Saturday, November 3, 2012

Javelina Jundred Race Recap

The desert is a land of extremes: drought or flood, searing heat or freezing temps, barrenness or raging bloom, flatland or soaring mesas (and their convex twins—plummeting canyons). There is no mediocrity here.

Javelina Jundred began as most century runs do. A milling crowd of runners fidget with their shoes and headlamps in the artificial glow of a starting line in the wilderness. Someone says “Go!” and they swirl across the line, eager to activate their timing chips and begin eroding the massive distance before them. A few strides from the start all is darkness in the desert. I settle into a pace as runners dart around each other in an attempt to eke out a place that is just ahead of someone else. We tromp through a loose sandy wash. The horizon begins to glow with soft golden promise. The blocky mountains in the distance take on dimension as do the saguaro sentries that guard the course. I inhale deeply. It has been far too long since I have breathed the aridity of the desert into my mossy Pacific Northwest lungs.

Within a few miles the sun was drenching me with its rays. The course is fully exposed and I knew that it would be 11 more hours before I could gain a reprieve from its potentially hazardous heat. I glanced at my watch and slowed a tad.  My sole intention at Javelina was to procure a sub-24 hour buckle and to do that I was going to have to be focused the entire time on that goal. From this very minute every stride, every liquid, every gel was going to be measured and taken with intent to meet that goal. I had no idea how much this mental focus would drain me by the end.

The course is six 15.4 mile loops run in an alternating (washing machine) fashion. Then one 9 mile “half loop” wraps it up for a total of 101.4 miles. My plan was to aim for approximately 3.5 hours per loop. The first loop I ran faster to take advantage of the relatively cool morning and bank time for the afternoon. I arrived at the turnaround at 8:20—2.5 hours in. I grabbed some Odwalla juice, applied sunscreen, ate some baby food and was back out on the course. Quick turnarounds. Liquids only. Maintain pace. Save music for later. Another 3 hours passed and I was back. Odwalla juice, sunscreen, baby food, coconut water to go. My second fasted 50k ever—not generally how you want to start a 100 mile race. My hip flexors were screeching. A flat course requires only running. Too bad I am a mountain runner. A half hiking, half running hybrid beast that doesn't have the tendon training for 100 miles of actual running.

It was getting hot. I hiked some of the “climbs”. None were more than about 20 ft. A little wave of nausea rolled in and I ate ginger. This lap and the first 2/3 of the next were going to be about survival. Mitigating the impact of the relentless Arizona sun on my bare head while maintaining a pace that would ensure I met my goal. 3.5 hours more and I arrived at the turnaround. 46 miles done. I hurriedly swaddled my carotid and jugular with an icy bandanna as I drank cold Odwalla juice and slurped baby food. I headed out with a sweet little treat for the rest of the race…my iPod.

2 something. The hottest part of the day and carnage was everywhere. Runners puking or passed out in aid stations, some shaking with the effects of potassium depletion. I walked. The easy grade ensured I could maintain a nearly 4mph pace on the gradual climb. I wanted to run, but I knew the next 3 hours were about maintaining effort level—not speed—as I strode directly into the afternoon sun. I reached Jackass Junction and my drop bag as the sun kissed the mountains to the west. I took my headlamp and a full bottle of ice water. From here I could begin running again. And run I did. I drew strength from the miles and from the dusky sky blanketing the saguaro garden I had committed to my memory by rote. I drew strength from the fact that I had survived the heat and was still able to move quickly with the onset of cooling darkness. My shadow disappeared…I smiled. I would not see the sun again until after I was done. I amused myself with the shapes of animals in the rock formations—a jackrabbit here, a giant owl there. I marveled at the soaring arms of the saguaros calling attention to a navy sky freckled with stars and harboring a full moon, pregnant with silver light. Just after dark I entered the turnaround.

“Only 2.5 more loops.” “Only 2.5 more loops.” It was a chant in my head as the tendinitis in my shins and ankles increased. I wanted to run by moonlight, but the constant oncoming headlamps blinded me and stole my night vision. In response to pain I turned up the music and focused on moving as fast as I could. As I merged onto the service road half way through the loop I turned up the music even more. When it hurts, run faster. It won’t hurt less, but you’ll be done sooner. Soon 2pac was blaring and I was tearing down the gradual 6 mile descent. I passed one person after another—some walking, some staggering, some jogging. It hurt, but not as bad as Western States. I was tired, but not as tired as Plain. The many layers of experiences surfaced in my mind as reminders of times it’s been worse and they empowered me to keep going. Into the turnaround and out again.

“1.5 loops.” “1.5 loops.” Run, run, run…. It was surely more of a jog, but it was enough. My core temperature continued to run high despite the cool night. I guzzled ice water. I did not allow myself to walk and soon I was coming down the sandy, loose straightaway again. I looked at my watch. I only had 3 hours to do the last 9 miles. I knew that pace should be easy for me. That was a hike. But, but, but…the 92 miles of the prior 21 hours had wrecked my ankles. More than that, my mind was drained from the focus. When Brandon offered to pace me the last half loop I hesitated, my logic fogged by sleep deprivation and pain.

“Can you tow me through it in less than 3 hours?”
“Of course.”

I realized then that, yes, of course. Anyone could cover those 9 miles in 3 hours. I was not thinking terribly clearly. We headed out and I said, “I won’t hear you. I have my music on. I don’t want to talk. Just do not let me walk.”

He sprinted, or so it seemed, off into the night. I wanted to scream, “Slow down! I can’t run that fast!”, but I knew that that wasn't true. It wasn't his job to go slow for me. It was my job to keep up. He was doing just what I asked. Within a mile I had upped my pace enough to keep sight of his feet flitting along the trail at the edge of the beam of my flashlight. My crankiness began to ebb and I started talking. I was able to mentally relax and it was such an amazing feeling that my mood immediately improved. I was going to break 24 hours, Brandon would make sure of it. All I had to do was keep up.

We climbed from the first aid station and I wanted to walk through the rocky terrain as I had been doing most of the day. He didn't slow and I resigned myself to accept that if he didn't deem it walking terrain then it wasn't  So run we did. One by one we passed runners and their pacers. I didn't even care, but Brandon told me later that he was inwardly cheering with each one we picked off. At the top of the ridge we turned onto the Tonto Tank Trail and I slowed long enough to gulp down a gel. I nearly started crying on the descent. It took forever. I was running faster than I had all night despite the tendinitis  One, two, three women…a couple of men. We went by them all. Finally, FINALLY, the junction and we turned toward the finish. One last mile through the loose sandy washes.

I sent Brandon ahead to get the camera ready. I maintained pace at first, but then only 100 yds from the finish I staggered. I lost momentum transitioning from sand to pavement and back to sand. My brain momentarily fogged up and I walked a few steps. Dimly I remembered the people we had passed and I took off. Cheering. Cowbells. Lights. My jaw was quivering. The clock: 5:17:58.

I strode across the line and right into a waiting hug. It was over and I was mentally spent. I started sobbing.

Twenty three hours in the desert and I relearned to embrace the desert’s extremes—to see the echo of my being therein. I cannot wait to test myself in it again. The mountains may be my home, but the desert is my soul.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Plain 100 Race Recap

I won't lie. I had high hopes of a strong finish at Plain. After 1,000 miles of backpacking, I felt like a self-supported, unmarked course would be easy for me.
And, if not for some stupid mistakes, I think it would have been.

I woke up race morning after a fitful night's sleep. This on the heels of about 2 weeks of lackluster sleep since getting off the trail. There's always an adjustment period where I have to get used to sleeping indoors again. I've been struggling with it this time. My body is still only able to fully relax in a tent. I was very concerned about getting dehydrated and I drank about 1.5 liters of water before the race.

When we started out, the running wasn't a problem, but my stomach was upset. It got worse and worse as I continued on. I tried to up my water consumption, thinking I was probably dehydrated. Finally, around Klone Peak (mile 20) I touched my face and discovered it felt like the rim of a margarita glass.


It dawned on my like a brick over the head. I took a handful of s-caps. Within 45 minutes the nausea had subsided. By then, however, I had reduced my water consumption and then breezed past a good water source. As I climbed Signal Peak I was dealing with the repercussions of dehydration. Every 10 minutes I was bent over, hands on knees, waiting to vomit. Although I never did, it was definitely a stagger, when I should have been able to cruise right up it. All I could get into my body was 200 calories of baby food and 1 gel.

As the day cooled and I traversed Tyee Ridge my body finally achieved some equilibrium and the nausea again left me. I tried to eat, but more than a bite made my stomach want to revolt. As I left the SAR checkpoint around mi 47 I noticed the storm gathering. Within minutes lightning was striking the ridgetops all around me (even sparking a fire not far behind me). With all the energy I had I forced myself to run downhill on super rocky terrain. I fell. I got up. I ran onward.

I reached Cougar Creek at dusk and dropped to my butt. I filled a bottle and drank as I emptied rocks and dirt from my shoes, got out my headlamp, prepared for the impending darkness. I crossed on a log and soon encountered a creepy, huge toad. I yelped. It stared at me with it's beady little eyes and refused to yield the trail. Ick. I tried to run the next stretch down to and along the Mad River, but I was so depleted, so spent, that the slightest uphill slowed me to a walk. I continued to try and force fluids and calories.

I had been feeling miserable now for about 14 hours. I was so tired of being sick. But, instead of focusing on that I embraced the moment. I took in the constant flashing of the storm. The growling thunder. The rush of the Mad River below me. The dark that, instead of terrifying, seemed to settle like a comforting blanket. In the woods, moving under my own power toward a goal. So satisfying. So perfect. So at home.

I did get irritable. Let's not sugar coat it completely. I started cussing when I crossed Berg Creek, because I had thought I was nearly at the crossing of the Mad...and now I was at least another mile away. Finally, I reached the Mad. I splashed across the river, "About fucking time!" and headed up the road. Finally feeling progress, I ran all the way to Maverick Saddle, checked in, and then ran all of the next 6 miles to Deep Creek.

As I closed in, it began to rain lightly. I arrived, shaking from lack of calories. I climbed into my car, and there I sat for an hour. (An HOUR!) drinking coconut water, eating sweet potatoes, Odwalla juice, and chips. I propped my feet up and listened to the storm rage and the rain turn into a downpour. Finally, the rain abated and I felt that my body was adequately balanced and refueled, so I headed out into the darkness. It was midnight.

Within a couple hours, as I began climbing Chikamin ridge, I saw a bear. I jerked my head toward it and yelled "Hey!"...only to realize that there was nothing there. A few minutes later I saw the lean body of a mountain lion...but again, with a blink, it was gone. Glowing eyes...voices...weird patterns floating in my field of vision. I was hallucinating.

"Why is the shower so cold?" I asked.
"Heather. You are running. In the rain. This is NOT a shower."
"Oh yeah...."


I felt my mind wander away from my body. I would space out and then come back, not sure how much time had elapsed. I kept hearing things in the woods. Seeing things. I would have been afraid, but I knew it wasn't real. The sleep deprivation and the depletion from the first loop were taking their toll. I looked down at my feet and I said, "Run. Just Run. All you must do is move as fast as you can through this terrain. Don't stop."

And, I did. I don't remember much of the night. My mind shut off. My body ran. I scooped water from streams and was vaguely aware of lightning and thunder. I ran uphill and downhill and it didn't matter. Occasionally, my mind resurfaced long enough to command I eat something. As dawn began to fade the night I began to "fall asleep at the wheel" and after the 3rd or 4th time I woke up with my feet an inch from the edge of a drop off. I was already nauseated from chocolate covered espresso beans and an espresso Belly Timber bar...and I was still sleepy. Caffeine was not keeping me awake.

I turned and began climbing Chikamin Tie. I didn't know what time it was. I knew there was a 9am cut off there at the SAR checkpoint. I panicked and thought I might miss it. I struggled to run/hike as fast as I could. I started to cry with frustration ("Where IS it?!). Finally, finally, I came in to see them breaking down their canopy. I'd missed cut off. All the struggle was in vain.
"What's your number?"
"Two. What time is it?"
"Uh, it's 7:05"
7:05. Almost two full hours before cut-off!
"Oh my God. I'm a lot more optimistic now!"
The SAR team and the RD's laughed at my use of our code word (optimistic). Tom congratulated me on one of the fastest splits from Deep Creek to there ever and proceeded to tell me where my competition was. I tried to interact and respond to questions, but my mind was still lost in the throes of the night as I transitioned my pack to day, emptied my trash, and tried to eat.

I headed out, soon hallucinating a man in a green sweatshirt and yellow scarf blocking the trail. I fell asleep walking again. Finally, I landed on a solution. I put my headphones on and blasted my hip hop/rap/pop/dance playlist. Nothing like irritatingly fast tempoed music at 7am to keep you awake. More effective than caffeine.

As the sunlight of the second day washed over the landscape I was drawn in and rejuvenated. I didn't have enough food with me, but I steadily consumed what I had...a bite or two at a time. I hiked up through the Pond Meadow Tie quickly and as the descent began I was running normally. I ran, and ran, and ran. I was surprised at my body as it responded to my constant request to run small hills in addition to the flats and downs. I passed another runner.

The descent from Alder Ridge was long. Long. Long. Long. Dear God I wanted to be done with it. A black animal of some sort ran across the trail.
"I wonder what that was? I wish I knew more about California wildlife."
"Oh Heather, you are still delirious. You are in Washington."
"Oh, right, yeah. Plain."

Finally, I hit the last SAR check point. I was only 7 miles from the finish. All the crazy mish mash of emotion started to overwhelm me.

I am out of water, but who cares? I have no food, but who cares? I sucked down my last gel and kept going. I am 4 hours slower than I'd wanted to be, but who cares? I'd dug deep and rallied big in the last loop. I was going to finish it in under 15 hours. I am hallucinating and delirious and exhausted, but who cares? My body doesn't hardly hurt. I am running. I want to be done. I've run 100 miles. I am in uncharted territory now, going beyond that distance. I am long past my previous longest time on my feet. Good God, why do I do this? I feel so good for all that's happened. I could keep going. I want to be done. Maybe I should just walk this hill. No, no, no....keep running. It's nothing, just look down and run up it. That wasn't so bad. How did I get here; become this woman? How did I go from chubby midwestern bookworm to running Plain? Oh my God, my mom. My mom will never do this. She can barely walk right now. I want to walk. NO! You will keep running. You will run because your mom cannot. Tears welled up and spilled over. You will run because you can. Because you should. Because you must. Because it's who you are. Why didn't I quit at Deep Creek? Because you don't know how to quit anything, Anish. Because you wouldn't have known what it was like to push this hard for this far and recover to finish strong. Stop crying. You can't spare the fluids. Suck it up. Cry when you're done. 

I imagined my mom cheering me on as she did last year as I won the Bad Apple 12 Hour. I imagined the words and the faces of so many friends who'd provided so much encouragement for me to run this race. I'd been alone for essentially the entire race, but because of the love, support, thoughts, and prayers of so many, I never felt alone. Especially now as I neared the end. I was surrounded.

I came into Deep Creek in 33:45. There were 6 people there, the RD's, 2 volunteers, and 2 people waiting for the last runner. Someone held up a finish line for me to cross and I did–smiling just as as I had for the last 3 miles. I was done. Fears were faced. New plateaus were reached.

I may not have achieved my aspirations of a sub 30hr finish, but, I achieved something greater. The knowledge that I can go further and harder than I ever thought...even when my body is a complete wreck. When I finished Western States I thought I'd never run another 100. I walked away from Plain not even sore, even though I'd run a huge portion of the miles.

Long travels on trail seldom bring you what you expect them too. Instead, they bring you gifts far greater. You just have to be ready to receive them.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Western States 2012

It was 4:30 AM on a Saturday and I was standing in a hotel room in Squaw Valley, CA watching the Honey Badger video (for the first time) on someone’s phone. I had been assured that thoughts of that video would empower—or at least entertain—me later in the day. Once I had been suitably introduced to yet another viral video thats craze had passed me by, we stepped outside.

Normally, the weather would be warmish—that delectable cool that prickles your skin and gives you respite from the brutal sun that would soon be overhead. Instead, the snow clouds that had gathered on the crest the night before still clung thick, obliterating stars. Cold wind raced and whirled about the valley as runners in minimal clothing and thin emergency jackets shivered at the base of a ski run.


I wiggled into the middle of the pack relishing the temporary warmth of 400 bodies.


There were yells and whoops, cheering, applause, and the flash of hundreds of cameras. Runners surged forward at the pace of a quick walk. After all, we had a long way to go.

Nearing the escarpment strong gusts drove dust down on us in swirls. Despite the fact that the sun had barely tinged the cloud bellies pink I slid my sunglasses down to protect my eyes. Lean…lean…lean…pump arms. The wind was driving me backward nearly as hard as I pushed forward. By the aid station at the top my hands were already numb and I was shaking. 4 miles down, 96 to go. I should have taken food to fuel my internal heater, but I couldn't bring myself to stop. I shivered my way up to the Watson Monument…and then with a quick turn plunged into the swirling fog, sleet, snow, and rain of the Granite Chief Wilderness.

Within a few strides I saw a wooden post that my heart knew. As I came to it I squinted and read the wood-burned words: Pacific Crest Trail. I touched it and lingered a moment. When I last stood here I’d gazed into the rolling terrain to the west and longed to throw myself into it…immerse myself in the terrain that beckoned me with whispered words of adventure. The words Squaw Valley on the other side had meant nothing to me. And yet, fate still managed to bring me back to this place–7 years later–to send me down into the canyons of the American River and its tributaries, just as I’d longed to do.

Rain. Cold. Snow. Sleet. All things I am familiar with. All things that Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run has never had on race day in 39 years. If I’d been running in Washington I’d have been prepared, but here I was splashing through puddles and mud dressed for 115 degree weather and a solstice sun at its apex. Sleet balls bounced off my eyes and stung my cheeks. My ears were aching from the driving wind. I clenched my jaw to stave the chattering and focused on harder things. Like facing a cold front in the exposed desert of New Mexico in October. Golf ball sized hail being driven by 50mph winds into my body—and hitting the ground with enough momentum to bounce up and bruise my legs. The resulting drenching and a night spent sleeping in the mud were cold, wretched hours spent flirting with hypothermia. Here, all I had to do was keep moving. There would be no sleeping. The warmth of my working muscles would save me.

Within only a couple miles of the pass my stomach was growling. I’d burned through my calories keeping warm and I had none with me. It was going to be a long 5 miles to the next aid station. All morning I repeated this, on the brink of bonking as I struggled to consume enough to run and keep warm. Finally, I saw my shadow—faintly at first—then with stark relief. I stripped off the soaked nylon jacket and arm sleeves. The skies became increasingly blue and I felt warmth seeping into my muscles and bones. I finally felt like I could move.

After descending gradually for over 10 miles the course began to drop steeply into a canyon. Within a few switchbacks of the bottom my right IT band blew up. Intense pain at both insertions reduced my run to a stagger within a few yards. I put on a strap and continued. 1 more switchback and the left side went out. There was nothing I could do for it. [Honey Badger don’t care.] So, I hobbled to the bottom and rejoiced at the bitch of a climb up Devil’s Thumb—purely because I could move without pain up it.

I had just over half the race to go.

The next descent was less steep, but I was hurting. I crossed the river and got the time. 5:51 PM. It was 3 miles or so to Michigan Bluff—up. I wanted to get there by 7:30. I just had to hike fast. I pushed myself to climb faster than I felt was smart. I wanted to be there and see my crew for the first time. To get to my drop bag. To try and do something for my leg.

Near the top of the climb I felt my energy tapping out. The handful of strawberries I’d eaten at the bottom were not enough. I couldn't maintain my pace any more. Was I there? Then I saw a person. I heard the crowd. Thank God. I crossed the timing mat, handed off my bottles for a refill and collapsed next to my crew. I started pulling things out of my pockets, eating, eating, eating, drinking Vega and coconut water. I foam rolled my legs.

“What time is it?”
“Dear God, that was a fast climb.”
“I know.”
“Oh my God, I can’t put anything else in my stomach or I’m going to be sick. I gotta go.”

I walked too much from Michigan Bluff to Bath Road. My stomach was pissed at the starve and cram method of the last 14 hours. My left leg was in agony. My right ankle had begun to hurt. As I climbed up to yet another road crossing I spied my pacer and crew. Excited I began hiking faster with them, and even running, to get to Forest Hill.

After my weigh in I sat in a chair and my pacer forced an Odwalla into my hand and told me to drink. I did. My crew taped my left IT band. Equipped with my flashlight and my pacer, I headed out into the gathering dusk.

The next 30 miles were characterized by darkness and increasing pain in my right ankle. My IT bands—with the exception of the left hip insertion point—had ceased to hurt, mitigated by the taping and the band. However, my foot had me reduced to picking my way slowly downhill and only barely able to “jog” the flats. Tears of pain would seep out regularly.  Often I would verbalize the pain and hear my pacer say, “I know”. It didn't make the pain go away, but having another person there to acknowledge and to commiserate made a huge difference in keeping me moving forward faster than I would have alone.

In the middle of the night, approaching the American River I started crying. It looked so far away. Dan urged me forward and when we reached the river I was so happy to plunge into the frigid, waist deep water and let it numb the pain. On the other side I put on a two jackets and a blanket and squished up the road drinking coffee. Nearly 2 AM and there were 22 miles to go before the 11 AM cut off.

The night of a hundred miler is the most raw and demoralizing stretch of the race for me. A diurnal animal forced to stay awake all day and then all night—its faculties limited by darkness that is mitigated only by what artificial light it carries—is fighting both its instinct and its evolutionary past. The miles traveled already are mind boggling, but the remaining 20, or 30, seem overwhelming. The night seems endless. And, when faced with great pain, the ordeal becomes a struggle between the mind and the body that can drain you in ways you never thought possible. In all honesty, the thought of quitting never crossed my mind, which in retrospect is surprising, although I did wonder why I was there and doubted I would ever run 100 miles again. My mind was so preoccupied by the activity of forcing my body to keep going forward that all other thoughts were driven out. Dan even had to tell me to drink and eat. A few times the demands of my body arrested my mind and I stopped in the middle of the trail and proclaimed, “I have to eat. Now.”

I was expecting an intermediary aid station between Green Gate and Auburn Lakes. It never came and I was getting more and more demoralized. I'm not going to make cut off. Finally we saw it and Dan said, “Wait, this is Auburn Lakes! I guess there wasn't one in between.”
“Oh my God…” and I started crying. I was so happy. Only 15 miles to go. Those 15 miles would take me hours, but, only 15 miles—it was a magic number.

The next 5 miles were long and arduous. Probably the most painful of the entire race. I don’t remember much. I only remember being freezing cold and in pain. Finally, the dawn began to creep over the canyon. We descended from the Brown’s Bar aid station and began climbing toward the Highway 49 crossing. Somewhere I reached a point where the pain no longer had control of me—I overcame it despite being keenly aware of it. A diurnal animal once again in the daylight becomes empowered. I certainly wasn't sprinting, but I felt stronger and moved a bit faster. As the last foggy remnants of a long, cold night were swept from my brain by daylight I remembered that there was such a thing as Ibuprofen.

“I need Ibuprofen.”

I think that was the first and only sentence I spoke as I reached my crew at Highway 49. Mile 93. This course was breaking my body, but it was almost over. He gave me 2 and I remember thinking I needed at least 4, but I took what was offered and continued on. We ran through a sunlit meadow in perfect morning light and finally we were crossing the American River on No Hands Bridge. “3 miles to the top of Robie Point and 1.3 to Placer High School Track” rattled in my head. I didn't take anything from the aid station.

We began to climb and I hiked faster than I had since Michigan Bluff. I passed another runner. We topped out to discover the people of Auburn lining the streets, cheering. Drum circles. Cowbells. Hoopla. What an energizing mile! I was running up the road and Dan told me to walk. Walk?! Not now! (But I did—for a short bit). Then—running. Through the streets. People waving and everyone yelling “You’re awesome!” Dear God, I am going to finish Western States! The thought of the race I was running finally entered my head as I saw the track and tears started running down my face. I started to hyperventilate. “Dan, I’m crying!”

I stepped onto the track and high-fived Arthur, a fellow Washington runner. Then I was running and I didn't care how much it hurt. The end was in sight.

The end:
The end of 7 months of trepidation and waiting. 7 months of knowing it would hurt–steeling myself for 60 miles of pain. 7 months of injury and rehab, but almost no training. The end of 18 hours of intense pain. Of pushing against it, through it, beyond it. The night was behind me. I vaguely heard Dan say something about slowing down, but I was focused only on that finish line.

The most painful thing I have ever done was complete.