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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.

6 thoughts on “Susitna 100, Part I: The Context”

  1. Emily, I cried several times as I read your inspiring story. What grit you have girl. Praying for you that you will find peace and contentment wherever your life leads you.

  2. Emily, Emily, I’m dying to read Part II. But at the same time, I’m worried! I’m afraid Part II is going to involve a trip to the hospital, tests, diagnosis, more pain….

    I can’t believe you’ve been going through all these struggles. Your public profile always looks so amazingly strong and chipper. You are my heroine!

    BTW: for those of us not immersed in the running world, links to the various acronyms or writing them out once would be really helpful.

    1. Hey, Linda – it’s always so nice to hear from you. 🙂 Facebook-land can be so deceiving, can’t it? Thanks for the tip on the acronyms. I didn’t think so many non-running friends would read! I went back through and clarified a few things. Hope that helps. The anemia I reveal in Part II isn’t super earth-shattering, but I am sure feeling more energetic now. It’s amazing how our chemistry at the cellular level is so integral to performance and functioning.

  3. Great writing Em. Vividly captures the pain and suffering that comes with visits to the bottom of the well. Nothing left in the tank, staggering along in the darkness, burning muscle and brain to take that next step and the next step. Scary and alluring at the same time.

    Please get to the part you are kicking ass again, romping through Alaska, and what you plan to do with your new found powers!
    Best wishes in 2016,
    jer

    1. Jeremy! I don’t know if I have new found power. I’m almost afraid to believe it’s fixed. I keep looking for something else that might be wrong (ref the conversation we had about this). Trying to not psych myself out and have the confidence to push myself. Thanks for creating this thing that somehow keeps pulling me out of dark holes. IMTUF has both tried to kill me and saved my life. See you in Sept.

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