Part IV.III: SUSITNA 100 2016, HALF TO MILE 90

5 Star (Mile 52) to Eagle Quest (mile 63)

The soup at 5 Star Tent was so good I wished I had taken a second or third cup. (You’d think I would have learned after Flathorn to eat while the eating was good!!) I was CERTAIN L and K would catch up to me in no time, judging how quickly they had passed me on the last section, but I was going to make them work for it. I was driving myself crazy but I kept looking behind me the whole time, a trend that continued the whole race. There is something so demoralizing about getting passed.

Not too long out of the aid station, I started seeing a blinking light in front of me, which gave me a target. It took me a while to catch it, but eventually the light stopped and I arrived to find LA Model Ryan. The rope connecting his pole to his sled had broken, and he was trying to figure out a fix. I stopped and muddled around with him for a few minutes, trying to get my foggy brain to devise a brilliant solution and wracking my brain in an attempt to think of the extra repair gear I might have with me. I had not brought rope, which is what he needed. I gave him a bungee and departed, mentioning that I was trying to stay ahead of a couple of girls and uncharitably thinking to myself that he should have tested his system better to know how it would work after many miles of cold and ice. I shouldn’t be cocky, but I had tested my system a lot and was struggling to be sympathetic in the middle of the night.

I pushed through the next section, on a high from being so strong into 5 Star, and playing games with myself about lights in the night. It was hard to be incognito out there with headlamps and flashing rear lights, so I moved around the S Curves in the river quickly, imagining myself like a mouse. Every runner and skier behind me was a cat. I always get passed in every race, so it felt like a miracle that I didn’t get passed enroute to Mile 63.

After going mile 34 to 52 in 5.5 hours, I had deluded myself into thinking I could do the next 11 mile section in 3 hours, which I’m sure was possible…until about 2AM I started falling asleep. My eyes were closing uncontrollably. I had preemptively taken three caffeine pills before 5 Star, but apparently they were wearing off. I have no idea why I didn’t try to pound some more caffeine at that point – I think I was convinced that I was getting close to the checkpoint, that I would arrive to the lodge by 2:30 or 3AM. I can’t even remember what I was eating during this point, but I’m sure it wasn’t enough.

I arrived at Eagle Quest Lodge at 3:30AM. SO. SLEEPY. This was about a half hour longer than I had anticipated. We were sort of closer to “civilization” coming into Eagle Quest, and lights from dwellings appeared in the distance deceiving me into thinking I was close. Seeing the lights and winding through a group of buildings had given me false hope for a while, so I was ridiculously relieved to finally arrive at one of the buildings that was the lodge. I asked the guys who greeted me if there was an aid station. They said they had water. That’s it?? I said. If you want food, you have to go in and buy it. Ugh. I had been prepared with cash following the race briefing, but I didn’t realize there would be NO. OTHER. AID. I grabbed my water bottles and went inside, microspikes and all. I was really glad they didn’t ask me to take them off. I don’t think I could have mentally handled that.

I sat at a table and put my head on my hands, moaning. I was nauseated from depletion and needed to eat. The proprietor lady in the lodge asked me if I wanted anything. I asked for tea and oatmeal. Everything felt overwhelming and confusing. I looked around like there was something I should be doing. The thought of sitting here waiting for food seemed crazy, so I closed my eyes and laid my head on the table to take advantage of the time.

Everything felt so hard. My brain was mired in marshmallow goo. I knew I needed to pay. Digging through the pockets of my pack yielded no money. What the heck. This cannot be happening. I’ll be trapped here forever. They won’t let me go if I can’t pay. It was a vortex, a vacuum, a nightmare. On and on I sat, immobilized by my inability to comprehend a solution to this conundrum.

A table over, LA Model’s film crew was hanging out. I remember them asking if I was okay and maybe if I needed anything. I’m sure I looked horrible. At one point I had dragged the garbage can over so I could vomit if necessary and was leaning over it moaning. I asked if there was a bathroom, scared they were going to send me outside to an outhouse. I don’t know why I didn’t think there would be a restroom in the building, but it took me forever to ask because I didn’t want to go outside yet. I used the bathroom and felt a little better.

The clock on the wall was like Poe’s Tell-Tale heart. I looked up at the taunting clock a lot, but I couldn’t move. I felt pressure to leave, to keep moving, to depart from the warmth and light into the cold and darkness. I picked at my oatmeal, willing 5 oats at a time in my mouth. Like the clock, the milk and sugar taunted me, pressuring me to use them. It was so confusing. I didn’t know if it would taste good or not, so I just ate the oatmeal plain and dry. One bite. One bite. One bite.

I had fainted in the last three 100 milers I had run, all of these episodes corresponding to violent vomiting. This was the last thing I wanted to happen. It was not safe to pass out in front of these strangers, these people who don’t know me. They’ll pull me from the race if I pass out. My only goal was to navigate this nausea and depletion without vomiting and move safely on my way. I was certain if I could make it through the night, I would finish just fine. There’s something about the rising of the sun and dawn of a new day that fabricates a fresh start, even 24 hours out.

LA Model had shown up, looking good. Of course he looked good. He’s an LA Model. He and his crew and the two long haired racer dudes (one was named Marty) were discussing his sled and how he would fix it. I zoned in and out of conscious presence, overwhelmed by this conversation. Long haired runner dudes finally departed;  I was still being tortured by the beating of the clock.

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The inside of Eagle Quest Lodge. Photo: Rachael.

Lourdes and Kim arrived. In my delirium, I had convinced myself they had passed me somewhere on the trail, or maybe simply bypassed me while I was glued to this lacquered oak chair seat. Maybe they were doing so awesome they didn’t need to stop here and had just signed their names and kept going. I was convinced something like this had happened. Anyway, they did arrive, and Lourdes sat down by me, preparing her freeze dried meal with hot water.

A conversation ensued between Lourdes and Hollywood about reality TV shows, one called Seekers and one called [something else I can’t remember], the one that LA Model Ryan was in, on the Discovery Channel Online. I felt like I was in hell, if hell was decorated in “90’s country & oak” decor. Lourdes seemed fresh as a daisy, eating like a horse and being all coherent and stuff. (Turns out, that meal haunted her for the next 8 hours.)

At one point when I was feeling particularly nauseated and groaning loudly, Hollywood suggested some saltines and 7Up. I was like I don’t have any money. I didn’t know what to do. Lourdes told the server to bring me whatever I wanted. I said I would try to eat it and thanked her. Referring to Lourdes’ brother as Lourdes’ Brother, I asked him if he could also spot me some money for the oatmeal. They said OF COURSE THEY WOULD. I kept saying that I needed to leave. Now the clock said 4:10AM. Lourdes told me to just sit there and get myself feeling better. I ate the saltines one at a time and washed them down with Sprite. I started feeling better. Finally, about 4:30AM, I arose, carrying the remaining few saltines and the ¼ bowl of oatmeal I had left. I vowed to eat it while I was walking. And just like that, I walked outside.

Eagle Quest (Mile 63) to Cow Camp (Mile 79)

Arriving back at my sled waiting for me outside, my game plan was to quickly overdress and get moving STAT so that I didn’t start freezing in the dramatic temperature drop from the inside to the outside. I pulled on running pants over my tights and zipped a second puffy coat over my thigh-length blue down puffy. I yanked on a fleece and wool ear flap hat and my down mittens. At 4:30AM, this was bound to be the coldest part of the race. Even then, I don’t ever remember suffering from the cold.

The next hours until daylight were more of the surreal—darkness punctured by a circle of light, tremendous sleepiness, the smell of moose. I rotated between walking, fast walking, and ultra shuffling  (i.e. running), depending on how sleepy I was. I allowed myself only one instance of shut eye, face down on top of my sled, just for a minute or two. Otherwise, I was moving. Need to keep moving. Must move. Forward progress. These thoughts ate at my muddled mind.

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Dawn of day 2. Mmmhmm.

The sky turned black to grey about 8AM, and I had made it through the night. I emerged from a very long section of undulating road through pine trees into a beautiful vast white expanse and came to an intersection way out in the middle of this plain. The lath (long wooden trail markers) had been utterly clear to this point, but suddenly I was confused. Crossed lath meant “wrong way.” I reached a crossed lath, but I could see no where else to go. Hesitantly, I went forward, but only for about 100 yards because it just didn’t feel right. I towed my sled in a U-turn to re-trace my steps back to the intersection. I looked in all directions but could only see the way from which I thought I came and the wrong way. By this time, daylight was stronger than darkness, and I turned off my headlamp. A light appeared from across the plain, way over by the trees. Confused, I thought it was a snowmobile…or maybe a train. How did a train get out here?? I didn’t see any tracks. I imagined an engine sound. Because I didn’t know where to go, I waited for the light. I thought I could ask the driver for directions.

But then, the shape of a person’s body materialized in the dim light. It was a runner with a sled and a headlamp. What the?? Why was he coming from that direction? Didn’t I come from over that other way?? I honestly don’t remember how the next few minutes went, but the runner arrived, and it was clearly no issue for him to see the way, so I followed him. There was a lath there. How had I missed it? Was it the way I had thought I came from but really didn’t? I’ll never know. Regardless, I was back on the rails and moving well into the sunrise.

The morning was stunning. Photo: Rachael.
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Cow Camp is for Lovers. :)

On and on I went, listening to my iPod continuously until I entered some trees and narrower trail again and started to think I might be getting close to Cow Camp. It’s hard when you don’t know a course and have no idea what lies ahead. You imagine things that are all wrong. I was sure the aid station would be at the base of a spine of hills along the river. It wasn’t. We had to cross these hills to get to the open lake and the aid station on the other side. Hill after hill, I pulled my sled up after me. I was actually enjoying this section. The terrain was interesting and unspeakably beautiful. I emerged onto a frozen lake and saw a wall tent across the end of the lake in the distance. My pace quickened as I arrived, extremely happy with my time of arrival, about 10:30AM.

Today was Valentine’s Day, and Cow Camp’s theme was LOVE. 🙂 They were fun people, and the vibe was fun. I went in the tent to peruse the food, eating the top off an apple cinnamon streusel muffin and asking for hot Tang in my smaller Hydroflask mug. I took the Tang and a whole can of Coke for the road and left after less than 10 minutes. I was feeling really great about my progress, heavily aided by good weather and trail conditions.

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Cow Camp aid station. These were a few of the people just ahead of me.

Cow Camp (Mile 79) to Hunter Tent (Mile 90)

We left Cow Camp straight across the long way down the frozen lake, which was also a bush plane landing strip. We were instructed to not run on the landing strip. Okay. Shawn McTaggart had arrived at Cow Camp a little before or behind me, I can’t remember which, and she departed Cow Camp just behind me. I expected her to pass me quickly as we crossed the lake. But mysteriously she didn’t pass me, and I kept pushing forward as the trail departed the lake and started more than undulating through the toughest part of the course. The trail turned sharply up then sharply down then sharply up…and so on. My legs and hips and back were so tired that I pulled my sled up every hill with my arms to take the weight off my lower body. The downhills were no reprieve, because if I didn’t also hold the sled behind me firmly by the poles, it would swing around me and take me down with it.

My energy output was tremendous, and the can of Coke from Cow Camp wasn’t fueling me sufficiently. My mind started to let me down. I started to get emotional. For miles I hauled my sled up the hills and held it back down the hills, crying. Despite my exhaustion and lack of calories, the underlying emotion was that of being proud of myself. I was truly happy, in a devastated sort of way.  

See me being emotional here.

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Powerline trail right before Hunter Tent. Photo: Rachael.

FINALLY, we emerged from the trees into a river bottom and then up onto a long straight trail along a powerline. I recognized this stretch from studying the map. I thought it would be a pretty quick section. Of course it wasn’t.

Approximately a half mile before Hunter Tent, Shawn came out of nowhere and passed me, looking chipper and moving fast. Normally getting passed is a blow, but not by Shawn McTaggart, and not now. Having her in front of me gave me something to focus on. I could see when she made the right hand turn off the power line trail, which was extremely encouraging, and I just kept my eyes on her until the magical wall tent of happiness appeared in view.

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The amazing Shawn McTaggart pulling into Cow Camp.

At the sight of Hunter Tent, I composed myself, having enough self respect that I would not arrive at the aid station like a weeping crazed lunatic. I could manage to at least leave that stuff to the lonely sections in solitude.

I had realized I had a signal on my phone through this section and was talking with John as I arrived at the Hunter Tent. Race Director Kim Kittridge was there and gave me a hard time for saying “love you” as I arrived and signed off. I guess it was a little weird at Mile 90. I hem hawed about wanting soup—wanting it, but not wanting to wait. They didn’t have any Ramen cooked and had just started boiling water. By the time I had perused the aid station fare, filled a bottle with water, and emptied the trash out of my sled, I did not want to wait for the water which still had not boiled yet. I apologized for having them start something I was not going to take but said I just needed to go. I had been there five minutes tops. I can’t even remember what I snagged to eat. I did take a can of Coke for the road. Only 10 miles to go, and I thought I could phone it in. Of course I couldn’t.

Hunter Tent to the Finish (Mile 100)

Shawn and I left Hunter Tent together, for a moment until she couldn’t find her sunglasses. I was looking at her and didn’t even see the glasses sitting on top of her head. She walked back to the aid station where someone more coherent pointed them out. I had moved on, but she caught up and passed me like it was no thing. Before she left me I asked where she had been after Cow Camp. She replied that she had laid down on her sled and slept for a while. Geesh. I can’t conceive of employing that strategy, but it sure was working for her. The “beast mode” in me told me to try and keep up with her as long as I could, which turned out to not be long. I gave it a shot, but Shawn was moving, breaking out a strong run. She finished that last section 45 minutes faster than I did.

I had a run, but it was soft. Tree to tree, I would run. Tree to tree, walk. Tree to tree, run. Over and over. Keep running. Don’t lose your run, I told myself. It was about 5 miles from Hunter Tent on a snowmobile trail to the road and then about another five after turning off the road onto the ‘lollipop stick’ we had traveled over 30 hours before.

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