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?”
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.