“Hell no, I would never do that…those people are crazy”.
I think that sums up my feelings after pacing Emily at last year’s Big Horn.
I had somehow hallucinated more than Emily, and thinking back on it…I have no memories of the day after the race.
The whole point of that outing for me was to build up to run my first 100k later that year (Cuyamaca). I finished that run feeling good (well, part slap-happy, part good) and qualified to enter the Western States lottery. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get in so I figured if I had mentally committed to doing 100, might as well sign up for one. The original plan was to do Run Rabbit Run…but through some awful game of telephone every RMR I met for a run would say something like “heard you signed up for Bighorn!”. The final straw was when I was meeting people for ice climbing and by chance in the same parking lot several RMRs were meeting to go skiing. All telling me how fun it would be. So really, this is your fault Julia.
My running year started off rough…to say the least. Cuyamaca had revealed some muscle imbalances and form issues that needed to be resolved. Let’s just say I hope all the expenses to fix this problem will mean I can finally itemize my taxes this year. My legs were like twins on separate sleeping schedules. As soon as I put one to bed, the other would act up.
Training was about going through the seven stages of race grief heading up to Bighorn. With each suffer-fest I survived, I progressed to the next stage. Knee blowing up on an easy Bismark loop…denial. Hell week in 25 hours… bargaining. Getting some DNF redemption and setting a 50-mile PR at Behind the Rocks…guilt. Getting lost in a surprise snowstorm…anger. Suffering through a cold/dreary Quad Rock 50…depression. Stringing together a weekly mileage and climbing PR…acceptance. To be fully honest, even before the taper started I had finally accepted and was actually excited about the race. I wanted to do it. Wanted the buckle. Wanted the 100-mile burger. There was no *if*.
That all came crashing down when I picked up my packet. This was all a joke. No one was going to run 100 miles. I paid money for this? Used vacation time from work? Bought $50 worth of gels? All the spreadsheets and lists were just a contest to see who was better at conditional formatting, right?
Nope. This is real. It’s happening. After succumbing to peer pressure and mustaching up, painting some racing stripes on my toenails, I managed to settle down and get some sleep (kind nice having a start time of 11am). Next morning I woke up, ate, relaxed…then again lost my mind when “30 minutes and we’re leaving” was announced. I’m pretty sure I had grabbed 30 safety pins for my bib, now they were gone? Where was my drop bag? How do ElevationTats work (thanks for the help Julia…all is forgiven)? Honestly…I just needed to start this damn thing.
We got to the starting area a couple hours before the official start. I killed time by acting relaxed and over-hydrating. The weather was significantly cooler than the previous year, but we all knew that day 2 would be brutal. My race goals were pretty basic. My (super awesome) pace chart had me finishing in 28:27. I really wanted to finish in 28, but most importantly…I wanted to finish it running. After seeing Emily come down with trenchfoot-simplex-2 last year, I was going to swap socks (and potentially shoes) every chance I got. Then I just had to stay on top of nutrition and hydration, never mind the fact that I’m pretty bad at that.
Finally, we started. I assumed my standard position near the back of the crowd and kept Matt and Erin in sight as the trail worked its way up the opening 4k-foot climb. I made the mistake of looking behind me as we hit the meadows above the canyon. I didn’t really see anyone behind me, so I now assumed I was racing the cutoff (even though I was ahead of my pace chart). Like an idiot I started to move up in the crowd to satisfy some internal desire not to be in the back.
I settled back down and tried to get into a groove with nutrition and hydration. Every 30 minutes I’d eat. Every hour I’d eat and take two salt pills. Every mile I’d drink water. When I came to an aid station I’d have to figure where I was in the feeding schedule, decide what I’d eat, and then get back on schedule. Lather, rinse, repeat.
By the time I hit the downhill leading into Dry Fork I had moved ahead of Matt and Erin, and was for the most part running solo. I’m usually a smartass/semi-talkative runner, but for some reason I was quiet and reserved. I was leap-frogging some people, but I was only really paying attention to the watch alarms. As I came into Dry Fork I felt a sense of relief as I rolled into the crowd and saw Ginna and Ryan, the RMR tent full of people, and then Matt and Emily with my drop bag. Swapped socks, swapped food, filled up on water, sprayed down with sunscreen, then I was out…it honestly felt like a NASCAR pit stop. I remember running by Cassie saying “I have no idea what just happened” as I headed downhill (in 179th/272 place).
Again, I mentally retreated and just responded to beeps from the watch. Eat. Salt pills. Drink. Repeat. Strolled into Cow Camp and was awoken from my stupor by Carey saying hi. It took me a minute to process who it was, as I was expecting everyone to be well ahead of me. I celebrated that there were fig newtons at the aid station, made sure Carey was okay, and continued on towards Bear Camp and the final downhill to Footbridge. I think I told anyone that would listen (or was unable to run away from me) that downhill could eat a dick. Seriously. The only good thing was that it wasn’t muddy. Beyond that…it was rough, broken, uneven dirt that did all it could to try and turn an ankle.
Footbridge…finally! Rolled in and Rush was waiting with my bag and sat me down at a foot tub. I wasn’t really expecting a tub to clean my feet off with…I kind of looked around to make sure I wasn’t doing something stupid. Swapped socks and put my shoes back on. Grabbed a jacket, poles, headlamp, and more food. By some stroke of luck they had just started making quesadillas, I grabbed one and headed out (in 128th/232 place). Only 18 miles of douche-grade climbing was between me and my first pacer!
Quesadillas are a superfood. I managed to move fairly well leaving Footbridge, passing a handful of people until I ran into Jon Davis as I rolled into Cathedral Rock. He was just leaving after fighting some hydration issues. I grabbed a handful of beef jerky, made a smartass comment about the beef jerky supply (after this case, and the other case, there’s only 1 more cases left), and headed out.
It was leaving Cathedral Rock that the sleepy feeling crept up…and basically stayed with me for most of the race. Regardless of what I was doing, I couldn’t push my heart rate over 130…and whatever pace that equated to. I caught up with Jon a little out of Cathedral, and it was the first time I had spoken to someone for more than 5 minutes. In typical ‘only in an ultra’ inappropriate conversation fashion, we decided that some chaffing issues I had experiencing was probably a stress fracture instead of cancer (I still laugh about this). We made our way up, survived the 10 drops of rain that fell, and caught up with a couple from San Diego before hitting Spring Marsh.
Jon stopped at Spring Marsh to take care of some things, and I left with the San Diegans in tow. The sun was finally down, headlamps were on, and I was still surprised I hadn’t seen any RMRs on the return. I got lazy and zoned out…and completely missed a trail hazard.
Like some kind of Viet Cong Punji Stick (thanks Wikipedia!), an exposed root was growing out of the ground at a ~30° angle. If you were heading downhill, it wasn’t a issue. Heading uphill, it was the perfect height to impale any idiot who was hiking by headlamp and not paying attention. It impaled me right on the soft/medial side of the ankle. I collapsed. Then swore. A lot. Then cried. A lot. Apparently after ~40 miles I lost the ability to grit my teeth and deal with an injury (think Peter Griffith hitting his shin in Family Guy). The pair behind me made sure I was okay, made a comment about how dangerous that root was (yeah, I figured that out), and kept moving. I stood up and started sobbling (hobbling while sobbing) forward. Of course this is when the returning RMRs started to appear. Silke passed me first, I tried to say hi…but it probably just sounded like crying. Jon Knotts appeared next, and he stopped for a second to talk. I stood there with tears falling down my face…trying to laugh my way through the crying like a toddler. I really don’t know what we said to each other…but I was really happy he was on his way back after his experience last year. A bit of blur now…but I think Nick and Ryan also passed me (I was done crying by that point) after Knotts and I parted ways. Andy must have passed me too…but damned if I remember.
My ankle loosened up a bit and I was able to return to ‘full speed’ (well, my full uphill speed). Right about then I realized I had been ignoring the watch, so my hydration and nutrition were now properly neglected. I got back onto the salt pill/food/water train and put down a liter of water just before flying through Elk Camp (the cold soup they gave me as I left still haunts me…blah). I was pretty damn tired, but still moving and responding to beeps from the watch. As I made my way around the final climb to the flat bogs around Jaws, I was thinking how I hadn’t really hallucinated anything. On cue…there was a rabbit in the middle of the trail. I remember thinking “that thing better be real” as I approached. Thankfully it didn’t disappear into a mist but rather hopped off trail. I made the mistake of mentally celebrating when I got to Devil’s Canyon Road…only to remember I still had another mile to Jaws. Damn.
After what felt like forever, I finally started seeing lights/cars/people…and Jaws. I heard Matt and Emily yell something as I went from the relatively comfortable outside to the sauna-like-inside of the aid station (at this point I was 3 minutes ahead of my pace chart). Ben and Stuart met me in the tent with my drop bag…swapped socks, shoes, watch, food, water…basically everything. I put down some soup and other ‘real’ food before heading out with Ben (in 120th/211 place).
Ten feet out of the tent I was lost (which way did I come in?) and realized I hadn’t started my watch (doesn’t count unless it’s on Strava). Ben pointed me in the right direction, I started the watch, and we were back on track. We made our way back down the boggy/muddy patches towards Elk Camp. Honestly, Elk Camp on the return is awesome. It’s the middle of the night, middle of nowhere…and you turn a corner and there’s a bonfire, horses, and a pretty good spread of food.
Ben and I stayed an extra minute so I could check on my socks and witness some of the carnage the course was inflicting on other runners…then headed out. By this point I had turned watch responsibilities over to Ben. Every 30 minutes he would call out feeding time, and I would bargain with him as to whether the food I ate counted towards a salt pill. Again, I wasn’t my loud/obnoxious/usual running self. I was quiet, and I started to feel bad for Ben…who wasn’t getting his money’s worth (I had promised hallucinations and inappropriate conversations). I think the only things I would talk about was how effing slow I was going. Every feeding time I would realize I hadn’t even gone 2 miles, and we were going downhill!
I’ll say we rolled through Spring Marsh, but that’s only because I don’t remember it. As we got to the bridges on our way to Footbridge, my headlamp started to slowly die. It’d flash out of reactive mode. Then dimmed. I told Ben not to worry…my extra battery and backup headlamp were back at Jaws (genius level packing). I had been carrying my little Fenix LD02 light since the start, and I’ll be damned if that little light didn’t get the job done. Highly recommend that thing to anyone.
We got to Cathedral Rock just as there was enough light to put away the headlamps/backups. I asked if they had any coffee…and unlike last year they didn’t. I threatened to write a bad yelp review, hoping that would give me access to the ‘secret’ coffee stash…but it didn’t work. Coffee would have to wait until Footbridge.
More slow running. More Ben acting as a mobile zoo-keeper keeping something that smelled like an animal on a regular feeding schedule. About a mile from Footbridge Jon Davis and Greg flew by. I distinctly remember hating both of them because they were able to run downhill. Don’t know why, I’ve never been a good down-hiller (or up-hiller).
We got into Footbridge and I dumped a bunch of gear (jacket, dead headlamp, backup light, arm warmers, etc). While swapping socks I tried to take care of a blister on my left forefoot (only to realize a day later it was just the start of a massive bruise). Swapped shoes and left trying (but really not expecting) to chase down Greg and Jon (in 107th/180 place).
Ah…The Wall. The appropriately named climb out of Footbridge. I finally pulled the poles out (I had been carrying but not using them since I left Footbridge on my way to Jaws) and entered fast-death-march mode. I was shocked to see Jon and Greg about halfway up the climb, I guess I had the uphill legs and Jon had the downhill. We swapped places, and continued up towards Bear Camp. Before we got to Bear the sun finally rose. It did very little to lift my spirits…I barely remember the picture Ben took of me ‘celebrating’ (read that as “I don’t remember”).
We left Bear Camp and slowly started grinding through the 500 spur ridges that separate you from Dry Fork (the elevation profile for that area is misleading). I had regained the ability to pay attention to my watch, and was doing pretty good on food and hydration. If anything, I was getting pretty sick of having to piss every couple of miles. I started to come to life as we neared Cow Camp as I could see other runners and knew I had to pick the pace up if I didn’t want to deal with the 50 mile and 50k runners (oh…how I hated the 50k runners, only because they looked like they were actually having fun). As we rolled over the last hump to Cow Camp we came across Cole, who wasn’t looking too good. He was dealing with some achilles issues and asked us to have medical come get him. Damn…I felt bad as I know he was shooting for a 100-mile PR at Bighorn.
The smell of bacon was intoxicating as we rolled into Cow Camp. I somehow didn’t have any of it, I think I just forgot while joking around with some other runners and aid station volunteers. As we were about to leave I stated “we don’t even have a marathon left, so we’re basically done”. I can’t remember if this was before or after I threw my poles in disgust after we saw how far away Dry Fork was.
More watch beeps and Pavlovian responses, and all of a sudden we were on the final climb to Dry Fork. I was hydrated, doing relatively well on nutrition, and was finally not soul-crushingly tired. Stuart met us in the aid station and I had to pass a med check. I had to speak in complete sentences, tell them the last time (and color) I peed. Then the medic touched my arms and neck to make sure I was sweating, and finally commented that my arms were looking a little puffy before letting me take care of business. Oh…the things I wish I had responded with:
Yeah, I did a lot of curls training for this
Almost like I ran 82 miles before I got here
Hey lady…bad touch!
Oh well, I didn’t want to push my luck as things were getting hot and some other runners were looking a little rough. I thanked Ben (I think), swapped socks, shoes, food, got doused with sunscreen, and next thing I knew Stuart and I were off (stats are off on the Dry Fork departure…as it says 169th/170th place, but there were some issues with me being accidentally crossed off as having medically dropped).
We powered through the initial uphill and passed Josh (no idea what we talked about for a few minutes). As we topped out Stuart tested me a little bit on running some flats/rises to figure out what I could/couldn’t/wouldn’t do. I think he was relatively surprised, but my goal was to finish this thing running…and for the most part I felt good. Some light conversation interrupted by watch beeps/gels/salt and we were at Upper Sheep. I grabbed fruit, checked shoelace pressure, and we were off.
Absolutely no memory of the climb we had between Upper Sheep and Lower Sheep. There’s a good chance they put that in overnight (or I was so happy to be finally heading downhill I decided not to remember it). However, it was short, and soon we were making our way down the way-too-damn-steep descent into Tongue Canyon.
It was full sun, surrounded by white rocks, no breeze, and humid from all the plant breath. Every now and then I’d have to get off the trail to make way for a 50k or 50-miler. My watch never read over 93°, but I was stuffing my sun sleeves with ice…which may explain why other runners were reporting 100°+ in the canyon. I thought I spent the entire time audibly complaining, but apparently a lot of it was internal (or Stuart just didn’t hear all of it). I just kept moving forward, no real reason to stop and ‘enjoy’ the misery. We finally got to the aid at the base of Tongue River Canyon where they were spraying people with water and had more ice available. I first got sprayed with water…and instantly went blind from the salt running into my eyes and threw a mini tantrum that my socks were now wet. Stuart had to lead me to the side of the aid station by hand and sit me down until I could finally see (I really hope everyone else got a laugh out of my misfortune). My sight returned as I stuffed myself with fruit and was able to see even more trail carnage (runners splayed out in med tents, ambulances coming up the road, etc). After 95 miles I had lost all empathy for other runners…because I felt zero pity for how other people were doing. We stuffed my sun sleeves and bandana with ice, and set off towards the finish.
I ran everything I could, bargaining with Stuart over when I could walk. He would keep reminding me that there were popsicles ahead and I kept looking for where the road turned towards town. Eventually we saw a girl riding down the road with otter pops in a basket. Green otter pops are also a super food. We got to the actual aid station, where I informed them that my doctor said my green otter pop levels were low and grabbed another. Oh damn, it was amazing.
The road finally turned towards town and we ran the rest of the way. Through the Bellagio-esque sprinkler display all the neighbors put on for the runners. Then the bridge. Across the road. Into the park. Around the corner…and the finish line! Pretty much every ultra I’ve run I’ve gotten teary-eyed at the end. For some reason, not this one. Just pure happiness at completing something I worked so damn hard for. Final time, 28:17, good enough for 69th/175. Even more impressive is that I was able to walk the next day.
Time for the thank-you’s. First and foremost, my wife Kristina for supporting me through me whining about injuries, whining about tapering, and having to be a running-widow. My pacers Ben and Stuart who let helped me out at each aid station and kept me moving even while complaining, and basically keeping me sane by just being there through some low-points. Matt and Emily for being my unofficial crew (until the real crew showed up) and acting as my personal chauffer for the Bighorn weekend. All RMR racers and crews for being a friendly face on the course and willing to help out wherever possible. Everyone I’ve trained alongside for helping to make sure I got more suffering in training than I did during the race. And lastly everyone who followed my progress during the race from home.
Already working on my spreadsheet for picking next year’s 100.