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."
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.