Warning, this is almost longer than the race itself.....above PC @ Charles Danforth.
would be arriving Thursday evening. The race start slated for Friday morning 10am. They drove 17 hours to come crew/pace me. They would miss Father’s Day with their families and go at least 36 hours without sleep to keep up with me. I am so grateful to them both, and their families for allowing them to come. Without them, I would not have finished this race. This race would be a crucial race for a number of reasons. First of all, I needed this race finish to keep my name in the hat for my bucket list race, Hardrock 100. I wanted to prove to myself I still could be able to finish a Hardrock qualifier. More importantly, I needed the experience to gain confidence in my ability to complete Hardrock. My last qualifier, Mogollan Monster 100, 2 years ago ended disastrously. I finished, but my back failed at mile 95 and it took me nearly 6 hours to get from mile 95 to 108. I was completely broken and hunched over, I literally could not hold myself upright the last 10 miles. I was embarassed that I could not even stand straight hiking and running. That did not give me much confidence for Hardrock. My deepest fear going into this race was that my back would fail again. I didn’t want to finish this race in the same shape.
I ran Jemez 50mile race 4 weeks ago. I did well and finished strong, but in the few days after my back started hurting. I did a 3 hour training run and could not run uphill. My back was spasming and limited me severely. The next two weeks I worked with my coach Eric Orton, and Jordan Williams, DPT at Proof Performance in Flagstaff. They both worked with me, encouraged me, and helped me do what we could to help my back. The weeks leading into the race did not build much confidence. While uphills were better, my back still bothered me at least mildly on any uphill. This race would have 18,000 feet of climbing and the same descending. More than Mogollan. I also had a niggly hot tendon over my left knee cap that just wouldn’t settle down completely pre-race. With all of the training and sacrifice put into this race, my family, and my pacer’s sacrifices, I had decided that I would finish this race no matter what. I decided it might hurt like hell, it might not be at all the race I wanted, but I would finish. I had high hopes that if things went well, I could potentially finish in 26-27 hours. I knew that was possible, and that was a fun and exciting idea to entertain, but I was prepared for the worst.
I used to be judgemental about DNF’ing (did not finish) a race. I DNF’d at Ouray 50 mile last year. I was hard on myself for that. I had a horrible day there. It was the most amazingly beautiful course in the mountains, some of the same course as Hardrock. I was pushing too hard from the start. I was near dead last. I had stomach issues. I was hating that day. I was hating the course. I was hating myself. I started to hate the mountains and all that hate frightened me. I quit. I wanted to quit before I hated that place. I was afraid I would ruin my love for the mountains, ruin my desire to run in them. I’m glad I quit. It was the right thing to do.
I did a little shake out run Thursday morning. Everything felt great, but still had that little hot spot on my L knee. I was ready mentally and emotionally. I felt good about the race. I was nervous about my back and knee, but somehow just felt really calm in general. David and James arrived Thursday evening and we ate a hearty dinner and enjoyed eachother’s company. Friday morning we ate a big breakfast and headed to the pre-race meeting at 8am. The course director went over course conditions as it drizzled rain intermittently. Lots of mention of mud and rain. Lots. I didn’t think much of it. I expected rain and cold weather from afternoon to the next day. I had my drop bags stocked with warm, dry clothes, rain shells, and gloves. I knew I was prepared for really cold weather. Living in Flagstaff gave me lots of first hand experience with mountain weather. It is always colder and wetter than anticipated. When you’ve already been running for 40 miles, your ability to stay warm under normal conditions is compromised. Your thermoregulation is off, you are slightly dehydrated and depleted. I’ve seen severe hypothermia in 50 degree rainy weather at night. Normally, no one would consider getting hypothermic running in that. I personally experienced hypothermia at Leadville 100 in 2012. I was terrified I might not make it to the next aid station. I ran for two hours crying and feeling myself gradually freeze to death. I spent over 30 minutes in a warming bag by a fire once I got to the aid station. I was terrified to leave that aid station. Ever since then I have had a fear of that kind of cold feeling. I also don’t tolerate cold conditions as well as a runner since...so needless to say...I made sure I was damn well prepared for bad weather. Turns out is was a really good thing I was.
The other thing running 100 milers has taught me is to be completely prepared for your crew to miss you at the aid stations, and for the aid stations to have nothing you want to eat/need. Pack your drop bags like no one is going to be there to bring you something. If James and David never made it to any aid station, I would have been fine from a gear and fuel standpoint. Prepare for a 100 like no one will help you. I can’t tell you how many racers I have seen drop because their crew wasn’t there and they didn’t get what they needed. It is also a huge mental let down, so just expect it, and be pleasantly surprised when your crew is ready and waiting for you. Fortunately, James and David nailed it. They never missed me. They were right there, every time.
Now I was nervous! I started counting women ahead of me, probably 30..at least. We took off and even more women passed. I was disappointed, but knew I had my own race and my own strategy. I had a feeling I would catch many of them. We ran the dirt road a mile or so up to the trailhead, hitting the single track trail that would lead 8 miles up the mountain. The drizzly rain started. It was cool, low 50s and felt good. The trails were mildly technical, narrow, and the mountain was amazingly beautiful, full of wild flowers and deep green grass. Pine trees dotted here and there and giant boulders. I let my heart rate be my guide, not letting it spike and sticking to the lower zones my coach and I agreed upon. It was tough letting all those girls go….30-40 of em. As we climbed I started passing runners. A few women here and there. Lots working harder. I could hear their breathing, mine was silent... almost. I was calm and relaxed. My effort was mostly easy. 8 miles up we hit a downhill and it felt good to open up and run down, still keeping my effort easy, focusing on relaxed arms and legs and back. My back was doing just fine and my knee completely silent. I noted how steep that downhill section was, keeping it in mind for the return. We ran some double track jeep roads, a few water crossings and more sweeping views of the mountains, pine trees, wild flowers, all under a cloudy and intermittently rainy sky.
I rolled into the first crew/aid station at mile 13 feeling great. Ahead of time, and in very good spirits. James and David filled my water bottles, gave me more gels, some encouraging words, and I was out of there. I added my rain jacket and gloves, as temps were getting cooler up higher, now around 8,000ft. I stuck with water, gel, electrolytes for the first 70 miles. Everything felt pretty spot on. We headed down out of that aid station on more double track trail. The trails were less technical than at Jemez and the trails around Flagstaff. I knew I was moving faster with less effort and was so grateful. I think this also helped my knee and back. The next 13 miles would be rolling up and down along mostly single track trails. I started thinking, “this is gonna be a course record kinda day”. I figured the men and women’s leaders would pull this off if the conditions remained cool and calm. This course gets notoriously hot in the canyons. The trail is mostly exposed, very little shade, and last year word was temps got to 105 during the heat of Friday and Saturday. At around mile 20 something we hit an aid station that was cooking bacon. I was hesitant to eat it, knowing my stomach was doing so well and solids often jack things up for me, but I couldn’t resist, it smelled sooooo good. I ate 2 strips and headed out. Along here I could hear Elk bugeling. It was awesome.
At mile 26 we hit a steep 4 mile section down to the next crew/aid station. It was technical and I made mental note, again, for the return, thinking I might want poles going back up that section. Near mile 33 was a roaring river over huge boulders. We crossed the foot bridge and rolled into the 33mile aid/crew station.
Still a bit ahead of schedule and feeling very well. I added a long sleeve tech shirt and a completely waterproof light rain jacket with hood. The rain was picking up. It was later afternoon by now. There were volunteers everywhere and many runners sitting in chairs, changing shoes, refueling and getting geared up for the climb. “Would you like to sit?” The pleasant teenager-looking volunteer asked. “No” I replied. “Would you like soup?”. “Oh yes, that would be great.” I got tickled at his response, “I’ll be back in 20 seconds”. He was so eager and rushing to keep from slowing me down. “You’re ok, no rush”. He continued to offer help as James and David helped me make sure I had what I needed to enter the next section, the rain and the dark. This section would be a 16 mile climb, gaining 4,000ft elevation to around 10,000ft. The wind and rain would pick up as we climbed. I continued to pass people as I climbed, just gradually moving my way up in the field. I continued to keep my effort and heart rate in check. Within just a few miles we started hitting mud. Deeper and deeper mud. Slick, sliding backward mud. And water crossings, lots of water crossings. It got windier and colder. My hands were getting cold and despite some water resistant gloves and covers, were getting soaked. I picked up my effort, simply to keep warm. Stopping to pee was not a pleasant experience...finding a hidy place, being cold, and exposing private areas...then trying to pull things up with cold, wet gloves and fingers that can’t feel turns into a funny dance and shimmy...funny to imagine, not So pleasant to experience it. Men have it much easier. The climb, I alternated running and hiking depending on the grade and the mud. Running up mud is easier than hiking up mud, less sliding...sorta. You just get a momentum, but the effort is harder. I could tell I was using lots of accessory muscles trying to stabilize myself and was wondering how this was going to affect things later in the race. There was a girl in front of me. I would catch up to her and she would speed up. Then she would slow down to the point where I had to hike. I would get cold when she slowed down. I said, “passing on your left”....nothing. She sped up a little, then slowed down. I said, “I’m just gonna pass on your left”.....nothing, she sped up. This went on for a while. Finally, with more firmness, I said, “I’m going to pass on your left”. All I heard was, “No..blah blah blah”. I was freezing, it was then I hollered, “Well you better run girl!” She did. I think she was freezing too and just needed to hear that. She ran. We both ran into the next aid station.
The night came and the wind and rain continued. We hit an aid station about 3 miles from the top. I briefly stopped at the fire, filled my water bottles and took off. Any extra standing around would be dangerous. I was cold, shivering, but heartened by the fact I knew I had dry clothes waiting at the top. I left the girl behind at the aid station and took off. The mud became just completely ridiculous. It was now 6-14 inches deep. Not very runnable. With large ponds water up to 2 feet deep in spots. You couldn't tell whether the next step would sink 2 inches, 6 inches or 14 inches. It was pitch black with fog and rain and no moon. I fell several times getting my gloves covered in mud. I fell sideways, backwards, forwards, every way imaginable and some ways I never imagined. Wiping my runny nose with mud covered paws. I felt like I was in a mud wrestling pit. The slowness was getting me colder. Then it happened...a turning point…. at around mile 44, I stepped knee deep into mud and pulled my foot out sans shoe. I fell forward launching my water bottle and gel pack into the sinking mud. It was just that moment... I wanted to cry, to stop, to quit. I was a little panicked too. I couldn’t fathom 3 more miles of this...I could barely move forward, how was I going to get to the top? At that moment, clear as a bell, Coach Eric’s voice rang in my head, “Don’t think, just do”. He first told me that years ago when I’d worry about this or that during a key training run or race. Usually, it was before a track workout where I’d be running beyond what I thought my limits were. For me this phrase meant, “you know what to do, just do it”. It was like everything became silent. The wind and rain were tuned out. I reached my hand 6 inches down and retrieved my mud filled shoe. I snatched my water bottle and gel flask before they disappeared. I sucked several mouthfuls of water and mud from my water bottle and spit it over the spout to clear the mud and stuffed them back in my pack. With frozen fingers, a few curse words, and a lot of effort, I stuffed my foot back in the mud filled shoe, thinking, “My foot will just have to squeeze the mud out, there isn’t room for both and my foot is going to win this battle dammit!”. I got moving again and just kept going. I drank even though it tasted like mud, I ate gel mixed with mud and I kept going. The nurse in me wondered what kind of organisms might be growing in the mud I was consuming, but I figured I had a good 24 to 72 hours before the full effect of any parasitic or bacterial infection kicked in...long enough to be in a hotel with a nice bathroom.
I came into the tent/aid station at the top at mile 46. The heaters inside were incredibly welcoming. I was greeted very quickly by a medical person and my pacers….”Do you need to sit?” the lady with the stethoscope said. Shivering, I looked around. There were runners everywhere sitting in chairs shivering. They all looked like death. I knew if I sat, I would be dead too. 12 hours into this journey I had not sat once, and had no intention to now. “No, I just need to get warmed up”. We pulled off my wet outer clothes. I pulled on a smart wool top, another fleece lined top and the medical person stuffed hot bean bags down into my bra and under my armpits. We added a rainproof jacket, dry gloves, waterproof glove covers and tightened the hood to my jacket down around my face. I sucked down 2 cups of ramen noodles and some of a quesadilla. I didn’t let myself “think” about how long it would take to get down the 16 mile mudslide in the cold rainy dark. If I had allowed myself to “think” about it, I probably would not have left the tent. I relied on what I knew….I was warm, I was dry, and I had what I needed to be safe, so I left with David at my side. I knew the trail, having paid good attention going up, so I took the lead. David and I chatted a little at first...then just exchanged curse words as we could hear each others smack-down falls in the mud. I was quite sure he was regretting his decision to come pace me.
The next 16 miles were a blur of falls, curse words, and running/sliding down. There were many stream crossings and foot bridges. It was a miracle I didn’t slide right into the damn bridges or the roaring streams. 6 hours to get down. I came upon another lady about my age and allowed myself to slow down a little, staying behind her as we chatted for about a mile. We both fell numerous times. We gave up asking each other, “you ok?”. We just assumed if the other got up and kept moving all was well. She was a 3 or 4 time HURT 100 finisher. HURT is of course another extremely difficult 100 mile race that takes place in Hawaii. The last time she ran she fell around mile 8 and broke a rib. Her daughter was at the next aid station. She had every reason to quit, but her daughter reminded her that she promised her ice cream if she finished the race…. and her daughter really wanted that ice cream. So she finished. I cannot even imagine running 90+ miles up and down volcanos with a broken rib….for ice cream for my daughter. If it were me, Avery would be very disappointed. She slowed down to get some calories in, and I passed her. I passed a gentleman who was running with 2 or 3 other men. He had fallen and earned a concussion. He was okay, but good grief! As I rolled into the mi 66 aid station, my next pacer, James said with wide eyes, “That took you a reeeally long time”. I don’t recall my response but I was thinking something like, “No shit!” I lost my previous pacer David, somewhere on the way down. He was no longer behind me. I told the aid station chief who agreed to check with the previous aid stations to see if they could locate him. Fortunately, he was on the trail. I was worried he had fallen and broken his neck. I really didn’t want to have to explain that one to his wife.
It was 4-5am and dawn was approaching. I love the pre-dawn on 100 milers. The air is crisp and there is just something so relieving and inspiring to witness the first hint that the long cold night is almost over. The sunrise hasn’t started, but you know it is coming. It feels like being renewed, like when I stepped into the water to be baptised, just before the baptism. It’s the anticipation of its arrival. It is only through the dark, cold, long, sleepless, somewhat frightening night that the dawn is so appreciated. A sense of, “I made it”. It is worth the miles and sleeplessness. I was relieved and thought surely the rest of the trails would not be as treacherous. James hadn’t slept all night trying to keep track of me and traveling up to 2 hours between aid stations. It’s almost easier to run from aid station to aid station than to drive the routes around the mountains to access crew spots. Nevertheless, he was cheerful and ready to roll. We crossed the roaring river over a footbridge and began to climb a steep 3 mile section. I opted to use climbing poles here to help. It was still alternating between rain and drizzle as we climbed. My climbing was slow, but James was patient. I worried he would get really cold, noticing he didn’t have any gloves on and I questioned whether or not he had enough layers. I had plenty of time to contemplate this as the climb was so slow for me. My quads and calves working fine...all of the hip flexors and stabilizing tendons and tiny deep accessory muscles crying from the 16 miles of stabilizing me while running in the mud. If you are ever interested in pacing, just know, pacing sucks. The pacer is running/hiking at a much slower pace than they are used to, often with a grumpy, less than eager racer. I was giving every segment my best effort, but unfortunately, after spending the last 16 miles trying to stay upright, every muscle in my legs, hips, back were struggling to maintain. I still felt strong in general, just slow, like I still had 10lbs of mud stuck on my feet. I didn't let myself open that mental door...to think about how slow i was now moving, about how much damage this had done to my time and pace.The trail conditions were still crumby, very muddy and slick. We often had to get completely off the trail and trek through the scrub/brush to keep from just sliding backward. It was also much of the time faster to do this despite the shrubs and clods of grass and rocks. Unfortunately this required more of those “stabilizers”.
The most memorable point was coming into Cow Camp aid station at mile 76. Bacon and fried potatoes. I stuffed my face full of both. The trail was getting even more slick. The aid station workers were pretty convinced they would not be able to get out of the aid station, would likely be there another day. There were two runners that had run intermittently with us into the aid station. They were both pretty down, one convinced he would drop at the next aid station. The next aid station would be mile 82. I tried to encourage him...to make it to mile 82….he could surely finish. It’s almost all downhill from there...literally, like 12 miles of that would be downhill. He had made it day, night, and part of the next day. He ended up regrouping and finishing...ahead of me. I kept telling myself, “the next section is going to get better”. Nope. More mud. Getting out of cow camp was absurd. It’s uphill out of that aid station, double track, normally supremely runnable. Now slick as snot on ice. The alternating sliding on the trail, side stepping off the trail and through the brush. When the brush became unbearable, I’d step back on the slick mud until it became unbearable. Back and forth. I was getting frustrated and confused as to which was harder. James finally just pointed and encouraged me to just follow him. He was thinking more clearly and could evaluate where to run/hike better than I. Most of this section from mile 76 to 82 was a complete walk. The only comfort was knowing that it was the same for everyone else. Also, no women were passing me. A few men caught me in this section, but I held my position. Based on what I was seeing, I was thinking there was a chance I was inside the top 10 women. I kept telling my pacer. I think “I’ve moved way up, but I am probably the dead last female on the course”. This section I just put my head down and kept going. I didn’t allow myself to think about how much farther or longer or the fact that I was walking/sliding instead of running. I knew I couldn’t go there. The switch was flipped, “Don’t think, just do”. Despite the crappy conditions, my mood was pretty decent. I was starting to allow myself to lose perspective on fueling/hydration and time to finish. I had in my mind that I was getting “close”. While I had completed 76 miles and “only” had 26 more to go, I wasn’t realizing that 26 miles meant at least 6-7 more hours. I think if I had thought in those terms I might have sat down and cried. I wasn’t as focused on getting those 200 cal/hr, salt and 1 bottle water per hour. I still maintained good fueling/hydration/salt to mile 82 aid station, but wasn’t as focused on it and might have started slipping a little behind as I got closer to mile 82.
I was so so glad to get to mile 82. This was the last big aid station before the finish. “All downhill from here” in my head. I knew if I made it to mile 82 I would surely finish, so it was a huge relief to make it there. One of the aid station volunteers said, “you look pretty fresh”...I didn’t know whether to laugh hysterically or flatly respond that she was either a horrible liar or too sleep deprived to recognize how horrible I really looked...and probably smelled. Another volunteer noted the amount of mud all over me...everywhere...including in my ear. James emptied my pack of everything I didn’t need. The day was warming up quick. I ate something at that aid station, refilled bottles and left. I forgot to grab more salt. I did grab a plastic baggy full of goldfish. Still not thinking about really how much time I had left, I planned to eat the goldfish as my sole calories. By this time I was really tired of the gels, the heat was making it hard to want anything and my stomach..as usual late in race was not interested in anything.at.all. I still had minimum 3-4 hours left. 1 baggy of goldfish was not going to be enough calories. However, FINALLY, the trails were becoming more firm and dry. This meant RUNNING!
We had started meeting fresh runners….the 50 mile, 50k and 18k races all started that morning. It was a love hate feeling...more love than hate. Their fresh enthusiasm, encouragement and cheers for us haggard 100 milers was incredibly uplifting. The jealousy of their light, fast, hop-scotchity running was tough. But we were on the home stretch! It was about that time I saw Don Sims. He was running one of the other distances that day. He ran up to me and gave me the biggest hug. I was afraid he’d crush me, I felt so frail at that point, but the hug energized me and his genuine enthusiasm was infectious. He caught this picture of James and I, I was shedding another layer of clothing when we met.
James and I continued on, and After about an hour, I looked at my goldfish baggy….I think I had eaten maybe 8 goldfish, and not a full bottle of water. I took my last 2 salt caps and stuffed about 10 goldfish in my mouth and drank the rest of the bottle and determined myself to pay better attention and drink and eat more. I was swelling. We had 1 more short but very steep climb at around mile 90. Almost 1000ft in less than 1 mile. It hurt. My back was spasming, but I just shortened my steps, stayed tall and moved as best I could up. We topped out and I was so thrilled to finally get to go down...on dry trails! The sun was out full on and the wildflowers were beautiful. Thousands of daisy-like and sunflower-like flowers, columbines and white fluffy flowers. The jagged rocks shone bright in the sun, and the deep green pine forest covered mountains all around.
Soon though, the joy of getting to run downhill was replaced by...well...not joy. My quads were trashed. The tops of my feet were screaming, the flexor tendons of my feet on fire from pulling my feet out of the mud for so many miles. After about 4 miles of running down I told James, “I think my quads are bleeding internally”. He was feeling pretty beat up too, either that or he was lying to make me feel better. Fueling and hydration became a blur. We dumped out 8 miles later at the bottom of the trail and at an aid station. Still with ¾ full bag of goldfish. I knew I was behind on calories and probably salt too. I was drinking plenty of water though and swelling more. It was getting really hot. I think I ate like 4 peanut butter crackers here. I knew James was going to expect me to run well the 5 mile dirt road section into town. I was a little foggy and out of sorts. I got a couple of electrolyte caps from the aid station also. The wheels were starting to come off the wagon. I rambled over the next couple of miles of trail at a much slower pace than I had hoped. I was struggling.
We hit the dirt road. 5 miles. That’s it. I ran as hard as I could….which was insanely slow. It was a slight uphill grade that felt like Mt. Everest. James could actually walk as fast as I was running. It was sad. But, I was upright...my back did not fail. I Wasn't hunched over and limping. There were people cheering on the side of the road...a sprinkler at the edge of someone's yard, pointed at the road for runners to cool off.
Kids running popsicles to us to help us feel better. The road was very hot and dry. We finally turned into town. More cheers, “Be proud!, look what you’ve done!” someone said. My eyes welled up with tears. “You are amazing!” The people were so excited and encouraging. A small stand filled with people in the last 25 meters were cheering and clapping and shouting more praises. Finally, finally...the finish line.
The finish was in a park next to a stream. I got past the finish area and collapsed in a heap on my back in the cool grass under the shade of a tree next to a couple other runners who had done the same. I opened my eyes, and David and James were there. I laid there for a few minutes. A medical volunteer came and stood over me and asked me how I was doing. “Much better”, I replied. “We’re here for you” he said. We chatted a bit and he offered to take a look at my feet in the medical tent. I made my way to the river and soaked my feet and rinsed off layers and layers of mud. I laid back down for a bit more. James or David came back, “6th female” one of them said. I was surprised. I started 30 or 40 females back. So many didn’t finish. Only 47% of the starters finished. Of over 70 women, only 25 or so finished. I got my Hardrock qualifier! I finished without my back failing. I ran smart and worked every section as best I could. My only downfall was in those last 20 miles...I need to remember to be persistent...to the finish with calories/lytes/water. I probably lost 15-30 minutes on the race in that section slowing due to low calories. Not much in a 29 hour race, but still.
Again, I can’t thank David, James, and their wives and kids for donating them for my race. Coach Eric Orton, I am so fortunate to have found him 5 years ago now. He has helped me grow strong, stay healthy and motivated, and up to the task racing. His intuition and instinct continue to amaze me. I can trust him completely as my coach. He has never steered me wrong. He keeps me honest about my goals and desires, and helps keep me from hindering me in training and racing. Todd, my rock, was not able to be there, but I summoned many of the things he would say in those last miles he normally paced me on these crazy adventures. The best one volleyed in the last 10 miles of my last 100 miler amidst my whining and whimpering about my (excruciating) failing back... “It’s gonna hurt until you finish, so you might as well speed up”. His comments usually conjure the image of a rock hitting him square in the head, but I know he will never let me give up in the trail...on anything. And he knows how sorry my aim is anyway, so he figures he is safe. I can’t wait to go to Hardrock. My turn is coming…..