It’s been exactly one week since I set off running High Lonesome, my second hundred miler for the year in as many months. The differences in the approaches I took to each race, although mostly mental, have been a part of or a reflection of an effort I am making towards changing my approach to my life as a whole.
We all have our burdens, and for whatever reason, mine in the last year or so have left me feeling very passive and unmotivated. I was trying to recover from some impressive vitamin deficiencies that left me unenergetic and depressed since around a year ago. At the same time, we decided to try and sell our condo with our evil HOA and buy a house, while I worked from home. This meant having the house in perfect conditional at all times, and that I would have to vacate my home office at the drop of a hat for showings, which went on for months. Then we had success and we had the fun of moving between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I hadn’t been running, but we moved into a house near a trailhead for Mt. Sanitas, and on Christmas day I went on up and realized I could do a round trip to the summit and home in less than an hour. So in an effort to pull myself out of my funk, I made a goal to do Sanitas every day for the year. In the first week of the year, I lost my job. The next day, my in-laws show up for a visit, punctuated by a visit from my own mom. Then I fell and broke my wrist running on an icy Mt. Sanitas, ending my dreams of getting psyched on climbing more with all my job-free time. All this stressful nonsense left me feeling numb and passive about my life.
I did get a severance and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity it provided. Friends said things about how I’d be so well trained for Big Horn in June, for which I’d gotten a free entry from the previous year, and felt obligated to run. Instead, I think in part because I didn’t ever have a sense of agency about running it and because I trying still to un-funk myself, my preparation was lackadaisical at best. Characteristic of everything else I was attempting at the time, I was trying to just set some minimum standards for structure and basic health. Routines can be everything. So I kept going up Mount Sanitas every day, usually just going up the goat trail and the east ridge and coming straight back the same way, which is about 2.2 miles and 1,300 feet of elevation gain. It’s a good climbing training plan, but not a good endurance, distance or really even a running plan.
I was a bit distressed at the way my running friends who believe in me, an incredible and confusing blessing, continued to whisper predictions for my Big Horn run of a near 24 hour finish time; something that would be a major feat for me. Everyone, myself included, expected me to finish, at a minimum.
I didn’t set any goals, since I believed to do so would be damaging: I hadn’t trained and I’d likely get discouraged during the run if I felt I was failing to meet a tick list of goals. Luckily, there were several other RMR friends running whose performances I was excited to witness, and so I tried to focus on that instead.
I was lazy, too, in may a segment by segment race plan. I’d run it before and knew the Aid Stations weren’t too far apart, so I declined to learn their names or the distances between them. Instead, I keep in mind only the major crewable Aid Stations and thought of the distances between the as the Segments of the race, 3 out and 3 back, and thought of the others as intermediate bonus stations. The first Segment was comprised of a slight upgrade dirt road, onto a section of beautiful trail climbing the canyon and adjacent valleys up to a dirt road access that rolls and eventually descends into the Dry Fork Aid Station at mile 13. There are a few intermediate aids along the way.
Despite all my lack of goal setting, once the race starts, I set goals and do actually race. Feeling strong at the beginning I wove through the pack on the road with RMR friends Colleen and Paul Hooge. I’d planned on using tailwind and supplementing with snacks, and I had enough water to take me through the whole segment, so I was able to use the intermediate aid stations as an opportunity to pass a lot of runners. For about the first 10 miles I played the game of catching and passing trains of runners. The uphill felt great, Sanitas had paid off. I was aware that I was ahead of both Colleen and Hooge, and was entertaining a goal of being the first RMR runner into Dry Fork, a little victory I thought I’d hold onto later in the day when inevitable slumps came. But around mile 10 or so, Colleen flew past me and slowly gained distance on her way ahead into Dry Fork. I was disappointed, but psyched to see Colleen (as expected) in her first hundred keeping a strong pace. Hooge caught me shortly thereafter, and gave an admonition about saving some energy for the second half of the race as we ran it into Dry Fork together.
I was only at Dry Fork for a few minutes, but it was so good to see my super crew/pacer team of Erin and Matt Shaw and their smiling faces. They refilled my tailwind, stuffed my rain coat on my pack and since I hadn’t eaten any snacks, gave me handful of delicious salty tempeh sticks I’d made to eat on my way out of the aid station.
The next section to Sally’s Footbridge was about 17 miles with several major steep downhill sections I knew I needed to run. I’ve had meniscus tears and repairs enough to know: 1) that I would probably pinch my meniscus during this section, 2) that I needed to focus on good form to avoid and mitigate the knee pain, and 3) that this kind of knee pain is not permanent damage if handled properly. I tried to lean in, stay above and ahead of my impact point, and keep as light and balanced on my feet as possible. I still pinched my left knee’s meniscus and had more pain than I’d run through before on a knee, but was able to focus on my form to keep running and manage the irritation in the knee.
This is probably the most beautiful part of the course. The wildflowers, dominated by a small vibrant sunflower and a violet lupine, are some of the most concentrated wildflower fields I’ve ever seen, and stretch on into the unfathomable distance. I was feeling anti-social and turned on my super-awesome race playlist and with all that beauty in view had to fight the urge to try and sing along like a lunatic. I also started to stray from my food plan, which contributed to some of the carnage to come. I’d brought along tailwind bags mixed for a much larger bladder, so the mix I took away from Dry Fork was too strong and I poured half of it out to water it down at the first intermediate aid station I came to. Still, though, I thought I probably had enough calories going in, and didn’t supplement with solid food beyond a handful of peanuts all the way into Footbridge.
Coming into Footbridge I was in good spirits, excited to see my husband and crew, Rush and our puppy Hank. I was still keeping track of where I was in the RMR lineup, third behind Colleen and Hoogie, and I knew Rush would be there with everything I might need. I hit the first unavoidable wet section coming into Footbridge as well, so when I got in I focused on getting supplies changed out and changing socks. Hank was asleep in a tent out of the way, and my gear bag had been left in the car, so I adjusted and made the stop a quick one. Rush refilled my water and Len brought me some salty chips from the Aid Station and off I went.
The next section was about 18 miles to Jaws Aid Station; it’s almost all climb with some rollers mixed in and a lot of runnable terrain. Leaving Footbridge I started to feel a slump come on. I’d made the same mistake again with my tailwind way to strong and decided to eat some snacks (a Kind bar, yum!) on the way to the next intermediate aid for calories in case I couldn’t stomach the mix. I tried to keep a good pace up the gradual climb, but I just wasn’t energized. I started getting passed by a train of runners that had been using me for pacing on the downhill segment. Not far outside of Footbridge, my friend Jon Davis came up behind me on the trail. I haven’t run with Jon in a while so I didn’t have any idea what kind of shape he was in for this run or what goals he had. He was moving well, and I thought having his company might be a key boost. Jon caught me and told me our friend Mike Randall wasn’t far behind. Mike, I knew, had trained determinedly and I expected him to have a very strong performance, beyond his own expectations, so this was exciting to hear. Of course, at the same time, I was discouraged to be passed and have my little fantasy of being at the front of our pack fade further. I told Jon to let me know if he wanted to sneak past, thinking he would hang with me for a bit, but I was wrong and he was quickly ahead of me and out of sight. I started looking back for Randall every mile or so.
After an hour or so in this slump the rain began, and the trail started to get slick. The game changed from focusing on navigating the single track to deciding the best foot placement on the trail itself or when it was too slick, often on a grass tracks developing on either side of the trail. For some reason, this got me out of my slump. I had waited to find shoes for the race until a few weeks before, and my most excellent friend Ryan Lassen hooked me up with some of last year’s Salomon demos. The sense 5 ultras he had as left overs were about a half size small, and pair of men’s speed cross (a shoe I’d been running in all year and had worn out) that were a full size too big, were what I’d settled on. I started the race, and was still at this point in the small sense 5 ultras, which are a light and agile somewhat minimal shoe. I had the big ones and my worn out, correctly sized shoes, for back up in case of swelling feet, overwhelming mud, or other shoe issues. The small sense 5 ultras were key. I was sticking to the trail and moving well, as the mud continued to get muddier and slipperier. I started having fun and picking off the guys that had passed me during my slump, one of whom actually asked “how are you sticking to the ground like that?” as I went around him. I could see Jon at the head of a train of runners, still well ahead and slowly made my way up to him enjoying this sloppy second wind.
With the rain, though, it did start to get cold. My raincoat didn’t fit zipped up over my pack, so in order to not stop, I’d put it on over my pack but zipped it up behind my back so that only my arms were in and the hood was on. It was starting to get too cold for this, though, and at the next intermediate aid, I stopped for a delicious salty cup of veggie broth, and put on all my layers; a Houdini wind breaker and over that the rain coat and gloves. Jon was layering up when I left that aid station and we probably stayed within a few minutes of one another up until he passed me on the road on the way into Jaws. The rest of the trail into Jaws consisted of a ridiculous swamp of mud so deep that I was glad again that my shoes weren’t any bigger than they needed to be, and the exciting first sighting of the lead runners on their way back towards the finish. I saw my friend Nick Pedatella pacing his runner Paul in Fourth place heading back, and got to see Colleen in a ridiculous and adorable trash-bag poncho with her pacer Greg (“Baby-Cakes”) Horvath just after dark, appearing to stagger through some of the deepest swamp mud, as one of the first women.
There is a final swampy field that you run through before hitting a dirt road that takes you into Jaws, and it is a windy exposed stretch. I imagined my game plan for Jaws, first and foremost getting off all my wet clothes and putting on dry layers, a down coat and full rain gear, pants and coat. I kept imagining the dry clothes as I got colder and colder, and kept running, knowing that if I just got to the big tent of the Aid Station, it would all be okay.
Erin and Matt ran me into Jaws. I got a chair right in front of two large heat lamps. I had the benefit of getting attention from my crew as well as some friends, Max, a fast runner I’d met on the drive up who dropped at Jaws, and the crew for some other friends in the Aid Station at the same time. I needed to communicate with Erin but the minute I sat down my throat seized up, and my chest tightened and I couldn’t breathe. I tried to give a big exhale just to un-seize my chest, but when I tried to breath in it was still to tight for a real breath. I focused on relaxing my chest and forcing a slow breath, fighting the instinct to hyperventilate, which I thought would bring a lot of medical attention that I believed wasn’t necessary. While I was focusing on trying to breathe, I had started shaking. Not so much shivering, but really shaking. When I could get a few words out, my friend Dan reports that I said something like, “It’s fine. I just get really shaky sometimes.” I still didn’t want anyone to worry, but I could see the worried look on some of the volunteers’ faces and wanted to prevent then from thinking that they should not let me leave the aid station. I’d gotten there in about 12 hours, and with it being mostly uphill, I thought I had a good chance of making an all around really good time close to those expectations my friends had held; more little goals developed in my mind. I just needed to get dry, eat something hot, and get back out there.
I got to where I could speak somewhat coherently with Erin, wonderful Erin, who washed my muddy feet, got me into my worn out but dry speed cross shoes, and all the other dry gear I needed. I had on an Arcteryx down jacket, and a rain shell and rain pants so I knew if I just got moving I should be plenty warm. I ate a quesadilla and some tempeh and thought I’d probably been in the aid station too long, so started to get ready to go. Matt and I left Jaws after 21 minutes total in the aid station, which seemed too long, but alas, was not long enough. Leaving without getting totally right turned out to be a major mistake.
Since I was cold leaving Jaws, I was determined to get moving and generate some heat. It was gradual downhill for along way on the way back, albeit with crazy mud, and I knew I needed to run for time and heat. But as soon as we left the aid station, I’d try to jog a few steps and my chest would seize up. I still couldn’t breath. Every time I tried to do more than an easy walk, I couldn’t breath. I told Matt this would pass, but I just needed to walk a bit until I found equilibrium from whatever this breathing problem was. So we walked. But after a short time this wasn’t enough. Even walking was causing me to have trouble breathing and I’d have to stop and bend over and just breathe for a few seconds. We were probably about a mile from Jaws at this point, and it was 3.5 miles more to the next intermediate aid. I was getting scared and thought about turning around. A legendary 65 year old runner I was lucky to pace last year at Hard Rock, Scott Snyder, passed us around this time, heading outbound to Jaws. He told us he was going to drop, that these conditions were ridiculous, and that he had no problem dropping when it wasn’t safe. He told me I had nothing to prove to anyone and I should drop if I wasn’t okay. I said that this was smart and it meant a lot to me to hear it, to feel like I had permission to make that call, and let him go.
Of course, we kept slowly going forward. I started to feel light headed, and then nauseous. I felt like I might pass out, and I know – because I’m a fainter – part of a proud breed that commonly passes out in hospitals for the most part, thank goodness. I thought about turning around again. I’d refilled my water again with too much tailwind and I couldn’t drink it at all. It made me feel terribly sick immediately on taking a sip. I decided that I might just need to throw up – which gross as it may be, sometimes really helps. I told Matt, “I think I just need to throw up, this is so gross, I’m so sorry,” and pull over on the side of the trail where immediately, up it all comes: every ounce of food I’d eaten in aid station and every heaving ounce of water. During this horror show in the mud and rain, my friend Mike Randall passes us. He’s without a pacer (I had stolen Matt from his ranks back when he had too many pacers on his later disappearing team), and he says hi. I realize how bad my memory is trying to remember words, but I say something like “Mike, I’m so sick” and he says something with a sad look on his face and and kept going. I don’t remember much of what was said after this, just the embarrassment of feeling like I was losing all of my goals, and any control over my body.
Matt offered me some of his pure life giving water, which meant he had nasty a vomit-mouth water nozzle bouncing along with him for the rest of the race, and he offered me his poles, since I was having so much trouble moving through the dizziness, nausea, and slippery swamp mud. This all seemed to help and for a few minutes I thought I could start trying to run. But I was quickly short of breath again and resigned to trying to just stagger ahead. In short time I felt strangely warm, and really, like I mean really, sleepy. All I could think of was sitting down and sleeping; you know, for just a few minutes. I’d started stopping to sit down and sort of doze off on any log big enough on which to gain purchase, and finally I spotted a rock that was not in an actual puddle, I sat down to lean on it, put my head on my arms and tried to sleep. In retrospect, I can see the little devil on my shoulder saying, “there, there. Time to die.”
I’m not sure what got me up. I am sure it was Matt. I bet a lot of my thoughts were really Matt encouraging me to keep on. However it happened, I got up, had water from Matt’s vomit nozzle, and on we staggered until we spotted the fire of the Elk Camp intermediate aid station. I said I didn’t learn their names, but this on was worth looking up afterwards, all things considered.
In Big Horn’s course description, Elk Camp is described as “minimal.” It was. Manned by a few people and their kids who had ridden out on horseback, camping over night, Elk Camp is basically a big fire pit, big enough to burn through the rain, with a couple of log benches around it, and a tarp nearby with some water and snacks.
It had taken us 2.5 hours to go the 4.5 miles to get there. We waited for another runner who was using the sole log bench, and told the two women giving aid that I needed to lie down. All I could think of was sleep. They gave me a wool blanket that covered my shoulders, and I stuck my feet out toward the fire since I couldn’t get them into a warm place any other way. I tried to lay down sideways on the bench but the bench was so hard that it hurt, and wasn’t long enough to lay down on anyway. Matt sat beside me, patiently, in the rain, while I tried to sleep. I don’t know if I slept. I know my feet got so cold, even though my shoes were steaming and appeared to be melting, that I insisted on taking them off. I was sure they were insulating my feet from the warmth of the fire. The fire was very hot, and so when I did this, but feet immediately started to smoke and burn. For what seemed an eternity, it was a back and forth of pulling my feet away and then pushing them back towards the fire to try and warm up, in the rain of course, that many a cold weather camper has probably experienced. The aid station volunteer that talked me through what was happening turned out to remember Rush from years ago when he ran Big Horn and stayed at her lodge beforehand. She listened to my symptoms and told me that I needed to wait for my digestive system to start getting blood flow and get “back online” before I could really do anything. I tried to drink some water and threw the water up and had a horrible spasm of heaves that left me just wanting to sleep.
While we were there, a runner I met at Fat Dog almost 2 years ago, who saw me fall apart there and then rally, sat down to warm up and reminisced that I must always fall apart at races. Hmmm. I told him it was probably him, and the difference this time would be that there was no chance I’d finish the run. I thought about heading back to Jaws which sounded impossible, or continuing on to Footbridge where Rush would be waiting and could drive us out, some 14 or so miles still ahead. Both sounded impossible. Eventually, when I tried to drink water, it stayed down. Our volunteer friend gave Matt some saltines and nilla wafers for me. I drank a small cup of ginger ale. I ate a saltine. It stayed down. It was decision time.
We decided to stagger on to Rush, no one from our crew would be left at Jaws anyhow. We hiked, a lot of slipping around, me still using Matt’s poles, and no running at all. I ate another saltine and eventually two nilla wafers. I don’t think we ever threw out my tailwind, I carried it. I had loosened my pack because of the trouble breathing, and the weight of it was making my shoulders ache relentlessly. We breezed through the next intermediate aid with just a water refill for Matt, since I wasn’t really eating or drinking anything. Matt and I talked about quitting. He had to think this through in a race he ran last season and knew what a hard call it could be. It was a relief to have someone who could support me and encourage me to continue while, at the same time, support my thinking through a drop and acknowledging that it might be the right choice.
Another bright spot from a beloved friend came when the 50 mile racers started to pass us. They had started at Jaws early in the morning and were running, like us, back to the park in town for the finish. My friend Guy was planning to compete hard, going for a win, and as I saw the first few 50 milers pass, I worried over his day. When he did come up behind us, he stopped to say good job and give me a hug. Hell yeah. Of course, I this was absurd, and we told him to go on and get out of here and off he went like a bullet.
As I recognized the approach to Footbridge I asked Matt to go ahead. I knew he was looking forward to this as a training run, and he’d gotten to do exactly zero running. So I sent him ahead to warn Rush, who would be wondering what on earth had happened, and prepare Rush to let me quit – not something he would want to do.
On my own now, I let myself feel the loss. I was on target to come into Footbridge 10 hours after leaving Jaws. I had stayed in the Elk Camp for another 2.5 hours, and even with the section being downhill, felt like I had barely made it to Footbridge. I had only had a few sips of water and 4 crackers in those 10 hours, not to mention the fact that I’d thrown up everything I’d eaten before. There were less than 12 hours left to finish the race, and the next section was the steepest climb going on for 17 miles, all the way to Dry Fork. It was impossible. I’d never DNF-ed. I used to say that I never would, not without a terrible injury or something beyond my control, and I felt this as a sort of toughness badge of honor. “I may not be a good runner, but I’ve got a tough mind,” I thought – and all sorts of that kind of bull-shit. And as I staggered crying into Footbridge, I was acutely aware that I was not the person I wanted to believe myself to be.
I imagined the post race hubbub that I’d be uncomfortable participating in, sure to be punctuated with explanations for what went wrong. I remembered feeling this way at Fat Dog a few years back when I was struggling out of the first god-awful zombie-walking night, and running into a woman on the trail when I was crying to myself, and explaining to her “I’m just so disappointed in myself.” And I was disappointed and emotionally spent now, all the same.
Coming into Footbridge, I saw Rush coming up the trail to meet me. I got teary again, told him I was going to quit, and accepted a hug as we walked it in. Then he said, “Don’t drop. We’ll get you a Zoforan (anti-nausea medicine) and you’ll eat something and be ready to go.”
I hated him. I couldn’t possibly go on. I had gone too long without food or water, I couldn’t recover from that, there wasn’t enough time, and I couldn’t even bear to carry my pack. No. It was ridiculous. No. I was done.
Rush said: “Take the pill and see how you feel. You can drop after you’ve tried to eat.” It was good logic. So that’s what we did. I ate some chips, changed my layers a bit since it was warmer and dryer now in the cloudy morning, and thought about my options. It would be easier to walk to Dry Fork and at least see Erin, than to argue about dropping with Rush. I tried to drop my pack since I still just didn’t want it back on, but ultimately just dropped my bladder and took a water bottle squeezed awkwardly into my pack’s tiny front pocket – which somehow worked. At 8:51 am, we started up “the wall,” as they call the steep climb out of Footbridge. Meanwhile, Rush busted a move to get to Dry Fork to stop me from being able to drop there as well. The tricky bastard.
I didn’t make great time, but I moved as fast as I possibly could, pushing up hill with everything I had, and running anything runnable in between climbs. We did that 17 miles in just under 5.5 hours, which left just enough time for me to believe a finish was possible. Climbing the last hellish section with Dry Fork in sight, I was still on the fence about dropping. I had believed a finish was out of reach for so long, I wasn’t ready to let go of that certainty or start to hope. I was terrified of racing the clock and failing, and I knew that was the position I was in the minute I opened my mind to the possibility of continuing on past Dry Fork. I couldn’t bare the thought of deciding to care and failing. But I knew that I’d only used up half my remaining time getting to Dry Fork, and that I was about to transition from almost all climbing to almost all descent. What’s more, the one goal even before starting the race, was to run the final 5 miles of white hot, flat-ish, hateful road. From Dry Fork to that section of road is mostly down hill, with one short steep climb, and mostly pretty steep downhill to boot. In 2016 I ran the last half of the race with my friends Ryan and Andy, and I could not get myself to run that last 18. They waited for me, and I hated myself for not running this entirely runnable section. What’s more, in her first 100 mile run, my ready-to-go pacer Erin finished Big Horn 2016 by running this whole section of road like a total badass. All of this, the possibility of at least achieving my one goal, was bouncing through my mind as we came into Dry Fork.
I called out for Erin; I’d changed out of my green shirt and thought she might not spot me. She saw Matt though, and bounded up to see us both, excited for her leg of the run. Rush had made it there too, determined not to let me drop. How could I disappoint them? We did yet another shoe change and hit the road. I told her that I had to run every step of down hill and the road. And I’m proud to say Erin and I ran every downhill step of that 18 miles. We ran maybe half of the road, but that damn thing killed me. I was mentally done. I hate road running. I irrationally and intensely loathed that road. I kept trying to come up with creative ways to say so. I wanted to stab the road. It should be blown up. All sorts of very smart and rational things (head shakes, no). We got to the popsicle stand which has been initiated as an actual aid station this year and I had the first sugar since my stomach trouble. This was a mistake. With 2 miles to go, I started to feel nauseous and panicked. Rush had borrowed our friend Dan’s bike and rode out to catch us. I tried to listen to them talk and just breathe, but I thought I might be sick again. When we came insight of the bridge just before the finish we picked up the pace, and as we came into the park Erin split off to go get in the tunnel we make in front of the finish line. I felt a wave of distress. I felt like I was riding an invisible current of support from Erin and I might just float away without it.
Of course, I didn’t float anywhere. I saw that great green group of favorite humans, including Colleen (who had come in 4th!) and Greg in big squishy brown hoodies they’d gotten as shwag to luxuriate in while they waited for stragglers like me to come through. And then the tunnel, and then it was over. I hadn’t DNF-ed.
But I did feel pretty weird and spent the last hour or so of the race/award ceremony laying on my back trying to stay in focus. Guy had won his 50 miler like a boss and after he was recognized we packed up.
I tried not to fall apart in the car, I still felt dizzy and wrong. I fell asleep in the shower after scraping all the mud off, and as the party started in the house, I crept into a bed and closed my eyes, just for a minute, a minute that lasted until morning.
My recovery was short to a bizarre degree. I was doing Sanitas again right away, as I wasn’t very sore, stiff, or swollen. I talked to the medically educated, and learned about how hypothermia and a toxic environment in the stomach will pull all the water and blood – so all the fluid – in your body into your core. It makes your muscles spasm and shake, and if your stomach is really toxic, and if flooding it with fluid isn’t enough to protect your stomach lining, you will throw up all that fluid. With little fluid in your brain and extremities, you get dizzy and sleepy and you start to shut down. So, ah hah, it all made sense. I learned too, that you will digest fat stores if you have nothing left for fuel, which may be related to the strangely fast recovery – perhaps a research project for some bright light.
I was a little disappointed to come to believe that my laziness with the tailwind mixture was likely the key cause for my body failing; something totally within my control. And then, a couple of weeks later, I found myself hiking with my friend and an inspiration for myself and doubtless for countless others after her Western States victory, Cat Bradley. Cat is perhaps the main proponent of the whispers that I could have finished within the 24 hour range, and although I can’t remember exactly what she said, in essence she called me out for not having any sense of agency or intention about my running. I feebly pointed out that I didn’t have a sense of agency in my life, and for me, running isn’t the top priority. The truth in it all, though, is that through last year and perhaps further back, I haven’t been inspired or very motivated in any aspect of my life, and as long as running is a part of that, failing to care about a race is just a reflection of a failure to care all around.
With Cat in mind, I felt inspired to wake the f*^k up. Along with working on other areas in my life that needed some energy breathed into them, I took an opportunity that presented itself while crewing Hard Rock, to try and get into the inaugural running of the High Lonesome 100. I’d helped the race director, Caleb, with a few legal questions, and he’d offered me a free entry. The race had been full for a while, but last minute drops made the prospect of a spot opening up seem possible. And I’d been coveting the sick belt buckle Caleb had designed for finishers. So why not go for it?
About a week from the start time, I got confirmation that I was in. Now, to be fair, I can’t pretend I did much differently leading up to the race. I didn’t have the time to train, which would have been a major change for me. In fact, I basically got confirmation I was in and started to taper (aka quit doing Sanitas for the rest of the week). I didn’t know what goals to set, it being a first time race and unlike anything I’d done – it has an average elevation above 10,000 ft, involves at least three 13,000+ ft passes, and as a result a ding-dang whole lot of climbing. The cut-off was set at 36 hours, and for this terrain, I wasn’t sure that simply finishing wasn’t a pretty hard goal.
Rush would be out of town, but my friend Fred agreed to come crew, and somehow Erin and Matt found what I was doing, and asked to come pace me. Yeah, I love them.
I’ll make slightly shorter work of the description here (you’re welcome) mostly because I think my memory has already failed me, less than a week out from finishing the thing (spoiler).
Unlike Bighorn, I made new running friends right in the first 3 miles. The race was punctuated by fabulous personalities and great times running with stranger-friends. My buddy Jon Davis was racing this one too, with a big goal finish in the elite range, and boy did he do it. I didn’t see him much as a result, but I did start the race, toeing the line with him and enjoyed being first woman for a mile or so, right on his heels with the leaders.
The course was brutal. The climbing was immense. I felt no issues with the altitude and moved well over the 13k ft pass around Antero, and the next two 13k climbs, which was the same pass run each direction of an out-and-back leg of trail. I ran past a trail crew worker there, who said it was the steepest trail in the county. I was drinking tailwind from the aid stations – leaving it to the volunteers to mix it right – and trying to eat a lot of simple foods. The views were incredible. Coming up Antero, I had the treat of seeing my friend Nick Pedatella, who I had been crewing at Hard Rock when I made the decision to run High Lonesome, and who had timed his weekend run so that he was coming down the trail and got a few pictures of me early in the race.
I also spent a bit of time with Ivy early in the race, a woman whose record I’d reviewed when looking at the entrants, and who I was impressed and intimidated by, while we held 2nd and 3rd place for the women. I was in 3rd place, as reported by both Jon’s and my collective crew and the aid stations folks, for the first half of the race. I was already struggling, this race was hard early, when I got to mile 48 and picked up Matt, but I had learned from Big Horn and took some time to get warm and carefully eat as much as I could stomach.
Like Big Horn, I had a rough night – but a different and less painful kind of rough. Although the highest elevation was behind me, I found that I couldn’t really push up a climb without loosing my breath. This was a totally new experience, and slowing my pace didn’t help. I’d go a short distance in a climb and I’d have to stop to catch my breath and shake the pump out of my burning legs. I have no explanation for this, besides simple exhaustion. Matt led me up a steep climb, bit by bit, to an 8 mile ridge that would lead to the next aid station at Monarch Pass. A new woman started passing me throughout this section, and I would pass her back, occasionally. As best as I knew, we were 3rd and 4th.
Leading up to the race, there had been reports of terrible and continuous rain. Fortunately, the rain wasn’t that bad, although it was pretty continuous. I was running into the night in a t-shirt, enjoying the cooling effect of the rain, to counter the heat I was generating in the climbs and from doing a good job of eating enough. However, when we hit that ridge, the wind and fog and dark and rain created a whole new environment. Matt and I had to crawl over the edge of a ridge and lie down behind a small rock to shelter from the wind while we put on all the extra layers we were carrying. He gave me his better gloves. Matt. My jacket’s zipper, catapulted by the wind catching the panel of the jacket, hit me in the eye so hard I thought I would sob; I was sure it would cause a black eye (it didn’t). You couldn’t see the course markings, but since they’d been managed so well, we trusted that unless we came upon a grouping of markers indicating a turn, we should just stay moving forward on what we could barely see of the trail. We ended up being the leaders of a little trail of runners who were less sure of the way.
Then, like walking straight into a wall, the sleep hit me.
I swear it was the nilla wafers. Since they had saved me a bit at Big Horn, I brought my own nilla wafers to High Lonesome. And since I’d started really struggling to breathe on the climb, I’d failed to prioritize eating – which gets you sleepy fast. I remember thinking I should eat more, and then having a couple of wafers, and then immediately starting to hallucinate. Matt, more accurately, called this “waking dreams.” Exactly. I would blink, and then open my eyes in a dream in which I was taking in some information from the near white-out wind-fog-rain on the top of the rocky ridge. There were muppets, and voices, and most dangerously perhaps, many hallucinations that caused me to sort of jump off the trail and almost off the narrow ridge it followed. Two waking dreams I remember. In the first, Matt sort of dropped/threw this weird camouflage vest behind him on the ground and I jumped out of the way saying something like “why are you throwing that vest down?” This made Matt aware that I was staggering along behind him in an alternate world. I tried to explain, and I’ll just let you imagine how well that went. In the second, I blinked and opened my eyes into a world where the lighter brown dirt of the trail and the darker grey of the wet rocks on either side turned into a carpet that was very worn where the trail fell. To be polite, I leapt off the trail to avoid treading down the worn out part. Such a gentlewoman.
It’s worth saying here, that Matt is a hero for keeping me alive through both race’s nights.
At some point, the woman who had been in 3rd/4th with me disappeared ahead, I think (I was pretty out of it) and another woman wearing a cute running skirt without any leg coverage, which seemingly inappropriate for the cold, blazed past us like we were standing still. We made it to Monarch, the sun came up, we regrouped and I decided that the goal I’d been dreaming of – a podium finish – might be out of reach. Then I saw the woman in the skirt still in the aid station. She had been under-dressed and running scared to get out of the cold, and didn’t look like she was going to continue. I decided to get psyched for the next section, which folks were calling “the slip and slide” because of the muddy conditions and a steep, 15 degree grade. As it turns out, Matt and I freaking love 15 degree steep grades. Since I had this un-fightable climb barrier, I could, by god, run downhill. We decided we would catch the woman from the ridge in 3rd who was presumably somewhere ahead.
Matt and I had fun pushing into mile 82 from there. There was a section of “rollers” that were torturous and made me very grumpy, and there was a full-on false aid station about 5 miles from Blanks Cabin at mile 82, (those blasted campers and their aid station-y campsite!), but we managed it in good form, keeping at running as much down hill as possible and cursing as minimally as possible every time I had to stand still and breathe because of an unexpected climb. We shared a hallucination of Jon Davis in a hammock that turned out to be a rotten log. We never saw the woman in 3rd.
I decided we’d blast through Blanks pretty fast. Erin would start with me, and I’d try to get some eggs to eat – since I’d had a bite of eggs at the last aid station and it tasted like life-giving manna from the gods. We came in grumpy, but seeing aid station captains Matt and Emily Royal so happy to see us, and our friend Adam who – seeing my grump, directed my attention to an adorable puppy and then quickly cooked me scrambled eggs – all brought a smile back to my face.
Note: I have a reputation for being very smiley at races. And I ask you this: how can you not smile? Aid stations are basically just a bunch of happy people cheering and clapping for you, smiling at you, and asking you if they can bring you food or warmth or anything else, right when those things are the best sounding things in the world! How can you not smile?
Emily had the clip-board with the times in and out of the aid station for all the runners so far. I asked how many women had been through, I noticed Matt making crazy eyes at me: looking at me, then looking down at a chair right in front me where a woman has just sat down with her back to us. It appeared to be the woman we were chasing. She had been catching up, behind us all along. As I realized this, Emily held up 4 fingers and indicated that woman 3 and 4 were me and the woman who has just come into the aid station behind me. I can’t explain how the eggs were finished right then, but miraculously they were. I shoved them in my mouth, looked at Erin and ran out of the aid station.
Our goal was to bank as big a gap between ourselves and the woman behind us as possible. The race ends with a road climb about a mile and a half long and I knew if a runner had me in her sights, they would be able to overtake me there, due to my damn climbing/breathing weirdness. I think the next 18 miles were some of the proudest of my life – another similarity to Big Horn.
I told Erin that if it was even slightly downhill, to tell me to run and she kept me honest. At 11 miles from the finish, we saw another runner/pacer team ahead and Erin praised me for picking off runners in the last 18 of the race. Then it hit me: this runner was the girl from the ridge who had been in 3rd. I hadn’t seen her all that well in the night, so I believed the back of the head I had seen at Blanks was her. But this was her. The aid station stats had to be wrong, and the third place was just ahead. It was a slight downhill so without another word, I sped to my fastest effort and ran past her and out of sight. When we were out of sound distance, I told Erin what had happened. We had to start afresh to create a gap.
At mile 9 we came through the last aid station without breaking stride. I had plenty of water and snacks to finish and I was running scared. Every climb was terrifying. I was sure she would come around the corner and see me struggling. We spent hours, me telling Erin how much the podium meant to me and asking her to check behind us. We entertained the idea that Emily’s count was right and I was actually in second place. We passed a couple more runners in this final stretch, and ran as much as possible to the final climb. No women were in sight behind us.
I made a goal not to stop to breathe at all on the final climb and not to cough. I’d developed a cough that had been diagnosed as bronchitis after Big Horn, and it was not contagious but was lingering. On and off, in the section with Matt, I’d coughed a fit when I would stop and try to breathe – and yes, it does occur to me that the two could be related, but that just doesn’t feel like the truth, and you’ll have to trust my questionable judgment on that score.
I’m happy to report, that although I failed to “not cough,” Erin and I kept a great climbing pace with no stops, incredibly, on the final climb. She ran ahead as we game to the finish chute to join that beautiful green tunnel of friends forming at its end. I did not feel like I was going to float away. I felt awesome. I threw down my poles, opened my arms wide like I could embrace the world, and bowed as I passed through all those loving arms as I crossed the finish line.
I was not 2nd. I wasn’t 3rd either. And before you get your hopes up for me and imagine I was somehow first, sorry, no, I was the 4th woman to finish. There had been a woman named Lee, who did an incredible job of blowing quickly through the aid stations, which, combined with a gender-neutral name, allowed everyone I spoke with along the course to fail to count her when reporting the women’s rankings. She finished third, over and hour and a half ahead of my finish time.
I can’t say I’m not disappointed. I told Erin that if a runner blew past us on that final climb, as I had feared, that we would never speak of all that talk of podiums. But the point here was to be engaged and to care, so let me be clear. I wanted that podium. It meant a lot to me. And I failed to get it.
But I didn’t fail to be engaged. And I’m pretty proud of that – which I’m going to take with me back into real life off the trail. I can also report, as though I haven’t said enough already, that I had another killer recovery and Monday I was back to making-up those laps on Sanitas, with only Sunday to rest, having crossed the High Lonesome finish line just after 4pm Saturday.
And yes, I’m wearing that sweet, sweet buckle right now.