witness to an expanse of forest; the scenery nourishes me.
Lyon Ridge mile 10.3 in 2:57 (17:11). Placement:  347th/369.

The High Country. (Photo: David Bowers)


Part of the Ridge Line in the High Country. (Photo: David Bowers)

                I mostly stay in my own head, I reflect on all the smaller journeys that brought me here. Often during races, I will start talking with other runners, weave them in to my story. But today, I am consciously avoiding any conversations, saving what lung capacity I can muster for forward motion. The asthma did not bother me until after 50 miles at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 last year, so I thought I’d fare decently here given the high point of the race comes at mile 4 and then you drop down. I focus on getting to Robinson Flat as I should be fine by the time I reach 6800 ft.

Cougar Rock. (Photo: Facchino Photography)

Trying to keep my balance. (Photo: Facchino Photography)

                I focus ahead and have flashbacks to Quicksilver 100K 2015 as I see a rock scrambling climb. I joke with the photographers, briefly curse, and turn around to grab the view when I am at the top past Cougar Rock. Wow. This is the why. Every moment of struggle has its purpose, whether we recognize it in the moment or not until days, months, or years later. I am solidly grounded in gratitude. I will take everything I can from this day. I will remain patient until my lungs want to work again. I focus on each step, each mile, the distance traversed from one aid station to the next. I am already well behind my calculations and race day predictors. I worry about my family and friends tracking me; I hope someone will figure out what the delay is.
Made it to the top of the scramble! (Photo: Facchino Photography)

                In to Red Star Ridge, the volunteers have my drop bag ready. They refill my pack while I change my socks (as suspected there were some stream sections in the High Country and a dry pair of socks feels fantastic).  Out and power walking, running in spurts when I can catch my breath. I am still right around 7000 ft of altitude and this seems to be the line at which my asthma fights me. I will go back and forth, trading places with Erin, a Grand Slammer from Utah. I try to keep her in my sights to keep moving. I am roughly an hour ahead of race cut-offs; not where you want to be 15 miles in to a race, but you have to take what the day gives you. I strategize about the future through these miles. Should this race be another DNF, I come to peace that my days of 100 milers are done. Too much work, too much training to have the lungs fail me, again. And if I somehow make it through, race selection will be key moving forward. This is logic, not emotion. My head will keep me in the day and I need to put my heart aside for now. Focus on one cut-off to the next; take the lessons you learned at Sean O’Brien.

Red Start Ridge mile 15.8 in 4:27 (16:53). Section pace 16:21. 337th/369.

                After a few miles of undulating terrain, I start to descend to Duncan Canyon. The trail is rough as we are directed straight through the switchbacks to make up some mileage lost on a reroute before Lyon Ridge. Nevermind, as I am finally running again. My lungs are working as the altitude drops. I have some time to make up! Nothing wild mind you, but the feeling of motion and faster forward progress is an absolute delight!

Focus heading in to Duncan Canyon. (Photo: Tonya Perme)

Duncan Canyon mile 24.4 in 6:24 (15:44). Section pace 13:36. 312th/369.

                I am focused as I run in to the aid station at Duncan Canyon. It is bustling. A man with a long haired wig takes my pack to refill it as I grab some fruit and continue cooling measures. I am in and out quickly, after a brief greeting to Jon, Jess, Kat, and Martin who are spectating. I start to eat some pizza and grapes on my first mile out, pushing what nutrition I can, remaining steady on that plan. Charley Jones is ahead of me. He is a sure thing, running his 11th WS, a steady and consistent runner. If I am able to keep him in my sights, I will finish.  As we descend to Duncan Creek, the air continues warming. It is late morning on a day when temps will each the upper 90s/low 100s, depending on your course location. I thought this would clearly be my liability for the race, but, while I feel the heat, it is not causing significant problems for me. It is present, I am managing it. I take a 2 minute sit down in Duncan Creek, splash my whole body off, as I know I will need it for the climb. This will be one of the more delightful moments of the race, cold crisp waters surrounding me, and views of growing light green and white on the mountainside as it becomes reforested.

Out of Duncan Canyon; taking a break from eating. (Photo: Facchino Photography)

The climb to Robinson Flat. (Photo: David Bowers)

                The climb to Robinson Flat is more exposed due to limited trees as I hike through the noon hour. I am eager to arrive to see my crew. I am well behind schedule, but feel the timing isn’t horrible given my asthma and given the stretch that awaits me. I arrive roughly 50 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I am greeted by my husband Jim, daughter Sophie, and stepmom Kathy. Volunteers refill my pack as I go sit to change my shirt and shoes, munching on a slice of pizza and drinking a coke. Everything in my drop bag is soup from the heat, food stuff has melted together, solids have become liquid. My crew is encouraging as I am progressing and passing others; apparently I look good too.  I use the restroom, then get myself iced up and sponged off for the next section. I leave around 40 minutes under the cut off.
With Kathy and Sophie before I head out of Robinson Flat. (Photo: Jim Garrett)

Robinson Flat mile 30.3 in 8:18 (16:26 pace). Section pace 19:19. 311th/369.

                It is approaching the height of the heat of the day. I know I need to do what I can over the coming 14 miles. The terrain is runnable and I need to give myself as much of a buffer as I can before I hit the next canyon. And so, I run. I am careful to not overheat, running for a stretch, taking a few second walk break in the shade, then running again. The legs feel fantastic, likely better than they ever have 30+ miles in to the race. Turns out when you have asthma and have to walk a lot early on, your running legs are preserved. This section is often exposed. I inwardly marvel at my forward movement. I am not wilting. Heat was supposed to my Achilles heel and yet during the hottest portion of the course, I am moving the fastest I have. The ice in my sleeves, the coolant towel around my neck, the ice in my drink, they are all doing precisely what they were meant to do. All that time spent in the sauna in the weeks pre-race was worth every minute of discomfort, for I am not suffering now.

Miller’s Defeat mile 34.4 in 9:24 (16:23). Section pace 16:05, but included time at RF. 319th/369.

                I start to encounter some mild GI issues, feeling a little queasy with only the faintness of dizziness. I know this is the heat. I have to be careful as I am having a harder time eating anything; I eventually shift to almost complete liquid nutrition. This slows my pace slightly, but I keep my legs moving. For a road runner, which, let’s face it, I am, this section is fun. The course here is incredibly runnable. Actually, save for very brief segments, it is a runnable course (whether you can actually run for 100 miles is another conversation). In to Dusty Corners, I am again greeted by Kat, Jon, and Jess; Kat and I briefly touch base and she provides continued encouragement. I grab a baggie with ice and a baggie with fruit to keep moving.

With ice and fruit in hand, out of Dusty Corners. (Photo: Kat Domingues)

Dusty Corners mile 38 in 10:15 (16:11). Section pace 14:09. 315th/369.

                We leave the dusty fireroads and drop back to scenic single track through the forest. I am still moving, passing others, feeling strong. My goal is to be under a 16 min/mile pace average by the next aid station to allow the buffer I need to get to Devil’s Thumb. I can’t stomach the fruit I have brought with me, but do enjoy the ice chips and keep my core modestly cool between that and all the ice in my clothing. I run on and off with Charley in my sights through this section. I go to grab a photo when I am at Pucker Point, but only come to realize my phone is disabled. I figure it is the heat (it will be the perception of someone trying to unlock it and it will eventually need to be erased to revive it). Best to keep what photos I can in my mind’s eye. I am fortunate that I do have photos from 75 miles of the course from training runs, at least. In to Last Chance and I take some grapes to go with another bag of ice. A wise woman suggests I have a potato to absorb the acid in my stomach; it works. By now, I switch over to the electrolyte on course. I have been using my high calorie powder precisely to get added calories, but can no longer stomach it. I make it in to time to have the give I need for the next climb. I am an hour ahead of the cut-off.

Last Chance mile 43.3 in 11:24 (15:47). Section pace 13:01. 282nd/369.

                I run while there is still a fireroad, getting inspired by the signs that line the exit of the aid station. Many speak to the years to get here. 5 years for me; it resonates and keeps the motivation in check. I feel solid. I feel grounded. I have no delusions though about the race ahead and know the next 13 miles will provide the hardest terrain of the race. But I have been managing, making each cut-off, picking up a bit of time where I can.

                The 1.5 mile stretch down to Swinging Bridge is tortuous for me. I don’t care for this descent on the best of days, as technical descents are not my forte. However today, my feet respond with utter pain. Each footfall that hits a rock or a root results in searing pain. It’s a long stretch of ouch, ouch, ouch, slowly tiptoeing through to stay upright. I am passed my many through here and let them go so I can run my race. I am nearly overjoyed when I reach Swinging Bridge because my feet are crying for the descent to end.  That thought is, of course, a wild bit of folly. The worst climb of the race awaits me: 1600 ft in 1.6 miles, up technical switchbacks.

                The ascent to Devil’s Thumb is just a nasty as usual given the grade, but this is compounded by some heat still trapped in the canyon and the prior 45 miles of wear and tear. Before I’ve gained much of the elevation, my lungs start screaming at me. I am forced to slow and then to stop to catch my breath. I will repeat this process again and again. I marvel at how I think I once did this climb in a decent time at Canyons 100K (and at how I once thought that race was hard; it is, but this is harder). My lungs beg for patience and I can do nothing but acquiesce. I do know this section is time limited and can at least recognize the hardest will be behind me once I summit.

                The thumb is finally in sight, still painfully further away than I would care for. One foot in front of the other, rinse, repeat. As we approach, a figure is up the hill yelling down, I think calling my name. Mansour is too comfortable as he jokingly berates me for being behind schedule; we had agreed on a popsicle meeting time here and I am tardy. Roger (bib #400, aka the last person entered in the race, the day before) both know Mansour and take his cajoling for the final hundred feet to the aid station. I am spent, worn from the hypoxia of the climb. I pass off my pack and find a chair. Denis (WSER board member, who I met years ago at a talk when I dreamed of the opportunity to run this race) tells me I can’t sit for long, I look too good, and 15 minutes sitting could get me a mile down the trail. I promptly agree, state I want 3 minutes to sit, and enjoy a popsicle while my lungs recover.  Mansour helps me get what I need and I pack some potatoes to go, says my thanks, and I am off. There is immense relief in getting through this juncture, I am 45ish minutes ahead of the cutoff. It’s not ideal, but I am moving again. Down the trail,  Robert catches up with me to grab a photo (and I thank him again for the help at the aid station, while I remain grateful that I have no intent to see him again as he must be a sweep for this section).

Recovered coming out of Devil's Thumb. (Photo: Robert Myers)

Devil’s Thumb mile 47.8 in 13:20 (16:44). Section pace 25:46. 309th/369.

                The next section is enjoyable in the way that running through the forest on soft covered terrain is. I run when I am able, with a runner in tow. I might walk very briefly, but then am powering on again. I know I need to do what I can here through to Deadwood Cemetery before I tackle the next canyon. It has become harder to eat and stomach anything, so I persist on my liquid diet. The several mile descent to El Dorado Creek is much slower than I would care for, the terrain again battering my weary feet and causing zings of pain that reverberate through my being. Ouch, ouch, ouch. I do my best to move through the smoother sections, but falter as I reach rocks and roots. I pass the 50 mile mark and am halfway through the race in 14:05 (just under 16 hours to finish). Once at the creek, I cross the bridge, request what I need. I really wanted a bathroom and there is none to be had; I settle for coke and chicken broth. It is dusk at this juncture, I am unsure if I am still hot or if I am starting to get cold. I was overheated and pulled my arm sleeves down after forgoing ice at Devil’s Thumb as I felt a chill.

El Dorado Creek mile 52.9 in 14:45 (16:43). Section pace 16:39. 305th/369.

                I am on my way quickly, eager to conquer this final large climb, and eager to get to crew and my pacer at Michigan Bluff. The top will leave the hardest parts of the race behind me and should be better, as I will no longer be alone. I have run a more solitary race than is typical for me, mainly just being mindful of conserving what energy I can for running and breathing. I have kept emotions out of this race as that is an energy expenditure I don’t have space for. This is business: keep moving forward, make each cut-off, garner added time when you can. It is far from what I envisioned this day would be, but it is also about managing the necessity of what the day as given me. I just hope that everything I have learned in the past five years to get here will prove enough to get me through the day, even though the time has not been in my favor since the start. I am living from one aid station and one cut-off to the next. The benefit is I am incredibly present.

I need to stop briefly to address chaffing issues and am summarily attacked by mosquitos. They sting and zing me. I pull up my arm sleeves and march on. I still have to stop for brief spurts due to the asthma, but these are seconds long to gather an extra couple of breaths as the insects are vicious. It is getting darker, I pull out my lights, but they are still fairly useless. I am struggling but push on. I crest the 2.8 mile 1700 ft climb and then am moving again as I close in on the aid station. Murf and Jim are there to attend to my needs, as I grab a bite and some soda. I ditch my useless phone, stop my Garmin and plug it in to charge it. I kiss Jim goodbye, tell him it will take 1:45-2:00 to get to Foresthill. I leave out at 9:05 pm, 50 minutes ahead of the cut off.

Coming in to Michigan Bluff at dusk. (Photo: Jim Garrett)

Michigan Bluff 55.7 in 15:59 (17:13). Section pace 26:25. 305th/369.

(My watch stopped at Michigan Bluff with 55.1 miles in 16:02 (17:28). Gain 10,269 ft, Loss 12,497 ft. Altitude range 2079 to 8612 ft.)


Gratitude

                Murf is an instant distractor when I pick him up as a pacer. We get running as I am still trying to stuff Oreos in my face (this is the one bit of solid food I can surprisingly stomach). He promises I can eat when we hit the climb in 0.25 miles; I know it’s closer to a mile away.  My light sucks so I am struggling to see the road (user error and I fix it a bit later; I guess I had it on the lowest setting). I aim to follow Murf who is lit up like a Christmas (Statesmas!) tree. He points out blips in the terrain, advises what side of the trail to stay on, predicts undulations, tells me when to run, when to power hike. I am decidedly in good hands. My feet are beat up though and this becomes more obviously painful as we descend to Volcano Creek; just as the past two technical descents, my feet are just crying out. This is not an issue I anticipated, having thought it was solved with sock changes, shoes changes, and the use of Run Goo. My feet have been fairly happy trail running for over a year and yet they are becoming the rate limiting step now. There are blisters growing, blisters which are on the verge of the pain that was Kettle Moraine 100 (90.5) miler. We cross the creek and the cold water feels absolutely delightful. On our hike back to Foresthill, Kelly comes along (Rhode Island gal who now lives in Long Beach); she is struggling with her feet as well, having spent an hour at the last aid station getting them tended to.  

My greeting at Foresthill!

                Once we crest the pavement, I feel a bit better, as at least I can power hike at a faster rate. We pop out on Foresthill Rd and I can run and do. I know I need to use every runnable section and take advantage of my marathon legs. I hit the bathroom before I make my official entry to Foresthill. Jim is there, along with future pacers Lorena and Rhoben. I am also happy to see some fellow ACME animal runners: Badger, Ibex, and Jayhawk. I quickly greet them, plunk down in a chair to change my socks and shoes. Murf urges me to have medical take care of my feet. I am hesitant; I don’t have time. Medical comes to me and convinces me, so I hobble inside. I am treated to two volunteers, one working on each foot, as I am propped up in a lounge chair. I eat pizza and drink a Coke as my blisters are lanced and then taped up (the damage at this point is a monstrous blister on the bottom of my left heel, a smaller brewing one of my right heel, and a medium sized blister on my right forefoot). In retrospect, the blisters were likely the result of excessive power hiking/speed walking sections on the rocks in the High Country, a clear side effect of my asthma. I am wary of the time, but grateful for the help. My feet as they were would have eventually limited my forward progress. The volunteers here, as at every step of this race, are phenomenal. You ask, they give, and with a positive attitude. During the training runs, I met an elite who commented that “WS is a hard race to DNF”, referencing all the encouragement from the volunteers. She is right. They reassure me and get me on my way.

Foresthill mile 62 in 17:55 (in) (17:20). Section pace 18:24. 292nd/369.

                As I head down Main St Foresthill, quickly waving goodbye to my friends, I realize I’m missing my flashlight; Murf grabs what he can- it’s my junky headlamp. I do at least have my good headlamp and it more than suffices along with the glow of the moon. I check my watch, it is 11:20 pm. The cut-off at Foresthill was 11:45 pm; I am now just 25 minutes ahead. Here, I should mention the cut-offs. These signal the absolute final time by which I need to be out of a given aid station. The 30 hour time (which is what is required for an official finish) is faster than those cut-offs, typically by about an hour. Shit. The feet repair was necessary, but I just don’t like this tightness. Murf is reassuring, there are only a few climbs, there are lots of downs and runnable terrain over the next 16 miles to the river.

                This section was once my favorite of the course. It arguably provides some of the prettiest views on course (assuming this were daylight and you could appreciate the mountains in the distance, the lushness of the forest, and the river which meanders in and out of sight on the single track). It actually is rather runnable; I’ve gone through here bombing down to the river, skipping, jumping, throwing caution in to the wilderness in a way I rarely do. But the only two times I’ve raced on Cal Street have been disasters. In Canyons 2016, electrolyte imbalances had me zombie shuffling every inch of this terrain. At Canyons 2017, I dropped from the race half way to the river, my ear in agonizing pain which meant a crawl from Cal 1 to Cal 2. During the same Canyons race, I let this dream die, this dream of Western States. I could no longer fathom why I was chasing it and my optimism for its eventuality was dimming. There is a bit of heartbreak I feel now when I run through this beauty; it sits there as a thud in my chest even though I try my best to suppress its weight.

                But as I start off, despite the darkness, I am bounding down the first switchbacks to the fireroad. Murf is calling out, strategizing, stay to your right, now to the left! We are flying. We are passing others. I am finding joy! Yes, I still need to power hike every ascent, briefly stop to catch my breath, and regroup. But, in between, I am feeling motion I haven’t felt in hours. The worry and dread I felt running out of Foresthill is replaced with hope.  I just keep Murf in my sights and keep moving as fast as I can to keep up with him. I just need to stay close enough to hear his encouraging words. We arrive at Cal 1 in no time; I refuel with liquid and move on. On the climb out of there, Tim Twietmeyer passes. I do a double take, but it is definitely him. I then realize why and call out, “Are you pacing your son?” Indeed! That’s a pretty cool sight to see.  We will go back and forth for some time, me struggling on the climbs, but moving with force on the flats. We will do this dance with a bevy of other runners on Cal Street, Dancing in the Dark, it seems. It’s suddenly a magical place. My heart is finally and solidly in this race after 65 miles of trepidation.

Cal 2 mile 70.7 in 20:38 (17:30). Section pace 18:44 (included foot time in FH). 290th/369.

                I would have thought the darkness would be cooling, but I think my increased rate of motion has offset any drop in temperatures. At Cal 2, I have ice put in my arm sleeves and enjoy a sponge down before heading further down in to the forest and to the river.  I continue moving. The taped up feet have allowed my legs to show what they have left. We will dance through the next section with the Frenchman Michel. Let’s just never ask Murf to speak French! Merci! Through the sand and we keep moving. The fireroad pops up and I know we are narrowing in on Rucky Chucky in under 2 miles. I glance at my watch, 3:15 am. We have been moving and shaking. I have finally erased the race nightmare that this section was for me. I express my utter gratitude to Murf. In the final stretches to the river, my road legs take over, still moving, still running, still passing. I again encounter Kyle through here (we had been going back and forth all day and enjoyed running together at the training camp in May).

Murf and I have made it to the river! (Photo: Jim Garrett)

Rucky Chucky mile 78 in 22:38 (17:24). Section pace 16:26. 261st/369.

The river might be the prettiest nighttime sight! (Photo: Jim Garrett)

                We call out as we run in to Rucky Chucky, “Rhino is coming!!”. (I was later advised that Murf’s light up the night vest always provided a grand entrance.) I grab a new drink, hug Murf farewell, give Jim a kiss, and pick up Lorena to take over pacing duties. On my way out, Ken compliments me on my speedy time from Foresthill. I almost can’t believe I just did that, but I savor it. We are locked in to lifevests and get moving across the river. It is 3:40 in the morning and I finally sense some relief. I am now 80 minutes ahead of the cutoff, but have gained 55 minutes in the past 16 miles. I know I will finish the race. I’ve waited 78 miles to have that feeling; it washes over me as only joy can. I know there are no guarantees, but I know the rest of the course like the back of my hand, and I know I can manage the 19-20 minute per mile average that I will need to get to the track. The cool of the river provides added relief (well after the initial sting to all my chafed parts). I chat with the volunteers in the river as we cross, thanking them for their time. I might just be absolutely giddy!
Crossing the river and getting cooled off with Lorena! (Photo: Facchino Photography)


                Up the other side and I proceed with a slow shoe change (the cots are nearly full and canted so you feel like you’re falling, there is dirt/mud everywhere). Lorena has managed to borrow the largest light on the face of the universe (thanks Brad!), so her head beams cross the width of the fireroad as we ascend to Green Gate. Forward motion and I am taking my time; I advise Lorena of my issues with climbs and needing to periodically catch my breath. We run across Robert through here; he wishes us well as he waits his runner. We reach Green Gate, I do a quick refuel and we are off after a hug and greeting from David.  Samir is in the chair here; he states he is fine and will be along soon (we had met during trail work).

Green Gate mile 79.8 in 23:32 (17:41). Section pace 30:00. 276th/369.

                We move on. Dawn is still on the horizon and I struggle a bit with the rocky terrain, but just power hike when I cannot run. Lorena and I catch up. I learn that Eddie dropped at the river; I know something must have gone wrong in terms of an injury as he trained the hardest of anyone I know for this. My heart breaks a bit with this news. Lorena and Murf are among the chattiest people I know; it serves them well as pacers. The miles will pass. I just work to keep Lorena in my sights, to catch her as I can. We find our rhythm, having to decide when to pass others (flats) and when to hold back (hills), back to dancing. Dawn finally breaks just before we hit ALT. My thoughts drift to Turtle who struggled mightily through this section when I paced her last year (a race of scraping past cut-offs that eventually ended at mile 85). I run in to the aid station to find Margaret and give her a hug (she is running a tight ship here!). A volunteer helps me refuel and change out the lights for my visor and sunglasses. I am ready to greet this day and to see it through to Auburn! My thanks and I am gone again!

Auburn Lake Trails mile 85.2 in 25:10 (17:43). Section pace 18:08. 277th/369.

                As we exit ALT, I notice we are finally ahead of the 30 hour pace (6:25 am). More and more relief is setting in. I will push the best I can through the next segment of single track; it is the most runnable of the race and the one where I felt I shined at WTC 50K. Mind you, my idea of speed at this juncture is anything I can run, even if my running pace merely sits at 14-15 minute miles. I know I have to average just under 20 minute miles. But, I know I have to manage a handful of 15-16-17-18 minute miles to allow me the give that I will need from Quarry Rd up to Cool. I store what I can in the bank to get a bit of reserve. Lorena does her job and compliments me in still being able to run.  It takes forever to reach the right turn to Brown’s Bar. I think a bug gets in my mouth and I am hacking and dry heaving; my stomach might just be revolting (the same happened on the way up to Michigan Bluff). I try to vomit, figuring I might feel better, but hour upon hours of mainly liquid nutrition means there is nothing in my stomach to actually vomit. I move on, but with a bit more trepidation, trying to avoid getting sicker. I take a bit of soda when we reach Quarry Rd before carrying on. Save for Robinson Flat and Foresthill, aid stations have been a quick in and out affair: grab what I need, take it with me, and get going with my thanks yelled back.

Still working on moving through the single track of day. (Photo: Lorena Van Rein)

Quarry Road mile 90.7 in 26:43 (17:40). Section pace 16:54. 275th/369.

                I have 15 minutes on the 30 hour time and am roughly an hour ahead of the cutoff. I am filled with joy again as I know there are a mere 9.5 miles remaining. Lorena asks if I will be okay finishing in the 29th hour, wondering if I want to push it to try to get a faster finish. No, my goal going in to this was always a modest 29:59 or under, i.e., a finish. I knew I would have only one opportunity my whole life to run this race and finishing is all that matters. I just want the buckle. The time is inconsequential. I have been humbled enough in recent years by these ultras; I take no finish for granted. There is too much that can and will go wrong; if you can persevere, you have won. If you had asked me 10 miles in to this race if I would have finished, my answer would have been “doubtful”.  I was behind from the start because of my asthma. Making it to this point is a feat, in and of itself. But mile 90.7 is even more than that. It is the furthest I have made it since my first 100 miler at Rio Del Lago. The Kettle ended at mile 90.5 when my body gave up and my mind was becoming a confused mess. I feel strong now at mile 90.7 and my mind is fresh and alert. There is nothing that will impede this finish.

                The hike, and that’s what it is, to Highway 49 is painful, with excess rocks underfoot. Apparently at some juncture when I started running, I took the pressure off my battered and blistered heels and returned to my mid-foot striking. As a consequence, I can feel the blisters spreading there and each stony surface evokes a wince and a curse or an ouch from me, some louder than others.  But I have enough time, so I power hike as Lorena no doubt worries about that 23 minute mile. I trot as we get closer to the road and cross highway 49. Cool is not far now and it is far from cool. The day heats up as we make that climb up the rocky terrain to the meadows of Cool. The brush is dry and yellow, the air is hot and stifling. They announce my name even before I come in to view. I am greeted by Jim, Rhoben, Murf, Gooney! It is a quick hello and goodbye from me, ditching my hydration pack, and just moving on with my flask of ice water- I have a date with the track!

In to Pointed Rocks! 6 miles to go!

Pointed Rocks mile 94.3 in 27:56 (17:46). Section pace 20:16. 273rd/369.

                Rhoben takes over as my final pacer. I have 2 hours remaining to cover the final 6 miles of the course.  I am eager for the next 2.5 miles of downhill, though the day is heating up. I love this stretch to No Hands and I really feel I am flying, even doing my airplane arms through the forest on my favorite hairpin turn. My watch clearly tells me otherwise- but I only need modest motion, no true rhino speed. Rhoben catches me up and we both agree the foot taping was the best decision of my day. We process this diversion from our usual routine. The past few years, we go to the Finish Line to watch the winner cross and then head to spectate our friends in Foresthill before Rhoben drops me off so I can go pace at the river. He gets emotional for a moment and I am touched; I am honored to have him here with me. The pacers, my dear friends, are the ones who have salvaged this trying day for me. I am still in pain, but they continue to propel me forward. We make good time, pop out with the view of Foresthill Bridge. I allow a split second of emotion to let in; still too soon, but I am now 4 miles away from the goal.

Rhoben and I are off for the final 6!

About 2 miles from the finish. (Photo: Rhoben Dalusong)

                Down to No Hands, we are conga lining with other runners; some with more pep than others, but all of us know we will finish and share that mutual joy. I have my flask refilled and then am sponged off, with ice topped off. We cross the bridge and are 3.4 miles from the finish! Sarah and I cross the bridge at the same time, we catch up to Samir. I check the watch 9:36 am. 1:24 to finish this. Doubt left me at the river, but I’ll happily take this reassurance. There will be 800 ft of climbing in these final three miles, but walking is all that is required. I start my power walk; I would run, but the heat is ratcheting up. Rhoben is correct in noting that my walking pace often exceeds others’ running pace. We chit chat as we march with views of the river to our left. There are a few milder climbs, but this is pancake compared to what we have covered.

Robie Point mile 98.9 in 29:18 (17:46). Section pace 17:54. 245th/369 (I don’t think that number is correct; the race stats are missing 30 places at this aid station).

Final cool off 1.4 miles to go! (Photo: Rhoben Dalusong)

                We approach the final fire road to Robie Point. Mansour comes down to greet me and get me moving (I have time!!). I enjoy my final sponge bath of the race from another kind volunteer. It is 10:13 am. I wanted 30 minutes minimum. I am good. I can hear my friends at the gate; Rhoben (Duck) starts barking at them and they return in cheers! I take another flask of water and ice from the aid station. My party of 2 has swelled and I find myself overwhelmed and surrounded with love and encouragement. My ACME tribe has joined me: Fox, Gooney, Ape, Mule (Murf), Smoke, Jayhawk, Flamingo. We head up the cruel final very long asphalt grade to the mile 99 marker. We are joined by Badger, Ibex, Newt, Hedge, Akita. Parrot (Lorena) joins in, then my husband Jim. My daughter Sophie, stepmom Kathy, brother Khris (yeah, he flew in from the Netherlands for this! ) join the parade. Farah is taking video. Jim gets my daughter Izzie on Facetime from Seattle (she happens to have a break in rehearsals), my mother in law (who is ill) gets a Facetime cameo as well. Jim starts Facebook live streaming.

My tribe! (Photo: John Murphy)

Yeah- I'll dance to this sign! (Photo: Jim Garrett)

I take every single second of this 1.3 mile journey and I savor it. I walk it because I want it to last just long enough. I have held in all my emotions for 29+ hours and I finally give myself permission to let them out. I finally can allow the energy of the emotions of this journey out, both the five years spent to get here, as well as the painful and equally nourishing miles of the past day and change. I am filled with gratitude beyond anything else. This family, these friends, they helped me grow up on the trails. I feel blessed to have them in my life and to have them here to celebrate this incredible day.

Just about to enter the track. Love! (Photo: Rhoben Dalusong)

We cross the White Bridge and are headed on the final downhill towards the track. Jim gets me on video confirming this is a one and done for me. There is nothing coerced it. I need nothing else from this race. I just wanted one opportunity to run Western States and I just want one finish. So much was put in to getting here, so many tests of who I was as an athlete, tests of what I felt I could endure for the love of this race and this sport. But this is not the race for me; it doesn’t suit my strengths. I’m not sure what is next for me. I’ll find different challenges, I always do.  But, I think I needed to know I could do this. I needed to know I could put together all the hard days, all the failures on this journey, the DNFs, the body’s failings, my lungs’ fragility; I needed to know I could put it all together for success. I have that sense of accomplishment that I sought. And I am sated. This race is too hard to get in to. It is a once in a lifetime race. And now, I leave it to the other dreamers to find their way here.

The final 300 m! 


Rounding the track! (Photo: Rhoben Dalusong)

Oh yeah! (Photo: Jay Van Rein)

Joy! (Photo: Facchino Photography)

We are nearing the track. I think I’m expected to start running! I do start a trot; not sure it’s that pretty, but quite sure it doesn’t matter. My tribe joins me as we enter the track at Placer High School. I am running. I am trying to listen to the announcement as my bio is read; it is drowned out by my friends. Smoke had made a comment about the bio, knowing I would have chosen some prime, well thought-out comments. Indeed, I did.  But I am in the moment and even more present than the rest of this race has forced me to be. The track is magic. Friends are calling out as I run: Martin, Kevin from the inside of the track, in the stands, my mom and stepdad, Jay, Nuria, Michael, Kelly, Allie. There may be some I miss and there are some Rhino cheers in there too. In the final home stretch, I leave my crew and my tribe to finish on my own. I am elated. The finish arch, the finish clock, all pure magic. I run through, arms up in victory, in celebration. Whatever emotions have been building since I left Robie Point are permitted to overflow. I did it! I did it.

Finish mile 100.2 in 29:41:36 (17:46). Section pace 17:51. 282nd/369 (299 finishers, 70 drops).

This is the right emotion. (Photo: Facchino Photography)

29:41. (Photo: Facchino Photography)

                The Golden Hour (between 10-11 am on Sunday the last weekend in June at the Placer High School track) is a magical one. I have wept in prior years watching strangers and friends alike finish in this hour. If you can’t derive inspiration from the emotions and the years people place on that track, you’re not likely to find it anywhere. I leave my emotions out there. I am awarded a medal and some water.  John comes to check on me (he’s working medical, but I told him before I would not be using his services at the finish line). I grab a seat (and wish I had more shade) and I take it all in. I hear the cheers as subsequent runners come through in the final minutes of the race (29:59:59 is the maximum time allowed).  I will give friends hugs to thank them for coming out to see me and for their support. I will meet up with family. I will crumple on the ground because I’m actually, finally, rather tired. I do manage to sip on some rather delightful Schramsberg with my family, though I cannot stomach any food. Way too much later, I will lie on the grass near the awards tent, overheated and unable to stand, as I listen to the top runners announced and then the runners listed in order of their finish times. I will get myself upright in time to join my fellow 29ers ; we give each other hugs before our names are announced. I will receive my coveted bronze buckle from Denis and I hug and thank him for getting me out of Devil’s Thumb; sometimes those 15 minutes (or 19) matter. I go home and clean up. I will be achy, unable to bear weight on my feet for days due to my blisters, I will be in pain from my inevitable outbreak of poison oak. I will be more emotional; I have 29 hours of emotions from the most physically arduous day of my life that I had to withhold so that I could see that finish line. But, I feel at peace. I am satisfied. I am content.

Satisfied. (Photo: Nuria Duran)

Worth it.

So, about the bio that was to be read on the track. Mine was partly heard, but the energy and the emotion of those final 300 meters muted it. Not to mention that the Golden Hour was rolling, rolling, rolling with finishers. To finish, it’s important that I recreate the sentiment of that bio, if not the exact words.  “This is Rhino’s first WS100 finish and her 2nd 100 mile finish, a veteran of 31 marathons and 24 ultras. Rhino is a child psychiatrist by profession and an avid collector of wine and rhinos.” And the rest should just be in my own voice. I extend my gratitude to my coach Ellie Greenwood who taught me restraint and to embrace a lot of vertical, whose positivity and smile stay with me and propel me along. My gratitude to my pacers, Murf, Lorena, and Rhoben, who were patient with me while nudging me along the trails. My gratitude to my ACME runner friends, my Boston training group friends, and to those friends I’ve made on the trails near and far and who have shared this journey with me. To my family, Kathy and Sophie, and their help with crewing. Gratitude to those who can’t be here: for Izzie who is busy following her own dreams, and to my Dad who is always with me. But mostly, my thanks and love go to Jim ,who has supported me day and night for years on this road; for your patience, you have my gratitude.           


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

These Are the Years We’ve Spent: Way Too Cool 50K 3/3/2018

Yes- let's take this attitude to the race!


I start out blazing. I am aware in the first 8-mile loop that I am running fairly aggressively and well ahead of pace from last year. I grant you I was thoroughly compensating for SOB where I went out way too conservatively. I need to prove something to myself. I need to sit in discomfort and enjoy it. I have no interest
in worrying about cut-offs. And I think I need to know that these legs still work.
 
Why it looks like a beautiful day! (Facchino Photography)

            I am pushing, and it feels really, really good. The contrast to last year when my lungs were struggling to warm up and to breathe (due to pneumonia) was quite palpable to me. I also know this is where I need to make up time on the course compared with last year, having studied the data pre-race. In 2017, I ran a strong back three-quarters of Way Too Cool, relatively speaking, once I felt I could trust the lungs.

Just having fun around mile 5!


            I run the first loop with Veronica, who is running her first ultra. I knew going in to Way Too Cool that I should never keep up with her as Veronica has way higher leg turnover than I do. So…I ran just ahead of her... and she kept up with me.  Veronica doubted her pace- I knew better!
 
Veronica catches me running away!

            The back half of the loop is a mess - super muddy with lots of creek/stream, knee-deep crossings. The mud wants to suck off my shoes. The creeks send a chill through my body as they jolt me awake. It is a lot of added effort, but I push my mud phobia aside and go for it anyway. I am working to channel my inner Max King. It was cold at the start (mid-upper 30s) but dry and I am overly warm by the end of the loop. Through the first aid station at 8-ish (7.6 miles on my watch) in 1:20 (my official mile 8 was closer to 1:22 - vs 1:28 last year).
 
Why- yes! It is that cold! (Facchino Photography)


            Then leaving Cool, and on to the descent to Western States trail. I am solo- Veronica doesn’t stop at the aid station and I let her go. (My total time at aid stations will be about 7 minutes for the day). It starts to rain and there is a plethora of mud still on the descent, along with creek crossings. I focus on pulling back the effort to something I can maintain. After 2 miles, I hit the fireroad at Quarry Trail. I do what I can there, though it feels slower than last year (not actually the case, but an effect of the effort from the start).

Mile 95 ish of WS100 course!

            Through this stretch last year, I was solely thinking how f’ing fast this course was as I cursed my pneumonia. It is a PR worthy course, if only the lungs had cooperated. But today, it's just a blur of searing lungs and discomfort. I want to slow down. I yearn for the give provided by a 100K, by a 100 miler. My heart is racing. The lungs though, the legs, they do not falter. They push on as I overwhelm the regulator telling me to slow the f down. The course is too fast, I can't justify slowing down. If it's runnable, I have to run. I read weeks ago an interview with Sarah Lavendar Smith, noting the distinction between ramps and walls. Basically, the ramp hills can be run; the wall hills might be walked/power hiked. This course is a bevy of ramps- I want some walls already! The fact of this being hard is not enough. There is no reserve I have to keep. It's only 31 miles. Suck it up princess!

            Aid station at 13 (12.5 for me) - I refill my pack and flask and am out. On and off, it is getting colder with wind and rain. I run 15.5 miles in 2:45. I estimate 3 hours to finish as the hills are in the final five miles. I figured a 5:45 overall time was a stretch, but possible, goal with the conditions. I’m going for my pre-race estimate.

Quarry trail.

            I go through the three major creek crossings at American Canyon Creek and Hoboken.  It’s very slippery, I nearly fall a few times, but stay upright. Then I greet the climb back to the WS trail. That climb is shorter and even better (i.e. easier) than I recalled. I eat a couple of mini brownies, but suddenly reach the top, marked by a throng of spectators in the forest.  I am disappointed. I just want more power hiking time. I want more walls. I have been pushing the running all the way along. I have to run as it's infinitely and painfully runnable! I push it to ALT (mile 20.5 on course) and get there in 3:43. A quick refuel of flask and I'm out. Another cold and freezing creek crossing startles me as I drop back to singe track.


            This next section tends to be the fastest of the single track (and my favorite of WS trail- aside from Cal St) on course. It hails at mile 22 for a bit.... it has been raining on and off with varying intensity. I can only laugh and carry on. A fair number of runners passed me on the fire road before. Now it is my turn! I turn on the jet fuel and reel them in! On your left, on your left, on your left! I am flying and pull another woman behind me. We are a rolling freight train, passing people a few at a time, side stepping the narrow path. If you want fun in an ultra, let it loose 24-25 miles in and start your sprinting! Yee haw! (Based on final stats from mile 8 to the finish, every place I moved up was through here with rare exception.) I am sailing, and I feel damn fine! If there's a doubt that I am an endurance runner with a capital E, doubt no more! Let's just say I got my second wind and the run becomes amazingly fun. Legs and lungs are really, really strong. Oh, but I really am looking forward to a hill so I can "rest" some...

            I hit the bottom of the tough climb at the end of this stretch right around mile 26. I luck out, as last year there was an added smaller climb as a detour for a washed-out fire road - which was a mess due to mud. But, the "mini-goat" is out and the fireroad is open - win!! So, I only have Goat Hill (steep, but less than 0.5 miles). I am happy - and then happier when it starts to snow- just sort of cool! I make it to the top feeling strong.

            Leaving to head out of the aid station- Veronica is there and I cajole her to join me (she had had a rough last couple of miles). The descent off Goat Hill is not much of one with some climbs. It is a soupy mess- basically sections of narrow grooves 1/2-foot-wide filled with mud and water. I am in a lot of pain, but I do my best to keep pushing it as there are only a few miles left. I run/ walk as terrain and mud/streams permit.
 
This photo in no way captures the mud I was running through...

            I pop out at highway 49 (the course rejoined the Western States trail a bit after Goat Hill) - 1.4 miles to go and 5:26 on the watch. (I think it's closer to 1.2 miles...) I hug Tim and greet friends at the (no offense) useless aid station. I am ready to get this done! I run the flats and power hike the final climb. I visualize doing this 6/24/2018 at mile 93! Up to Cool and that final stretch is another ridiculous mud-fest.  I push and finish in 5:42. I turn around, take out my phone, and capture Veronica coming in 30 seconds later (I have been yelling back encouragement for the final 5 miles!).

And done! (Facchino Photography)

            Done and then it starts to snow again! Magic. Just magic.

Veronica finishes!

31.1 miles in 5:42:16 (11:01 pace)
10th F 40-49/88; 37th F/223; 178th OA/618.
Mile 8 1:20:08 (10:01); mile 8-finish 4:22:08 (11:22).
+3773 ft, -3770 ft.
Approximate breakdown of the course: 1st 1/4 1:15:31, 2nd ¼ 1:19:17, 3rd ¼ 1:31:43, 4th ¼ 1:35:45.


I don't like mud..

But I embraced it!

Add caption

With Veronica and Rhoben post-race!

            So, that was painful and really hard, in the most amazing and positive way. I was definitely pushing it the whole way, such that it felt more like a road marathon in terms of effort. I haven’t run an ultra that hard in a long, long time. It felt good to be able to execute it, to run the ultra I secretly knew I was capable of. I've struggled in recent years to run well on the trails, whether it was a health issue or the race circumstances of the day. But the 2018 Way Too Cool marks my 2nd fastest trail 50K. My fastest was 5:34 back in 2013, a race run in completely dry conditions. This race receives a top 3 billing for worst ultra conditions in terms of the course. I will say the weather wasn't horrible given what I was anticipating, though the water and mud made up for it! But, whatever happened out there, I took it in, I rolled with it, I ran and ran and ran on. All the doubts I've harbored in recent years were pushed aside for those five hours and 42 minutes. Instead, I ran with my heart and my legs. I ran with joy, no matter the physical pain. And, I enjoyed the hell out of it. I’m back and I'm ready for more!


One does this race for the frog cupcakes!