You know that character on Saturday Night Live, Stefon? He recommends fictitious NY nightclubs, always with the same line: “This place has everything…” Then comes a list of the worst, most bizarre things imaginable. That’s what I thought about, on and off, from mile 72 to 99 of the Fat Dog 120, except my list of things went like this:
This Race has everything: hail storms, hundreds of frogs watching you from puddles on the trails (hallucination), exposed tree-bald mountain tops with trails turned to rushing rivers from the rain, lightning, gale force winds, a mud slide that could not be crossed on one’s feet alone, surprise end-of-race steep climbs and descents, baseball-sized fry-dough balls, and waves of zombie-runners wearing bits of reflective emergency blanket as skirts or togas or hats who looked like either 50’s era spacemen, or nutters trying to protect their thoughts and bodies from aliens with foil.
During those same miles, I also thought a lot about what an imposter I am. How often I’ve said things like: “Well I’m not a runner but my super power is I’m stubborn so I’ll never quit, and eventually, if not timed out, I’ll finish.” Or, “I don’t care about my rank or time, I’m just psyched to be out there!” And there I was, knowing I wasn’t going to finish, thinking up the snarky, frustrated things I would have to say to explain my DNF, and those thoughts hung heavy and silent in the air. I thought about how I would have to change the name for a table at my upcoming wedding, which we planned to name by big climbs and runs my fiancé (and pacer/crew for the race) and I had succeeded at together.
But I did finish Fat Dog. I was lucky,buoyed by my crew, and, thank goodness, when I saw them would be the same times I would have to have decided to drop. Ultimately, it was everything I should have expected from a 120 mile run; humbling. Here’s the ‘play-by-play:’
Fat Dog, at its simplest, is 4 climbs ranging from 3000 to 5000 ft with a 20 mile rolling section between climbs three and four.
The first 20 miles, the first climb, went smoothly and I picked my way through the conga line that forms at the start. I had great company, in particular, I met Paul Heffernan, a great support throughout. It was getting hot. The view at the top of the first peak was beautiful, and I kept a good, conservative pace on the descent into the first crewed aid at mile 18. I got there in a little under 5 hours, which for me is fast, and my then-fiancé Rush and his dad Tony told me I was the 4th place woman. It was hot but overcast. I told Rush I was looking forward to getting a little rain and left wearing a skirt and my RMR jersey, with a raincoat in my pack.
The beginning of the next section climbed gradually through a mossy pine forest and the light rain and shade felt great. Another of the women I’d met in the first section, Joanna, passed me, and I was bummed to fall back to 5th, but motivated to keep that position.
Then the bottom fell out; the rain turned heavy and then to hail, and the climbing became steeper and more exposed. I stopped to put on my raincoat and still couldn’t stay warm climbing. I wouldn’t see my crew or get more layers until mile 41. The trail turned into about a foot wide river with the occasional root-bordered-pool breaking up the rushing flow of water, and lightening and thunder were rhythmically breaking up the sky. I decided I couldn’t stay exposed and cold any longer than I had to, so fast hiking the second climb was just not an option. My right knee had been starting to ache, and my hip flexors had been feeling tight, but the cold numbed my legs so that I couldn’t feel anything, and I started running. I passed a lot of people keeping between a 10 and 15 minute per mile pace all the way in to mile 41.
The fast pace felt risky and desperate: inside the storm cloud it was low light, and the severity of the storm’s wind, rain, and hail with bursts of lightning reduced visibility further. I was sure I was going to roll an ankle, throwing each step into the unknown of the watery trail, but it never happened.
Coming across the summit of the second climb I picked up another runner, Jared, who had been pausing under a tree in the storm. After shadowing me for several miles we started talking and he said, “Yours looked like a pace to get out of this storm on, so when I saw you going by, I decided to stick with you.” That made me feel great, plus Jared was good company and we made it into the mile 39 aid station where they had delicious tennis-ball-sized freshly fried doughnuts. I ate three, and took one in each hand as a warmer and snack. Another woman runner was hanging out there trying to get warm, having decided to drop because of the cold weather. I realized I might be in 4th, and feeling ambitious and psyched pushed ahead.
This section, mile 39 to 41, was short but full of fun moments. There was a relay version of the 120 miler, so occasionally a runner with fresh legs would pass me. I had a conversation one guy who did this – in my head – after he passed me but stayed in sight. First, it was about how bad I had to pee. It was too cold to stop, but holding it made me colder. A friend who is a total crusher had recently advocated women just peeing during races, without stopping, like guys do, because why the heck not? I thought about it, and since I was already soaked with cold rainwater, and there was a river crossing right before the next aid station, I thought, yeah – why not? So I started telling the relay runner ahead: “OK, don’t look back here” while trying to pee. It was impossible to do while moving.
Next, as rain let up and the river came into view, the trail turned into a mudslide. All the plants along the steep hill it traversed were torn and smashed where slipping runners had tried to use them to stay on, or get back on the trail. Somehow, with one hand down, I slid through this section and passed the relay guy, which felt great. It was warm and dry at the bottom of the mountain, and an incredible relief make it to mile 41 where I could pick up my pacer, Rush. I arrived there in 10 hours, still on pace for a finish at around 30 hours with only a third of the mileage, but about a half of the climbing behind me. The women’s course record was just over 33 hours and I was psyched <– amateur.
I changed socks, taped toes, ate some quesadillas and Rush and I headed up the third climb. Rush was struggling a bit, he had overtraining syndrome and shouldn’t have been out there, but wanted to be my support and so there he was pushing it. Starting the climb as the sun went down and the rain started back up Rush threw up – a lot. Enough so that Tony found out about it before we saw him again from other runners passing us at the time. The weather got worse, and Rush decided he would drop at the next aid station which happened to be so hard to set up in the wind that it had almost caused the RD to cancel the race. By that time, though, Rush had come 12 miles and after sitting in that cold place, he realized he was worse-off staying. Rush mad a skirt out of the emergency blanket, and I made a toga of the bivy. When we left, we’d been passed by a lot of people, my morale was down and I was falling asleep. I was so cold my teeth wouldn’t stop chattering, and hard enough that was sure I would chip a tooth. It was 9 miles until the next aid. Rush planned to drop there instead. That was the slowest part of the race. I was asleep on my feet. My headlight pooped out and I had to switch to my back up. If Rush hadn’t pushed-on, staying ahead of me as a guide, I don’t know how I would have made that 9 miles.
By the time we made it to the next station at mile 62, we had to lie down. We got under the bivy and shut our eyes for 45 minutes, starting again when the sun was coming up. A lot of female voices had come through while we were lying down and I knew any dream I had of placing in the top 3, or anywhere near it, were lost. I still thought I might make a sub-36 hour finish (for a better buckle) and with that hope in mind, we ran hard for 11 miles to the next aid where Rush was able to get a ride 5 miles ahead to the mile 78 crew-able aid station.
It was those 5 miles that were the lowest point of the race for me. I was awake, but had to focus on my form to run without knee pain. I was off the third climb and thought I was into an easy section along a river, known for mosquitos, not hills, but it was one steep climb and descent after another. I realized I couldn’t finish before getting well into another night, and bad math told me I might not be able to finish in the 48 hours at all. The only thing that made sense was to drop. I thought about what Nick, our fast friend also running the race, had told me – no matter how bad the race is going, it always hurts more to DNF if you know you could have finished. And I knew that I wouldn’t rather be watching the rest of the race, resting, but still couldn’t see how I could finish. I was alone and I lost it. Crying and slowly jogging in pain, I came upon someone’s pacer – a fresh looking woman waiting on a runner who was off in the woods somewhere. She asked if I was “OK” and all I could muster was that I really thought I would finish and I was just so disappointed I would not. That was my state of mind coming into mile 78. I had obviously been crying, and at this pleasant morning hour, folks were gathered at the aid station to cheer runner coming in. I was so embarrassed.
And then, there were Rush and Tony. Both so excited – saying I had done that last 5 “way too fast – great work!,” and Tony in his running gear all ready to pace the perfect 2 mile, slightly downhill section on the road ahead. It was impossible to drop, seeing the two of them there, proud and enthusiastic. I changed to dry socks, and hit the road. Tony was right on my heels encouraging me the whole time, and about a mile and a half out, he said he couldn’t believe it but he really had to pee. “How did we do it!? And for so long? Without stopping to pee all the time!?” So he paused to visit a tree, and coming into the aid station at mile 80, he was about 50 yards behind me; just enough so that Rush will be teasing him forever.
The next 20 miles were the rolling hills, low and easy, comparatively, that I’d been promised. My hip flexors started having real trouble, hurting sharply and increasingly, but I knew my poles were at mile 99 and I’d have them for the last, longest climb of the race and that they would help the hip. At mile 99 there were lots of spectators and the atmosphere was wonderful. Paul was there, and offered all sorts of encouragement, including a topical anti-inflammatory for the hip flexor. I had also blown out my Altra Superiors, at mile 40, and decided with everything starting to fall apart I would rather wear them again, despite the hole.
I knew I couldn’t finish in under 36 at this point, but was feeling great about the run when I left Rush and Tony for the last time until the finish.
I didn’t get a mile before realizing my hip flexor was going to be a real problem.
Within 2 miles, I couldn’t lift my left leg. I put one pole in my pack, and started grabbing the fabric of my tights above the knee to manually lift my leg. Once I dropped it forward, I could step up onto it without pain, but getting it lifted and placed ahead became an upper body effort. The benefit of this process was that it kept me really warm, since it was a lot of work for my arms. I was lifting with the left, and pushing off my right leg with my right hand as well to leverage the motion as efficiently as I could. I was making decent progress, but it was really hard to hold onto my tights. I started brainstorming another method. Could I use a bunch of tall grass to tie my pole to my foot and lift it that way? Seemed too contrived. Then I remembered that I had a Buff (head wrap) in my pack. I pulled it out and tried to lift my foot to get it around my leg but couldn’t lift the foot. I figured out a tricky way to brace my left knee into the side of my right knee and then it used different muscles to bend the knee and lift the foot. With the Buff around my leg, I was able to make a handle out of it just above the knee that was much easier to hold onto.
I was passed by a 50 miler, and a few 70 milers in this section, and seeing what I was doing with the leg, was told I should head back and given a handful of Advil. I took way too much Advil, all of the Advil, and although I had about a 10 minute phase of relief, most of the last 20 miles though, consisted of this bizarre, marionette-like, hand-operated leg maneuver. I was in a totally different headspace, though, and sort of relished the fact that I knew I was going to finish, and now I knew also that I would have this crazy anecdote to add to the story I could start to see forming from the experience. It’s just not as satisfying to say you’re going to do something come hell or high water, if there is no obstacle to overcome in the actually doing of the thing.
I’ll spare the details of this last section, aside from saying it was longer and steeper than expected, especially after the final climb was “over.” I got angry enough at one point that the adrenaline allowed me to run hard and knowing it wouldn’t last I caught Paul, who was shocked to see me flying past. Ultimately that wore off and it was a rough last 10 miles. I came into the finish just over 40 hours, just after 1am. Only Tony was there at the finish and he couldn’t recognize me in the dark with a headlamp obscuring my face, but I saw him and felt immensely grateful. The Advil had wrecked my stomach (which is part of why I spare the details of the last section – lots of unpleasant stops) and so my attention was all on finding a bathroom ASAP. Notable mention: something crazy happened to one of my pinky toes during this section that never hurt… but… I apologize for the image.
The anti-climax of the finish line, though, was just the tiniest of moments in the overall journey of the event. It took a few days to get results and learn I’d come in 5th female after all. Perhaps the best part was the enthusiasm of the welcome I received the next Monday when I saw the RMR gang after the group run. I was so happy I had made it to the finish and had I had this amazing group of people who were excited to celebrate the messy adventure with me.