PART IV.II: SUSITNA 100 2016, START TO HALF

Start to Mile 21 – Point MacKenzie

20160213_092047It was beautiful day as the sun rose to greet and warm us. The first 5 miles melted away on icy, firm snow conditions. I tried to lock that section in my mind because it was the “stick” of the lollipop that we’d complete at mile 95-100 tomorrow.

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Rachael and Mike.

At the intersection 5 miles out, Rachael and I found ourselves with Mike, the only person in the foot division of the race packing his gear in a backpack instead of sledding it. I was impressed. He’s a 51-year-old, 30-year Navy veteran, stationed in South Korea but retiring soon out of the Navy to Anchorage. Susitna was his first foray into retirement, Alaskan style.

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Not far from the start.

Mike checked his watch and confirmed we had averaged 12-13 minutes per mile so far, which was awesome — much faster than expected. He wanted to average 4 miles per hour (15 min/mile) overall. I knew that there was no way in hell averaging that pace would be possible for anyone our place in the pack, but I told him it sounded like a good goal. Although we started out quicker, I was going to be happy to maintain a 25 minute per mile average. Mike is just one of those people you know is tough on first meeting, and I didn’t figure he would have any trouble finishing, even if it wasn’t as fast as he thought.

20160213_153441The next miles flew by. Rachael and I had planned to run together for the first 21 miles. It’s tough to stick with someone, even early on, in races this long because of the constant ebb and flow of individual pace. It’s really best to run your own race. Additionally, running in pairs was difficult with the sleds scraping loudly behind us. You couldn’t hear each other talking unless you were running two abreast, which was difficult on the parts of the course where there was a single best lane of travel.

rachael8We focused on moving consistently because the first checkpoint at Mile 21 had a 2PM (7 hour) cutoff. According to all the race reports we had read, this was a tight cutoff. Most of this time, I lagged behind Rachael and just focused on keeping up.

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Moguled trail.

The trail alternated between long open stretches and rolling hills through trees. I wish I could comment on the topography and geographic landmarks, but honestly I have no idea where we were most of the time and especially at night would not have known if we were on a river or a swamp or a lake or just some tundra or what. I remember it all as either “flat vast expanse” or “hilly trail through trees.”

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Hollywood on the left.

At one point, we caught up to a group of snowmachines and riders parked on the trail. I stopped for a selfie and one of them said it was his first time on a snowmachine — he was from Los Angeles. They told us they were the film crew for “LA Model” aka Ryan Young, who was being filmed for a Discovery Channel show. I nicknamed the crew member “Hollywood.” I saw them several more times throughout the race.

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Immediately before the start, I had pulled on my original, lighter pair of overshoes that I had torn up on my last training run. I thought they’d stay intact and would not be as hot for the daytime as my heavier neoprene pair. This was a mistake, because the torn edges kept creeping up the sides of my shoes, collecting snow, which made my shoes wet. Rachael’s shoes were also wet from stepping off the trail in the first miles. Because we had no idea what the temps would be or how epic it would get “out there,” wet shoes felt dangerous. I was wearing thick wool socks, which I knew would retain warmth when wet but maybe not if temps dropped dramatically or if I could not keep moving. I quelled my negativity about this and focused on moving and monitoring.

20160213_114730Around noon, I felt myself starting to sweat. I wanted to avoid this, so I stripped off my long sleeve shirt and ran in my tank top for a while. My morale was super good at this point, and I started picking up the pace — I’m just not a fast starter. After maybe an hour in the tank top, we got into some shady trees. I made the call to stop, pull on my long sleeve shirt, and change my overshoes, something I should have done immediately when I saw a problem but didn’t because we were in a hurry.

Susitna 100 2016 – Summery from Emily Berriochoa on Vimeo.

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We got our first taste of the rolling hills maybe halfway to the first checkpoint. They didn’t feel like too much of a thing at that point, but we had no idea what was to come either. Good thing. I witnessed a couple people without rigid connections from their waist belt to the sled really struggling on the downhill sections. Controlling the sled behind with PVC or some type of rigid pole is essential to avoid getting creamed by your sled passing you and then dragging you down the hill with it.

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Sunrise.

Rachael seemed to be having some issues working out her sled system on these rolling hills and I pulled ahead a bit. By this point with my feet warm and hopefully drying out, I was feeling motivated and physically good and wanted to use it or lose it.

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Rachael coming onto the river by the boat ramp.

We rolled through the trees on a double track trail, which was one of my favorite sections of the race, emerging to cross a river, navigate through a boat launch recreation area, and start up car road that would take us a few miles out to the first checkpoint. The sun was brilliant and I was moving in a good run-walk cadence. The footing on the road was softer and a bit punchy, as it was not groomed by snowmachines as well as the rest of the course. I passed two trucks that had given up trying to dig out of the soft snow on the edges.

I kept looking back, hoping to see Rachael coming soon. She never appeared. We had separated enough by this time that I had no choice but to press forward. I felt bad, but we had not agreed to stick together for the entire race for this reason; it just happened a little sooner than we planned.

On this road, only a mile or two before the checkpoint, I caught back up to Navy Mike. We had leapfrogged for the first 20 miles, but he had been ahead of us for a while. He seemed to be in tempered good spirits, and we chatted for a second, but I wanted to run. Bidding Mike a good day was the last time I saw him until the post-race party Monday night.

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Karen and Lourdes, shortly before the first checkpoint.

On the open road, I had seen Lourdes and Karen, two girls from Calgary, ages 48 and 50, up ahead. Leaving Mike, I chased them down, stoked because I figured they would be years ahead of me. We compared notes, but I fell back when they were pushing the pace more than I wanted to. I kept contact, though, and we arrived at the aid station close to the same time.

I hit Pt. MacKenzie about 2:50PM, an hour and 10 minutes before the cutoff. This was thrilling, a good start. After the previous couple miles of punchy snow road, I hoped there would not be much more of that sort of snow. An extremely helpful lady at the aid station filled one of my Hydroflask water bottles for me, while I grabbed a can of Coke and a couple of chocolate covered espresso beans and then departed quickly. With thirteen miles to the next aid station, I left one of the 32 oz. bottles mostly empty.

Pt MacKenzie (Mile 21) to Flathorn (Mile 34)

Shortly after the checkpoint, I passed some dog teams getting ready to run. There was a big crowd and kennel trucks, and the dogs were yapping and barking like crazy, raring to run. Soon after I ran by them, two of the teams passed me. This was fun. A very Alaskan touch.

Susitna 100 2016 Dog Sled Team from Emily Berriochoa on Vimeo.

The section to Flathorn Lake seemed uneventful and I don’t remember many details. I passed a girl who was sitting on her sled changing shoes or socks. My mood was good, and I felt like I was executing well so far. I plugged in my iPod and let myself just pass the time with my favorite friend, music. 

One piece of equipment I carried my running pack was a Delorme Inreach GPS tracking device. It allowed “fans” to keep track of my progress on their computers. We could also exchange text messages, so keeping up with messages kept me occupied some of the time. The well-timed notes of encouragement from friends was invaluable to my morale throughout the whole race.

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Navy Mike out for a long hike, before sunrise, sometime after 9AM, Saturday.

Rachael and I had each bought a pizza in Anchorage the day before the race and wrapped it in foil to eat on the run. I suspected from prior experience with my stomach that I would not be able to eat the very garlicky cheese pizza later in the run, so I “ate early and often,” finishing all but one piece of pizza before arriving at Flathorn. I also worked on eating the energy bars I had made.

Frequently, I would pause, turn around and reach into the front of my sled, grab my bottle, start walking again, drink heartily, and toss the bottle back into the sled without stopping again. It was a good system, and I think I stayed better hydrated doing this than I do in normal races using a water bladder in my pack.

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Late afternoon Saturday.

Every so often, snowmachines would pass, and one of them stopped ahead of me. The race photographer jumped off and snapped a couple of pictures. When I got to him, he pointed behind me. Look at the view in the background of that picture. High pink and blue and white mountains rose behind us. I can’t wait to see those photos. I hesitated to ask him how far it was until the checkpoint — perceptions are so different flying around on snomachines than they are on foot — but I did it anyway. He pointed to the low hill in out front of us and said we did not go beyond that, instead turn right and skirt around the base. That hill easily could have been three miles away, but at least I had a landmark to reference. I think he said the checkpoint was 5 to 7 miles, or 1.5 to 2 hours, tops.

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Just before Flathorn. Light starting to dim.

My energy was good when I arrived at Flathorn just after the sun had set about 6:10PM. I figured I would arrive there between 7PM at BEST and more likely near the cutoff at 9PM. Arriving before dark was so exciting.

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Following the flamingos and tiki torches to Flathorn checkpoint.

To reach the checkpoint, we skirted around on top of the frozen lake edge and “docked” our sleds like little boats at the base of the embankment that went from the ice up to the houses. We were allowed to leave our sleds at the bottom, so I quickly gathered my water bottles and hiked up the stairs without my sled up to the aid station. After a quick in and out first checkpoint, I was motivated to keep this quick turnaround trend going. I felt very calculated and strong at Flathorn.

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Inside Flathorn aid station. Photo: Rachael.
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Flathorn.


This was one of the best aid stations ever. The approach was lined with pink flamingos and tropical accoutrements. Entering the little red house was like entering a level of Alaskan backwoods heaven. It was cozy and warm and rustic, and the people in there were tremendously friendly and helpful. Three or four other racers were sitting in the checkpoint. I didn’t engage with any of them, staying focused and avoiding distraction.

20160213_181111I asked for hot water in one bottle and regular water in the other bottle. One girl asked if I wanted meat or vegetarian spaghetti. I asked for veggie to play it safe. It tasted so good. I wolfed it down while waiting for my water, and then I departed. I should have eaten another bowl of spaghetti.

Earlier in the day, my plan had been to change into a fresh, dry shirt at mile 34, so back at the sled, I forced myself to do this. I was in a hurry but also determined to execute this race like I knew I could. A few minutes preparing for the night would save me time and problems later. I stripped back down to my tank top and pulled on a merino wool half zip and my new long puffy down coat. I stashed my sunglasses in my pack pocket and put on my headlamp. I pulled on my light mittens over my liner gloves. This level of layering was perfect as the sun went down.

“In an out” of this aid station was 20 minutes because of the long walk in and out, so I was super happy to depart about 6:30PM. Right as I was leaving, Lourdes and Karen arrived looking great. They told me later that Rachael arrived to Flathorn right as they were leaving.

Flathorn (Mile 34) to 5 Star Tent (Mile 52)

Soon after Flathorn I passed Dayton, a skier. He was re-waxing his skis after some previous icy sections had put the hurt on his wax. I peeled open my chicken fried rice Mountain House and poured in hot water, resealed it, and let it sit in my sled to rehydrate. I was going to try to get this down before 5 Star, 18 miles away. Staying fueled would be critical going into the long night, and historically I am not good at staying fueled. All food starts to sound bad, which precipitates extreme hunger, which precipitates nausea, and then vomiting, and then…

Anyway, I was trying to eat. I thought of the food in the sled for a while before getting brave enough to crack it open. I pulled my spoon out of my pack and dug in. Hmm, I didn’t remember chunks of egg when I ate this on a training run. Barf. Emily, it doesn’t matter; it probably tastes good. Don’t look at it, just put it in your mouth and chew. I talked myself through bites over and over for a while, probably getting through half of the packet (~400 calories) before tossing it back in my sled.

Dayton and I leapfrogged most of the way to 5 Star and chatted a couple of times until I pulled away for good when he stopped for one of his ‘5 minutes per hour’ breaks. He is a single dad, works full time, and is a full time student at University of Anchorage. He told me he was undertrained, but I commended him for taking on the challenge and encouraged him to push through. I saw him Monday at the post-race party; he did not finish, making it to mile 63 before dropping. During this time I also got passed by Lester, a 63-year-old gentleman from South Carolina. That man could walk like ultra-walking legend Ulli Kamm. He told me he had pulled a 60 pound sled up Denali on a mountaineering expedition, but never anything like this. Well then. Lester and I leapfrogged for a while into the night, and he finished about an hour and a half behind me.

An hour or two after leaving Flathorn, I had popped a few caffiene pills in hopes it would ward off the sleepiness that is almost ubiquitous to overnight racing (go figure, right!?). So far so good, but the night was young.

I have no concept of time or miles through the night, but I believe I was over half-way to 5 Star when Lourdes and Karen caught up to me like I was standing still. I thought I was going pretty fast, but they were chatting and moving, making it look easy. I was determined to hang on to them and not let them out of my sight. Just keep the gas on, I told myself over and over. This is beast mode. You are steel. No one’s seen anything from you yet. Usually, I am afraid to push hard in races because I can’t recover from the effort, but I forced myself to believe in myself and my body and keep working hard.

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5 Star Tent checkpoint. Photo: Rachael.

I arrived at 5 Star Tent, mile 52, just behind Lourdes and Karen at midnight. This was one of those very rare instances where the checkpoint appeared before expected, a glowing canvas wall tent in the middle of nowhere we were sure was a mirage until it became tangible. I was elated at how fast I had completed the first half – about 15 hours. I was doing really good with quick aid stations and didn’t want to change that so I asked for soup in a cup, filled a water bottle and got out of there, drinking the noodle and hamburger soup as I walked out. Lourdes and Karen were still there preparing their food when I left, aiming for the next aid station, 11 miles away, in 3 hours or less.

But the hardest part of the night — that early morning witching hour — was yet to come.

PART IV.I: SUSITNA 100 2016, PRE-RACE

My son D says to me, She’s a beast…I call her Mama. This is my beast story. The main event for this particular tale just happens to be a race called the Susitna 100: A Winter Race in Remote Frozen Alaska. After a weekend like this, it’s hard to know where to start, so obviously, begin with gratitude.

Thank You

To the following people, thank you so very much for your advice, expertise, thoughtfulness, listening ears, encouragement, and borrowed gear: John Berriochoa, Dwight Schuh, Dennis Ahern, Tony Huff, Paul Lind, Doc Lind, Dennis Aslett, Rob Anderson, Lynette McDougal, Amy King, Dieter Berriochoa, John Odle, Kim Neill, Shawn McTaggart, and of course Rachael Bazzett. You people share my success.

The race committee organized an outstanding event. As with any longstanding event with a big local constituency, the Su 100’s family feel and camaraderie were strongly evident both at the briefing where people reunited with other annual offenders and at the post race party where three new 10-time finishers were recognized, stories were told, and the Race Directors knew 70% of the field by name. The volunteers were world class. I don’t think I’ve ever received better service at aid stations.

As this was a brand new genre of event for me, everything felt confusing, so pre-race I was not sure if the race was disorganized or I simply didn’t understand the “local culture.” Today, I’ll pick the latter. I really, really want to go back. It only took me about 24 hours post-race to decide that!

Disclaimer

I know nothing special. Most racers knew a ton more than I do about outdoors survival, winter ultras, and sled running. But I know what I know, so that’s what I’ll share. If anything, it will help you understand what not to do if you attempt something similar.

20151230_101519My training felt like ultra meets outdoors survival, although that description feels melodramatic considering the temperate weather and lack of survival skills required during the race itself, making for many fast times and a couple of course records. My training was conducted in far more difficult conditions than the race, so Su ended up being far less epic but far more wonderful than anticipated.

Thursday 2/11: Briefing and Gear Check

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John dropped me off at the Boise airport.

On Thursday, February 11, 2016, after a slightly delayed flight out of Seattle (and a slightly not so slight freakout about that), I landed in Anchorage, claimed my 65 lb. bag (hallelujah!!) from the oversize baggage claim (the bag contained my sled, both 4-foot poles, and all my race gear), claimed my rental car, drove downtown, and picked up Rachael at the hotel.

Taking advantage of a no-risk animal sighting in the ANC airport.
Taking advantage of a no-risk animal sighting in the ANC airport.
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My luggage. (L-R) Carry-on backpack and purse bag, 65 lb. checked bag containing the sled, gear bag which I packed inside the bigger bag.

After a brief moment of total girly reunion giddiness, we drove a couple blocks from the hotel to a church for the mandatory gear check and briefing. If we had missed the gear check Thursday night, we would have had to wait until AFTER the race started Saturday morning to get our gear checked before we could start. A late start to a race I wasn’t even sure I could finish to begin with was NOT acceptable, so making my flights on time and arriving at the briefing right at 6PM with my sled and luggage intact felt like the first win of the trip.

20160211_185057Rachael and I had woken up Thursday morning in different cities and without talking, dressed in jeans with matching Pickled Feet Ultra Running shirts and IMTUF 100 belt buckles. Rachael asked if she should change clothes before the briefing, but I said let’s just go for it.

Thus, after nearly getting stuck a couple of times navigating our giant bags through the various doors, we entered a church event hall filled with the most outdoorsy, hardcore people you’ve ever seen in one collection feeling like sorority girls, all wide-eyed and twinsy. Understatement: I felt outclassed and out of place.

Snaking through the long gear check line, we chatted with other racers. The big question was always: bike, ski, or run? Most people in the room were going to bike the 100 miles, but we tracked down a few foot racers, including running legend Pam Reed (I was not sure it was her at the time because she had not been on the registered list) and Shawn McTaggart.

I was in awe of Shawn, knowing she had done some serious hardcore winter races, including the 1000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) footrace two times. She just finished the 350 mile ITI again (March 6, 2016). Incredible. Rachael and I are incredibly grateful to her for feeding us intel and advice in the weeks and months leading up to the race.

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We finally arrived at the gear check tables, where volunteers meticulously checked off our gear — including a complete unfurling of my giant down sleeping bag to verify the “-20F” printed on the very bottom — and weighed our bags. I thought the weigh-in at this juncture was irrelevant because we would ultimately pack our sleds differently for the race, but my bag weighed 26 pounds. This did not include water, extra clothing, some of my food, or the sled itself.  

The race requires the following gear:

  • Sleeping bag rated to -20F
  • Closed cell foam sleeping pad-minimum size = 3/8″ x 20″ x 48″
  • Bivy sack or tent (NO space blankets)
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Rear flashing light to be used after sunset
  • Two-quart (64 oz) insulated water container
  • 1-day of food (3000 calories) may be consumed after the last checkpoint
  • 15 lbs of gear at ALL times-including the finish line

For a complete list of additional “recommended” gear and a discussion about what I actually carried, check out Part V of this blog (not posted as of 3/12/16).

After the gear check, we picked our race numbers and settled in for the briefing. Race Director Kim Kittredge gave both an enlightening and concerning presentation, complete with slides like this:

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Weather conditions (choose any two): Ice, mixed rain and snow, 40F to -30F, ground blizzard, breakup, whiteout, fog, dirt patches.
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Evacuations: If you drop out of the race, notify a race official at a checkpoint. You will not be charged a fee if you get back to the finish line under your own power. If you are evacuated, you will be charged.

Much of the course information might have made sense to locals, but we could only hope that the course was marked adequately and that we wouldn’t encounter any overflow, a dangerous situation where water exceeds the ice covering it. We noted to stay off bush airplane landing strips and watch out for snowmachines (snowmobiles).

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Sign on the hotel.

After the briefing, we left my luggage at the hotel and headed downtown to find some vegan Thai food for dinner (drunken noodle with fried tofu and coconut curry with potatoes!), and then went to bed soon after as this was a crucial night for sleep. No partying until after the race!

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Those bell carts are not as nimble as you’d think they might be.

Friday 2/12: Pre-Race Prep Day

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Fresh pre-race feet.
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Dehydrating ourselves the day before the race. :\

Friday was our free day to run last minute errands and find the race start, so naturally we started by spending some time in the hotel hot tub.

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Birthday cupcake!

Next, we loaded my economy size rental car to the brim with all our gear and then found a fantastic coffee shop for lunch, where Rachael bought herself a birthday cupcake to eat on her birthday, 2/14. She toted that cupcake for 100 miles but had to defer the eating of it to Monday after the race because it never sounded good to eat during.

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Shoppy Shoppersons. Anchorage holds awesome used outdoor finds!!
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Fur bikini, anyone? Only in Alaska.

Next, we hit an outdoors consignment store, where I picked up Black Diamond liner gloves and a Patagonia long down coat, both of which I ended up using a lot during the race. Totally good purchases. After spending WAY too much time shopping, we picked up a gourmet artisan pizza each to eat during the race, hit up Walmart for foil to wrap the pizza in, and finally headed out of town about 3PM. I was drooling over the mountains on the drive to Wasilla.

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The mountains driving northeast of Anchorage.

happytrailsThe race was headquartered at 4-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennel in Big Lake, 30-45 minutes past Wasilla, so like many out of town runners, we had booked a hotel in Wasilla for Friday night. Before checking in, we continued on to Big Lake to ensure we could arrive at the race start without getting lost.

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Rachael putting feet on the course the night before the race. Foreground: wooden lath used to mark the race throughout.

Rachael navigated us perfectly using GPS on her phone, and we could finally put our feet on the terrain of the race. It felt good to be standing on the course. We would feel REALLY good once the gun went off.

The unknown hung like a nervous pall on our psyches.

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Friday night dinner was pad Thai vegan noodle packets in the hotel room while we loaded our sleds. I had put so much effort into every decision before the race, I didn’t agonize too much over anything at this point, but I did consider every piece going into the bag. The night before, I had already made the decision to not take my stove/alcohol based on the “mild” conditions. We wrapped our pizzas in foil, considered the prudent extra clothing to pack considering the “warm” temps and lack of precip in the forecast, and taped up our feet to prevent blisters (an amazing system that truly works – see my blog here for details).

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Our sleds, packed and ready.

About 9:30PM, we turned out the lights, anxious about the 6:30AM alarm. I slept pretty good until about 3:30AM and then on and off after that. My stomach was turning and upset. You can’t complain about 6 hours of good sleep the night before a race.

The Start

I had planned to eat another high calorie noodle packet for breakfast, but after the havoc the previous night’s spicy noodles had wreaked on my stomach, I accepted Rachael’s offer of oatmeal, packed with nuts and dried fruit. We each ate two bowls of this. Downing more calories might have been prudent, but simply choking this much oatmeal into my nervous stomach felt like another win.

About 7:15AM, we left the hotel, hoping to arrive to the race start by 8AM.

Of course, we missed a turn to Happy Trails Kennel and had to find our way around the icy back roads. This did not create the most stress-free start, especially because the racer parking was located past the start line about a quarter mile.

Signing in to the race.
Signing in to the race.

Because we were running late, we decided to walk back up to the kennel to sign in before the 8:45AM check in cutoff and then walk back down to the car, unload/organize our gear and sleds, and finally walk back up to the start with the sleds. This was literally Rachael’s first time pulling her race-ready sled setup.

Back at the car after signing in, I talked myself through each move, willing my hands to stop shaking and all decisions to be calculated. I had prepared too well to bypass details due to 11th hour pressure. A last minute phone conversation with my friend Paul set the tone, putting me in the frame of mind to give everything in me to this effort. Our sleds felt heavy enough as we hurried to the start and skirted  the ~120 other racers to a clear spot in the back corner. By the time I jerked on my cycling overshoes and microspikes (crampon-like traction devices) while sitting on my sled behind the start line, the race director was giving the 2 minute countdown.

To start, I wore fleecy running tights, a merino wool tank top, and a single long sleeve half zip tech shirt. That was it. Basically one layer of clothing. The morning chill wasn’t deep enough to necessitate my fleece running jacket. Given the clear, sunny dawn, I knew we’d warm up the minute we started running. That jacket stayed in the sled for the entire race.

Start time!!!
Start time!!!

Suddenly — exactly at 9AM — the pack of nervous energy shifted and the bikers zipped into gorgeous Alaskan sunrise. With varying degrees of urgency, the rest of the racers followed behind. For weeks Rachael and I had been telling each other that once the gun went off, we’d feel okay, and we were right. Following four months of agonizing, “keep going” was now the only requirement, and that’s the easy part. Anyone can take one step at a time.

The reality finally eclipsed the unknown.

Susitna 100, Part III: Good, Bad, Ugly, Surreal and FAQs

I jotted this “good, bad, ugly, surreal” list on the airplane out of Anchorage, pretty much the only thing I could do before my eyes wouldn’t stay open any more. The FAQ’s are the things people have asked me most since the race. It’s just a little teaser before I polish up the main race story.

Good

cycling overshoes & microspikes
rigid PVC pipe connection between me and the sled
chocolate covered espresso beans
good mantras
iPod with extra charger
self sufficiency
Alaska
dog sled teams
ice
birthday weekend
independent warrior woman
facing the unknown
stepping outta the comfort zone
sleeveless winter running in AK
sunrise on the snowy landscape
not puking
staying vertical
Coke
Alaskans
Huma gel
pre-taped feet
ultra people/new friends
hemoglobin
down mittens
small hydroflask with Hot Tang or Coke
Anchorage outdoor consignment stores
McDonalds hash browns
Anchorage restaurants
utter depletion – giving it all
supportive family
a wall tent in the middle of nowhere
long-standing community races
hydroflask bottles (vacuum insulated = no freeze)
long down coat
hot water
Delorme Inreach
crazy messages in the middle of nowhere
post race party
completing what you started

Bad

too heavy sled load
soft punchy snow
hills; sled on hills; any combo of sled and hills
GPS directions in Alaska

Ugly

heavy sled
calorie depletion
facing a second night
wool sock rash
dog poop on the trail
videos of myself after mile 80
being overtaken by one’s sled

Surreal

ordering food at 3:30AM, 63 miles down
seriously discussing reality TV at 4AM
smelling moose at 5AM

“LA Model” (for reference: facebook.com/ryyoungLA)

film crew conducting re-takes of ordering food at 4AM
utter confusion about trail markers at dawn (still confused about that)
headlamp, snowmachine, or train??
the speed of Shawn McTaggart when she’s awake

FAQ

How long was the race? 100 miles
Was it a stage race? Was it a relay? Did you run with anyone? Did you sleep? No
How long did it take you? 33 hours and 25 minutes
You ran all night? Yes, and walked and trudged and somehow generally ambulated in one non-stop effort
Did you see any animals? No. I saw tons of moose droppings and smelled the moose in the night. They were there but I never saw them.
Was the race in the mountains? No
It was flat, right? It was flat, except for the miles of parts that weren’t
Why did you pull a sled? The race required a minimum 15# of gear at the finish. Carrying my gear in a pack would have been way too hard. Using a sled is the way to go in these races.
What kind of sled did you use? A utility sled, like ice fishers use; most people used plastic kids toboggans
What was in your sled? I’ll post an entire discussion on gear in Part V
How much did your sled weigh? I’m not sure because I didn’t take a scale. Based on prior weighs, I’m guessing 35# with full water.
Was the course marked? Yes, with 3 foot wooden lath marked with reflectors and the race name, placed about a tenth of a mile apart.
What was the weather like? Mostly clear skies, sunny in the day, some overcast, no precipitation.
How cold was it? Not very. I never had to wear more than one lightweight puffy jacket over my long sleeve shirt. The RD says, “Saturday night temps on the river were in the low teens, daytime temps were almost 30 each day.”
What did you wear on your feet? Regular running shoes, covered with neoprene cycling overshoes and Kahtoola Microspikes. I did this for 100 miles and it was a GREAT system for warm feet with good traction, despite remaining nerve damage on the end of my big toe and bruising to the balls of my feet.
How many times did you change shoes? Never. 1 pair of shoes and 1 pair of socks for 100 miles. As usual.
What were the conditions? Mostly icy and firmly packed with just enough punchy and smooshy snow (was like running in sand) to be aggravating
What did you eat? Homemade (nut, seed, nut butter, coconut oil, cereal) bars, 3 cans of Coke, macaroni soup, spaghetti, pizza, rice, Huma gel, muffin, hot tang, black tea, oatmeal, espresso beans, can of Sprite, handful saltine crackers, and maybe a few other random things, but that’s all I can remember. I needed one third of the food on the sled that I carried.
Did you see the northern lights? Unfortunately, no. The myriad stars were a small consolation.
Why did you do this race? Always choose the thing that will push you. Always do the thing you don’t know  you can do. Repeat.
Did you win? Yes :)

Susitna 100, Part II: The Training

This is a hard part to write because so many of the pieces I talk about here are still works in progress. I wrote this on the plane high in the air between Seattle and Anchorage, two days before the race, which was February 13-14, 2016.

Sick
Sitting in the Health Center on 9/22/15. So puffy and swollen. You couldn’t see the veins in my hands or feet.

After IMTUF (Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival 100 mile race, September 19-20, 2015), I started retaining so much fluid that I gained 10 pounds within two days after the race. On Tuesday, I went to the health center at work and asked them to check my electrolytes to see what was going on. Without some more data, I was not sure whether to take in more salt or more water or what.

The physician’s assistant called me Wednesday, September 23 and said that my kidney and liver function showed signs of distress, which is totally normal after 100 miler, but because I was also starting to pee again more regularly, and the pounds were dropping back off, I wasn’t worried about hyponatremia or kidney damage anymore.

However, one other interesting thing was revealed on the blood test. My iron levels were severely low. For the iron deficiency anemia, the PA recommended that I start supplementing my iron immediately and wrote me a prescription for 650mg of iron/day.

I was floored by this information. Nothing is ever wrong with me. I am always healthy. It slowly dawned on me that THIS piece of information totally explained why I had not run with energy for two and a half years (I identified my last “good” race as Wild Idaho in 2013).

With the benefit of hindsight, maybe I should have seen this coming. Maybe it should have been a clue to me when I was too low in iron to donate blood two times over the last year. All the symptoms were there. However, when it was happening, it was easy to convince myself I was just being a hypochondriac. Nothing was wrong with me…I just needed to try harder. And people don’t take you seriously when you say something is wrong yet continue dusting up the trails and pounding the pavement.

With the anemia diagnosis, I comforted myself in knowing that nothing I could have done would have made me better. I could not have muscled through this one. Had it not been for the thoughtfulness of the PA at my health center, I never would have gotten the critical information that maybe changed my life, not to be hyperbolic.

Suddenly, I had something to hope for, like REAL hope, backed up by data and not just dreams that my general badassery and experience would automatically translate to awesome races as I put more notches in my belt. With the promise of resolving my anemia and finding joy in energetic running again, I decided to postpone my certain retirement following IMTUF and see what would happen after a few months on iron.

CTThe week after IMTUF, I traveled to Italy for work, barely enough time for the swelling in my feet to subside, so I ended up not running for two weeks following IMTUF. On October 6, we flew back to Boise, and I ran, jet lagged and all, for a couple miles up to the grocery store and back. Even more than my resurgence in June, I was motivated to persevere and keep running.

At the same time, other things in my personal life were at rock bottom, unresolved…even lower than back in May/June. The horrible state of my body, having just completed a 100 mile run, and returning from international travel left me once again angry, depressed, exhausted, and filled with personal angst.

Running had given me a lifeline to get through the previous four months of this personal turmoil, but nothing was resolved. My perspective on life was totally distorted. My eating habits had declined  to horrible and I was sleeping 4-6 hours a night and surviving on a hardcore intake of coffee and 4-8 espresso shots per day. The only glimmer of hope is that maybe I could run if I just stuck it out.

Early in October 2015, my friend Rachael who is living temporarily on Prince of Wales, Alaska, asked if I wanted to come run the Little Su 50K with her on February 13th outside of Wasilla, Alaska. A break from life and a fun trip to AK sounded like just the thing I needed, so I said sure!! I was hopeful that I would feel stronger by then in order to meet the 12 hour cutoff in the 50K race. We planned a 6 day, fun-filled Alaskan girls getaway, and I signed up for the 50k just as soon as it opened.

Following September 23, I had a very firm plan in my mind to keep running no matter what. I knew it would feel like it always did – tired and heavy. But now I (thought) I knew why, and I had something to look forward to – the hope that one day I would have runs that felt good and faster. I continued my 12 minute per mile runs around my house. That’s all I could do. I had no faster gear. If I was running, that was the pace. I could not drop it down to 10 minute miles or faster for more than a minute or two at a time. But I had this clear vision in my mind that I could stick it out until I felt better and that way not lose my fitness in the meantime.

thrashed
Jet lagged and strung out on espresso.

Through October, I started paying attention to the food I was eating in order to boost iron absorption. I increased my citrus (Vitamin C) and cut back on dairy (food containing calcium). I knew after returning from Italy strung out of my mind on espresso that pruning my rigorous latte regimen was next on the list. I wanted to find my functional baseline. By October 19, I had weaned down to zero cups of coffee per day and started drinking tea like a chain smoker consumes cigarettes. I’m still doing that to this day.

October 19 was also the day I started seeing a therapist to help me work out the personal issues that were reaching critical mass. I could not be healthy unless I dealt with the stress and anger in addition to the physical issues.

With all these things on a generally positive trend as a backdrop, Rachael messaged me one day in early November and said she had not registered for the Little Su 50K before it filled. I was registered, and she was not. The race is very rigid about making exceptions to the rules, so there was no way for her to enter. She immediately was wondering if she should run the corresponding 100 miler, which I had been vehemently against because I wanted to give my body the time to rest and recover and get my iron up. I was sure I would not be strong enough by February to attempt 100 again so soon.

It took me a couple of hours before messaging Rachael that both of us entering the 100 miler was ‘obviously the only option.’ I’m in. We were both terrified at the prospect – it seemed big and scary and unknown – but the decision was made. We signed up.

Meanwhile, I kept running. It was all the same. Breathless on any incline. Breathless on the stairs at work. Breathless and weak climbing Cervidae Peak every Tuesday morning before work. Lightheaded and dizzy. But, sometime in November, those symptoms started to subside, and on November 24 I logged “I think I just had a good run.”  My boss at work commented that I was not nearly as faint as I used to be. You know, you’re right!  Another good run logged on November 30…and from there the energetic runs outnumbered the dead runs. I was cautiously optimistic.

sleepingbag
Me and my good friend Puffy.
bars
Bars and bars and bars. Nut butter, coconut oil, nuts, rice krispies, sesame seeds, cheerios, maple syrup, honey, agave…high calorie food for the Alaskan tundra.

Through December I put together my sled setup and began compiling my gear. I wrote a training plan and [mostly] followed it. I was not running super high mileage, but I got in very consistent training and felt good doing it. That was the amazing thing – I was actually able to follow the training through without pile driving myself. I bought a -20F down sleeping bag. I tested all sorts of high calorie bar recipes. I put in 35 hours with my sleds. I spent endless hours researching winter gear and methods that would best help me get through up to 48 hours and 100 miles of Alaskan snowmachine highways and trails. I read blogs and race reports and all the information I could get my hands on. I was obsessed with the unknown.

On December 23, I had my blood tested again. My hemoglobin, hematocrit, and ferritin levels all showed massive improvement. My PA said the anemia was resolved. This was exciting. The data supported my improved performance. I am cautiously optimistic that I will continue feeling good and that I don’t have other issues at play. I don’t have blinders on. I know I need to keep taking care of myself, getting good rest, and moving to a place of lessened stress.

20151230_101534
December 30 with Kermit.

On December 30, I pulled my green sled, Kermit, for 11.5 hours on a plowed road outside of Stanley, Idaho. Back and forth three times on a remote mountain road. I tested my cooking skills on the MSR Whisperlite stove with marginal results. It took me too long to boil water. I needed to find another system. By the end of the day, my sled felt exponentially heavier. I thought it was just me, that I was getting tired. When I unloaded my sled that evening, I realized that the bottom was filled with snow. I weighed it. What had started out as a 30 pound sled was now a 50 pound sled. The bottom of the plastic kid’s toboggan had cracked and I was picking up snow for at least several hours. This was not going to work. But I had done it and felt pretty strong at the end despite pulling a REALLY heavy sled. I was ecstatic. 

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Kermit with 20 lbs of snow.
kermit
Kermit 2.0 with skis.

With J’s help, I devised a second sled, one with skis on the bottom for runners. I got the pair of kid’s downhill skis from the storage shed of Greenwood’s Ski Haus. Many thanks to Eric there for the help. I got away by myself for another introvert’s dream rejuvenating training weekend the third week of January to test out Kermit 2.0, the red sled with skis. This time, I had fresh snow, which was challenging. The curve on the skis caused the sled to pull back and forth, which was hard on my hips and lower back. It was not the most confidence boosting exercise. However, I did set up a bivy in the snow and tested out my little tuna and cat food can alcohol stoves that J made for me, which worked just as well as the MSR, although I still couldn’t get a good boil going fast enough. I also tested my cycling overshoes and microspikes together, which was a fantastic system. My feet stayed warm and dry, and the microspikes provided excellent traction even on the soft snow. Kermit 2.0 didn’t feel like a winner, though.

bivy
Snow bivy in Idaho’s mountains.

Through several email exchanges with Dennis Aslett, who has done the Susitna 100, I learned about his sled setup, which involved a heavier duty cargo type sled that might be used by ice fishermen. I picked one up at Sportsman’s Warehouse and rigged up my third sled, which I named in a nod for various reasons to my two friends named Dennis: Blackalicious the Drag Queen. My final sled training exercise was an overnighter outside of Fairfield, Idaho. I left my house about 9PM and arrived in Fairfield about 11PM. I parked, loaded up my gear, and took off running until about 6:30AM. This black sled slid nicely and I decided this was the final iteration. I wasn’t going to fret over it anymore. Training was in the bag; hay in the barn. After I returned home, J made me a “beer can” alcohol burning stove out of an Amp can, and we tested that with very good results and a rolling boil in just over 5 minutes. This would work for the race, although I hope very much to not use it at all.

I can’t control the weather, the snow conditions, or the aid provided, but I can control my preparation and training. About THAT, I have no regrets. I did everything I could to prepare. I am in the best shape of my life. I believe the anemia is resolved. Life isn’t all rosy. I’m still working with my therapist to become a less cynical vibrant-creative-introvert-warrior. No matter what happens in the race this weekend, I believe I have fought for my life, my energy, and my running. This race is just a symbol of that.  

Susitna, I’ll see you Saturday. Bring it on ‘cause I’m bringing my Warrior. IMTUF, I’ll see you in September.

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Susitna 100, Part I: The Context

Some races are so much more than that. For me, the Susitna 100 was one of these races. I certainly didn’t know it a year ago, but the story of the Susitna 100 had already started.

All of the following is written with the clarity of hindsight. I had very little perspective about what I was experiencing when I was in those times. This is how it goes. I am glad to have moved a bit past the dark days and hope this story can help others.

I returned from a work trip to Asia in May 2015 severely depressed, the lowest I’ve been in 15 years. I was 36 years old and facing a midlife crisis. Everything in my life seemed wrong. I started waking up and thinking I had made a terrible mess of my life.* This depression showed on the scale and in how my clothes fit, which made me feel even worse.

Muar, Malaysia, May 2015.

After a deplorable race at Salt Flats 100 at the end of April 2015**, I was disillusioned with my body and with ultrarunning in general. I had thought I could call in an “easy” 100 at Salt Flats on 20 to 30 miles per week training  +  experience. It was enough to finish, but it wasn’t pretty.

Leaving Mile 80 in the Salt Flats 100, 2015. NOT happy.

For the entire year prior, I had been lamenting to all of my friends who would listen about how slow I had gotten, how I didn’t think any amount of training benefited my fitness. My friends suggested that being a back of pack runner was simply my lot in life or that maybe I didn’t train enough. At an average of 20 to 40 non-intense miles per week I could at least BUY the idea that I may need to train more in order to more than survive 100s in the bottom 3rd or 4th of the pack. However, in my gut, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my training level seemed irrelevant to any of my outcomes. I was getting slower the more I ran and the more experienced I got.

I could NOT handle the thought that I had peaked sometime in the past…that my full potential with running – and furthermore in life in general – had been realized and was not ahead of me. I couldn’t bear the thought that suffering tremendously through 100s and death marching to the finish was as good as it would ever get for me.

Amy and I walked at the Rec Center and I was breathless. I could not climb stairs without breathing heavily and slowing down. I thought maybe it was because I was 5 lbs heavier than I had maintained for the last couple of years before. All of the traveling and eating and stress and working had slowly dialed up the pounds. Or had I all of a sudden acquired a case of asthma? I was often dizzy. I could hardly rise from my chair without becoming lightheaded. Five mile runs felt hard; two mile runs felt hard. I felt heavy, dead legged, tired. I accepted all of this as my new reality and decided that I was tired of fighting to be someone I was not.  

With all those thoughts in mind, I quit running. I really thought I was done. I didn’t see the point of flogging myself with the drudgery that running had become. I didn’t even LIKE running anymore. I convinced myself I wasn’t a runner. You shouldn’t have to work that hard to be something you’re not.

I did not run for six weeks. It took me that long to come to my senses, and the thing that did it was my one true running love – the IMTUF 100 (Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival, imtuf100.com). I realized that the inspiration to run IMTUF was still inside me, despite my departure from running. I was looking ahead to September envisioning the race coming and going without my shoes on the line, and I didn’t like the picture. But I didn’t want to merely survive it. I had done that the year before, in 2014, pacerless, falling asleep on rocks all night, puking nonstop into the sunrise, death marching to mile 90, barely making the cutoffs.

In a rare and momentary ray of sunlight through the fog of my mind, I told myself Emily, you are either going to fully live a slovenly couch-surfing existence, be damn good at it, and embrace the body that comes with it; OR you can choose the route that won’t sentence you to a prison of self-loathing and living hell.

I wanted to do well at IMTUF, i.e. PR (personal record) my time from 2012. Despite my recent struggles and descent to hell at Salt Flats, I thought I COULD do well, despite nothing really having changed except for my mindset. This insanity was completely lost on me as I pulled on my big girl pants and determined that my world might be collapsing around me* but I was a runner, dammit, and nothing would take that away from me. I would run my depression away and everything would be okay again.

On June 7, 2015, weighing the most I had since losing the baby weight from Little M nine years prior, I started running again with a clear goal (to PR the IMTUF 100 in September) and intense motivation to get in the shape to do it. Running became my lifeline and I held on to it vehemently, just as stubbornly as I had given it up the month before.

I was signed up for the RONR 108K (River of No Return, runchallis.com) but clearly had no business toeing the line. I could barely walk from my car to the office door without taking a break, so in early June I asked my Race Director buddy Paul to drop me down to the 50K race. As June 20 approached, however, even 50K seemed too much. I didn’t want to hike it just because; plus, life still sucked, and I just didn’t have it in me to race yet. I pulled from RONR completely, and my family worked with me at the Bayhorse Aid Station instead. The morning of the race, I jogged down the road to the Juliette aid station and then hiked the 5+ miles back up to Bayhorse.

This was one of the most difficult hikes ever, but also one of the most inspiring. I was so tremendously out of shape. I had to rest-step every inch of even the slightest incline. But I was also honored to have the wind in my face as I approached a clearing and sat and watched a herd of elk at 20 yards for at least 10 minutes. Later on, near the summit above Bayhorse Lake, I encountered a black bear on the open hill and watched him frolic until he smelled me and ran. These wildlife encounters reminded me why this sport is so important to me. Races provide the infrastructure in which I can explore the mountains, travel to new country, and be alone in the wild. The RONR hike inspired me to stick with it, even though starting over is so very difficult.

By the end of June 2015, I felt like I was getting into a semblance of shape again. The numbers on the scale were back in a “normal” range for me, and I felt like I wanted to run the Beaverhead 55K (beaverheadenduranceruns.com), so I signed up. I’m so glad I did this. The course is now one of my all time favorites…and I got to spend some time on the trail with Dennis Aslett on the rocky spine of the Continental Divide. Time with Dennis is always a highlight.

At Beaverhead, I struggled with any and all incline pitches. I attributed this to being out of shape still and partly blamed it on the high altitude of the race (5-10K’). I tried to not be negative about it, with half of July and August to get in peak form.

Beaverhead 55k, 2015, high on the Continental Divide.

I struggled again at the Ketchum Backcountry 16.5 mile run the week after Beaverhead and attributed the weakness, breathlessness, and lack of performance to being tired from Beaverhead and to the elevation in Ketchum. The thing is, I was working hard. My training was consistent, rest was good, and race efforts were maximum RPMs. I was not out there smelling the flowers and taking pictures. I still could not shake the feeling that I was limited to something OTHER than my legs or my mind, but I didn’t know how to name this “ceiling.”

Ketchum Backcountry Run, 2015.

On August 1, I spent a weekend by myself at Wild Idaho and ran the 50K on Saturday with a follow up 8 miles on the IMTUF course into Box Lake and back on Sunday. Again, the climbs on these runs just obliterated me. I felt like I was wearing a fat suit, but the second half of Wild Idaho was flatter and the whole race was at lower elevation; plus, I ran with Adam from Saipan, so the time flew and I finished with my best 50K in a long time under 8 hours on a brutally hot day. I was finally getting myself back…I thought.

Before you criticize me for pushing myself too hard, racing too much, or overtraining, let me remind you I have averaged no more than 10-40 miles per week over ALL the years I have been running ultras since 2009; even in peak training, I’ve only hit 60+ miles per week (mpw) two or three times and certainly in the first half of 2015 was not overtaxing myself, at least not by running. I will acknowledge that two years of a new job and all the stressors of life* contributed to the toll on my body. You can’t thrash on yourself with no consequences.

Through the summer of 2015, running was life. If I’m going to be honest, I was not as much running THROUGH my issues as using running as a distraction FROM them, but still, running kept me focused on being healthy whereas otherwise I would have been a disaster both physically (more than I already was) AND mentally.

Feeling optimistic about the consistency of my training over the summer and looking for a last push before IMTUF, I signed up for the Standhope Ultra Challenge stage race (standhope.runwildidaho.com) – 90 miles over four days – outside Ketchum, Idaho. We would see 9000 feet many times and top out at 11K going Standhope Peak high in the Pioneers. This became my other favorite short course next to the Beaverhead 55K. My family and I had a good time, and I enjoyed four days of eating with abandon, not counting the calories or worrying about the scale, and enjoying the mountains.

Standhope at Goat Lake, the highest lake in Idaho.

Again at Standhope, I was SO SLOW. I felt like I was trying so hard but going nowhere. I was either the last or second/third to last runner of all the stagers every day. It felt embarrassing. Please don’t get me wrong. I feel everyone has a place in these races, even really slow people. I love back of pack runners – I’ve been one most of my ultra career.

But mentally, I felt like I had moved out of the last place, finishing is good enough for me stage. I felt like my experience should count for more than simply knowing how to get by. Unfortunately, my body was not supporting my aspirations, and I slogged through every climb at Standhope, finishing in a hot mess of depletion, vomiting, and hysteria at the end of the fourth day of racing. I’m pretty sure my children are still traumatized. John was like, Mom’s just hungry, guys. Geez.

I never recovered from Standhope. From that point on, I was tired ALL. THE. TIME, drained, heavy, not running with any pep or life in my legs. Against all of my better judgement I signed up for the local Resort to Rock 60K (R2R) at Bogus Basin and basically death marched from start to finish. The highlights were that I got to hike a bit in the middle with J and Little M and walk the last 5 or so miles with Ulli, but otherwise the run was a travesty. Unlike Standhope, where I was a vomiting mess at the end, I fueled throughout R2R but still finished depleted to the CORE, frustrated and weak.

Me and Ulli Kamm at the Resort to Rock Finish.

I tapered hardcore after that – no more long runs – nothing that would tire me at all. Yet every single run was so tiring and this did not change even as IMTUF arrived three weeks later when I should have been rested and coiled to run.

Despite that, I was used to being this way. It just seemed normal, so I approached IMTUF hopefully, thinking my experience there and passion for the race would get me through with less drama than I had experienced in the my last three Horrible Hundreds.**

I also thought that losing 15 pounds from May to September would help me run faster and that my training had seemed consistent and voluminous enough to count for something. I was excited at the start.

I was wrong about all of it.

IMTUF started like it always does, with me hitting the splits I was expecting and generally having a good day. But by mile 40, I was just DRAGGING. I shuffled into the mile 44 aid station after I expected to arrive, thinking here we go again. Brian Nebeker and I headed up to Snowslide Lake and it just got worse on the 1000 ft/mile climb. I had to rest-step, just one step at a time, so out of breath, no power whatsoever, no ability to push, and food started to be an issue, just like always. I had eaten well up to that point, but things started hitting my stomach REALLY badly.

The night in a hundred miler is always such a surreal blur, but I think it was on the climb out of Maki Lake that it really hit me. Little bites of innocuous food sent me into violent vomiting convulsions. I blacked out on two different vomiting episodes, and Brian stayed by my side through all the ugly stuff. I owe him for this. The 10 mile loop took us 5 hours.

After that, IMTUF once again became a fight for the cutoffs. Luckily, a buffed out downhill trail led into Mile 80 because my pacer Amy and Chiphing Fu and I had to run hard to make that noon cutoff by just a few minutes. I finished the race with 9 minutes to spare on the 36 hour cutoff and swore NEVER AGAIN. Not if this is the way it’s going to be.

Capture
IMTUF 100, 2015, Finish

To be continued in Part II.

Notes:

*I refer to “struggles” and my “world collapsing” around me and midlife crisis. These phrases may seem oblique, which is intentional. In the interest of discretion, I don’t want to expound on the details surrounding why my life felt catastrophic. In short, if you lose your center/spirit/purpose, life will crush you.

**The string of Horrible Hundreds.

  1. IMTUF 2014 – Started puking chicken broth at mile 55 and continued puking most food for the rest of the race. I uncontrollably slept on rocks throughout the night and death marched until I had to start sprinting hard to make the cutoffs at the end. Somehow I’m always able to perk up for that.
  2. NERD 100 2014 – In a fit of lightheaded dizziness and nausea, I fainted enroute to the bathroom to vomit but recovered to finish the last 20 miles after the sun came up and I got some coffee in me.
  3. Salt Flats 2015 – I started vomiting so explosively at Mile 61 that I blacked out on the side of the road. After sitting in the car for an hour, I continued on to death march the last 40 miles to a 32 hour finish on minimal calories and power level zero. I have never wished so much to be struck dead by a falling meteor.
  4. IMTUF 2015 – Dragging from about mile 40 onward, with zero ability to push or recover. Started vomiting violently on the Snowslide loop (mile ~45-55), fainted twice, and crawled to the finish with 9 minutes to spare on the 36 hour cutoff. Swore never again. 
The Finish of the NERD 100 2014.

IMTUF 100 2013 – Sweep Report

IMTUF 100 (IDAHO MOUNTAIN TRAIL ULTRA FESTIVAL)

IMTUF

At the end of last month (August 30-31, 2013), I participated for the second time in the IMTUF 100 (Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival), which starts and finishes at the mountain enclave of Burgdorf Hot Springs just north of McCall, Idaho. Burgdorf should be on a ‘best of Idaho’ list. It’s the PERFECT home to a hundred mile trail race. They offer reasonably priced camping, rental cabins if you prefer that, and the best part of all is that you can finish running and go jump directly in the hot springs pool, clothes and all.

IMTUF_BurgdorfHotSprings

Burgdorf Hot Springs, the start and finish of IMTUF. Pure awesomeness.

Last year (2012), I ran it. The race was held the first weekend of October we enjoyed a zero degree start. When I got done, I thought (and still think) that was the most difficult race I had ever done. It is so incredibly technical.

IMTUF100_JaykReynolds

IMTUF 100 third place finisher Jayk Reynolds. Fall colors abound in McCall, even at the end of August.

For 2013, the directors switched the direction of the course, which put the flatter, less technical 20 miles of the race at the end instead of the beginning. I thought this would make it ‘easier,’ and in some ways it did, but make no doubt about it – you gotta be TUF to complete the IMTUF 100. It’s just plain hard, no matter which direction the course runs. There are multiple stretches of 10 or more miles between aid stations, long climbs and steep descents, and did I mention how technical it is? Not to mention the ~22k of elevation gain and 105-ish miles the course covers (advertised as 102).

IMTUF_AnnTrason

Ann Trason greeting her beloved pal at the IMTUF finish.

For this year’s IMTUF, I stepped into a volunteer role. As much as I wanted to run this race in the reverse direction, I was pretty excited to set a PR at Bear this week , so I volunteered to sweep about half of the course and work an aid station instead. By the end of the weekend, I felt like I had run 100 miles, but don’t tell any of the runners that.

IMTUF_HAM

A common position where we were located – me getting the best radio signal with my no frills HAM setup.

With my recently acquired amateur radio license, I helped my buddy Rich Marion operate HAM communications at the mile 44 aid station, as well as assisted with the aid station setup and operations. This was simply the most fun way to spend a day, and I am really appreciating HAM radio even more. It’s a ton of fun and is invaluable to mountain ultra races. You should think about getting your HAM license and giving back to ultras that way.

I started sweeping after the last runners at mile 44, about 8:15 pm, and picked up with my running buddy Amy King at mile 55. We hitched a ride up the road to mile 60 and commenced sweeping on foot from there to the finish, minus the mile 83-93 loop, which was perfect timing to land us behind the last two runners who would finish the race before the 36 hour cutoff. This put us on the trail for over 21 hours. It was Amy’s birthday, and I can’t imagine a funner way to spend it.

IMTUF_Sweeps

After finishing 50 miles of overnight sweeping, Amy King and I were pretty indistinguishable from the race finishers when we got to the end.

The 62% finish rate (19 finishers for 27 starters) impresses me considering the difficulty of the race; I feel the stellar weather contributed heartily to this good finish rate. Weather in August at 5000-9000 feet around McCall is downright pleasant, and we avoided any rain that certainly could have been a possibility.

IMTUF_ChristineKollar

IMTUF women’s winner Christine Kollar going sub-30 on an incredibly tough and technical course and happy about it.

To compliment the traditional buckles given by many other 100s, you get an engraved leather belt for finishing IMTUF. That’s pretty cool, if you ask me.

Next year’s race will be held again on Labor Day weekend, the last weekend in August  on September 20-21, 2014 (date change) and registration is now open at imtuf100.com. I predict this will be the next mountain 100 classic, ala Wasatch, Cascade Crest, or Bear.

IMTUF_WinnerAdam

Adam Wilcox, race winner, with his IMTUF belt.

How to Use Cutoffs as a Pacing Strategy: Putting P50 to Rest

Executive Summary for Those Who Hate Long Pointless Race Reports: Your sport should be fun, and if it’s not mostly fun then do something else; if you don’t love running fast, run slow; if you don’t love running slow, hike; if you don’t love being on your feet, cycle; if not that, something else. Find that place where you can live with yourself, where you are stretched but fulfilled. Life is short – keep on growing, keep on LIVING, and keep on LOVING. Oh, and the Pocatello 50 is a monster of a race.

The Long Pointless Part: I have a little history with the Pocatello 50 and know it’s not a race to be taken lightly. My first foray at Pocatello was Memorial Day weekend 2010. Anyone who lives in Idaho knows that surly weather is pretty much ubiquitous to Memorial Day, and we weren’t disappointed that year. I made it to the first major checkpoint at City Creek at mile 17 in 4:54 to find out that that race was cancelled, plug pulled, while search efforts were commencing for many not so fortunate who were wandering in the blizzard, underclothed and off-course. Based on the 4:54 split and knowing what a beast of a mountain was to come in the second third of the course, I do not believe I would have made the subsequent cutoffs that year.

Sam Collier Pocatello 50
Sam Collier at the Pocatello 50 Race Check In

That was my first 50 mile race attempt. Though I have finished three 50 milers, a 100k, and six 100 milers since then, the lure of Pocatello, my original beastly challenge, was still with me three years later, despite going back in 2011 and slogging through the 50k (36 miles) on a snow course – full of postholing, snow fields, and big water crossings – in 10:29. Pocatello wouldn’t rest until I finished the 50 Mile (54 mile) race.

Fortunately for me, following a typically crappy-weathered Memorial Day, the Weekend After Memorial Day 2013 dawned sunny and mild with virtually no snow on the course. I figured the only way I would make the cutoffs was with stellar trail conditions, and here I had the perfect setup.

People always tell me that I ‘look faster’ or that they think I ‘could be a lot faster.’ I’m not sure how to feel about this. Am I just a slacker? (I don’t feel like it) Underachieving my potential? (probably) It’s a concept I struggle with. To be faster, you have to train faster. The thing is, I have fun training like a slow person. And I got a lotta’ other stuff going on – I know, I know, so does everyone else, but everyone has different limits, you know?

So anyway, following my 100 miler at Antelope Island in March and directing the Pickled Feet 24/12/6 Hour & 100 Mile Runs the week after that and an ankle roll the week after THAT, my training for Pocatello consisted of absolutely the best I could muster – a two-week buildup for the ankle, three weeks of ‘peaking’ at 55 miles, and two weeks of semi-taper to the race. For an early season mountain race following a winter of running roads and flat trails down low, that was as good as I could do in the mountain training department.

Still, that was the bare minimum I would need to make those pesky cutoffs. Pocatello is no joke.

The Buff - Pocatello 50
The race gave out Buffs this year. Sam was like, WHAT IN THE WORLD IS A BUFF?

Negative feelings swirled pre-race. Between the militant ‘green’ aspect involving cupless aid stations, which I hate, and a ‘plateless’ finish line meal – we were instructed to bring our own non-disposable plate or plan on not eating at the finish – and the strict cutoffs (“if you arrive at the 8:30 cutoff at 8:31…your race is OVER; shoulda’ run faster”), I was just feeling like this race had become too elite for me.

By the end of the race, I had put that all aside, and that’s all I’m going to say about it because I don’t want this report to be about negative stuff. Ultimately, the P50 is a beautiful challenging course with second-to-none aid stations, supported by really good families who come back year after year. I mean, where else can you say that Karl Meltzer personally put your headlamp ON your head for you at mile 48?? That put the wind in my sails for the last miles…so much so that I didn’t even NEED the stinkin’ headlamp.

Pocatello 50 Gibson Jack
Photo Credit: Gate City Sports; Me mustering a run out of Gibson Jack, 8.5 miles in.

Excepting the 10 mile death march from Mink Creek to the top of Scout Mountain; and the fact that I dropped my Ensure bottle right at the start which cracked it and left me with drippy Ensure and subsequently drippy soda through the rest of the race (that bottle served as my ‘cup’ in place of the spineless UltraSpire joke of a re-usable cup), I worked through the race as I have become accustomed to doing: one step at a time, aid station to aid station, carefully working out my time and making those cutoffs like the back-of-pack pro I’ve become.

I had spent a little time in the first third of the race with a new friend named Hugh. I left him on the descent into City Creek and shared a lovely bit of trail with Gary Holloway into the aid station. Gary left me at the aid station when I felt compelled to take a portapotty stop and fix my sock which had slipped down the back of my heel right from the start. I bandaided it up and safety pinned my sock up to the back of my shoe to keep it from slipping again. These two things saved me issues later on, even though my refusal to fix it for 17 miles had already cost me a large chunk of skin off my Achilles.

The top of the climb out of City Creek over to Midnight Creek is wicked, and I would like to point out that a Nutella pancake and two Ensure bottles of Coke at City Creek fueled me right up that thing where I passed no fewer than SIX MEN (including Gary, while keeping Hugh behind me), leaving me feeling really positive heading down to Midnight Creek and then Mink Creek.

Pocatello 50 City Creek
Photo Credit: Gate City Sports; Gary Holloway and I picking our way down a really rocky section into City Creek, Mile 17.

The positivity waned a bit as I tried to muster a respectable min/mile pace on the really runnable section down into Mink Creek. I was finding that I would rather just meander and look around enjoying the scenery. I was truly enjoying being ‘out there’ and was slightly annoyed that I had to ruin the peace by keeping up the pace I knew I needed to keep in order to make that 3:30 pm cutoff at Mink, Mile 32. But I was going to miss that cutoff over my dead body, so I carried on and arrived at Mink Creek a half hour ahead of the cutoff in 9 hours. Good enough.

I didn’t have the most collected aid station stop at Mink Creek, but the one great thing that did happen was a volunteer put ice in my pack for the exposed, hot oven of a section up toward South Scout. You can have cold water for a long time if you blow the water out of your tube back into the bladder instead of drinking the warm water from the tube every time – same way you keep water thawed in really cold weather.

In addition, Hugh showed up at Mink Creek just as I was heading out, and I was relieved that he had made it. I knew some of those guys behind me would not make that cutoff; this was Hugh’s first ultra, and he has Wasatch looming this fall, so I was feeling quite adamant in a none-of-my-business sort of way that he needed a finish at Pocatello to position himself positively for that. I took off up Scout Mountain – well, ‘took off’ is an exaggeration – more like, shuffled off in the start of a death march that would ebb and flow until ultimately I would get my life back on the descent from the Scout Mountain summit to Big Fir.

Hugh caught me a mile or two past Mink Creek and we proceeded up the mountain together. He was a real boost at this point, and I credit him with ‘saving’ my race. The conversation and company got us both moving with more purpose. I was trying to figure out the math with miles and minutes, and I was confident we would make it if we didn’t completely die. I’m not sure Hugh was sure about my calculations, but I tried to assure him that I had been in this spot more than once and if there was anything I did know how to do, it was make cutoffs. My mantra became ‘never give up hope.’

When the course sweep caught up to my little group near the summit, I was at my lowest. Nausea ripped through me with every step, mentally I had switched to auto-pilot just to endure the trauma of seemingly never getting to the top, and I knew I needed some sugar. It was time to break out the Sport Beans, which have saved more than one race for me. Two at a time, I got the Beans down, and as we summited and started the gnarly descent, I could feel the life returning. Hugh and the neonatologist Con who we shared some enjoyable miles with had both found their running legs again and had left me in the dust; I could see them far out ahead down the draw.

But I knew that Grim Sweeper was not my friend, and I was happy to leave the other Gary (running his first ultra on his 30th birthday) back there with him.

Camping at Pocatello
The Pocatello 50 has plentiful camping areas at the start/finish.

I roared into Big Fir (can a 13 min/mile be considered roaring?) just a couple minutes behind Hugh. I choked down a pirogue while Karl Meltzer removed my sunglasses and placed my headlamp on my head. I vowed to not need that headlamp and headed out of the aid station chugging my last drippy Coke from the Ensure bottle, thankfully throwing it away at the trash bag placed a bit down the road. Time to get down to business.

For a couple miles past Big Fir, you have the pleasure (not) of running ASPHALT on a slight downhill grade to the Nordic Center; it hurts like hell but it’s a good place to make up time. I ran like a woman on a mission, having seen Hugh on a turn up ahead. The climb over a small hill past the Nordic Center seemed like child’s play following the three beasts we had conquered previously, so I power hiked and caught up with Hugh and his new friend Scott right at the top.

Scott wasn’t able to run downhill as much as Hugh and I, so we left him, promising to be at the finish waiting. Hugh was battling nausea like a mad dog by this point, and I could tell it was taking every single bit of strength within him to hold it together and keep on running. I was super impressed at how deep he was digging to finish strong.

I was doing a fast-walk/shuffle because it felt only fitting to finish with Hugh after we had done so many miles together, and I wanted to keep the pace to something his stomach would allow. Hugh commented that my walking pace was really good “I’m having to run back here to keep up with your walk!” I took the opportunity to extol the benefits of actually practicing walking and credit Ulli Kamm with being the best teacher and example of an ultrawalker EVER.

The finish was a tremendous relief but maybe also a slight letdown that it was over already. The last five miles in from Big Fir were tremendously inspiring – to find out that the last bit of terrain was ‘easier’ than expected, to not be racing any more cutoffs, to know we had conquered this monster of a course.

Pocatello 50 Mile
Sam Collier and I at the finish line with RD Luke Nelson to the right.

I was full of joy crossing the finish line with Hugh and meeting his wife Teresa. Mike James put the medal around my neck and noted that I wasn’t hysterical (since when have I ever been hysterical at the finish of a race!?!); training partner and good friend Sam was there with a hug and news that he finished in a big time PR of 14:33 – pretty good for an old buzzard; Margaret informed me that a shower in the timing guy’s RV was waiting for me (it pays to know people!); Christine and Lori and Chris and I’m sure others were there with so many hugs; and the best of all was that Dwight served me dinner on a plastic plate that I did not have to go rummage in my tent for!

Let me leave you with lyrics from one of the finest ultrarunning songs ever, Carry On by FUN: My head is on fire, but my legs are fine, ‘cause after all they are mine… If you’re lost and alone, or you’re sinking like a stone, carry on; May your past be the sound of your feet upon the ground, carry on…

Carry on, friends.

Splits:
1:47 to Gibson Jack
2:30 to City Creek (4:17)
11.21 at City Creek (4:28)
2:46 to Midnight Creek (7:15)
1:44 to Mink Creek (9:00)
3.14 at Mink Creek (9:03)
2:00 to South Scout (11:04)
3:03 to Big Fir (14:08) includes 5 miles of death march from South Scout to the Summit
1:22 to Finish (15:30) (15:29:14 official time)

Moab Red Hot 55k Race Report

Moab Red Hot 55k – February 16, 2013

Click here to see all race pics

Davina at the start.
Davina at the start.

I signed up for the Moab Red Hot 55k back in September after Davina asked me if I wanted to go on a running road trip with her. I gotta admit, I was a bit reluctant to make a 9 hour drive ‘just’ to do a 50k. But I wanted to support Davina in doing a run that interested her, and honestly, the run really did look pretty cool. Or Hot, as it were.

Through a variety of circumstances that led me to believe I might be on my own to make the trip, I had to consider whether I wanted to do the run regardless of Davina or not. Through encouragement of my ever-supportive husband and some soul-searching, I decided I was excited about the run regardless of who I would end up traveling with; and besides all that, it fell in perfect timing as a training race for the upcoming Antelope Island Buffalo Run in five weeks.

Anyway, long story short, Davina did decide to start the race despite not being certain that a finish was distinctly probable. Not only that, she decided not to drop down to the 33k, but instead chose to tackle the 55k and do her best to make the four and a half hour cutoff at mile 17.

We drove from Nampa to Moab on Friday and started getting excited when we began to see the red dirt terrain of southern Utah. Never having been to this type of country before, we were in for a treat. Not only was the terrain looking amazing, the weather forecast was 100% perfecto for running.

We hit the packet pickup late Friday afternoon at a restaurant in Moab. With ~800 runners signed up, we expected a chaotic and crowded scene, but experienced exactly the opposite. We were the only ones picking up our packets at that moment, and the process was organized and efficient, run by an ample crew of outdoorsy and fit looking people. I expected a little more schwag from a race with a hefty entry fee ($83 early/$95 late) and major sponsors, but we got the standard tech tee in a La Sportiva Mountain Cup cinch sak with a Hammer Gel and the usual assortment of race advertisements, and that was fine. I figured our entry fees went toward the massive shuttle system required to accommodate parking for such a large crowd because they definitely did not go toward the finish line food, extra schwag, or finisher awards. We had been told that sponsors had provided a lot of raffle items, but that process required 1. That you could remember/find your raffle ticket after the race, and 2. That you would stick around for hours and hours waiting as they would call small groups of numbers periodically from noon throughout the afternoon, neither of which we could or wanted to do.

Race morning, we parked at the Gemini Bridges Road intersection with the highway and then walked the ¾ mile up to the start area.  When we had scoped out the start location Friday night, I was alarmed at the SIX portapotties that would need to accommodate nearly 800 runners. So, it was the BEST surprise that when we arrived at the start area right at 7:15 am, there was…wait for it…NO LINE. Pre-race with no portapotty line just rocks. I did notice that the lines by 7:45 am were pretty long, though. The race-morning packet pickup seemed to be going efficiently, and we checked in with the lady in the orange vest to let her know we were there to start. I appreciated the ample supply of water and piles of Heed FIZZ tablets available to runners at the start. Davina and I each drank a cup of FIZZ while we were waiting around.

We had arrived right at 7:15 for the pre-race briefing that had been advertised to take place at that time, but that ended up not really being the case, as it was maybe 7:30? when race director Chris Martinez megaphoned a very short briefing consisting of course markings to follow and a near-bewilderment at the stellar and dry condition of the course.

The morning was cold, in the 20s, but we knew it would warm up at least into the mid-40s (I think it hit 47), so we dressed in layers. Still, I couldn’t believe all the skinny little people trotting around in shorts and singlets.

Mountains and red rock in the same view!
Mountains and red rock in the same view!

We knew about 800 runners had signed up, but it sure didn’t seem like it. The start had a very low-key, draw the start line with your toe in the dirt, sort of feeling, even as Dakota Jones drove his little red truck right through the start line throng to his special up-front parking spot about 15 minutes before the start. Supposedly, a bunch of other elites were there, but I didn’t recognize anyone, not that I was really looking. At the last minute, we stripped off our sweats and put them in drop bags for the finish.

Darian spotted us about 30 seconds before the call of GO and quickly gave hugs and snapped a picture of us. Unfortunately, we didn’t see him again after that, but it was a nice boost to see him for that moment. He ran the 33k and we were sure he had finished and departed long before we got to the finish.

We started way in the back of the pack, nice and easy. I turned to Davina and told her to have fun and have a good run. It was the last time I saw her until the finish, and I left her wondering if she would be there when I finished or not. “There” would mean she had not made the cutoff, and “not” would mean she was still out racing. I hoped I would be the one waiting for her.

Soon we started up the first little climb (about a mile) up and around the side of the mesa that would take us into the backcountry and the famed Moab trails. The north facing slope of the first road was slick with snow and some ice, but other than that and one other little stretch on wind-swept Metal Masher, that was the extent of ‘conditions’ for the entire course. A runner could not even ask for a more perfect day for a run – dry trails, not too cold/not too hot temps, sunshine, gorgeous scenery…the Red Hot 55k on this day had it all.

I covered the first 6 miles to Aid Station 1 in 58 minutes, which I was super happy about. It was good running, with just two little hills to get us warmed up for what was to come. Not having run this race before, and not having a Garmin to give me heads up regarding impending aid stations, the surprise of the first aid station was fun because I didn’t think I would get there so fast, and the surprises just kept coming all day long. There wasn’t one aid station I was having a meltdown over wishing it would come sooner.

Grabbing a handful of chips, a mini Almond Joy (which remained uneaten), a quarter of pb&j, and a couple cups of cola, I quickly exited Aid 1 in about 30 seconds, eating and drinking as I walked up the little hill out of the aid station. Soon we made a right turn onto the loop we would complete before returning to that first aid station which doubled as Aid 3.

The section between Aid 1 and Aid 2 was one of the neatest parts of the course. We climbed up the Metal Masher trail and got to experience the slickrock for the first time. I caught whiffs of juniper and was enjoying my surroundings so much. We reached the top of the rim and could look down and see the start area we’d left a couple hours before. The trail was very technical and rocky, requiring a lot of paying attention, but the red dirt was a dream to run on (soft and cushiony when it wasn’t rocky), and the type of terrain was all new to me anyway, so I didn’t mind any of it. In addition to that, I was appreciating the way I was feeling – not super fresh or springy, but still having good energy and the spirit to work hard. At least I didn’t have leaded legs. I pushed up all of the climbing, running everything except the more extended and steep climbs, and ran quick and easy on everything else. I felt really good through this section.

Slickrock!
Slickrock!

Arriving at Aid 2 (13 miles) in 2:28, I was stoked. Again, coming upon the aid station was a surprise, and I grabbed another couple cups of coke and some chips and walked on through. The trail monitor sitting at the junction a couple hundred yards up the trail said the best part was yet to come on the Gold Bar and Golden Spike trails between Aids 3 and 5. But I had to get through the next 4 innocuous and less-interesting miles to Aid 3 and the cutoff first.

I had to walk a bit after this to get myself situated for the rest of the day by taking my top shirt layer off and putting my hat and gloves in my pack. I also took the opportunity to make a quick call to John and give him a report of my first two aid station splits. I knew Amy back home might be interested, and it was motivating me to know that people might like the updates, even just from a 50k. But then, all organized and ready to go, I kicked it into gear and ran strong on the lightly rolling dirt road miles to the next aid station, checking into Aid 3 (mile 17) at 3:20.

The typical pain in my hips and hammimes had set in by this point, but I went all “AK” (Amy King) on it, and just kept running and tried to make it look good even though it hurt like running around Lake Lowell. My arrival at Aid 3 was particularly uplifting because I had definitively made the cutoff (4:30) and didn’t have to worry about that anymore. However, I was aware of my tendency to not push without the necessity to do so, and I vowed that I would not fall into that trap today.

I thought about my parents, always supportive, and my dad undergoing a stem cell transplant at the VA in Seattle. I thought about Davina back there on the trail, hoping she was having a good day and overcoming. I thought about my training partners Sam and Amy, who I figured were running together without me. I thought about my friend Amber who had to give up coming with us to Moab to rest her injured ankle so she can run Antelope Island. And I thought about my ever-loving hubby who gives me so much love and support, so much more than I deserve. And all of this thinking kept me running – out of respect for those who can’t; out of love for those who support.

And then the “big” climb of the day came. From about mile 19-22, we climbed vast sheets of slickrock, some of it requiring hands to brace, some of it in step form, but all of it technical and beautiful. The thing about slickrock it this: in pictures, you see people running across it, and it looks like it will be all nice and smooth and lalala. This is not the case. Slickrock can be smooth and nice running, but only in very short sections at a time. The rest of the time, you are stepping up onto it, stepping off of it, tripping on the grooves, leaping over crevasses, navigating the 45 degree angles of the surface, and always watching your footing because it’s very much not smooth – more like a dimpled, bumpy roller coaster for your feet, a very challenging terrain for someone with ‘iffy’ ankles like myself.

Anyway, I was rocking the climb, and no one passed me going uphill. I was leapfrogging with a few people who were better technical downhill and flat runners, but I caught and passed them all on this climb. I don’t know how this was even happening with my lack of hill and trail running in the recent winter months, but it was, and I was grateful for the gift. Come to think of it, I will attribute my strength to the CrossFit I’ve been doing 2-3 times per week.

At the race high point.
At the race high point.

I reached the high point of the course at mile 21 (or 22?) at Aid 4 with a time of 4:30 on the race clock. This aid station had been driven in by very kind and brave people in Jeeps and sat perched on the side of the massive hill overlooking the valley of high desert shrubbery and rock formations. The day was perfect but felt quite warm compared to the cold temps we have been used to running in, and I knew it would be a pretty long stretch to the next aid, so I decided to fill up with water one time for the day at this aid station. Between that and taking a couple of pictures at the summit, I was there about 5 minutes, which was time well spent. After facebooking the picture a runner took of me on the rim (I know that’s obnoxious, don’t judge) and texting John my last two splits off my trusty old Timex Ironman, I got down to the business of tackling the non-straightforward, EKG-shaped descent on the Golden Spike trail into the next aid station.

This was by far the most difficult portion of the race. The entire seven miles was composed of angled slickrock face, slickrock ‘steps’, striated and broken rock, and large rock drop-offs and caverns to traverse. I just did the best I could. It was hard to get a rhythm going with the technicality and constantly changing demeanor of the rock. Some of it was friendly; some of it clearly hated human beings, runners in particular. I was leapfrogging with a girl who was clearly struggling mentally, and I found myself drawing strength from that, knowing that I was doing good with running in the moment and not being frustrated with a long aid to aid section.

The piece from 21 to 28 miles took 1:44, and I arrived at Aid 5 at 6:14, downing two cups of cola (open note to all race directors: serve name-brand soda!!) and a cup of Heed, which would be all I’d need to get me to the finish. Considering the advisement of a veteran Red Hot runner I’d talked with a few times throughout the day, I judged that I would have a chance at doing the last 5-6 miles (no one seems to be able to say if the course is 33 or 34 miles), in an hour and ten minutes or less, so I set my sights on a sub-7:30 and focused on not letting up on the intensity. I ran 95% of the last portion of the race, only taking one walk break on a very monotonous flat road section and then sort of walk-fast stepping through another incredibly beautiful but treacherous big-rock drainage. We slid on our butts down a 5-foot slickrock dropoff to the amusement of some course “monitors” and said goodbye to the big expanses of rock for the day. After this, we had just two miles left of the mondo-rocky Poison Spider trail to take us down into the river gorge and the finish.

Climbing to Mile 21 aid station.
Climbing to Mile 21 aid station.

I had been running strong since Aid 5, but I really resolved to run my heart out the last two miles unlike the many people I passed those last miles who were just walking it in. I had a race to finish, and I wanted to make myself and my friends proud!

I hurtled dangerously over the rolley rocks down the grandiose mile and a half into the river gorge, hoping and praying I would not crash at this late hour. Again, no one passed me on this section, and I re-passed a guy who had caught me on the last downhill slickrock, leaving me to finish in focused silence. The switchback road leading down into the gorge was rocky but very runnable for someone who is nimble and paying attention. I don’t know if I fell into the ‘nimbe’ category, but I was paying attention, and I could “smell” the finish, so I ran as hard as I could down, down, down, and finally came to a couple sitting on a high rock who advised me the finish was right around the next corner! I couldn’t believe I couldn’t see it from way back at the top of the bluff.

I rounded the corner to the finish and there was just a mashup of people and tents and it was all a blur except for the very sharp focus I was giving to the rocks underfoot. I did not want to crash so close to the finish line with all these people watching. And then I heard it. Davina’s voice. Go EM! My spirit sagged  a little bit, knowing her race ended early. But she met me at the finish, and I hugged her and said I’m sorry, and she said she had a great day and was happy and had no regrets.

For me, my ankles held up, my mind held up, and I finished the Moab Red Hot 55k in 7:20, in what was one of my best executed races and definitely my best 50k.

I wanted to hear all about Davina’s race; but first I ran into Ninja Turtle Eric Lee who I first met at the IMTUF 100 in October, and then I had to greet a couple of ‘trail friends’ who were finishing behind me, and then we headed over for the butternut apple bisque soup that was being served to runners (it actually tasted really good), and we had a nice chat with some friends Davina had met at the Salt Flats 100 last April.

Friends at the finish.
Friends at the finish.

The finish area is staged on a ledge just above the highway at the bottom of the Colorado River gorge. It’s really a neat setting with good atmosphere, complete with raffle prizes, music playing, food vendors for spectators, a beer garden, a massage guy, and lots of sponsor booths. It might have been nice to hang out in the sun for a while and watch people finish and listen for our raffle numbers, but we were ready to drive up to Ogden for the night so we wouldn’t have to do the whole drive on Sunday. We caught the shuttle that took us back to our car at the parking area 3 ¾ miles away from the finish and then hit the road.

Our trip to Moab was a quick trip with a long drive; a fun weekend full of good friend time and superb trail running. The Red Hot 55k is a low-key race where the course is the star. If you’re looking for an early-season race with a healthy challenge and good organization, you should sign yourself up next year.

Here are the things I did right that made this race so good for me:

  • Stayed in the game; didn’t get impatient; didn’t wish for the aid stations to come sooner.
  • Focused on running every part I could and power hiking everything else (and I mean power hiking – no one passed me on a climb the whole day, but I sure caught a whole bunch of people that way).
  • Fueled to the needs of the day – my stomach was feeling ‘borderline,’ so I kept the intake to mostly pop and some shot blocks after the halfway point, but still, I didn’t let myself get too depleted.
  • Never allowed myself to have a ‘slog’ section. If I could run, I was running, even if it was slow. This goes very closely hand in hand with the fueling piece – you have to fuel adequately to avoid the bonk.
  • Looked around and appreciated my surroundings at all times, adding maybe 10 minutes to my overall time taking some pictures and having people take a few pics of me. It was worth it for this sort of infrequent opportunity to visit someplace so heavenly.

Splits:

  • Aid 1, 6 miles, 58 mins
  • Aid 2, 13 miles, 1:29 (2:28 race clock)
  • Aid 3, 17 miles, 51 mins (3:20)
  • Aid 4, 21 miles, 1:11 (4:30)
  • Aid 5, 28 miles, 1:44 (6:15)
  • Finish, 33-34 miles, 1:06 (7:20:54 – my watch time, not official race time)

THE SPIRIT: FOUND AT WALDO

THE SPIRIT: FOUND AT WALDO

Amy (left) and I on the Mt. Fuji summit.

As I wrote in my previous article Finding Waldo? I was not sure if I would find Waldo or not. A lot of things were up in the air, from the condition of my body, to my weak ankle, to the brand new fire burning in the center of the Waldo 100k race course.

As it turned out, I did find Waldo in the sense of finishing, but more than that, I found MY Waldo, when defined as uniqueness and passion and heart – or Spirit.

Halfway through our 7-hour drive the day before the race, we got confirmation that the race would indeed happen on an altered route that kept most of the course intact, only adding three miles and some amount of elevation gain. This seemed like a best-case scenario, and all runners are tremendously thankful to Craig Thornley and his crew for working what I’m sure was around the clock in the two days prior to the race to pull it off in an outwardly seamless fashion.

Amy and I at the Finish of Waldo 100k.

Credit: Michael Lebowitz, LongRun Picture Company.

The scene at the Willamette Pass Ski Area Friday evening felt relaxed and organized, not chaotic like you might expect at races with lesser organizational aptitude when faced with a new forest fire on their course two days before race start. Not many people were around when we picked up our packets, which included Moeben running skirts and leg sleeves and Injinji socks!

Amy and I and our hubbies hooked up with Randy Thorn and Joelle Vaught for a delicious all you can eat pre-race buffet pasta dinner inside the Willamette Ski Pass Lodge, and then it was time for the pre-race briefing.

I unearthed The Notebook from the car and we found a spot to sit on the steps. Joelle gave me a hard time, joking that I was the ONLY one at this race with such a notebook. I like to be prepared!

Craig explained the modified course, and we applauded the people who had spent time marking the course. Alan Abbs went over the sponsors, and Meghan Arboghast explained the awards and prizes, of which Waldo has several. Top runners would get prizes like cash and apparel and free Western States entries; and all finishers under 19 hours would receive a special finisher’s hat. But Waldo is unique for its “other” awards: the Wet Waldo outdoor gear prize for the top finisher to swim in six of the lakes, a cash prize to the first person to Find Waldo (summit Mount Fuji and sight Waldo Lake for the first time), and the Show Us Your Waldo free race entry award to the person who demonstrates the most, um, Waldo, which as far as I could tell meant making some sort of creative presentation or contribution to the race at each aid station, a subjective prize to be judged by aid station personnel. We were privileged to witness a good three to four times Melissa Berman showing her Waldo by donning a trampy wig/sunglasses/fishnet combo and performing at least a two minute routine of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Waldo,” as it were. I do believe she took home the Show Us Your Waldo prize at the end of the day, and she sure deserved it.

Melissa Berman seriously performed this Bad Waldo routine at every single aid station (and still beat me by 7 minutes):

I didn’t think much of the whole Show Us Your Waldo thing at the time, as the reigning Most Waldoy runner gave his presentation about the history of the award and encouraged everyone to Show Your Waldo. He ran the race the next day in huaraches. You can be darn sure I WAS going to wear shoes and WAS NOT going to spend my energy performing Lady Gaga moves at every aid station, but I believe I Showed My Waldo mostly to myself by taking the starting line, and I know for sure that I Found Waldo on those cushy pine-needled trails.

Amy (left) and I on the Mt. Fuji summit.

I set out to write a rock-by-root blabiddy-blah narrative race report. What I have realized, however, is that a traditional sort of race report just doesn’t do justice to the experience. As we trudged the final miles of Waldo, Amy and I were both feeling a little down. We had each decided that we would withdraw from the 100 miler (IMTUF 100, October 6) neither of us wanted to be signed up for and pace the other. Ha! Midnight was approaching. We were at 60+ miles. That’s a tough spot.

Anyone who has done an ultra knows that those tough miles are not the correct setting for making decisions or establishing goals. What we take away from those tough moments, and how they purpose us going forward, after the race, is where they prove their value.

I had just started to, rather reluctantly, ramp back up my miles in mid-July in a milquetoast effort at ‘training’ for Waldo. Just a week or two and not many miles in, I hurt my ankle while NOT running, and my training was reduced to four days a week of rowing and pushups and stuff. I did not run at all between July 28, and race day, August 18. It made me think about what was important. Whether or not I really wanted to run, like, at ALL. Spraining my ankle FOCUSED me. I realized that I really did want to run, to recover.

I made my theme for the race PATIENCE. There were times when I was pushing, not wanting to be kissing the cutoffs. Mostly, however, I had to remind myself of my condition, the point from which I had come in the last month, and the remaining weakness in my left side which left me vulnerable to new or re-injury. And to travel at that conservative pace was not always easy. It took patience…and self-awareness to know when I was at risk of pushing too hard. Legs buckling going downhill? Too hard. Slow down. Agonizing slowness. It’s okay. It’s a safe pace for where you are at. I don’t like where I’m at! Well, at least you are HERE. And not home on the COUCH. Alright, good job. Pick a solid line. Keep moving. You’ll get there. Patience.

My injury focused my attention on how badly I did want to complete Waldo and IMTUF – races I had already signed up for. I did not have that fire at Big Horn, last June. There, I had become complacent, having finished a couple other mountain 100s, and feeling that finishing was obvious. I knew my dad and sister were waiting for me 20 miles up the trail, but my demise came anyway. My inexplicable mental anguish overwhelmed any rational thought process regarding sentimentality or outward influences. I did not have the Spirit in my heart.

That Spirit I had lost before Big Horn is what this report is really about. At Waldo, I found my Spirit. More importantly than starting, certainly more importantly than finishing, the Waldoy-ness (yes, it’s a thing) I came away with after that race made my ankle injury probably the most valuable thing that has happened to my running, ever.

The Sprain, and the Finish…and The Interview – a Divine trifecta. A week after Waldo I interviewed the race director of the IMTUF 100, Jeremy Humphrey, who had just won Cascade Crest. He talked about the Spirit and about performing your best to honor the sacrifices of people who support your endeavors. His words resonated deeply with me, and I could feel my Spirit returning.

Charlton Lake

Credit: Gary Elam, LongRun Picture Company.

Waldo was special for so many moments: Seeing photographer Gary Elam on the course at mile 30, appreciating his delighted recognition and his smile. Being counseled and inspired so thoughtfully and gently by Meghan Arbogast at Twin Peaks. Spending the entire day with my training partner Amy, even though she easily could have finished much faster on her own. She was undertrained too, but she’s just an animal like that. Chatting with Craig Thornley at 12:15 am and watching him smile like it was Sunday afternoon on the beach. Learning that being slow doesn’t mean being weak. Honing my patience for 21 hours. Loving my husband and parents for their support. Reacquainting with my appreciation for the ABILITY to participate.

After finishing Waldo and then interviewing Jeremy , I realized I truly wanted to train for, start…and finish, IMTUF. And so, in the last six weeks, more than ever before, I have made the MOST of my training time and the opportunities afforded to me.

For various reasons, IMTUF will be only the second of my 100 mile races that my dad will be present at. He was at my BigHorn DNF back in June (2012), but pacing was not an option there because he was tapering for an Ironman the week after. So, I’m pretty stoked he will be at this one, on the course, at the aid stations. And at the finish. I really want him to see me finish this one.

My dad will not be one of my three pacers, which may seem odd, but I think really, this is okay. Special moments are bound to happen, but they cannot be planned. Having him run with me for a significant section seems…orchestrated. Too much pressure. He is pacing my friend Sam, which seems just right.

In one week, we toe the line. There is a really strong group of 32 people signed up for IMTUF, meaning even if I have a really good race, I’ll still be back there, hours behind the frontrunners, running my race at my pace. But you can bet I’ll be doing it with the Spirit Found at Waldo.

Now go Find your Spirit.